Having a strong emotional reaction to a board or card game isn’t an overtly unusual occurrence. Victories are often met with cheers and defeat with groans of frustration. The whole idea of “flipping a table” is rooted in the emotions of analogue gaming. However, that depth of emotion rarely moves beyond the euphoric elation of victory and the disappointment of defeat. Arguably, a richer experience is one that engages the participant in a deeper level of emotion, sobering, though it may be. It’s a risky thing to attempt, especially when games are “supposed” to be fun. Deck Head Games approaches this very topic with their game Ducklings.
Ducklings is a four player, two vs two game of survival and tragedy mitigation. Each team controls two parent ducks. The parents work together to navigate moving their family (consisting of themselves and three ducklings) safely from one location to another, crossing a large number of hazards along the way. Each pair of parents start at opposite ends of the playing field. To begin, players build a path out of face down cards that represent spaces and trials that their family will face along the way. This play area can be set up however the players choose, making it long and winding, or with many different paths to each location. On a player’s turn, they roll one of three dice, depending on how many ducklings are still alive. You see, the fewer ducklings you have the faster you can move, but if they all die you’ve lost the game. You’re just as much in competition with the elements of the game as you are with the other players. You’re racing for survival and territory because with each unflipped card you land on you face grave peril for your ducklings, all of whom are uniquely illustrated, have names and special talents. If you’re ever on the same spot as one of the other families ducks then you each allocate a wound token to one of the other’s ducklings. When one family successfully reaches their destination, the other starts taking one wound per turn to allocate to their ducklings as they wish until they also reach their new home.
Now, on paper, this looks and feels a little like your standard roll and move affair. The exception being the setup which is entirely up to the players themselves. Standing on their own merits, stripped of theme, flavor text and art you’re left with a game with a few choices you can make regarding the direction you’re taking and how best to move quickly and manage the risk of stepping on new cards. It would be beneficial to purposefully kill one of your ducklings off for the sole purpose of moving faster. However, those crucial elements to this game are there and it really makes a huge difference.
This game is made to be sad, and it permeates everything from the art to the text on the cards. The game strives almost to be more of an art experience than a competitive activity. Sure, you want to win by having the most ducklings survive the trek, but every choice you make in that journey will hurt your little darlings. The art for the ducklings is cute, but not overtly so or overly cartoony. The rest of the cards are beautifully illustrated with a sense of foreboding tinging the art. The graphic design, as well, emulates the desired emotions quite well without being overtly manipulative. Some of the text, while interesting to the story, can be a bit heavy handed in “you should be sad” sort of way. However there is one card, in particular that hits its mark perfectly. I don’t want to give anything away without the correct context, but the game shines when it’s most subtle.
Mechanically, this is, perhaps lacking. This is a necessary deficit, however, as the projected emotion of the game and the nature of the theme would be hurt drastically by bogged down systems and complex movement actions. Everything here is simple and intuitive and relies on the player’s imagination and empathy to be successful. If the right setting, this could be a completely unique and poignant gaming experience. If it’s played in the wrong setting you end up laughing at dead ducks. That’s the danger of this game, and really any artifact that attempts to make someone feel something,
The game as a whole, for me, stands. It’s quick, it’s light and it’s somber, which makes it interesting. What it isn’t is boring, which is a huge success for anything that could be placed in the realm of a roll and move game. You can know what the most efficient move is to make, but be conflicted about making it, especially if you’re playing with a partner that is more emotionally involved in the game. As parents to your ducklings, you have to decide how to allocate wounds and make some genuinely difficult tasks. That aspect of having to decide the fate of your children together is emotionally weighty and really interesting. While you could play this game one on one, it’s definitely a better game with two parents on each team.
- The game offers a unique story experience.
- The components are beautiful with beautiful foreboding art that never dips into the morbid.
- It’s quick to teach and easy to play.
- Mechanically, it is a very simple game.
- It takes some willingness to get lost in the emotions of the game. Without that willingness, a lot of the effect can be lost in translation.
- The flavor can be a little heavy handed in telling you how you should feel.
In Conclusion, this is an odd little duck of a game. It is certainly one that I enjoyed, but it was not a rip-roaring fun time, nor is it meant to be. The sadness I felt was not revolting, but it wasn’t expected either. I knew the gist of the game going in and was surprised at how well it translated to me personally during play. It’s certainly not a game that everyone is going to enjoy, but if you’re interested in trying something a little different and you’re aware of the feel that this is going for, I would recommend giving Ducklings a chance.
Ducklings is currently live on Kickstarter. Go check it out.