The Dresden Files – Cooperative Card Game

I Dresden Files

Piotrek: Last week we met with a friend of the Re-Enchantment to play a few games of Dresden Files: Cooperative Card Game, a new game I acquired through Kickstarter. It was a very nice experience and I would highly recommend the game to everyone. It looks great, it is quick – 30-minute claim from the box is not entirely unrealistic, though I’d say 45 minutes are more likely. And it’s Harry Dresden, done right. It’s not only in the art, the spirit of Harry is present in game’s mechanics, and personalities of the characters are recognizable in their decks.

Dresden_Files

So, first things first… Dresden Files. The most famous urban fantasy series, probably, although Anita Blake might be even more influential (and almost a decade older). So, maybe the most famous urban fantasy series that does not deteriorate into were-porn ;). And Jim Butcher is a very popular figure, friendly and eager to interact with his fans. Will it stay that way, if he continues to publish mediocre distractions and not long-awaited Harry Dresden novels? Remains to be seen 😀 Right now we had two years without new Harry and I am increasingly annoyed.

Ola: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is an urban fantasy/mystery series set in contemporary Chicago, where wizards, werewolves, vampires of many rivalling courts, faeries, monsters and demons compete for power. Of course, magic is still discredited, but the underworld of the supernatural seems on the verge of bursting out in the open and threatening the current structure of societies. The series, started in 2000, is now 15 novels long, with a number of short stories, a TV series and several graphic novels on the side. The series became itself a source of geek references, as evidenced in Aaronovitch’s series ;).

Piotrek: We haven’t reviewed Butcher’s series so far, but it’s been mentioned regularly, as a standard against which other UF series are measured, and usually they fail. For me, it’s not great literature, but extremely cool read, sometimes guilty pleasure. The amount of geeky references, extremely likeable characters, humour… lots and lots to like, and written by a very able writer who usually knows when to stop. Dresden Files are everything Iron Druid Chronicles aren’t, for Butcher seems to know the value of restraint, even when (spoiler!) he sends Harry to fight on an undead dinosaur in one of the coolest showdowns of the series.

How cool is Harry? He plays table-top RPG, that’s how cool he is! Sarcastic, genre savvy part-wizard, part-noir detective that grows from novel to novel, collecting friends and enemies while the intrigues go bigger and bigger, and we slowly learn about the Big Picture. Butcher’s mastery is, for me, two-fold. First, he creates extremely readable books. Secondly, he keeps the series interesting, avoids most traps  by letting the characters, and stakes, grow. He’s a master, and Dresden Files might be the pinnacle of the genre that seems to be increasingly dominated by paranormal romance. Although everyone I know, including myself, complains about the way it start. First books were far from perfect.

Ola: Well, I admit, I had a hard time getting into the Dresden Files. It clicked for me only in the fourth book 😉 So if not for a period of several days of convalescence with limited access to books – limited to Dresden Files, exactly – I would be sorely tempted not to continue reading after the first three instalments 😉 And I would miss out a lot – for Dresden Files is a type of series that gets better with each next book (well, almost without exception ;)).

Rodzyn: Last year, following Piotrek’s recommendation, I’ve picked up on Dresden Files. Having been so far around –for most part – around “proper” fantasy genre rather than its Urban branch (apart from Gaiman’s works), Butcher’s novels seemed like a nice interlude from my usual ‘to read’ list. It seems now that I love that kind of lightweight distractions for the reasons stated above by RotW Authors :). 

II The game itself

Piotrek: I noticed the Kickstarter campaign last year and I felt like it was created for me 🙂 . Game that promised to catch the spirit of Dresden, but also a fast, easy to set-up game for 1-5 people. Great gaming potential and, as I know some Dresden fans, a magnet to get new people into gaming. And so when I received my package, and after spending an hour or two getting all the 350+ cards into protective sleeves (optional, but prolongs their longevity), I invited two people I knew would be interested in testing the game – Ola, my Dresden-loving co-author, and Rodzyn, winner…

Rodzyn (modestly): participant 

Piotrek: …of many board & card gaming tournaments and an avid reader, who recently started reading Butcher.

Ola: The game looks great. That was the first thing I, not being a regular gamer, noticed 😉 All those pretty cards and what not 😉 And it’s Dresden! Dresden Files were bound to be transformed into a game, the way Butcher writes his books always reminded me of a game with multiple levels of difficulty ;).

Rodzyn: I’ve seen and played my share of various games, which never prevented me from trying out the new ones 🙂 Piotrek’s decision to support DF CCG was obviously yet another opportunity for me to check out new stuff. Boardgames IMHO are fantastic opportunity (and excuse) for socializing experience, and times we live in are the golden era for boardgamers – you can find something  suitable for you regardless of your preferences.  But getting back on topic…

Piotrek: As this was the first time any of us played this particular title, and I only had time to skim the manual a day before, we started with the official video tutorial. Getting acquainted with various card types, available actions etc. took… 30 minutes? 45 maybe?

In the box we find a game board (which is a regular thing with card games these days), counters, and lots of different decks of cards.

On board we have two rows where scenario-related challenges are put, places for counters that players use to keep track of damages they deal to the enemies, and clues they gather on mysteries, and also Fate Points, game currency regulating the use of character decks.

Character decks consist of Attack , Investigate. Overcome and Take Advantage cards to deal with corresponding scenario cards (Enemies, Cases, Obstacles, Advantage). Players have to gather a specific amount of points to defeat a scenario card, while meeting other conditions. And in the specifics, of player and scenario decks are hidden all the Dresden Files’ references, and the source of game’s dynamic that, at its best, reminded us of what we love about Harry Dresden.

Not all the time… card games have their limitation. It’s hard to create a story, and sometimes what we get is cards with numbers, and art that only decorates them. Here, I was pleasantly surprised, but there are limits to what you can create with a couple dozen cards (that’s how many, of about 350 in my set, are used in a single play-through) and 30 minutes.

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I love the art, quality of all the elements is also very good. Only the dice are a little lame, I might need to buy some nicer Fate Dice…

Ola: Some of the illustrations – on the scenario cards – come straight from the book covers, but the rest is brand new, with a bit more comic book-like look and still very much in line with expectations of most of Dresden fans. Almost every important character from the books gets their own deck, and the number of cards in each deck varies, depending on the evolution of each character in the books.

Rodzyn: I have mixed feelings about the components of the game. Some of the art is pretty amazing, yet those comic book-likes which Ola mentioned before made it for me a bit uneven overall. Dice just plainly suck. One would hope that publisher might come up with prettier ones 🙂 Card graphic design is pretty readable, which helps with the game flow. Mechanically the game is pretty simple – your card deck  contains resources necessary to overcome obstacles, defeat your foes, solve cases and acquire beer :).

Piotrek: We started with the basic scenario, Storm Front. Not a random title – scenarios are all named after novels, and meant to be played in order. Added Side Jobs deck allows gives us many extra scenarios not connected to the main storyline. We played the first one twice, and only managed to win the second time.

Ola: Ah, well. It was Susan’s fault :P. But on a more serious note, it’s not so easy to win in this game, even when playing with open cards. The first time was learning time, and at the beginning we missed some important elements of the game’s mechanics – but the second time we managed to do it right. And we had Thomas by then, which made things much easier ;). 

Piotrek: Even with my limited experience it’s clear that you have to find which character decks work well together, and when. Each scenario is a different challenge, and sometimes you need a detective like Karrin Murphy, sometimes Thomas Raith and his vampire powers. Only Harry is an obligatory member of every team, and I insist that he’s quite good, maybe because I played him each time 😉

Ola: No wonder Harry’s character is obligatory – otherwise nobody in their right mind would choose him 😛 Just as in the books, there are always plenty of better character choices, but somehow he always ends up alive and kicking…

Piotrek: We were never able to secure our win before the showdown phase. It kept the tension high, and matched the way novels’ plot unravel – protagonists never win too early, to keep readers’ attention. It works (hopefully, as we get better, the game also gets more difficult in later scenarios) and it is a proof that cooperative games are not easy to beat. You’d think that, with all the players working towards same goal, it gets simple and boring. Nope.

Ola: Actually, we did – the second play and the first win was ours before showdown. But we had Thomas, Karrin and Harry, and that was a really powerful team, playing to each others’ strengths. And some hard choices had to be made anyway 😉 The third game was a close thing, won indeed only with a bit of luck in the showdown phase – and again, the choice of characters weighed in a lot.

Piotrek: Was knowing the books essential? It helped me appreciate the game, and all the effort that went into its creation, but it’s also a very good and quick cooperative card game. I’ve played tie-in games with people ignorant of the franchises and it usually does not stop them from having fun. But the books are (almost) always better, so everybody should read Butcher anyway 🙂

Ola: I really enjoyed the game. Knowing the books is a definite help, without them I would’ve missed much of the fun – the quirks of the protagonists, the relations existing between the characters – the creators of the game put much thought into linking it as closely to the books as possible. So I would recommend reading at least one or two installments of Dresden Files before playing – this way fun is guaranteed.

III Conclusion:

Rodzyn: I’m not sure where I stand regarding this game :/ I had a lot of fun, but it might be effect of coplayers and myself being familiarized with DF universe and all its flavours. Plenty of nice interactions during the gameplay while trying to come up with the best decisions were highlighted with Harry-like oneliners flying around. I suspect that not having Dresden Files background would’ve  seriously impacted the level of fun & joy as part of it comes from the players themselves and their commitment rather than game itself. Having said that, the game is a simple coop with rules easy enough to attract casual gamers to join you in a quest through Dresden Files’ stories. I’m looking forward to combine forces with Harry and Karrin again, in order to kick some paranormal asses! 🙂

Piotrek: I had great time and I’m definitely going to play more. It’s relatively easy to learn (there’s even a video tutorial online created by the publisher), and a great way for urban fantasy fans to get into some serious boardgaming 🙂

Ola: I second that!

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