Designed By: Andrew Parks
Published By: Wizkids
Playtime: 60-90 Min
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
(Note: this review was written while I had a cold and was doped on plenty of antibiotics. I apologize if it is of lower quality than normal.)
Assault of the Giants is a game that places players in control of their own faction of giants within the Dungeons & Dragons universe, waging war across a board and claiming event cards all in the name of scoring Ordning points. Don’t worry, though, no knowledge of the Dungeons & Dragons universe is required to delve into this quite sizable box. You don’t even need to know about Owl-Bears. But now you want to know, don’t you?
Wizkids sure aren’t messing around with the ‘giant’ part of the game as opening the chunky box reveals an insert containing twelve sizable plastic figures that represent each faction’s champions, the most powerful units they can field. With the tallest champions standing at about 3.5″ they utterly dwarf the three teeny giant hunters that are also included in the box. With a touch of paint these giants should look beautiful, and indeed there’s a premium edition of the game that comes with pre-painted models if you aren’t the artsy type. Be careful, though, because I managed to accidently break King Hekaton when I attempted to remove him from the tray via his torch. Oops. Sorry, King.
Sadly the rest of the components don’t match the same feeling of awe. It isn’t that they are poorly made; each race’s other giants are printed on reasonably thick cardboard discs when can be plonked onto the fairly sizable board with a satisfying sound, while the leaders get even bigger circles of card. No, the problem is the drab art-design, especially in regards to the resource cards which frankly look slightly amateurish. Other decks don’t even get art, just a flat color and text. Color choices prove problematic, too, as a couple of the factions can be tricky to tell apart at a glance. Even worse are the unique faction dice, a few of which, especially in less than perfect light, can be easy to get mixed up.
Each of the six giant factions within the game come with their own story cards, a set of events that they can complete to collect those sweet, sweet Ordning points. For some races it’s a single event that can be repeated multiple times, while others have several cards. The Ice Giants, for example, just want to freeze the world one region at a time while the Sky Giants desire to rescue their king and forge alliances with the small folk who inhabit the land, presumably in damn near perpetual fear of being stood on. The Fire Giants are all about forging a titan and then killing dragons. And the Hill Giants…well, they just want a lot of food for their king. Sometimes you have to keep your dreams small, y’know? Combined with the fact that each faction of giants has their own unique stats in terms of attack strength, points value and sheer ability to absorb damage the game does a great job of making every race feel different, even if most of their goals do feel mechanically similar in that they require you to move out and capture territory in order to acquire the needed resources through the plundering action or other special actions. The Stone Giants, for example, are able to take a lot of damage and aren’t worth many points to other players, thus can slip under the radar a little more. The Hill Giants are physically the weakest, but are also worth very little and thus may not be a target at times except for players seeking to grab land. On the opposite ends of the spectrum the Sky Giants are the most physically dominating race, but aren’t numerous which makes holding a lot of land difficult. The Fire Giants come into their own later in the game.
The core of the game is how you issue orders to your giants: once per turn you can play a single one of your command cards from your hand to move troops around, recruit more soldiers to the cause, attack enemy regions, plunder currently occupied areas for new resource cards, activate your leader, trade resources and draw spell cards in the hopes of getting something useful. Every faction has the same cards with the exception of one special action that corresponds to their story goals, so based on what has been played you can make rough guesses as to what opponents might get up to.
Sounds simple enough, right? Ah, but there is a slight complication: To play a card you place it on the table to the right of any cards you played prior. This is important because each card has a secondary effect that benefits from how many commands came before it, so as an example if you play a recruit card it might give you three points to play with, plus an extra point per card to the left of it. Likewise when attacking each previously played card lets you turn one magic mana symbol into bonus hits, making it worthwhile to plan your assaults for later, although that naturally means the enemy has more time to get ready. There are also a couple of cards that provide bonuses based on how many commands are to the right of them, thus encouraging you to play these earlier. The order that allows you to draw two spells, for example, also lets you convert one magic symbol into a defense roll in all future battles, thus when combined with the attack order you can set yourself up for battle quite nicely It’s a lovely system that encourages you to constantly plan ahead and patiently build toward what you want to do. It also creates a methodical pace to the game: enemies can’t really surprise you in the sense that to launch an attack typically means having to move troops first, creating some time for other players to prepare or counter, but it does mean that players can be tricked into thinking an attack is coming.
The problem is the rest of the game just isn’t as interesting as this one mechanic is, coming down to a pretty standard area-control game that relies on straightforward dice combat. It’s a wonderful thematic touch that each race of giants have their own story, but those goals all essentially amount to getting out into the world and occupying regions, while the majority of points will still come from waging war.
Eventually, you’ll need to bring your cards back to your hand, which is where the rest command comes into play. It also introduces a fascinating element in the form of the Giant Slayers, as represented by tiny little miniatures on the board. For every card to the left of the rest command you get a point to spend on the Giant Slayers, who are beholden to no single faction. By spending points you can recruit these three characters to the board, move them around if they already happen to be on the board and get them to attack. They aren’t the strongest, but they do come with some handy powers and while they may not be able to take down champions with ease they can often do some reasonable damage to regular troops. It’s worth noting that any giants killed using the slayers only grant half of their Ordning points. These little guys running around the board are a very interesting mechanic, one that doesn’t feel like it quite fits in with everything else and thus winds up seeming like something that was tossed in purely to give players something to do when they play the rest card.
Combat is simple stuff: you add up the strength of your troops in the region and roll an equal amount of dice, up to a maximum of seven, including your specific faction’s special die. Then it’s a case of tallying up the hits, misses and shields, then modifying the results based on the attack card or any spells or resources played. The enemy does the same, with both players marking their results on the handy chart located on the board.
Where things get a bit more interesting is how damage is dealt. Provided your assault deals at least a single point of damage then the opponent must select one of their giants to take the brunt of the attack. Should the damage be lower than the giant’s fortitude it is wounded, meaning it gets flipped over to its wounded side which has different statistics. Should the damage be equal or higher then the giant is killed outright and the attacker receives Ordning points as shown on the unlucky giant. Any leftover damage is then applied to another target and so on and so on.
Champions alter this because if they are involved in a battle they must soak up the punishment first, acting as the very frontline meatshield of defense. However, champions cannot be wounded and thus killing them requires enough hits to equal or surpass their defense. In other words assaulting an area held by a champion can feel like you’re banging your head against a particularly tall wall. This is where some of the resource cards come into play as things like ore and weapons can be spent to boost damage dealt or defense, while spells can also do a variety of things to aid in combat, be it just hurling a handy fireball for extra oomph or ditching combat entirely to retreat to a different region. In short champions are useful, which is why you can only have two of them and never in the same place. They make good skirmishers, too, letting you strike out for a few points with less risk of losing out.
It has to be said that despite my earlier words about everything around the command card mechanic simply not being as interesting combat is far from bad. It’s solid stuff, and I appreciate the fact that provided you do at least one point of damage then, assuming a champion isn’t in the fight, you’ll at least get to wound a giant. I also appreciated how methodical combat feels because in most cases a single attack was never enough to clear out a region unless I had been saving up a heap of cards to increase damage. And yet there’s no getting around the fact that I never found combat to be exciting or engaging. This could just be because I’ve been doing a lot of dice-based fighting lately (hurling dice at people you don’t like is terribly cathartic) and therefore feel a bit burned out on it, but too much of the time combat would end with nothing happening other than maybe a giant or two being wounded.
There’s also a deck of universal event cards that anyone can complete by being in the right place and paying the right rune from the resource deck. Three of these are active at any given time and give players something to focus on other than their story objectives, although they do bring an extra dollop of luck as often a new event will pop up that clearly benefits a player because they’re literally already standing in the right location with the correct rune, basically handing them bonus points. Still, they give you something else to aim for, especially if you happen to be holding the right rune required.
As for the Ordning points they are handled in a smart fashion. Depending on the number of players two pools of points are made up, the first being quite large and the second being fairly small. It isn’t until the first pool of points is depleted that players are allowed to invade each other’s home regions, stopping anybody getting made homeless and thus unable to recruit new giants early in the game. With this safety net in place you don’t have to worry about leaving troops or your leader at home and can instead focus on capturing some turf, hopefully setting up a defensive perimeter around your starting location.
Capturing that turf can be problematic, though. If there are less than six players at the table then NPC races will be placed on the board, remaining static but otherwise able to be destroyed for extra points. The point is that with a full player count or not the board is packed with giants, and so in the initial round or two as everyone almost immediately begins moving out from their starting points, because they really have to, and starts bumping into each other. From there the game can slow down dramatically in my experience as players collide but with very little actual movement. An attack has a single round of combat, so if large forces clash it’s very rare to see any territory get taken, or indeed that many giants fall. But then there are these occasional moments where the pace suddenly picks up because a territory does fall and someone leaps in to try to take advantage of a weak position because an assaulting player must move at least half of giants that participated into the captured territory. It’s like endlessly chipping away at a mountain with a pillow, only for a chunk of it to suddenly give way to reveal gold that everybody scrambles for. It creates a very odd pace to the entire experience.
Assault of the Giants is one of those games that does nothing wrong. Its core mechanics are solid and I quite like the way commands are dished out because they force players to think ahead without completely locking them into plans. Plus there’s an almost childish joy in shifting those chunky champions around the board, supported by the cardboard discs representing the rest of your giants. And yet I never could shake how completely just… okay it is. You play it, you have fun and then you forget about it quite quickly. It arguably doesn’t deserve that treatment, but I can’t get around the fact that it never once managed to get me excited about playing it, and when there are so many other games that do just that it’s hard to recommend Assault of the Giants.
But hey, giant plastic giants. That’s cool.
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