[Editor’s note: it’s time for another installment of Just in Tima with Nick Sima]
Bring out your DM’s!
Gloomhaven, Descent, Star Wars Imperial Assault, Zombicide… What do all of these games have in common? They’re board game versions of a tabletop RPG that miss the mark slightly. I recently received a copy of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Starter set so that I could run a small campaign with some friends. While I was reading up on how to run the first dungeon they scope out, I noticed a couple of tips for Dungeon Masters that linked up perfectly with a discussion Chris and I had months ago.
The thing that Tabletop RPG board games like Gloomhaven and Zombicide is missing is a Dungeon Master. The thing that Star Wars: Imperial Assault and Descent is missing, oddly enough, is a Dungeon Master. Sure, you’ll say that Descent has a player acting as the bad guys, but that’s not what a Dungeon Master does entirely.
The missed point in Gloomhaven is so egregious that one of our intrepid members fired the game from just one room. A really simple AI works in theory, but sooner or later a room will be encountered where it’s a logistical nightmare just to figure out what enemy does what. Balancing the checkbook has never been fun, doing it for which zombie decides to punt you over the mountains is unbearable. Zombicide masks this by just choosing yes in all columns for where zombies go. It’s ridiculous, but it’s still more tedious than is ‘good’
Let’s go back to Descent and Star Wars: Imperial Assault, they both have a player operating the bad dudes. That’s good, right? Well, not really. The player running the bad guys and the players playing their hero have diametrically opposed goals. I played as the overlord in Descent for a while. I won some long odds fights from good card play and luck. This made me stronger which made it easier for me to win against my friends more and more. I got stronger and stronger and they had less and less fun. Talking with our resident GM/DM Kevin, he shared a similar experience in Star Wars: Imperial Assault. The GM having an opposite goal and benefitting from winning leads to 3-4 players having a bad time more often than not.
So, what do these games need to be better? I think we need a GM that wins when the players win. Chris and I discussed some viable options where the two victory conditions could be met independently such as the GM needing only to save one bad guy from a fight while the heroes running around need to loot all the treasure. It could also just as easily be set up where every time the heroes level up, the GM also gets a couple new toys. Is it more a simulation or activity than a board game at that point? Yeah, probably. Would it be more fun? Hard telling, I’ll need a big named board game developer to make it so I can find out.
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