It was in the late 1970’s that a curious series of paperback books hit the shelf and completely changed how people thought of adventure stories. These stories didn’t need to be consumed in a linear fashion, heck you didn’t even need to read every page in the book. Instead, you were presented with a sequence of decisions at certain points and turned to page X or page Y based on your choice. Attack the monster? Go to page 11. Run away from the monster? Turn to page 37. Fun, interactive, and a title you could read a half-dozen times with different outcomes each time through.
In 2019 we saw a video version of this with the groundbreaking Netflix interactive movie Bandersnatch. Certainly the entire horror genre seems to be poised and waiting for us to not just yell at the characters “don’t go into the basement!” but actually be involved in the decision making that propels the story forward.
This entire decision tree traversal approach to storytelling also lends itself neatly to games, and Z-Man Games has released two very slick CYOA (choose your own adventure. Got it?) solo games. There are two in the series currently; House of Danger and War With the Evil Power Master. I had a chance to review the former through a number of plays, both solo and with a friend, and it’s simple, relaxing and good fun.
The setup is pretty simple: You have a deck of smaller clue cards and a deck of larger story cards, all of which are numbered. In the middle of your playing surface is a tracker board where you keep track of your Psychic Scale reading and Danger Meter, as you can see:
House of Danger is based on a CYOA book of the same name written by R.A.Montgomery, though I’m pretty sure that it’s all new artwork for the game itself, which is designed by Prospero Hall. Here’s the premise: “You are an aspiring detective and psychic investigator. For weeks you have experienced recurring nightmares that you sense might be important. Your mission is to get to the bottom of these visions by exploring the eerie Marsden House, also known as The House of Danger.”
In the above you can see that you start out with two items: A bottle of water and a pocket knife. The water lets you drop the danger meter by 3 points in a crisis and the pocketknife adds one to any of your combat rolls in a fight. Fighting is just one of five challenges you may encounter as you explore the Marsden House. Challenges can involve climbing, fighting, dexterity, perception or strength, and each has corresponding items that can serve as challenge boosters. That’s what the green symbol and ‘1’ die face denote on the pocket knife card, above.
To begin the game, you read the first card in the story card deck. It’ll give you flavor text (well, not really, it is the essence of the game so it’s not ancillary to the game as, say, cut scenes can be in a video game) and then you’ll have to make a decision. At the bottom of each card will be something like this:
I bet you’re already getting the basic concept. There are no workers to place, no decks to build, no legacy envelopes to open. It’s just a simple “read the story, overcome the possible obstacle or challenge, make a decision, go to the next story card”.
Wrapping up chapter two (of five chapters), here’s what my game setup looks like:
NOTE: You’ll notice that I’ve blanked out all the card numbers and the related story cards or similar. The less you know about the deck and items and how they all fit together, the more you’ll enjoy the game. This is a “no spoilers” game review.
Along the bottom I have quite a few items collected. The dramatic pictures on the left side? They’re “premonitions” and they (somewhat obscurely) can warn you of an impending danger to help you make smart choices as you proceed. The game is broken into five chapters and I’m just about to jump from chapter two (you can see the Chapter Two Goal still displayed) into chapter three (the Chapter Three clue cards are now on the table on the top left). I’m playing at a bar, by the way: This is a very portable game, though plan ahead so you have space for lots of items as you proceed through the House of Danger.
Here’s a close up of some of the item cards:
Notice how the items offer quite a variety of benefits, from moving forward on the Psychic Scale to winning a perception challenge to lowering the Danger Meter. It’s all wonderfully thematic and very much has the feel of a 70’s adventure book.
Sometimes Story Cards have challenges to overcome too, as shown here:
This is an optional Perception challenge: Search the desk drawers. You decide a challenge by rolling the die, adding any boosters you may have, then comparing that number to your current Danger Meter value. In this case, I rolled a 2 and needed a 3. Fail. That means I raise the Danger Meter by one and either go to Story Card “A” if I opt to climb the ladder to the roof or Story Card “B” if I opt instead to crawl through the window. I won’t say which is better (because it depends!) but twice during this game I made a choice, turned to the specified card and died.
Fortunately, when you do die, you just adjust the Psychic Meter down and continue the adventure. You can always make it through the game unless you’re quite literal about your interpretation of the cards. Again, it’s a great design choice for a solo game because you can focus on making the best decisions rather than worrying about dying and wasting all the time up to that point.
But you can also play CYOA House of Danger as a multiplayer cooperative game too: You just round robin the turns or, as I preferred, make it more of a social deduction game and just share in all the decisions while alternating any dice rolls required. This makes it a fantastic game if you need something to do while having a conversation with, say, a teenager. Fun and interesting enough to keep you occupied, but not so complicated that you have to be completely laser focused on the game mechanics.
The play time is longer than you may expect. Z-Man Games says one hour per chapter, which is a bit too long an estimate, but it took me over an hour to get through the first three chapters, and I already know how to play and can move through pretty efficiently. You can also easily checkpoint and resume between chapters by just neatly stacking your clue cards and marking down your progress on both the psychic scale and danger meter.
All in all, this is a really fun and relaxing game. A lot of games can be pretty stressful (Twilight Imperium, Race for the Galaxy or Kingdom Death anyone?) but since there’s no clock you can enjoy yourself playing CYOA House of Danger. If you’re with someone else, you’ll undoubtedly wander off into conversational tangents as you play too, which is also quite pleasant. I’m such a fan of this game, actually, that I just bought the second CYOA title and am hoping that there’ll be a third coming out soon.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE: HOUSE OF DANGER, from Z-Man Games. $24.99 at Amazon.com