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Board games are the bee’s knees. Roleplaying games are the bomb-diggity. Mix these two and too often it never quite works out. What should be peanut butter and jelly ends up more like peanut butter and fish. I don’t care what weird combinations of food your kid eats, ain’t nobody eating PB & F.
When people describe a board game release as RPG-like, they’re really just saying you can level up characters and it has a campaign. Folklore: the Affliction seeks to re-appropriate this descriptor by tackling the challenge from a different angle. This isn’t so much a fantasy dungeon crawl but rather a table top adventure game with tactical and social encounters. It’s equal parts story and miniatures-based crawlin’ wrapped up in this wonderful aesthetic that completely nails its setting.
Folklore is all about diving into the action. It requires no dungeon master and allows everyone in the group to adopt the role of gritty hero fighting off the tides of madness. You choose one of several archetypes and fill out a small character sheet just as if you were playing a simplified version of good ‘ol Dungeons & Dragons.
After giving your character an appropriately irreverent name you make an important choice concerning the path your character will pursue. Each class offers two distinct flavorful branches that affect your initial powers and long-term potential. This immediate sense of customization is small but significant as it generates buy-in with little effort.
Play consists of tackling stories. Think of a story as a scripted RPG module (comparable to a group choose-your-own adventure). You will be presented with decision points along the course of the adventure that shift the narrative and take you down alternate paths. Perhaps you offer a villager some of your meager rations and they return to fight alongside you later in the evening. Maybe that villager pursues and steals more of your stuff in the middle of the night (that ingrate). Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
So you’re following along through this story book, reading clever slices of narrative and building a mental image of the greater picture. You will have opportunities to make skill checks. Sometimes you’ll get into abbreviate fights called skirmishes. These small bouts consist of trading blows and feature no positioning or board play. Both of these vectors are above the table, featuring discussion and rolling some dice as if we were playing a straight-up RPG.
The most significant of encounters will have miniatures based combat on large, gorgeously illustrated dungeon tiles. The simple conflict system doesn’t boast a huge deal of tactical depth, but it does force tough decisions in managing resources as the game keeps a constant boot on your throat.
The transition between the different modes of play is remarkably smooth. Since the encounter tiles are single components and don’t require you piece together a dozen smaller fragments, you simply plop the appropriate one on the table and figuratively go to town. Then you remove the minis and head back to the story book for the next juicy slice of adventure.
Speaking of components, Folklore: the Affliction is grimly beautiful. The graphic design and illustrations are fantastic in pulling you into the setting. The miniatures are above average quality for the industry and are full of character. The only stumble are the cardboard trackers used to record your health and power. These sit next to your player board and are easily bumped causing consternation. Subbing them out for dice or simply recording the information on paper is easy enough. As a whole though, most everything is spot-on.
If this is sounding a bit like Gloomhaven, that’s because it definitely feels like the more Ameritrash version of its distant cousin. Folklore even features a large world map but actually grounds the experience in having you move a little party meeple across the countryside running into packs of wolves and other nefarious ne’er-do-wells.
This isn’t a legacy game exactly, but it is a campaign-based game that features content with limited replayability. Once you’ve played through a story you can certainly head back and try a different combination of heroes or make alternate narrative choices, but some of that magic will be lost as you encounter the same boss fights and primary challenges. The game does feature over a dozen hours of entertainment even if you don’t replay a single encounter, and already promises expansion content and future support.
What’s special about Folklore is its complete focus on narrative and immersion. Beyond the well-written scripted stories, it drives home key setting concepts with class archetypes such as the Exorcist and Witch Hunter. There are dozens of small flourishes which continually bring a smile to your face. Things like class booklets offering a whole suite of custom actions while in town. Or how about characters being inflicted with Lycanthropy and then attacking their own group if travelling across the countryside during a full moon? (Yeah, this is a real mechanism.)
One of the most inspired design decisions is to have protagonists turn into ghosts when they perish. Instead of eliminating the player from the game, you flip your board over and gain a new host of powers along with your eerie visage. The asymmetry of the role is prominent and wildly engaging. There is still danger as you can be defeated and sent to limbo, but the group has an out as they can meet with the gypsy caravan and have you resurrected.
While Folklore serves as the perfect bridge to full blown RPGs, there are quite a few nods towards the grizzled veterans of pen and paper past. First of all, this setting is pure Ravenloft, which just so happens to be the best AD&D setting ever crafted. We have brooding villages, vampires skulking in the shadows, and werewolves crawling among the reeds. It’s a difficult way of life and nothing comes easy. The mechanisms dovetail wonderfully with this setting as resources are scarce and pain is bountiful.
There’s also a strong nostalgia element as the game utilizes percentile D100 rolls and other small winks towards D&D creator Gary Gygax’s past. These touches are appreciated and help to convey the overall atmosphere and tone of play.
Folklore: the Affliction is a fantastic experience, but it’s one with some quirks. One possible nag is the reliance on large tokens for the bosses – dubbed Afflictions. There’s a precedent for this with Descent 1st edition’s Road to Legend expansion, but it is something to keep in mind in case the incongruity of plastic and 2D cardboard characters is a big sore point for you.
Also worth noting, because this is a fully cooperative game and the opposition is driven completely by the story book, it can’t exactly throttle difficulty or respond dynamically. Occasionally you’ll hit a rough spot where a proper GM would ease up or modify the encounter. You could certainly adjust on the fly with collective decision making, but that sort of reveals the man behind the curtain when you’d rather be staring at the giant floating head.
This isn’t a huge problem as the game feels well play-tested and for the most part smooth. But there is an outside possibility you run into a random event in the early going that’s unduly harsh, such as your only weapon being stolen. This would be devastating as you’d be completely ineffective in combat and your agency squashed. The likelihood of such swinginess diminishes as you grow in wealth and might fortunately. Ultimately this is just a cost of doing business in a GM-less system that wants to retain dramatic moments.
If you’re interested in the concept of this wonderful game then that cost will be negligible. Your overriding experience and memories will be centered on the developing narrative and the growth of your characters. You’ll take on hulking beasts that would make a grown warrior wet their trousers. You’ll forge out into the night and make a name for yourselves. Or perhaps you’ll turn into a ghost trying.
On Game the Game, host Becca Scott talks about tabletop gaming news and is joined by guests to play a variety of great games. If you want to learn about what’s new, exciting, and cool in the world of modern tabletop, join her on Wednesdays starting at 4 PM PT on Twitch and Alpha.
Want more board games & RPGs?
- Check out our feature on Gloomhaven and why we still loved it after 30 hours of play.
- Learn to paint detailed miniatures with 5 tips for beginner miniature painters.
- Learn about starting D&D with our Alpha show Starter Kit!
Image Credits: Charlie Theel
Editor’s note: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Ars Technica, Miniature Market’s The Review Corner, and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieTheel