Sometimes running the gauntlet just isn’t enough. Sometimes you want to brag, to taunt your opponents, to stand up and shout that you can run this gauntlet better than anyone else even if you had one hand tied behind your back-and then actually do it.
In Gauntlet of Fools, well known game designer Donald X attempts to capture the feel of a suicidal dungeon run, complete with bragging, a multitude of monsters, and dozens of unique fantasy RPG-style Heroes in a game that takes about 30 minutes to play.
How It Plays
Gauntlet of Fools has 2 phases: the Hero selection phase, and the Gauntlet phase.
During the hero phases, a number of Heroes equal to the number of players are created by dealing out cards from the “Class” deck and “Weapons” deck into pairs. Each Class has a name, a defense, and a special ability, while each Weapon has a name, an Attack, and a different special ability.
Players then take turns choosing their hero. They can either take an unclaimed hero from the queue, OR they can steal a hero from another player, white-elephant-gift-style. However, if they steal, they have to add at least 1 of 6 “boasts” from the center tableau. Each boast places a penalty on the hero – such as a decreased defense, rolling fewer dice during an attack, or starting the Gauntlet phase with 1 wound.
Once all players have a Hero, the Gauntlet phase begins. Cards are revealed from an Encounter deck, generally featuring monsters, but with occasional bonus rewards or cards that increase the danger of upcoming monsters. Each player must face off against every monster encountered; first the player rolls their attack in an attempt to best the Monster’s defense, then the Monster attacks against the player’s defense. If the Monster beats the player’s defense, the Player receives a wound. If the Player beats the Monster’s defense, the monster is slayed and the player receives a reward.
Monsters often have special abilities that must be dealt with as well. In addition, players can use the special abilities of their weapons and classes at any time, but must spend from a limited pool of tokens in order to do so.
At the end of the turn, if a Hero has 4 wounds, he or she is dead. The game ends when all Heroes have died (or if, somehow, someone survives all 50 encounters), and whoever has the most Gold wins the game!
Does It Survive The Gauntlet?
When I first saw Gauntlet of Fools, I was reminded of the very popular (but rather flawed, in my opinion) Munchkin. A Fantasy RPG experience distilled down to a simple combat system with some humor tossed in? Sounds wonderful! The prospect was exciting, and with an estimated playtime of 30 minutes (beating out Munchkin’s 1-2 hr playtime), Gauntlet of Fools had a real chance of one-upping Munchkin. Having Donald X’s name attached certainly didn’t hurt.
The game concept is a solid one. Covering all the basic fantasy/RPG tropes – starting in a Tavern, bragging and taunting, classes, weapons, and a deadly dungeon filled with traps and monsters – I was looking forward to this “kick-down-the-door, fight monsters, get treasure” game.
Unfortunately, the game did not follow through on its promises. There are two major mechanical failures of the game based on the same overall issue: it lacks any amount of substantial gameplay.
It wasn’t at first very obvious what the problem was. We did, after all, get some enjoyment out of playing. But it didn’t take very long before I realized something was clearly missing here.
It starts in the hero selection phase. I think the idea of taking “boasts” which give you penalties is hilarious. And the goal is to get the best hero that is just slightly better than the next best hero, so that if someone were to add another boast it would not be the best hero anymore.
In theory this is a great idea. In practice, at least the way it is implemented in Gauntlet, it falls flat.
Primarily, one of the roadblocks to this boasting system is that the heroes and weapons seem too well balanced. Usually that’s a good thing, but in this case it defeats the purpose of boasts. Sure, some weapons or classes would be more or less useful against certain encounters, but since you have no idea which encounters you will face, you can’t always tell which Hero will be the most useful. For the most part, the Heroes dealt out will be so similar that it’s really hard to tell which ones are the best, and there’s no real motivation to add a boast. If there were some classes and/or weapons that were absolutely pathetic, and some that were absolutely awesome, boasts would be flying around the table until every other hero was either full up, or the boasts really had reduced the good heroes to shambles. Unfortunately, the Heroes end up being so close that players would rather just take a new hero than add a boast to someone else’s.
In combination with this, there is absolutely no reward for taking a boast. The only potential reward is that you ended up with the best hero… but if you take the best hero with a boast, who is only marginally better than the next best hero without a boast, you won’t get anything for your swagger. Which makes the motivation for taking a boast shrink even further.
If either of these were added, it could save the game. Drastically imbalanced heroes would see boasts flying left and right. Some sort of reward system for taking boasts – such as an actual monetary betting system (“I bet 10 gold I can last longer in the gauntlet while juggling!”) would also encourage the taking of boasts. It would make the whole system a lot more substantial. It would make whole boasting phase – the core of the game – a whole lot more fun.
The second phase – the actual Gauntlet phase – would be fine as is if the boasting system were a lot stronger. Players would spend 20 minutes stealing each others heroes, adding boasts, anteing up bets, then end up with heroes so overly-disadvantaged the Gauntlet phase would last less than 10 minutes with players lasting up to 5 or 6 encounters at most. As it is though, with the boast system being so lite, the Gauntlet phase also stands out as lite as well.
Combat in the gauntlet is very simple – first players roll their dice – their weapon specifies how many attack dice they roll. If their roll beats the monster’s preset defense value, they claim the reward. Then, monsters attack, comparing their preset attack value against the players’ preset defense values. If the monster wins, players take a wound. It’s that simple.
The only thing that mixes it up is the special abilities, but players only get so many uses and recovering tokens for those uses is very rare. So the only choice that you have is when to use your special ability, and when you run out, you have no choice. Nothing at all to dictate how you perform in the gauntlet. You can’t choose to avoid certain encounters. You can’t choose to take an extra wound to beat a monster you would otherwise never destroy. You just roll dice over and over until everyone is dead. Like I said, if the boasting system was more substantial, resulting in significantly weaker Heroes, the Gauntlet would end quickly and this wouldn’t be a big deal. It would make sense; the game is all about the boasting, the Gauntlet is just resolving the results of those boasts. As it is though, with few boasts and pretty strong Heroes, you could end up rolling dice for a while. The game will certainly stay in the 30 minute mark, but the Hero selection phase only takes about 5 minutes without significant back-and-forth bragging, meaning you could be mindlessly rolling dice for 20-25 minutes.
There’s nothing really… there, and since there isn’t much there for the Boasting phase either, there’s just not much there for the whole game. Too bad.
The component quality is okay. The thick cardboard tokens representing wounds, bonuses, penalties, and boasts is sturdy and you get plenty of those tokens as well as 30 mini dice, but the cardstock is not the greatest. The tableau where boasts are stored before they are claimed is already warping which, while not a necessity to the game, is a bit annoying. The artwork is fine – nothing spectacular but not bad either.
I will admit, there was fun had while we played this game. But honestly I think most of that fun was just from spending time rolling dice with good friends. The game lacks substance; the boast system, which should be the core of the game, falls flat and the gauntlet phase lacks any meaningful decisions. With a fantastic premise and a big name like Donald X, whose other games I have enjoyed greatly, Gauntlet of Fools might be the most disappointing game of 2012.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Indie Boards & Cards for providing a review copy of Gauntlet of Fools.