Desolate: Review

If you haven’t heard, Fairway is judging a contest at The Game Crafter: The Solo Game Challenge. What better time for him to review a new, solo game from Grey Gnome Games available from The Game Crafter: Desolate.

Desolate is a one-player only survival game from Jason Glover and Grey Gnome Games in which the player is the lone survivor of an ill-fated rescue mission to a distant moon. The player must survive a series challenges with limited health, ammunition and air and recover five power cells before you die.

Initial Impressions

  1. The game is almost entirely done in greyscale that calls to mind a classic sci-fi horror movie. And while aspects of the game’s art have a more modern, futuristic appeal, the greyscale draws on that retro horror vibe.  The only dashes of color are from the three trackers for health, oxygen and ammunition and the five bright green energy cells.
  2. There’s not a lot of cards in this game with only 15 cards making up a bulk of the actual game play.
  3. The game was easy to learn: draw two cards, reveal one, decide if to discard and reveal another, engage in combat, rinse, repeat.
  4. It also plays quickly. Most of my playthroughs are done in less than 20 minutes.

How to play

To start a game of Desolate, the player takes the two tracker cards: health and oxygen and ammo trackers and places the three colored markers on the highest values (14, 4, and 7, respectively).   Next the player shuffles a small deck of Item cards and draws three and keeps two of them.  These item cards provide the player with various bonuses, including some that extend the amount of life or oxygen or enable the player to take specialized actions. The remaining Item cards are set aside. Now, the two remaining decks, exploration cards and conflict cards, are separated and shuffled and placed face down on the table forming a draw pile.

Now you’re ready to play.

A game of Desolate is played over a series of “levels.” Each level consists of series of turns until the player goes through the entire exploration deck.  Each turn has two phases: draw and reveal.  At the start of a turn, the player will draw two cards from the top of the Exploration deck and place them face down on the table.  Then, the player will reveal one of the two face down cards and either resolve it or discard it.  If the player elects to discard the card, the second card is revealed and must be resolved.

When resolving a card, there are two types of exploration cards: rooms and conflicts. Resolving a room card will gain the associated resource or action. For example, resolving the Armory will provide the player two ammo.

Resolving a conflict card means the player engages an enemy alien.  This is done by revealing the top card of the conflict deck.  Each conflict card has two spaces for a die. The total of the dice on this space is the total number of hit points for the alien. The first die is taken from the number next to the “CONFLICT!” title on the Exploration card.  The second die is the value shown on the Conflict card itself. The bigger the combined value, the harder the combat will be.

Once the dice are assigned, combat begins. First, the player takes damage first lowering the player’s health. The amount of damage is indicated below the dice on the Conflict card. Second, the player must decide how much ammo to spend on the attack.  Each round of ammo provides the player with one die. So, four ammo means four dice. If the player spends no ammo, he or she will do only a single point of damage to the alien. With the spent ammo, the player rolls the dice and sums up the value.  If the total is greater than or equal to the alien’s health, the player claims victory. Otherwise, you reduce the life of the alien by counting down on the dice on the Conflict card and then starting over with taking damage by drawing the next card in the Conflict deck.

If a player is victorious, they will draw another Exploration card and choose either the small or large crate on the bottom side of the card.

At the end of a level, the player lowers their oxygen by two (not one, two!) and the exploration cards are reshuffled. If the player runs out of oxygen or health drops to zero, they die.

The only way to win is to find the five power cells.  And that might be victory enough, but you can use the total of health, oxygen and ammo left as a measure of that success.

In the hole

Art and theme.  Desolate captures the retro, horror, sci-fi vibe really well. The grey scale cards and illustrations give the game a feeling of desperation. And the grey-white feels lunar/spacey. It’s compelling and eye catching. This meshes with the overall feeling of the game: a desperate attempt to survive, by yourself, on a distant moon.

Learning and play time.  Both of these are excellent.  A game taken to conclusion is easily completed in twenty minutes. The simple set up and easy to follow combat and exploration mechanisms make quick work of what could have been overly-complex game play.

The fact that the exploration deck is only 15 cards means that the “levels” go impossibly fast at times.  It’s always at least two cards per turn. If you end up opening a crate, that’s an extra card a turn. And you’ve only got enough to do three levels unless you find some oxygen.

Combat. Probably one of the more innovative things the game does is make use of thoughtful combat mechanism that paired well with the game. At heart, Desolate is a resource-management, survival game. That resource management shows up in the in-game conflict of “how much ammo do I really spend on this alien?”  Is the player going to play conservative and take three dice to roll six or just two and risk losing health and spending the ammo anyway. This is not an instance of a game designer just tagging on their favorite die-rolling combat mechanism.

Where it comes up short

So, while I was playing, I started asking myself: is there a reasonable, reliable pattern to this game that increases the likelihood you’ll win most of the time?  I think the answer is, “yes.”  And the more I played it, the more I found myself unable to think of a reason to stop following the pattern.  See, the game has you draw two exploration cards.  You always have the choice to ignore the first one you turn up. If you reveal a conflict card on this card, there’s no reason to resolve it. Resolving a conflict means you lose life, don’t get to see the second card (which might have the fuel cell), and when you win, you must draw another exploration card for the crate — thus, you lose one extra flip and lose the chance it’s the fuel cell. So, unless the first card is a room you can take for resource, you don’t take that card.

Let me be clear, though: I actually don’t think this is that big an issue.  It’s, in part, a function of the game itself and an aspect of the providing player some choice. One minor tweak might make resolving the first card more worthwhile: instead of drawing a new card from the exploration deck, use the other face down card.  This actually does a few things: it means that you know what card was face down. And second, it doesn’t cause you to waste needlessly an exploration card as a “reward” for combat.

In the hole

Desolate is a solo gaming gem: quick, simple, engaging, and immersive. The art direction and theme are a perfect fit a resource management, survival game. The survival and resource management is intertwined in every aspect of the game. I think anyone looking for a solitaire game, who likes great illustrations and a sci-fi theme will like this game. It’s on my definite recommend list for solo play.

You can pick up a copy of the game from The Game Crafter: Desolate.

Desolate is in the hole for a Birdie.

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You can see the full contest rules here.


In this contest, you must design a new game in which the primary player count is 1. A solo game is one like Friday or Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island or Onirim in which an entire game is expected to be played without another player. You can find additional examples on BoardGameGeek.

The contest will be judged by Mike Wokasch of Fairway 3 Games, LLC. His game Starving Artists contains a solo variant and he was the designer of the solo variant for Underlings of Underwing.

To qualify, your game must comply with all of the following rules:

  • Your game must be playable with only a single player. Games with additional player counts will be judged based on the solo game, except that the inclusion of player counts may garner points in the “other” category of the rubric.
  • You may use any printables or game pieces.
  • The total cost of your game must be less than $34.99
  • Play time should be no more than 60 minutes, once you’ve learned the game.
  • Any theme or narrative is allowed and unique themes are encouraged.
  • A rules document must be downloadable from your game’s shop page.
  • The game must be publish ready (as it relates to our shop, not as it relates to being finished). This means it has a logo, backdrop, shop ad, action shots, description, and cool factors. It must also have all images proofed, and have packaging.
  • This must be a new game created for this contest. It cannot have existed on TGC prior to the start of the contest.
  • All artwork must be your own, commissioned by you, licensed to you, or in the public domain.
  • All entries must be submitted through TGC’s game editor (by clicking on the “Contests” button) no later than Noon UTC (6am US Central) on July 23, 2018.
  • Contestants may submit multiple entries to this contest. Each entry will be judged separately.

Notes

You retain all rights to your game and are welcome to sell it in our shop during and after the contest, regardless of the outcome of the contest.

The first round of judging is handled by a community voting process. The final two rounds are handled by the judge. See complete details.

Prizes

All of the finalists shall receive a review by The Indie Game Report.

The winner shall receive all of the following prizes:

  • Automatic Showcase status for their game on thegamecrafter.com.
  • 100,000 crafter points.
  • $100 of shop credit on thegamecrafter.com.
  • The possibility of judging a future contest.
  • Induction into The Game Crafter Hall of Fame.

This post was originally published on The Indie Game Report: https://www.theindiegamereport.com/2018/05/desolate-review/

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