Defenders of the Realm – Cure The Pandemic That’s Causing A Castle Panic In The Magic Realm!

While at Gencon 2010 last Saturday I had a moment to run over to the Eagle Games booth to try to chat with Keith Blume, the BMOC at Eagle, but the booth was so busy that I didn’t have the opportunity to chat with him. One of the major reasons the booth was busy was that people were there in swarms to pick up Defenders Of The Realm (DotR), their latest venture. It was at this point that I realized that I was not the only one who thinks that it’s a neat concept, and that I was sure glad to have played it. The art is superb and incredibly sharp, the gameplay is brisk and engaging, and the fun factor is absolutely there. The long and short is that if you like Pandemic, like the theme and “four generals trying to siege the castle” of Castle Panic, and the questing/reward system in Return of the Heroes, this game is absolutely the one for you. Quite frankly, after reading some of the reviews of my more *academic* colleagues, I wasn’t sure that this would be anything new. The game’s been compared to Pandemic almost as much as George Bush has been compared to the Devil. After my first read of the rules, I almost agreed, but after my first actual play of the game, I could not disagree more.

This is a blend, in my opinion, of the mechanics of three very different games: Pandemic, Castle Panic, and Magic Realm.This game, while appearing to have many concepts that were borrowed from Pandemic, is a far more interesting, far more engaging, and most importantly, is a much more fun design You get the tense, expanding threat mechanic of Pandemic, the card-actuated battles and “paths to the castle” from Castle Panic, and the questing and truly exceptional variable character powers from Magic Realm, and in its entirety you have a ridiculously interesting and fun composite that is far different and more engaging than each of the individual components. It’s a nail biting, teeth gnashing, hand wringing battle royale against the forces of evil and even though we now have 2 wins and 2 losses against the game, we still want to play it again and it’s not even close to getting old yet. The long and short is that this is a great, great game, and you need to get a copy of it or you’ll be missing out on one of the hands-down best games of 2010.

The overall concept is that there’s this groovy little world where four General Officers of the United Forces Of Evil are roaming the land attempting to overtake Monarch City, the capitol of this world. Each General has his own special abilites as do his troops, and your job as the conquering heroes of the land is to execute each and every last one of them, with extreme prejudice. Unfortunately, as their troops take over the land they leave a wake of uninhabitable destruction that must be cleansed before time runs out, and cleansing these lands is on par with removing a rusty tooth from a rabid pitbull on testosterone supplements. There’s quests you can complete to buff your characters, inns and cities where you can equip yourself and heal your wounds, but if you take too long trying to heal and equip, you’ll be overrun and lose the game.

Let’s take a quick look at the components now. First, let’s talk about that art: All the art is done by the phenomenally famous Larry Elmore, who became famous for his Dungeons and Dragons work over the past 20 years. The man is one of the best fantasy artists of all time and it truly shows in his work on DotR, it is all superb. The box itself is huge, almost the size of a Space Hulk box, and the cover art is spectacular. When you open the box, you’re met with several cardstock boards representing the player characters, the Generals, and a War Track. Under these is another chit sheet loaded with quarter-sized chits of various purpose, such as life/action markers and Magic Gate markers. Once you’ve gotten past those, there’s the board, which is lovely and about the same size as a Talisman board, so make sure you have a big table to play on. Finally, there’s the plastics and dice: there’s four sets of Minion figures with 25 of each color, there’s four Generals, one of which is a large dragon, there’s the player models which are made of grey plastic and are ripe for painting, and then there’s the Tainted Land Crystals which mark areas on the board that have been laid to waste. There are 12 dice with 3 each in each of the four colors, and for whatever reason I have gotten 3 of the worst red dice in the history of man; they literally only land on ones and twos no matter what you try to do. Finally, there’s three decks of cards marked with the titles of Darkness Spreads, Hero Cards, and Quests, which all serve different purposes. I should also mention that there’s a reasonably well-written rulebook that allows you to jump right into the game, and on the back cover there’s a listing of all of the actions a player may take on their turn. The one thing that was a total error was that they neglected to put the “hit bogeys” for each type of minion on the back which would’ve been nice, but after the first game you pretty much know what it takes to hit each type of minion so it’s not that big a deal. The box insert is really great as well as it allows everything to be segregated in a logical way and makes it for a very easy setup and cleanup.

All in all, the quality of the components are top shelf, the art on the cards is exceptional, and the chits come out of the sprues without so much as one hanging chad. The only complaint I had at all with any of it, besides the truly evil red dice, is that the game uses red, green, black, and blue as the General colors and the blue and black look so alike on the cards that sometimes it’s a bit hairy unless you’re in a well lit room. For me, that’s a big deal because while I am not color blind, light really bothers my eyes so we generally have the house a little on the dark side. The truth is that each location on the map has a colored ring around it so there’s no way to screw up the placement of figures, so it’s just a Pete issue, not really a game issue at all. The only other beef I had with anything is that some of the text on the character cards is in a light red color and it’s really quite hard to see, although the font choice they made actually helps the readability of the cards over some “fantasy” font that other games have used. Like I said, everything is top shelf, and I am quite pleased with the overall look and feel of everything in the game.

Setting up the game takes all of five minutes, even with the bits not really well organized. First, the players select a character card and matching figure, take one quest card and two hero cards each, then place their figures in the center of the map in Monarch city. Next, place the War Track marker on the Early War space on the War Track and place the hit markers on the highest number on each General’s card. Once you’re done with that, you take the Generals and place them on their start positions as shown on the map along with three minions. The Demon General is an exception as you also place a Tainted Land Crystal on his position. Once the Generals are on the march, you take three Darkness Spreads cards and place two minions on each of the two listed locations, followed by a redux of this same mechanic, but the second time you only place one minion on the listed locations. Once that’s done, you’re ready to face the forces of evil and free the land of their blight. The bad news is that while the only way to win is to kill all of the Generals, there are a sea of ways to lose. You can lose if five or more minions are placed within the walls of Monarch City, you can lose if any General makes his way to Monarch City, you can lose if all of the Tainted Land Crystals are placed on the board, and you can lose if you run out of minions to place when a minion is called into play. It’s hard, but not so hard that it becomes impossible to play, and the rulebook has some variants to make the game slightly easier or harder if you desire to play the game in “Epic Wussy Mode” or “Legendary Mode”, so to speak.

Gameplay is very simple and quite brisk, provided you don’t get locked into an Analysis Paralysis session. Each character starts with a set amount of actions they can take per turn, and each player expends all of their action points performing actions. The available actions essentially boil down to moving one space to an adjacent location, playing a Location Card that allows you to move via horse, eagle or Magic Gate, depending on the icon on the card, using an action point to attack minions at your current location, initiating combat with a General, using a point to heal yourself, using a point to collect cards at an Inn, using a point to play a card to construct a Magic Gate, or finally, using an action point to perform a special ability like teleportation if your character has the ability. It’s really a simple game to play, with hardly any referring back to the rulebook at all. You may need to refer back to it initially to get your arms around the fact that different minions require a different “bogey” to roll above in order to kill them, but after four or five combats it becomes second nature. There are some complexities when it comes to fighting the Generals, but really that’s about the hardest thing to grasp and it’s really quite simple at that. One thing to note is that if you end a turn in a space with minions present you lose a life point for every minion present, and in the case of the Undead you lose one additional life point due to stark, raving horror. To add insult to injury, life points are the same as action points, so not only do you grow closer to doom when you lose a life point, you also lose actions on subsequent turns which can be an absolutely hobbling loss.

After a player has expended all of their action points, they must draw two Hero Cards and a number of Darkness Spreads cards as defined by the War Track. The default is to draw two Darkness Spreads cards, and these cards have one or two locations listed. You must place new minions on each of the locations which not only brings you closer to doom, but can cause overruns of minions which Taints the Land and spreads the evil even faster. On top of that, the bottom of the Darkness Spreads card has an icon of a General and a location listed which in many cases causes a General to move closer toward Monarch City and defeat. The Generals always move in a predisposed path along their General track, which is listed clearly on the board, and when they move to a new location they also spawn new minions to their location, which again can cause overruns, Tainted Land, and a whole ration of bad shit to happen.

Travelling through the world is a simple thing, but unfortunately the spaces are not all directly interconnected so you will need to plan ahead in order to get where you wish to go at any given point. One action point allows you to move to any space linked with a dotted line, but you can also play cards to move faster. Playing a card with a horse icon allows you to move two spaces for one action point and playing a card with an eagle icon allows you to move four spaces for one action point. On top of that, there’s the Magic Gate icons that allow you to instantly travel to several locations of your choice. At the start of the game there is one Magic Gate in existence and any Magic Gate card will allow you to travel there. Each card also has a location listed on it that you can travel to if you play the card and it has a Magic Gate icon on it. You can construct a Magic Gate if you are currently present on the location listed on a card, irrespective of its icon, which can then be used by you and others to travel to. If you have multiple Magic Gates on the board, you need only expend one action point to move from one Gate to another, and you don’t need to expend a card to do it, so it really amounts to the DotR subway system if you strategically position your Gates well. In my opinion, it’s incredibly important to travel to key locations, such as Inns, and build these gates so that you can head to them more easily to heal and stock up on cards which can be useful while fighting Generals or to get closer to places that are loaded with minions for the purposes of mass executions before they taint the land.

Speaking of Tainted Land, this comes into play when something causes more than three minions to appear at any given location. The game comes with twelve Tainted Land Crystals, and as I mentioned before, if they all get placed, the heroes are SOL and the players collectively lose the game. The good news is that some quests provide an easy way to remove a Crystal, provided you complete the quest, and you can always attempt to remove a crystal if you have the card depicting the location of the Crystal and are on the location at the time of the attempt. In order to remove a Crystal you simply play the card and roll two dice; if either die roll has a value of five or higher, a Crystal is removed from that location. There is no limit to how many crystals can be on one location, but in the end it really doesn’t matter much as there’s no significance to having multiple Crystals on a single location. There is bad news beyond just having Tainted Land, though; when an overrun occurs and a Crystal is placed, all adjacent spaces have a minion placed on them of the color that caused the overrun. This can be painful as the minions have different values to roll in order to kill them, and some characters have bonuses against specific races, so having two or three types of minions on a location can cause you to have a harder time defeating them all.

Quests are rather a simple affair in DotR, with most boiling down to requiring a player to move to a location and perform a die roll or killing a set amount of a given race of minions. The rewards seem to pretty much revolve around giving you a bonus against a General or allowing you to remove a Tainted Land Crystal from any location of your choosing at any time. Completing quests also earns you a personal victory point to determine who the overall Billy Badass is at the end of the game, assuming the heroes win. As I noted in the setup, you start with a Quest Card, and regardless of the outcome of the quest you undertake, you always get a replacement Quest Card, so you always have a quest to undertake. Some of the most important buffs we’ve gotten revolve around killing minions, and since that’s not too hard a task, the quests actually are an important part of the game even though they seem to be a sideline aspect at first glance.

Combat with the minions is a simple dice roll; you spend an action point to fight all minions in a given location and roll the color of the dice that are associated with the minions. For example, if you have two green Orc minions and a black Undead minion and initiate combat with them, you simply roll two green dice and one black one. Each minion has a different value required to kill them, with the Orcs being easiest to kill, needing a three or better, and the Dragonkin being the hardest, needing a five or better. Many of the characters have bonuses that can be applied to the rolls, so in many cases it’s not too hard to clear a location of all the baddies. Fighting Generals, though, is an entirely different deal. Each Hero Card has an associated color, with a variable number of dice icons at the bottom of the card. To fight a General, you must play the cards that match the color of the General, although there are some wild cards that can be used against any General, and you roll the sum of the dice icons that are listed on the cards you play against them. Each General also have a value that you must roll to hit them and they all have multiple hit points, so attacking Generals is a hairy proposition at best if you go it alone. They also heal themselves if you don’t kill them, so it’s imperative to greivously wound them so that the next guy in line can deliver the fatal blow. If two or more heroes are in the same location the active player may initiate combat for one action point and all of the present heroes can then fight it out with the General, with each player rolling their dice sequentially. If a General is killed, the player who delivered the mortal wound becomes the Slayer of that race and is afforded the right to commit wholesale genocide against that race from that point forth. Essentially, if you kill a General of any color and subsequently spend an action point to fight that General’s minions, no roll is required to kill them as they die at the sheer sight of your magnificence. Again, there is bad news, though: once you kill a General, the War Track moves up a level and this causes you to have to draw more Darkness Spreads cards at the end of your turn, spreadng the evil minions even faster and potentially moving the Generals closer to Monarch City.

The game ends when all four Generals have been defeated or if the players allow a defeat condition to occur. Although DotR is a cooperative game, the guy who killed more Generals and completed more Quests than anyone else is deemed the King’s Champion and is the winner. Ties can occur, but in my limited experience I just can’t see this happening too often. So far, we’ve beaten back the Legions of Doom twice and have had Monarch City overrun by their foulness twice, but in all cases we had a hell of a good time. It’s a reasonably fast paced game with an incredible amount of tough decisions, a fair bit of Ameritrash-style fistfuls of dice being tossed, and it is absolutely one of the best games I’ve played. If you liked Pandemic, you’ll like this unless you’re a total Euro-litest that cannot bear the thought of rolling a die, and if you’re a fan of fantasy, this will also work for you as it’s very thematic and the art truly inspires feelings of wizards and warriors battling demons and dragons to the death.

The only true downside to the game is that it’s a bit on the expensive side, with a common price being about $60.00 US Dollars, but the way I see it, this game is better than a great many $30.00 games I’ve bought and I’d trade almost any two of those cheaper games for this one, so I find it to be a real bargain. I can forseee my groups and my family playing this game for a great long time, so in the end I think that any game that gets to the table a lot of times trumps a bunch of cheaper games that will see initial table time but get relegated to the shelf after a month. Go out and get this game, it’s absolutely brilliant and is as close to a perfect crossover between EuroTrash and AmeriGame as I’ve ever seen.

What Makes Defenders of the Realm Truly Heroic:
– While some call the design “derivative”, all games have taken something from somewhere else and I find this to be a fresh, original design that’s absolutely brilliant
– Fast turns lead to little in the way of downtime, and the conversations that spawn during turns make this a great thinking person’s game
– The balance of difficulty versus playability is absolutely perfect
– It’s a real value because it has such replayability and such an incredibly cool theme
– With a game time of about 90 minutes, it’s just as Goldilocks said, “Just Right”

What Makes Me Want to Feed Eagle Games To Sapphire:
– That red text on the character cards was an epic failure of graphic design
– The use of such similar colors on the cards and with the figures makes it hard to see things in poor lighting
– The fact that all the minions are exactly the same except for the color was a little disappointing

Overall:
This is one of the best games that has come out this year, and it would be an unforgivable lack of judgement to pass on this. Go to some online retailer and get it, you won’t be disappointed! The art and theme are incredible, the gameplay is simple, and it is such a fun little game that it has a tremendous amount of replayability.

Rating:
4.75/5 Stars

You can check out the game at Eagle Games’ site: http://www.eaglegames.net/

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