Obsidian Lords

1 Nov

0042000 was a great year of transition for me. I was still mostly a Magic: The Gathering player, just starting to transition to board games.  I had recently left my job at a comic book store for the high profile world of non-profit Museum educator.  It was also the year that some friends of mine and myself decided to venture into the world of online gaming journalism.  We all liked games, and we all liked writing…so it seemed like a natural fit, and Dungeon Crawler Magazine was born.  One of our mission statements at the outset was that we wanted to focus more on the “little guys.”  Sure, we would cover big games when we felt the need, but it was those small companies…those unique games that really sparked our interest.

Dungeon Crawler lasted about four years. In that time we got to know many very nice people, saw many interesting games, and even got nominated for an Origins Award.  So what does this all have to do with Obsidian Lords?  R3 Games, the makers of Obsidian Lords, was the perfect subject for our online magazine.  For one, they had a booth along the magical back wall of Origins.  For those that didn’t visit Origins in those years, the exhibit hall used to have the guest of honor stage at the back of the hall, and there was a “wall” of small booths, almost always small press companies.  Over the years that they set the hall up like this, I must have bought a dozen games from these companies (many of these games you will read about here if I keep this going long enough).  R3 Games was a company of just three guys, and they had a game that really captured out interest.  That game was Obsidian Lords.

It’s been 12 years since we first met up with Obsidian Lords.  R3 Games no longer exists, Dungeon Crawler only exists (in bits and pieces) on the Internet Wayback Machine, and I haven’t seen an Obsidian Lords booster in the wild since 2004.  I’ve also played thousands of other games since then.  Recently, I stumbled across all my Obsidian Lords stuff, and thought it would be the perfect candidate for a fresh look.  Does it still hold the charm it did all those years ago?  Or does it show the ravages of time?

Obsidian Lords was a Collectible Token Game.  Now, when I wrote my original review for this game, I had a 1-line tl;dr style definition of the game that my editor refused to let me use.  So I’ll use it here.  Obsidian Lords is Magic: The Gathering, with Dungeon & Dragons style combat, on POGS.  Let’s face facts here…call them tokens all you want, they are POGS!

005If you’ve played Magic, you should have a reasonably good feel for the basic flow of the game.  There are some differences, which I’ll spell out below.

First of all, there is deck construction.  Each deck must be exactly 50 tokens.  There can’t be more than four copies of any token except Obsidian.  Obsidian is the only resource in the game, so you have to think like every player is always playing a mono-black deck.

Each player starts the game with 12 life points.  If you hit zero, you lose.  Once decks have been built, the tokens are placed into the provided bag, and “shuffled.”  Each player draws 9 tokens for their initial hand, and places them behind a shield.  A player to go first is chosen…there is a slight penalty for going first in that you do not get to draw a token to start your first turn.  On successive draw phases, each player either draws a token, or can pay one life point to pull an Obsidian token from their bag.

Next is the standard play phase: you can play 1 Obsidian token, and then as many other tokens as you can afford.  If you want to play an item or a weapon, they must be attached to a creature.  If you play an event that negatively targets an opponent’s creature, they can try a Resist roll.  If they roll a 20-sided die equal to or under their resist number, the spell fails, but it goes back to your hand for you to cast again.  Immediately, if you’d like.  Against the same creature even, if you feel like it.

The attack phase is next.  This is where Obsidian Lords sets itself apart from other collectible card games.  First of all, all creatures that attack MUST have a weapon.  Only a few creatures (mainly dragons) have innate weapons, so most creatures will need an extra weapon token.  Once you’ve chosen attackers, the opponent chooses how he or she wishes to defend.  They can choose as many creatures as they want to block each attacker.  Defenders do not need to have weapons…the downside to this is that a creature with no weapon can only do 1-point of damage a turn.  There is no way for attackers to band together.

Each set of attacking / defending creatures is called a combat cell.  Each cell is considered separately.  Each cell is fought until one side is completely eliminated.  Combat can take a very long time; especially when you have creatures with over 70 hit points in play.

After this, combat takes on a bit of D&D style.  First the attacking player rolls a D20, attempting to roll equal to or below the Strike number on their token.  If they are successful, they they roll the dice shown on their weapon of choice.  That total is then subtracted from the defending creature’s hit points – you will need pencil and paper to keep track of this (the attacker chooses which creature takes damage, if there are multiple)  The defender then gets to counter attack with with each creature in the cell.  This goes on until either one side is dead, or the defender concedes defeat.

If a creature attacks untouched, they only get to deal 1 damage (regardless of how powerful the weapon may be) to the opponent directly.  Keep in mind, each player only has 12 life points.   Once the attack phase is done, a player can repeat the play phase.

Sadly, I don’t feel like Obsidian Lords has aged as well as I had hoped.  Now, to be fair, the game did only ever get this first edition release.  There was much talk about a 2nd edition in the works with new art at Origins 2002, but when R3 didn’t show in 2003 (despite having booth space there), it was obvious that would never happen.  Because of this, there are only 150 different tokens in existence (and a few of those I still question the existence of), so deck-building options are rather limited.  There are 9 different special abilities that creatures can have, so you can build some theme decks…although with only 50 tokens in a deck, and the necessity to carry as many weapons as you do creatures, even those options are sadly limited.

The next major downside is the art on the tokens.  It’s functional, but that’s about it.  All creatures of the same type use the exact same picture.

010This makes it tough to tell at a glance what your opponent has, and it makes the game look boring.  Also, for the few tokens that do have a fair amount of text, that text is crammed into a tiny space, making it tough to read.

The last negative I’ll list is just the simple fact that the token format is squandered here.  There’s nothing here that couldn’t be done with cards.  The small form factor is neat, it was clever back then, but it’s just not terribly functional.  Even if the game were to have been expanded, you couldn’t add a lot of complexity because there just wasn’t room for text.

I don’t want to sound wholly negative, because the game is still some fun.  I’m a big dice-rolling fan, and you roll tons of dice in this game.  Combat takes a long time, but if you have several big creatures swinging large weapons – it can be very exciting.

Obsidian Lords takes many aspects of both collectible card games, and role-playing games, and distills them into one simple package.  It gets high marks for being easy to both teach and play.  I don’t know if it would have had the legs to last several more years, but I wish we could have gotten at least one expansion at least to see where it was heading.

As I’ve been reflecting on this game, I’ve been thinking what I would do with it today.  First of all, new art – that’s a given. If I kept the basic idea of the game the same, I would ditch the token aspect, and make everything cards that were lightly coated so they could be written on with dry-erase markers (think Battlefield: Fantasy Warfare).  This would make a creature’s health much easier to keep track of for both players.

However, if I kept the token idea, I probably would include a board and make battling more of a free-for-all arena style battle like the classic video game Archon.

Only, new creatures could be brought into the arena whenever they were summoned, making combat a bit more “real-time.”  I have no idea if it would work, but it sounds good in my head as I’m writing this.

I don’t know how many people reading will have a chance to ever play Obsidian Lords, but even with its flaws, I think it is worth a play.

Next time, I want to take a look at a promotional game from the 1970s with one of the coolest boards I have ever seen.  Thanks for reading!

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