Friday, January 13, 2023

The strange shape of Pencils and Powers

Pencils and Powers is a solitaire Roll and Write that's about managing a dungeon crawl. Which is a theme that has been covered so much over the years that it's amazing that it hasn't become a dead horse. There is just something simple and rich about it. Go into a limited area for the purpose of fighting and looting. Thats simple. But the details within that idea? The variety never seems to end. 

Indeed, even in just the Roll and Write genre, there are a lot of dungeon crawls. One of my first experiences with Print and Play games was Delve the Dice Game which slapped a Dungeons and Dragons theme onto a Yahtzee engine. Pencils and Powers, though, is a very different beast than Yahtzee. 
Here's the narrative part of the game: You play the role of an adventuring party of four heroes. You are going down into a dungeon that has five major monsters and one boss monster. Explore the dungeon, find gold and magic items and kill the monsters.

And here's the crunch, the mechanics. The game sheet has a grid of the dungeon and two tables. One for monsters and one for treasure. (Oh, there's other stuff on the sheet but, for the purpose if the nitty gritty, these three things are the core of the game) You'll assign a number for each monster and for each collection of treasure.

Each turn, you roll three dice. You assign one to mapping the grid, one to improving a monster (either hit points or damage) and one to improve a treasure cache.

You map out the dungeon by drawing in polynomial shapes from a table. You can't fight a monster until you connect their room with the entrance. Which has the rather interesting effect that you aren't actually moving the adventurers through the dungeon. You are just establishing access to rooms. It's kind of like you are mapping out an apartment building with monsters for residents.

You need to balance out which monsters you improve with which treasure caches you work on. On the one hand, you don't want the monsters to get too powerful. On the other hand, you need money for rerolls and leveling up, as well as magic items to help in combat. And you need the key to the boss monster's apartment. 

(Combat is roll a die and add any modifiers from magic items and character powers. Monsters have to be taken out in one shot and they always get a swing in, even if you kill them. Combat is honestly the simplest element of the game)

Pencils and Powers is a game that I think is very well designed. Dividing up the three die rolls is a really solid mechanic and the balancing act you have to do requires real choices.

But I wasn't really captivated by it. I literally kept putting it down to play other games or do other things. I eventually finished the starter dungeon and killed all the monsters but the game just didn't click for me. I definitely found the game to be well designed and, having played way more D&D than is healthy, I can get behind a dungeon crawl. Pencils and Pencils, though, didn't engage me.

That said, Pencils and Powers has several dungeons, each with their own set of adventurers and monsters. I will give it another go at some point, simply because the design is clever enough to deserve another try.   

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