Pages of War: M.O.D.E: Preview

Gather ’round and hear Fairway tell his tale of battling factions of elves and dragons and orcs and men. In this preview, Fairway takes a quick look at Pages of War: M.O.D.E by Sanjae Duncan and J. Kloud Entertainment and coming to Kickstarter. What can possibly go wrong when Fairway is a bard?

Pages of War: M.O.D.E. (“Men, Orcs, Dragons, and Elves”) puts players in the shoes of bards of these classic, fantasy races. Pages of War is a hand management, quasi-deck building and war game for two- to four-players.

Initial Impressions

  1. The game seems like it should present an interesting opportunity for theme and gameplay. These impressions don’t bear out.
  2. This game has a bunch of unwieldy mechanisms.
  3. The player elimination and king-making in games of more than two-players make this almost unplayable at those player counts.
  4. Unless you play two races designed to battle, two-player (or resultant 3 and 4 player games) are wildly broken.

Game play

In Pages of War, each player is the bard of a different race trying to protect their king and queen. How you do that is actually pretty hard to explain and the rules themselves are steeped in the lingo of the theme. I’ve included a link to the video rules at the end of this review if you’re really interested.

The gist is that players are trying to defend their royal cards (jacks, queen and king). If a player loses both the king and queen, they’re eliminated from the game. Players defend them by building up stacks of their battling cards. Other players attempt attacks by sending their stacks to do battle against the defending stacks.

The game is played in series of turns starting with a first player and going clockwise. On a turn, though, players choose to take up to three actions: building up their stacks, adding new stacks, using a card’s special power, using one of their royal’s special power, or attacking. Once they’ve performed their actions, play passes to the next player.

When choosing to attack, a player picks one of his or her stacks and one of an opponent’s royal cards to attack.  The attacking player may not know which royal they’re attacking, but there’s roughly a 40% chance of picking either the king or queen.  When attacked, a player can defend using one of their own stack of their cards or by revealing the royal and using its combat number. In a battle, the stack of cards with a bigger number wins, and the losing stack of cards will reduce its card counts by the difference in card stack size. To determine the winner or loser, players first check to see if the card counts are exactly the same. If so, it’s a draw. If not, then players check the numerical value.

This goes on until a player’s eliminated and either the game starts over (when there’s two or more players left) or ends.

If you’re truly interested, you can watch the video at the end.

Cutting to the chase

I’m giving this all short shrift because the game, in its previewed condition, was so broken it was hard to review. I’m publishing my review in part because it looks like the game went live on Kickstarter without much change.

The game does have some nice features that were just poorly executed.

The art. Some of the art was nice, including the dragon. But it’s the same dragon on every card.  Admittedly, this is a prototype/preview copy, but the designer indicated that improved art wasn’t going to be in the base game unless the campaign reaches a stretch goal.  Even then, it’s only 12 new pieces total (three per race).

The theme.  I really wanted this to work. It was just so poorly executed and the lingo of the rules, cards, and game made it frustrating rather than immersive.

When we played, these were our biggest concerns:

Tediously mathy.  Each new battle (or even contemplated battle) essentially required a complete recalculation of all the possible lines of attack.  This means unless you just want to enter into an unplanned battle, you had to do your calculations against all the possible outcomes, including summing up every possible bonus. It was too much to make it fun.  The point tokens helped but not enough.

Unbalanced races.  In retrospect, it’s clear that the designer intended some races to battle each other, but not others. Certain races had bonuses that affected only one other faction. So if you’re elves battling dragons or humans battling elves, there’s a good chance your bonuses won’t help. In two player games, you might pick the right pairings, but that doesn’t work in multiplayer games.

Disastrous player elimination. I can think of no worse implementation of a modern, four-player game that necessarily means that one player sits out for two more full plays of the game. That’s basically what Pages of War requires since with each elimination the game starts a “new epic” with one fewer player. It was almost inconceivable to play it that way.

In addition, while now optional apparently, Pages of War also features a rule where eliminated players can contribute to the stacks of other players. In essence giving a favored player a huge numerical bonus. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which that advances a good game.

First player advantage. There’s no “fix” to the first player advantage in the rules. There’s no alternating player order. There’s no perk for going last. The first player gets to go first, the last player goes last. As a result, if you’re the first and second player, you attack the fourth. The fourth player might survive a few rounds, but his or her turn is spent rebuilding defenses.  In combination with the player elimination mechanic, the fourth player is in serious trouble.

We did try a fix for player order that snaked: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1. This was much better. But having the ability to take six actions as fourth and first players was equally devastating.

Graphic design. This was a mixed bag. Parts of the game fared okay for a prototype/preview copy of the game. However, other parts of the design were frustrating and off putting including the selection of some of the script fonts. The designer has indicated that the game is essentially in final state and there’s not going to be much change.

Where does that leave Pages of War?

I’m going to leave the ball in the rough and not score this one. If you think the designer can save the good bits before production (like theme and art) and fix the other parts, then there’s potential here.  But in its current state, it’s left with a long way to the green.

Fairway was provided a copy of the game to preview, but it was returned to the publisher. He was not otherwise compensated for this preview.

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