Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reviewing collectible games from a wargamer's prespective: Dreamblade

Dreamblade is an abstract strategy collectible miniatures game that may be on ground that's a little more familiar to wargamers because dice and probabilities play a significant role in the game action.

The premise is that players are "dream lords" who can summon various creatures and locations to battle over the "dreamscape" for dominance over the dreams of mankind.

The premise isn't really all that important except that it provides an excuse for some really imaginative miniatures and allows pretty much any kind of game mechanic because there's no "reality" to constrict the design.

The basic structure of a game turn is simple. Players each roll a regular six-sided die, with the higher roll winning the initiative and performing subsequent game actions first. The total of the die rolls is the number of "spawn points" each player can use to summon new creatures to the dreamscape. The more powerful creatures cost more, naturally. During his turn each player can perform two actions, in any order, either "shifting" or "striking." During a "shift" a player can move any or all creatures one cell on the dreamscrape. During a "strike" a player can conduct combat in cells that his pieces with enemy pieces. To conduct combat players roll as many special battle dice as the total "power" (a characteristic) of the creatures in the fight. Two of the sides are misses and three of the sides bear the numbers 1, 2 and 3. The sum of those numbers is used to inflict damage on opposing creatures. If the total equals the defending creature's "defense" (a characteristic) then the target creature is disrupted and sent to another empty cell of the attacker's choice. If it equals the "life" (another, often higher, characteristic) then the target creature is destroyed. The final side of the die is a "blade" which, when rolled, often activates some special power listed on an attacking piece.

Naturally, as a collectible game there are numerous variations among the creatures and interesting interactions among them and the rules. Creatures can have special abilities activated through rolling blades, or spending spawn points during the spawn phase, or as they enter play, or as they occupy certain cells, etc.

The game is won by scoring victory points. The most common way to score points is by occupying "key cells" in the center nine squares of the 5 by 5 dreamscape that are worth varying numbers of conquest points and/or destroying enemy creatures for conquest points. Whoever scores the most conquest points win the turn and a victory point. First player to six victory points wins the game. It doesn't matter whether you win a turn by many conquest points or a few, so long as you win the turn. These can also be modified by some pieces.

As one can see, there's quite a bit of scope for strategy in the pure sense. As is always the case in collectible games, the first element of strategy is selecting your warband. Each player is limited to 16 pieces (unless modified by a special ability), so the selection of pieces involves a lot of analysis. It's good practice to include a good balance of spawn points among the selection so that any initiative roll can be used efficiently. If either player rolls a "1" then the spawn phase may be skipped (unless modified by special ability or by a tournament rule that prevents two consecutive skipped spawn phases) so a player is not guaranteed reinforcements, but it can be fatal if an opponent is able to spawn creatures and you cannot because you don't have creatures with the right spawn costs. Pieces come in one of four "aspects" which are basically factions that affect how much creatures cost and how well the work together, as well as provide a general guide for how they behave. For example, Passion creatures often have strong Power and can therefore attack well, but have low defense and life values and are therefore easily disrupted or destroyed.

Once a warband is selected there's a lot of thinking required about what order to summon your forces to the dreamscape, let alone what to do with them once they get there.

All in all it's a very deep and intricate game of the sort that will appeal to many wargamers. The biggest thing standing in the way will likely be the bizarre theme which, of course, bears no resemblance to reality, let alone any kind of history or warfare.

A lesser factor is the collectibility. Dreamblade is a discontinued game, so there is now a finite universe of pieces and boosters and singles can be had for reasonable prices except for a few prized pieces (especially the Scarab Warcharm, which still commands a premium). The competitive tournaments scene has ended, so all play now is basically casual play.

It's a reasonably popular game, according to BGG stats, with respectable numbers of plays for a boardgame, although obviously not the numbers that Hasbro/WOTC was looking for to support the game.

I like the game, but I have to admit that it's of questionable interest for wargamers. Many wargamers have other gaming interests of course, and if their those interests include abstract strategy or collectible games then I'd recommend Dreamblade. If, on the other hand, your interests are strongly geared toward historical or military-themed topics, then Dreamblade will likely be of minimal interest.

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