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Proving Grounds Review


Quick Look: Proving Grounds

Designer: Kane Klenko
Author: Monica Valentinelli
Artists: Csaba Bernáth, Matthew Dobrich
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Year Published: 2019
No. of Players: 1
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 30-45 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

Review:



While there were a lot of new and exciting games at Origins this year, Proving Grounds was the one I was most excited for. I’ve become a big fan of Kane Klenko’s games. I find them to be fast-paced and exciting, and loads of fun. Some are dexterity based (Flip Ships), while others are real-time (Cosmic Factory, FUSE). Proving Grounds is a solo, real-time dice chucking game with six modules you can add to the base mechanics. You can add them individually or combine some or all of them, which gives a heap of gameplay.

I’ve played it over a dozen times already (I’ll probably be over two dozen by the time this review goes live), and I’m still enjoying it no end. The modules make for some very exciting and thematic gameplay that works well with the included novelette.

The Story: Only the Strongest Has the Heart of a Wizened Queen


This is the book which contains the novella. Read this first so you can really dive into the theme!
The novelette is just under 10,000 words, which is too short to be considered a novella but a few thousand words too long to be a short story. Novelette is how this middle ground between the two is defined.

It’s a fantasy story about a young woman who was framed for her mother’s (the queen) murder. To prove her innocence, and to claim the right to the throne, she challenges the conspirators to battle. In order to succeed the trial, she must defeat eight of them. One against eight isn’t good odds, but she’s a powerful warrior, and also gains the aid of a young dragon. Surely with a dragon at her side she can win…

As an avid reader—and writer and editor—of fantasy novels, I found the story to be engaging and interesting. Sure, it’s no Stormlight Archives (that’s a high bar to reach!), but it was fun to read the story and then fight the battle by playing the game.

I love story-driven gameplay, and the addition of a novelette was something that piqued my interest more than any new mechanic could. (Again, I’m a writer and a reader of the genre, so can you really blame me?) It added a whole new layer (layers?) of depth to the gameplay, and each module reflects various parts of the story quite well.

Veterans of the fantasy genre may find the style of the novelette a bit strange (i.e. the prologue reads more like an introduction), and some of the prose a bit stiff, but will also find the story interesting and engaging, which is what really matters. I’m not trying to be critical of it—I did enjoy it, after all—but as this is a review, I will give my thoughts on what comes in the box, which includes the story. I think the most important thing to mention about the story is that there is one, and it ties in with the gameplay wonderfully. I would love to see a lot more games like this, with an actual story setting the stage for the game and gameplay. Sure, some rule books include a paragraph or page of flavor text that tells the story/background (which I always read so I can get a better feel for the game), but there’s something to be said about a 10,000-word story that builds characters and plot to bring into the game. Such a brilliant idea and, as a writer and editor, one that I hope continues to grow. Props to Renegade Game Studios for making this happen. (And if there are other games like it, I am unaware of them, and would appreciate being pointed in their direction.)

As a big fan of solo games and real-time mechanics, Proving Grounds proved to be a worthy heir to my throne of games. It’s such a great game to pull out for a few games on a lonely, lazy night when the kids are in bed and the wife is out with her friends. Or, you know, whenever you need a good game to play.

Let’s talk about the game in more detail now. I won’t go into excruciating detail about absolutely everything, but do check out the rule book online for a deeper look.

Setup:
Setup for the basic (Training) game.
Setup isn’t difficult at all—even when using modules. The more modules you use, of course, the more complicated it becomes, but since each module is relatively simple to set up, just take it one at a time and you’ll be fine.

The basic setup gives the player one die of each color (blue, green, and yellow), along with five white dice. Three white dice are placed on the exhaustion track, and three dice—one of each color—on the health track on the heart encircled by colors. Shuffle the enemy deck and deal out six—one for each space around the game board. Oh, and you’ll want to put the board together. (It’s a two-piece puzzle. I bet you can figure it out.)

If you’re using modules, follow the instructions to set up the ones you’re playing with.

Gameplay:



The training (basic, without modules) game plays out in a series of rounds in which you roll dice and make sets (for a timed minute), and then assign sets to enemies, thereby dealing damage (hopefully). Each enemy has various spaces with a number and sometimes color(s). The number is how many dice are required to move the damage marker up that column. The color, if there is one, is a required color needed in that set to move the damage marker up. So, if the number is 3+ with green/blue, you need at least three dice in the set, with at least one of those being green or blue. If you have three dice, but none are green or blue, then the damage marker doesn’t move. You must meet all conditions. Some enemies ignore certain colors, or certain colors count as two dice. Make sure you read each enemy’s ability so you know how to best defeat them!


Rolling Dice
First roll.
During the rolling dice phase, you have one minute to roll and re-roll sets. I recommend downloading the Renegade app, which has a timer dedicated to Proving Grounds. The app also includes setup instructions for the base variant as well as the modules, and it can keep records of your games. It’s quite useful. 

As I was saying, you have a minute to win it. During that minute, you may re-roll dice as much as you like. However, you may only re-roll sets, so if there’s only one “3” showing, you can’t  re-roll it. Rather, you’d have to roll your three “4” dice or other sets.

What I do first is group them:



Yes, grouping does take time, but it's the easiest way to see what I have. Then, I look and see what I want need in order to attack and, hopefully, avoid taking damage. Any singles left over (such as the 2 and 5 in the image above) will move the damage marker on the enemy down one space, so I have to be careful, since I'll take damage if it reaches the lowest space. In this case, I decide to re-roll:



As you can see, I still have a single 2, and a new single of 4. My 5's are now a pair, so we're good there. Assuming that's how I want to leave it, or the timer ran out, I stop rolling.

Resolving Dice



As just mentioned, when the timer goes off, STOP ROLLING! Time’s up. Now it’s time to see how things went down. Assign all dice to their corresponding enemy. So, all dice with a “1” are placed next to the enemy of the same value (in the example image above, there is no "1," so all is well), all “2” dice are placed next to the #2 enemy, and so on and so forth until all dice have been placed. If you have a set that meets or exceeds the enemy’s requirement, move the damage counter on that enemy up a spot. If you played a single die on an enemy, move the damage marker down. If the damage marker reaches the red damage icon, you take a hit. If you didn’t play any dice on an enemy, nothing happens.


Here I have a single 2 on the #2 enemy. Because it's a single, the attack marker moves down one space. Unfortunately, the next space down is also the last space (the red spear), so I take a damage and loose a die.
Here, I placed two dice, one of which is yellow. Because one of the two dice is yellow, I am able to move the damage marker up one space. Instead of yellow, I could have had a white and a green, and that would have worked as well.

With a single 4 on the #4 enemy, the battle token (grey star thing) moves down a space. Still above the red spear at the bottom space, so no damages from this guy.
If you take a hit, one of your dice is placed on the exhaustion track. If you take multiple hits, the dice stack on that spot. The dice move down thee exhaustion track at the end of each round, so you will eventually get them back. For each damage taken, move the heart down the damage tracker. If the heart token reaches the stack of three dice, you get to trade out a white die for one of those colored dice. Colored dice are usually more useful than white dice.

Continue playing until you have defeated eight enemies, in which case you win! If your heart reaches the last spot on your health track, you lose. Try again!

My Thoughts



I’m a big fan of the way this game plays out. The gameplay involves a lot of dice chucking and making sets. That’s where most of the game happens. It’s all about using your minute to make the sets of dice you need—or, at the very least, to make sets and not leave singles. Rolling and re-rolling can get frantic, especially near the end of the countdown, and even more especially with additional modules added on. 

The training game is good, but the modules make the game awesome. Some modules make things a bit easier, while others up the difficulty quite a bit. One adds shields to the enemies, and another brings chariots into the arena—another threat to keep in mind. There’s a module that brings out a dragon to help you (and add some chaos), and one that makes it so you have to face a certain direction while attacking. There are others still that add fun new ways to play.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve played this quite a number of times (and am anxious to play more!), and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Two of my favorite modules are the dragon and the shields. While the dragon makes it a tad easier, it can also add a bit of chaos to the mix, which bit I really like. The shields make attacking difficult, and precision is of absolute importance. The modules are fantastic, and you can spend a long time (long time) playing out a combination of all the modules.

I have a lot of solo games I like to bust out when I have some down time. Some are Doppelt So Clever (Twice as Clever), FUSE, Sprawlopolis, Tiny Epic Galaxies, and Terraforming Mars (to name a few). Since Origins 2019, the one solo game I only ever want to play is Proving Grounds. Sometimes I’ll play a game of Brikks or Doppelt So Clever so as to take a moment playing something more calming (rolling against a timer can be quite stressful!), but I’ll be back at Proving Grounds before you know it.

Theme and Mechanics:
With this module, the player must be wary of any attacks made from behind, too!
The theme is strong with this one. The story sets it all out there oh-so nicely. The fantasy world, dragons…it’s here, folks. And the mechanics are not a whit behind! The dice chucking is hectic fun—which I know is not for everyone. But, if that’s the case with you, then you’re not the target audience. That said, you should still give it a go, because it would make me incredibly happy.

I just want to mention again for emphasis how well the theme and gameplay go together. Thank you for listening.

Artwork and Components:



The artwork helps you feel like you’re in the arena with Mia (the heroine of the story/game). I’d say the art is reminiscent of an indie/Amazon-published fantasy author. I also want to say there is nothing wrong with that, as there are some wonderful indie books and some fun art out there as well. It’s not the fantasy art you’d expect to see on The Wheel of Time books or any books by L. E. Modesitt Jr, but it’s still good, quality fantasy art that really helps set the tone. And if you’re going to merge fiction with gameplay, you need some good art to go with it. Thankfully, we have some here with Proving Grounds.

The components are great. The dice are simple D6 dice, but they’re fancy and fit with the theme and feel of the game. The cards are cards, and they hold up nicely. The cardboard pieces are the quality you’d expect from Renegade Game Studios, which is quite good. I have no qualms with the components.

One component that you really shouldn’t play without is the Renegade app. It has an option for a lot of Renegade titles, including Proving Grounds. It helps with setup, has a thematic timer (with the roaring of the crowd and everything!), and a way to save your score and which modules you used. It’s a free app, so you might as well just download it. You can use it for the Clank! games, Lanterns, FUSE, and more.

The Good:
  • Solo! And designed as a solo game at its heart!
  • Dragon!
  • MODULES!
  • NOVELETTE!
  • Real-time!
  • Exciting!
  • The combination of prose, game, and art is wonderful.
The Other:
I think the main downside of this game is that it's strictly a solitaire game. For me, that's totally fine! I have other games that only play one player, but that's kind of my jam. Not always, sure, but I do love a good solo game. If you don't play solo often/ever, then this game may not be for you. Personally, I recommend giving it a chance either way.

Final Thoughts:
Love. Love love love! And you know what? I am so happy Proving Grounds didn’t end up as a disappointment to me. I’ve been looking forward to this game since it was announced, and it’s lived up to the self-inflicted hype I’ve embedded into it. I love that the game is tied in to a story! I’ve actually been writing short stories (and a novelette) inspired by thematic board games for a while now. I’ve written stories inspired by Champions of Midgard, Flip Ships, Terraforming Mars, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, and a lot more. So to see this concept of combining game and story coming from Renegade had me all kinds of excited, and I am not disappointed.

The modules give this game an incredible amount of life. The real-time aspect creates the tension you’re supposed to feel while reading the story and playing the game. The art draws you into the Mia’s world. It all connects together, and it works! Guys. It works so well. 

After playing it as many times as I have and still not being tired of it, I think it’s safe to say it’s a good design. The box also says “Solo Hero Series,” so Renegade Game Studios, you had better keep these games coming!

Players Who Like:
If you’re a fan of Kane Klenko’s games (like me!), you owe it to yourself to give this one a go. Likewise, fans of solo games, dice chucking, and real-time mechanics should give Proving Grounds a serious look. Oh, and if you’re a curious/casual/avid/obsessed fantasy reader and have an affinity to the fantasy genre, this is your game.

Check out Proving Grounds on:

                  




Benjamin Kocher - Editor and Reviewer

Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He's a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego's Copyediting Extension program. He's a freelance writer and editor, and covers everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Kocherb, and read his board game-inspired fiction at BenjaminKocher.com.

See Benjamin's reviews HERE.

Proving Grounds Review Proving Grounds Review Reviewed by Benjamin Kocher on July 18, 2019 Rating: 5

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