By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 3 October 2018
We all have a franchise we think has the most epic of battles, and want a way to recreate them. The idea of large armies going toe-to-toe, or giant mecha taking on kaiju (à la Pacific Rim), usually requires a great deal of mechanical labor when it comes to games, and it tends to drag things out.
That’s where Harder They Fall comes into play. In this tiny package and quirky mechanic, we are supposed to get a way to handle battles of epic proportions. Get your drift partner and suit up, because there’s a battle to win!
Note: All art within this review was pulled from the most recent version of the rulebook.
Harder They Fall offers a way to handle a battle of epic proportions without all of the massive rulebooks that other games need. It focuses on telling the story while ratcheting up the tension with a mechanic that requires both steady hands and a tactical mind, while relying on joint narration to tell this epic tale.
==What You Get==
With the newest (final?) version that has arrived, Harder They Fall is a 21 page document that covers all of the necessary rules and setup for the game. It’s a relatively no-nonsense document, as it condenses everything needed to play in such a small space.
In addition to the book, two additional files are added to represent the cards; one file is the standard, full-color/art version, while the other is printer friendly. These cards include a character sheet and four additional cards that abbreviate the player actions, and the file can be printed as-is to have enough for three players to play the game twice.
==How It Works==
The game is a narrative-heavy game relying on dominoes to handle the themes of chance and resolution.
At the beginning of the game, the players decide on the sides of the opposition, create their character via the guidelines presented, and then create the playing field. For this game, a single sheet of paper is used to note various locations and their significance to the story and the setting.
Afterward, each player takes a single domino and stands it on one location on the map relevant to their side, and the game begins.
Each turn, a player picks up a domino, checks the number, and then narrates how their action (Gather Power, Advance, or Give Ground) influences the battle. The number on the domino usually gives a specific narrative prompt (like you stepped out of cover and it changes things for your opponent), but sometimes there’s a mechanical effect as well (such as allowing a foe to remove any one of your dominoes).
Resolution is handled by knocking down your dominoes, with the number of dominoes knocked over determining the result of the attack; knock down too many, and it actually hinders you, but knock down too few and nothing happens.
Once a chain has fallen, you start up a new chain somewhere within the old one and repeat until one side has been defeated.
Just to get the obligatory comment out of the way: I love the artwork here. It is vividly colored and portrays that sense of epic that you expect from the game, but the edges are altered to add a certain degree of blurry, out-of-focus, and sometimes jagged feel that actually adds to the work instead of detracting. If anything, I hate that there isn’t more!
As a game, this gains points for being light on both rules and required resources. Using the tin of dominoes I picked up at my local Target, I can fit everything I need for the game. Even the rulebook isn’t necessary once you know the basic rules and have the cards on hand, making this a game that can literally be run right from a small box.
The game itself has a narrative-heavy focus and is GM-less, with the rules just adding some gamification elements to the shared story, very much like Dialect. While this element is a double-edged sword (as some players struggle with this style of play), it is much more approachable than others because of the available rules.
On that narrative note, I find it to be a great tool to help flesh out a campaign setting. By using a game like this to have a “flashback” in history, players and GMs alike can still play a game while settling concerns of history, and it gives everyone involved some control over what has happened. I’m a fan of things like this, and am happy to say that Harder They Fall delivers here.
Finally, I have to add that using dominoes is interesting. In a way, it reminds me of Dread, but due to the numbers on the dominoes holding a mechanical significance, it does change things up by being more than a physical task to determine success, but rather a combination of manual dexterity and shared narrative within the confines of the results.
The first big issue with Harder They Fall, in my opinion, is the price for this little 21 page game. When I backed/pre-ordered it via Kickstarter, it ran me about $6 for the PDF. If I ordered the book, it would be about $13 before shipping. Keep in mind that these figures are estimates, as everything is in British Pounds and these are the rounded rates.
While it doesn’t sound like much, I felt that it is a bit overpriced for what you get: a 21 page game that can be mechanically condensed into 4 cards and a card-sized character sheet.
I’m also feeling a bit ambivalent on how the narrative and gamification elements mesh. Or rather, how they don’t really mesh. When you play a domino, you are supposed to offer narration based on the number on the domino, and the same is true regarding how many you knock down. For example, when you Advance and draw a domino within a set range, there’s a narrative note that you are in the open, but there’s no mechanical impact for it. If you knock down a high number when you go through the Knock Them Down step, you actually harm yourself because now you’ve used too much power. In some ways, some of the mechanics feel counter-intuitive, which is a blemish when some parts make absolutely perfect sense.
I also think that the game has inherent limits in that it functions best with 2-3 players (with a viable 4th player) due to the limits of dominoes and the playing space. Your entire play space is, technically, an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper, and as players use their dominoes each turn, they are technically going to the “discard” pile. As a standard double-six set of dominoes only has 28 tiles, it limits the number of potential turns for the game. Once the dominoes run out, the game has one last round to Knock Them Down” and determine the “winner.” Going by the numbers, two players get thirteen turns, three players will have eight turns (with one left over), and four players will have six turns. This makes for relatively fast sessions, but I feel it’s more of a tool for a game than an actual full-blown game I’d break out for game night, especially since my tables tend to be 4-6 players, plus a GM.
Finally, the game is what my friends and I call a “cat hazard,” as it’s too easy to knock over and lose progress with. Even with the narrative note about what this means in the story and the mechanics to go with it (i.e. explain the disaster in narration, state how it would be bad if your opponents win, then place any fallen dominoes back into the draw pool), it is rather frustrating if you are at a convention (with wobbly tables and cramped quarters) or if you have cats (or other animals) that can and will knock things over. It is also worth noting that there isn’t a note here about what happens if everything in a chain falls by accident, even though there’s a sidebar dedicated to this very situation.
I have a hard time trying to quantify a solid rating for Harder They Fall, but I’d be comfortable giving it 3.5 buns.
The game sets out exactly what it needs to do: providing the minimum rules needed to provide an “epic” battle while still being able to fit within any sort of scenario. It is short, to the point, and a functional game that is easy to pick up, can be relatively fast paced, and includes a different approach to resolution like we have seen with games like Dread.
Sadly, I felt the game was a bit pricey for what is given, and that the game suffers in a few of the playability areas that make it difficult for some groups and a number of venues, especially with how counter-intuitive some of the rules can get. I also felt that it was trying too hard to be the next Dread, and I’m not sure if it could match.