Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hirelings, a Review

So while we were at GenCon Indy this year (for the first time) we met John Harris, an awesome fellow with a board game to kickstart. That board game was Hirelings: the Ascent, and its family friendly, putting you and your companions in the shoes of level-less hirelings who's adventurers are dead. You're carrying their backpacks, stuck in the bottom of a dungeon (in this case a dragon's cave), and the dragon is about to breath a roaring cone of fire through all the tunnels and scorch you alive.

Sound like an amazing game premise? It is. Being level 0 stuffhaulers and bodymen, you come into the dungeon with a backpack full of stuff that belonged to the (now dead) adventuring party. However, as it isn't your pack you don't really know what's packed in there. Magical items, generally helpful, fill it to the brim. You have a limited supply of these and they may help you to get out... but you don't get to decide what you're grabbing, you simply dip your hand in and pull out something that may (or may not) be worthwhile to you.

But don't be fooled! Those items are ALSO your health! If the fireball catches up to you, you need to lighten your load to put on some extra speed, thus throwing off one of your treasures from the backpack. If you have none left to ditch, you're done, mate: fried, cooked, annihilated! No more running for you. This simple game design manages to capture the frantic frenetic pace of a real escape very well.

As gamers who always see stories and personality even in the most banal of exercises, we could easily imagine the doddering Zeb whacking at Seth's legs as he tried to pass him, the fear of the fireball as it came around the corner, and the sheer lunacy of the scrambling escape through the Goblin Polka Pit.

The rules are extremely simple but also have a lot of depth. Just playing it at the Con (which we did twice in a row -- it was that good!) was absolutely a blast. And John is a great guy. We half-jokingly suggested that we could come dressed next year as our characters and play a living chess version of the game to which the whole crew at the table were immediately amenable! It seemed like they had something like that planned anyway (giant fireball and all).

We seemed to begin each game relatively slowly, sauntering away from the dragon's pit at a brisk walk. Four turns go by before the dragon launches its fireball (which follows you and moves a die's worth of movement every turn) and it generally wasn't until we could actually SEE it that our dice rolls started picking up. Lazy townsfolk, you know how it is.

The board is filled with obstacles, but since the characters have no fighting skill you can't overcome them with your prowess. Instead, you have to try to stealthily slip by them, hopefully by distracting them with one of the magic items you pulled from your pack. A word on pack items: they're one-time use and they vanish after they've been used (successfully or not) so you really have to be careful when you pull them, especially if the fireball is close behind.

Luckily, there's a stealing mechanic: land on the same square as another hireling and you can take a piece of treasure from his pack and play it face up at once (only if you yourself don't have a face up treasure currently), using it up. This, of course, reduces the buffer that player has between himself and the fireball and also robs him of valuable items. There's not really any competitive strategy (other than just getting to the top first) but I think that can be altered.

Yes, this game is not only amazing, but rife with opportunities for modification. The creators themselves displayed this tendency with the inclusion of the Minstrel character -- a hireling with NO backpack but who gets a +1 to move on every die roll. Frank played the minstrel (after playing a bard in True Dungeon it seemed the obvious move) and, of course, got out of dodge before anyone else could.

The game is JUST the right length to entice you to play again while not being overly short. Reversals seem common (which is good!) and the difficulty of the monsters on the various paths seem to be very well thought out indeed.

Below you will find some images of Frank and I running from the fireball, lugging adventurer gear, and generally being oppressed hirelings:


  1. that looks great, and I thought I'd link to the Kickstarter if other people think so too. Quick question though, you say the game's quick to play; how long roughly was each game?

  2. I didn't time it and my internal sense of time isn't very good, but I think it was approximately half an hour each playthrough. It didn't feel like it dragged, nor did it feel like it was too quick.