Friday 11 August 2023

Review: The Drifter

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Last year I only played a handful of RPG sessions overall (about 10, according to my notes). However, in addition to picking up solo wargames and painting miniatures as a new hobby, I also played a fair amount of solitaire board games. Some of these were rules-light thematic games (mostly of the roll-and-write variety), while others were of the more involved, almost RPG-lite kind. I slowly intend to write about a few of these games, starting with The Drifter, an interesting paragraph-based hexcrawling game in the vein of Barbarian Prince.

The Drifter, designed and written by Ken Kennedy, is a procedural hexcrawling game set in a fictionalised Wild West. The player character is a gunslinger who's determined to acquire $300 in order to leave behind his outlaw life, buy a ranch, and settle down. The game was initially criticised for its layout, but a remastered digital version was designed by Melissa Muhlenkamp Vahalik, now fully credited in the official version (and also brought onboard from the get-go to design the layout for the next two titles in the Drifter series).

A simple but sufficient hexmap

The first 10 or so pages (out of 200) describe character generation and the rules. The character is made up of a few stats: Finesse (used in physical skill checks and combat; reduced as Wounds are accumulated), Hunch (used in mental and social skill checks), Karma (spent for re-rolls), Bounty Suit (none → clubs → diamonds → hearts → spades; determines encounter difficulty), money ($), and weapons (effectiveness measured in card suits, similar to Bounty Suit). Hunch, starting funds, and starting Bounty Suit are determined randomly (although it's trivial to pick by hand to establish a suitable difficulty).

The game is centred around a hex map with various terrain types, a railroad, and a few towns. Once a starting location is determined, gameplay follows a strict procedure:

  1. pick an action (move, heal, enter town, interact with point of interest, etc.)
  2. resolve action
  3. roll on the Event table (under the column matching your current Bounty Suit), although this might be skipped for certain actions
One of the simpler entries in the book

Sometimes, more than a single event will take place on a given turn, and a lot of the events are tied to specific terrain types (you can only encounter the Mexican army on a desert hex, for instance, or an albino crocodile on a marshland hex). The rules themselves are explained succintly over 10 pages (including town-specific rules, which lead to various random events themselves). The variety of encounters is mind-boggling. The index lists 245 numbered events — some of these are pretty simple, while others are fairly involved and varied.

The rules, aside from how to resolve actions, cover skill tests and combat. When you are required to make a skill test, you roll 1d10 and add your Finesse or Hunch (depending on the event entry, sometimes with modifiers) and cross reference it with the difficulty on Table C — the entry tells you what happens based on the result. When you enter combat, initiative is determined on a Hunch skill test. Attacks are rolled on 1d10 + attacker's Finesse − opponent's Finesse and cross-referenced with the weapon's suit on Table B to determine the severity of the wound inflicted (if any). Wounds reduce one's Finesse (never below 0), and they are cumulative. You can use karma to re-roll any skill test or combat roll. It's very bare-bones (a little too much for my taste), but it's explained clearly, and examples are provided where necessary.

You can find these right next to the event table on the reference sheet

I really have to talk about the index, because it's what made this an entirely seamless experience for me. I don't generally mind page flipping when it comes to gamebooks, but a handful of other randomness-heavy games rely on interconnected tables that ultimately send you across the book so many times that I just lose my patience. Well, not here. The page numbers on the bottom of every page are all hyperlinks to the index, which itself is just a giant table with links to all the rules and event entries in the book (an important step up from even the reworked Barbarian Prince). You might still want to print out the map and the reference sheet, unless you completely want to turn it into a digital experience, but unless you're a purist, you'll probably enjoy the convenience of rolling physical dice, moving tokens, and noting down new locations on the map without the burden of constantly flipping between events in a 200-page book.

A good chunk of the entries are this involved

The prose is rather minimal and to-the-point. The encounters are described only in the barest of detail, which helps with identifying all the relevant mechanical information, but it also takes away from the atmosphere. The encounters are very topical and certainly evocative of the Wild West, but because there are only a few choices in the game (chiefly, which terrain to explore and which points of interest, if any, to visit), the player is mostly just there for the ride. You can certainly construct a suitable narrative after the fact, but it's about as pointless as weaving a story out of a night of Catan. It's an entertaining game, mind you, but it's a dice game with a strong theme.

The game plays fairly quickly once you get a good routine. I played about six times so far with an average play time of 50 minutes (that includes taking notes, navigating the book, updating the map, rolling dice, etc.) — I play solitaire games in general at a very leisurely pace, for what it's worth. I think I won two times. Since the game is very much luck-based, it's pretty swingy. My shortest session took only 15 minutes as I lucked out and almost immediately acquired a ranch. My longest session of 80 minutes, on the other hand, ended with my ignominious death about $200 short of my goal.

With these in mind, it's time to rate the game (the rating scheme is virtually the same as seen on Little Wars TV, but for a quick summary, the five categories are weighted, contributing the noted percentage to the final score):

  • Presentation (10%) Aside from the cover piece, there are no illustrations at all. The map is easy to read, but it's not especially pretty. I had no problem with the fonts used. It's the opposite of inspiring, but it's still better than being cluttered just because designers think the market wants eye candy. The index is phenomenal. I give it 7 out of 10.
  • Playability (30%) The rules are clearly explained, and the reference sheet (although not optional) is easy to use during play. The game, at its minimum, requires you to open the map in Paint to draw icons on it, some pen and paper or a text editor for record keeping, some dice or a dice roller app, and the book itself — extremely low requirements. The game is also very cheap. With this many hyperlinks and that blessed index, I give it 9 out of 10.
  • Mechanics (30%) As I said, the mechanics are explained well, and there aren't many anyway. The rules do their job, but because of the game's low complexity and high randomness, there are very few decision points. It's a dice game, in essence, which you may or may not like. I personally would've liked to see a little more mechanical differentiation (even though I applaud not leaning into the wilderness survival aspect of hexcrawling). Of course there are card suits in a western game, no matter how tiresome that trope is... I give it 4 out of 10.
  • Flavour (20%) The lack of illustrations and the bare prose take away a lot of potential flavour, though the sheer variety of encounters (stage coach, lawmen, bandits, medicine man, various animals, travelling circus, campfire, bank robbery, train station, hanging, poker, prospecting, bar fight, preacher, and more) is staggering. I don't want to be too harsh on a true indie game like this, so I'm giving it a 6 out of 10.
  • Support (10%) There isn't much buzz about the game, and the author isn't doing much to change that. He seems responsive on BGG at least. I give it 5 out of 10, although, honestly, the game doesn't actually need any support as it's entirely self-contained.

That gives The Drifter a weighted score of 63, which is pretty good. I would recommend it if you enjoy light western games, thematic dice rolling games, or Barbarian Prince. The author, Ken, was fairly surprised when he realised that despite all the positive coverage Barbarian Prince received in the past years in the solitaire board game community (huh!), there wasn't really anything like it (except for its sister game, Star Smuggler), so he made one (well, two by now). I think that's a commendable attitude.

The Drifter is available on OBS both in PDF and POD. It is also sold in a digital bundle along with its recent sister game, Star Drifter (review forthcoming).

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