Thursday, 21 April 2016

From Russia with love

We went berserk in the Battleshed last night. Instead of our planned game, Sam of Wee Blokes headed over and eagerly revealed his latest purchase.

A shiny new game box was placed on the table with some rather nice fantasy artwork on the cover. It even had that enticing 'new' smell. He did warn me that he had something different to try out so I was pretty much in the dark when I got to play Berserk: War of the Realms.

So what is it? Good question, that was mine too. Published by Asmodee / Hobby World, it's a customisable, high fantasy 'tactical' card game from Russia that comes with six 30-card factions (Dwarfs, Orcs, Elves, Demons etc) and a separate deck of 63 customisation cards played over two game boards which are placed together. It incorporates deck-building and, as dice are involved, a bit of luck!

Now, I'm not particularly experienced when it comes to card based games. Not for any particular reason, it just comes down to who plays what locally. For example, I'm vaguely aware of the whole 'Magic' thing - especially as The Teenager plays it and more often than not on the rare occasion I'm permitted into his lair I come away with some intricately detailed card stuck to my foot.

The game also contained a bag full of various tokens, 4 'custom' dice - that immediately indicates weird symbols on them - 2 reference cards, a kind of comic-strip quick start and the main rulebook. This was our first play, as Sam had only owned it a few days and had quickly scanned through the rules. Which probably explains a lot of head scratching throughout our first contact. And I still am.

We opted for the suggested 'easy start' game where each player has a reduced pile of 10 Gold and 10 Silver to recruit their troops from 15 random cards drawn from their faction deck.

Naturally, I got the dwarfs. Each card has a point...ahem, gold or silver...cost, along with Movement, Health, Fight stats and individual traits. It soon became apparent that in this high inflation world 10 gold and 10 silver doesn't buy much. We both ended up with five cards each.

Cards are placed face-down on the middle section of the combined game boards (3x5 squares on each player side), the first player then revealing all, the second player the first two ranks only. Although we accidentally missed this bit for our first game, revealing all anyway! The first player then activates all of their cards each turn, with two Actions - 'move' and 'axe in face' sort of thing. It then basically boils down to attacking enemy cards by rolling one of those customisable die which has three symbols indicating a Light, Medium or Heavy attack with corresponding Wound values.

The opponent may be able to defend with a defence die which has symbols representing something like 'Oh, is that an axe in my chest?', 'Ha! Your axe is blocked!' and 'Here, have an axe back!' Fail to defend this Basic Attack and the character takes the relevant amount of wounds up to his maximum health. Exhausted - or tapped cards (now I finally know what that means!) can't defend.

Beyond the basic attack, there are Special Strikes (blasts, shooting etc) and Magical jiggery-pokery attacks. Crucially - and this is the part that started the whole head-scratching thing - you cannot defend against anything other than the Basic Strike. So it appeared that shooters were basically auto-hitting and only restricted by any range modifier on their cards. This felt a bit unnatural for both of us more used to miniature gaming where some chance against ranged is common. But it appears not with Berserk.

Example cards from the Dwarf deck
So I guess it all comes down to the placement and tactical combinations of your 'troops'. Some cards act as Protectors for basic attacks (i.e. melee), so if they are alert they can roll defence die for their adjacent comrades. It seems this is pretty much more a hand-to-hand focused game, where ranged characters may be useful but you have to balance their cost against their vulnerability. I may be wrong, after all we only played through a couple of games at the basic level.

The basic mechanics appeared to be quite straightforward. However, the rulebook and the comic-strip style example sheet proved to be ambiguous and confusing in places. Possibly lost in translation somewhere. We certainly had many questions once we finished playing. With a quick trawl through the web forums, this appears to be a common criticism. So much so that a 'semi-official rulebook' has been created that should help remedy the deficiencies with the box-supplied rules.

A wounded Dwarf Mercenary and a 'tapped' Dwarf Shieldman
From what I can garner, Berserk was first published in Russia back in 2003 and has a respectable following in that part of the world. The version we played is the second English language edition. Apparently, there are now over 4000 different cards available. The ambiguities in the supplied rules may put off some on first contact, which is probably a shame as its no doubt a very popular game. 

That aside, there are whopping price reductions currently available (I found a set for £4.94 + £5 UK p&p!) and there is much free support material online. Now I've read some of it I'm ready to try Berserk: Battle of the Realms again.