It’s easy to dismiss Ruination. Its another one of those games with dudes walking across a map so they can battle other dudes, petroleum leaking from broken plastic bodies as slaughter begets slaughter. But this one takes place in the post-apocalypse. Or rather the post-post-apocalypse as the primary mode of transportation is foot and hoof. And that’s enough, right?
I know this genre is crowded. Billy down the street who thinks the hobby is Monopoly and a random Prospero Hall title even knows it’s bloated.
So let’s talk about this type of game. While you can certainly trace the roots back to Risk and later Avalon Hill titles like Axis & Allies and Fortress America, the contemporary genesis started with Eric Lang’s Chaos in the Old World. He essentially took the fantastic El Grande and mutated it with a hunk of warpstone. What came out the other side was legendary. Cyclades and Kemet are other early peers, taking up arms with plastic miniatures of mythic beasts that were substantial in size for their time. These games were simple and streamlined, but they had gravitas.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare these early Dudes on a Map pathfinders with a similar motion of genre redefinition that occurred in the 1970s. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a movement of young musicians embracing a harder brand of rock, clad in leather and steel and bursting with attitude. We’re talking Sabbath, Maiden, Priest, and countless others. We’re talking Osbourne and Lang. Halford and Cathala. Dickinson and Montiage.
But everything has its time and place. We move on and new youth arrive. New ideas are shared.
What came out of those early formative titles was something altogether different and counter to their ethos, while still absolutely adhering to some of their core tenets. What followed the NWofBHM was Glam. What followed those early hybrid Dudes on a Map titles was Kickstarter.
Glam Metal was more theatrical and over the top. It was as performative as it was heavy. Similarly, Kickstarter was all about plastic and image. Just as we got Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe, we also got Cthulhu Wars and Blood Rage.
What followed the music was a bevy of acts such as Whitesnake, Skid Row, Poison. You know ’em. What followed the cardboard was Rising Sun, Lords of Hellas, Mezo, Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea. You probably know some of these as well.
Just as Glam was obsessed with appearances, these games shifted to bigger miniatures and more stylish presentations. Many such titles were still killer, retaining their artistic vision at the center of the design. But looks matter. Without the hair and makeup, how do you get noticed?
Ruination struggles with that very question.
This is a Kickstarter release, but it’s a modest one in comparison to its peers. It’s beautifully illustrated by Chris Byer and Roland MacDonald, but it barely funded and lacks the plastic immensity and wealth of content found in similar titles. There are no dual-layered playmats and the resource tokens are sized for students of Derek Zoolander’s School for Kids Who Can’t Read Good.
But Ruination deserves to be noticed. It may be understated and not practice conformity, but it presents something compelling.
This game’s first killer track is the action system. You have your dudes on your corner of the map, but now you want to do stuff. So on your turn you can either move, scavenge resources, or recruit more dudes. The infectious riff is that each of these actions is tied to a deck of cards. When you select the action you also get the benefit of the topmost faceup card.
So in practice this means you may choose to move your dudes for an aggressive push, and as a bonus you also gain three blessing tokens which are used to re-roll dice in combat. Perhaps you choose to gather precious ammo but you also score extra victory points if you buy an advantage card. Additionally, each card will push you up one or both tracks in the game, again, dolling out some small benefits and rubbing your belly.
Let’s talk about advantages. This is the second hit that goes straight for your throat after that opening number.
Buying advantages is the primary way you attain asymmetry during play. It functions similarly to the Kemet blessing tiles or the Blood Rage clan upgrades. But the ability itself isn’t the only consideration, you also slot it into one of three positions on your player board. This allows you to trigger another special effect when you roll certain symbols in combat.
This system is simple as pie but it presents crucial decisions that add wonderful texture.
The arc of this album is heavy. Tentative at first, you soon discover combat with its odd custom dice pools and iconography. It can be puzzling and slow deciding how to utilize your various options and there’s some tactical weight here that bears recognizing. But it speeds up and it does so quickly as you’re thrown into conflict at every turn. Ruination is all about fighting.
Fighting is in service to holding bastions – effectively victory point positions. Yet, like Inis, there is a considerable amount of migration in this game. It feels very dynamic and fluid as you reposition and build new bastions at different points of the map. And of course it funnels you towards the middle for greater rewards just like those other bands.
While it’s easy to suggest that Ruination struggles with identity amid all of these grandiose titles competing for your time and shelf, there is a factor that sticks out: Ruination is a love letter. This is designer Travis Chance getting lost in his favorite cardboard and film genres. I would not say this is best in class in Dudes on a Map or Post Apocalyptic games, but it’s comfortable hovering at the edge of the conversation and putting on a show.
And the show draws because that action system is so simple and direct while maintaining an interesting flourish. Likewise the battles are gripping as you go back and forth with your opponent spending dice to secure hits or small benefits. All of your abilities interlock with the incremental gains throughout the game to produce moments of Zen as combat unfolds.
There is an odd quality we must discuss as the tempo is very even, perhaps undesirably so. The game’s not punctuated by huge moments and it doesn’t have a mechanically enforced arc. Your troop count will rise and fall within a relatively narrow band. Your abilities increase but not to the level of Blood Rage during the third age when Midgard goes bananas and the land is exploding. Ruination is instead defined by constant and unrelenting battle. Fortunately the combat does provide the best moments in play which distracts from what otherwise would become a rote experience.
Those best moments are achieved through a combination of incentives and rewards, regularly apportioned. For instance, the victor receives points equal to the number of units in the opposing army, but only if they initiated the conflict. This drives constant gambits and unrelenting pushes into enemy territory.
Another example of allocated incentives and rewards are the Exiles. These are mercenaries you can hire allowing you to plop down a special miniature and smirk sinisterly. They function very much like the monsters in all those Eric Lang games. However, here if they perish in battle they die for good. This impresses a fine level of tension that heightens the violence. There’s of course incentive to ride them into war, but also an impetus to ambush and assassinate these figures of note
It can all be swingy too in terms of balance, fantastically so as cards and dice and tracks dovetail to crescendo. But it never loses its sense of restraint when it comes to complexity.
Ruination’s modesty does come at a cost. While the post-apocalyptic setting is presented wonderfully on the visual spectrum, it’s not terribly interwoven into the gameplay. Only the smallest touch of inflicting damage upon your troops moving through the wasteland conveys any sense of time or place. Even the starting asymmetric factions don’t feel particularly differentiated or unique.
This does stand in contrast to the more vibrant competition and results in a bruised mug. The underlying themes of combating scarcity and seizing opportunity are indeed present, even if the setting and context isn’t as lush as I’d prefer. Thankfully, none of this undercuts the very emotion of play.
And that heightened emotion is why my heart keeps coming back to Ruination. Its focus establishes a mechanistic identity of dynamism and fluidity that attains the high notes of its rivals. This is a wonderful selection of cuts that somehow feels heavily influenced by genre greats while still securing individuality.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.