Sunday, January 19, 2014

Playing CROM solo

I recently bought CROM by Paul Ward from Matakishi's Tea House. It is a fast-play skirmish game inspired by the stories by Robert E. Howard. From the preview, I read that it is "... designed primarily as a multiplayer game but can be played with two players or even solo if desired" and this drew my attention.


CROM is presented as a 64-page book laid out in single column with colored illustrated backgrounds, as well as some stunning shots of gaming tables and miniatures. It is very readable on the screen, and a quick read too. Around 24 pages are dedicated to the rules, followed by a multi-part scenario and play aids. There is also a free supplement, called CROM Companion, which I recommend even to those who do not own the game. Besides an introductory scenario, it contains a set of recommendations for scenario design. Those seem very useful for skirmish games in general, and also for solo gaming.
The rules for CROM are based on dice pool allocations. The main characters (heroes and villains) have a number of dice that they can spend on different action types, while minions have fixed pools. Choosing how to distribute dice on a given turn is as important as tactical choices regarding combat and movement. In the Companion supplement, Mr. Ward comments that "...The governing factor in playing CROM is the player's ability, not their character's ability" and this is evident as there is little differentiation between characters in the rules. It is possible to state that a given character can use ranged attacks or magic but it does not go far beyond that.

Being focused on the adventures of Conan and such, combat in CROM lies heavily towards melee. Ranged attacks with projectiles or magic are possible but simplified and limited in damage potential. The rules for summoning and controlling creatures are interesting and fit the setting. From the sample scenarios in the rule book and supplement, and comments by the author, CROM was designed for short, action-packed battles between small numbers of figures. Two or more scenarios may be linked as scenes of an ongoing story, like the ones presented in the rule book.

What about solo play?

Despite the initial comments about solo play, no specific solo rules are presented in the books. I have to agree, however that the game seems fitting for that purpose. For instance, the use of card-based activation, random objective tokens (presented in some scenarios) and some other card-based mechanics add a welcome amount of unpredictability. Generally, the solo player's forces will be no more than a couple of heroes, against villains and their minions. The imbalance creates a challenge, which can be complemented by other constraints (as discussed in the Companion.) The dice pool system gives the solo player another element to consider.

I believe that the allocation of dice for the villains may be automated by considering the villain's role and scenario objectives. For instance, a wizard trying to summon a monster will devote some of his dice to that task every turn. A warrior might concentrate dice in movement when away from the player, and in combat when getting close. Still, this seems to be the hardest part to adapt for solo play.

Playtest time

I played a few test games to be able to better judge the rules from a solo player's standpoint.

Scenario 1: A single hero must explore a cave that has four chambers. Each chamber has an objective marker. Two of them cause two spiders (venomous, 3/3/0) to spring 6" from the hero towards the entrance of the chamber. One is a healing potion that may be used at the beginning of the hero's activation to restore 2 lost dice. These three may be found in any order. The last one has a magic artifact that the hero was looking for. Once activated, the scenario is completed. There is also a group of three wolves (2/2/0) that start at the back of the cave.

Here is a shot of the board setup. I was using improvised miniatures (e.g. some sci-fi figures instead of fantasy, which I would have to edit, print and cut) and some very basic terrain templates to mark the outline of the cave.

First attempt: I managed to defeat the wolves and activate two objectives. However, due to some bad choices in dice allocation, my hero got poisoned and died while desperately trying to activate the third objective. Playing time: 25 minutes.

Second attempt: This time I fought the wolves first, then activated the objectives. Still, I got poisoned due to bad judgment -- spent all combat dice while a spider was close. After that, I had to rush to end the scenario before dying, which I barely did. Playing time: 20 minutes.

Scenario 2: A hero, aided by a group of two archers (2/2/3, special dice used only for ranged attacks) faces an evil wizard. The wizard controls three groups of three zombies (1/3/0) and is trying to summon an abomination (10 dice.) I used the same board as before, with the wizard on the top left and the zombies on entrance of each chamber. To win the scenario, all enemies must be defeated.

The wizard will keep a pool of 5 dice to control the abomination, if it gets summoned. Any extra dice will be used for the summoning. If the hero gets within 6cm, the wizard may spend all available dice if they are enough to complete the ritual. Otherwise, he will allocate all dice for combat. The abomination will allocate up to 3 dice for movement, as needed to attack the closest target. The remaining dice will be used for combat. If it has less than 4 total dice, no more than 1 will be allocated for movement.

First attempt: A mistake while moving the hero and a lucky roll by one of the zombies cost 4 dice to the hero, halfway through the game. Later, he would lose another 4 dice, which made it hard to confront the wizard. Eventually the abomination was summoned and destroyed everyone (as the wizard could not control it.) Playing time: 32 minutes.

Second attempt: Not very different from the first attempt. I think I should remove one group of zombies to give better chances of survival. Playing time: I did not remember to time this one.


CROM is a game with a specific theme and scope. The battles are usually in the form of a small, elite force (a few heroes) against a weaker opposition in greater numbers. The enemies are out to delay or overwhelm the heroes. Close combat is prevalent over magic and ranged attacks.

These elements may seem a bit simple, but I found from my test games that they work well for solo play. First of all, the dice pool mechanics require planning each turn. Being caught without combat dice is really painful. At the same time, the dice rolls mean that your plans may always go wrong. Maybe you have a bad roll and your four combat dice are not enough to beat the enemy's two. Or your movement roll only takes you halfway the distance you needed to cover.

Since each game can be resolved quickly, it is possible to link many of them as scenes of an adventure, as suggested in the book. This is also interesting for solo play, as it gives context and motivation for the battles.

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