15 November 2019
It’s dangerous to go alone...
Solo board games are a growing niche. From dedicated solitaire titles like 2015’s Hostage Negotiator to the ever-increasing number of multiplayer games incorporating single-player modes, it seems more and more people are interested in playing without the need to round up a group of friends. Proving Grounds is the latest release to cater for solitary players, and it combines frantic dice-chucking with tough tactical decisions to create an air of desperate tension.
The premise is simple. You take on the role of a battle-hardened princess falsely implicated in the murder of her mother. With a group of treacherous nobles conspiring against you, there’s little hope of justice. Your only hope lies in trial by combat.
As anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones knows, that’s not always a great idea. Proving Grounds throws you into a deadly arena where you’ll face an assortment of foes, all determined to ruin your day by forcibly introducing you to a variety of spiky implements. Over a succession of one-minute rounds, you’ll roll and re-roll a handful of dice aiming to damage enemies by scoring matching sets of results.
What complicates matters is that wounding different enemies requires different-sized collections of dice. A weak opponent might take damage from pairs of matching rolls. A tougher one might need three or four dice to dispatch. If you’re left with any single dice at the end of a round, they’ll allow enemies to launch counterattacks, reducing your meagre supply of hit points.
The clever bit, though, is that you can never re-roll single dice – only sets of two or more. You’ll constantly need to decide whether to hang on to the collections you’ve built, or throw them away in the hopes of rolling something more useful. With an app-based timer ticking mercilessly in the background, you’ll make these decisions under serious pressure.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, the game comes with optional add-on modules introducing new threats, advantages and allies. There’s a dragon hatchling which helps you in the light and rules for enemies that hide behind shields, or a positioning system that forces you to choose which opponents to face and which to turn your back on. You can use these included expansions in different combinations, dialling in your desired level of difficulty before every game.
In other respects, though, Proving Grounds falls flat. There are frequent rounds where it makes sense to stop rolling once you’ve obtained a safe set of dice results. You won’t take damage, but you won’t dish any out either, and when it happens the game’s atmosphere temporarily evaporates.
Then there’s the fictional background – detailed in a short story by respected RPG author Monica Valentinelli. It’s a nice thought, but there just isn’t enough room to build the kind of epic, multi-generational narrative that it hints at. And if you’re looking for story-driven gameplay, there isn’t any. With no interaction between plot and mechanisms, it’s ultimately just narrative window dressing. There’s also an intestine-spilling combat scene which seems a bit much for the 10+ age rating on the game’s box.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Designer: Kane Klenko
Artist: Matthew Dobrich
Time: 30-45 minutes
Purchase the game here
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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