PAX Unplugged 2022: The Adaptations

I don’t have anything good to put in this opening paragraph. Maybe I should just talk about how good the food is in Philadelphia? It’s really tasty. Reading Terminal is delicious, even if PAX Unplugged does pack it to the brim. Even if it can take 40 minutes for someone to get you an egg and cheese on a roll.

Anyway, enough about sandwiches. Let’s talk about board games. Today I’ll be covering the board games at the show that are either adapted from, or licensed from video games. It’s an arbitrary category, but one with a fair number of entries. Also, interestingly enough, all of them are based off games I’ve played.

Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels

I want to open this part of the writeup by noting that I love Shovel Knight the video game. I did a writeup on it where I said as much. Which makes it a bit hard to say the next bit.

Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels feels like the literal definition of overproduced Kickstarter Ameritrash.

That’s kind of a bold claim, so let me make some observations to back it up. From a mechanical standpoint, the game is incredibly uninspired. The goal is to get the most victory points. You do this by defeating enemies, and clearing out a boss. This, in turn, is done by moving across a board.

You have three actions per turn: moving, attacking, and jumping. Of those actions, only moving doesn’t require you to roll dice. You can’t just move your way to victory, because the board is covered in spikes. You’ll need to roll to jump over those. And if you fail? Fall into a pit, and lose half your victory points. You want to attack something? Roll dice, and hope you get enough successes to do something valuable. Because if you don’t, you might die, and lose half of your victory points.

Should you manage to survive long enough to get to a shop tile, you can spend your victory points to buy a completely random upgrade. It could be +1 dice to all your rolls! It could be the ability to make ranged attacks. It could be a worse item for a slot you already have filled, because it’s a random draw from a deck. Upgrades are frequently utterly worthless and get thrown away immediately.

Of course, dying doesn’t knock you out of the game. You’ll get to replace your wonderfully crafted miniature at the start of the next round on the far side of the board. And that’s good, because aside from the aforementioned falling into pits by missing a jump, or just taking enough damage to die, you can also get pushed back into pits by enemies if they damage you.

Now, this can’t happen during the boss fight. Instead, if you get knocked off the board during a boss fight, your character goes prone, and has to spend an action to get back up. If you get unlucky, the boss can do this to you before you even get to take a turn. And yes, someone in my demo was on the receiving end of this.

These are all the mechanical reasons I have for calling Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels “Ameritrash.” The game is incredibly random with a focus on dice rolls for resolving most meaningful interactions. You have minimal capacity to make meaningful choices around upgrading or building your character.

This game was Kickstarted. It has 44 miniatures. And they are very nice minis! I like these characters so much from playing the video games, that I was and am still tempted by them because of how much fun they would be to paint. But those minis are also probably a large portion of why this game costs $125. It has a 58 page rulebook, apparently? It has custom dice, and tokens, and lots of playable characters.

My personal verdict: cut down on the minis and include a fun game. Or even keep the minis and include a fun game! Or, scratch that, screw the game, just let me buy the minis from you directly. Because they’re the best part about what I played here.

SolForge Fusion

Continuing a trend of writing things that guarantee I will never end up on a press list for prerelease copies of anything, let’s talk about SolForge Fusion. Like with Dungeon Duels, I really liked SolForge Fusion’s parent game, SolForge. Also like with Dungeon Duels, I really don’t like SolForge Fusion. It’s for a very different set of reasons though, and to explain them, we need to talk about SolForge briefly.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about what SolForge was. You see, SolForge is dead. And unlike many games that I’ve written about in my end of year wrap-ups, SolForge didn’t really do anything to deserve to die. It just didn’t make enough money for the company to continue supporting it. Which honestly kind of sucks, because SolForge was one of the best digital CCG’s to exist.

The key word in that sentence, and the root of a lot of problems we’re going to be talking about, is “digital.” SolForge’s key mechanic was digital-only, and it worked like this: whenever you play a card, an upgraded version of the card is added to your discarded cards. When you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle your discarded cards back into a new deck, and continue the game, now with some of your more powerful cards. It also had a reliance on triggered effects. Also damage and buffs on creatures didn’t wear off between turns.

All of these were good and interesting designs that worked well digitally. The computer could manage resolving triggered effects, tracking stats, and upgrading your cards. Because all of these were handled by the computer, games were quick, fun, and could allow for ridiculous numbers and scaling.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this.

Works great with a single digitally managed card. Works less great when it’s 3 physical cards that have to be swapped out.

You see, all of these mechanics technically could work in a paper card game. Each paper deck would need to have three times the cards, forcing you to keep track of which ones you played. And because damage and buffs don’t wear off, you’d have to have a billion tokens for keeping track of damage. And you’d need to manually track all triggered effects, and also manually resolve the full combat step for the board.

This is all technically possible in the same way that it is technically possible eat an entire card board box. You can do it, but I don’t know why you would, and it probably wouldn’t be a good time.

All of this is to say that SolForge Fusion is effectively a port of the aforementioned mechanics to tabletop. It’s not a straight port by any means, with many cards being heavily changed around, and the numbers having been rescaled a fair amount. But it’s still a port!

Anyway, as if this wasn’t funny enough, two days ago I got this in an email:

So yeah. They’re planning to make a digital version of a physical card game based off the mechanics off a digital game that was shut down for ultimately just… not really making enough money.

It would be cool if this went well, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. And again, the digital version doesn’t exist yet. Until it exists, SolForge Fusion requires playing a set of decent mechanics that are fundamentally flawed in meat-space.

Storybook Brawl Unnamed Deckbuilder

I’ve debated whether to put Storybook Brawl’s unnamed deckbuilder here with the other video game adaptations, or with a later page on games I played in the Unpub hall. Ultimately I decided to place it here.

I’ve written about Storybook Brawl before, but you don’t need to read that writeup now. Unlike the other games on this list, this board game is its own game. It’s also in the rawest state, if the fact that it doesn’t even have a real name wasn’t enough of indicator.

Unlike Storybook Brawl, instead of building a set of characters that you play out onto a single large map, it’s much closer to a deck builder with simultaneous play competitive elements. And while it maintains some mechanics (such as the idea of tripling, and playing a single spell per turn), this unnamed deckbuilder mostly puts its own twists on the video game’s mechanics.

I wouldn’t say that I love this as-of-yet-unnamed game. But given that it’s still an alpha, there’s both time to improve and tweak things, and also to refine the game as a whole. Despite its flaws, Storybook Brawl’s unnamed deckbuilder is probably the most interesting of the three games on this list, despite not being a full game yet.

So in summary…

What have we learned today? Well, mostly that Panda Cult and Stone Blade Entertainment are incredibly unlikely to send me review copies for any reason whatsoever in the future. And the same is probably true for Storybook Brawl, if for no other reason than the fact that their parent company lost $16 billion dollars.

On a less sarcastic note, I think the main takeaway should be that if you’re going to adapt anything, it’s probably a better idea to try to work with the strengths of the target format than to just try to port things straight across.

More PAX Unplugged writeups in the week(s) to come! And in the meantime, why not follow us on Twitter, assuming it hasn’t burnt to the ground yet.