Review of The Doctor Who Solitaire Story Game

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

March 26, 2012


by: Wyvern


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A cross between solo gamebook and random adventure generator. Can be quite a tough challenge, but it's still a lot of fun. If you're a fan of Doctor Who you should give it a shot. Did I mention that it's free?

Wyvern has written 18 reviews, with average style of 3.61 and average substance of 3.56. The reviewer's previous review was of Lady Blackbird.

This review has been read 2842 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: The Doctor Who Solitaire Story Game
Publisher: self-published
Author: Simon Cogan
Category: RPG (virtual)

Cost: free
Year: 2009



Review of The Doctor Who Solitaire Story Game
What It Is

I discovered the Doctor Who Solitaire Story Game a few weeks ago, quite by chance. It's not an officially licensed game like DWAITAS, but rather a fan-made labor of love available as a free download from BoardGameGeek. Since it's designed for solo play, I was able to do something I normally don't have the opportunity to: playtest it. So this will be my first playtest review.

The DWSSG assumes that you're familiar with the basic concepts of Doctor Who (as will this review), though detailed knowledge is not necessary. It's similar to a solo gamebook such as the Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf series, except that the story is constructed on-the-fly. In a sense, it's a hybrid of a gamebook and a random plot generator. The format is modeled after a couple of board games from the 80's, named Star Smuggler and Barbarian Prince both are available as free downloads here. (I've never played either of them, though I did download and skim through them.) Unlike its predecessors, the DWSSG doesn't use a board of any kind which is why I've classified it as a role-playing game rather than a board game, despite its origins. The other major difference is that each of the original games had two main books (one for rules and one for events), while the DWSSG has four (rules, adventures, events, and enemies).

With four books involved, not counting any expansions (of which there are many available, which I'll discuss later) you might expect a lot of page-flipping, virtual or otherwise. However, in the case of the Adventures and Enemy books, you'll normally remain on the same page for the entire adventure. There are also reference sheets available that summarize the rules (though unfortunately none of the ones I've seen are completely up-to-date and comprehensive; I may have to create one myself to fix that). Even without these, the rules you'll need to refer to most often are only spread across 8 pages or so, which means that most of the page-flipping you'll be doing is in the Events book.

How It Works

So how do you actually play this thing? In brief, the game is divided into turns 12 is the default number, and so far I haven't found any Adventures that are exceptions to this. After determining the stats for your version of the Doctor, you roll to see where the TARDIS has landed that is, which page in the Adventure book to turn to. This determines when and where you are, which in turn determines the possible choices for random encounters, and may also have other rules-related effects.

Each turn, you then choose an action such as Explore, Plan, Rest, Seek Information and so forth. There are 16 in the basic rules, plus another two offered as options in an appendix of the rulebook, and one of the expansions divides the Explore action up into various types depending on location, and adds Meddle and Challenge. However, not all of these are always available some can only be chosen in specific circumstances, and others are forbidden under certain circumstances. Most often, this involves whether or not you've encountered the Enemy, and whether you've discovered their Goal. These events cause some actions to be closed off and others to open up.

In any case, most actions involve rolling 2d6, adding modifiers, and consulting a table which tells you what the outcome is. In many cases, this results in an immediate Event. Those actions that don't have such a table usually require a Trait roll (more on those later) to accomplish something. For instance, the Move action requires a Tracking roll to reunite separated characters, the Rest action allows a Medicine roll to try to heal wounds, and the Rescue action requires a successful Thief roll.

After the action, and any subsequent encounters, are resolved, you make another 2d6 roll to see if you have any random encounters this turn. This roll starts at 7+ and goes down by 1 every 4 turns. If an encounter occurs, you roll 1d6 on a table to determine what type of encounter it is. The choices are Enemy, Event, Character and Location, with Enemy encounters becoming more common in later turns. Once you've encountered an Enemy, your next task is to discover their Goal. This requires getting a Plot event, a fifth category which isn't on the random encounters table but can be achieved through actions such as Investigate or Seek Information, or by meeting certain Characters who may know something useful (provided they can succeed at a Brains roll).

Each Goal has a number from 3-5 which determines the Defeat Modifiers (DM) you need to gain in order to Oppose the Enemy. Each Enemy gives you a bonus or penalty to DM (from +2 to -2) depending on how tough it is. Fortunately, you can start gaining DM before you know what the Goal is. Once you have enough DM to Oppose, you must usually encounter the Enemy again and Defeat it, either by beating it in a fight or by some other method specific to that Enemy. If you reach the end of the game without Defeating the Enemy, you lose Luck points. If you don't have enough left, you must roll 1d6 with a chance of dying permanently, regenerating, or losing a random Companion. If you successfully Defeat the Enemy, you gain Luck points, which can be saved for the next Adventure or used to improve your characters or convince an Ally to join you as a Companion.

That covers the overall flow of gameplay. Next, I'll take a look at the mechanical details character stats, Quality and Trait rolls, Luck points, and combat.

The Nitty-Gritty

The Character stats used by the DWSSG are the same as those in the Unauthorized Doctor Who CCG (which I've never played). Each character has three numeric Qualities Brains, Brawn and Bravery and a variable list of Traits (basically skills). The core roles are Ninth-Doctor-centric, but allow you to play as any incarnation ("official" stats for each of them are here) or even make up your own Time Lord. You start with a base of Brains 10, Brawn 4, Bravery 7 and have 5 points to distribute. You also get to pick eight Traits.

Just to be different, I decided to use the Shalka Doctor for my playtest. (I considered playing as Professor Chronotis, but decided he didn't seem the type to go gallivanting around space and time.) I statted him out thus:

Brains 13, Brawn 5, Bravery 8
Aware, Demolitions, Domination, Engineering, Gloating, History, Science, Thief*

Aside from the rolling-on-tables which is the game's main modus operandi, there are three different kind of tests involving character stats. The first two use 2d6, but one is roll-high and the other is roll-low. Quality rolls are simply a matter of rolling equal to or less than the Quality. Trait rolls are against a set difficulty, and often allow you to pool the Traits of everyone in the party. So the more allies you have that know Medicine, the better your chances of succeeding on a Medicine roll. The third kind of test, opposed Quality rolls, are less common (except in combat) and are Quality + 1d6, higher total wins. You can also spend a Luck point to reroll any die roll (not just tests) but only once per roll, and you have to abide by the results even if they're worse.

Combat occurs in rounds and involves opposed rolls of Brawn + 1d6, with the difference between rolls determining how badly the loser is wounded. Wounds inflict a penalty on Brawn, which makes for a really vicious death spiral. Each individual pairing of opponents is played out separately, but if one side has a numerical advantage they gain a bonus to their effective Brawn (+1 to +3 per additional combatant, depending on their Brawn). The use of 1d6 instead of 2d6 means that a small difference in Brawn can make a big difference to the outcome. If your effective Brawn is even 2 points less than your opponent's, you hardly stand a chance. (To elaborate: a difference of 2 points means the one with the lower Brawn has a 1-in-6 chance of winning the round, and a 1-in-9 chance of a draw and losing the round will mean at least a 1-point penalty to Brawn for the next round.) Now consider that the Doctor will have a maximum Brawn of 7 at the beginning of the game, whereas Enemies seem to have an average of about 8. Add to this the fact that unless you've acquired a lot of allies, you'll nearly always be outnumbered, and you'll see why combat is usually not a viable option.

Playtest Comments

I've written up a detailed Actual Play report of my three playtest games, which I'll post in the forums, but here's a brief summary. (You can also find a detailed example of play written by the author here, although some details have changed since it was written for instance, it doesn't mention rolling for a Landing event at the beginning of the Adventure.)

The first adventure took me to a sleepy little English town in 1962, which I soon discovered was threatened by an evil being known as the Jassra (an original creation by the author). I also made the acquaintance of a young schoolteacher, but lost her in a battle with the Jassra's ghoulish minions. Despite gaining enough DM to Oppose the Jassra, I failed the crucial roll to Defeat it in the final turn, and had no Luck points left for a reroll. Ignoring the dice roll that told me I was dead, I regenerated into Paterson Joseph.

The second playtest took me to a resort on an ice planet, where I encountered Autons. It seemed to be going better at first, and I found another ally, only to lose him again. I did manage to pull off a victory, though, literally at the last minute.

The third game took me to Elizabethan London, where I ran into a group of Weeping Angels who wanted to steal my TARDIS. I also gained the aid of a dashing highwayman and a young tavern-wench whom I persuaded to become my Companion. Things seemed to be looking up, but they took a turn for the worse around the 8th turn. From there it was mostly downhill. Despite a liberal interpretation of the rules for Evading the angels, and in the end outright cheating, I found myself repeatedly overwhelmed and gave up in the 11th turn rather than play through a fight to its inevitable grim conclusion.

The first game took me about three and a half hours (with interruptions), but I expect it goes a lot faster once you're more familiar with the rules. I didn't keep very good tabs on how long it took the second time, but I think the total playtime was less than two hours. I don't remember how long the third one took I think it was at least three hours, but part of that involved starting a fight over from the beginning when I realized I was using the wrong number for the enemy's Brawn. (I also took detailed notes of each playtest, which slowed things down.)

So what are my conclusions about the gameplay after trying it out? Well, as you might guess from reading the above, I found the difficulty level too high for my liking which is not to say that I didn't have fun playing it, or that I don't intend to play it again (though I'm not as eager to do so as I might have been if my first few games had gone better). It does mean that it's not a game for the easily-frustrated, and the temptation to cheat can be very strong. (Fortunately, since it's a solitaire game, you can cheat without needing to feel guilty about it.) There's a lot of randomness, and even if you do everything "right", you can still wind up losing because you failed a critical roll in the last turn (or even because you failed to roll an Enemy encounter when you needed one).

Beyond that general observation, I think the two biggest problems with the game are the difficulty of fights and the difficulty of acquiring allies both of which are contributing factors to the overall difficulty of the game.

I've already gone into why fights are tough. I know the response to that is "It's a Doctor Who game, you're not supposed to solve things by fighting." And while that's a valid point, sometimes you don't have a choice. In the case of the Weeping Angels, for instance, running away from them requires an 11+ Running roll which each character in your party has to make separately. Even if they have the Running trait, that means they need to roll a 10 or better (a 1 in 6 chance on 2d6). And while they can try again after each round of combat, in the meantime they're probably getting Wounds, which aren't easy to get rid of it takes a 10+ on a Medicine roll, and most of the Doctor's incarnations don't have the Medicine trait to give them a bonus. Granted, there are ways to increase your chances, but all of them take time which you may not be able to afford and most of them require equally difficult rolls themselves.

The second issue is that it's too hard to find (and keep) allies, which not only makes it harder to win but also doesn't feel true to the show. Unless you're playing with one of the Classic Doctor expansions, you start out alone. In my first two games of 12 turns each, I only managed to encounter two other Characters. Of course, that doesn't mean that you're wandering through empty streets, but the point is that the Doctor nearly always recruits help from locals, and the rules don't reflect this very well.** (To be fair, this may simply be my bad luck. Statistically speaking, there's a 21-in-36 chance of having an encounter on each of Turns 1-4, with a 1-in-3 chance of rolling a Character event. That works out to around a 42% chance of having at least one Character event in the first four turns. Still, that means a nearly 60% chance that you won't meet anyone interesting for at least four turns.)

Expansions

As I alluded to above, there are a number of expansions available for the DWSSG, and more on the way. And when I say "a number", I don't mean 3 or 4, I mean a couple of dozen, plus another dozen or so game aids. Among these are expansions for each of the "Classic" Doctors (1st through 8th); Classic Daleks and Cybermen; a Torchwood expansion; printable cards for allies, enemies, equipment, etc; various rules summaries and clarifications, and even a fan-made expansion allowing you to play as the Master! (There are also four expansions to bring the game up-to-date with the current series: one covering the specials that concluded the Tenth Doctor's tenure, one for each half of Series 5, and one for Series 6.) I haven't looked at all of them, but I did skim through a few. The most noteworthy ones include:

* "The Companion", a grab-bag of additional options, the most significant one being a merits & flaws system.*** (If I'd used this in my playtest, the Shalka Doctor would have had "Arrogant" and "Powers of Observation".)

* "Infinite Quests", which allows you to add overarching goals to the game.

* "New Adventures, New Beginnings" puts you in the role of an amnesiac Doctor, and requires you to recover your memories and your TARDIS in order to move on.

* "Storylines" adds a host of new Plot events specific to each of the Adventures in the core rules.

* The Torchwood expansion, in addition to adding the expected characters, aliens and scenarios from that show, tinkers with the basic formula a bit. Instead of starting out solo, you pick either Jack or Gwen as a team leader and select two other members for the team. The other Torchwood agents remain at the Hub and can be swapped in as needed by taking a Move action. Even if you don't like Torchwood, this provides a good model for an agency-based game (such as UNIT).

* The most inventive expansion is "The Silver Screen," which takes you to Golden Age Hollywood and adds a minigame in which you audition for a role in a movie, and then try to gain "stars" for your movie to ensure its success. (If you're really lucky, you might even win an Oscar!)

When trying out the game for the first time, you should probably stick to the core rules, though. Some of the expansions make changes to the Adventures and Events in the core rules, which means more things to keep track of. (The core rulebook itself includes several appendices with optional rules for such things as personality traits for Companions, tactical options in combat, and "scaling" adventures to make them progressively more difficult as your character becomes more capable.)

The game is also well-supported via a Yahoo group, which has the most recent updates of the rules (anyone can read the messages, but file access is limited to members). This is a good time to join, incidentally, because the author is planning a special event called "New Dimensions" beginning in April, in which anyone who signs up will be sent a new Adventure by email each week for 13 weeks. If you don't feel like joining the Yahoo group, the author can also be found in the forums here, at BoardGameGeek and at the DWAITAS boards.

Style

The writing in the DWSSG is clear and concise, with hardly any typos (bear in mind that I haven't read it from cover to cover for obvious reasons). The text is laid out in single-column format with a sans-serif font it's not fancy, but it works. Each page has a light blue background with geometric patterns on it. It doesn't affect readability, but it does mean it's not as printer-friendly as it could be, since the background is bound to use up a lot of ink.

As in DWAITAS, the DWSSG is illustrated with color photos, mostly from the new series (although the Classic expansions have photos from the original series, naturally), plus a few from other sources to represent Characters or Enemies which are the author's original creations. Each book also has a beautifully-designed cover page. The production values are good enough that it could pass for a professional work. If it were published by a professional outfit like Cubicle 7, I'd give it a 4 for Style, but for a homemade game it's exceptionally well put together, and deserves a 5.

Conclusions

You might think from the complaints I made above that I didn't like the game much. But as you can tell from my ratings, that's not the case. It's not a perfect game, and as I said before it's not for the easily-frustrated. However, it's a brilliant idea and well-executed. There are a lot of "fiddly bits", but most of these are clearly spelled out in the appropriate places, so you're unlikely to overlook them as long as you're paying attention and taking good notes. I did run into a few ambiguities during my playtest, but none of them were game-breakers. Since it's a solitaire game, you can just make your own judgment call and move on, and nobody is going to argue with you. (I later found answers to some of my questions in the FAQ document, and the author quickly responded to the rest when I posted them in the Yahoo group.)

I'd love to see this format adapted for other settings; the team rules introduced in the Torchwood expansion would be a great fit for something like Hellboy, Men in Black, Stargate SG-1 or Sanctuary. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to create a Star Wars or Star Trek game based on the same model, perhaps borrowing a few ideas from Star Smuggler. (It would be a lot more work than a typical game conversion, of course, because it'd require writing dozens of new events, enemies, etc..)

Furthermore, I think that the game has great potential for use as an adventure generator for DWAITAS (or whatever your system of choice is for running Doctor Who games). It might not be practical to use it on-the-fly, but there's no need to play through an entire game either simply let the dice pick an Adventure location, an Enemy and their Goal, and a few random Characters and Events for the PCs to encounter.

Deciding what Substance rating to give it was difficult. I was hesitant to give it a perfect score in light of the problems I've described, plus I didn't want to let my liking for Doctor Who bias my judgment. On the other hand, just because I found it harder than I like doesn't mean that everyone will. The ideal difficulty level is subjective, and three games are not an extensive playtest. I'm giving it a 4, but it's a high 4. I could just as easily have given it a 4 for Style and a 5 for Substance. It's not a 10/10, but it definitely merits a 9/10 in my opinion. As a game, it's good. As a free game, it's outstanding.


* I was tempted to give him Music, since his singing ability is of pivotal importance in "Scream of the Shalka", but I wasn't sure how useful it would be given that Music is a recent addition to the rules; also, I couldn't decide which of his other Traits I would give up for it.

** I'm not sure of the best way to fix this; adding more Character events to the encounter chart would mean replacing something else, which would create its own problems. You could change the chart to use 2d6 instead of 1d6, but that would have to be done carefully to get the probabilities right. Another solution would be to allow the player to move up or down one step on the chart if they so desire. They'd still roll the dice to determine what Character (or Event, etc.) they encounter, but it would give them a bit more control over the story, which wouldn't be a bad thing.

*** I have a minor quibble regarding the choice of terminology: calling the skills "Traits" and the merits & flaws "Abilities" is slightly counter-intuitive, especially for those already familiar with RPG jargon.

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