In modern times there’s a running gag about the disturbing relevance of Facebook ads. I’ve heard coworkers and family members all express concern that Facebook is listening to their conversations, advertising to them things they’ve never searched on the internet and only discussed in person with their friends. But in my experience, Facebook ads have not always been unsettling in their accuracy. A few years back the ads targeted at me never made sense – movies I didn’t want to see, clothes I didn’t want to wear, and athletic equipment for all those sports I don’t play. So it was unusual when an ad came up which I not only found relevant, but which actually led me to make a purchase I otherwise would not have made. That advertisement was for a card game called Boss Monster, and it quickly became a staple of board game nights within my group of friends.
Boss Monster is an excellent card game by Brotherwise Games that is actually the first tabletop game I ever reviewed on Adventure Rules, and I mention it now because it plays a key role in why I was so excited to play Call to Adventure. I’d never heard of Call to Adventure until the week before this article was posted, but once I learned that the folks at Brotherwise were the masterminds behind it went immediately from “game I’ve never heard of” to “game I need to play as soon as possible.” Luckily, I got the opportunity to try it out the day after I learned it existed – talk about a quick turnaround!
Today I’ll be sharing my initial impressions of Call to Adventure based on two playthroughs of the game. Both sessions were two player, one a versus match and one a cooperative game. We also followed the game’s suggestions around which mechanisms to ignore for your first play. For the structure of this review I’ll start by describing our process of learning and playing the first session, and then the additional mechanisms added by the second session and how it felt once all the pieces were in place and we understood how the game worked. I’ll also be sharing photos of the game as we played it, “action shots” of all the pieces in use at the table.
One final note: Call to Adventure has a number of mechanisms to understand. To explain the game is to inevitably encounter concepts before it is appropriate to give them a full description. I’ll go through the game as if it is being played, which means that sometimes I’ll be mentioning a mechanic offhand but not explaining it in more depth until later. This can be a pro or a con for the game depending on how you look at it. Those who are enthusiastic about complex rules will likely find Call to Adventure to be rich; those who prefer something simple and quick may be frustrated by the number of concepts one has to understand in order to excel at the game.
The premise of Call to Adventure is that you are telling the story of an adventurer, from their humble origins all the way to the realization of their heroic destiny. When you complete the game, each person at the table is encouraged to share the story they have created over the course of the game. It’s a neat concept that my fellow player pointed out could be a fun writing exercise or even a backstory generator for a tabletop roleplaying game. To get your character’s story started, each player receives two each of origin cards, motivation cards, and destiny cards, and chooses one from each category to begin the story. I’ve bolded story in this second instance because it is actually a game mechanism – your story refers to all of the cards currently active on your character sheet.
The character sheet is the game’s board and serves as the place where you play your cards and track your progress. It also conveniently explains a number of the game’s rules to help you as you go. The most prominent section of the character sheet are the three sections where the origin, motivation, and destiny are played. These aspects of your character also correspond with “acts” of your story: the origin being the first act, the motivation being the second act, and the destiny being the third act. The game is played in these phases and comes to an end after the third act has been completed.
Let’s return to the selections made at the beginning of the game. Your origin, motivation, and destiny each have different mechanical effects on the game, so learning about each will help to introduce the basic concepts of Call to Adventure. Your origin determines your starting rune proficiencies at the beginning of the game. Instead of rolling dice to determine random outcomes, in Call to Adventure you cast runes. Which runes are available to you is affected by the proficiencies of your character. In addition to basic runes and dark runes, your character can have runes associated with any of the six ability scores: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. When a rune type is present in your story, you can use it during the game to add runes to your pool. You can benefit from the same type of rune up to three times, but you can’t use runes that aren’t present in your story, so diversifying can also be a practical choice. Your origin also gives some additional bonus related to the types of runes you can use. Common examples are getting a chance to retry challenges involving your preferred runes or getting experience points for getting certain results on your runes.
Motivations have the largest variety of effects compared to origin or destiny but the description is all in the name: they guide how you’ll interact with the game by motivating you to play in a certain way. As an example, my first motivation (Lone Wanderer, pictured above) negated the XP cost of a certain mechanism, motivating me to use that mechanism more often during play. Most motivations grant either Triumph or Tragedy – points that add up at the end of the game towards your total score. Triumph and tragedy don’t cancel out but various cards interact with them in different ways. For example, my opponent in the first game had the Driven to Despair motivation, which granted a large number of early-game tragedy but completely negated the ability to gain triumph points at all. As a result, he was motivated to avoid any cards which would grant him further triumph points and to focus on tragedy instead.
Finally, your destiny reveals some ways in which you can score points at the end of the game. There are lots of ways in which destiny can affect your score. Some destinies give a flat bonus for having a specific combination of runes; others add to the point value of triumph or tragedy cards; still others interact with other mechanisms like experience points or corruption. Each destiny also has a story icon associated with it, and these icons are another way in which you score at the end of the game. Story icons can be associated with Nature, Justice, Crime, Royalty, the Arcane, or the Divine. You gain a bonus on your story icons based on how many you have of the same type, so you generally want to focus on the one displayed on your destiny card.
Your three cards in combination compose your story at the beginning of the game, and they’ll probably define your strategy for the game. During the first game we played, my opponent had a motivation which removed any value from cards which granted triumph, and he also had a destiny which gave extra points to tragedy cards as well as giving a flat bonus for having a specific amount of corruption. All this together gave him incentive to play a dark character that angled for cards involving corruption and tragedy. During our second game, my strategy was focused around experience points – my origin gave me experience for gaining specific results on my runes, my motivation gave me experience for completing challenges by a narrow margin, and my destiny gave me bonus points at the end of the game for having a certain amount of experience. You can choose whatever story best suits your play style or you can choose cards with different approaches so that you aren’t locked into one strategy for the duration of the game.
Finally, each player starts with three experience points and one hero card. Experience points serve a few different functions. They increase your final score at the end of the game, allow you to journey during an act, purchase dark runes to enhance your likelihood of success in a challenge, and interact with various cards which directly reference XP. Hero cards grant beneficial effects during play such as giving additional runes, protecting you from negative outcomes, rewarding you with experience – there are lots of different outcomes possible with hero cards. There are also antihero cards that have similar effects but generally a darker purpose, too. Hero cards grant triumph at the end of the game and antihero cards grant tragedy, and which type of card you can use depends on how corrupt or virtuous your character is.
Every character begins the game at a neutral place on the corruption chart. Neutral characters can use both hero and antihero cards and gain minimal triumph points at the end of the game. Using dark runes or playing cards which increase corruption move you down the track. As you become more corrupt you lose the ability to play hero cards but gain more tragedy points. Corruption has risks too, though – build too much and you won’t get any points for your alignment at the end of the game, or you could even lose points. You can also become so corrupt that dark runes will no longer work for you. On the opposite end of the scale, becoming more virtuous locks you out of using antihero cards, but a maximum on the virtue scale grants the largest pool of triumph points for your alignment possible in the game. Of course, using dark runes will push you back down towards neutral and lose you points, so playing a virtuous character effectively locks you out of gaining that advantage.
Once you’ve chosen an origin, motivation, and destiny, as well as collected your starting XP and your hero card, you play through the game in three acts. There are separate decks of cards for act one, act two, and act three. During an act, four cards are laid out on the table for the active player to consider. Some of these cards are traits – cards which can be added to your story if you meet the correct requirements or pay a price described on the card. Other cards are challenges – they display a difficulty number and the type of runes appropriate for overcoming that challenge, as well as two different paths which have different rewards (and possibly different difficulties as well). Adding a challenge or a trait to your story gives you access to whatever rewards it offers. These rewards vary from adding additional runes to your pool, drawing hero or antihero cards, giving you triumph or tragedy points, or granting you a story icon that could enhance your score at the end of the game. Once you’ve gained three cards from an act, you move up to the next act and begin earning cards from there.
The four cards in play during an act will vary as to whether they are challenges or traits, and the rewards that they offer will be different as well. Sometimes you’ll have a particular type of card you are aiming for and won’t have it available, or you might not be able to find a challenge which allows the type of runes you are proficient with. In these situations, you can spend XP to journey and draw a new card for the act (the previously mentioned Lone Wanderer card allows you to do this for free). Certain hero or antihero cards may allow you to affect your options as well – one antihero card eliminates an option while also giving you a bonus to your challenge attempt for the turn.
This, then, is the meat of the game. On your turn you choose a challenge, determine your rune pool, cast the runes, and then resolve whether or not you completed the challenge. Every character has three basic runes which can be added to the pool. All of the basic runes have a scoring side and a non-scoring side, with one of them granting you a hero or antihero card on its non-scoring side (you choose which when you receive that result). You can also add runes you are proficient in from your story depending on what the challenge accepts. So say my character has two strength, one dexterity, and three charisma. If the challenge accepts strength and constitution runes, then I can add my two strength, but my dexterity and charisma don’t matter. Runes associated with ability scores are preferable to basic runes because both sides score – one side gives one success while the other gives two successes. There are special level three runes for ability scores which have a non-scoring side, but these grant a boon such as XP, a hero card, or an antihero card.
You can also spend XP in order to obtain one or more dark runes. Dark runes grant more successes on one side than basic runes but they also move you down the corruption chart, locking you out of hero cards and reducing the maximum number of points you get at the end of the game for your alignment. To use a dark rune for your challenge is to risk long-term consequences in exchange for a short-term benefit, but there are cards in the game which can help to turn this into a whole strategy all its own. I personally preferred to avoid them in order to get the biggest alignment bonus from maximum virtue, but my friend liked the extra runes and the crafty effects of the antihero cards.
Your goal in Call to Adventure is to have the highest score at the end of the game. We’ve touched on the various ways to score throughout the review, but let’s go over them again here:
- Triumph points in your story
- Tragedy points in your story
- Number of experience points held
- Triumph or tragedy granted by your alignment
- Triumph or tragedy granted by hero and antihero cards you played
- Points gained by groupings of story icons
- Points gained from meeting the conditions of your destiny
The challenges and traits you choose during the game should push you towards one or more of these goals, and you’ll always have a number of choices. Is it better this turn to do a harder challenge to get a story icon or an easier challenge that grants triumph? Do I angle for runes to help me accomplish more challenges later, or go ahead and start getting points right away? Is it worthwhile to use a dark rune now and lose points in virtue so I can get closer to achieving my destiny? These are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself throughout the game, and it is this strategizing and planning ahead that makes up a strong part of the game’s appeal. To see your best-laid plans finally come to fruition and result in a high score is quite satisfying.
Now while all of this captures the bulk of the versus experience, there’s another option with Call to Adventure: co-op. Either as an individual player or with a group of 2-4, you can battle against the game system itself using the adversary rules. Allies and adversaries can be added to the versus rules of the game too but are recommended only for more experienced players. Allies are added to challenges and make them harder but also increase the reward, and grant special bonuses if they are sacrificed while they are in your control. Adversaries are a special type of challenge that generally have greater rewards, but also have effects which make them more difficult to fight or which cause you problems while they are on the field. In a cooperative game, one adversary serves as the main adversary of the game and has a number of special abilities to contend with.
The main adversary has a hand of antihero cards to interfere with your action, and whenever you cast a rune which allows you to draw a hero or antihero card, they play their hand. Main adversaries also gain experience points, and if they end the game with a certain number, they defeat you. In our game we faced the Tyrant, who gained XP when we failed challenges or sacrificed allies. He also gained additional XP when our failed challenge required charisma, and caused us to become corrupt if we gained tragedy points. By the end of act two, the Tyrant already had enough XP to defeat us at the end of the game. Our only hope was to activate the final rule on his card – a player with three Justice story icons could cause the Tyrant to lose two experience points. We had to carefully plan out every move of act three so that my friend could gain all the justice we needed, including me intentionally throwing one challenge so he could be the one to face the Tyrant when the time came.
So what kind of player is going to get the most out of Call to Adventure? The game has lots of different mechanisms to explore and multiple ways to win. While it isn’t necessarily a hard game, it will likely take multiple plays to fully understand the strategies involved. It most rewards players who plan for the long game – choosing an origin, motive, and destiny which work well in tandem and then playing hard into the strategy that you orchestrated at the beginning of the game. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have a sudden turnaround – our cooperative game against the Tyrant shows that Call to Adventure’s structure can craft situations where quick thinking and a change of plans can pave the path to victory. But those turnarounds are mainly possible when you understand the many interconnected rules of the game and know how to work them to your advantage.
My friend and I had a lot of fun with Call to Adventure during the course of our two plays. The first game gave us the knowledge of the rules that we needed to pull off a tough win in the second game, and by the time it was all over we both felt that we grasped the game well and had enjoyed our time with it. If you’re a fan of games which are a bit on the longer side and which involve complex but rewarding systems, I fully recommend it! If you’ve played Call to Adventure and have your own thoughts to share, or if you have a question not answered by this review, let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading, adventurers!