I should have known better.
See, I can’t stand Pandemic. I understand why so many people like it, and that it is a solid design, but the core gameplay of everyone working together to put out fires never did anything for me. It felt like going through the motions (with those motions often controlled by other people at the table). So it’s really all my fault that I thought Defenders of the Realm would make for an interesting solitaire experience, because for the most part it is Fantasy Pandemic.
Setting it Up
The first thing you should do before even opening your copy of Defenders is download some player aids. The rules that come with the game are not organized well or written clearly, and it’s nice to have a cheat sheet with some of the basic and easily-forgotten rules on it while you’re learning. Then get the official FAQ, because it clarifies some vague rules and introduces some important new ones. To give you an idea of the importance of this, the FAQ is longer than the rulebook.
Once that is done go ahead and open that enormous board. Then shake your head when you realize how much space went to waste on it. Normally when a designer is given this much room to work with they throw players a bone and put in spots for draw and discard piles, add a turn order summary, and insert other useful bits of info. Not here. Instead everything is designed to go around the edges of a gargantuan board that only has areas printed on it. Fortunately, what’s there is clear and functional. I’m not a big fan of the art in this game (and actively hate the fonts) but that’s subjective so who cares and let’s move on.
Now you get to pick your characters and be pleasantly surprised. These are not the little squishy novices you begin most fantasy adventure games with, but heroes worthy of the title. They all have incredible abilities and are deadly right out of the gate. They need to build up and work together to take down enemy generals, but can turn minions into a fine mist from the very first turn. Each begins the game with a fixed number of action tokens that also serve as hit points. Most of the things heroes do require flipping over an action token, so losing them when wounded dramatically reduces a hero’s options.
Next you put down those generals I just mentioned in the far-flung corners of the map. Each has a special power that comes into effect when you try to kill them. They also move on a fixed path toward the central town, although there are some special cards that can knock them back. Here’s why you must fear them:
The Orc general commands wimpy units (you hit them when you roll 3+ on a d6) that reproduce like rabbits on speed. He also moves towards the central city more frequently than do the other generals. He’s tough to kill because he has a lot of health and causes every 1 you roll to negate hits on him.
The Demon general has tougher minions (you need 4+ on a d6) that must be dealt with quickly because they quickly cause Overruns that I’ll discuss later. He moves fairly frequently, and has a special power that requires you to roll a die for each card you spend fighting him, discarding a card for each 1 you roll.
The Undead general has tough minions (4+ on a d6) that cause extra wounds if a hero ends a turn in a space with them. He moves infrequently and has a special power that negates all of your heroes’ special powers when they fight him.
Finally, there’s a Dragon general who serves as a sort of end boss. It and its minions are only hit on 5+, and its special ability lets it fully heal if you don’t manage to kill it in one turn (other generals typically heal one wound per turn if you don’t kill them).
When the generals are in place you can put down the Hero deck. Most of the cards in it correspond to a general and are discarded to roll the number of dice printed on the bottom of the card against that general. They also have symbols on the top that let heroes use various forms of movement if they discard that card. Normally heroes move one space per action, but a horse symbol lets them move up to two spaces, an eagle symbol lets them move up to four spaces, and a magic gate symbol lets them either create a magic gate at the location printed on that card, or can be discarded to travel from one magic gate to any other.
The Hero Deck also contains Special Cards. These are not misnamed. Heroes don’t gain any equipment or other treasure in this game, but Special Cards give them one-shot abilities that are lifesavers. The only downside to them is that when they are used they are removed from the game and never shuffled back into the deck, so if you squander them early you’ll have a serious challenge to overcome later in the game. Use wisely.
There’s also a Quest Deck, and it was kind of a letdown. Heroes are only on one quest at a time and may never decline the one they are on to draw a new one. These often require visiting a certain spot (or series of spots) or killing certain types of enemies, at which time a special ability is triggered. These are nice to get when you manage to complete one, but wiping out minions and drawing hero cards to prep for battles with generals takes up so much time that quests rarely seem worth the effort unless you happen to end up where you need to be. Particularly late in the game when your enemies become more powerful. A lot of them also rely on successful dice rolls or you get nothing at all, turning them from a mere distraction into an outright gamble. Maybe I’m missing something, but I wish these would have been integrated into the game better.
Finally, there’s the Darkness Deck that works in conjunction with a war progress track. Early in the war you draw one of these per turn, and they add new minions to the board and/or trigger general movement. As you kill generals you must draw more of these cards at the end of each turn, increasing the chance that generals will advance. This is bad, because if five minions or one general ever enter the central city you’re defending, you lose.
Playing the Game
Your heroes begin the game in that central city. On most turns they expend their action tokens to move, initiate combat with minions and/or generals, and fulfill quest conditions. If they are in the central city or any inn, they can use up to two actions to check for rumors. To do this they name the color of one of the generals, then draw two Hero cards. They keep any Special Cards or cards that match the color they called, then discard the rest.
Another thing heroes can do is try to cleanse corrupted land, which stems from a brilliant mechanism cribbed from Pandemic. There it is called the Outbreak, and here it is called the Overrun. A main rule to remember is there can never be more than three minions on any area, so when you are about to add a fourth you instead drop a crystal on that space and then place one minion of the color you were about to place in each adjacent area. If a minion added from an overrun would cause another overrun, you must add a crystal to that area as well.
The number of minions added via Overruns obviously stinks, but the crystals are even worse. These taint the area they are in, and when all the crystals are used up you lose the game. Areas can be tainted more than once, so clusters of units must be broken up to prevent crystals from appearing and reappearing. Also, precious actions must be taken to cleanse tainted areas if overruns start getting out of hand. The Demon faction is particularly vexing in this regard, because they cause an overrun taint the land when you add the third Demon to an area instead of the fourth. This land will be tainted again if there is an Overrun, so you have to clean up quickly.
As with all good co-op games, this adds up to a lot of tension. You can’t ignore hanging out in town and checking for rumors because it takes a lot of cards to bring down a general. You can’t ignore minions because even if they aren’t a threat now their potential to trigger Overruns and corruption is devastating. You can’t ignore the weaker general because he moves more often than the others and will take over the central town. You can’t leave your heroes too spread out or they won’t be able to team up to kill generals, but you can’t keep them clumped up or they won’t be able to deal with all of the problems that must be solved.
Is it Worth Your Time?
Please bear in mind I’m reviewing this from a solitaire perspective. If I had to play a co-op game that doesn’t have a traitor mechanism I’d likely choose this one, so if it seems like I’m savaging it in this review it’s only because there are so many other fantasy adventure games that better suit my preferences. That said, there are three things that matter to me most when I assess games:
Are the Decisions Interesting?
Yes. Each hero has enough actions that doing one or more of the things they need to do often isn’t a problem, but just as often there are two or three other important things they are forced to ignore. Do I get cards to contribute to an attack on a general or fish for a Special Card miracle? Do I attack these minions that are close to the city, or those minions that could trigger a nasty Overrun? If I move to complete my quest, can I still get where I need to be at the end of my turn? How can I best use my special abilities? All of these are things you’ll ask most turns, and rarely are the answers straightforward.
Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?
Absolutely. The clock is always ticking. In the short-term, you feel like an idiot for allowing an Overrun and a tactical genius for preventing one. Taking down a general is tense and feels great when you pull it off (and horrifying when you don’t). Taking down all four feels like a miracle.
I’m editing this in, but forgot to point out that two of the things that killed this game for me are that there is little sense of accomplishment when you kill minions, and none when you fail quests. Wiping out three minions and getting nothing in return other than a sense of relief feels empty relative to most adventure games where you’d get experience and treasure. Failing quests is completely arbitrary and feels that way.
If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?
Very, though it is the most generic of all generic fantasy (the Heroes don’t even have names, just typical trope designations like Dwarf, Elf, etc.). It generates a great feeling of dread as minions pop up all over the place and generals advance inexorably towards their target, and a great feeling of heroism when you smash through enemy forces or eliminate a general from play. Just keep in mind that the scale of this game is larger than many others. You feel more like a champion leading vast armies than a lone adventurer killing and looting their way to glory and fortune.
This is a nice design that is suited to solitaire play, but the lack of character development over time throttled its appeal for me. Heroes start strong but only get better in two ways. They can get Special Cards, which are used only once, and they can deliver the finishing blow during a fight against a general. The latter act grants them the Slayer title, and lets them kill that general’s minions without rolling to hit them for the rest of the game.
That’s nice, but when playing fantasy adventure games I prefer the approach games like Runebound and Prophecy take where characters are rewarded for killing things, gaining levels, permanent abilities, and powerful equipment that indicate progress and allow for crazy combos. I like quests that provide guaranteed rewards and aren’t sideshows and/or crapshoots. I like maps that are more than just a series of abstract color-coded generic locations. I like to be surprised by the monsters I fight and the challenges I face.
Most of all, I value variety. I bought all the Duel of Ages sets just to have an insane pile of characters and equipment to shake up games. I admire Omen: A Reign of War for including fifty dramatically different unit cards instead of going with umpteen copies of a few things.
Defenders of the Realm is epic, but abstract. Elegant (despite that FAQ), but unsurprising. It has its whammy moments, like drawing just the right Special Card and just the right time, or having a carefully laid plan shattered by an unanticipated avalanche of Overruns, but for me they don’t make up for the tepid slog surrounding those thrills. It’s a good game, just not for me.