This is a review of a story-driven game. I’m taking care to avoid spoilers. Any quotes or images reveal only the box, the initial setup and the very beginning of the story.
Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger is an interactive book turned into a board game by changing the medium from paperback to card stacks, and by adding a six sided die and a board. On the board you keep track of your psychic strength and the level of danger by moving a pawn and a cube back and forth. The whole concept reeks with nostalgia, especially to people born in the 70s and 80s. Incidentally, people born during these decades are probably doing a great deal of the spending that upholds the current tabletop gaming renaissance. They might want to relive the adventures of their childhood. Some might want to share those adventures with friends or with their own children, and unlike the books that were marketed as solo adventures, this one’s a cooperative game for one or more players. A clever move by Z-Man, the publisher of this game.
Although born in the first half of the 80s, I’ve never read an entire Chose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book. I remember seeing them at friends’ houses. I remember leafing through one, starting on one. I remember looking at them in the store, thinking about picking one up. I probably went home with a Magic: The Gathering Booster Pack instead. When I heard about this game I felt the nostalgia too. I had to check it out.
Off to a Bad Start
The box looked a bit dirty, the player board was a little warped and looked dirty too, and the insert was broken. Some companies might put a low cost disposable insert in their boxes to protect the game during transport, and not for convenient storage. If that’s the case here, an insert that falls apart under the weight of the cards it holds doesn’t do a very good job of protecting anything. Also, if the box hadn’t had twice the volume of it’s contents, no insert would have been needed to keep the stuff from rattling around. I bought the game brand new in shrink wrap, from a trusted retailer. A little disappointing.
Other than the the warped board the components were fine but looked and felt cheap. The cards seemed very fragile. But then again, they’re actually not supposed to be shuffled.
A little discouraged, I tried to shrug these impressions off before I sat down to see what this game was all about. Since I’d read about copies missing cards, the first thing I did was counting them. No cards missing! There’s always that. And after all, just look at that cover and try not to smile!
Vibes, Rules, Gameplay
Everything, from the box cover and the artwork on the cards to the fonts and layout, has just the right vibe to it. Despite the initial reaction recounted above, when I sat down, put the stack of cards on the table, took out the rule book and lit a candle for atmosphere, I felt pretty excited to take on the job of a psychic investigator.
The game plays just like a CYOA book, with a few additions. You roll the die once in a while to determine your success at something. The difficulty of the roll depends on the current danger level and any modifiers you might have (a knife that improves your fighting skills, for example). You occasionally need to check your psychic level to determine in what direction the story branches out. The adventure has five chapters, each represented by a stack of big Story Cards and a stack of small Clue Cards. All cards come sorted and are clearly numbered. Finding the one you’re looking for is never a problem. The bulk of the adventure, the actual prose of the story, is in the Story Cards. When a choice directs you to a certain Clue Card it might reveal an item that you get to keep and that might come in handy later, or another choice you have to make, or a “premonition” in the form of an image representing a psychic vision warning you of a danger ahead. You jump back and forth between the story and the clues, making quite a few choices along the way.
When you’re at a crossroads in the story you often simply pick this door or that, this action or that, and then you’re directed to this card or that. Some choices have conditions; you might need a certain item in your inventory to do this, otherwise do that, or you might need to have achieved a certain psychic level to do this, otherwise that happens.
The rules are very easy to learn. The rule book is very clear and has answered all the questions I’ve had. Going back and forth between the cards is very smooth. Neither the rules nor the handling of the cards get in the way of the story.
Beginning, Middles, Ends – A Story Fanning Out, Spreading Thinner and Thinner
The story starts without preambles or lengthy introductions. Before you’re done reading the text on the front of the first card you know who you are and you’re presented with a mystery.
The first few cards did a good job of peaking my curiosity and soon I was up to my head in cheesy 80s adventure cliches. I enjoyed the die rolls – they really added suspense. Some of the premonitions – Clue Cards with foreboding images warning me about future events – made me sit back and think twice before making choices. But the longer I played, the the less I enjoyed it. Despite making careful choices taking my clues into account, despite being pretty enthusiastic about the nostalgic feeling of the whole package, I gradually lost interest in the outcome. Several times I felt I could just as well have flipped a coin to choose where to go or what to do next. I felt less engaged for every twist and turn the story took, and soon it felt very samey. “Oh! Something weird happened again. How quaint.”
After playing through all the chapters, surviving until the very end – or rather one of the ends – I’ve seen about half of the cards. At most. Yet I’m not the least bit curious about the alternative endings, undiscovered clues, secret passages or gruesome accidents still hidden among them.
My feelings about The House of Danger are ambiguous. I kind of like it in theory, not in practice. Getting to know this game has been a roller coaster ride; the initial bad impression of the components coupled with the great layout and looks, the ease of setting the game up and learning how to play it, the cozy, warm, nostalgic feeling when starting out on the adventure, and the gradually increasing skepticism.
I expected a very lighthearted, simple, story driven game. That’s what I got. Sadly, the amount of story packed in this box doesn’t make up for the lack of game. I’ll probably get rid of this game without even looking at the 80 or so cards I haven’t seen yet, because digging through those cards when I played the game ultimately felt more like an exercise in nerd archaeology than the “laughter-filled adventure” advertised on the box.
The game definitely feels like a solo game. The box says one or more, but I wouldn’t even consider putting this on the table on game night.
I’m convinced there is a market for this game, however. I’ve seen several very positive reviews, in fact. Playing this with your ten-year-old would probably be a great experience, and perhaps a fun alternative to reading a story. But to me it turned out to be a drawn-out anticlimax with a few cozily nostalgic moments along the way.
I was really looking forward to this, and for a while I thought my hopes were met, but neither the story, the humor nor the gameplay were good enough to make it worth the investment.
Other People’s Thoughts
Don’t take my word for it, though. Have a look at this very positive Dice Tower review with Tom Vassel and Sam Healey.
Juni and Mysan prefer games with lots of little bits in them, so they’re fine with me getting rid of it.
I hope this review was worth reading. Thanks for taking your time.