Game Pile: Keep The Heroes Out

When I talk about board games I know I’m biased towards talking about small, highly portable experiences that can often be introduced and played interestingly the very first time without any need to reference a rulebook. I’m not prone to having anything to talk about when it comes to campaign games, because those are often long-form, and also, we’re kind of still dealing with minimising your potential social interaction surfaces, you know the kind of deal, and I’ve even written about how strangely impossible it can be to recommend the consideration of games which are otherwise inaccessible to buy.

Keep The Heroes Out is a table-sprawling high-material campaign game by Luis Brueh, about playing the monsters in a classic fantasy dungeon fighting adventurers, it’s entirely based around scenarios you play through from a campaign sourcebook, and as far as I know, it was only available on kickstarter.

Hang on a sec.

Check check check…

Yeah okay, it’s not a conventionally available in stores, at least, not as far as I can see. You can find some copies on Ebay, and Brueh games seem to be distributing other games through other companies, so maybe this will become a commercial purchase at some point. I don’t know. No idea.

Gunna talk about it anyway!

Keep the Heroes Out is an asymmetrical cooperative game where you play one of a variety of different factions of monster types, dwelling in little dungeons made of standardised pieces, where every turn, heroes keep on coming in and trying to mess with your day. There are nine different types of monster, which are all differently populous — nine ratfolk, eight slimes, seven gnolls, six skeletons, five lizardfolk, four imps, three poltergeists, two witches, and one lone dragon. Each of these monster tribes has a specific deck of cards that represents the way they interact with things in the dungeon, in broad, general categories.

If you’re playing a dragon, lizardfolk or gnoll, you’re a crowd controller; your job is to deal damage, you’re trying to find the many different threats in the game that are scary in a variety of different ways. Just for an example, check out these three crowd controllers: Dragon? Single great big ranged beast, can soak up damage and heal it, and also always find a way back to its big hoard of treasure. Lizardfolk? Hit and running, somewhat widespread creatures. Gnolls? A big force that want to crash-tackle people in melee, can hire more gnolls for gold, and make gold when they beat up baddies.

And that’s all told with a little deck of cards, which you can also augment in-game, by adding magic items, spells, and beasts to your deck that represent friendly pets and other wandering things you let loose in the dungeon. You spend your turns, mostly, watching as enemies enter the dungeon, and someone spends their turn trying to patch up the last player’s turn, then trying to advance some plan on your own turn, or make the best with your leftover actions on your turn.

Turns are reasonably breezy and quick, enemies range from very simple to extraordinarily complex and there’s a push-your-luck mechanic to try and deal with big problems but it can also crap out on you and now oh no the cells are open and oh no there are wizards everywhere why are there wizards everywhere.

I guess there’s one form factor from this game that deserves immediate, obvious attention: This game is cute as hell. The aesthetic of the game has a single central visual form, which is to say, there’s a single artist who got to make decisions about all the ways the game got to look and oh look at that the head designer, Luis Brueh, is responsible for that, and all of his games look like that.

The design is also icon-heavy, with almost no game material presenting text at all; Any place there’s English text, it’s in the rulebook explaining the symbols, which is a great way to make the game widely translatable, and even make it so players can play across a language barrier (which I don’t imagine you’d have to do, but hey, maybe on Tabletopia? Hang on, is this game on Tabletopia? Oh okay, yes, it’s on Tabletopia, there’s an avenue to play it) and the only problem with that is it offloads every bit of reading to the rulebook.

The rulebook that doesn’t have an index or glossary.

It’s still a really good rulebook! It’s a simple glossy paper thing – it’s not like this is a bound tome like a D&D rulebook or something, it’s basically sixteen square pages including title and cheat sheet on the back. I found the rulebook is good but features occasional points of being overwhelmed, limited references and sometimes the game will present a question that doesn’t make it clear what you need to look for to get an answer. Because it’s a scenario-based game, a lot of the pieces and tokens are multi-purpose, and that can mean sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what the mechanics have done differently in one scenario to another.

The fact that I find the rulebook so clear when it’s clear is one of the reasons that makes it challenging to ferret out the unclear things. The use of iconography is clear, the way that the game mostly just focuses on showing everything with the same single non-text visual language is also really useful. Basically, ‘good, could be better.’

I don’t have a lot of games like this one, big cooperative table-sprawlers. Most of the games I have that are cooperative tend to be smaller, like Forbidden Island. It has an amazing table presence too – just setting up a copy of Keep the Heroes Out is the kind of playpen creative space that to me, just grabs attention, and says ‘hey, come here and check out this cool little story.’ Even the way that the (base) copy of the game prioritises the meeples of the protagonist monster clans, and lets you play around with them, while your enemies are flat discs appeals to the way I like to prioritise pieces.

Many games right now, in the period of plastic on kickstarter, try to make villains into big, impressive set pieces, but those set pieces don’t do anything, making them into effectively, impressive paperweights. In this case, the element that ‘stands up’ and gets attention on the board are my stuff, the characters I get to play with, and they’re going to do things and they aren’t wasting a giant chunk of plastic to be there. It makes me happy, in the same way that this game is largely made up of wood and paper makes me happy.

These satisfying choices carry through into the campaign, too, even though it’s not exactly searing leftist critique. The campaign creates a narrative that presents the problems of the dungeon and the clans that live there, which starts out with a new landlord, and progress to things like infestations, paying rent, a new landlord, room sharing, dealing with pets, babysitting, and the whole voice is generally that of trod-upon hard-working working class stiffs who really, really just want their home to be someplace they can stay without dealing with all this other stuff. They go into business for themselves, they try to succeed in a corporate space, and they even find, at the end, that –

Look this isn’t spoilers, it’s like, four paragraphs of text at the end of the scenario book, but you know, stop here if you wanna –

You find at the end that your failure to die is proving a problem for your corporate dungeon overlords. If you live too long, they need to pay you more, so they want you to screw up and die and now they’re incentivising the toughest heroes to come deal with you. What’s more, if you survive that, you then have to run off, escape the corporate power and build your own dungeon while you’re being aggressively attacked by the most powerful heroes of the land.

And your victory is… a home, away from corporate power and heroes being assholes.

I backed this game on Kickstarter because I thought my niblings would think it was cute and now it’s arrived, I don’t think they necessarily even want to play it, it’s not their kind of game. But the game I got is engaging, other members of my family like it and want to play more of it, and its weaknesses are the kinds of weaknesses that go away as your mastery in the game’s communication builds.

What I’m saying here is that Luis Brueh is too powerful, and must be stopped.

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