Review or Boisterous Babble? Judge Dredd – The Cursed Earth

Mysan the tabby cat inspecten the Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth game box.

To hell with suspense! No buildup, no climax, no resolution – I’ll say it right away: I love this game. If you want the suspense I just robbed you of, stop reading this review and just play the game!

The box contents for the game Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth - cards, tokens and a blue box for the tokens.

Still with me? I thought you’d be traversing the Cursed Earth by now! I guess I have to work on my rhetorical skills. Oh, you haven’t bought the game yet? I see. Well, run off and do it already!

A game of Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth in progress.

Still with me? You’re awfully persistent. OK, I’ll give you a review, but bear in mind that I’m currently enamored with this game. There are some other reviewers out there with a slightly more nuanced approach to this gem of a game, though, and I’ll point you to them when I’m done.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth was released this year by Osprey Games. The game is based on a design by Peer Sylvester, previously used in The Lost Expedition. The Lost Expedition took us on a hike through the Amazon wilderness, where we encountered dangers and made interesting discoveries. Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth instead takes us across a barren, hostile landscape, poisoned by radiation, in search of Max Normal, a man who is the sole carrier of a latent lethal virus. In the ruins of a lost technological civilization, bands of raiding mutants, dinosaurs and psychics fight to stay alive, attacking at any opportunity. Satellat, an evil, levitating cyborg drone of sorts, is also after Normal, intending to harvest the virus and infect the population. Your three Judges have to get to Normal before Satellat.

Card with the character Max Normal in the game Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth.
The man we’re after.

When I reviewed The Lost Expedition I pointed out that the rule book was very clear. The same is true in this case. In that review I summarized the gameplay something like this: The discoveries, encounters and challenges are represented by cards. Each card is oversized and has an illustration covering it’s entire front side. The cards have descriptive, often evocative names, and some boxes with symbols representing events, choices and options. To plan the day and lay out the path for your explorers, some of these cards are played randomly from the top of the deck, and some very carefully from your hand. When you’re done, you go through them from left to right, resolving all effects and abilities. After that your people have to eat (or lose health points), and then you start over again, trying to survive another day. Judge Dread: The Cursed Earth works more or less in the same way. Resources are tight, you have to be very careful with health points, and every decision matters.

A game of Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth, halfway through.
Bottom row: the three Judges. Above that: five revealed location cards, the lands we have to cross to find Normal. The Perps (grey meeple) are way ahead of the Judges (black meeple on the far left location card). Above that: encounter cards (these were called adventure cards in The Lost Expedition). Top row: draw stacks and discard piles.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth adds four new, exciting things: radiation, PSI expertise, location cards and the Perps – Satellat and its goons. Whenever one of your Judges encounter something radiaoactive you have to add a radiation token. If one of the Judges’ health goes below their radiation level or if they lose all their health points, they die. PSI expertise is the ability of one of the characters to foresee the future and better plan the path ahead. The location cards replace the expedition cards that are used to keep track of how far you’ve made it in The Lost Expedition. The location cards do more than just keeping track of your progress – they have different effects on your team and offers different challenges. They are randomized before setup, and drawn and laid out as you go. This gives a sense of exploration, and also makes the game more varied. The Perps are also trying to reach Normal – if they get to Normal before you, you lose. And they have a head start! When you enter a location they are already in, they attack.

The three Perp cards.
The Perps.

Just like The Lost Expedition, Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth is a tight, unforgiving puzzle game, where you have to use everything at your disposal to reach your goal. On the hardest difficulty level you need lots of skill and some luck too. Most encounter cards represent a tough trade-off situation, and the decisions are even more agonizing in this game. Like I said, there is some luck in the game. Max Normal is shuffled in among the bottom three location cards and you don’t know how long it will take to reach him and the encounter cards are drawn from a randomized stack. But hey! That’s realism! You should need at least a bit of luck to survive an encounter with radioactive dinosaurs and hungry mutants.

Four different cards from Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth.
The choices represented by the encounter cards usually amount to tough trade-offs. The Camp Fire above (how beautiful these cards are!) lets you chose between using Judge Anderson’s PSI expertise, revealing more cards from the encounter deck, advancing through the radioactive landscape getting one more radiation counter and moving your pawn to the next location; or to stay and rest, gaining one health point.

The gameplay is exciting! I often get caught up in the intriguing puzzle mechanism that is at the core of the game, rushing through the turns in a frenzy. When that happens I tell myself to slow down, sit back, look at the beautifully illustrated cards, read the card names, and think about how the events and choices in the caption boxes tie to the story. This makes for an even more exciting experience. To know the thematic potential of this game, you have to work a little. Just like when you read a book, you have to connect things, draw conclusions, observe and think. The illustrations are a great help towards thematic immersion.

I almost forgot to mention that this game has co-operative and PvP rules too. I’m sure that they work as well as in The Lost Expedition, although I would guess that the PvP variant would make more sense when you’re actually playing good guys vs bad guys instead of two teams of learned explorers and adventurers backstabbing each other. I suggest reading this excellent review by Matt Thrower if you’re interested in those aspects of the game.

To sum it up: a beautiful, tense, challenging game in a great package. If you enjoyed The Lost Expedition you should try this game. If you like the Judge Dredd comics you should try this game. Wait! I have to modify that statement: If you are completely oblivious as to what the Judge Dredd comics are all about (like me) you should try this game anyway. This is one of the better lightweight solitaire games I’ve played. I like it a little more than The Lost Expedition, but The Lost Expedition comes out on top if you add the expansion. The post-apocalyptic theme with the addition of the chasing Perps, PSI skills and radiation simply tickles my nerd-fancy. There is also some more variation in Judge Dredd, with the different locations and the uncertainty about how far away Max is. But I’ll keep both games for sure. I enjoy how Peer Sylvesters brilliant puzzle-adventure ruleset can be used to take the player (or players) on two very different kinds of adventure. In fact, I’d love to see these mechanisms put to use in more games. They could be tweaked to be even more challenging and merciless and combined with a horror theme, for example. Please, Osprey Games, give us more!

I can’t Tone it Down!

I really can’t. So I’ll point you in the direction of some reviewers that are less enthusiastic about this game, or at least are not wholly biased by infatuation.

Ian K gives the game a 5 out of 10, calling it ” a bare-bones resource management game with some pictures of Judge Dredd attached.” Read the review here.

“After winning a solitaire game before the end of the first dusk investigation and then losing two three players games quite convincingly I’ve decided to drop my rating to a 7. The game play is enjoyable but ultimately it feels that winning or losing is more down to the luck of the draw than player skill” writes Wake in a review on BoardGameGeek.

As you saw in the first picture, Mysan was really curious about the game at first. Now both cats seem more skeptical , probably because I’ve been completely lost in the post-apocalyptic wastes all day, not giving them quite as much attention as they deserve.

4 Responses

  1. Good review. I had got The Lost Expedition but finally sold it. You’ve made I consider Judge Dredd a possible adquisition 😉

    • Well, the games are rather similar, mechanically, so chances are that if you dislike one, you might not like the other.

  2. I have, and love, The Lost Expedition. I’ve had Judge Dredd on my radar for a while and been put off by the negative solo reviews. But yours makes me think, “Dammit, I’m buying this!” So I shall! Thank you.

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