Defenders of the Realm

Design by:  Richard Launius
Published by:  Eagle Games
1 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

If you are a gamer, you will get a good idea of the nature of Defenders of the Realm by a simple statement:  it is Pandemic set in a fantasy world.  Evil forces invade a fantasy kingdom, bent on death and destruction.  When a sufficient number gather at a location, they surge forward, tainting the land and threatening the kingdom.  Four brave heroes attempt to stem the tide by combining their powers and utilizing their resources.  Success is elusive, and defeat is always at the threshold.  Only clever cooperation and a healthy dose of luck will save the kingdom.

Like Pandemic, Defenders of the Realm is a cooperative game.  One-to-four players join forces to do battle against four dark lords and their evil minions.  Players choose from eight different characters – cleric, rogue, sorceress, barbarian, ranger, wizard and more – all with their own unique powers.  They huddle in Monarch City, which is located at the center of the realm, planning their course of action.  Four dark lords and their minions gather at the edges of the kingdom and begin their relentless march towards the central city.

Each turn, a player may perform a number of actions equal to their character’s life points (“hit points” in familiar fantasy vernacular.), which may diminish during the course of the game as characters are injured.  Actions include movement, performing a special skill, building a magic gate, listening for rumors, healing wounds, healing a tainted land, and engaging in combat.  Most of a player’s actions are usually occupied by moving around the realm, battling minions, and healing tainted lands.  Eventually, players will collect enough hero cards to attempt a confrontation with one of the enemy lords.  The ultimate goal for the players is to vanquish all four Dark Lords before the realm collapses.  While victory is only achieved in this one manner, defeat has many faces.  If an enemy lord or five minions enter Monarch City, the realm falls.  If all twelve taint markers appear in the lands, the realm falls.  If all of one lord’s minions invade the land, the realm falls.  The odds are decidedly stacked against the heroes.

Combat with minions is conducted by rolling dice.  Depending upon the minions involved in the conflict, a roll greater than three-to-five will be required to defeat each one.  A player will not suffer any wounds unless he is present in a space with minions at the end of his turn.  Usually, players will preserve at least one action to depart a space in the event all minions in that area are not defeated.  If a player does remain in an area containing minions, one wound will be suffered for each minion present.  Sometimes this is necessary, particularly if players are attempting to gather in order to confront a Dark Lord.

Battling a Dark Lord is a cooperative effort, and far more dangerous.  Each evil lord has a fairly high number of life points, and it usually takes a high roll to inflict damage.  It is suicidal for one player to confront a Dark Lord alone, so players must join forces by gathering in the same area as an enemy lord, hoping he doesn’t move before they are able to assemble.  The number of dice a player can roll in combat with a Dark Lord is based on the number of dice symbols on the cards they possess that match the color of the Dark Lord.  Players take turns rolling the dice and inflicting damage, but these rolls may be modified by a lord’s specific power.  If the lord is vanquished after all dice are rolled, the player dealing the final blow becomes a slayer, receiving the Dark Lord’s card as a trophy.  This allows that player to automatically defeat all surviving minions of that Lord for the remainder of the game.  In addition, all players involved in the combat receive three hero cards. Failure, however, results in extreme hardship for the players, usually the loss of life points and hero cards.  Further, Dark Lords begin healing any damage immediately, and will soon return to full strength.  The lesson:  only go into battle with a Dark Lord when the players collectively possess an abundance of hero cards that match the evil lord.

After a player conducts his actions, he draws two hero cards, and the Dark Lords are then activated.  Early in the game, only one “Darkness Spreads” card is revealed after each player’s turn.  As the game progresses and Dark Lords are defeated, two and then three cards will be revealed following each player turn.  These cards each list two territories where one or more new minions are placed, as well as instructions for a Dark Lord to move to a specific territory, but only if it is adjacent to that territory.  This moves the Dark Lords inexorably towards Monarch City.

When placing new minions, if an area reaches four minions, they will taint the land (a suitable marker is placed) and surge forward.  This process is very similar to that found in Pandemic.  A new minion is added to each adjacent territory, which could cause those areas to become tainted.  However, these adjacent areas will not surge forward, so if a fourth minion would be placed in one of those areas, it is not placed.  So, unlike Pandemic, surging minions will not cause a chain reaction.  Since players can meet defeat by the depletion of the supply of one type of minion or the supply of taint markers, players must be vigilant in their efforts to defeat minions and heal the land.  Of course, this has the danger of them being sidetracked from their ultimate goal of defeating the four Dark Lords.

Taint markers can appear suddenly, posing a constant threat to the realm.

Healing a tainted land requires the play of a card matching the color of the land, and then rolling dice.  Some characters have special abilities which will improve their chances.

I have just described the crux of the game.  There are more elements and details, including quests, which reward players with hero cards and other abilities upon their successful completion.  These certainly can be useful to the players, but they should not be too distracted from their ultimate goal.

As with all cooperative style games, players must, well, cooperate in order to have any chance of success.  The assembling of hero cards is essential, as these are not only used to combat Dark Lords, but can also be used to enhance movement and construct gates that can transport characters across the realm quickly.  Players must jointly plan their actions, taking into account their special powers and collection of cards.  These plans, however, are subject to change as the minions and Dark Lords surge forward, tainting the land and posing a constant and escalating threat to the realm.

As with Pandemic and Ghost Stories, the threat in Defenders of the Realm is persistent and unrelenting.  Just when one threat is suppressed, another one or two arise.  Players are often forced to postpone their plans to deal with these constant threats.  The big challenge is to keep these threats from becoming too severe, while at the same time continuing to assemble the correct type of hero cards to battle and defeat Dark Lords.  These constant threats help make the game continuously tense and exciting.

Fans of both the cooperative and fantasy genres will find much to enjoy here.  There is strategy, tactics, atmosphere and even a healthy dose of luck.  Anytime dice are involved, one’s fate cannot be certain.  I’ve seen several promising battles against minions and Lords turn sour quickly.  Fans of the fantasy genre and American-style games tend not to have as many issues with dice, however, as do staunch European game fans.

I also must give fairly high marks for the game’s components.  The miniatures are quite attractive, including the large dragon figures.  The character plaques and cards are nicely illustrated and, for the most part, easy to understand.  There are some rules ambiguities, and the colors used on the board and cover are somewhat garish.  These can be overlooked, however, as the game itself is fun, exciting and tense.   It is a nice marriage between the cooperative and fantasy genres that is sure to please more than just the fans of both those styles of games.