Board Game Gumbo: Inside Look at Legends of Sleepy Hollow

Board Game Gumbo: Inside Look at Legends of Sleepy Hollow

 

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.

I love dungeon crawls that have a good sense of wonder and exploration. Board games that give me a way to buff my characters without feeling like a pre-programmed linear progression will shoot to the top of my playlist.

But sometimes, I look at a game box depicting another variation of high elves, dwarves, zombies, and humans battling it out and wonder to myself if there are any other themes out there. A frequent comment made by board gamers is the lamentation that adventure games all revolve around a select few tropes: horror/zombies and traditional fantasy. Can a traditional "dungeon" dive game be made with a fresh and unique theme?

To my surprise, I saw recently that Dice Hate Me Games (best known to me for New Bedford and Bottom of the 9th) planned to Kickstart a new adventure game called Legends of Sleepy Hollow. Legends is based on Washington Irving’s famous short story about Ichabod Crane’s fateful journey through rural New York that may or may not have ended with a fateful meeting with The Headless Horseman. It is designed by Ben Pinchbeck and Matt Riddle, the duo that just brought you Wasteland Express Delivery Service.

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Dice Hate Me Games was kind enough to send me a prototype copy of the game to try out. The game is geared for 1-4 adventurers, and each chapter (scenario) is supposed to take about thirty minutes to two hours to play.

I could go into more detail, but Eric Buscemi from The Card Board Hoard did a great job in breaking down the components, rules, and game play here.

Instead, I will focus on the multiple plays I have had in the game, and try to answer more about what I see as the scope of the game.

That’s right….it is spoiler alert time.

If you do not want to know how Chapter One ends, then DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.

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Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was, to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvelous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses...

So what is Legends of Sleepy Hollow? Well, I only have the first chapter under my belt, so I cannot give you the overview you will get from exploring all eight chapters in the story. However, the Kickstarter page and Dice Hate Me’s comments on the page suggest a premise.

We are four heroes in early Dutch American times investigating what happened to Ichabod Crane just days after his disappearance. I guess we are sort of like an American Revolutionary time period version of the X-Files, but with four unique characters instead of just Scully and Mulder.

a. What’s inside the box.

When I opened the box, I found four player boards each with four card board standees representing the characters. (These will be gorgeous plastic miniatures in the Kickstarter and retail copies.)

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These are familiar types, but with fresh and unique themes. The first is the revolutionary war hero, Matthias Geroux, who comes equipped with a flintlock pistol, bad attitude, and good targeting.

He starts with six health, about average in this party, but his four action tokens means he will likely be using his best skills many times during the game.

Next is Elijah Kappel, the minister, who seems to be more than your typical cleric. He has more health then Matthias, but more actions to refresh, too. At least in Chapter One, he will be responsible for keeping the party alive.

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I won’t be counting on him to do a lot of individual damage with his wooden staff, but he has a few tricks up his sleeve with his skills that will spread some damage around and heal the party at the same time.

We always need a ranged weapon master with good movement, and Emily Van Winkle fits the bill, as she is not only gorgeously drawn, but dangerous with a bow. Everyone loves playing her special skills.

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Not only can she finish off any baddie with her hunter’s shot of two damage and two range, but she has Power Shot and Kill Shot -- appropriately named, because both can and will pull your boudin out of the fire many times during the game. She has the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time just when the party needs to finish off a Schrikroot or Gobkin that is giving them trouble.

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And finally, my favorite character, the mysterious undertaker, Jeremiah Pincke, with his heavy cloak, sharp spade, and sturdy health. He’s not just handy preparing a family funeral, he’s handy at sending the underworld more business. His base health is at the top of the party’s chart, he’s got a cloak to protect him from most damage from Chapter One foes, and he has a spade that he can use with wild abandon (Wild Smash, 1 Die times 3 damage) or with sharp precision (Practiced Smash, more dice and more base damage).

There’s also an extra black standee base in the bag, with no matching standee. Whatever could that be for?

Perhaps Dice Hate Me sent me an extra base in case I lost one during gameplay? Hmm….

b. What’s next?

With the four adventures geared up and ready to go, someone will read an introduction to the party that provides the mission. Find some mysterious journals in the abandoned school house, and see what happens. Sounds easy enough…

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The reality is that the mission was tougher than it looks. The party faces a board chock full of Schrikroots, who do one die of damage and have five health, and a few Gobkins mixed in, too. The Gobkins are especially strong, as they carry double the health and always do damage (well, except to Jeremiah with his cloak, of course.) The party has to manage multiple tasks -- exploring, taking out bad guys, and staying healthy (and fearless).

While the party explores the schoolhouse, and interacts with the elements within, searching every nook and cranny for the journals, events will happen triggered by the searching. The exploration is very reminiscent of those 1990s computer based graphic adventure games, the ones that Roberta Williams and others made famous. The party walks into a mysterious room, and starts searching in every drawer or old stove to find new equipment, necessary pieces of the puzzle or even a surprise. Since this is cardboard analog, not digital, the designers took a shortcut by spreading “pieces of paper” around the school house (nice thematic touch, by the way), but you get the same pop-and-surprise feeling that we used to get with those digital classics.

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And in a nice touch, at least in chapter one, players will feel like the exploration is needed. They will quickly learn that some are bad, but most are helpful and really assist in arming the party for the coming battles. I much rather exploring with a purpose, rather than random card events that make you feel like you have less control over your destiny.

c. Getting closer…

By now, the party has uncovered a few new weapons, and have dispatched lots of supernatural creatures. Hopefully, the two parts of the journals have been recovered, and the party has moved closer to the desk in the back of the school house. Decisions, decisions. Does the party continue searching to find more gear, risking incapacitation or fear sending the party racing from the school house before the job is complete? Or end the scenario successfully?

It is a trick question, because either way, the scenario is not over. Once the party interacts with the desk, the final envelope is revealed. Inside, we find…

Okay, let’s take a break to review. You’ve gone this far, and all I have spoiled is the information that you can really find if you look hard enough at Dice Hate Me’s game information. Sure, I’ve put it together with pictures and prose, but do you really want to know what is in the envelope?

Okay, but I warned you….

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d. The final battle.

Direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air....

The last envelope introduces one of the major characters of Irving’s story, Abraham Van Brunt -- who we know as Brom Bones. Remember that extra standee base we discovered in the first envelope? It was not an “extra”, it was foreshadowing for the Bones appearance!

Recall that Brom Bones was the rival of Crane for Katrina Van Tassel’s affections. Brom is back, and he’s a bit stronger and meaner than he was a few days ago. And he’s out to stop the party from exploring the story any further.

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Brom is tough, with a health of 12 points, and fights like the dickens, with a range of two and two attack dice. If he is lucky enough to have spawned a few schrikroots and gobkins nearby, surrounding the party near the desk, things can really get dicey if the party has not geared up or gotten healthy. Having a lot of fear at this time could prove disastrous, so the party has to work together in the initial stages.

If the party is lucky enough to dispatch Brom before he and the extra-spawns of schrikroots that converge on the school house finish the party off, then there is a brief epilogue that clears the school house and sends the party on its way for the next clues in the big mystery.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I have played the opening chapter five times now, and was surprised by the repeatability just within the first chapter. Because of the way different players will play each character, the AI of the Schrikroots and Gobkins will create different battle scenarios. The random distribution of the clues also means that each game plays differently, and this is due to the unusual set up of the school house. It is not just one large box with equal sides and spaces. Instead, there are nooks and crannies, funny angles for Emily to take advantage, small squeezed in corridors for the tank to use as a choke point, and lots of different sizes and paths for the foes to take.

But, the one of the best parts of the game was discovering that not only do the characters get useful items (some that are temporary, of course) during the adventure, but that at the end, there is an opportunity to level up your character. It is not your typical D&D type leveling, with added numbers on a chart. Instead, each player chooses thematic upgrades (better weapons, better defense or better skill, all individually tied to the character’s persona).

And the upgrades come with hard choices that serve to individualize each character. We only see the first level upgrades, but there is a hint on the Kickstarter pages and in the upgrades that you do not have to play them as standard archetypes if you don’t want.

 

The last group that I played with on Sunday was my gamer’s gamer group. We had some struggles, but ultimately were successful despite our very poor rolling.

I watched as they opened up the last envelope, knowing that upgrading would not really happen, because the game has not yet been produced and I only had the first chapter to test.

To my pleasant surprise, there was a lot of oohs and ahs as they pored over the new abilities. There was a lot of talk and debate as to which skills and weapons and clothing to choose (diabolically, the designers only let you choose one skill for now, and it replaces a former skill.) We spent a good twenty or thirty minutes talking about how the player characters would develop.

Dice Hate Me Games and the designers Pinchback and Riddle have successfully created an early American themed dungeon dive crawl, just dripping with theme throughout the game.  The opening chapter promises a rich storyline, with engaging character development, that shines through even in the limited window we've seen so far.

Kudos to the team for crafting a well-designed, smooth engine to run the monsters and battles and reveals, that is well hidden behind a spooky and supernatural-infused theme. And last, but certainly not least, having a Zombicide style upgrade system in a fresh, literary setting is a big bonus for me. I cannot wait to see where Jeremiah and his crew will take us next December.

Do yourself a favor and check out the Kickstarter page for Legends of Sleepy Hollow. Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!!

-- BJ

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