Monday, September 3, 2018

GJJ Games Reivew - Wakening Lair - By Rather Dashing Games

Wakening Lair
Designed By: Mike Richie
Published By: Rather Dashing Games
2-6p | 30-40m | 14+
GJJ Games Reivew - Wakening Lair - By Rather Dashing Games
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Game Overview:
About two years ago I won a contest and received both Pirates, Ninjas, Robots, & Zombies and Graveyards, Ghosts, & Haunted Houses, both part of Rather Dashing Games' Drawn & Quartered series of games (which also includes the more recent  This Belongs in a Museum).  I love those games for their relative simplicity, yet fun gameplay.  They're great gateway games that I've used to play with quite a few non-gamers.  They're also fun fillers with my game group, too.  Then last year I reviewed Element and loved the game.  It made the #7 spot on my Top 10 11 New To Me Games of 2017 list.  So this year at Gen Con I decided to stop by the Rather Dashing Games booth and say hi in person and tell them how much I liked those games.  I chatted briefly with them and then was thrilled to receive a copy of their latest game, Wakening Lair, to review.

Wakening Lair is a cooperative dungeon crawler that simplifies the genre to just the essentials: revealing dungeon rooms, battling minor monsters, discovering treasure, leveling up with weapons and artifacts, and fighting a big boss monster.  All this is accomplished with a few decks of cards, a handful of cubes, screen printed tokens, boss monster boards, and three dice.  It plays up to 6 players and takes about 45-60 minutes (although the box says 30-40 minutes).  The box also says its lower player count in 2, however I recommend playing 2 (or even three) characters each at that player count, and there's no reason you can't play solo if you don't mind playing multiple characters.  The box also says it's for ages 14 and up, but there's no reason a much younger player can't play.  I'd say the game is good for 8+ and, with a bit of help, could even work with a 6 year old that's familiar with games.   So, does Wakening Lair do for dungeon crawlers what the Drawn & Quartered series does for tile laying games?  Is it as ingenious as Element?  Read on to find out.

UPDATE: Please note that we played with one rule incorrect - namely that Heroes should move with the Monstrous Terror.  This would have given us a few more actions when fighting the Monstrous Terror.  See updated notes regarding this inline in yellow italic text.

Components & Packaging:
As is the case with all the titles I've seen from Rather Dashing Games, the components are top notch.  The cards are huge tarot sized cards for the dungeon rooms, characters, monsters, and treasures.  The player tokens are large, thick wooden disks with screen printed symbols on each one.  There are also six boss monster boards that are double thick with indents to hold damage cubes.  A few dozen white and red wooden cubes and three D6 dice round out the components.  As expected, everything is very high quality, but it's the box that really steals the show.
I'm not a fan of the monster peering out from the cover of the font and style of the title,
but the rest of the box looks awesome.
Wakening Lair comes in an absolutely gorgeous box that looks like a huge, monstrous tome.  The box has a magnetic flap so that the cover opens more like a book than a game box.  Inside the cover are pictures of all the playable characters with a bit of backstory.  Inside the box is a amazing insert that keeps everything in perfect order and condition.  Everything has a spot and fits perfectly.  Even while traveling and being jostled around, everything stays put.  This is an amazing insert and a gorgeous box.
For a cheaper game this is one of the best organized storage solutions I've seen.
My only criticism of the components is some of the artwork.  It's not bad, in fact the characters, treasures, and monsters are great.  The only artwork I'm not really wild about is the room cards and the box cover.  As I mentioned, the box is designed to both look, and open like a book.  But the cover has a big black square with cartooney looking monster eyes peering out (yes, I know it looks a bit like the GJJ Games logo), and a blue and gold stylized font logo.  This really detracts from the feel of a grimoire, or mystical tome, that the rest of the box design portrays.  The room cards, while functionally great, don't feel like they meld well with the rest of the artwork in the game.  They almost have the feel of neon signs instead of dungeon rooms.
I really don't like the look of the room cards.  The rest of the components look great though.
Where Grant Wilson's art shines, however, is in the monsters, characters, and treasures.  The artwork is whimsical and cartooney, yet still has the feel of danger and adventure that's appropriate for a dungeon crawler.  The art perfectly conveys the concept of family friendly fantasy.  And each of the nine character classes has two play options.  Each character card has both a male and female side, each with the same abilities, but with unique artwork.  This is great for inclusiveness and I'm happy that more games are doing more to be welcoming to everyone.
The characters are wonderful!
All characters have both a male and female side.
There are 12 different monsters, two for each type of attack.
Score: 9/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Setup of Wakening Lair is pretty simple.  There are 12 room cards that need to be shuffled and laid out in a line.  The first card is revealed as the starting dungeon room.  On top of the last card one of the boss monster cards (the Monstrous Terror) is randomly selected and placed face-down.  Then the treasure deck is shuffled and the monster deck is shuffled, with the Monstrous Terror Awakens card shuffled into the bottom third.  Then each player selects a character and takes the corresponding character card (with either the female or male side up) in front of them and the character token on the first dungeon room.  The white and red cubes (effects and damage) are set near the play area.  Decide on a first player and you're good to go.
Setup is pretty quick, but it'll take up a lot of table space.
The rules are also generally pretty simple.  On each player's turn they first roll 2 of the dice to reveal one of the 12 rooms.  The first room is revealed at the beginning of the game (and you can't roll a 1), and the last room won't be revealed until the Monstrous Terror (boss monster) awakens, so if you roll a 12 you get a pass on revealing a room.  Each room card has a 1 or 2 on it that tells how many monsters initially populate the room.  Draw monsters from the monster deck and place them next to the room card.  If a room is already revealed simply add another monster instead (max 3).
As rooms are revealed you'll add monsters to the right side.
After revealing a room and/or adding monsters, you may take three actions.  Actions include: Move, Attack, and Abilities.  Abilities may be character specific abilities or abilities granted by collected treasures.  Some abilities are passive or conditional and don't require an action.

Moving is pretty straight forward.  For one Move action you can move through any connected rooms that don't have monsters or traps.  Unrevealed rooms, monsters and traps stop your movement.  If you move into an unrevealed room, reveal it and place monsters there.  Traps must be triggered, but monsters can be ignored for now.  After triggering a trap if present you can take another action (if you haven't used all your actions).  This action can be to move again, even if that means moving away from a monster.
Three actions don't get you far, but they make for quick turns.
Attacking is the heart of the game.  You'll want to attack monsters because doing so gains you weapons and powerful artifacts that give you special abilities.  Attacking monsters (and when they attack you back) is an interesting mechanic.  Each monster has 2-3 numbers written across the top of their card.  They also have one of six different attack symbols, indicating the attack type they are vulnerable to.  When attacking, you'll roll between one and three dice to try and hit the monster.  You'll do damage to a monster by rolling equal to or higher than the leftmost visible number at the top of the card.  If you make a successful hit you'll get to cover that number with a Damage cube.  Then the next number is the strength of the monster that rolls must be higher than.  Generally the monster's numbers get smaller as they go from left to right, so as you damage the monster it'll get weaker.

Once all the numbers have been covered with damaged the monster is defeated and you'll gain a treasure card, which will have a weapon on one side and an artifact on the other.  You'll be able to equip the treasure to activate either the weapon or the artifact, but not both.  The weapon will increase your attack strength and the artifact will give you a special ability.  You can also choose to not equip the treasure and save it to trade off to another player at some point that you are both in the same room.  This is useful for getting weapons to the players they are most effective for.  Beware though, some of the treasures are actually traps that will do damage until your team manages to disable them.
Tons of weapons and treasure can be collected.
The number of dice you can roll depends on a few variables.  You'll always get to roll at least one die, but weapons can bump that up to two or even three dice.  Each character has a class symbol and two attack symbols indicating their preferred attack types.  Each weapon also has a class symbol and an attack symbol indicating the preferred class for the weapon and the type of attack the weapon does.  If your character's class matches the weapon's class you'll gain an extra die.  Also, if your character's preferred attack type matches the weapon's attack type you'll also gain an extra die.  If both match you'll roll a total of three dice.

You'll also get a bonus to your rolls depending on the room your'e in.  Each room has one of the six attack types indicated on it.  If that attack type matches either of the symbols on your character card you'll receive a +1 to all attack rolls in that room.

Finally, you may be able to press the attack.  If you complete at least one hit on a monster and the attack type you used matches the monster's weakness, you can attack again without using another action.  This allows you to keep rolling and doing damage to the monster until you can take it out.
You can either equip a weapon or artifact when you collect treasure.  Weapons help you attack better,
artifacts are magical items that help you in other ways.
One last thing can help boost your die rolls and help you take out the monsters.  Throughout the game you can acquire Effect markers.  These are the white cubes and each one can be spent to increase the value of a die by 1 (or decrease a die when you're being attacked by the monsters).  These can be pretty useful in a pinch.  You can get these through character or artifact abilities.

Honestly, figuring out how many dice to roll and all the modifiers can be a bit confusing at times, especially the first few times you're trying to figure it out.  Once you do figure it out though, it's pretty quick to resolve attacks.  New players had to be reminded several times how many dice they could use, what bonuses they got, and when they could press different attacks.  Sometimes you need to make a decision on if it's better to roll one die but be able to press the attack or roll multiple dice but not press the attack.

After you are finished with your three actions it's time for any monsters in your room to attack.  Each monster will get to roll up to three dice to try and do damage to you.  Monsters will roll one die for each undamaged number on their card.  Monsters will do damage to you the same way you damage them, except the numbers on your character card run from top to bottom.  If the bottom number ever gets covered your character dies.  If you die and can't be revived the game is over and you lose.
You apply damage from top to bottom, so some characters actually
get stronger as they receive more damage!
If your entire party manages to survive until the Monstrous Terror Awakens card is revealed you've done a great job, but now that job just got exponentially harder.  When the Monstrous Terror Awakens card comes out you'll reveal the 12th room and the boss monster.  Each Monstrous Terror has a ton of hit points and special rules for how it can be attacked.  They each also have a weakness (that let's you press the attack), and a strength (they're invulnerable to that type of attack).  Each Monstrous Terror also has a wicked mean attack, but they'll only attack if there aren't any other monsters in the room with them.

Once the Monstrous Terror is revealed, after each player's turn it will advance 1 room.  It'll also take with it any monsters that weren't defeated in it's room.  These monsters protect the Monstrous Terror, so you have to keep defeating those minor monsters before you can attack the Monstrous Terror.  Luckily, the Monstrous Terror's only goal is to escape the dungeon, so it'll ignore you and won't attack, unless there are no other monsters in the room with it.  If it does escape the game ends and you lose.  So, essentially, once the Monstrous Terror is revealed you have 12 turns to defeat it before the game ends.
Here comes the Monstrous Terror!  Whiptail in this game.
For the most part the rules are pretty good.  They do include four examples of different types of attacks and combinations of weapons and attack types.  The rules could use a little more clarification on pressing attacks though.  It's also not clear if the 12th room gets populated with monsters in addition to the Monstrous Terror or not.  There are also a few other outside cases that aren't clarified in the rules, especially with the details of some special abilities or Monstrous Terror behavior.  The BGG forums are starting to answer some of these questions and I'm sure there'll be an official FAQ released at some point, but for now you'll have to make some assumptions if those cases come up.  Be sure to check BGG for the latest answers before you play (or have it handy during play in case any questions come up).

UPDATE: There is one major issue with the rules that resulted in us playing incorrectly when battling the Monstrous Terror.  In  the section of the rules that describes the Monstrous Terror behavior it states that only Monsters move with the Monstrous Terror, but another section of the rules it mentions that Heroes move, too.  If you don't notice this second section and rely only on the first you'll have to spend a Move action every turn to catch up with the Monstrous Terror.  This has a greater effect on lower player count games where you'll have to move to catch up more often.  It'll also help out in higher player count games because chances are the Monstrous Terror will catch up to players faster, and then carry them with it as it moves before their turn comes up.  This will likely give teams 5-10 additional actions that can be used to attack or boost the team during this final phase.

Highlight of the conflicting rules.  They're on two separate pages, too.
Also note that #2 says to not populate any of the revealed rooms, 
but #1 shows Room 12 populated with a Monster.
Score: 6/10 x2 (Downgraded from a 7)

Playing the game is pretty straightforward.  Turns are pretty quick and there aren't a whole lot of difficult decisions.  Most of the game hinges on dice rolling, so if the dice gods are with you you'll fare better.  There are quite a few things that can adjust the values needed to be successful, but there's very little to be done to actually modify the dice.  The Effect markers can be spent to adjust dice, but that's about it.  The decisions in the game come from figuring out where your attacks or abilities will be most likely to help most.

Combat in Wakening Lair is arguably the most fun element of the game.  It's a blast to roll the dice and take out the monsters.  However, each character has a special ability that really determines their role in the team.  So your Bard should really spend actions healing the team and passing out Effect markers.  Other characters have other abilities that are often more useful to the team than actually fighting.  For example, the Witch can move monsters to different rooms (useful for moving monsters behind the rest of the party so they don't protect the Monstrous Terror) and the Wizard can move other characters to different rooms (useful for bringing the strong fighters to the battle).  This is great for a cooperative game, and keeps the feel of an RPG where each character has abilities that help the team as a whole, but the problem is these other abilities don't feel as fun as fighting the monsters.  So, for a game that's supposed to be a gateway game to introduce new players to the dungeon crawler genre, it unfortunately presents players with the difficult choice between having fun or helping the team.
Each character has a special ability that can help the team out.
In addition, this game is hard.  I mean really hard.  Especially if the dice rolls aren't helpful, you're going to have a tough time.  Once the Monstrous Terror is revealed you only have 12 turns to defeat it.  That's not much time, considering you usually have to spend at least one action to move and probably have a few monsters to defeat , so you'll get at most two attacks.  And if you don't have a weapon that both gives you extra dice and let's you press the attack, your two attack actions will run out quickly.  Since each Monstrous Terror has between 18 and 34 damage spaces this means your attacks have to be nearly perfect.  Expect to die pretty often in this game.  I haven't won yet, although we came pretty close in a 6 player game we had - if we had one more turn we probably would have defeated the Monstrous Terror.

UPDATE: See my notes above about the rule we got wrong.  The Heroes should actually move along with the Monstrous Terror and Monsters, so you don't have to spend an action moving to catch up.  This will give you anywhere from about 5-10 additional actions as a team to attack or boost the team.  This should help make the game a bit easier, especially for higher player count games where your total damage as a team is much higher (you still have the same number of monsters to fight overall regardless of player count).
Two turns before Whiptail escapes and he's still pretty strong.
We should have had about 4 extra actions at this point, 
so he wouldn't have been quite this strong.
With such a high level of difficulty you'd think there's be ways to scale it for an easier, or even harder, game.  However there are no options for adjusting difficulty in the rules.  You could house-rule a few things to make the game a bit easier, like allowing you to press an attack if the monster's weakness matches either the weapon you use or your two character preferred attacks, maybe give all players a couple of Effect markers at the start of the game, only allow one monster per room to attack after your turn, have the Monstrous Terror advance only if he doesn't attack, or discard some monsters at the beginning of the game so fewer come out before the Monstrous Terror awakens (although this means fewer opportunities to gain treasures).  But none of these options are in the rulebook (and I haven't tried them, so I don't know what they'll do to the balance).

Player count is another issue with the game.  I don't feel that the game scales well for different player counts.  The game is a lot easier with more players because you get more special abilities, your team can take more total damage, and as a team you have more options for specializing in attacks.  With only two or three characters you are very restricted and vulnerable.  Of course, since the game is fully cooperative with no hidden information, there's no reason each player can't play multiple characters, but there's no in-game scaling for player count.  Likewise, the box says it plays 2-6, but there's no reason you can't play the game solo if you want it to be super punishing or don't mind handling multiple characters.  The biggest down side to playing with a full complement of players is that you'll only get two chances to fight the Monstrous Terror when it awakens.  You feel pretty helpless for most of that end game, and that should be the most exciting time of the game.
Whiptail left a path of defeated heroes in its wake.
Score: 6/10 x3 (Upgraded from a 5)

I think the difficulty is the biggest problem with a game that is geared at families and newcomers.  Without a way to scale the difficulty, and the standard difficulty being so punishing (less so if you use the correct rule about Heroes moving with the Monstrous Terror, at least for higher player count games), it's going to be a hard sell to get someone to play a second time.  For me the game relies too much on luck - either lucky dice rolls, or lucking out and finding just the right treasure.  There aren't enough opportunities to feel like you are in control of the situation.  The combination of a feeling of helplessness in an onslaught of monsters plus a choice between helping the team or having fun fighting monsters makes me feel that the game won't get much replay among casual players.

I played with my game group and even though we came close to winning I don't think I can get them to play again.  A couple said possibly, but most of them felt the game was too random.  They like games that are difficult and punishing, but only when they can see that there are various strategies to work with.  They're fine with getting stomped on as long as they can sit back after and say "We should have done this..." or "Next time let's try that...".  With Wakening Lair the extent of the strategy discussion was whether it would have been useful to have everyone storm toward room 11 and wait for the Monstrous Terror there instead of spending a lot of time fighting monsters and then being too far from the Monstrous Terror to do much for the first three turns after it was revealed.  I think the game is too random and doesn't offer enough opportunities for real strategic decisions to appeal to more experienced gamers.
Fighting monsters is fun, but gets repetitive when there aren't too many other fun options.
At best I think the game will be a casual filler, but it doesn't play quite fast enough for that.  The box says 30-40 minutes, but the games I've played have taken 45 minutes (a two-player game where we died before the Monstrous Terror was revealed) to about 80 minutes (a six-player game where we almost won, but couldn't defeat the Monstrous Terror before it escaped [we probably would have won with the correct rule]).  I feel there are other games that make better fillers, although they don't really scratch that dungeon crawler itch.

Score: 6/10 x1 (Upgraded from a 5)

General Fun:
Wakening Lair is fun to play, when you're getting decent die rolls or have a large enough team that really embraces their characters abilities.  I really do like the combat mechanic and how the strength of monsters and characters changes as they take damage.  There are even a few characters that get stronger as they take damage (the barbarian, witch, and necromancer), which is really fun and clever.  That really makes the decision to heal those characters tough - if you heal them they're more likely to get hurt again, but if you don't and they do get hurt they're closer to perishing.

However, in the end, the lack of opportunities to mitigate bad luck leave you feeling helpless and at the mercy of the dice gods just a bit too much.  The actual gameplay is fun, but the end result felt somewhat unsatisfying.  You do get those "Woo hoo!" moments when the dice go your way, but there are also plenty of "Ugh." moments when you just can't do anything useful.  Those "Woo hoo!" moments don't happen quite enough to outweigh the "Ughs".
These baddies are tough.  And if you happen to specialize in their weakness, you'll be nearly worthless in a fight.
Score: 6/10 x2

Overall Value:
The MSRP for Wakening Lair is $35, which seems about right for the style and target audience for this game.  The game components are awesome, and of a quality not often seen at this price range for a game of this size, too.  So for what you physically get, $35 is a pretty good value.  However I feel the gameplay falls short of what I've personally come to expect from Rather Dashing Games, so I can't call this a great value for the money.  I think for $35 you can find better games.  However, if this does sound like a game you'd like to try, you definitely won't be disappointed with what you get in the box (and don't forget the awesome box itself).
Again, this box and insert is awesome and the component quality is excellent.
Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Overall I was a bit disappointed with Wakening Lair.  It's not a particularly bad game, but it's not great either.  If you're OK with a game that relies so heavily on luck you might enjoy the game more.  I did enjoy the combat mechanic, although I wish there were more opportunities to manipulate the dice after they were rolled.  I also loved the theme, components, and artwork everywhere except the box cover and room cards.

A ton of attention was given to the characters and the flavor throughout the game.  Each character has a bit of backstory and explanation of their abilities on the inside cover of the box.  The character names are very thematic and sometimes humorous (the male bard is named Lars for all you Metallica fans, and the female necromancer is named LaVeau, presumably after the Louisiana Voodoo queen).  Each of the Monstrous Terrors also has a bit of a story, too.  The characters and Monstrous Terrors are my favorite part of the game.  They really add a lot of flavor to the world you're playing in.
I love the flavor in the paragraphs that describe the character abilities.
For all it's great points though, it just falls short.  As someone from my game group said, it felt unfinished.  He said if it was a prototype that I had brought to play he'd think it has potential, but still needs some refinements and balancing.  For a published game to feel that way though is disappointing.  Wakening Lair is almost there, but it feels like it should have spent a bit more time in the development phase.  It's a shame that the rules about Heroes moving with the Monstrous Terror are contradictory and unclear since that would likely have resulted in a win vs Whiptail.  This is just another example of the game feeling rushed to market and not fully playtested though.
This game really wants to be great, and is so close, but ultimately it falls short.
I think something that may have made the game a bit more interesting, and give you more of a sense of control, would be to have the defeated monsters provide Gold or Magical Items instead of Weapons or Magical Items.  Still give players a choice of whether to use the treasure for the artifact or gold, but then let the gold be spent to acquire specific weapons.  Different weapons could have different costs, and weapons could only be purchased if your hero was at the dungeon entrance at the beginning or end of your turn.  That way you can choose the weapons that are best for you, but at a cost.  Yes, this would take more components so you'd have separate weapon and treasure cards, but I think it would have improved the feel of control in the game a lot, without adding a ton of mechanical overhead.  Like I said, the game is almost good, but feels like a few tweaks could have made it a lot better.

As I said in the introduction, I've loved the other games I've played from Rather Dashing Games, but unfortunately for me, Wakening Lair doesn't quite measure up.  If you love dice chucking dungeon crawlers you may get more mileage out of this than I will.  You definitely won't be disappointed with the physical aspects of the game, so if the gameplay sounds like something you'd enjoy, be sure to check out Wakening Lair over on the Rather Dashing Games website.

I do plan on trying to get this to the table again with the correct rule about moving with the Monstrous Terror.  If that playthrough changes any of my opinions I'll be sure to make another update.

Overall Score: 63/100 (Upgraded from a 61)

Want another opinion?  Wakening Lair was also reviewed by Benjamin on the Everything Board Games Network!  Check out his review here!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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