Orcs At The Gates
I don't really want to be writing this review. I am all in favour of beer-and-pretzels gaming, comedy gaming, and especially of the Knights of the Dinner Table (and, as the other review mentioned, if you haven't read them and you play RPGs AT ALL, go and get some! :)). Based on that, I bought it almost as soon as it become available over here, and despite the initial rush, I was eventually let down.
"Orcs at the Gates" feels like the authors have tried to make the game which best represents KODT. Which is a good idea, except that it doesn't really work too well in play after a while.
What you get for your money is: a rather outsize box containing a couple of nice double-sided colour map sheets, the rulebook, a couple of A4 sheets which you're asked to cut up into cards, some colour character sheets and score trackers, some sticky labels, and a huge collection of plastic standups onto which the sticky labels go. You also get a d20 and 2d6, although in my case they seemed to be very badly made - most notably the d20, which was pure grey and didn't have the numbers inked, making it almost impossible to read. Still, anyone who knows KODT is going to have a d20 around somewhere. :) If you want to know what these standups look like, just look at the KODT cartoon which advertised the game, which is a *very* good representation of the game in play.
The idea of the game is simple. Players can play any one of the four Knights, and the Blackhands are available as well; the only difference between the characters is in a unique special ability each gets, which I'll mention more about later. Players get 2d6 actions per turn to walk around on the map, whacking orcs (success based on a d20 to-hit roll, natch) and collecting treasure from treasure chests. There's no limit to how much treasure you can get from a single chest, but you can't search the same chest twice consecutively (anyone see a problem here..?). One player plays the GM, who controls all the orcs on the board. They get a fixed (and fairly low) number of actions, and get to hack at the players in the usual manner. New orcs come onto the board every turn.
The cards are used to spice things up: whenever a player gets treasure, they draw a treasure card, which may be a treasure they can collect or a trap that'll send in orcs or similar. Also, whenever any player rolls doubles, both the player and the GM get to draw a special effect card; players have one set and the GM has the other. These can be played at various times to trigger appropriate effects. The winner is the first player to reach a certain score; the GM wins if the time limit runs out or all the players die at the same time.
The time limit? Oh, yes. Orcs at the Gates is based on a real-time time limit. This was advertised as quite a bonus, with the claim that it enabled you to know exactly how long a game would take without the risk it'd drag on all night. A good idea, really.. the only problem being that the time limit is two hours. Two hours? For a *single run* of a "beer-and-pretzels" game? There are full-tilt strategic games that would be dragging if they went on that long! (check anything by Reiner Knizia if you don't believe that) A good "beer-and-pretzels" game in my mind should be as short as possible so that you can run it multiple times in one session; in that case, some factors of randomness can be disregarded because the game'll be over so quickly that an unlucky player can just get his own back next time. That doesn't happen here.
The cards, and the player special abilities, are great. Almost all of them are drawn directly from KODT; all the recurring and common themes appear; and all of them are implemented in exactly the way you'd want them implemented. Except that the author, in the understandable desire to make the game as KODT-like as possible, has lost sight of game design a bit.
For example, take the special abilities of the players. Some of these are great in idea and design. Bob's thief, for example, can check for traps: he can look at the top treasure card and then discard it if he chooses. Very neat, represents it properly, and has some interesting potential for bluffing other players. Equally, Brian can always throw fireballs (Spells are just another form of card with some special rules, so anyone in the game *can* get a fireball spell, but Brian *always* has it), giving him a reliable ranged attack.
But other abilities just seem way off base. Dave, for example. His special ability is - of course - his Hackmaster +12, and nobody would have made it be anything else. The problem is that the Hackmaster +12 is a treasure card (so if Dave's not around, somebody else can get it); Dave's special ability gives him, semi-permanently, the Hackmaster +12 card as soon as the game starts. Which means that not only does he get a massive advantage in fighting, but he also needs to accumulate less points than everyone else, because he gets to start with the treasure points for the Hackmaster +12 (and it's worth quite a lot)! (Yes, I have checked this with Jolly Roger)
On the other hand, Sara's ability relates to meeting NPCs (which are another form of card); she can recover discarded or dead NPCs, and can maintain two at once. However, there aren't that many NPCs in the deck, which means it's entirely possible she'll never encounter one and her ability will do exactly nothing. Great deal.
The same thing happens with the cards: some of them are a lot better than others, and some combinations can give people huge advantages. It's FAR too easy to find yourself knowing that another player is going to beat you and there's not much more to do except watch it happen, and it's especially bad when this can happen through nothing more than the luck of a card draw.
Of course, if you think someone else is going to win the game, you can try and hack them yourself: it takes four hits, from orcs or players, to kill them. However, most of the valuable treasures that give lots of points also give bonuses to combat rolls, so this doesn't really rebalance things that much. But worst of all are the consequences of dying: the player has to sit rolling dice every turn, with no effect other than that they can still draw cards on doubles, and they might get a card that can resurrect them. Or not. Meaning that they might be sitting there for quite some time, doing nothing at all. Oh dear. Not good for "beer-and-pretzels" - in our group nobody would ever attack another player, because although it could stop them winning, it would also ruin their enjoyment of the game. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if the game was shorter and the eliminated player only had to wait a few minutes at most. In OatG, a player could be waiting half an hour or even more.
There are a few other problems, too. As mentioned above, the rules on the way treasure is drawn means that the optimal strategy is to run back and forth between two nearby chests searching each in turn - not exactly very interesting play, but I believe it's a very bad game where a player has to trade off chance of winning for enjoyment. The map also feels inside-out: there are fortresses, castles, and even a dungeon present, but orcs enter at the *edges* of the map. As an example: the dungeon doesn't have open edges, so orcs have to get there the same way everyone else does - down a staircase. Since they move more slowly than players, it takes them longer to get to a staircase. Result: the dungeon is actually the *safest* place to be! Does that make sense? While defending a dungeon against orcs might be a great comedy adventure idea, it doesn't feel right in the game..
So while the humor, novelty and general KODT-ness of the game will probably get you through the first run, it won't be long before all the jokes have been read and the novelty's warn off, and once that happens, the game's never going to get played again - the game system itself is just too flawed to be interesting for its own sake. It does appear that it could be fixed in a few ways: change the special abilities a little, perhaps; limit people to searching a chest only once; or perhaps even divide the treasure pile up into multiple piles of increasing worth and determine which you get to draw from based on how many orcs were killed since the last visit to a chest (since in the game as it stands, it's almost never worth the players' time to actively hunt the orcs).
But overall, if you just want the KODT style of humor, you'd be better off spending the money on a few back-issues and either doing group readings or dusting off an old AD&D hack-n-slash adventure and RPing the KODT characters through it. If you want a "walk around fighting and finding things" type of game, then there are better choices - I haven't personally played Cheapass' "Chopping Mall", but it has a good reputation for this (and it's perhaps worth noting that the *KODT comic* chose to print a set of expansion cards for Chopping Mall rather than Orcs At The Gates!), or, if you want a slightly more involved game and don't mind a sci-fi setting, "Space Hulk" is good too (although - I'm told - rather hard to get).
"Orcs at the Gates" tries to be KODT first and game second.. with the result that it gets out-KODTed by the comics, having thrown away its advantage of being a game. I really wanted to like this, but I honestly can't recommend it.
Style: 3 (Average)