Saturday, May 31, 2014


Unplugged Dilintia: Key to the Kingdom

When I was a kid, there was a movie I taped off of the TV called Flight of Dragons.  It was a wonderful fantasy romp about a man from the 20th century who gets caught up in a magical medieval world filled with wizards and dragons.  The movie as a whole really struck a chord with me, but there was an early scene in particular where the man is demonstrating a board game of his own invention to a potential investor.  I remember watching them rolling dice and talking about ice caverns and dragon breath and being sorely jealous.  I've always been fond of board games, and the one they were playing sounded so rich and interesting.  For years afterward, I longed to find a game similar to the one they described.  And I think I found it in Key to the Kingdom.

Key to the Kingdom is sort of this perfect little box of fun.  It's a fantasy adventure board game that's completely appropriate for 8-year-olds, yet the setting it creates still has its hooks in me all these years later.

As fantasy board games go, setup is refreshingly quick.  You shuffle one deck of monster cards and one deck of treasure cards, then give each player eight "equipment" cards, each one representing an item that will help them cross the game's many obstacles.  There aren't a million pieces that need to be arranged or dozens of decks of cards that need to be sorted out as you see in many games that attempt to be D&D Lite; you open the box, and you're playing in under a minute.  Seems like a small thing to get excited about, but so many games in this genre get so bogged down in their setup.  It amazes me how much game they get out of an idea with so few pieces.

Gameplay is also very simple.  You roll and move, deciding your own way through the game's winding and branching paths.  As you adventure, you'll frequently find your path blocked by obstacles, and you refer to the "Hazard Handbook" to see how to cross them.  These little challenges often require you to be carrying the right piece or pieces of equipment -- things like food, a sword, a grappling hook, a shield, and so on -- and do something special with the die, like roll an even number or cross a part of the path without landing on a hazard.  Succeeding will allow you to continue on your path, and failure carries any number of interesting consequences -- getting stuck for a bit, losing a piece of equipment, or being forced down an alternate path.  Crossing obstacles is mostly a matter of luck, but savvy players will start to catch on to which paths have the best odds and plan their adventures accordingly.

Your ultimate goal is to reach the six "Key Locations", where the game's six treasures are kept.  You draw a monster card and, much like the fixed obstacles on the gameboard, you must have the right equipment and roll the right numbers to defeat it.  Beating a monster wins you a treasure card, one of which is the Key to the Kingdom.  If you can get the Key and one other treasure and return to the start space, you win.

It's great.  It is so fun.  It's a game that's filled with monsters and dungeons and luck and turnabouts.  The world it takes place in is cool and vividly illustrated.  It's a game that a teenage nerd can play on an even footing with his six-year-old sister to their mutual satisfaction.

The game also sports a modest gimmick in the way the gameboard folds.  The board is put together in two pieces, each folded in half on a hinge like the doors of a cupboard.  There's a hole in the middle of each side -- a "Magic Whirlpool" -- and stepping into the holes allows you to open that half of the gameboard outward, revealing new territories to explore inside and subtly altering the connections between different paths on the board.  It's a cute trick, but especially because of how it's used in the game.  Board games for kids tend to get kind of hung up on their eye-catching gimmicks.  While triggering a whirlpool is kind of a major game event, it doesn't detract from the more sort of normal adventuring elements.

In the end, this is a kids game.  Adults will see through to the randomness of it all and eventually tire of obstacles that require very little real strategy.  But it's a class act in general, a perfect family game for kids who are too young for D&D.  I'd call it a keeper.


Tuesday, May 06, 2014


Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?!!

It's never easy to translate something from one medium to another.  Do you just assume that people will be familiar with the original work going in?  How do you reintroduce characters and story elements in a way that makes newcomers feel welcome without leaving fans of the original feeling like you're just rehashing things that they already know?

I bought the game largely because it had some good hype behind it and an interesting pedigree; Wayforward has made a respectable name for themselves, and taking your cues from the black sheep of the Zelda franchise is a pretty ballsy move.  I'd seen one or two episodes of the show -- enough to know that I should expect some oddball humor, but not enough to really understand the characters and mythos.  And yeah, the game was fine enough in its own way, but I found myself not really... getting it.  Important characters would come into the story, and I'd have a hard time keeping them all straight, and the game was actually more difficult to figure out as a result.  Like... what's this thing I just got?  Who am I supposed to give it to again?  Why is that important?  My overall feeling was that I was being left out of the joke.

When I say that the biggest problem with Hey Ice King! is that it leaves non-fans out in the cold, it's with the knowledge that it was probably the best option they could have gone with.  The primary point of a tie-in game is arguably to give the established fans a chance to interact with the fictional world that they've come to know and love through the show/movie/book/whatever.  I think it's better to alienate the non-fans than to dumb things down and aggravate the fans.

Because once I familiarized myself a bit with some binge-watching on Netflix... MAN.

It's not exactly a masterpiece or anything, but you can tell a lot of love went into it.  It reminds me of the games in Retro Game Challenge -- it's kind of short and kind of simplistic, but it gives you the look, the sound, and the tropes of classic games of yesteryear.  You get the feel of a classic adventure game without a lot of the cheap puzzles, obscure item fetches, and annoying mazes that made Nintendo Power such a valuable resource back in the day.  Sure, there's some backtracking, but it's largely painless; the game world is pretty small, and when you are forced to fight through a side-scrolling level to get from one part of Ooo to another, it's usually fairly brief.

It's just this small, perfect little game.  Just challenging enough to keep you engaged, just short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome, and filled with the personality that fans expect.

I've played both the DS and 3DS versions, and I have to say the 3DS version is the one to get, hands-down.  Not only does the 3DS version have more audio and visual assets, but it's pretty clear that the levels were designed with the 3DS's finer resolution in mind.  Not to say that the DS version is unplayable -- I've played through both the regular and New Game + modes -- but there are one or two platforming bits that are much easier when more of the level fits on the screen.  And I gotta say, the 3D effects are really eye-catching.  I dunno; I just think there's something cooler about using stereoscopic effects on sprites and background elements than on proper 3D models and worlds.

As of this writing, the 3DS version is a $20 download.  Fans will get their money's worth.


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