Notes: This review was originally written at http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/08/29/tabletop-review-compact-heroes/ and covered the physical copy of the game in its original Kickstarter form.
Being a tabletop RPG fan in the military is tough. I wouldn’t know personally, but every one of my friends who was (or currently is) in the Armed Forces is a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and the like. Unfortunately RPG books are cumbersome, awkwardly sized (compared to say, paperbacks) and heavy. Because of this it’s hard to take them when you are shipped overseas and even harder to take when you are in the field. It’s kind of hard to have a Player’s Handbook, DM Guide, Monster Manual, character sheets when you are deployed. Things like the Kindle and Laptop make it easier, but some companies don’t put their games out in PDF format but then you have to deal with things like sand getting in the electronics, the cost of replacing those things (and all your books!) if you lose them, and so much more. The difficulty in playing a tabletop RPG when you are in the military is what caused Rob Waibel, creator of Compact Heroes to make his RPG/card game hybrid.
Unlike other card games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, this is not a collectable card game. It’s also not a standalone card game like Gloom either. It’s an actual RPG that happens to be contained in card form. The “starter deck” is all you need to play the game and the box it comes in with roughly the length of two playing card decks. It’s similar to the two player starter packs M:TG and Pokemon used to do, but an entire tabletop style RPG instead of a customizable deck. The cards are broken down into seven categories: Character Sheets, Character Races, Character Spells, Character Skills, Character Equipment, Monsters and DM Cards.
The character sheets literally fit on a single playing card and you can use a pencil to erase and re-write on the card to make a new character. Character stats are: Strength (each point gives you 1 extra point of damage), Agility (which adds to your Evade score, which is AC in this game), Endurance (Each point in this gives you an extra 2d6 Hit Points), Intellect (each point in this lets your spells do an extra point of damage and your number of Intellect Points determines the number of spells you can cast) and Luck (dealing with traps, poison, etc). All characters start with a flat 10 Hit Points and a skill point which can be used to pick from any of the skills card options. You get two points to put into the five categories, along with a point based on your character’s race. Yes that means you will start with some stats with a 0 rating, but that’s not a bad thing. Consider 0 to simply be “average.”
Character races include Human, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling. Humans get an extra point of Strength AND an extra skill (letting them start with two). Elves get a point of Intellect and infra-red vision. Dwarves get a point of Endurance and +1 to resist poison and disease. Halflings get +1 Luck and +1 Evade. Overall Humans are by far the best class as two skill points at the beginning of a game is INSANE.
There aren’t a lot of magic cards in the Starter Deck. You have three types of magic: Necromancy, Summon and Elemental. There are only two cards for each category, except for Summoning, which gets three. I’d have preferred to see more magic available in this deck instead of the double or tripled up cards that are there for Skills and Equipment. We really didn’t need three “clothing” cards. Hell, we didn’t really need doubles of anything. So magic is a bit of a letdown, but as I’ve seen the expansion packs, magic really does get a boost in the following sets – both in terms of quantity and categories.
There are only ten monster cards to begin with. You get three animals, one goblin, two undead, two orcs, one ogre and a fairy. It doesn’t seem like a lot and like magic, I’d have preferred to have more monsters, but you can make a pretty decent adventure with just these to start.
Equipment cards make up half the deck and as there are some double and triples, I would have preferred to see this pared down and split amongst other types. I look at Compact Heroes as only needing one of each card for reference purposes. There is a wide range of equipment, both regular and magical. The cost of everything is a bit odd though. A long bow costs 75 gp and you can only start with a maximum of 30, so it is impossible to be an archer at the beginning of the game.
Skill cards are the second most plentiful type of card and as I’ve said before, duplicated were unnecessary and I’d like to have seen more in spells and monsters. Still, there is a lot of variety to what you have in the deck, and you can make a wide range of characters, all highly customized.
Finally there are the DM cards and I find these to be a waste of space. I get the idea behind them, but they take up room that would have been better suited to more monsters and spells. A good DM makes up their own adventures after all. These nine cards include an adventure background card, a story hook, a map of the region, two “goblin cave” maps, and four cards detailing the adventure and what is in each room of the maps. Again, I get the concept behind it but as a DM and/or a player, I’d rather have more of the other things. These would have been better suited to an all DM expansion pack. The adventure really only works if you have at least four people playing (Besides the DM) as it has WAY too many monsters otherwise.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the game. For the weight and space of two deck of cards, you basically get a Player’s Handbook/Core Rulebook for a game. It might seem a bit pricey for a deck of cards, but look how much some people pay for say, a Black Lotus. Remember those? I spent a lot of time trying to find the best starting characters that I could make and also looking at all the art, which I found to be quite nice. My two favorite cards artwise were “Necromancy Magic” and Skeletons of Ak’Mar.
So let’s take a look at two potential starting characters. First up is my human warrior. He starts with a point of Strength, giving him +1 damage. I then get two other points to put into any of the five abilities I want. I decide to put another point into Strength, as I want to maximize his damage potential, and another point into Endurance, giving him an extra 2d6 Hit Points. I roll a ten, and that means my character starts with 20 Hit Points. Nice. Because I am a human, I get TWO skill cards instead of the regular one. Weapons don’t have a specific skill for them which is good, but armour does. I could spend a skill point on “light armour” but light armour only gives me +2 to my damage absorption (subtract 2 from an opponent’s damage roll when they hit you) and regular clothes, which don’t require a skill card, absorb one. I decide to pass on that. Instead I take Novice Combat, which gives me a +2 to hit and a +1 to damage. This means my fighter currently sits at +2 to hit and +3 to damage. Not bad. For my second skill card I thought about taking “Novice Two Handed Weapon” which adds +2 to my damage with that type of weapon, or “Novice Shield” which lets me well, use shields. I also liked “Novice Weapon Specialization, which would give me +1/+1 with a specific weapon of my choice. Instead I went with “Novice Single Weapon” which gives me the same bonuses as “Novice Weapon Specialization” but it goes for ALL one handed weapons, not just one specific type. This means my starting character gets +3 to hit and +4 damage. Not bad. I then equipped him with clothing (+1 damage absorption) and a mace. I chose the mace as it did more damage than a short sword (There isn’t a long sword card!) The mace does 1d6+2 damage, but in my warrior’s hands it jumps up to 1d6+6, meaning he’ll do a minimum of 7 damage when he hits. Nice.
But what if you want to make a Wizard? Well, let’s look at what we can make. I’ll start with an Elf, as that gives me +1 to Intellect, which is the only stat you really need to casts spells in this game. I’ll put another point into Intellect and one into Endurance as that way he’ll survive a lot longer. I roll a 7 and that means my starting Hit Points are 17, which is pretty good. For my one skill, I’ll take Necromancy Magic, which lets me cast one Necromancy Spell a day per point of Intellect that I have. So this elf could cast two spells a day. Having a three Intellect IS tempting, but I also am a defensive gamer and I’d rather have the health. The Necromancy spells in the Starter Deck are “Power of St. Antioch” which does damage to the undead and “Helindar’s Touch” which heals damage. So I have a versatile character although he won’t be very helpful in combat unless it is with the ghoul or skeleton in the game. Instead he’ll be a healer. Because of that, I’d purchase him clothing (+1 damage absorption), a Spear (which can be wielding one or two handed and does a nice amount of damage) and a set of throwing daggers, which is the best overall ranged weapon in the deck, and only 3 gold pieces to boot. Huzzah.
There isn’t a lot of XP in the game, and from the basic adventure you’ll only get 2-3 points for completing it, but that’s actually a lot. All you need is a single XP to raise a stat one point or gain an extra skill. For my warrior’s I’d spent my first XP on either Endurance (more health) or that Novice Weapon Specialization as I’d then be at +4+5. For the Wizard, it may seem tempting to put that first XP into intellect and gain the ability to cast three Necromancy spells a day, but I’d actually taking a skill instead – Summoning Magic or Elemental Magic. Remember, that choosing a spell category as a skill lets you can a number of spells of that type for your intellect per day. So by choosing a second category with a two intellect, you’d actually be casting FOUR spells a day (two of each type) instead of three spells a day from one type. I’m sure some might find this broken, but from looking at all the cards and fiddling with them, it seems pretty balanced.
The only thing you need to play Compact Heroes besides the deck is a pencil and a d6. You can also have a d20, but the game has optional rules for just d6 usage if that’s all you have. Remember, it’s all about portability. Combat is pretty simple. You roll either 3D6 or 1d20 (based on what you have). You add your die roll to your “To Hit” score and if the total is a higher number than the opponent’s Evade rating, you hit! Then you roll for damage, subtracting the opponent’s Damage Absorption score from your die roll. Easy enough, yes?
Compact Heroes is primarily a hack and slash/dungeon crawl game with an emphasis on roll-playing over role-playing, but any good DM can overcome that with storytelling and good players. The rules of the game are only two pages long and so there is a lot for a DM to fill in for his or herself. Still, it’s a wonderful idea, extremely portable and lightweight and it really fills a niche for people who want to roleplay when they travel, but can’t be bothered with all those books (and their weight). It’s definitely a great idea and from looking at the PDFs of the first expansion pack, it looks like there won’t be any doubling up and there will be a lot more magic and monsters coming.
Compact Heroes is scheduled to be available to the public in the Fall of 2011. I received my two starter decks early by funding the project on Kickstarter and I’m very happy with the end result. I’ll be sending the other starter deck to my best friend, who is a Gulf War Veteran and who used to tell me how much he missed playing RPGs when he was over there, so I know he’ll get a kick out of it. To learn more about Compact Heroes click on the link for Sacrosanct Games at the top of this article or visit the official Kickstarter.com page.
This part is from the Diehard GameFAN 2011 Tabletop Gaming Awards
BEST NEW GAME
The problem with a lot of tabletop RPGs is that no matter your preference, you’re going to end up having a lot of thick, heavy books to lug around when you play. For something that spreads its rules across multiple oversized hardcover books like Dungeons & Dragons, it’s almost impossible to bring along to play on a hike or, you know, into a war. At the same time, you could get something like a Kindle and get all your books turned into PDFs, but then you run into the problem of losing EVERYTHING when that device dies along with the fact some games don’t have PDFs that you can obtain by legal means.
That’s where Compact Heroes comes in. The entire game is a deck of cards. No, this isn’t a customizable or collectable card game like Gloom or Magic: The Gathering. It’s an honest-to-god actual RPG that is made up of cards the size of a Bicycle Poker pack. You get races, skills, weapons, magic items, monsters and even a quest in the core set and there are already three expansions available on Sacrosanct Games’ home page. There’s also a new master set contains cards for the core box and a few from some expansion packs with a price point of $29.99. No matter how you choose to purchase Compact Heroes, you’re getting a highly innovative game that is easy to learn, offers an enormous amount of character customization and is highly portable. Even after playing the game a few times I’m still shocked that no one had come up with this beforehand.
Compact Heroes was designed to give men and women in the Armed Services a chance to play an RPG after being shipped out. There’s only so much they can bring. Now, anyone with a single die and a pencil can play a complete RPG…and it fits easily in your pocket. It’s a great idea AND a great system and that’s why it wins our “Best New Game of 2011″ award.