It’s not a stretch to refer to the current board game era as a narrative renaissance. We’ve seen a groundswell of story-first designs including Time Stories, Legacy of Dragonholt, and excellent new printings of the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series. Hell, I recently played the cardboard take on Big Trouble in Little China and even that has an accompanying booklet of narrative encounters. It’s all the rage as the kids used to say.
So, why not a rebirth of the Choose Your Own Adventure series?
It took me a few moments to get over the fact this was the original CYOA-line as opposed to something more imaginative like Lone Wolf. But yeah, I’m over it and down with the concept. This first release is based on House of Danger, Choose Your Own Adventure #15 from R.A. Montgomery. It appears to hew very closely to the original book, right down to the black and white images and stained white pages. That retro look and feel is one of the strongest quirks of this release and one I revel in. If you’re susceptible to nostalgia and this material resonates, that initial rush will be strong and the allure significant.
I fell for it; nostalgia had me in its throes. I cracked this sucker open and played through it in a hurry, flipping over cards and working my way through the bizarrest of the bizarre like a dunston shot out of a cannon. And now I’m here, telling a tale of my experiences with another tale. It’s all sort of backwards, I know.
First off, the writing is poor. Who am I to judge? Well sure, I agree. But look, it’s simply not great. It’s full of moldy cheese humor and one-liners that will hurt your brain. Faithful to those original works aimed at young readers? Certainly so, but I’m not sure that’s a selling point.
Despite the fact that 90% of this game is text, I don’t think the writing is a significant factor here. The larger question is whether this format justifies itself. Why not simply reprint the original book, for instance? Do we really need a couple hundred oversized cards? Oh lords of narrative, what’s the point?
By extricating the story from those faded white pages and moving it to artificially faded cards, we do gain some utility. There is a board game feel in that you’re tracking your psychic ability and a danger level via meters. You’re making die rolls which add an air of mechanical weight to the adventure. You even have a collection of items that you can manipulate to tweak your odds of success or open new paths in the story. Who doesn’t want a nifty little switchblade card to twirl between their fingers? Why am I asking so many questions?
The system works, of course. There are some interesting decisions, some nifty uses of push your luck, and the die will create some drama. The most significant benefit is that you can play this cooperatively. Now, you won’t do this with a collection of hobbyists because the game is too simple and there’s just not enough there. There’s no greater strategy to haggle over or clues to decipher. This isn’t Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, it’s “do you want to pee on the statue or eat the conspicuous muffin sitting on the ground?”
Playing with a partner does find its niche when you introduce it to a young child. You can include them in the decision process and their virgin minds will likely be blown away by this combination of predestined story and player authorship. Watching a wee human’s overhead lightbulb blare is a wonderful thing.
But for a collection of experienced adults, there’s just not enough depth to plumb. Trying to utilize reason or logic is a fool’s errand. Seemingly correct choices will lead you to situations like a bunch of birds pecking your eyes out. Don’t worry though, death leads to you rewinding and going back to a previous card to choose the other option. This is actually handled with some attention to detail as you’re a psychic detective and this reflects your abilities.
Leaning on that subject matter of mental transcendence leads to a couple of interesting options. Your current psychic level can often grant new options or clues during the story. For instance, you may be awarded a card with some peculiar abstract image on it. This is supposed to be insight representing perhaps a dangerous warning of the future. Likewise, the game begins by having you study an image before proceeding. None of this seems to amount to much as I found very little meaning in any of the illustrations. Your mileage may vary is a saying that kind of sucks, but your mileage may indeed vary.
The game does utilize its format in a few other interesting ways. It breaks the content out into chapters, allowing natural stopping points to shelve the box and come back to it later. I found this not entirely necessary as I rolled through the entire game in two hours, crushing it like a Panzer division driving on Paris. That length felt both appropriate and incongruent with the intended experience.
Let me explain.
At two hours it’s not too long, which is great, but it’s just barely long enough to justify its existence. It’s a filler story-game that you take off the shelf on a rainy day and push through with some humor. Yet, that’s also just long enough that it makes repeating the experience a bit of an effort. Having played through the game once, I don’t think I’ll ever head back to this particular story.
The game doesn’t want this. It goes through many pains to provide branching paths, multiple areas to explore, and even a plethora of different endings. I am slightly curious on what I missed – what I feel is not an insignificant amount of content – but I can’t muster up the desire. It’s a bit of a shrug of the shoulders and a yawn.
I think this game is at odds with itself. It struggles mightily to justify its existence and it never quite manages to convince. If the narrative renaissance is a thing, and not something I simply made up, then Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger will merely be a footnote in the annals, possibly cut for length considerations.