Windhammer 2015 review – Gunsmoke Along the Fey Frontier

Gunsmoke Along the Fey Frontier by Richard Penwarden

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

This is a fantasy western gamebook adventure in which you play a bounty hunter, genres that are very common standalone but the mashup is quite rare. Gunsmoke Along the Fey Frontier is one of the better gamebook names we have this year, but let’s see how it is as a gamebook.

There are some clever thematic rules regarding skill checks. The skill system has a very strong resemblance to Stuart Lloyd’s Isaac Newton gamebook, but this one seems to use elements of the scenario better. You have aces, posse of pips and a bounty. There’s also alternative methods of record keeping: use a bit of paper (boring) or use a combination of dice, cards and coins. We’re going for the boring way, but we can pretend to have all these things setup and sprawled across the table. There’s a simple but important choice of character. I activate advanced mode and choose to be an angry dwarf desperado known only as Stumpy Bon Jovi.

Gator didn’t get his name from his looks, even though his teeth are unusually crooked. No, apparently when Gator makes a kill he cries afterwards. Do alligators cry crocodile tears? Well so far he hasn’t cried and you aren’t about to have him crying over you.

There’s a ton of content here for such a short gamebook. There’s all of the standard Western themes you can think of – railroads, saloons, rodeos, horse stealing, cowboying, lynch mobs, even a murder mystery. No gay encounters in a tent at the foot of a mountain though, as far as I could tell. The skill system is interesting but a little awkward. You have to roll over a certain value a number of times, but as soon as you succeed it starts to get easier as the target value decreases. I was either very lucky with the rolling or made some superb choices, as nothing was too challenging. Even if you fail a critical roll you can pull an ace out of the hat to save yourself.

Overall, the writing is fine and the theme is great. The pacing is done really well, with some change of direction every time a storyline becomes a little stale. It’s a touch too easy but it was nice to have an easier gamebook after a string of incredibly difficult ones! I liked this one – a fun Western romp.

Windhammer 2015 review – Droidchangers: Fight or Die

Droidchangers: Fight or Die by Andy Moonowl

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Droidchangers was known as Mechanoids for a short time in the competition

Droidchangers! Robots that aren’t obvious robots! Bah bah bah bah bah! This gamebook is a bit like that. It’s a robot adventure set on a distant planet. You are to rescue your little robot friend, find the key he has and use it to reactivate Omicron Delta. Most importantly, you get to be a robot that can turn into a vehicle of your choosing.

I choose a truck, for obvious reasons. I’m also trying hard not to use the word “transform”, as no doubt does the author. I believe this is to avoid any sort of copyright infringement. The gamebook was breifly known as a much more catchy title of Mechanoids before being changed later, perhaps because of similar issues. It is a bit of a shame – it seems noone owns the generic fantasy creature menagerie so we can all write generic fantasy adventures, yet robots that can turn into cars are pretty tied up in franchising.

“Remember how your friend Wheedle’s disappeared?”
How could you forget? The little green microbot – half your size but twice your adrenal fluid – was always getting into messes too big for his two-wheeled frame.

Andy Moonowl is a Windhammer regular, and is a big fan of exotic dice. This one is no exception with my truck being a d20 and you get to roll lots of stats when creating your character. Some of the stats seem quite interesting so I’m eager to get started. There’s also a time stat so I shouldn’t mess about either. However there are quite a few rule to get through before the adventure starts. I haven’t seen them before and they are fairly complex, so this one is going to take a bit of investment.

You play a Factroid, a vehicle-robot hybrid that experiences quite human emotions, like anxiety, morale and humour. The world is well realised, with each location you visit having a rich history and information about its inhabitants and geography. This is also done well – an opening paragraph surrounded by [] indicates you accessing your memorybanks – the Factroid equivalent of Wikipedia.

There are some nice touches in this gamebook. Maps are made with circuit diagrams. Your robot body takes damages to various areas, causing you to lose stats or turn to walking mode. As a truck I feel suitably powerful and more like a steamroller. Unfortunately the scenario didn’t really inspire me, and I think the dice rolling is its biggest downfall. Combat is not as exciting as it should be as it is is too dice heavy and there is too much looking back at the rules and checking the body part that is damaged; then having to find the consequences of this. At one point I had to roll for each of my 20 body parts. It was too much – the mechanics would be better automated and maybe this would work better as an app.

Windhammer 2015 review – In The Shadow of Isandlwana: The Battle For Rorke’s Drift

In The Shadow of Isandlwana: The Battle For Rorke’s Drift by Adam Johnston

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

In The Shadow of Isandlwana: The Battle For Rorke’s Drift wins the prize for the longest title we have this year, but is it a good gamebook? In this one we play a British soldier in the Anglo-Zulu war.

The gamebook uses the Fighting Fantasy system, with resolve replacing Luck. Combat is slightly different, because there are guns and you can do insta-kills. At certain points you are told to test your skill in the usual way (can you roll less than your skill score on 2 dice?). It is probably a first that you have to test your skill to avoid falling over a dog, but it is a nice introduction to the system. I rolled a 12, a catastrophic fail, poor dog.

As you are just a private in the army you don’t get that many choices. For a long stretch in the beginning you are railroaded from one paragraph to the next. Only when the chaos of fighting begins you are given some autonomy. When you are given a choice there isn’t much to go on as to which is the correct one. As an example, you can either patrol the north wall or the north-west wall.

I don’t usually enjoy the Fighting Fantasy system, because if you roll a low skill score you’re pretty much doomed before you get started. This one is so intensely combat heavy that you really need to roll well here. There’s a lot of skill checks and lots of combat, but the modifications to the rest of the system are good. Resolve seems to work a lot better than Luck. Battles can end quickly if you get in a headshot. It is just as well – In total I fought fourteen opponents before dying. A quick peek ahead showed there was a least half a dozen more fights before the end. If you really enjoy combat this gamebook will be ideal for you.

Zulus have managed to overrun the walls of the Hospital. Moving fluidly, they are even jumping on top of one another in the determined assault to take over the building. This is clearly a losing battle.
“We need to retreat, but try to slow their progress! Fall back!”

The writing is a bit linear but it is rather good. A lot of the passages reminded me of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, even though that series dealt with a different era of the British Empire and a different set of wars. The fighting in this book was relentless with not much downtime – which is what you should expect from your camp being invaded by Zulu warriors. But because of this you don’t really get time to reflect or meet any of the other characters. Your commanding officers and fellow soldiers are undeveloped so you never really bond with them. The action is very good though and Adam does well to keep everything at such pace.

Windhammer 2015 review – Thiathrow

Thiathrow by Tammy Badowski

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Thiathrow is a dice heavy gamebook of revenge, with you playing the clan leader seeking gory justice. Tammy Badowski entered the Windhammer competition last year.

The gamebook starts with a lot of rules, which are quite heavy and worded in such ways that are very difficult to decipher. For example “So if a sword is +1 then when you make a successful roll in combat add the +1 to your current hit point which is the one point you’d normally subtract off your opponent’s defence or health” is just a long way of saying “So if a sword is +1 then you can do an extra point of damage”. There’s also a curious rule which allows you to eat a meal during combat, which just sounds bonkers. Think of the indigestion!
But indigestion is one of the least problems here. This is a bit of a strange world where science doesn’t really apply. Babies slide out. Broken bones heal in minutes.

Without a midwife, you both bring your child into this world. Althea screams and you go to clasp her hand tightly.
Then the baby slides out, quickly you take it up in your hands and stare down at its little round face then it starts to cry.

The gamebook opens pretty graphically with the massacre of your clan and family. You are inexplicably spared a horrible death so you’re off to get revenge. There’s a pretty good chance this revenge quest will end pretty quickly by section 1 – you’re immediately thrown into a difficult fight. With a combined health/armour value of 20 versus your starting health of 12 means the odds are stacked against you. That’s also at least 40 dice rolls even if you hit every round. Noone wants this.

There are issues with the writing, there’s missing commas and awkward sentencing. On the upside, there are more than a few sections of super gore though, which I rather enjoyed. When there isn’t any gore the writing is less interesting. Some bits I liked – leading a clan is always fun, and it is nice not to be the solo adventurer.

It is difficult to recommend this gamebook. A lot of work has gone into it but as it stands the combat system makes it unplayable.

Windhammer 2015 review – The Draconic Challenges

The Draconic Challenges by Jac Colvin

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

I’m not sure I could ever look after a dragon. I have found two kittens are a massively destructive force, so I cannot imagine a dragon to be much better. Or, on the other hand, much worse. Dragon training is the in thing at the moment. We have Avatar, Game of Thrones, How to Train your Dragon – The Draconic Challenges is like that. It is a gamebook in which you possess a dragon, bonded in a way that only death can break.

The intro sets up the scenario nicely, with you as the hero questing for a dragon egg. The rules section deals a few spoilers, giving you the rules for rolling dragon skills and assuming you already have a dragon. There is a nice range of stats. The usual contenders are here: health, speed, agiliy, strength. There’s also a stat for reputation, which is nice because it is a double edge sword. A large reputation will gift you adoring fans, yet fame will also spur your enemies on. This is a nice touch.
Stats are determined by the roll of a dice. I roll a 1 for both speed and endurance, which makes Ari in my world really fat. I can’t imagine this being a very successful adventure, but let’s carry on regardless.

You hold out your hand. He takes it in a firm grip cementing the agreement. “Great. I’ll leave you
to pack up your things. Do you know where I live?”
You nod, everyone knows where he resides.
“Good, I’ll see you both soon.”

My dice rolls improve. By an amazing stroke of luck, I manage to get hold of a beautiful golden dragon, the rarest of all dragon kind. The gamebook is a bit linear, in which you gain your dragon, meet a trainer, train it up and enter a competition. There’s no real deviation from this, these things will always happen, but you can go about it slightly different ways. The gamebook is stat heavy, with your choices increasing or decreasing your dragon skills. This is all leading up to the finale where your dragon stats are tested.

The writing is above average, although uninspired and comes across as a Saturday morning cartoon. The whole text needs a good editing. There are far too many missing commas, too many dots in ellipses and unnecessary words in sentences. There are long paragraphs without a choice where the hero/dragon relationship develops in uncontrollable ways, the dragon is annoying, and at times it does feel like Pokemon. But I did find there is an odd curiosity to this gamebook. I wanted to train my dragon and see what it could do. Maybe we could win the dragon race competition. Would it be possible? Even though I am fat?

The gamebook is short and ends just as it gets going really, which is unfortunate. There’s no real antagonist or plotline to speak of, so what we have is very light on story and game. It isn’t horrendous but desperately needs a bit of conflict thrown into the mix to lift the whole experience.

Windhammer 2015 review – Sabrage

Sabrage By Philip Armstrong

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Philip Armstrong is another Windhammer regular and always does well with his fun, cartoon-like gamebooks. This year we have Sabrage, in which you play a sword. This is new; I have never been a sword before! The goal in this game is to talk to your newly found wielder, Qorc, get him to trust you and get out of a massive cheese.

There, you see a Ham Hound bounding about and barking to itself. It looks like a baked ham—complete with honey glaze—on four stubby legs. A large red tongue lolls out of its fang-filled mouth.

As always, Philip’s gamebooks are fun and massively creative. We have a hub-based gamebook here – a central market home base, and then three spikes to explore – a desert, an ice world and a jungle. A nice touch is that these aren’t independent silos. You find items and characters that overlap these areas so you are encouraged to go back and forth. There is a nice mechanic where the choices that are red can only be selected once, while other choices can be selected multiple times. I like this, but it does sometimes feel a bit like a cheat mode. Because you cannot choose them more then once to abuse the mechanic, the red choices are usually really good and give you one time bonuses, like coins or items.

Combat is difficult and isn’t quite as immersive as it should be, but I like the idea behind it. There’s a nice tactical element but I don’t feel that the combat moves vary enough to adapt to the situation too much. Then again, you are a sword and there’s not much to be done with you.

The unique part of the gamebook is the interaction between the sword and the hero. Qorc has a mind of his own and won’t always do what you want unless he trusts you enough. Unfortunately the relationship and the banter between the two is under-developed and could be more interesting. I would like to have seen a lot more conflict and less trust.

The world in Sabrage is fantastic and the cast have a discworld vibe. There’s brilliant creativity on display and you get to meet many colourful characters on the way, a hamhound, for example. We’ve come to expect this level of creativity from Philip and he does not disappoint at all this year. A lot of people will find Sabrage appealing and the gamebook will do well!

Windhammer 2015 review – The Sea Of Sand

The Sea of Sand by Andrew Wright

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

In the sea of sand, I am Baladin of Bhintos the Male Adventurer. You may have heard of Bhintos, as it is where the dangerous sandworms come from. These sandworms killed my family and now I’m super angry and turned to a life of adventure. Grr!

We start with lots of rules! At last, a traditional gamebook! There are rules for feats, exciting javelin combat and up close and personal melee. You can flee, do magic and wiggle a shield at your foes. You lead a group, there’s mass combat and tribe trading. It’s possible to die. We’re off on a real adventure full of gods, heroes and monsters!

This is a follow up to 2011’s Sea of Madness. It won the competition, so I’m excited to get started. The first choice is to pick a direction to move your tribe in. I feel like this gamebook needs a map but, in the absence of one, I’ll pick the eponymous route and head to the Sead of Sand. What follows is a series of enjoyable adventures taking from tribe to tribe, making allies and killing enemies along the way. I even kill a troll.

On the third day you shave your head and sacrifice a goat

This is an excellent gamebook. There’s a lot of dice rolling, but it is done well. Dice rolling adds an element of randonmess to your explorations. When there is combat, it is short and enjoyable (no hacking away at one another like some combat systems). Beefing up your tribe with mercenaries and allies is very satisfying.

Scenario-wise, while nothing ground-breaking it is well written and there is a good fantasy element with a well imagined backlog of rich history. The world feels magical. There are flying carpets. Should do well.

Windhammer 2015 review – Instrument of the Gods

Instrument of the Gods by SA

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Followup to Windhammer 2013’s Dirty Instruments, Instrument of the Gods is a solid dystopian post-apocalyptic free form gamebook.

It would be good to find out what Jax has been up to in the last couple of years – I’m guessing lots of killing and sex with and without lots of prostitutes – so I pick him again. The author has crafted an interesting and living world here. Despite being harsh and terrible, there was something exciting about returning. I liked the language – “Frucking” was nice to hear again. What we have here is a future Earth, wrecked by a terrible nuclear war. We learn that most people now live underground or on the moon. We’re in the sewer system of Paris, where a sizable human population has grown, and is about as nice as you can imagine. This is a place where dead lie rotting in the street and regularly overdose on the drug of choice, Euphoria. Prostitition is the only real career choice.

“I can’t wait to get the fruck out of here,” you mumble to yourself

The mechanics seem a lot snappier than they were before. Combat is sharp and straight forward. It involves rolling dice and adding the scores to the appropriate stat – either hand to hand, long range or defense. Unfortunately Jax starts with everything pretty maxed out, so there’s not much room for development there. The system is oddly satisfying – it is easy to imagine a 6 in a shoot out representing a headshot and a poor roll for defense meaning completely caught square. The results are pretty devastating, and combat doesn’t last more than a few rounds making it appropriately short and dangerous.

Writing is fine, with just a few typos, and the imagination is brilliant and well-realised. The gamebook is structured, with a central hub and lots of little side avenues to explore in any order you choose. Character choice is really important and really well done – your character brings with it different morals and baggage, different quests and even different perspectives on the same quests. This is a really nice touch.
The gamebook isn’t perfect – there are a couple of places to get stuck (there should be a way back to the main city on section 35) and is going to suffer from balancing issues if you choose the route that the author does not expect. But, despite being a horrible place, it is really enjoyable to explore. A good entry.

Windhammer 2015 review – Isaac Newton: Badass Ninja Crimefighter

Isaac Newton: Badass Ninja Crimefighter by Stuart Lloyd

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Here’s another alternate history gamebook. This time as Isaac Newton, inventor of gravity, we are to use our amazing super powers to fight crime! As book titles go, this one is pretty thorough.

We have a new gamebook system that I’ve not really seen before. It involves dice. Dice! There’s not been a great deal in the competition so far that have used these strange devices. It may also signify a shift in the gamebook cloud to move away from dice throwing and more into the story telling – gamebooks are becoming more story driven than random event driven, perhaps? I like story driven gamebooks, but it actually feels nice to have a new gamebook system to play with and some dice to throw (even if these dice are going to be virtual ones).
So the skill system in this gamebook asks you to throw dice and apply skills and consumables to the outcome, which allows rerolls. It is simple but effective. You can also expand will powers to get a reroll regardless of the situation, and how this manifests in the story is up to us, the reader, as the author allows us to use our imagination. My own imagination! How interactive is that? I’m already excited for this adventure, and I’m only in the rules section.

As the gamebook unfurls, it turns out our Isaac is actually some sort of psychotic batman figure. The plot is very enjoyable, with Isaac hunting down an evil crimelord. It is very inventory heavy, with a whole load of collectables and gadgets to get your hands on. This is nice, and it actually feels like you are making choices. As a gamebook it works very well, with some nice pacey action sequences.

You unleash a rainbow blast from your hand, but Chaloner is ready for you. He holds his brass gauntlets up to reveal shiny mirror bright silver palms on them.

There are a few typos, but nothing a quick edit can’t fix. More curious is the shift from third-second person when you get into the gamebook proper, but again can be fixed. There are unfixable terrible gravity-based puns throughout the text.

There is a bit of bonus content stuffed into this gamebook. The probability tables in the appendix, and the links to real life Isaac Newton Badass Ninja Crimefighting. I did feel that the probabilities were a little wrong as anything involving randomness can’t promise a 100% success rate, but I enjoyed the nerdiness of it all.

Windhammer 2015 review – Frogmen

Frogmen by Nicholas Stillman

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Nicholas Stillman is a Windhammer regular, and never fails to be a highlight each year. One of my favourite ever entries was Gunlaw from a couple of years back, and last year he entered with the intense survival horror Why don’t they leave the house? Both entries were incredibly bizarre, and most gamebook players were unsure what to do with them. Aside from a drug-fueled diving experience, Frogmen slightly tones down the zaniness and becomes a little more accessible. It’s still bonkers though.

Frogmen tells the story of an illegal diving crew, a small team who risk everything to descend into the depths to haul up the riches below. The story opens pulling a girl called Amanda out of the sea, while a submarine manancingly patrols the waters, out for kills. You have a pay stat (how much loot you bring up) and an air stat (how much faffing you did to get there). You also have an array of skills and items to help in your explorations. The gamebook is broken into four different chapters and an epilogue. While this is quite linear, you are given a major choice at the end of each chapter which affects how the chapter opens up.

“So what happened to your boat?” you ask, handing her two teacups.
“It blew up,” she says into her drink.

Nicholas Stillman is a very accomplished author, and the text is packed full of lovely little gems. Chickens are not startled; chickens spread gossip. The characters are well developed and the story is solid. It is clever in that you get a full experience out of the book. There’s no bad dice rolls or choices to make early that will end the experience prematurely. Out of everything I’ve read so far, this is the first gamebook that could stand alone as a (non-interactive) short story. That’s not to say it’s easy reading. The book will often riff into bizarre imaginations of hyper-creativeness. Sometimes the reader is part of this journey, although more than once I was a little lost. Despite a few misses, when the writing hits it is delightful.

My biggest disappointment is perhaps this gamebook plays a little too safe. I am used to be being massively affected by Stillman’s writing, and this entry was relatively non-controversial. This might suit some other players. Frogmen should do well, but might not be quite strong enough to take top prize.