For a simple to play game, Gauntlet of Fools is the most innovative and strategic games released this entire year.
Plus, there are more high quality bits in this game than any I know in this price range (less than $30 when offered as a kickstarter project).
Gauntlet of Fools is a dungeon crawler with a twist. Though the dungeon itself as an entity in nonexistent, the twist is that all of the heroes die. That’s the way the game ends, with all heroes expiring to the dangers of the dungeon.
Donald X. Vaccarino, designer of Dominion and Kingdom Builder to name but two, designed this game. It isn’t some older design brought out of a closet, but one created this year.
Another twist is the way the players select heroes. The game purposely has characters and weapons that are better than others in the game. The game mechanics and the gamers balance these out. Each character is drawn randomly (1 for each player in the game) and matched with a randomly drawn weapon.
Then the gamers will start and unique bidding of sorts. It involves boasts that will get the gamer the hero he or she wants, but at a cost.
“This game has a flavor premise,” said Vaccarino. “There's this cliché where you say, ‘I could beat you with one arm tied behind my back!’ This came up one day and I thought, I could make a game out of that. That premise suggests that the players will fight each other, but it seemed simpler to fight other stuff. So you fight through a gauntlet. Probably fighting each other also would have worked, but the gauntlet worked and I never tried it another way. Once you were fighting through a gauntlet, there were two natural ways to end it - by dying or by getting through the gauntlet. Playing until we died didn't seem special to me, it was just one of the obvious ways to end it. I preferred keeping going to having an end. We could have said, ‘At four wounds you are too weak to continue, and leave with your treasure,’ but well what fun is that?”
So each boast (hangover, hopping on one leg, juggling, etc.) carries with it a penalty. Each gamer can either take a hero with no boasts or steal a character from another player by adding one boast to that character. Eventually each player will have a hero and into the gauntlet they go.
The threats in the gauntlet are randomly drawn and each hero fights the same monster at the same time but unaffected by what the other players are doing. Each will either defeat the threat and gain treasure or fail and get nothing. Each will also dodge the threat or take some damage.
Some threats will give bonuses other than treasures or give out punishments other than wounds. Many of the characters and weapons have abilities that use tokens. When those tokens are used up, the ability goes away.
“You have to read two cards per player at the start, so with new players I prefer fewer players,” said Vaccarino. “Otherwise it plays well with two to six. For two players there's a variant where you each get two heroes and pick which one to send to each encounter. That works well; some people may prefer that to the normal game, while others prefer the game with three to six. With more players you spend longer on the boasting phase and of course there are more people who might win instead of you. I think both of those things are fine.”
The game can be over quickly. The combat resolution is dice driven in one direction, when the hero attacks the threat. The monster’s attack number is always the same. So, bad rolls and random tough monsters can bring the heroes down rapidly. It can also last longer with good rolls.
“The game is intentionally short,” said Vaccarino. “Just play several games in a row; that's what we do. Originally you played three rounds and added up your money. But that just meant that you might play a round or two effectively out of contention. I could have made later rounds worth more, ala Jeopardy, but that sounded bad.”
There are a great number of cardboard chits to make keeping track of bonuses and abilities quite easy.
The only slight negative is that there might not be any expansions released.
“I'm not planning on an expansion,” said Vaccarion. “I guess I can't rule one out, but I didn't save anything for later. If I do more of this it will probably be a sequel rather than an expansion.”
This game will provide extensive play with the variety of character/weapon combinations and the numerous monsters in the deck. I can’t imagine getting tired of playing this any time soon.