Game Review: SIDE QUEST: POCKET ADVENTURES

side questDesigner:  Steve Venezia
Artists: goblin slaves (according to the Kickstarter updates)
Publisher: Tap to Win
Players: 1 – 4
Playing Time: 30 – 120 minutes

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: high
Components: A
Aesthetics: B
Overall: B

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s Hero Quest realized as a deck of cards, more complex and thematic than Dungeon Raiders, and much more enjoyable than anything in the Munchkin series.

Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
I’ve been excited about this game for a long time—I was one of the very first backers on its Kickstarter launch day in October 2015. Admittedly: it’s not the only one of its kind: we do have Dungeon Raiders, Welcome to the Dungeon, and Cutthroat Caverns, to name a few. It’s also not what I would call a “true” cooperative because it can be “quarterbacked.” However, Side Quest fills a gap in my personal library: a straight-forward dungeon crawler that I can play solo and that isn’t ridiculously complex. In fact, I bought the game specifically to play solo (which is how I prefer “quarterback co-ops”). I don’t really intend to play it any other way, and it really does do what I was hoping it would. I might house-rule a few things in the long-run, but this is a solid game for when I’ve got that dungeon-crawling hankering late at night.

sq 3Play Summary
Cards are used to represent everything: dungeon rooms, monsters, heroes, equipment, spells, villagers, familiars, even health points. There are literally no components in the game except 85 cards and 2 dice.

Room cards are dealt in a linear arrangement, representing one “floor” of a dungeon. The rooms are populated with monsters, villagers, and stuff from a random draw deck. Heroes and monsters can move through the sequential line of rooms, and each hero’s myriad “stuff” is kept as a hand of cards. Each turn is pretty standard dungeon-crawl stuff: hack-and-slash, pick up items, cast spells, move, search for treasure, trade equipment, and so on. It’s an action-selection mechanic. You are compelled to deplete the draw deck once for each floor of the dungeon by clearing rooms and causing them to be repopulated. Each floor of rooms will be re-dealt as you advance, until finally you reach the “boss” at the bottom of the deck. Clear all three floors and kill the boss, you win. If any of your heroes or hapless villagers die along the way, you lose.

The range of play-time is quite broad for a couple of reasons: more difficult “dungeons” or “quests” (composed decks) will take longer to play through, especially if you have to “go fish” through the loot deck for awhile until you find a piece of equipment you need. Then again, you could stupidly die without a moment’s warning or be in a position where there is no possible way to save that stupid maiden who randomly spawned on the opposite side of the dungeon floor, and the game could be over before it properly got started. Fortunately, it’s easily re-shuffled and re-started, so an unlucky draw isn’t all that discouraging. Here are some other, more specific talking points:

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:

Seriously?

Seriously?

  • The artwork, in places. Overall I think the artwork is very nice, but there are a handful of cards that really stick out like sore thumbs. They don’t match the general tone or style of the rest of the game, and there a few offenders which seem like the picture has literally been lifted off of some other project and simply re-scaled/cropped as needed. Finally, there is one hero in the set, whom the designers have named Jinx, but who, I’m sorry… is Toph from Avatar.
  • Character identification in solo play. When multiple players are involved, each player of course remembers their own character(s). They maintain their own respective hands of cards, and play moves clockwise around the table. However, when solo-playing four different characters, this gets a little sticky. Turn order is easily forgotten, and the one and only player ends up with a huge inventory of weapons and equipment to keep track of. The game components do not provide the solo player with any way to differentiate which characters possess which items. I solved this issue on my own
    sq 1

    Home-made placards.

    by means of my layout, but still I had to create name cards for each hero to be able to distinguish who had what hand in my four-handed games. I also used a Blokus tile as a “first-player marker.” Essentially, the solo player is forced to create their own “character sheets” and provide their own leader token when playing, unless they have an outstanding memory.

  • All-or-nothing combat. Side Quest uses a battle mechanic that is found both in Dungeon! and in Blackbeard, and in all cases I find it discouraging. Basically, a monster has X-health points, and a weapon can do Y-damage. If Y>X, and you roll successfully, you kill the thing. If Y<X, no matter what you do or how long you do it, you can never kill that creature with that weapon, and you can’t combine attacks with previous attacks or with other heroes. This doesn’t make any sense, especially if you end up rolling that damnable “2” six throws in a row. There’s no accounting for partial damage, fatigue, etc. And worse is the idea that you can’t combine your efforts with one of your fellows. The whole thing plays out like a Jackie Chan movie, where he fights 30 guys at once, but really only one at a time.
  • Sudden death. This is related to the all-or-nothing approach to combat. Your heroes only get 4 health points. If even one hero dies, the game is over. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, but when it comes to the bosses… well, this is where the game is most disconnected from a proper dungeon crawler. At their core, good crawlers are resource-management games. You are rewarded for conserving food, spells, potions, and so on; you are punished if you’ve been frivolous and drank all your elixir on the first floor. These are games of attrition. Side Quest is not. Because of the all-or-nothing mechanic, probability of success does not significantly change over time, for better or worse. So when you finally make it to the boss and you’re only down 1 health point on 1 character, it doesn’t really matter, because the boss does 3 points of damage on a single hit and can kill that one character and end the game in one shot. In short, while the theme of the game is extremely faithful to true dungeon crawlers, the mechanics of combat and resource management are not. This is the area where I’ll most likely develop my own house rules.

What Really Works for Me:

  • sq 2Dogs. This is sort of random, but for me it more generally illustrates the thematic joy in this game. Two of the cards in the game represent dogs. One of them is classified as a “villager” who needs rescuing, and this poor beast is appropriately dressed in commoner clothing. The other, “Corky,” is basically a henchman you can feed to the wolves to protect yourself from harm. Both scenarios are hilarious and just add to the fun factor of the game. Who doesn’t want dogs in their games?
  • Intuitive rules. If you have any experience with any number of dungeon crawler games, you basically already know how to play this game. Once you understand where/why to lay out the cards, and once you learn the iconography of the game (easily done), you’re ready to go. All of the mechanics and choices available to the player(s) are very natural. You won’t find yourself double- and triple-checking the rules over and over again and impeding play. This is always a benefit in terms of a game being ready “out-of-the-box” and teachable to others. All the more reason this games serves well as a solo experience, as you can just pick it right up and get going, and you feel like that little window of time you have is meaningfully filled by playing the game and not by wondering how to play.
  • Intensity/Excitement. This is the up-tick to the all-or-nothing, sudden-death mechanic. The game is very intense. As I mentioned above, I will probably add some house rules to balance this out a bit, but the tension is definitely what the game has going for it and needs to be expounded upon with any kind of variations or expansions. Monsters spawn quickly and the heroes have an extremely limited amount of time to search for loot or to try and save villagers, and high-stakes situations keep you on the edge of your seat for as long as the game lasts. This constant excitement, augmented by easy play and fun thematic elements, is what will certainly keep this game coming to the table for me, despite my gripes from above.

Final Remarks:
Side Quest is a solid, card-driven game of high-stakes with a dungeon crawl theme. A few adjustments might be in order to mitigate the luck factor a bit and to amplify the resource management component characteristic of proper dungeon-crawl games, but on the whole the game scratches that itch. Furthermore, I think it is highly amenable to customized scenarios. “Key” cards (which allow you to get to the next floor of the dungeon) and “boss” cards are always stacked at the bottom of the draw deck, so essentially they are just information cards. They do not need to be concealed or randomly mixed into the pile. “Location” (room) cards are essentially information cards/placeholders as well. Although they do need to be shuffled with each other, they do not need to be mixed with other piles, and there’s only a small number dealt out at a time. Given this, you can easily write your own scenarios with customized locations, unique bosses, and/or special rules for advancement. If Tap to Win is successful enough with this product, I think this is the direction they might want to head in terms of expansions, but in the meantime, there are some solid building blocks here not only for a “quick-fix” dungeon game, but also for anyone who wants to put the energy into expanding it on their own.


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7 thoughts on “Game Review: SIDE QUEST: POCKET ADVENTURES

  1. Dirk says:

    Great review which perfectly reflects my thoughts. In Germany there are some guys who are trying to offer german versions of games (Spieleschmiede = Game Forge). I played just the first scenario, but it’s creating quite the same feelings to me than you described. I am familiar with some dungeon crawlers but reading the rules of this one left me a little bit sober. In german I would say “Der Funke sprang nicht über” (it’s “The spark didn’t jump over” in english, I guess). BUT: while giving the game a chance it did jump over! It’s a great, more or less light but challenging game, that’s easy to learn and definitely worth trying it.
    By the way Geoff: what are your favourite solo-playable or even solitaire games?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really depends on the mood I’m in. I used to play pretty complicated, war-themed solo games, like Raid on St. Nazaire and Mosby’s Raiders. I have also probably played Blackbeard more times solo than I have multi-player. These days, though, I prefer less complexity in the rules, but I still want to be challenged. The games I play solo lately are Castle Panic, Flash Point, Death Angel, Tokaido, and now Side Quest. I still want to expand my solo-play library, though. And of course, I do actually play Sans Alliés! 😉 I was my own first fan of that game.

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  2. Dirk says:

    Until last year I preferred the “normal” solo-playable games and some of my alltime favorites are among them like Mage Knight (one of the best games I’ve ever played – but it’s a Monster of rules), Robinson Crusoe, Gears of War, Merchant of Venus. Since the beginning of this year I began playing war-themed games like Silent Victory, Fire in The Lake, Thunderbolt Apache Leader etc. These games are Great! But, as you have mentioned, it depends on the mood I’m in when choosing which game to play. Fortunately my 10-year-old is into boardgaming as well and he keeps me embarassed how fast he is when understanding the rules of a new game – even the quite complex ones like Conflict of Heroes. Trying to win against him gets more and more difficult (and I’m so proud of that!). There’ll come the day I won’t have any chance against him… (So proud!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Matt. As I hinted to in the article, I think for future plays I will be designing a few custom bosses and “keys,” and possibly even some rooms. But there’s no denying I carry it around (as is) in my backpack with a few other tiny-box, travel-ready games.

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