I kind of wear two different hats here. As tabletop editor, I handle both the TTRPG and Board Game sections of the site. These are sections with a fair amount of overlap, but it’s rare to find a game that perfectly appeals to both parts of the tabletop audience. As both industries have been getting more popular, games like Gloomhaven, Folklore: The Affliction, and Shadows Over Killforth have found success merging the two forms, but in my opinion have all seemed to aim at tabletop gamers with relatively crunchy, complex experiences. Enter The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance, a new cooperative storytelling game from Twogether Studios in collaboration with The McElroy Family and based on the McElroy’s hit TTRPG podcast The Adventure Zone, specifically it’s first arc “Balance.”
Longtime listeners of The Adventure Zone will know that the show is itself a bit different from the many (MANY) shows in the genre. The storyline is more important than the gameplay, and many times Dungeon Master Griffin will forget, change, or outright invent rules for the sake of the story (even spending an entire arc in a homebrew system rather than D&D 5e). Naturally, people were clamoring for something, anything in the physical world that would capture that experience. Thankfully, I think they’ve actually done that.
What’s In The Box
One of the things that Twogether has always done is make really pretty games. Illimat, a game they made in partnership with The Decemberists, is still one of the most visually distinctive games I think I’ve ever played. The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance is no different, and a great example for anyone trying to make a game using an established setting. Everything from the box interior to the cover of the booklet to each individual card is layered with references and in-jokes from the show. The Fantasy Costco Card (hastily renamed Kostco by Garfield The Deals Wizard to keep the Fantasy Lawyers off his back) is a perfect example of this, as the storefront shown is stuffed with items from the show and catchphrases from Garfield himself, who hovers ominously (and shadowed just enough to prevent copyright issues) above the store. The items used in the store all come from the show and are rendered exactly as described, with a little quote at the bottom that helps explain the item to newcomers. The characters from the show also appear, everyone from Taako to Killian to Davenport, and are pretty much how I pictured them. The art is a tad more “realistic” than the comic adaptation, the biggest difference being a non-blue Taako.
How’s It Play?
So like I said above, this game is trying to thread the needle between RPG and board game, which I think it does beautifully. Though “board game” is a strong word for it, as it’s really more of a card game or even a party game than anything. Like in an RPG, each player chooses a class and gets to decide what kind of person their hero is. These follow the standard fantasy array of Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric but also includes a Bard because, well, everybody likes bards. You decide how your hero came to be, how they approach problems, how they deal with others etc. by choosing from set answers or just making something up. Race is the same way letting you pick from a few or making up your own (one of my players was a half minotaur/half centaur and another was a Robot), as is equipment. There’s even a spot to draw your hero.
Everything here is built around storytelling, and as such gameplay is pretty free-form. You choose a setting, a baddie, and a relic that when combined form the basis for that game’s story. The combinations are pretty varied and make for a great deal of variety between games, though some are pretty difficult. The heroes draw a card each turn and overcome whatever obstacle is on it until you get to the bottom of the deck, and have to get through the Relic deck and one of the other decks to win. You “beat” an enemy or obstacle by rolling a d20 and adding your modifiers, as well as taking into account other bonuses as well as help from your fellow party members. It’s luck based so it can be frustrating if you get on a cold streak, but that’s all part of adventuring and the storytelling helps you explain such things.
The beautiful thing about this game is that it breaks the tabletop RPG experience down into its bare essentials. The “how do you want to do this” freedom is here and completely unleashed, with the only constraints put in place in order to help guide you along. It actually feels almost like a party game, with the sense of humor of the McElroys baked right in. The best encounter we had was probably with a Lich’s surly apprentice who tried to took the party on an awkward date and made us dace with him.
You don’t even need to be a fan of the original show to enjoy it, as the only overt references are in the assist cards that show up as you play. These include Tres Horny Boys, Team Sweet Flips, Daveport, etc. They’re great for fans who want to tell a story about how they met Taako (you know, from TV?), but are handled in a way that anyone can understand who the character is easily.
The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance is going to be a game changer for the genre going forward. It might be a little late to show up on “Best of 2020” lists, but I think it’s going to be a must buy going into the new year. It’s not just one of the best licensed games I’ve ever played, it also feels like a truly original way to make RPG storytelling more accessible. It really captures sort of free form chaos that helps differentiate The Adventure Zone from similar shows. It could have been just a simple cash-in party game, but Twogether and the McElroys have put a lot of love and work into making this something special, and I think they succeeded.
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You can order your copy of The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance here, where the game will run you about $40. They’ve also got Voidfish hoodies for sale and previously had puzzles of the art from this game, which hopefully will be coming back soon.
Images via Twogether Studios and Cartoon Network. Thanks to Twogether Studios for the game copy used for this revew.
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