Doomseeker - Review
By Ben Porter
Since I was 12 and read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I have been a dedicated fan of all things dwarf-related. My first Dragon Age: Origins playthrough? Dwarf Champion. First Warhammer army? Dwarfs. First D&D game? Dwarf Fighter, thank you. You get the picture.
So, when it was announced that the famous dwarf trollslayers of the Old World would be getting their very own card game, I knew that I would have to play it sooner or later. As it happens, that playthrough came sooner rather than later.
Doomseeker is a game of card-based combat for 2-4 players by David Freeman, published by Ninja Division. Players assume the role of a dwarven slayer, tasked with seeking an honourable death in glorious combat against a host of awful monsters.
And, of course, no game featuring dwarfs would be complete without the prospect of accruing hunners of gold and treasure.
It's hard to make anything featuring a Games Workshop IP look bad, and Doomseeker is no exception to this. For the most part.
Opening up the box felt a bit like rummaging through a dwarven treasure chest. The card backs all look fantastic, and it was really cool to see icons I recognised from old plastic GW Dwarf kits incorporated into the designs. The various tokens all enhance that feeling of rummaging through a pile of loot; even the wound tokens are designed to look like teardrop rubies. The box feels about the right size for the game it contains, and the insert isn't too bad for what the game is. No bags for the tokens is a bit annoying, and there's a tendency for the cards to slide all over the box if you even try to orient the game box anything but horizontally. It also feels as though they cheaped out on the dice with this one. The game includes 4 small, mustard-yellow dice that look and feel tacky. We ditched them and used our own.
What is particularly good about the presentation is that the character cards all feature original artwork for this game. There's a tendency in licenced GW products to recycle existing art and assets - which is understandable considering the art used throughout the range is of an exceptionally high standard. The problem is that over all of the games and books GW produce and licence, you begin to see the same art pop up a lot. Having something new is always nice.
The typeface used throughout the game is hideous. It looks completely out of place in a Warhammer game - it's like the distant cousin of Comic Sans crashing a funeral. It was also just difficult to read at times; there were a couple of occassions where I had difficulty distinguishing 1s and 7s from one another.
It's hard to go wrong with theme with a Warhammer game. Literally dozens (possibly hundreds) of writers and artists over several decades have done most of the work already. That being said, the theme for this particular game still merits a bit of explanation.
In Doomseeker, you are a dwarf slayer. Take a knight errant, a ronin, and a viking berzerker, package them up as a dwarf and you have a slayer. These are dwarves who have committed crimes, failed to keep an oath, or have been deeply wounded by some personal shame; they have forsaken all wordly possessions and ties, and taken the sacred slayer oath to atone for their shame. They shave their heads into distinctive mohawks so that they are instantly recognisable to all as a slayer and, retaining only their weapons, venture out into the most dangerous places in the world to find an honourable death at the hands of a worthy opponent.
As you can imagine, it would be pretty unseemly for a slayer to be shanked by the first goblin or ratman who snuck up on him. Better to perish in a titanic clash with a mighty Chaos Lord or Orc Warlord.
And that's where the collecting loot comes into the equation. You may be a slayer, but you're still a dwarf, and if you find a shiny pair of axes that'll make you a bit handier in a fight, then frankly it would be rude to pass them up.
As phenomenal as the background and lore of the slayers is, that's not something that was conjured up for this game. Rather, I think it's important to take stock of how well that preexisting lore is integrated with the game mechanics.
Gameplay basically consists of a player declaring a foe that they wish to fight at the start of their turn. Starting with the player to that player's left, each player then has the opportunity to play a Fate Card. Fate Cards are what really drive the action of the game, and can help or hinder a player depending on their effects and how they are played. Once all players have had an opportunity to play a card, the player rolls a dice, accounting for modifiers from Fate Cards and gear, and resolves he fight with the beastie they chose. If they win, they take the monster as a trophy; lose, and they take a wound. Once the monster deck is depleted the game ends, and the player that killed the most monsters (arguably the least successful slayer if you think about it) wins the game. There are some secret objectives that reward additional victory points for having more of certain monster types and specific conditions having been attained, but generally victory is a question of who killed the most gribblies.
There are three main problems with the game; too much "take that", a poorly planned economy, and characters of wildly varying usefulness. These three core issues with the game mean that one or two players will avalanche their way to piles of gold, runes and monster heads, whilst others will be left rather frustrated - possibly even with a dead character and little else to do.
It can be difficult at times to mitigate the effects of Fate Cards as the age-old card game problem of drawing a dead hand applies in Doomseeker. We played a game where I had a series of nasty modifiers played on my early combats which meant that I wasn't able to get any kills, didn't get any gold because I couldn't kill anything, and couldn't purchase any treasure to to gear myself up for fighting. It was extremely frustrating and meant that I was shut out of contending for victory very early in the game, whilst everybody else pulled ahead.
A form of a catch-up mechanic is featured in the game that allows players with dead characters to bet on fights using rune tokens they have accrued. I've seen similar systems in other games before, and I'm still not convined that they really do what they're intended to. By virtue of the fact that a slayer is still alive, killing things and buying better gear to kill bigger things, he will almost always outscore his dead companions (unless they die in a blaze of glory right near the end of the game). With this in mind, the betting mechanic becomes little more than a facile means of keeping losing players engaged in the action.
The frustrations of the betting mechanic are enhanced by the poorly thought out rune economy. Runes are expended by living slayers to give them one reroll in combat, and are fairly easily collected through use of fate cards (players are also given a free rune when the first player marker is passed at the end of the turn). The trouble is that from the middle of the game onwards, most players will have been able to mitigate the luck of the dice rule through the gear they have collected, which means that they seldom use the runes they have collected. Which means that runes seldom return to the supply in the late game. Add to all this the fact that many weapons and items are enhanced by the number of runes a player has on their character, a landscape where players with dead characters are scrabbling to try and even get runes often emerges.
Lastly is the issue of the character powers. Many of these are triggered by such specific circumstances - or don't really come into effect until later in the game if at all - as to be close to irrelevant next to others. I played a character that gained an extra point of strength whenever he fought an Epic level doom, which wasn't too bad as a bonus. However, Josh played a character that gained a Fate Card whenever another slayer won a fight. As you can imagine, this made the lion's share of the Fate Cards available to Josh, perpetuating the runaway leader problem. There's a certain argument that some games include wildly varying power levels in games so as to allow players of varying skill levels to complete on a level playing field (Villainous has a degree of that), but it doesn't feel as though there is an intentional disparity in character powers in Doomseeker. It just feels badly planned.
Doomseeker doesn't just fall short of the mark; it makes for a very poor gaming experience. And it pains me to say that because I really wanted this game to be good.
When such excellent source material is available to the designers, you would hope that all the resources that would ordinarily be devoted to artwork, writing and all of the other things that go into world building would then be devoted to creating a really interesting gaming experience. Unfortunately, Doomseeker serves as an example of a game riding on the coat tails of a popular IP; a lazy piece of design that feels hollow and rushed.
I will be quite reluctant to play another Games Workshop licenced game after this experience. The slayers of the Old World deserved better.