Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is Alive in Spire’s End
We love stories, especially the ones we get to influence their plot. Perhaps that’s why games like Mass Effect and Skyrim continue to perform well so long after their initial release. That’s the very reason why I love Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon and Betrayal Legacy. There’s just something so much more engaging about being a part of the story and getting to decide the final outcome, not unlike the “choose-your-own-adventure” books that were popular through the 80s and 90s.
In 2019, Greg Favro self-published Spire’s End, which was designed to capture the same feeling of a choose-your-own-adventure book in a deck of cards. This small box card game is loaded with a branching storyline, impressive artwork, challenging combat, and just a few loose components making it a great game to take on the go.
Before diving into the premise and mechanics of Spire’s End, we absolutely have to call attention to the artwork. Illustrated by Benjamin Wiesemann, Spire’s End utilizes a Sin City-like color palette of grayscale with flairs of vibrant red. The stylistic character art features overly-pronounced armor and exaggerated features complete with sketch lines in less-sexualized recreation of Adam Poot’s Kingdom Death: Monster. I personally prefer personal the massive boxes like Gloomhaven for my story-telling games, solely for the amount of content and replay value that they typically offer. However, I must admit that the artwork alone was what drew my attention to this small-box adventure and I’m very grateful for that.
A blood red eclipse covers the moon in the dead of night and from the ground rises a massive spire that devastates your home town. Ruin and a hurried note from your uncle are all that remains. He apologizes for being a coward and running when the chaos began, but he knows you’re not as afraid as he was. You collect your gear and approach the towering spire, daring it to be as unwavering as you while you explore its depths and unlock the mystery of where it came from and what happened to your fellow townsfolk.
To start a game of Spire’s End, players simply need to draw the top card of the deck. The first few cards act as the rulebook and provide players with the game’s rules and terminology. By following the numbered instructional cards one at a time, players will quickly learn how to play and be ready to set off on their journey. Regardless of whether you’re playing solo or with another player, there should be two face-up allies in the play area that act as the player characters. In the likely case that one of these characters die, a new ally will be drawn from the deck. If players ever run out of ally cards to draw from, the game is lost.
Exploring the Spire is a challenging endeavor but that doesn’t mean the experience has to be a complicated one. The story of Spire’s End is advanced by either “pulling” or “revealing” a card in the deck as instructed by the current card. If players are instructed to reveal a card in the deck they draw the numbered card from the deck as instructed and all cards in between will not be a part of this story. For example, if I’ve just completed the challenge on card three and am instructed to reveal card number eight, then cards five, six, and seven are set aside but kept in order for easy clean up.
Players who want to experience what was on unrevealed cards will simply need to make different choices on their next play-through. Pulling a card is only slightly different. In this case, the card players are instructed to take will not advance the deck and the number cards between the current one and the drawn card are not removed and may still be revealed at a later time. Cards that are pulled typically represent acquired key items or reference cards that will stay in play until used.
Revealed cards present players will narrative decisions whose success is determined by the roll of a D10. More often than not players will be presented with descriptions of two different, but equally grimy, hallways. After making their choice, players will be instructed to roll the D10 to see what hazards they encounter on the way. Perhaps they roll low and the mushrooms on the wall burst into spores and poison the player for the next battle. Or maybe a high roll results in players discovering a torch to help them along down a dark hallway and avoid a deadly trap.
Players will often encounter hostile creatures and enter into combat situations with all manner of cavernous dwellers. Spire’s End is mostly driven by dice rolling and combat is no different. If there weren’t enough random elements of luck for you yet, here’s where you’ll really get your fix.
Combat turns take place in three steps: Action, Recoup, and Upkeep. Each of the seven playable characters have five abilities to choose from as their attack action, but all of those actions come at a steep price. Every attack players take will be an exercise in risk assessment and management as each attack costs health to execute. The active player selects their attack, discards the required amount of health, and then rolls a die to see how successful they were. It’s entirely possible to sacrifice four health to use a strong attack, roll, and whiff it.
That’s why the last part of player activation, Recovery, is so important. As the final step, players get to choose one of their recovery abilities, and yet again, roll a die to see if they were successful. If they were, they can restore a small amount of health, offsetting the self-inflicted damage need to attack in the first place. If the recovery roll was unsuccessful, players simply don’t get their health back.
This is both one of the most engaging, and one of the worst aspects of Spire’s End. It’s easy to get engrossed in the story and the action, but the frustration of poor rolls can just as easily pull you right back out. No matter your familiarity with Spire’s End or your experience with similar board games, your experience will be the same. The dice dictate everything, and no level of skill will change that.
It’s this reason why I won’t be returning to the spire now that the journey is over. I was intrigued by the choose-your-own-adventure style, but the dependency on dice undermines the rest of the experience. Spire’s End offers a number of different possible endings which would normally entice me to return over and over to experience all of the possible pathways and outcomes. However, the impact of the die rolls are so influential, that they easily derail any attempts at discovering new endings. Even when deliberately choosing different paths, a bad die roll can lead players down roads of familiar story elements leaving Spire’s End feeling very repetitive after just a few plays.
Thanks to the shorter game length, there doesn’t need to be as many monsters to fight off as there are in most story games, and this actually works in Spire’s Ends‘ favor. Without the need for a menagerie of monsters, Favro was able to focus on designing a small cast of very diverse ones. Each monster presents players with unique status effects that force them to adapt their approach to combat with their limited amount of available abilities.
Spire’s End creates an interesting world that I would like to see more of because as it exists now, it feels fairly disjointed. The core atmosphere and superficial lore are well established but we never really have to opportunity to explore it in a greater depth. It’s hard to fault Favro for this. Since the very structure of “choose-your-own-adventures” requires writers to write with many narratives in mind, it’s damn near impossible to create something that is simultaneously, deep, concise, and offer broad player choice.
Greg Favro did an excellent job creating something interesting within the limiting confines of the genre. However, I fear that with the evolution of storytelling methods in modern board games and the impact of choice in titles like Tainted Grail makes more traditional formats of choose-your-own-adventures feel antiquated and sub-par. From a design perspective, Spire’s End nails it, but the standards of storytelling have moved well beyond what Favro was able to offer with this experience.
Spire’s End offers a number of different endings that make it fun to return to the spire to experience. Even though the combat encounters remain the same, the variety of playable characters presents players with new combat abilities and tactics to experiment with. That said, the limiting factor here is again the tyranny of the random dice rolls. The roll of the die has more sway over the player experience than player choice. As a fan of Betrayal At House on the Hill, I typically don’t mind the chaos of randomness, and even a little bit of imbalance, but in an instance where players are seeking an outcome so central to the game’s core mechanic, it feels bad to be told by a die that you can’t have what you’ve set out for.
Despite my complaints about randomness, I quite liked my time with Spire’s End. After my seven plays, I’ve already felt that it’s time to part with it and pass it on to its next victim. However, the experience was enjoyable enough so that, even if it has an equally short stay, I was happy to back Greg Favro’s next endeavor in Spire’s End: Hildegard, which looks like a far more family-friendly version of Spire’s End. At the very least Hildegard will feature more enthralling artwork; this time illustrated by Diego Frías and Sy Gardener. Since it will be his second self-published outing, I have a lot of faith that Favro will be refining the gameplay system to create a more enjoyable experience. In the meantime, I’ll continue to admire the artwork in his games and wish they experience matched success.
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The full story plays in about two hours time, if you can survive that long.
A phenomenally easy to learn game that make learning to play on your own, or teaching the rules to another a breeze. The simplicity and elegance of Favro’s tutorial and rules raises the bar.
Absolutely stunning artwork throughout.
There’s plenty to go back and explore in Spire’s End but by the time players are on their fourth or fifth playthrough, it loses its luster.