Thursday, February 27, 2020

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Review of Dawn: Rise of the Occulites by Eagle-Gryphon Games

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Review of Dawn: Rise of the Occulites by Eagle-Gryphon Games
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Title: Dawn: Rise of the Occulites (with three tribe expansions - Floris, Ignis, Nimbus)
Designed by: Ben Boersma
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
Year Published: 2014
MSRP: $275 painted, $175 unpainted
2-4p | 60 min | 10+

Deep in the Australian Outback a tiny new species has been discovered by a young boy named Darwin.  These Occulites aren't of Earth, and they're very primitive.  However, Darwin discovers that they are intelligent and have begun to form tribes.  Dawn: Rise of the Occulites is the first in a series of games that follows these minute creatures as they develop a civilization, from the beginnings of the earliest tribes to their technological future.  As of this writing, this is the only published game from the series.  A second title was on Kickstarter in 2018 but was unsuccessful in its funding attempt.

Dawn: Rise of the Occulites is a 2-4 player skirmish game that comes with a bunch of different scenarios.  Most of the scenarios are for two players, but a handful are for more.  The stories in each scenario range from competitive combat, to area control, and even to cooperative adventures.  Each scenario ranges in length, with most being about 60 minutes.  The first scenario is a multiplayer tutorial that teaches the core mechanics, but leaves out a ton of features.  As you learn more about the game you can progress through the scenarios, adding complexity.

Blooms are the game's highlights and features.  Elements that are exceptional.
  • Incredible components!
  • Innovative use of cards for multiple different uses.  
  • Probably the best dice based combat system I've ever played.
Buds are interesting parts of the game I would like to explore more. 
  • A wealth of scenarios can be played individually or as part of a campaign.  When played as part of a campaign, your tribe improves in its stats over the course of multiple games.
  • The initial scenarios are just the basic mechanics, but as you play more a ton of features get added, resulting in a very deep, strategically complex skirmish game.
  • The backstory is very deep and the scenarios reveal more of this rich, imaginative world as you play more.  
Thorns are a game's shortcomings and any issues I feel are noteworthy.
  • Very high price tag.
  • Very unique theme paired with the combat genre results in a very niche audience.
  • The tutorial scenario is too long and doesn't introduce the game in as positive a manner as it should.
Final Thoughts:
Wow, this is a gorgeous game.  The cards, tiles, board, tokens, and all the other bits are phenomenal.  The game board is gigantic!  The artwork is fun and interesting, though a bit bizarre and very stylized.  Some may like it, others may hate it.  Even the storage is incredible, as I've found that all Eagle-Gryphon games have.  However, the miniatures are the most amazing component.  Whether you get the pre-painted minis or unpainted, the detail is incredible, and I guarantee you won't find another miniatures game with characters quite like the Occulites and Luftles.

I really like almost everything about the game.  The depth to the more complex scenarios is something to look forward to and helps repeated plays remain interesting for a very long time.  I love the multi-use cards.  Each card represents a selection of possible uses, including activating figures, determining attack dice, defense dice, special abilities, and even combat boosts.  Cards are used for one of these features, making you really choose which card to play and when.

The innovative dice combat system is a fresh way to use dice in combat without feeling at the complete whim of the dice.  I think out of all dice based combat systems I've played, this is my favorite.  Playing cards determines the number of dice you roll for attacking or defending.  Then each faction's attack or defense strength determines what values on the dice count as a hit or block.  Once the dice are rolled, then a combat chart determines which side loses health.  So if I'm attacking, and my card has an attack value of 5, that means I roll 5 dice.  If my tribe's attack strength is 4 that means every die that is a 4 or less is a hit.  The defense will do the same thing, but using their card's defense value to determine the number of dice to roll and their tribe's defense strength to derminccessful blocks.  So let's say I play a card with an attack value of 5, plus a boost card of 2.  That means I'll roll 7 dice.  4 of those have a value of 4 or less.  The defender plays a defense card of 4, but has a defense strength of 5.  Of the 4 dice rolled, 3 have a value of 5 or less.  That means there was one successful hit.  Consulting the combat resolution chart, that means the defender would lose one health.  Had I rolled 6 hits or the defender had only rolled 2 blocks then the defender would have lost 2 health because my number of hits would have been double the number of blocks.  It sounds complex, but once you've played it a bit it makes sense and adds a lot of depth to the decisions and strategy without feeling like you're a slave to dice results.

This game is very, very close to a Bloom game, however I think there are a few things that hold it back.  

The price tag is going to be a huge turn off for most people.  There are a lot of miniatures games, combat games, and other similar games available at a fraction of the cost.  This game is great for what it is, but I'm not sure if the price is justified for anyone but the most serious gamers interested in this type of game.  That said, I'm not sure there are a whole lot of people that are interested in this type of game.  While the theme, mechanics, and experience all blend together very well, I think the theme is probably a mismatch for the game's intended audience.  I think most people interested in this type of combat, skirmish, campaign game are either looking for military or Tolkienesque fantasy themes.  The Occulites are interesting, but probably for a more niche audience.

I also wasn't happy with the tutorial scenario.  It's a big hill to climb.  Not so much because of any complexity; the tutorial does a great job of just introducing the core mechanics and other scenarios gradually add more complexity.  However, the tutorial scenario ends up being a very long game.  I played the initial scenario twice with different people and both times it took well over 2 hours.  Part of that was for learning, but that should be expected in a tutorial scenario.  I'd expect the initial scenario to be much faster than the other scenarios, not more than twice as long.  Because of this, I've had a hard time getting this back to the table.  I'm not interested in investing another 2-3 hours playing the tutorial again and those that I did play it with aren't interested in playing again because the tutorial overstayed its welcome.

Overall, Dawn: Rise of the Occulites is an amazingly ambitious game project.  It's apparent in everything about the project that it's a labor of love from designer Ben Boersma and his partners at Eagle-Gryphon Games.  Unfortunately the great mechanics, deep lore, and immersive scenarios are held back by a very small target audience and high price tag.  I think if this were re-released and rethemed as generic military or standard fantasy it would be blowing up the Kickstarter hype train.  A more streamlined tutorial that can be played in 30-45 minutes is a necessity, too.  For now though, Dawn: Rise of the Occulites is an underrated gem.  If any of this has piqued your interest, and the price doesn't scare you off, you won't be disappointed in the game.  It won't be leaving my collection, even though I can't get it to the table as often as I'd like.

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Rating:
Bud!  This game definitely has some
great moments.  It's good for several plays
and should appeal to most gamers, especially
if you enjoy other games like this.


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GJJ Games 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 were provided by a publisher or designer for my honest feedback and evaluation.  I make every attempt to be both honest and constructively critical in my reviews, and they are all my opinions.  There are four types of reviews on GJJ Games: Full Reviews feature critical reviews based on a rubric and games receive a rating from 0 to 100.  Quick Reviews and Kickstarter Previews are either shorter reviews of published games or detailed preview reviews of crowdfunding games that will receive a rating from 0 to 10 based on my impressions of the game.  Buds, Blooms,and Thorns reviews are shorter reviews of either published or upcoming games that highlight three aspects of a game: Buds are parts of a game I look forward to exploring more, Blooms are outstanding features of a game, and Thorns are shortcomings of a game.  Each BBT review game will receive an overall rating of Thorn, Bud, or Bloom.

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