Recently Wizards of the Coast has been publishing a sort of goofy amount of Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition themed products. I honestly think this is a good idea. After retiring the D&D Minis game (and more recently, D&D minis, period), there were not a lot of options for "low impact" play, and I think that Ashardalon and Ravenloft fit into that niche nicely (because Three Dragon Ante, let's face it, was not to everybody's taste). I think that the best innovation of the D&D4-themed board games is that they both allow for solo play, which is just downright awesome. How WELL they implement solo play, however, is not something that I've seen; i'd love to hear some comments on that. I haven't gotten a chance to take a look at either of them in depth.
The "1 player" option described on the new Essentials Red Box was the character creation choose-your-own-adventure game that was not only short, but limited. Perhaps it would have been more satisfying if there were multiple different "adventures" that you could choose between to the same end. The "Dungeon Delve" book from a couple years back was much more successful at solo D&D, but still had the distinct flavor of playing chess with oneself; you ultimately realize that you're favoring one side over the other. You have the choice of trying to make good tactical choices for one side over the other, or running it purely mechanically, and both options result in passing time, but devoid of real fun. I suppose that's why RPG video games exist; KotOR is just straight 3e D20.
But the real point of tabletop RPGs is the social component. This is why solo is always so unsatisfying, and why PBeM/PbP is also so unsatisfying. Not only do they take forever, but there is nothing dynamic or interesting about the game. It's purely an exercise in mechanics, and I find that dreadful. It is that reason too why I never found AD&D very interesting, nor Warhammer Fantasy/40K, nor Warmachine, nor Pathfinder now. I'm just not a rules-heavy person. The more time spent looking at charts, the less time spent having fun. This is the core of the doctrinal conflict revolving around the "Edition Wars" going on right now as far as I can see it, and why they will never be won. Some people are interested in the system, other people are interested in the game. The only "rules-heavy" system I really got in to was MERP, since the tables are hilarious and they actually made looking things up on tables and pawing through the books over and over again entertaining, like part of the actual gameplay. I'll always prefer simple rulesystems, despite how abstract they render the "immersion" of the game (i.e. what is "bloodied" and what does it have to do with anything except as an arbitrary signifier? probably nothing), because simple rulesystems to me showcase the social component, rather than the "scientific" component.
It's not to say that I don't understand wargaming or the more mathematical types of games like Warmachine and 40K, it's just not something I am interested in, even ignoring the cost aspect (like even reasonably small Warhammer mechs can cost 50 bucks, and they're sort of required for play). Could my mind eventually be changed about this? Probably. Grognard I am not.
For these reasons above, combined with a love for postapocalyptic things in general, I must profess my undying love for the newest edition of Gamma World.
Not only do I think that it is a great introduction to D&D4 rules to begin with (much better than even the Red Box, I think), but the high level of abstraction in character creation allows for a bafflingly huge amount of flexibility without having to accommodate for weird obscure rules, which I think is tedious. Character creation itself in Gamma World is fun, and in fact I spend a lot of time rolling up random characters just for the zany joy in seeing what craziness pops up. I'm not familiar with previous editions of Gamma World at all, and in fact I had never even heard of it until they started talking about it as a D&D addon about a year ago. I understand that not even it is immune to Edition Wars, although this essay points out why the GW edition wars are downright frivolous (in addition to just being entertaining to read, whether you care about Gamma World edition wars or not). It does seem evident that the D&D4 Gamma World (which is technically Gamma World 7) does take quite a radical departure from previous editions, but I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.
The most important thing to recognize about Gamma World is that it's hilarious. A lot of people who have reviewed it have suggested that that is a downside, that the humor limits it to being a "casual" game, rather than something that would be the subject of a multi-adventure campaign, but I disagree. The mechanics do apparently preserve the deadliness of previous editions, where character death is not only common, but ultimately almost inevitable. Character creation accommodates for that, and so if your character dies, you simply roll up a new one (the whole process takes 5-10 minutes tops) and claim that this new character walks up and joins the rest of the party after the previous encounter had ended. So while characters may come and go, a consistent campaign can continue unless the encounter ends in a TPK. The hallmark of D&D4, balance, also helps with characters in GW, although there are still some situations where one character is just downright better at the get-go than others, but there is also never any reason to use the excuse of "taking the character behind the barn and shooting it," like in previous editions if faced with a terminally sucky character.
The other huge benefit to the D&D4 treatment is modularity. It is, officially, called "D&D Gamma World," and that's what it says on all the boxes. It uses D&D4 rules, that are only slightly modified (even from the Essentials rules, which are themselves modified from the full version). But there is no impediment to reskinning any monster out of any of the monster manuals or the monster vault and making it something appropriate to Gamma World, on top of the already 167 monsters published in the three Gamma World rulebooks. And you can use the Dungeon Master's Screen (or the new Essentials-keyed Deluxe Dungeon Master's Screen, which is honestly a worthy upgrade from the original) to figure basic damage for random attacks. You can even use the Screen to quickly come up with new monsters on the fly, which only takes a few minutes to flesh them out, avoiding the necessity to reskin anything at all; just apply the abstract rules that already govern character creation to monster creation.
Probably the best addition to Gamma World though are the cards. The box itself comes with 40 "Alpha Mutation" cards and 40 "Omega Tech" cards, which you can shuffle up and hand out as rewards to players, as well as one-off power bonuses to players in battles. The most effective way to use them is to make relatively smaller sub-decks out of the whole mix out of things that may help (or hinder, if you're a sadist) the players during the adventure, but leaving everything in makes it a lot more random (and occasionally hilarious). There are also 10 bonus cards available with the Legion of Gold expansion, as well as randomized boosters (it is Wizards of the Coast we're talking about) containing 8 cards each.
The boosters themselves are a terrible idea, mostly because I, and I'd guess either a lot of or most RPG players, hate random boosters. Why would you want that? You invariably end up with tons of copies of worthless, stupid cards that you spent too much money on and don't want to throw away, and they don't do any good for anybody. Boosters are a waste of time and money, and if I wanted to play Magic: The Gathering, I'd play that. But I don't, because I hate Magic: The Gathering.
Enter the internet, where people are occasionally selling the entire 120 card set of booster cards, or else sets of the 40 commons, 40 uncommons, and 40 rares. In this way I was able to get all 80 commons and uncommons for about 10 bucks on ebay, and depending on whether I could get the rares for 20-30 bucks I'd get those too, but they seem to sell out whenever they appear really fast. I don't want to buy them in any other way, because why would you?
But anyway, the boosters are not necessary for gameplay, but they do allow you to increase the number of crazy things you can have happen in the game, and I think getting the non-randomized sets of boosters is a good way to get an instant expansion, and they are mostly inexpensive. I know Wizards is probably desperate for money and boosters are a good way to generate lots of revenue on impulse purchases but come on guys, know your market. Don't cross-contaminate.
The other component to Gamma World is the concept of "Ancient Junk." Ancient Junk is just that... junk. Stuff left over from before the apocalypse, in whatever form it ultimately came (the story in the new GW is that an accident at the Large Hadron Collider caused a collapse of all possible realities, which explains why there is so much crazy crap everywhere). Instead of having money or ammunition or anything like that, commerce is made abstract. You can trade types of Ancient Junk for other things in a barter system that can be hilarious, as well as do Fallout-esque customization of junk to however you can imagine. You either "have" ammunition or "not," and the rule is basically if you are conservative with ammunition use in an encounter, you still have it at the end, but if you go crazy during the encounter, you are out of ammo and need to find more. This is so you can be more creative with weapons (at character creation you don't choose from a list of weapons, you choose something like "light one-handed melee weapon" or "heavy two-handed gun," and then make up what it actually is) and not have to worry about what type of ammo you need. So at the end of an encounter, GMs can reward the party with more ammunition, a couple rolls on the random junk tables (or a click on the junkulator), or a draw from the Omega Tech deck.
The last thing I like about Gamma World, overall, is the low level cap. I don't know about anyone else, but I prefer low level games to high level games. I think that at low levels things are still really interesting, dangerous, and compelling. Once you hit Paragon and Epic tier in D&D4, it becomes more of the same (although some Epic-level encounters can be fun to come up with because you are just SHOWERING the party with damage), but low levels are deadly and exciting. The level cap in Gamma World is 10, and you level up much faster than in D&D4. You get new powers and abilities at each level, so there are no filler levels, which keeps the excitement about leveling up high. I prefer dangerous games (like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhutech, etc.) so this is right up my alley.
I'll probably get in to specific aspects regarding Gamma World in later posts, but this is me being broad about largely what I identify as some of its highlights and upsides. Gamma World, given the terse rules and only abstract guides to character creation, as well as the speediness of character creation and very little time necessary to come up with quick encounters, makes it a more "low impact" alternative to D&D or other "big" games, so it can easily stand in for a weekly game, but I hope I've already helped to point out a few aspects to why it should also be taken more seriously as a long-term game (since really the only limit is the imagination of the GM). There is really no need to shrug it off as frivolous fun, despite the zaniness. Who says a serious game can't also be funny? And this is coming from someone who's favorite genre is (humor-free) eldritch horror.