Small Box Solo Special

Since a lot of us can’t meet up in person in these trying times, we thought it would be nice to shine a light on some of our favourite small box solo games. Perfect for afternoon tea while you work from home.

Onirim

Onirim is not only the smallest game we’ll be writing about in this post but it’s also the oldest in my collection. And there’s a good reason for it. It’s absolutely amazing!

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In Onirim you are a dreamwalker, trapped in an ethereal labyrinth, searching for 8 doors that will free you from slumber. However opening the doors isn’t exactly a walk in the clouds. On your turn you’ll play cards from your hand, forming a single row of  dreamy labyrinthine rooms. The object is complete sets of three matching coloured cards, but each new card you lay down must have a different symbol to the previous one – either a sun, moon or key. If you manage to get the colours and the sequence to work, you’ll discover one of the doorways you’ll need to escape the dream world.

Getting the correct sequencing of labyrinth cards may sound tricky, because it is, but as you play cards onto the labyrinth track you’re also refilling your hand, which always gives you an option of where to go next. However, scattered throughout your draw pile are ‘nightmares’, waiting to disturb your peaceful sojourn. Nightmares eat away at the cards in your hand and deck, forcing you to discard precious pieces of the puzzle and ultimately making it more difficult to escape. There are ways of fighting the nightmares (like holding on to ‘key’ cards) but the skill is to carefully manage your hand while simultaneously digging deeper into this dreamy labyrinth.

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Onirim is a perfect blend of challenging game play and addictive fun. Every game will have you locked in the dream world and you’ll say to yourself “I know how to get out!” So you’ll try again, and again, and again. Until, suddenly it all starts to click, and you will get out. Eventually. However, just when you think you’ve mastered the system, along comes a new challenge. Onirim comes packed with several mini expansions that add new layers of difficulty to the game. Now, you have to find the doors in a set order or search mystical towers and cast spells to fend off the nightmares. And when you master each of those, you can combine them all together to make a puzzle with more horrifying depth than cube in Hellraiser. The amount of punch this small box packs is utterly staggering.

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Onirim is of course the game that launched the Oniverse series nearly a decade ago, which has grown to become the Studio Ghibli of board gaming with it’s whimsically child like art style and immensely rewarding puzzle solving.  In truth you could take this endorsement for any of the Oniverse games, but for me, Onirim is the OG of this fantastic series and will remain in my collection for years to come.

Hostage Negotiator

Hostage Negotiator simulates what it’s like to be in the unfortunate position of leading a conversation with a hostage taker, and if there is one thing this game teaches you, it’s that nothing is certain in this line of work.

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The action in Hostage Negotiator all takes place around a central tableau, which shows you all the relevant information you need to do you’re job. Who the terrorist is, what their demands are, how threatened they currently feel, how many hostages they have taken, and heaven forbid, how many casualties there are. You’ll have a hand of basic ‘conversation cards’ which you use to talk to the hostage taker. Whenever you play a conversation card, you roll a number of dice according to how threatened they feel. The more threatened they are, the less dice you roll and vice versa. Conversation cards have a variety of outcomes but by successfully talking with the hostage taker, you are mainly trying to calm them down – reducing their threat and increasing your dice pool – and getting them to open up – gaining you conversation points.

That last part is very important, because when a conversation is over in a round, you get to spend the conversation points you earned and buy more advanced conversation cards which open up more daring plays like instantly freeing hostages or having a sniper take the shot. Ultimately the calmer the hostage taker is the more likely future conversations will go well, and the more they open up to you in conversations the more psychological tools you’ll have at your disposal. Unfortunately, things are never straight forward in this line of work. At the end of every round a ‘terror event’ will occur which really hammers home the unpredictable nature of these situations. Even when things are going seemingly well, the unthinkable can happen. If you haven’t freed enough hostages by the time 10 terror events occur, you’ll only have one very slim chance to save the day.

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Hostage Negotiator is probably the most intense game on this list. Not only is the theme extremely evocative, but you are also at the mercy of dice rolls at every turn. On the surface this may seem like a shallow luck-fest, but that is how all good gambles appear at first. Like in casino games, luck is a tool that can be bent in your favour, and at it’s core, Hostage Negotiator is gambling at it’s purist. The strategy is to improve your odds as best you can in a very volatile situation. Of course this means things can (and will) go wrong, even when it seems certain, but that is the beauty of this game. It shows just how demanding and challenging the job of a negotiator is, and I for one am quite happy to only visit the profession through this game.

Van Ryder Games has a reputation for making games that tell stories and Hostage Negotiator is no different. I’ve not played a game before or since that so closely marries theme and mechanics. When you move a meeple from the the hostage pool to the casualty zone, it’s hard to not feel like you’ve been stabbed in the heart. Conversely, when you move someone to the safe zone, you feel like an absolute hero. This game is definitely not for the faint of heart but if you enjoy a good dice with death, look no further.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth

Speaking of games that tell stories, ‘Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth’ by Osprey Games is a re-skin of the highly acclaimed ‘Lost Expedition’ which came out in 2017, and is (rather unexpectedly) equal parts a puzzler as it is a story game.

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In JD:TCE you control Judges Dredd, Anderson and Giant of the infamous comic book series ‘2000AD’, as you march across the wasteland beyond the Mega Cities known as ‘The Cursed Earth’, in search of a person called Max Normal. Max is carrying a virus so potent it risks all life on the planet, and the Judges are tasked with securing his capture before he ends up in the wrong hands. And the wrong hands is exactly who is after him. An evil droid named ‘Satellat’ with its partners, ‘Mean Machine’ and ‘The Disciple’ are already hot on Max’s heels. As the Judges, you’ll need to catch up if you stand a chance finding Max before they do.

You’ll encounter a multitude of hazards across the cursed earth, represented by large beautifully drawn full art cards, laid in a single row across the play area. The type of hazards on encounter cards are symbolised by different icons, while their priority is denoted by their colour. Yellow icons are compulsory, red gives you a choice of hazard and blue is completely voluntary. These encounters can be anything from running low on food and ammo to bumping into a Satanic dinosaur….The cursed earth is a very weird place.

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When your turn begins in earnest, you’ll encounter these cards from left to right, but the order they’re arranged is dictated by dusk and dawn setup each round. At dawn, you’ll arrange cards in numerical order, which doesn’t seem that terrible (you’ll say while peaking through your fingers) since it gives you a sliver of foresight as you lay the cards in the row. Whereas at dusk, cards are instead placed at the book ends of the row, which quickly becomes a logistical nightmare that my normal sized brain struggles to comprehend. The reason why these cards arrangement is so important is because the goal is to mitigate as much damage as possible so you don’t get squirted out the other end of the row like the last bit of toothpaste. Sometimes you’ll find precious resources like ammo and food, or best of all, a path forward to the next location, but most of the time, the Judges will become wounded, irradiated and fight their way out of encounters one at a time.

JD:TCE is an extremely challenging and intriguing puzzle. The game is essentially a gauntlet run through a harsh and unforgiving wasteland, and you have to make sure the Judges don’t hit too many rocks on their way down the hill. Lining up the cards in such a way that you aren’t dead by dawn is a Kasparov like quandary in itself, but fortunately there is a knack to it. Once you get used to the layout each round and which cards are the most dangerous, you start to see the signs, like a safe cracker carefully listening for pin tumblers to drop. Practice, memory and a dash of luck, are the main herbs in this spicy dish.

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Although the puzzle IS the core feature to this game, one of the most striking things for me was how every card tells a story. The hazards on each encounter all make complete sense and often steer the player towards which direction they should take. You may stumble upon a wounded triceratops, but do you spend valuable ammo to put it out its misery and spend the time to prepare its remains as food, or do waste no time at all and move through it? That narrative cohesiveness and entertaining tasks gives this game just that extra bit of je ne sais quoi that makes it a solid gem. Do yourself a favour and get this one. Don’t think about it, just do it. It’s usually cheap and at the time of writing this review, it’s available from Osprey’s website for less than a tenner. So it’s a no brainer if you ask me.

Zulus on the Ramparts!

Some days I just get this hankering to play a war game. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a war gamer, but there is something incredibly alluring about their serious tone and beige colour palette. Lucky for me ‘Zulus on the Ramparts’ is a casual war gaming delight and could fit on any soloists shelf.

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ZotR retells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in 1879, which to this day, is one of the most successful defences in military history. To give a little context, the British had just suffered a massive defeat at Isandlwana, the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War, with nearly 1400 casualties at the hands of a Zulu army numbering of over 20000 warriors. The surviving troops retreated to nearby Rorke’s Drift, a mission station manned by 150 British troops and lead by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, and alerted the makeshift base that a contingent of Zulu Warriors was heading their direction. Deciding to stay, the British began fortifying the station with bags of corn around the perimeter. There they waited for the Zulu forces. The Zulu warriors were made up of 4 attacking groups, known as iButho’s and comprised of some 3000-4000 fighting men. With the Zulu forces vastly outnumbering the British, the attacks began in the late afternoon and didn’t cease until the early hours the next morning with the British managing to keep the the Zulu’s at bay by sticking to their guns (quite literary).

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ZotR is one of Victory Points Games famed ‘States of Siege’ titles, which is a gloriously straightforward tower defence system. You’ll reveal tokens at the start of your turn that tell you which of the Zulu forces – the loins, chest, left or right horns – will move towards the centre of the mission station, and you must spend your turn performing actions like forming a reserve company or fetching ammo & water for the troops, while also firing a volley of attacks at the Zulu’s ranks by rolling handfuls of dice. Attacks that connect either drive the Zulu forces back or reduce their numbers. However, it only takes one iButho to break the back of the British forces. If any of the iButho’s make it to the Zulu Victory token in the centre of the board, the British lose. If on the other hand, the British can withstand the constant barrage of attacks until the relief column arrives in the morning, they will have survived as they did in real life.

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This is a super exciting game that has a tremendous amount of card playing depth bubbling underneath its dice chucking surface. The main British protagonists – Lieutenant’s Chard and Bromhead – have such a marvellous synergy it’s hard not to cheer them on like they’re wrestling tag team. Chard helps you dig deeper into the deck and gets troops out FAST, while Bromhead is the go getter of the two and lets you commit more actions during your turn. The card play is so good in ZotR, I’ll often opt to play it over bigger games like Arkham Horror the card game. ZotR can be brutal at times, but thankfully the game comes with a slew of bonus cards that give you more defensive options. These are entirely optional so if you prefer the historically difficult version then you won’t be disappointed.

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As a person who only flirts with war games on occasion, ZotR is perhaps one of the sweetest deals for casual players since the story is one for the most straight forward. You don’t have to worry about country spanning maps or moving hundreds of troops  or complex military strategies or the socio-economic aspects of certain territories. There’s none of that. ZotR is a very easily digested story that invites the player to learn more when they’ve finished, which is exactly what I want from a war game – A compelling story that makes you want to discover more about a culture in a different time and place. A true gem in my opinion.

 

 

Venom Assault

Venom Assault is a cooperative deck building game inspired by everyones favourite Real American heroes, G.I.Joe . Up to 5 commandos take on the role of ‘Freedom Squadron’ and must assemble crack teams of super soldiers to thwart the diabolical deeds of a terrorist organisation known as ‘Venom’.

You’ll start a game of Venom Assault by selecting one of the twelve gloriously shlocky missions that come in the box, each mimicing a different episode of the Joes 80’s cartoon show. As you’d expect from a Saturday morning kids show, missions are appropriately bonkers, with a decent side helping of fun. You’ll do everything, from searching the globe for the DNA of ancient warlords, to collecting parts of a weather manipulating machine. However, which ever mission you choose, you’ll inevitably end up fighting armies of evildoing snake soldiers in a kaleidoscope of red and blue laser fire. YO JOE!!..err I mean…Freedom?

If you’ve never played a deck building game before, they kind of work like this – players start out with a small deck of relatively basic cards, and as the game progresses, you’ll upgrade your deck by purchasing more powerful cards from a central tableau on the board, opening up new possibilities for play. Venom Assault follows this formulae to a T. You’ll begin the game with a deck of fresh faced recruits & commandos and spend ‘recruitment points’ each turn in exchange for elite, thousand-yard-stare, star-spangling, super-soldiers, ready to dispense freedom one shell at a time.

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Once you’ve drilled your troops into shape, you can then plan your attack on Venom. Choosing one of the Joes, I mean Squaddies, from your hand as the ‘combat leader’, while the rest provide ‘support’, you’ll launch strikes against various land, sea, air and arctic locations around the globe.

Of course Venom isn’t going to idly sit by while you take an eagle sized dump on their evil plans. Just like their cartoon counterpart, Venom has a variety of colorful characters, each with their own distinct abilities. And that’s just the named bad guys. Venom also has access to an army of faceless goons, which they’ll happily throw at you during missions.

Turns in Venom Assault are broken out into phases and focus heavily on tactical card play. You’ll be going back and forth against Venom, playing cards and performing actions, eventually arriving at a point where you think you know the current ‘sitrep’…but you know what they say? “Knowing is half the battle”….the other half is extreme violence.

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Combat itself is pretty quick, but just like the Joe cartoon, it’s less of a well coordinated military strike, and more of a ‘pew-pew-pew fest’. Hopefully something gets hit! Spoiler, no one in the cartoon ever got shot. You roll a number dice equal to your crack teams combat value and check if enough shots landed to take out the Venom Leader. A hit is successful if the die is equal to or higher than the Venom Leaders defence rating and you eliminate the target if you score hits equal to the Venom Leaders health value. If enough shots found their mark, you vaporize the Venom Leader and earn a reward card with a powerful once per game effect. If not, the Venom Leader stands triumphant and cackles at Freedom Squadrons impotent assassination attempt.

However, as is customary in the coop genre, the game will constantly try to derail your mission with random events. Every round, the first player draws a card from an event deck, some of which are favorable for Freedom Squadron, but more often than not they’ll do something bad like boosting the Venom Leaders stats or restricting recruitment that round or limit what type of terrain you can fight on, but most importantly, they also progress Venom’s nefarious plans with ‘Venom Strikes’ events. If Freedom Squadron hasn’t reached the goal stipulated on the mission card by the time 5 Venom Strike cards are revealed, they only have one more shot at glory. Otherwise it’s game over.

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When I think of deck building games, titles like ‘Dominion’ or ‘Ascension’ are the first to come to mind, and in many respects, ‘Venom Assault’ stands equal with these titans of the genre. However one of my pet peeves with deck builders in general, is that quite often the flow of the game is so frenzied that you very quickly ignore a games theme and start looking at the board as nothing more than a series of transactions. In that sense, Venom Assault takes a bit of a slower approach. Not only does the coop structure of the game lend itself quite well to as a slower burn, but also the economy in the game is so finely balanced that you’ll rarely buy or retire more than one card on your turn. In most deck building games, efficiency is the ultimate goal, so having extra phases and machinations in the way is usually not ideal, but in Venom Assault it works really well. The game constantly asks wants you to give it more consideration. Should you take this card? Is this the best target to attack? Do we stand a better chance if we work together or can we just go for broke?

If efficiency is the meat and bones of the deck building genre, then customising your deck is its soul. Here is where I think Venom Assault is an absolute triumph. The card play and synergies between the Freedom Squaddies really makes it feel like you’re building an elite team of super soldiers. One player might take on the roll of the “blizzard team” and tackle Venom in the Arctic regions, while another can be the vehicle specialist with the “big-guns”, or maybe you like the death-like certainty of a team of ninjas. All doable and more. Quite often deck building games overlook this element or it’s simply reduced to collecting cards of a certain color, which is fine from a mechanics perspective, but weaving theme into your deck makes it far more likely that the game will see lots of play.

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It’s not all rosy though. Although the team building is exceptional, encounters with Venom Leaders can feel a bit anticlimactic at times. In most situations if you fail at combat, nothing really happens. You’re just kind of…stopped. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but in some games you can be smashing your head against an absolute wall of an enemy, over and over again and get nothing out of it, nor suffer any ill effect. However, this is completely different on more difficult missions, where losing a battle could lead to forced retirement of some of your Squaddies, or just wreck your hand before you even get to fire a shot. Fortunately there is enough variation in the missions that everyone can find something to enjoy. For me, if I’m going to lose a fight, I’d much rather have my heart torn out, than just have some dude dressed as a snake stand in my way.

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Of course it would be remiss of me not to point out that the real attraction to Venom Assault is it’s theme. If you were a cynical person, it would be easy to dismiss ‘Venom Assault’ as a cash grab that skirts close to plagiarism, but that would be flat out wrong. Venom Assault is a celebration of 80’s & 90’s action cartoons. As mentioned already, the mission cards follow story arcs of the G.I.Joe cartoon and even have references to more obscure cartoons like “The Inhumanoids”. Nostalgic tributes seep off of the event cards which are filled with memorable moments from the cartoon. A personal favorite is the line on one card “We all go home or no one goes home” from the animated Joe movie, which is to this day one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. Venom Assault is an excellent example of fans pouring all the love they have for an IP into something that everyone can enjoy. It may be a little rough around the edges at times, but sometimes, it’s enough to be reminded what it was like playing with toy soldiers in the back yard on a sunny Saturday afternoon. If ‘Venom Assault’ can do that for an hour or so every now and then, it’s totally done its job. As of writing this review, the expansion ‘Villains & Valor’ is soon to be released, otherwise it’s not hard to track a copy of this hidden gem down.

The Witcher Adventure Game

Now that the long wait for the 2nd season of Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ is well underway, you might be asking yourself “what the hell am I going to do in the meantime? Play the video game? Read the book?” Well actually, yes. Both of those are pretty good options…But there is another!

Back in 2014, Ignacy Trzewiczek, famed designer of ‘Stronghold’, ‘Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island’ and ‘Imperial Settlers’, underwent the trial of the grasses and brought us ‘The Witcher Adventure Game’.

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In ‘The Witcher…’ you take on the role of one of the main characters from the books – the stoic dwarf, Yarpen Zigren, everyones favourite Sorceress, Triss, the silver tongued bard, Dandelion, and of course, the Butcher of Blaviken himself, Geralt of Rivia. The goal of the game is to complete a set number of quests before your opponents and come out on top with the most points. In order to complete quests you’ll travel to locations across the Northern Realms gathering different types of ‘leads’ – either combat, diplomacy or magic – until you’ve amassed enough to convert them into ‘proof’ in support of your main quest. Characters discover different types of proof at different rates. For example, Geralt is proficient at combat, so he’ll be able to cut down the ‘Oakbeast of Kaer Morhen’ and be home in time for second breakfast, while Dandelion practically leaks charisma, and is able to easily find diplomatic resolutions for quests.

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On your turn you’ll take up to 2 different actions – moving, resting, investigating, developing or performing a unique character action. As you quest across the board, you’ll build your character up with new abilities from their own personal development deck, and use your characters unique action to power these abilities. Geralt has access to signs but also needs to take time to brew potions; Triss learns powerful spells that she must first prepare; Dandelion pays an army of associates from his busking ability; and Yarpen has a trove of weapons, items and armour that he divvies out to his troupe of dwarven dragon-slayers.

But of course what would the Witcher be without monsters hey? Combat is done by rolling your characters ‘hero dice’ and checking if you landed enough hits to defeat a monster, while at the same time, rolling enough defense to avoid damage or any ill effects. Just like the video games, you’ll battle your way through everything from bears and bandits to Striga and Leshen, but each character has slightly different methods in doing so. Geralt, being the bane of all monsters, pirouettes his way through most creatures like a Catherine wheel of death, while Dandelion adopts a more defensive strategy by hiding behind members of his retinue. Triss works well in bursts and can disintegrate enemies with ease but only if she spent the time prepping her spells, while the plucky little Yarpen can swing both ways as a murder hobo or as an eloquent diplomat and avoid danger all together.

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When you aren’t knee deep in Alghoul guts, you’ll also need to contest with ‘foul fate’. As the gears of war grind the Northern Realms to dust, unfortunate events will plague its towns and cities. If you happen to end your turn in a location that is dealing with a problem, it becomes your problem. By travelling to Wyzima, you might find yourself in the middle of an angry mob or maybe a group of spies thinks you’re snooping around. On rare occasions, you might get lucky and ‘nothing happens’. Such is the nature of the winds of war.

Players travel across the beautifully lush board, questing and slaying monsters like you might in many other adventure games, but a key reason you might have been interested in ‘the Witcher…’ is to experience a rewarding and epic fantasy story. Any adventure RPG board game based on an IP like the Witcher (which can have quite confusing lore at times) is bound to run into accessibility issues for non-fans, and in my experience, the best story heavy games are those that don’t over complicate things with complex narratives. ‘The Witcher…’ does an excellent job of giving players a glimpse of it’s dark gothic fantasy, albeit in Nekker sized chunks, and never leaves you feeling totally bewildered. That being said, ‘The Witcher…’ does share a familiar issue with many other games of its ilk. There is no mechanism that threads any of events together, so the narrative can feel more random than a jumble sale at a church fete. One minute you could be have food poisoning, next you’re fighting off a flock of harpies, then suddenly a blizzard sweeps over the land. Given the pedigree of Trzewiczek’s other more mechanically meticulous work, this might feel a little unexpectedly loose. I’m less bothered by those technical details since the best aspects of the Witcher lie in the grim atmosphere and not in point by point plotlines.

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In fact the narrative isn’t really the focus of this game. Despite being story ‘heavy’, ‘The Witcher…’ is not a story ‘driven’ game. It’s there for you to immerse yourself in the world of the Witcher, but the game is much more akin to a race. Maybe not a sprint, but definitely more of a cross country hike. Sure, you’ll be zipping from town to town collecting leads like a medieval Colombo and the floor is made of lava, but the strategy is to find the path of least resistance. Often you’ll need to clog up your own actions with foul fate tokens, which makes the next time you want to use that particular action far less desirable. You’re constantly reassessing your plan and part of the skill is making contingencies for the best moment to rid yourself of any negative effects so you can glide on to the next location.

Another major decision point in the game is choosing quests. When you start the game or finish a quest, you always gets a limited choice of what quest to do next. Whatever you choose, you’ll need to gauge if it will: A. let you finish first, and B. net you the most points. The more difficult the quest, the longer it takes but the more points you earn, and vice versa. This is somewhat reminiscent of ‘tickets’ in ‘Ticket to Ride’, but instead of defining the route you take for the whole game, it just lets you know where you need to end up and how much proof you’ll need. How you spend your time getting to that point is up to you. If the story and actions of the game do a great job at conveying the bleak futility of the Witcher, this freedom of movement gives it a sense of calm. You build your character at your own pace, quietly working towards your goal, while savouring the grim atmosphere along the way.

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‘The Witcher Adventure Game’ may be a bit of a black sheep in Ignacy Trzewiczek’s portfolio. Some players found it too solitary for their tastes, and those who were expecting a slick Euro-fantasy in the vain of ‘Lords of Waterdeep’ were also let down. The real strength of the Witcher, be it the video games, books or TV series, is the different stance it takes on well established ideas, and ‘the Witcher Adventure Game’ captures that ethos perfectly. The game is an absolute delight to look at and serves as a fantastic entry point for those unfamiliar with the White Wolf, while players who relish in the lore and absorb it like autumn sunshine, will be satisfied beyond expectations. At the very least, it’s worth a try as it’s available on digital formats for a couple pennies.