Wizards of the Coast has been active recently in spreading its Dungeons & Dragons storylines and characters into mediums outside of its iconic role-playing game. That willingness to share creative control with partners has led to a stellar new board game from designer Andrew Parks and the folks at WizKids. Assault of the Giants is a rich and engaging strategy affair, perfect for a night of fun with a group of fantasy-loving friends. And while it’s not necessary in order to enjoy the game, a passing knowledge of D&D giants, or even last year’s excellent Storm King’s Thunder D&D adventure, will be rewarded as you observe all the ways in which Assault of the Giants taps into the locations and personalities that made that such a great campaign.
Several months ago, I highlighted Storm King’s Thunder in advance of when the D&D adventure hit shelves. Like that lengthy campaign, the board game Assault of the Giants is rooted in the same fictional backdrop. The All-Father, the greatest of the giant gods, has broken the caste system that governs the giants, leaving each race of giants a chance to scramble into a new position of power. In the role-playing game, players controlled human, elf, and dwarf heroes (among others) caught in the chaos around this titanic struggle. This new board game offers an empowering twist; each of the three to six players controls an entire race of giants as they seek to claim victory, often at a terrible cost to the “small folk” who get in the way.
Playing the roles of the often villainous and destructive giant races isn’t the only way that Assault of the Giants distinguishes itself. My favorite aspect of the game is its asymmetric paths to victory, which demand that each player pursue dramatically different avenues to win the game. Control the Fire Giants, and you must desperately seek to revive an ancient dragon-slaying titan. Meanwhile, take up the mantle of the Jarl of the Frost Giants, and your goals involve encasing the world in ice in order to prove your worth. The game even finds a way to make the idiotic Hill Giants amusing; as their queen, you believe only your size will show your quality as a giant, so the whole game becomes about gathering enough food (often in the form of captured halflings) to sate your gluttonous craving. Distinct event cards, some generalized to everyone and some specific to your race, add a sense of unfolding narrative that I found refreshing, especially in a strategy title of this depth, where story is often left by the wayside.
No matter which giant race you race you control, Assault of the Giants takes its title seriously. While resource gathering and smart area control is essential, the bulk of gameplay focuses on combat, usually between the competing players and their ever-growing armies of giants. The dice-based combat mechanic takes a few turns to wrap your head around, but once you grasp it, battles move smoothly and I rarely encountered situations that the rules couldn’t resolve. The game rewards aggressive expansion and rapid seizing of goals (in keeping with giant temperament), so it’s rare that you go very long without a fight. With smaller player groups, the other giant races remain in play as easy-to-manage NPC groups, so the map is satisfyingly active, and changing all the time. There’s even the addition of giantkillers to shake up the action; these diminutive hero miniatures may be brought into play from time to time and shake up the playfield by murdering off some of your opponent’s most valuable troops.
In between battles, Assault of the Giants employs a clever turn structure, in which players must deploy one and only one specific command on each turn, and that action is then exhausted until you play the command card to rest on a future turn. Do you move your troops across the map, or plunder the hapless villages of the small folk? Do you recruit new giants onto the field, or gather spells to use in a subsequent combat? Each decision dictates your options that turn, but also might help a future action on a later turn unfold at a greater strength. For instance, hold your “Attack” command until you’ve gotten a few other cards into play, and you provide additional opportunities to inflict damage commensurate with the number of other cards already played. It’s an intriguing loop that demands that every player is constantly considering the changing dynamics on the board, rather than tuning out between turns.
Visually, Assault of the Giants makes for a beautiful tabletop setup. The map of the Savage Frontier of the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting is gorgeous, and reminiscent of the old poster maps that longtime RPGers will recall from various editions of D&D. Card art, custom combat dice, and dozens of cardboard tokens lend the game a weight and complexity that will be welcome to many strategy enthusiasts. But the stars of the show are certainly the colored miniatures (non-painted in the standard edition, painted in the premium edition) that tower over the board, representing the champions of your giant army. Each figure has some handsome sculpting, and the visual prominence of the champion minis emphasizes their central role in any wise approach to victory; champion figures regularly turn the tide of a conflict.
Assault of the Giants is likely not a beginner’s strategy game, but neither should aspiring gaming groups be scared away. The rule book is lengthy, but it’s well written, and concepts are easy to grasp – even if I wouldn’t have minded an index for easier searches mid-game. The box does a solid job of couching the great minis, dice, and many game cards in safe enclosures, but I wouldn’t have minded a more thoughtful approach to organization for the rest of the game components. Even though my many game tokens are carefully organized into my own ziplock bags, the box offers little in the way of sensible places to store them except on top of all the other stuff – a little pet peeve of mine.
In play, Assault of the Giants is a blast, and its integration of story elements into a combat-focused strategy experience hits a lot of sweet spots. Its medium weight of complexity should make it a smart pick for intermediate and expert gaming groups, and the distinct nature of each giant race lends a lot of replay value; rolling through the game as a the devastating Stone Giants is quite different from controlling the noble Storm Giants and their efforts to make peace and not war with the small folk of the world. I also appreciate that Assault of the Giants is built from the ground up with larger groups of up to six in mind – many similarly excellent map-based war games are built around smaller groups, but WizKids title handles bigger crowds when you have them, and scales comfortably to smaller groups as well. Larger groups lead to longer playing times, but it's always manageable in a full evening of play, thanks to a brisk turn order and sensible combat resolution. I’m delighted by the game’s ability to tap the major themes and narrative threads of D&D’s most recent big campaign, but no one needs to fear the interconnection, as no experience with Dungeons & Dragons is necessary. More than anything, many players will be delighted by the core concept: “You mean, we get to be the big hulking giants, instead of getting crushed by them?” If for that reason alone, fantasy enthusiasts should consider giving it a shot.
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Top image credit: ©2017 Wizards