What Do I Know About Reviews? Agon

Agon CoverI have a whole lot of formative media that sunk into my young skull. Among all the other influences, there was a time when tiny me was obsessed with Clash of the Titans. I loved the questing, the monsters, meta-story of the gods discussing Perseus and his adventures. Plus I had to learn more about the Greek pantheon because my sister used to call me a cyclops, and I had to figure out what that was.

Today I’m looking at Agon, in this case, the second edition of the game by John Harper and Sean Nittner, and published by Evil Hat. Before I get too far into this review, I also wanted to point you at my fellow gnome’s review of this product from the stew. Take a look at what Di had to say here:

Returning to Olympia in Style with Agon

Testament of the Gods

Agon is a 160-page book. This review is based on the PDF version of the game. As of the time of this writing, we’re only a few days away from the release of the physical book. The book has a single column layout, with color headers and decorative borders that evoke the ancient Greek feel of the game.

The introductory pages for the chapters include two page spreads with silhouetted heroic figures performing various deeds. In addition to the formatting and artwork, there are various illustrations showing how various procedures in the game work, as well as outlining the Vault of Heaven progression tracker, that fills in various constellations to chart the progress of the heroes on their voyage.

Character Creation

The characters you are creating in Agon are mythic heroes trying to return home. To build a hero, characters create an Epithet, a Name, a Lineage, and an Honored God. The character has dice ratings associated with their Epithet, Name, and four Domains. These domains include the following:

  • Arts & Oration
  • Blood & Valor
  • Craft & Reason
  • Resolve & Spirit

Most of these start at a d6, but one of your domains will be boosted to a d8, representing an area of special interest. The character also has an amount of Divine Favor they can mark with different gods. Characters decide if they are a fully mortal hero, or if they are a demigod. If they are a demigod, they have a single bond with their divine parent, while mortal heroes start with two bonds with their fellow heroes.

Trials

The basic means of resolving anything in Agon is to roll for a trial. The trial appears to be similar to what happens when characters in other games take an action, but the trial represents the resolution of a process that may have taken several steps. In other words, we’re not doing round by round combat, or day by day crafting . . . we’re rolling to see how epic the event was, and then filling in the narration of what happened.

To participate in a trial, a character speaks their name. If their epithet is relevant to the trial, they recite their epithet, and add that die as well. The character might also have an advantage they can spend in the resolution of this task, and they might spend a bond with someone to add their name dice to the pool.

If a character calls on one of the gods for which they have divine favor, they may also roll an addition d4. This die is not used like the rest of the dice in the die pool. The player rolls their die pools, and then takes the two highest dice to get their total. Divine favor, if invoked, is rolled and added to the total of the two dice rolled, and thus can potentially break the “ceiling” of what the character could have possibly rolled.

Opposition is resolved by the Strife Player (the game facilitator) rolling a dice pool, picking one die, and then adding either +4/+5/+6 to that single die result, depending on the importance of the task at hand. Opponents don’t have the full range of stats that characters have. They usually have three different descriptions with dice ratings, with the Strife Player adding dice to the pool that apply.

Whenever a character fails a task, they mark Pathos. Mark enough Pathos, and you start marking on your Fate track. The Fate track allows you to advance some of your ratings, but once your fate track is full, your fate is resolved, and you leave the story, although you may have still made a major impact with your legend.

Different trials will use different domains. You may use Blood & Valor to resolve combat, but if you end up trying to out sing a siren, you may use Arts & Oration. If you go into battle, but direct your allies instead of diving in yourself, you may use Craft & Reason. Competing in a long athletic contest may call for you to use the domain of Resolve & Spirit.

This resolution reminds me a lot of the Cortex Plus games, with the die rated “aspects,” the justification for the inclusion of different dice, and the assembly of the dice pool. The biggest difference is that most Cortex games aren’t resolving a longer sequence of actions with a single roll.

Battles

Before characters resolve the core problem on the island they are currently visiting, there will be a battle to resolve the fate of the island. “Battle” doesn’t mean literal fighting, but it does mean there is a linked series of trials with specific stakes that determine what kind of island the heroes will be leaving behind. Battles are split into three steps:

  • Clash
  • Threat
  • Finale

Winning the initial clash grants the winner a d10 advantage die that can be used later in the battle. In the threat phase of the battle, characters must choose individually if they wish to seize or defend. A defending character stops a disaster that the opponents will inflict, while seizing in this phase of the battle allows the winner to name the domain of the finale, as well as to determine the fate of their opponent.

Winning the finale but failing to seize in the threat phase means that things get better, but the opposition isn’t gone forever, and it will be a hard fought battle to set the island right.

Islands

There are twelve islands detailed in the book, as well as random generation tables for creating other islands. Six of the islands are listed as “starter” islands, where heroes that haven’t picked up any extra boons and who haven’t advanced many of their die ratings have a better chance of positively resolving the issues on the island.

The islands include entries for the Signs of the Gods (which may give clues as to what needs to be resolved and how), Arrival, Turmoil, Trials, and Battle. There is flexibility in how these different aspects are resolved, but they serve to list what needs to be addressed on the island and what the stakes are if the heroes fail.

Fate and Resolution

There is a tracking sheet that includes multiple constellations. Whenever characters resolve a battle that is in the interest of a given god, one of the stars of that god’s constellation fills in. Depending on the length of the campaign characters wish to play, the group can pick how many constellations need to be filled in for the heroes to return home.

Characters that have their fate track filled in before they return home have met their fate. They may not die, but they aren’t going to make it home. Did I mention that if you want to succeed at a roll, you can say you died in the process, and you automatically succeed in a trial? Sure, it’s a steep price to pay, but some people are REALLY competitive.

Speaking of competition, characters rank how well they did, with the most impressive character receiving the most glory, those that prevail but are not “best” receiving half the available glory, and the heroes who suffer receiving a single point of glory. Glory can be used to pick up advancements in a manner that is a little bit safer than those boons that you pick up from moving closer to resolving your fate.

When traveling between islands, there is a standard procedure for resolving threats to the ship, determining the current leader of the crew, and making offerings to the gods (which can reset the divine favor that you might be spending on trials).

Greater Glory

I’m already a fan of the Cortex based games, so anything that reminds me of that system has a leg up for my affections. I really enjoy the ebb and flow of divine favor, which nicely models the fickle nature of the gods as expressed in stories like The Odyssey. I like the decision points that the game inserts in battles, as well as allowing characters to just heroically die, which is very appropriate for the source material.

Prodigious Pathos?

I don’t consider the following faults, so much as I know that they may appeal much more to a subset of gamers rather than more broadly. The precise procedures involved in the game, such as the way to announce your participation in a trial, the steps to resolving battles, and the process of resolving the voyage between islands, might start to feel too rote for some players, especially if they aren’t engaging as much with the descriptions of the resolutions. While it is very fitting for a story of Greek heroes, the fact that there can be asynchronous advancement between the players when it comes to glory scores may not appeal to some.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

For those people that really appreciate reinforcing a theme with storytelling conventions, this game will really resonate. The competition, the ebb and flow of divine favor, the recitation of deeds, and the collection of new stories are all so well aligned with the stories being emulated.

I also appreciate the clear presentation of the rules, the variable campaign resolution, and the various summaries, which make the procedures so much less daunting than they might otherwise seem.

If you don’t like the idea of going through the very specific motions to engage with the rules, this may not be for you, but I really think this is a game most people that love Greek mythology or creative storytelling would not regret owning.

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