Call to Adventure
Designer: Johnny O’Neal, Christopher O’Neal
Publisher: Brotherwise Games
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 60 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play this game.
Every hero, and every villain, has an origin. A sequence of chance encounters, changes of fortune, and unexpected opportunities that made them into such awesome figures. Call to Adventure places you in the shoes of a person brimming with potential. You must navigate the tides of fortune and ultimately achieve your destiny!
Call to Adventure is a storytelling card game. Your story begins with three cards: an origin, a motivation, and a destiny. Your origin and motivation are public knowledge, and will give you bonuses in certain situations. Your destiny is hidden, as it will be a significant source of victory points at the end of the game. In addition to a unique effect, your origin will also provide you with two attribute icons. These are tied to the traditional Dungeon & Dragons traits: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Your origin gives you a natural advantage in two of these attributes. Your Motivation will provide an additional bonus and other icons to help guide you along your path.
The game is divided into three acts. The first elaborates upon your origin. The second expands on your motivation, and the third will solidify your destiny. Each Act has a unique deck of story cards. These cards come in two varieties: traits and encounters. Trait cards simply require that you fulfill a condition. For example, one might require that you have an intelligence attribute icon in your story. If you fulfill that condition, you can claim the card. Encounters will test your skills, and provide you with a choice to further define your hero’s journey.
For example: the Cruel Winter Act 1 encounter card tests your dexterity and constitution. What this means is that any dexterity and constitution attribute icons will help you accomplish the encounter. But the encounter has two paths you can follow: the top of the card reads “Steal to Survive,” while the bottom reads “Forage for Food.”
Before you attempt the challenge, you have to select which path your character will follow. If you Steal to Survive, you’ll earn a second dexterity attribute icon, which will make you even better at dexterity-based encounters for the rest of the game. But you’ll also earn a tragedy point, signifying that your character had to take a darker path to get to their destiny. If you Forage for Food, you’ll earn a second constitution attribute icon, which again makes you better at constitution challenges for the rest of the game. You’ll also earn a “Nature” story icon, which has no immediate benefit but will earn you victory points later on if you acquire more of them.
So how do challenges work? In a more traditional game, you would roll some dice, add modifiers for attribute icons, and see if you win. But this game comes to us via Kickstarter. It takes more than mere dice to attract backers! Instead, this game uses runes. The game comes with 24 plastic “stones,” each with a different symbol carved on the front and back.
To make a check, you take the three core runes and add an attribute rune for each attribute icon you have that matches the attribute tested by the challenge. You max out at 3 runes per attribute, so accumulating more dexterity icons when you already have 3 won’t make you even more powerful. Once you have your pool of runes, you shake them up and cast them on the table.
Every rune has one side that displays a line, which is one success. Most runes have a specialized symbol on the back that represents two successes, though some runes have alternative effects on the back, or are just blank. You count up your successes, and if you equal or exceed the challenge rating for the encounter, you win! If you fail, the card is removed from the game and you earn an experience point. More on those later.
Whether you claim a trait or an encounter card, the next step is the same: you slide that card underneath your Origin so that the name of the path you followed and the reward you received is just visible above the top or bottom of the origin card. Then the next player goes. Once a player has tucked three cards underneath their origin, then they are finished with Act 1 and move on to Act 2. Act 2 has more difficult encounters, and any cards you claim are tucked under your Motivation instead of your Origin. Once another player has started working on Act 2, other players who haven’t finished Act 1 can start attempting those challenges instead to get greater rewards, but they are also more difficult. After a player has three cards under their Motivation, they move on to Act 3. And once they have three cards tucked under their Destiny, the game is over.
But there are a few extra mechanics that really help this game shine. First, experience points are a sort of currency in the game. You earn them when you fail a quest, or when your origin or motivation cards tell you to. On your turn, you can spend one to discard a card from the tableau and draw a new one if you don’t like the options currently available. Or, when you’re attempting a challenge, you can spend an experience point to add a “Dark Rune” to your pool. Dark runes are effectively just as powerful as attribute runes, but they have a twist. If it lands with the crescent moon facing up, you still get two success towards your challenge, but you also gain one corruption.
At the start of the game, your alignment marker sits at a neutral position. When you gain corruption, your alignment marker drops as you become more and more evil. Conversely, some cards will earn you Virtue, which raises your alignment marker. At the end of the game, you’ll Triumph or Tragedy points depending on where your alignment marker finishes. You’ll get a lot of Triumph points if you are a virtuous hero, or you can get some Tragedy points by being somewhat evil. If you’re too evil, though, you’ll actually lose Triumph points.
Wait, what? How does that make any sense? In Call to Adventure, Triumph and Tragedy points can coexist. In fact, when calculating your final score, you add your triumph and tragedy points together. So your character can be a virtuous hero or a ruthless vigilante without suffering a serious penalty. If you descend into true villainy, though, you suffer a true penalty.
Call to Adventure also adds two more decks to the game: the hero deck, and the anti-hero deck. Your alignment marker determines which type of cards you are allowed to play on your turn. If you’re fairly neutral, you can play any type. If you’re virtuous, you can only play Hero cards, while darker characters can only play anti-hero cards. These cards allow you to modify the rules and interact with the other players. The hero cards let you add additional attribute runes to your rune pool, gain extra experience points, and call upon other players for aid with difficult challenges. Also, every hero card you play is worth one triumph point at the end of the game.
Anti-hero cards are darker. They let you bend the rules, like giving you recasts of the runes or letting you flip a rune to the other side. They also let you force another player to attempt a challenge again after they’ve failed, or let you sneak in the final blow if another player fails to accomplish a challenge that you wanted to face. Each Anti-hero card is worth one Tragedy point at the end of the game. So, playing these cards is a great way to get extra points and modify your score.
So, determining who wins is fairly simple. You count up everyone’s tragedy and triumph points, add any unspent experience points, and any bonus points provided by a player’s destiny card. Finally, you add points for story icons. Remember those? I mentioned them way back at the beginning. There are six story icons (divinity, justice, arcana, royalty, villainy, and nature). If you get two matching icons, that’s 2 points. Three is worth 4 points, and four or more are worth 8 points. In other words, the game rewards you for continuing down certain story paths. You may have planned to be a knight who protects the realm, but a quest to hunt a mysterious beast that earned you a strength rune may also point you in a direction towards Nature. And now you may find yourself becoming an intrepid but solitary hunter who protects the forests from intruders.
But that’s not the real end of the game. No, the true ending comes when each player shares the story they have just spent the last 45 minutes weaving together. And as you develop your experience playing the game, you can also develop your skills as a storyteller! At first, you may be focused on just trying to connect the 12 cards in your story into something relatively coherent. But over time, you’ll find ways to incorporate the other players’ characters into your story. One friend told me of a game he played where three players created heroes, while the fourth ended up with a villain, and so his version of the story intersected the other three players’ stories as their primary adversary throughout. Gah, that’s so cool!
So here’s the thing. Call to Adventure is not a strategically deep game. There's no real test of skill and there are minimal ways to interact with other players. If everyone goes down a virtuous path, you’re basically playing a light tableau-builder. There’s just not enough meat to this game for it to stay interesting. The only reason Call to Adventure has any lasting appeal for me is the storytelling element. When I’m play this game, I spend a some time thinking about which story cards I want and how I’m going to accomplish challenges to earn enough victory points to win. But I spend most of my time crafting the story I’m going to share at the end! And what makes Call to Adventure a wonderful experience is that by focusing on the cards that make for a more engaging and coherent narrative, I’m also putting myself in a better position to win! My goody-two-shoes Knight might earn a bunch of points for becoming the new Guildmaster of the Assassin's guild. But they’ll earn more points overall by saving the Queen from an assassination attempt.
After playing a few times,, you may find that your stories are getting a bit bland and repetitive. That’s when you can throw in the game’s built-in expansion: Allies and Adversaries. Allies are special story cards that are initially tied to encounters. When you attempt an encounter that has an Ally associated with it, the challenge rating goes up by one. But if you succeed, you also recruit the Ally card. This card gives you a bonus that you can call upon by spending experience points, or by sacrificing the ally. Allies only appear in Acts 1 and 2. Adversaries are special encounter cards mixed into Acts 2 and 3. When these are face up in the center tableau, they have passive effects that alter the game’s rules for every player until someone defeats them. With just these two small additions, the narrative possibilities explode and make for an awesome new experience.
And maybe you find that you don’t really enjoy the game as a competitive exercise. That’s fine, the game also has rules to play cooperatively. Simply select one of the Adversary cards to be the party’s nemesis, put that adversary’s quest card into play, and shuffle up the adversary’s special deck of anti-hero cards. The players then spend eight turns building up their character until the final round when they all can try to defeat the adversary once and for all. I find the core game to be a bit more fun, but I’m quite impressed at the desginers for producing special cards just for the cooperative version to make that mode more fun for players.
But wait, there's more! As might be obvious from the game’s theme, Call to Adventure’s designers were heavily influenced by contemporary fantasy literature. To that end, the first expansion to Call to Adventure is based on Patrick Rothfuss’ hit series The Name of the Wind. The expansion adds a number of new encounters, traits, origins, and even the opportunity to learn the Name of Iron, Fire, or the Wind to further expand your hero's story! And in Summer 2020, Brotherwise Games is scheduled to release a standalone expansion based on Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.
Call to Adventure is, in many ways, the ultimate storytelling game. You will face triumph and tragedy aplenty as you wander your way through life’s paths. If the fantasy literary genre doesn’t appeal to you, then there’s nothing for you in this game. Similarly, if you play board games for demonstrate your skill at optimization or to challenge yourself to overcome a difficult obstacle, well, you’ll going to be bored or disappointed here. But if you want to take a stab at creating your own narrative or if you just love sharing your favorite D&D character’s life story, then you will absolutely love Call to Adventure. You should play this game.