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Harder they Fall

by on June 14, 2019

By Jay Iles – UFO Press

Captain Cobb led his mercenaries to the top of the waterfall, looking out over the recently-abandoned farmhouses. They were strong, organised and their morale had been bolstered by the city-sized black dragon burning the armies of Greenleaf. A spear hit Cobb’s shield like a hammer-blow, knocking him over. As he gathered his senses, he looked back and saw the front line of his army all dead. The resistance fighters were already regrouping from their places in the farmhouses. Cobb’s forces were isolated, unsure of whether to advance or retreat.

…And all of this was represented by someone flicking a domino at someone else.

The BookI’ve been having mass combat on the mind lately. The final season of Game of Thrones has been the main cause of this, given the Battles of Winterfell and King’s Landing. It’s also often an inevitable escalation in a high fantasy story. I’ve never found mass combat subsystems all that satisfactory over the years. I’ve bought d20 system modules, played built-in systems and just zoomed in to where the characters are and zoomed out to show the overall condition of the forces in reaction to the scaled down story. This wonderful mess was the climactic battle in a previous campaign.

Harder They Fall is a small RPG made to represent mass combat using dominos. Specifically, though, it puts a personal focus on it which my players and I didn’t really expect as much of going in. It can be run as its own thing or as part of another game, which is what we chose to do. The book itself is 22 pages, although the PDF also comes with Combatant sheets and action cards to print out before a game. Really you only need the Combatants, but I found it useful to have the rest as reference for my players.

The book design is gorgeous, which I’ve come to expect from Jay over the years. She uses art from Tithi Luadthong who gave such a good look to Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. There are bold sections where the colours used in the book are reversed for evocative bits of flavour. As serious and bold as the style is, my favourite image is still a pair of dominos facing off against each other, towering over skyscrapers.

There aren’t playbooks and everything’s kept fairly basic. Our combatants were people leading or surrounded by other soldiers, although they can be individuals, they can be mechs, or even monsters (there are separate rules for those, though). Your character has:

  • Strengths – How they do well in a fight
  • Oaths – Reasons they fight
  • Doubts – Why they feel they might not win

Monsters get Needs and Frailties instead, as things like a Godzilla or a skeleton horde might not have doubts (and why should they?)

Sides are drawn, possibly an even split, although there are also rules for playing one massive enemy against a bunch of Combatants. You draw a few plot elements on a map, then build a pool of dominos face-down. They’re how things will be resolved and they’re going to show you the forces on the map move. I used pound shop dominos I bought in excitement when I heard about Harder They Fall. They were not good. You’ll want dominos that’ll actually stand up on their own, which mine seemed to only do occasionally and only on a maximum of one side. Given my own coordination problems, I could have gone for the optional non-domino rules, but I love tempting fate so I had to try it out.

The Game

My group are soon to start season two of our Dungeon World campaign. This was the game where I did The Terrible Thing to my players. It ended in an elven colony where they interrupted a marriage and then ducked away from a city-sized dragon by diving into a hell portal. The player’s characters will be doing Dungeon World… In Hell! soon enough, but I thought we should see what happened to the elves, the allied combatants and the forced the dragon was working for.

We drew this map for Greenleaf:

We had a slightly uneven group, so two of us shared three antagonists and three of us took on the forces who’d worked with the heroes.

Lee, Mark and Wade played the forces of Verdant:

Milo & Greta – Lee’s PC’s sidekicks turned resistance-fighter rangers

Captain Oda – A gun-wizard and her army of cheerful and explosive knights

A Dwarf Warmech – This was a gigantic war machine with the soul of a dead player character in it

Vinnie and I played the forces of Rath the Antigod:

Ser Lesassier – A fallen knight turned into a city-sized black dragon

Captain Dolcet Cobb – One of the Autumn Guard, a militia working for Rath

Seeker of Heart’s Blood – One of the Hollow Kings, corrupted elves and its horrific forces

We drew the map, created a face down pool of dominoes to draw from and placed our initial pieces.

Play goes back and forth, with the active player choosing one of several moves, which will most often pass play to someone on the opposing side. You get a choice on your turn; Raise the Stakes or Knock Them Down. These quite fittingly add dominoes or remove them.

The most options are on the Raise the Stakes side, which has the following set of options which have varied levels of success depending on the pips of the domino you draw:

  • Gather Power – You place a domino at the rear of your force, showing that you’re not advancing but you’re building forces. That’s always going to happen, but its more costly depending on the number of pips
  • Advance – This moves you forward and if you do too well, might launch you forwards and give the opponent an opportunity
  • Give Ground – You add a domino to your opponent and ask questions of them, providing insight into their force and passing turn order to the weakest of them

When you Knock Them Down, there’s only one option. You knock your chain of dominoes over and there’s an effect as long as you have two or more dominoes in your chain. The effects vary not on the number of pips but the amount of dominoes you topple on your’s and your opponent’s sides. We found that often you’d end up toppling dominoes which wouldn’t connect with a foe, just to make some small effect. When you did hit an enemy, the amount of dominoes toppled would escalate dramatically. Like advancing, the highest level of ‘success’ actually harms your combatant as well.

Milo and Greta kept to the side of our battlefield, remaining in the mostly evacuated village heading towards The Autumn Guard’s waterfall encampment. As they advanced, they kept passing turns over to the people the furthest away; The Hollow King. Its forces stormed a sacred grove to the elves, hoping to despoil the symbol of their old lives. This meant a slower advance for the forces who were near each other; The Dragon Lesassier, who’d been razing the landscape, the Dwarf Mech travelling in a straight line towards the enemy and the Blackstone Sentinels who set up cover to attack from.

Milo and Greta repeatedly Knocked Them Down at the Autumn guard, targeting them and removing key blocks from their army. This was reflected in a lack of communication between them. A couple of bad pulls had them lured into a few traps and losing an Oath as part of the process.

Losing Oaths locks you down. Gaining too many Doubts might cause you to switch sides and if your Strengths are all gone then you’re out of the battle. Not necessarily dead, but you’re not going to be fighting anymore. We thought that it would be a fight to the death, but these kinds of battles don’t always go that far. Instead, we ran out of dominoes in the pile shortly after realising we were beginning to run short.

Unlike a one-shot game of Harder They Fall, ours had repercussions which I needed to note down for Dungeon World. Removed and restored Oaths, damaged Strengths and more. Seeker of Hearts Blood was disconnected from the hive mind of the Hollow Kings. Captain Cobb was so isolated from his master’s forces and his army was scattered. Milo and Greta’s faith in their mentor had been restored, but they were out in the open and vanished while everyone else was celebrating. The Dragon Lesassier fled, now with its fire breath disabled. While the player characters from the Dungeon World campaign will be in a hell dimension when we return, we have an impression of what world they’ll return to. I’m looking forward to seeing how the players react to the fallout of the battle and the destruction of the elven colony it took place in.

The play experience was really interesting. I feel we didn’t go in armed enough to know that scoring really high was sometimes going to cost our combatants part of themselves. We also needed to get over the initial worry that by Giving Ground, we were giving dominoes to our enemies. The problem with that is that handing them a domino feels like a tangible gain on their part. Our feedback loop with Milo & Greta and the Hollow Kings was difficult to break out of and pushed the narrative to the edges of the war, butting back to the middle occasionally and the Mech vs Dragon fight we were all waiting for. I think the Give Ground action will see more use next time, much like the way Contempt confused us in our first Quiet Year and now is one of my favourite soft mechanics of all time.

This is a really good system for mass combat, able to be treated as its own thing if you want to make your own Battle of Winterfell or King’s Landing, or to explore the narratives made in war. It’s fantastic to plug into an existing game if you get to a point in the story where the characters are involved in a big fight. And definitely get better dominoes than I did.

Harder They Fall is available for purchase on itch.io right now.

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