Alone Time: Three Sieges

If you think this look good, it's only because this copy was made by Todd Sanders himself. My PnP efforts look more like a wad of spent tissues.

The Siege at Dalnish, about to begin.

Siege at Dalnish

There’s some sort of intimidation factor in Siege at Dalnish that doesn’t trigger in Todd Sanders’ other work. Maybe it’s the fact that there are a whole lot of components: in addition to myriad symbols and data writ menacing across the player board, it comes with three separate decks of cards (many of which come loaded with their own symbolic language), stacks of eurocube markers, a tightly-packed five-page rulesheet, and piles of dice. It’s definitely not your average light print ‘n play. Or maybe it’s the fact that the gameplay is so utterly different from what you’d expect of a game announcing itself as a “siege,” and unlike any of Todd’s previous or better-known titles. Whereas the later entries in this series are more immediately recognizable, the form of this one takes some time to get used to, like letting your eyes adjust to the shapes in a dark room. At the very least, it’s not what I pictured when Todd called Dalnish a “tower defense” game here on Space-Biff! a couple weeks ago; “Where are the towers? Where are the creeping mobs?” I wondered aloud to an empty room (as we solo boardgamers are wont to do) when I piled the pieces on my table and stared, disbelieving, at this heap of colored cubes and arcane symbols.

And that’s all a big shame, because Siege at Dalnish has now become one of my favorite Todd Sanders games. Easily.

The Lassadar universe has always been big on feel, of the sense that it occupies a tangible geography, despite being light in terms of lines and paragraphs of world-building. Another testament to Todd’s pitch-perfect graphical design sensibilities. In this, at least, Dalnish is no exception, and bears visible kinship to its siblings. It takes place some time after the first trilogy’s wars between the Wardens of Lassadar and the fallen disciple called the “Grayking” (probably selected for creepiness’ sake), as told in Shadows Upon Lassadar (which I prefer to call by its subtitle, “The Grayking is Risen”), Sorrow of Salilth, and Revenge of the Raven Consort. The ranks of the Wardens are thinned, Lassadar’s defenses are worn threadbare, magic has seeped from the land like blood from a wound, and now twelve dread barons from the south are determined to make this battered nation their latest acquisition. First stop, the border city of Dalnish.

Thankfully, Dalnish is protected by one hell of a big citadel. The Tower of Dalnish stands tall and impressive over the city, though it’s troubled by a shortage of manpower and equipment.

More graphical design awesomeness: the tower's stones are its hit points.

The Tower of the Wardens vs. The Barons’ Army.

When Todd called Siege at Dalnish a “tower defense” game, he meant it literally. As in, the entire game stands as a confrontation between the Tower of Dalnish itself and the barony armies that seek to either throw it to the ground or kill all its occupants.

In gameplay terms, Dalnish is actually a lot simpler than those five intimidating pages of rules make it out to be, and to be fair, quite a bit of that space is used on handy examples of how the combat mechanics work.

In brief, each turn sees you first attacked by the army at the base of the tower, followed by your spending of action points to throw stuff back at the enemy, bring new fighters up to the tower, cast spells, or make repairs to either your beat-up troops or the stonework of the castle. It takes some getting used to, especially as it’s such a unique system (do you remember how mind-blowing and strange your first experience with a deck-building game was?), but after a couple rounds to figure everything out, it’s smooth as butter. Or the blood of your enemies, if you prefer. Or is that thick? Smooth as the flat of your blade. There we go.

The most pressing considerations each turn is in deciding which Warden defenders to match against the besieging forces. This is rarely easy: unit identities are determined by a whole slew of factors, from rows of dice that represent troop strengths and whether you’re fighting efficient ranks or lines with satisfying holes poked throughout, to the range of the enemy unit, how well defended they are, and how powerful and of what type an attack they make. A company of Arbalests or Catapults or Trulls (living siege engines), for instance, is all too happy sitting back and picking at your defenses at range, and what’s more, their formations, defenses, and the way they hurt your tower are vastly different. Even more different are companies like Engineers that rush forward to undermine your walls, making them easy to pick off with basically any types of troops; or Spearmen, who are mostly there to waste your ammunition while they march steadily forward. Between so many unit types, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll ever face the same challenge again.

Your own soldiers are also classified by what sort of damage imprint they leave after a successful attack — a Scorpion siege engine can punch damage in a straight line through enemy ranks, for example, while Archers rain arrows on a single horizontal line, and Catapults lob a two-by-two stone into the middle of an enemy mob. Better yet are your trio of Elders, limited-use spellcasters who can turn the tide of a particular fight if employed correctly — though of course, as appealing as it is to have Elder Kor piecing your walls back together with magic or Elder Ryn transforming your other defender unit into a pack of supermen soon to be nicknamed the “Trull-Eaters,” the decision of whether it’s really the best option to have these old men walk their wrinkly butts up the tower, only to shuffle back down to the barracks for a mid-afternoon nap once their mana has run out, is nothing short of agonizing. And heaven forbid they die in combat and deprive you of their powerful spells.

This is the type of game that makes me wish I could design games.

The reinforcements arrive just as the walls begin to crumble!

There are other things to keep in mind too. Whether to have your troops fight or work on repairs, for instance. You also have an armory full of limited stockpiles of special equipment, from smoke to confuse the enemy ranks so you can rearrange their battle lines and optimize the damage you deal, to plate armor to prevent damage, and amber and magus (not sure what that is) to increase the potency of your attacks. On the other side of the battle, the enemy is constantly shifting new barons into battle as you deal more damage to their forces, bringing all sorts of foul bonuses to the enemy. The upside is that near the bottom of that pile, buried beneath a whole pack of slavering barons with terrible magics and strategies to enact, is the reinforcements card. Draw that, and the rest of the Wardens show up just in the nick of the time. What does that make them? Big damn heroes.

Not as big as you, though.

Anyway, Siege of Dalnish is some of the best Print ‘n Play design I’ve ever encountered, and out of the three games in the second Lassadar trilogy, it’s probably the one I like the most. My wife Somerset also concurs, speaking to the way Dalnish makes you feel like you’re really defending a citadel from an overwhelming enemy. She has one suggestion for you though:

Play it on “advanced” difficulty.

On page three, the invasion continues with the Siege at Nem!

Posted on September 13, 2013, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. i like the photo across the Dalnish tower. one of my favorite bits of that game i thought up is how you basically look out over 3 dimensional ramparts made out of the eurocubes. and how you really get a sense the tower is taking damage as they are removed

    • That’s exactly how I felt while defending the tower from the baddies. I really felt like I was defending an actual tower and needing to worry about my cannons, archers, and Elders staying healthy enough to keep on defending well. It was exciting and fun!

      • She even used those exact words: “Dan, this is exciting and fun!”

        Either that or she was muttering swears at the un-killable row of Arbalests that hounded her for a full 90% of that game.

  2. thank you for the review of al three games. you really made my day!

  3. Easily one of the best Alone Times yet. I’ve played some of Todd’s games before, mostly from Aether Captains and the first Lassadar series. Looks like there are a few more I have to try!

    • I haven’t tried any of the Aether Captains yet, though there are a couple I’ve had my eye on. I wanted to finish up the Lassadar stuff before making the jump to another of Todd’s universes.

  4. I’m determined to actually put some of these together. Or get someone else to. I don’t have any friends into board gaming, but my arty younger brother assembled the first Lassadar game for me, and it was awesome, even if it took me a while to figure it out… hey, as I said, I’ve never really played these kinds of things. Dalnish, Nem, and Kurth, here I come!

  5. the iOS version of the Siege at Dalnish is coming along rapidly.

  6. Printed out Dalnish and the original Risen game today. Can’t wait to try them out!
    Have you had a chance to try the solo pnp Delve the Dicegame? Sanders did his own version as well.

  7. It’s a few years old, but when it came out a lot of people were really excited. It’s a solo dungeon crawl dice game that came with originally 4 characters and 2 maps and has since been extended by both the original creator and Sanders to have like 10 maps and 12 characters. It looks fun, although I haven’t tried it yet.

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