Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review of Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn

Sunday, February 01, 2015

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Let's take a break from the rpg reviews and take a look at a board game released by Cubicle 7 instead! It's called Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn and is a quick playing storytelling game for two to five players. It also ties into The One Ring roleplaying game (sorry, I lied about taking a break) where it can be used to enhance travelling or simply as a way to find inspiration on the fly.

The game was released in 2013 but I actually didn't get to play it until last year. I had been reluctant to bring it to our board game nights, for some reason thinking it was too much of a narrative focus for some of my mostly board game interested friends. Silly me! While it is certainly a storytelling game in the vein of Once Upon a Time or Dixit I don't think you need to worry about "not being creative enough" or anything similar.

It comes in a small box with some nice, thematic art on it depicting Gandalf and Bilbo smoking pipe and exchanging stories at the Green Dragon. There's some really neat detail in the frame of the picture depicting all kinds of adventuring locations and, my favourite detail, Smaug himself in the smoke ring around the Lonely Mountain. The same frame is used on the new The One Ring Revised core rulebook which is a nice touch. Of course the creators of this game, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitelli are also the guys behind War of the Ring, The Battle of Five Armies and The One Ring roleplaying game so it comes as no surprise that they're all linked not only through theme but also by layout, graphical design and art.

The basic premise is that you are hobbits drinking at the Green Dragon and competing about who tells the best story. You play the game in a number of rounds equal to the number of players so each player get a chance to be the Narrator, while the others are Hazard players. To play you use a small game board with slots for five tarot sized cards, Cheers tokens for points, some Green Dragon coasters to hide your points under, a 12 sided die and two decks of cards. And oh, what nice cards they are! Cubicle 7 made the great choice of printing them in tarot size which both allow the art to really shine and also bring a sense of "weight" to them that regular play cards lack. The cards are for all intents and purposes the heart and soul of the game and it's fun just flipping through them, looking at all the details and reading some nice Tolkien quotes! Part of me want to sleeve them while part of me doesn't as it would detract (ever so slightly) from the immersion and I'm also uncertain if they would fit back in the box if sleeved. Of course from a game play perspective it's pretty much meaningless as even if a card was marked it wouldn't really have any effect on the game.

Just doing a summary of the already brief rules and then write about my thoughts on the game I think would make for a very short review. So instead I'm going to run through a typical game and explain most things as we go along and tell a little story at the same time. This seems more enjoyable and probably gives a better sense of how the game actually plays.

There are 75 Adventure cards used by the Narrator and 40 Hazard cards used by the Hazard players and they are all unique. Adventure cards can represent all kinds of things but generally they're locations, events, meetings or feelings while Hazard cards are dangerous events, locations, items or monsters. The art range from pencil sketches to full colour paintings and I have yet to find one with "bad" art! You know I've talked about how great the books for The One Ring looks, mostly thanks to the art, and this is like having all that art concentrated in 115 cards and it's great. I could go on about this, but let's just stop here and get on with it. :)

The Game

You start a round with the Narrator drawing four cards from the Adventure deck, which she looks at and quickly try to form a loose narrative in her head. She then draws two more cards and chooses one card to be the Opening, which is placed face up to the left on the board, and the other the Epilogue, which is placed faced down to the far right of the board. The Hazard players draw cards from the Hazard deck depending on the number of players - in this example there are two Hazard players so they draw three cards each.

The Narrator draws Ancient Trees, Adventurous, A Short Rest and Old Sword, and a skeleton of a story forms in her head - something about going on an adventure, and finding a sword and bringing it back home. The Opening and Epilogue turns out to be Lost Reputation and Many Meetings and she decides to play them in that order.

The Hazard players draw Great Orc, Werewolf and Bitter Cold plus Bear, Nameless Horror and Two Headed Troll. They look these over and spend some extra time checking the Terrain icons in the lower right corner as these decide when the cards can be played.

The Narrator begins her story about that time a few years ago when her pipeweed experiments went a little too far and the good people of Hobbiton thought her an odd individual indeed. To prove her detractors wrong (and to simply get away from it all for a bit) she decided to go on a bit of a trek in the surrounding countryside. Nothing too adventurous but enough to perhaps bring some interesting stories from afar, or maybe some new ingredient for her pipeweed!

At this time the Hazard players check the Terrain icons on the two Adventure cards played so far and see if they match up with any of their Hazard cards. If the two icons on a given Hazard card match any of the icons on the lats two played Adventure cards the card is playable - so far we have two Woods icons and a Wilds icon... which don't match any of the Hazard cards. The Hazard players rap their knuckles on the table to signal for the Narrator to continue, which she does...

"I hadn't gone far when I saw something lying on the road... an old sword! I looked around to see if I could see who might have dropped it, but besides horse tracks there was nothing to be found!". With the addition of the Evil Eye icon on the latest Adventure card the first Hazard player has a card with a match! He clears his throat and asks; "This was when you went on your trek in the middle of the coldest winter the Shire had seen in two decades, wasn't it?" - sliding his Bitter Cold card toward the board. Normally he would have to roll the Hazard die at this point and try to match or beat the number in the lower left corner of the Hazard card. However, as the Adventure card played, Old Sword, has the Eye icon on it the roll succeeds automatically and the card takes effect. In this case the Hazard player get to draw a Cheers token and either place it under his coaster or on top of it to signify that he's "buying another round". Next, the Adventure card is not placed on the board and the Narrator has to incorporate the new twist from the Hazard card in her story in some way.

"Yes, it wasn't really the best time to go for a stroll that's for sure! I picked up the sword and tried to follow the tracks in the snow, but with the snow still falling there were soon no tracks left and I ended up scratching my head about what to do next." As there can only be one successful Hazard card played per turn, she plays the next Adventure card...

"Although I almost felt like returning home at this point, the hubby had been making biscuits as I left after all, something in me pushed me on and I managed to find shelter from the wind and snow in the hollow of an old oak tree." She plays A Short Rest and looks expectantly at the first Hazard player who raps his knuckles on the table. The second player slides his Two-headed Troll toward the board and says; "Oh, I remember this story! You didn't notice it at first, but there was a sleeping troll in the hollow, wasn't there?!". However, he rolls a two so the card fails to take effect; "No, no, silly! You're thinking of the troll that slept in Old Bogg's wine cellar the winter of 34!".

"Now, having eaten and rested for a bit I felt my strength return and continued, while the old sword was an interesting prize I felt there was even more impressive things ahead. The snowfall ceased and it wasn't long until I found myself at the edge of the Old Forest". She plays the Ancient Trees card, which has another Eye on it, but luckily the Terrain icons don't match and both Hazard players rap their knuckles grumpily on the table. At this point the Narrator don't have any cards left, and has to Improvise to try and complete her story. Improvising is done by simply drawing the top card of the Adventure deck and incorporating it into the narrative. You can keep improvising until a Hazard card is successfully played, in which case your story ends.

The Narrator draws the top card of the Adventure deck and thinks for a bit while inspecting it, recalling the maps of the area around the Old Forest. Then she continues; "Knowing very well not to set my foot in the haunted woods I decided to skirt around it, seeing if there might be something interesting on the other side. And indeed there was! The land beyond the forest was made up by a series of hills, each looking a little too perfectly formed to be natural. I pulled my coat around me as I shivered in the cold while moving in among the hills. It wasn't long until I found one with a large door in it. Not a nice round hobbit door mind you, but a big and imposing one made of stone, steel and rotted wood." She plays the Tomb card while the first Hazard player raps on the table the second quietly whispers; "This is perfect!" as he slides the Nameless Horror card forward.

"I bet that was a really bad idea! I've heard horrible things about the Barrow Downs!". The Hazard die ends up on seven, meaning the Tomb card is removed from the board, the Hazard player takes a Cheers token and the Nameless Horror takes effect. "Well, at this time I hadn't so I had no idea what waited inside. I thought I would seek shelter in there but it proved even colder as I closed the door behind me. My torch sputtered in the darkness and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard a slow, wheezing ahead of me. I called out for whoever it was that we could perhaps share the one muffin I had left, but got no reply. That was when I saw... or felt something coming toward me. Darkness and horror! I turned and fled out in the snow and ran for a long time! I don't even remember exactly what happened but I ended up running straight into one of the Brandybucks, Will I think, who invited me in for some hot tea." 

Having failed to Improvise the Narrator's story has come to a premature end, since she has not been able to completely connect the Opening with the Epilogue card. This means that she must now turn over the Epilogue card and conclude the narrative in a negative way, as if the story didn't end as the Narrator had hoped it would. With the Epilogue card being Many Meetings she continues; "It wasn't until I'd had my fourth cup of Brandybuck tea that I realized that I had dropped the sword when I ran! I didn't even have anything to show for my trouble and while I was, of course, thankful for bumping into a Brandybuck and him letting me stay at his house I was stuck there for two weeks while the weather turned even worse and was introduced to every brother and sister, every uncle and aunt, every cousin and nephew and it all made me both weary and bored! My return to Hobbiton wasn't anything like I hoped and they still talk about me as "that weird pipe lady". If they only they'd know what I have been through! Hmpf!!"

Applauds from the rest of the table as the Narrator takes a bow and start to check her score. You get to draw one Cheers token for each card on the board and one extra if you manage to reach the Epilogue and achieve a full ending. As this story ended prematurely with a total of four cards on the board (of course, not counting the ones removed by Hazards) she draws four Cheers tokens which, to add insult to injury, turn out to be all ones! She puts three under her coaster and one on top to "buy the next round".

Once all players have had a chance to narrate a story you decide the winner by counting all the Cheers tokens under your coaster then you check who has the most points on top of his coaster as this player get a bonus four points for buying the most rounds of beer! There are also rules for giving some extra points for the best story and there are some card icons that can come into play during the game that is not part of this example - like the Hazard players getting to draw extra cards - but this should give you a pretty good idea on how the game plays!

You might also have noticed that there are some other icons on the cards, diamond shaped like the ones in The One Ring and War of the Ring. These don't have any function in Hobbit Tales, but can instead be used in The One Ring roleplaying game. While any of the cards can be used by the Loremaster to quickly get some inspiration for an upcoming scene there are also structured rules on how to incorporate them during Journeys. The left icon tells you which role is affected (guide, scout etc) while the right tells you the effect of failure and the card itself provides inspiration for the narrative that the Loremaster (or the affected player) presents. Basically it's a replacement for the Hazard table that is in the new Revised Core rulebook and I think it will certainly help to bring some more unique hazards into play.


So, what are my thoughts on the game? Well, it takes about 20-30 minutes to play and has so far provided some great Tolkien-esque short stories that has made me want to break out my roleplaying books so... two thumbs up! As I mentioned above I was a little worried that it would be too much of a narrative game for the regular board game night, and during our first game Claes was hesitant to be the first Narrator out of the gate, even though he's an old roleplayer! Weird I know, but I think it has to do with having to think on the spot and make at least a semi-coherent narrative. These were all silly things to worry about though as we all spun some great stories without breaking a sweat. The combination of card title, art and quote either (or all) of which could provide the inspiration needed to connect the next link is more than enough to get your imagination gears turning. Does it help if you are a roleplayer or enjoy improv? Sure, but it's absolutely not needed.

The game has been a great success and so far we have ended up playing two or three games back to back as everyone has wanted another chance to tell a story. Once we even had a player who was just about to leave but watched a game in progress and decided to stay longer so he could participate in the next two rounds! Still, even if this was just a collection of large sized art cards with images inspired by Tolkien with no game attached I would have got them anyway. Beautiful art and great sources of inspiration! The only thing I feel could have been done better from a design perspective is the Terrain icons as they're done in a different style than the rest of the art on the cards. I understand the need to have these stand out and be easy to spot from across the table, but the kind of semi-photographic effect looks odd next to the rest of the card. There's also a slight shortage of Cheers tokens and you might end up having to resort to writing your score down, or use alternate rules posted by Francesco.

If you own and play The One Ring I think this is simply a no-brainer. Get it. If you're a great Tolkien fan I think you should get it as well, especially if you enjoy narrative board games that has seen a rise in popularity lately. I can't really comment on how well it measure up to other games in this genre as this is the first I've played, but to me the theme is what really makes it all come together and having a decent feel for Tolkien made it really easy to come up with a fun story. The game mechanics work well and it's fun both being the Narrator and a Hazard player, but in the end it's not a game you play to win, but play to experience some great stories set in Middle-Earth!

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