Making a Giant Assault of Yourself
On paper, the pitch for Assault of the Giants sounds downright mighty. Set in fantastical Faerûn, recognizable to many as the principal setting of Dungeons & Dragons, everyone is cast as their own clan of giants, each with their own strengths and… well, “weaknesses” probably isn’t the right word when we’re talking about giants. We’ll call them “lesser strengths.”
Turns out that giants are organized into a continent-spanning caste system, ranging from the high-and-mighty storm giants at the top all the way down to the untouchable hill giants at the bottom. With the old hierarchy crumbling, it’s time for all six clans to come together to have a calm and reasoned discussion about parliamentary procedure and caste reform. That, or smash the pickle juice out of each other until somebody new stands atop the heap.
It’s a solid concept. Much of Faerûn is represented, though since you’re playing as big stompy giants, none of the little affairs of the small folk are there to muddy the waters. They’re little, you’re big; it’s only natural that you should stand astride their politics and quibbles like someone stepping over a rancid gutter. Like other games of this sort, from Cthulhu Wars to Blood Rage, you’re concerned with the big picture. Namely, herding your gigantic fighters to wherever they’ll make the biggest difference.
Also like those games, there’s great satisfaction to be derived from slamming down monstrous figures and watching your opponents eye them nervously. In this case, each team boasts a pair of champions, growing in size as they become more imposing. Most of each clan’s units are mere discs, but it is a joy to mark your territory with the occasional hulking brute.
Nicely, Assault of the Giants makes the most of its six clans, bestowing each with their own flavor, strengths, quests, and goals. Not only does each clan boast its own set of units and stacking limits — mostly based on the maxim that big giants will naturally take up more space than smaller giants — but also their own preferred paths to victory. Leading the Hill Giants in their pursuit of halflings to chow down, a task that entails swarming across the regions of the small folk in search of snacks, does manage to feel somewhat different from the Fire Giant quest to forge the massive Vonindod and slay a bunch of dragons. It’s true that the particulars of each clan’s quest nearly always involve the same couple processes, usually foreign territory occupied and certain resource cards accumulated, but it is good to see that there’s some distinction between clans.
The absolute best part of the game, however, is found in the unlikeliest of places. Rather than resting in the asymmetry of the clans or the battle system or anything else flashy, it’s the action system that gives Assault of the Giants its most heady dose of stratagem. Each clan comes with their own set of nine cards. There’s the card for moving around, another for attacking, one for pillaging resource cards or recruiting or learning magic, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, a single turn consists of slapping down one of these cards and carrying it out. Fee-fi-ho-hum, you might be saying.
But that’s only the premise at its most basic. See, most of these cards are amplified by the cards you’ve played before it. A card that lets you recruit giants, for example, will let you bring even more giants into the fold if you’ve already played a bunch of cards. If deployed in the correct sequence, moves go from small-time maneuvers to continent-spanning migrations, attacks become more likely to succeed, and trades let you swap out an entire weak hand for a bunch of powerful cards. The trick is that you don’t have access to any of your spent cards until you spend a turn resting to pick them all back up, forcing you to balance between making attacks (or moves or hires or whatever else) at their most potent or making them often.
It’s a brilliant twist, one that gives each action unexpected weight. Attacking early might mean you get the jump on an opposing clan, but it also means that card has been spent for the time being. Even resting feels less like a skipped turn and like an opportunity in its own right, letting you hire and deploy Giant Hunters to pester your enemies while you’re nursing your wounds.
Tragically, nothing else in Assault of the Giants ever manages to match the lofty heights of what it accomplishes with a few cards.
Let’s begin with all those asymmetrical clans. While it’s fun to see a game embrace such a wide variety of approaches, it’s unfortunate that each group of giants feels strangely limited by their appetites. Rather than freeing your clan to behave in new ways, each quest chain acts to limit their viable options. Leaving aside the question of balance — they rarely seem balanced, but this is such a sticky issue that I’m happy to leave it alone — not all of them feel interesting in equal measure. While the Storm Giants are awakening their lost king or the Fire Giants are building a massive construct to slay dragons, there’s no real difference between “ravaging,” “raiding,” “freezing,” or “allying” with the small folk of Faerûn, just as there isn’t much difference between sitting around and gathering “food” or “artifacts” from the resource deck. For the most part, each clan’s strategy feels deeply proscribed, even to the point that it’s written out on a personalized story card that you’re handed along with your units and action cards. At the same time, most of these actions lead nowhere interesting, the small folk of Faerûn apparently going about their daily duties even though they’ve been frozen solid, solidified an alliance with a giant clan, and then been roundly ravaged.
Speaking of the quests, there are also neutral ones to pursue. Sadly, none of them bother to be more interesting than requiring you to be in a particular location and spending a particular resource at the start of your turn, making each one’s appearance feel more like the fickle act of some bored deity and less like an actual accomplishment.
It doesn’t help that the battle system doesn’t inspire much excitement, especially for a game about giants slugging each other in the jaw. There are some good ideas swirling around here, particularly the spells that can be bolstered with rare artifacts. Teleporting anywhere on the map, resurrecting a defeated champion, or turning certain dice into devastating attacks never gets old. Rolling a capped quantity of battle dice, on the other hand, does indeed get old. Especially when battles are as straightforward as they are here, with hardly any room for strategic thought other than “mass as many giants in one place as your stacking limit will allow” and crossing your fingers that the dice roll your way.
The problem with Assault of the Giants isn’t its pitch. The problem is that it never manages to make its subject matter stand out from the spate of far superior dudes-on-a-map games out there. Why bother with a game that can’t make warring giants interesting when you could be playing Kemet, Inis, Cthulhu Wars, Blood Rage, or Cry Havoc?
You shouldn’t. Assault of the Giants isn’t a bad game. It even has a few good ideas rattling around its oversized cranium. Rather, it’s a mediocre game drowning in an ocean of excellent alternatives.