Year Published: 2014
Designer: Tom Stasiak
Publisher: Beautiful Disaster Games
Playtime: 150 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: The Wizard’s garlic breath isn’t the only thing that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Looking at my new-in-shrink Assault on Doomrock: Doompocalypse expansion sitting on my game shelf, I find myself in a conundrum. I hadn’t played Assault on Doomrock when I saw the Kickstarter go up last year for the 2nd edition reprint and expansion, but after reading through the campaign description some of the elements really had me intrigued: a card-driven, 1-4 player cooperative RPG promising a humorous slant on normal fantasy settings, with high replayability thanks to its variable scenarios and plethora of player customization options, and a tactical battle system where positioning mattered, featuring “minimal randomness when determining damage.” The art was stylized and vibrant, and the expansion added extra classes and combat elements in addition to expanding card options- it seemed right up my alley, so I ended up backing for both the base game as well as the expansion.
I like trying new games, and if you’ve read other reviews on the site you’ll know many are positive, and the vast majority are at least luke-warm. Why? Because I review out of my own collection for the most part, and I’m pretty good about researching things before I buy them. I’ve even got a pretty good record on untested Kickstarters, rarely having been completely disappointed in something I supported, or regretting my pledge. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally pick up something I’m less thrilled about, but my point is I’ve got a pretty good track record as far as getting things I like, and the reason for that is I’m careful with my money. That frugality is sometimes at odds with liking to try as many new games as I can, and it’s at the heart of my current conundrum: do I open up my copy of Assault on Doomrock’s expansion so I can try it and review it, or do I cut my losses knowing how I feel about the base game and send it away unplayed?
Now don’t get me wrong, there are very few games I’ve ever come across I’d classify as having no redeeming value whatsoever, and Assault on Doomrock certainly has some things going for it. As I mentioned before, I think they’ve done an outstanding job with the theme in general. The game’s art is colorful and vibrant, and certainly makes good on the promise of delivering a theme that’s quirky and doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s enhanced further by the actual card content…create yourself a stinky Warrior who suffers from garlic breath, or an erratic Rogue, and then go and test your mettle against a horde of Rotten Tomatoes. You’re also almost certain never to play the same game twice thanks to the randomization of the locations, enemies, skills, items, and even the characters if you decide to. There’s plenty of replay value here for people who like the game, and I have no doubt the expansion builds on those successes.
But for me, randomization is also part of Assault on Doomrock’s problem. The game has a lot of meat in terms of components, as you can see from the above photo, but in this case I just don’t find all those options translate into a meaningfully deep game. If the gameplay followed the theme and provided a lighthearted, humorous experience that didn’t take itself too seriously that may be one thing, but Doomrock instead tries to deliver a two hour epic adventure that, having played it numerous times and telling myself “maybe just one more time and it will click for me,” I’ve concluded collapses under the implementation of its varied elements.
You start the game by drawing a random hero which has an alternate-gender portrait on the reverse of each card, and a random trait card. The heroes each start with three unique class abilities, and your trait card will specify a fourth power you’ll start the game with. The traits and their accompanying powers are a mixed bag, akin to traits in Dungeons and Dragons or other similar RPGs, providing both a positive ability and a corresponding drawback. The Stinky trait, for example, forces an enemy moving into your area to take one expose marker, and it gives you the Garlic Breath ability which lets you breath onto an enemy for damage. At the end of the round however, one adjacent hero has to take a damage unless you give up an armor token. You also take tokens equal to your character’s health (bottom left of card), and four dice and a hero marker you’ll use during combat.
Your goal in Assault on Doomrock is to reach the mountain of Doomrock before the end of the third quest setting, which will trigger the final combat encounter. To get there you have to traverse through a deck of nine locations representing different wilderness, mountain, or town areas, which are randomized at the beginning of the game; three of these locations start the game face-up as your initial playing area.
Each of the locations has a number of sub-locations you can visit for varying costs and rewards while your party is in the area, allowing you to regain health and heal expose markers, gain armor, shop for items, or gain silver which is used to level up by paying one more than the number of skills your character currently has. Some of the actions your party can perform cost a time marker from the round’s setting, and once your time is depleted you’ll have to draw a random enemy encounter from the appropriate deck and face them in combat before progressing onto the next randomized quest setting.
Your group has deceptively few moves it can make before the setting’s time is depleted and you’re sent into combat: travelling between face-up locations takes one time marker, removing one of the secret markers placed on the top left corner of each location card according to the number displayed (which may give you bonus silver or an item once removed) takes one time marker, and venturing forth to new areas by discarding the location farthest from the draw deck before bringing out a new one also costs one time. Combine that with sub-locations like “Shelter” on the above “Ruined Watchtower” location which also cost a time marker to use, and your group ends up really having to make efficient use of your limited actions.
While I normally like having to make tough decisions on how to spend limited actions and resources, the combat in Assault on Doomrock really forces you to prioritize gathering armor, money, and making sure you go into combat at full health. Finding items or grabbing heroic markers which can be used to enhance some abilities can be nice, but in my experience are secondary to those other considerations since getting silver to level up gives you an extra ability and an extra dice, and the other two ensure you live long enough to actually use them.
Depending on the locations you drew you may have more or less options for ways to maximize the use of your time markers, and in some cases you may just not have many options at all. For the majority of sub-locations you visit you know what you’re going to get as a reward, so you can at least use that to plan out which locations to go to in which order, and to make sure to completely finish in one area before spending a time marker to travel to another.
Suffering a “Peril” as a cost, however, is done by drawing from a randomized deck according to the type of area you’re in, and will either deal your party damage, or make everyone take expose markers which may negatively affect you in combat. Perils are normally associated with uncovering the area bonus underneath the location’s secret markers, so getting the extra money or item may prove costly. The good news is the “camp” sub-location that lets your party discard expose tokens and heal wounds also lets you level up, so you can normally plan on that being your last stop before combat to get everything in order.
Leveling up and developing your character is one of the most important aspects of an RPG: it enables you to take on stronger challenges, gives you a feeling of progression and purpose, and lets you actually customize your character and shape him/her into whatever you want them to be. That centrality is no different in Assault on Doomrock, and on the face of it Doomrock certainly has the latter covered: the biggest deck in the entire game is the deck of ability cards. In addition to an extra ability, leveling up also provides you an extra dice in combat. That’s an entire extra action, and multiple additional chances at rolling whatever numbers you need to use your abilities.
There are two catches to how leveling works in Doomrock though that really upset the whole process for me. First, leveling up one character costs silver equal to the number of ability cards you have. Your first level up, for example, costs four silver. That may not seem like a lot, but in a four player game you only start with five silver, a three player game four silver, and two player or solo game(where you still control two characters), three silver; you’re going to be lucky if you have enough silver to level up half your party before the first combat. Second, your new skill is chosen from three cards randomly drawn from the skill deck. Want to customize your character as a tank who can taunt with good AE damage, but drew cards focused on movement and single-target effects? Too bad. This randomization may make for some quirky and unforeseen skill combinations, and it certainly forces you to adapt to odd situations, but I really dislike having an RPG take away your ability to control the development of your character. Implementing house rules that let you search the deck for what you want is an easy fix, but I’ve seen other games with random character development still handle it better than Assault on Doomrock, in ways that at least makes some logical sense in terms of character progression even if it’s not along the lines you’d have preferred. It’s another example of something that might fly in a lighter game, but not in one that’s trying to provide a challenging and developed RPG experience underneath all the humor.
Once your time has run out on the active setting you move into combat. Your opponents and their starting positions are determined by drawing a card from the enemy deck corresponding to the round, and then following the setup instructions on that card. Each enemy plays very differently, and is controlled by a unique deck of AI cards that explain enemy movement and actions throughout combat.
Assault on Doomrock’s combat adds a positioning element that’s generally absent from other card-driven RPGs where enemies might be assigned to a character, but don’t allow players to form their own small groups and have enemies exist in their own clusters. Here, you and your team members decide whether to stay together, or form smaller groupings for strategic purposes. You’ll each place your corresponding character discs into the battle area along with enemy discs as instructed on the setup card, and throughout the battle you’ll be able to maneuver between groups or into new ones as the ebb and flow of combat necessitates.
Doomrock already takes up a fair amount of room with just its cards, requiring surprisingly large player areas to hold your character, trait, and ability cards, in addition to the main setup area and chit pool and other draw decks, but the game’s table footprint is made even bigger by the inclusion of the positioning combat. The discs are 1″-2″ across, and you may have 20 of them just for the enemies; combine that with needing to create space for separate groupings and you end up needing a pretty substantial area to run each battle.
Battles proceed over a series of rounds, starting with all players rolling their dice. You’re able to roll any number of dice again two more times to try and get the results you need, but in the end you’ll assign the dice to individual skills based on the pip values required to activate each ability. You’re then able to activate any abilities that have the “initiative” icon on them before proceeding to the Enemy Activation phase, where each player will activate two enemies by drawing an AI card for each and following the instructions on the card from top to bottom. If the chosen enemy unit isn’t engaged with a player it normally involves moving the enemy to the active hero (or one with the highest threat), and then dealing damage or some other action. Once enemy activations are done, you and your group then have a chance to use abilities.
While the positioning element to combat is something I was excited to try, in reality I found it really didn’t add anything to my experience. Enemies move to either active players or those with highest threat, so your “positioning” really doesn’t matter…there’s no strategy to it other than whether you’re adjacent to another hero. The expansion looks like it may flesh this concept out a bit more by adding objects, but as it stands there’s nothing tactical to how the combat plays out.
The balancing of the AI cards further serves to render the positioning mechanics moot since enemies are almost always allowed to move and follow up with some sort of an attack. It doesn’t really matter if you move away from enemies or not during your turn (if you’re able, because if there are twice the number of enemies than players in a group you’re stuck), because they’re going to just come right back at you and do whatever they were going to anyway. That’s further exacerbated by enemies activating first, including during the first round…unless your abilities are heavily slanted towards initiative-enabled powers, which is unlikely, you’re going to get beaten on before you get a chance to do anything; that’s why I said earlier having armor, which block one damage apiece, is so vitally important in Assault on Doomrock.
To add insult to likely injury, when it comes time for you to take your actions it’s possible you don’t get to do anything at all. If you were able to roll the values you needed you activate the right skills, which is hit-or-miss to begin with, there are AI cards that can strip you of assigned dice. Those dice stay gone until the monsters holding them are killed, at which point they’re re-rolled and assigned immediately to skills again. It’s possible your friends may be able to kill those baddies to get your dice back right away, but combined with the dice-reliant skill activations it’s really frustrating to essentially have your turn stripped in a game which, as I’ve said before, is actually pretty challenging.
Combat tends to drag on a bit, and in addition to its other pitfalls I think the system really bogs progression down and extends the playtime much longer than Assault on Doomrock can sustain; you’re looking at potentially two hours for a full game for an RPG that really ends up falling short in depth. If all enemies are defeated the players win the combat and the game proceeds to another quest setting, and any players killed during combat are resurrected. You’ll continue through two more quest settings after the first phase, for a total of three combat rounds. If you haven’t reached the Mountain of Doomrock by the time the third combat starts you lose the game, but if it’s revealed then you win the game after beating the final combat.
Before I get to my final thoughts I do want to re-visit the components momentarily. I mentioned before I think the theme is actually very well done, and that includes some very vibrant artwork that fits the game perfectly, including alternate-gender artwork for each character. The component quality is also very good- the cardboard components are thick, and the cards seem to hold up well. I think this is the first Kickstarter in a long time I’ve received, though, that didn’t include baggies, and if there’s one game that should have come with them it’s this one. Between the different chits and all the different mini-sized cards, there’s a lot of stuff just floating around in the box that’s going to extend setup time if it’s not buttoned down and organized. It’s 2016, and not including baggies with games has quickly become one of my biggest component peeves, especially for something that has a variety of components and cards.
COG Takeaway: One of the selling lines for Assault on Doomrock is it offers “minimal randomness when determining damage” in its combat system. That’s very true, but my issue is it’s random in just about every other way. The concept of randomizing game elements to add replayability, unpredictability, and challenge is not new, and it’s actually something that I’m sure we’ve all seen work very well in many cases be it through dice rolls, card draws, or other mechanisms. The thing is, you need to know when to stop, and Assault on Doomrock simply randomizes too many aspects for me without appropriate balancing to enjoy as a serious RPG experience. The theme itself is well done, light, and humorous, but that’s at odds with what turns out to be a very lengthy game that’s made challenging not through complexity or meaningful strategy, but through minimization of player choice supplanted by random chance. The battle system, which I thought would add a great tactical element to the genre with its positioning aspect, really just bogs progression down and doesn’t add much strategy to combat- an issue further exacerbated by the AI system. If the quirky theme really speaks to you and you don’t mind a huge degree of chance, Assault on Doomrock may be worth looking at if you can find it, but this is unfortunately one game I just can’t see myself recommending outright for any group.
What is a card-driven RPG you’ve really enjoyed and would recommend? Why?