As I wandered down the aisles of gaming temptation at Origins this year, I spotted a huddle of excited gamers examining a large, seemingly leather bound tome. That tome was “Aces and Eights ” by Kenzerco. I only had time to a quick look, but it looked interesting enough that I borrowed a friends copy for a review.
Upfront Review: Stunning! The production quality, editing and game system are well above industy standards. I thought the campaign back story especially good, with real events interlaced with reasonable “what if” scenarios. However, due to the deep character development rules, lethality of combat and long healing times for injured characters, this game lends itself to more role-playing and less combat when playing the campaign. It is an excellent system just to play “shoot’em up” with miniatures also.
Keep reading for the full review.
The hardback edition I reviewed is a sturdy, beautiful tome. The binding is excellent and the book lays flat on the table. The pages have a shine to them and the entire package reminded me of the “Time-Life Old West Books ” from the 1980s, less game book, more encyclopedia.
The illustrations deserve a special note. Take a look at a page from the weapons section.
My terrible photography does not do the images justice. They are very well done throughout the book, alternating between modern images and faux/real historical images. It makes for a nice artistic package.
Editing is good throughout and the author livens up dull, but clear rules explanation with some period wit and slang. I actually chuckled a few times. It was a nice touch.
There are actually two systems in the book. A “basic” system that gets you and your gang onto horses and gunfights very quickly. You only have to read the first two chapters to play with these rules. For the experienced gamer or those that want a more realistic experience, there is the “advanced” game. The basic game is a good miniature combat system, but I think that most players will move on to the advanced game very quickly. Even the advanced rules are not a challenge to any gamer with experience.
Character generation is random or a point buy. I had a GURPS flashback with the point-buy system. You can “earn” more points for taking defects, such as alcoholism. The primary stats are similar to many other RPGs, strength, speed, charisma, etc.
Skills are handled on a percentage basis, with higher level skills more expensive to buy. There is a heavy focus on using skills/professions to advance your character, so skills count for more in this game than others I have played.
The combat system deserves some attention. It is a bit unusual. Rather than actions in a round like 3.5 “Dungeons and Dragons,” each action costs “time” and you can act as many times as you like in a round.
A quick example (greatly simplified and not rules accurate, but you get the idea) is the DM starts counting up at zero when combat begins. When he reaches your “speed” number (determined by a stat and a roll) you act. In this case, your speed was six (6.) You decide to aim and shoot. This takes 4 “counts.” The DM continues counting up and at eight (8) your enemy starts to draw and shoot, because he rolled a speed of eight (8). This takes a four count also. The DM reaches 10 and you shoot. Your enemy survives and at 12 he completes his draw and fire action(4+8=12).
The game also makes extensive use of a standard deck of cards in the combat system to determine where your bullet hits. Take a look at the overlay below. You receive two with the book.
When you decide to shoot a target, place the acrylic “shot clock” over the appropriate silhouette and roll a die. If you get 25 or higher, including your combat skill, you hit what you aimed at. In this case, the poor cowboy gets a fast vasectomy. Roll less than 25 and you pull a card from the deck. Depending on suit and value, your bullet can be a near miss to a wild shot. I get a kick out of this because of the chaos it introduces into a combat. A “shoot the gun from his hand” shot can become “between the eyes.” Oops!
This is not John Wayne’s Old West. Utah is an isolated, hostile Mormon nation. The “Confederate States of America” are independent. Mexico still has most of its original southwest holdings and there is a Native American nation with enough power to maintain its sovereignty. Even with all that, there is enough real people and events to make it all seem plausible. I give the writer points for really doing some deep thinking about “what ifs” in 18th century America. It made for an interesting read.
Now for the most painful part of the review. This is where I admit that “Aces and Eights” is a great RPG game/system and worth every penny of the $60.00 (hardback) price tag, but that many gamers will not enjoy it.
It is very much a “role-players” game. Before you say “I am a role-player!” hear me out. Running around a forest with an elf paladin slaying orcs is role-playing, but not the kind this game requires.
“Aces and Eights” needs a special kind of player. People who think before acting and use real problem solving skills before resorting to violence. Just like in real life, drawing a gun in this game is a major event and should not be done lightly. Combat is so deadly and unpredictable that even an expert gunfighter can be killed by a lucky tenderfoot.
There is no magic for healing, no magic potions. If you take a bullet, your PC can be in bed for days or weeks, assuming he does not get gangrene and die. There are no quick fixes for anything in this game, except dying. That is very easy.
Of course, you could just play a “fast and loose” campaign with fast healing or endless PCs, but you would be missing out on some of the campaign’s depth.
Bottom line, “Aces and Eights” is the best game book I have read in years. It has great production values, a fun game system and an interesting campaign world.
And yes, you can use it to play in “Deadwood.”
Trask, The Last Tyromancer