Game Name: Folklore – The Affliction
Publisher: GreenBrier Games
Designers: Nick Blain and Will Donovan
Genre: Dark fantasy roleplaying board game
Players: One to five players
Playing Time: Around 90 to 120 minutes or possibly more
Outside the Box
A title which turned a lot of heads during its Kickstarter run and had plenty of gamers scoping out at Gen Con is Folklore: The Affliction (mainly referred to as Folklore from here on out) from my friends over at GreenBrier Games. The game is touted as a dark fantasy, GM-less roleplaying board game. The setting is that of a mythical 15th or 16th century-ish European world which is filled with plenty of creepy old world monsters and villains which complicate the lives of the heroes.
As you can see in the unboxing video above, upon opening Folklore you’ll find it’s jam packed with goodies. There are multiple decks of cards, a world map, a rule book and story journal, loads of tokens and counters, a slew of adventure (combat encounter) maps, as well as thirty-five detailed miniatures. Everything included in the mix is highly polished and look great. I will mention the miniatures are very nicely done but manufactured in a soft plastic so the minis will need to be treated in order to stiffen them up if you aim to paint them. The detail is really good but the cuts aren’t as deep as you’d see with metal or resin figures which are utilized in dedicated miniatures games though. Then again, you’re also not paying $5-$6 (or more) per mini like you would with those sorts of games either.
Allow me to also point out you can disregard the unboxing video as far as the adventure maps since the paper ones in my box are not what buyers will receive. The video created a bit of a panic with some folks but the dual sided maps you’ll get are printed on a thin cardstock rather than glossy paper as seen in the vid. I did get my hands on the correct maps and they’re great. Plus, there’s a ton of them!
Outside of Ninja Dice, GreenBrier is well known for producing epic games and Folklore is no different. This usually means rules of more epic games tend to be a touch crunchy since there’s so much going on. This happens to be the case a bit here as well and, although the rules are logically presented and clear for the most part, it will take a little time to read through the book to prepare for play; although the story journal is designed to quickly get you into the first tale, Folklore isn’t the sort of game I believe you can crack open and jump right into unless you want a lot of starts and stops in the first adventure. I highly recommend at least one player to have given the rules a solid read through before sitting down at the table. This isn’t a knock on the game whatsoever but having someone with at least a passing knowledge of how to play will go a long way toward everyone at the table having a blast.
As already mentioned, Folklore has been designed with the opening chapter aimed at introducing the players to the game and it’s effective. Yet, as with a standard sort of pen and paper (PnP) roleplaying game, it’s best to have someone completely read the rulebook ahead of time. My main reasoning for this that the opening story chapter is rather short so more likely than not the players are going to want to jump right into the next, and the next, and so on. I just believe investing some time to read thirty odd pages before sitting down will go a long way towards keeping the players pumped as the game motors along; Nothing brings game action to a screeching halt quicker than having to endlessly page through a book to find a rule. I’m just tossing an opinion out there.
Speaking of rules, they aren’t overly complex and once you start playing you’ll grasp everything fairly quickly. I do have to give kudos to GreenBrier as they continue to make a real effort toward providing clarity when you read their rulebooks. I enjoyed the original Zpocalypse but the original rules were a bit of a mess. The same was true to a lesser extent with Heavy Steam; great game, a bit of a head scratcher when trying to piece the moving parts together the first time out. Zpocalypse 2 hit and, although another presentation improvement, I still found myself having to flip back and forth the first couple of games trying to find things which almost felt obscurely hidden. With Folklore, I read through the rules and pretty much had a handle on the proceedings from the start. Even when we had to double check something as we played, I knew exactly where we could find it.
Setting up Folklore will take some time as there are a number of decks to be sorted, shuffled, and laid out as well as plenty monster cards and tokens placed so they’re easily on hand. Each character will also require their character booklet and card as well starting ability and item cards. This does take a few minutes but nowhere near as long as setting up a game of say Arkham Horror. Folklore will require a good amount of table space as well simply because there are so many cards, maps, player areas for their character booklets and cards, and more which need to be close by. Plan accordingly as you’ll find it a mighty tight fit if you try to play on a small folding card table.
There is a lot going on with Folklore so, in order to prevent this review from running novella length, I’m not going to go into each and every mechanic in play but simply take a higher overview approach to the game. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I mentioned GreenBrier loves big meaty games and you can simply watch my video review of Zpocalypse 2 to see how many wheels the company likes to have turning in their titles. That video runs ninety minutes and it isn’t even a playthrough!
Each player will control one or more characters in Folklore. There are six archetypes to choose from: the Arcanist, the Archeologist, the Avenging Madman, the Exorcist, the Telepath, and the Witch Hunter. These archetypes also have two different paths you can select which, in reality, expands your choices to twelve characters. The characters begin with starting skills, abilities, and items. The capabilities of each hero is detailed in their booklet while their over-sized character cards indicate their attributes, keywords, and vitality trackers. Attributes are broken down into vitality, defense, might, damage bonus, power points, and stride. All in all these are utilized to indicate health, offense and defense, points to spend for rituals or prayers if the character can use magic, and how far they can move on the world map as well as on an adventure map each turn during tactical combat. The monster cards also include this sort of info too so you can quickly see what your heroes run up against.
The character sheets also display a variety of skills which can include archaeology, awareness, ecology, faith, nerve, occult, speech, and trickery. The heroes will perform skill checks against these in a variety of encounters throughout the game. Characters also have keywords and there are a slew of different items and such which can only be used by a character with that keyword.
Before I truly dive in allow me to also recommend the person tasked with the role of narrator be someone who can get into a roleplaying spirit as Folklore contains a good bit of reading aloud. The players are also faced with choosing from a variety of party decisions throughout as well as skill checks for success or failure during encounters. The narrator should only read what applies to the dice rolls and/or choices made. If the players succeed on a roll then only read that portion. If they fail? Just read that part. In all the years of running traditional RPGs, I never revealed the “what ifs” of an adventure. Of course, most of my game mastering was done in the horror genre and I think showing all the cats in the bag at any time should be verboten if you’re playing for chills and thrills. I’ve always enjoyed – as did everyone around my table interestingly enough – to have the players make their decisions, roll their dice, and play through the adventure/campaign without any regrets or non-stop second guessing. Obviously, I knew what would have happened if the players did something differently or if the dice fell another way. Yet, for us it was all about having a lot of fun and hopefully concocting an entertainingly memorable tale. Roleplaying shouldn’t be made to read or feel like a multiple choice quiz. This is just my two cents folks.
The premise of Folklore is that your group of heroes set out to solve a relatively mundane (in the great scope of things) mystery and begin to delve deeper and deeper into the corruption which plagues the land. As the group travels across the world map, they’ll be faced with many “choose your own adventure” type encounters in which they’ll be forced to make a decision in regards to resolving that event. Many times this will require one, some, or all of the characters to successfully pass a skill check against a predetermined difficulty number. Folklore includes a dozen dice which anyone with a passing familiarity with PnP RPGs will instantly recognize: d4, d6,d10, and d100. The skill check is performed by rolling a d10 and adding whatever modifiers the character may possess against a difficulty numebr. Equaling or surpassing that number results in success and the character fails if they roll below. All rolls of one are automatically a failure or, as Chris Berman might say, “Fumble!”
The included journal plays the role of the game master for your adventuring and there are a lot of encounters packed into its pages. The writing is crisp and thematic and does a nice job of drawing players into the tale. The overarching tale begins rather quietly but picks up steam fast. There’s also a difficulty level you may choose for your game ranging from Dusk (for noobs) to Midnight (pretty darn tough) with a Nightmare level (obviously for those looking for an insane challenge) reserved for future expansions.
The game itself contains stories which are broken into chapters and the players will have goals they look to achieve during each in order to progress to the next. The chapters entail the heroes traversing the land of Kremel (the fictional European setting) and the players may chose to travel by road or less explored routes. It’s recommended to stick to the roads when you first learn the game as, although you’ll acquire better loot and lore “off roading” per say, the monsters you’ll run across along the way are much tougher to defeat. Two special card decks, on road and off road, are used for encounters on the world map. The story journal will also point the players toward different locations across the world map and the current party leader gets to choose where the group travels to next.
When exploring the world map the group may move as many spaces as the leader’s stride value on the road or one space if traveling anywhere without a road. Then a corresponding encounter card is drawn and resolved. There’s a day deck and night deck and the world of Folklore is a dangerous one, especially after the sun goes down. Yes, there are even day and night phases of the game. A lot of the encounters will result in some sort of combat. Normally it’s simply a quick skirmish in which the players decide which characters will attack and which will defend and a rather abstracted battle takes place. The creature cards are dual sided so the skirmish side is used in these battles. Characters do use items, spells, and abilities in these skirmishes but these encounters aren’t designed to be big set piece slug fests. At other times the players will be instructed by the journal to use one of the adventure maps for the encounter and that’s where the real heavy hitting monster butt kickin’ comes in..
Once an adventure map is in play, Folklore telescopes down into a tactical battle game. The story journal will indicate what adventure map to use as well as the type and set up for your foes. These maps have a square grid overlay which facilitate movement and ranges. It’s possible an extended battle may eventually carry out across more than one adventure map (think of a dungeon crawl crawl as an example) but the group must all only occupy one map at a time. This is a good thing because I previously pointed out the game already takes up a good deal of set up space in the first place.
The player to the right of the current leader will become the controller; leadership passes following every world map movement and if a battle moves onto another adventure map. This controller will not only continue to make tactical decisions for their own character but also move and roll for the foes. Thankfully, there are rules to determine what monsters target what characters so it isn’t as if the controller just gets to pile on everyone but their own hero.
The tactical combat is divided into turns and rounds. A turn comprises the actions of a single character or monster. All of these turns together make up a round. It’s important to understand the difference because some abilities, items, or effects last an entire round rather than just a turn. The leader and controller both roll a d10 to determine initiative with the high roller’s group taking actions first. During their turn a character may perform each and every of the following once: move, act (attack – ending their movement once taken, use an artifact or item, or try to cast a ritual or prayer), interact with the map (some areas are marked and can be searched for loot), use an ability, use a summoned creature or ally, consume an item, or trade with an adjacent character or equip a different item which ends their turn. Keep in mind the players don’t choose one of these things to do but may perform all of these actions. The characters can get a lot of things done during their turns!
Attacking is fairly simply as a character may chose an adjacent target if a melee weapon is equipped or a target in range if using a ranged attack. Each creature card shows a defensive percentile number which must be equaled or beaten to inflict damage by the character’s modified attack roll; modifiers can come in all shapes and styles but usually add to the roll to increase the chance of success. If the hero strikes home the player simply uses the damage that weapon, spell, ritual, etc will deal (along with any additional modifiers they may have) from the vitality of the creature. The foes have tracker tiles to make this easy and the amount of vitality each possesses scales based on the number of heroes. I found this a nice touch, especially if you’re invested in a two player game and you don’t want to control more than one hero.
The combat rules cover a variety of situations such as auras, flames, line of sight, covens, swarms, and so on but never get to the point of being overwhelming. There’s a nice tactical flavor that isn’t simply a rinse and repeat affair while also not getting bogged down in a ton of minutia. This is a board game, aiming to simulate an RPG experience, which also happens to include miniatures and not a full fledged miniatures system aimed at that market. Nick Blain and Will Donovan have concocted battle mechanics which are fun and move fairly quickly which fits into the overall game nicely.
The foes only move, attack, and use special powers for the most part during their turns. The special powers are cool and many of the creatures have more than one so the controller rolls a d10 to see which might be used that turn. Just because the foes don’t have the same array of options available to them as characters do during a turn doesn’t mean they’re slouches by any stretch and they can be tough. The adventure map battles are meant to be highlights of the chapters too so they tend to be exciting nail biters rather than walks through the park.
During the battle if an opponent’s vitality is reduced to zero they’re killed and removed from the map. If a character is killed they don’t leave the game but become a ghost. I like this aspect of Folklore since player elimination would sort of suck in a roleplaying board game which is supposed to be an ongoing campaign. Granted, the ghosts can do things which are neat but the group will probably want to head to a place to resurrect the character sooner rather than later simply because live heroes are more powerful than dead ones. If the entire group dies there are actually rules regarding that too so the ongoing story doesn’t need to come to an end. Dying does carry penalties though so do your best to keep your intrepid adventurers alive as best you can.
Once a skirmish or adventure map encounter has successfully been completed it’s time to taste those sweet fruits of victory. The characters can score artifacts, coins, companions, items, story markers, and/or lore. The creature cards will indicate how many coins and lore each character gains from defeating it. Pay close attention to how many foes you fight as this booty is gained from each killed and every player will receive this. It’s easy to get side tracked in celebrating a hard fought battle and short change yourselves on loot and lore. The journal will also provide information on what you receive from the adventure map battles if you win. The journal will also let you know what happens if all the characters died.
Artifacts are rare items which can provide really nice abilities, modifiers, or powers to a character while companions can do the same by mainly modifying skills. Coins can be used to buy more or better gear and the item cards include the value for buying or selling them. Story markers can be positive or negative and mostly are gained at key points in the overarching tale. Then we have lore. I’m not talking about Aaron Mahnke’s excellent podcast either.
Lore is where much of the ongoing character advancement and roleplaying aspects of Folklore come to the fore. On the back of each character’s booklet is a checklist of interesting boosts and abilities which can be purchased with lore points. You can look at lore points as you might experience points and this checklist as a way of leveling up your characters as the game progresses. I really dig this element as you get to choose between simply buying lower cost improvements as you collect lore or banking some away to buy the more expensive and more impressive boosts lower on the checklist. You also receive two options at each cost level.
A session of Folklore doesn’t end in the fashion of most board games after a set number of turns or encounters but can simply draw to a close when you complete a story or chapter. For the most part you finish when you’re ready to call it a night. There’s a legacy aspect to Folklore, as you’d see in any PnP RPG, since the next time you play you’ll want to pick up from where you left off. There are various record sheets that you’ll use as you play and, once you end a session, have updated so everyone can track what goodies and lore purchases they’ve acquired. The next time you’re taking Folklore off the shelf simply pull the records out and deal the spell and item cards to the appropriate players and you’ll be good to go.
I do have to say even though this review is already fairly detailed, there’s loads of stuff which I haven’t touched on such as afflictions, resting during a chapter, visiting towns, tarot cards, and much more. In other words, Folklore is overflowing with gaming goodness. I also wanted to approach this review a bit as I would a tradition roleplaying adventure and not ruin any of the surprises in store for players. I despise spoilers so I do my best, in a case like this, to give the reader a feel for a game and an idea if it’s right for them (and their own gaming gangs) as opposed to laying everything out there.
If you’re the sort of person for whom a dark fantasy roleplaying game holds absolutely no appeal or you’d rather eat broken glass than roll a lot of dice, I’ll be the first to tell you Folklore is probably not for you. Gamers like that happen to be few and far between, however, so this title is going to be right up a lot of people’s alleys. One question which may be on some readers’ minds is how well does Folklore pull off it’s claim of being a GM-less RPG board game? As someone who has run PnP roleplaying games for more years than I’d care to admit, I have to say you’re never going to see a board game be able to truly replicate an RPG. Hell, even computer RPGs can’t do it simply because of the fact no A.I. or programming can ever replace a flesh and blood human being running a game. No board or computer game can perform the same fly by the seat of the pants sort of game mastering, in my opinion, a good roleplaying game session requires. You just can’t program imagination or the ability to take a story in any direction you and your fellow players may fancy. I don’t mean this a negative critique of Folklore or any other non-PnP RPG though.
Yet, with Folklore: The Affliction, we’re looking at an RPG board game. The key phase is “board game” and I think it’s fantastic and lives up to it’s claim! Sure, it can’t replace that human GM element but it’s loads of fun, doesn’t get bogged down in too many mechanics, and the story draws you in. The setting itself reminded me of the underappreciated early 1990’s Microprose computer RPG Darklands wherein it takes place in a fictionalized European locale while incorporating many horror elements found in, you guessed it, folklore of the era. We’ve had a great time playing Folklore and I’m hoping the game catches on well enough to bring us more expansions on top of the currently available Dark Tales. I’m normally tasked with game mastering roleplaying games so I love the fact I don’t have to have those creative juices flowing at a fevered pitch every moment I’m sitting down with this game but can still get a lot of those RPG itches scratched when we play. I must admit I was ooooohhh sssooooo close to awarding Folklore a rarefied ten as its review score, as it’s that good, but one small aspect held me back.
I have to give Folklore a small ding score-wise because of the miniatures. I’ll guess this won’t matter to around 90% of those reading this but I am a wee bit disappointed the minis are that soft plastic. As someone who’d love to paint these up, to dazzle people when they sit down at my table, there’s far too much give in the plastic which is readily apparent in the swords, staffs, and other thin appendages on the figures. In my experience there are a lot of ways to treat plastic like this so it stiffens a bit to allow paint to adhere better but practically nothing which will prevent the eventual paint flaking and chipping outside of possibly using expensive and hard to find vinyl paints. Plus, one of the gargoyles which came in my box was missing its head. Boo! I’m not flipping out (or losing my head like the gargoyle) simply because A) this was a review copy kindly provided to me by the good folks at GreenBrier and B) I’m not the sort of person who goes bug nuts about something like that. Also, Folklore isn’t truly a miniatures game in the first place and would be just as great if we were using counters to represent the heroes and monsters instead of minis so I’m not shaving that much off the review score.
If you’re looking for an RPG-like experience in a board game, with a cool story and setting, you really should give Folklore a hard look. Fans of games like Descent: Journeys in the Dark will feel right at home and will want give this a try. Personally, I like Descent but if it came down to a choice of playing that or Folklore, I’d choose Folklore every time. I will mention Folklore: The Affliction might be a little difficult to find at your FLGS right now since it’s my understanding all the Kickstarter backer copies have been shipped and the remaining copies which went into distribution are gone.
I’m not going to end this review on a downer though as I recently heard GreenBrier Games is going to launch another Kickstarter on October 31st (a perfect day considering the subject of the game) in order to bring another print run to the masses. I’ll bring you the news as soon as it’s available and I’ve got my fingers crossed this new crowd funding run includes a lot of new goodies to expand upon the story so far!