Blackbeard the Pirate is on a mission. He cautiously descends the slope of the mesa until his goal, Lith’s Lair, is in sight. His quest: to offer one of the greatest treasures of mankind – a pound of bacon – to the supercomputer known as Lith. His footwear: a pair of Really Nice Sneakers. His companion: a loyal Velociraptor. Suddenly, Annie Oakley emerges from the forest on a Mountain Bike. She takes aim at Blackbeard with her Laser Torch. Blackbeard returns fire with his Flamethrower before unleashing his pet on the gunslinger. Who shall prevail? This is but one absurdly anachronistic time-twisting scenario that awaits you in DUEL OF AGES II.

DUEL OF AGES II is a futuristic sporting event in a virtual arena. Characters from across time and space form two teams. Each team must outperform the other in a number of Achievements, like combat or destroying the enemy team’s base. The game blends mechanics from RPGs and light wargames into a sprawling board game adventure of epic proportions.

What’s inside the box

You’ll start each game by building the map. The Basic Set gives you seven 12″ cardboard platters with a variety of terrain. Two dozen Adventure Keys lock the platters together and provide quest content. Only a madman would use all of them in a single game, but stranger things have happened.

Then you split up into teams and choose from 48 characters. Each character is represented by a 1-inch token and an oversized card. Each character’s card is dominated by a beautiful portrait. Stats are to the right, special abilities are on the bottom, and the card’s color indicates which era it is from: Ancient, Colonial, Modern, or Future. Don’t be surprised when William Wallace ends up on the same team as the NFL quarterback and the cyborg assassin. Each player gets 2 or 3 characters.

There is a 100-card Challenge Deck which is used to resolve Challenges, which are skill checks and combat rolls. The Challenge Deck replaces the pair of 10-sided dice that were included in the original Duel of Ages. The cards represent all possible results of rolling 2d10. Using the Challenge Deck to resolve Challenges is faster than rolling dice and looking up the results on a table.

You get about a hundred Treasure cards representing weapons, armor, and vehicles. The items are from all over time and space, just like the characters. Blackbeard the Pirate might end up with a bazooka and running sneakers.

There are 72 cards representing Labyrinth Guardians, also separated by Age. A few examples are the Ancient magic school, the Modern fashion show, and the starbase vending machine from the Future. You’ll have to overcome these Guardians to earn Treasure and complete Achievements.

You also get 54 Encounter tokens. You can substitute these for Labyrinths when you build your map. The advantage to using Encounter tokens is that they are easier to overcome, and your characters will get more cards. The disadvantage is that the tokens have no flavor text, which is one of the most charming parts of the game.

There are a ton of other counters for items and creatures or tracking various game states.

There are two rulebooks: a printed rulebook included in the box, and a PDF on the website. The print rulebook is a tutorial. It introduces the rules over the course of six training missions. The PDF version is laid out like a reference manual. The second half of the PDF has dozens scenarios for you to setup, ranging from 6 characters per team and 60 minutes playing time to 30 characters per team and 20 hours of play. Worldspanner does a good job of keeping the PDF updated with errata and rules changes.

A few words about theme

How many of you remember the old YouTube classic “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”? Or the “Doctor Who” episode where Queen Nefertiti, the African big game hunter, and Rory’s working class dad find themselves on a spaceship with some dinosaurs, a space pirate, and two rusty robots? If you’re not familiar with these references, I’ll do the math for you: DUEL OF AGES II = “The Hunger Games” + “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

doa2c William Wallace with a bazooka   Duel of Ages II Basic Set and Master Set review

This isn’t the only board game with that “Time Bandits” vibe – HeroQuest does the same thing. However, HeroQuest is long out of print, and will cost you a fortune on Ebay. DUEL OF AGES II is still supported by its publisher and has an active online community.

What makes this game unique

DUEL OF AGES II is not the first board game to incorporate RPG elements and mechanics from wargames, but few other games have done it quite like this one. The chits & hexes, movement system, and line-of-sight rules will be familiar to wargamers. RPG players will recognize all the character stats. Typical board games that borrow these systems will simplify them or abstract them in order to make them palatable to board gamers. However, DUEL OF AGES II imports these mechanics as they are, retaining all the “crunchiness” of the games they are borrowed from.

Unfortunately, this is one of the game’s biggest flaws. The rules are a sprawling mess. I’m not criticizing the rulebooks here – they are laid out well and the index is helpful. The problem is with the rules themselves. There are so many exceptions and unintuitive situations, I have to refer to the rulebook about half a dozen times during a game. (I’m used to playing heavier games like Agricola or Twilight Struggle. During these games, I have to hit the rulebook maybe once.)

For example, there are different rules for picking up an item depending on where the item is. Taking an item from the body of a fallen character happens during the Free Action phase. Picking up an item from Headquarters happens during the Move phase. Looting the enemy’s Vault takes place during the Adventure phase. Some of these actions are possible when enemies are in your hex, but others are not. I can’t remember all the exceptions without looking them up, and I don’t think I should have to. My group likes to simplify this by generous application of house rules.

Eurogamers will tolerate complex rules if they add to strategic depth. Ameritrashers will put up with lots of rules if they support the game’s theme. And wargamers practically thrive on convoluted rules because they add to historical accuracy. DUEL OF AGES II asks its players to deal with the extra overhead of all this complexity, but it doesn’t reward the players with more strategic depth or thematic immersion for their trouble. (Needless to say, historical accuracy is non-existent.)

What makes this game fun

Although the rules are hard to deal with, DUEL OF AGES II is full of thrilling moments. The best ones for me are when I take the other team by surprise. My favorite rule allows you to keep your item cards face-down until the moment you use them. When William Wallace attacks Bruno Brincelli (the gangster), BAM! He reveals his weapon, the Atomslider Blade. Right before Brincelli resolves damage, BAM! He reveals his Police Riot Shield.

Keeping your equipment hidden until the minute you use it also allows you to bluff. A character who confidently penetrates your territory might be prepared to deal with any resistance. Then again, she might not, but are you willing to risk finding out?

After everyone’s cards are on the table, there is a great deal of tactical depth. Despite the randomness of the card draw, the silliness of the theme, and the complexity of the rules, the winning team is always the one that consistently makes the better tactical decisions.

Most games are purely competitive, every man (or beast) for himself. Co-operative games have been trendy the last few years, but there aren’t a lot of team vs. team games out there. This combines the best of both worlds. You get the camaraderie of joining forces with your teammates, along with the satisfaction of grinding your enemies into dust.

Beyond the team vs. team dynamic, DUEL OF AGES II’s humor is what makes it appealing. Much of the humor comes from the silly combinations of characters and equipment. Imagining Annie Oakley on a Mountain Bike with a Laser Torch makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The Labyrinth cards are also full of absurd and snarky humor, as you can see in the picture.

doa2f William Wallace with a bazooka   Duel of Ages II Basic Set and Master Set review

My least favorite part of the game is when the score ends in a tie. When I play a light Eurogame for 45 minutes, I don’t mind “rejoicing in our shared victory,” but after a two hour brawl, a tie is unacceptable. There are many ways to earn points towards the various Achievements, but there are only a few Achievements in any given scenario. Almost half the games I’ve played have ended in a tie. This is the trashiest of Ameritrash games (and I say that with great affection) but ending a sporting event in a tie is UNAMERICAN in the extreme.

Comparison to the first edition

The original Duel of Ages, from 2003, enjoys a cult following. I never managed to sign up for that particular cult, but this edition is a major improvement. Here’s a rundown of the differences, in case you’re considering an upgrade:

  • Maps and keys are printed on thicker cardstock, which is less likely to warp
  • Artwork is greatly improved, especially on the character cards
  • Encounter tokens jump-start the game and give you easy access to treasure
  • Labyrinths have a new rule that allow you to bypass a troublesome Guardian
  • Dice are replaced by the Challenge Deck, saving time on each skill check (don’t worry, the game includes alternate rules if you really like chucking dice)
  • Instead of one small base game and nine small expansions, you get one big base game and one HUGE expansion (same content, fewer boxes)

What’s this about an expansion?

I also had the pleasure to review DUEL OF AGES II – MASTER SET along with the Basic Set. The Master Set is similar to the Basic Set, except it is three times as big. It gives you 21 map platters to add to the 7 in the Basic Set. You also get 144 extra characters to supplement the original 48. And there are 300 additional Treasure cards.

The Master Set includes two new mechanics. The new map platters are age-specific, and they give a combat bonus to characters that match the terrain’s age. The bonus isn’t a big deal. The variety that the new terrain gives you is more important than this extra rule. The other new mechanic is the deck of 48 Henchmen cards. They are a variation on the “pets” found in the Treasure decks of the Basic Set.

Neither mechanic adds a whole lot to the game. If you find the base game deficient, the Master Set won’t “fix” anything. The only real reason to get the Master Set is for the additional content. If you only bring DUEL OF AGES II out a few times a year, the Master Set is overkill. However, If you play it at least once a month, I’d say the extra maps, characters, and items in the Master Set are essential.

Conclusion: who should buy this game

This is the most polarizing game I’ve ever played. I usually enjoy it, but I’m always surprised at how many of my gaming buddies don’t care for it. My purpose here is mainly to give you my opinion, but also to give you my observations of how other players enjoy the game.

The wacky theme is DUEL OF AGES II‘s biggest selling point. If a large scale tactical brawl featuring Blackbeard with a bazooka and pet velociraptor fills you with glee, this might be the game for you.

I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback about the game being too chaotic. The random draw of Treasure card often leaves characters unable to use their best skills. It is frustrating to draft the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, only to spend the entire game searching in vain for a rifle. Personally, I don’t mind having to make do with what I’ve got, but if unrealized potential leaves you unfulfilled, this might not be the game for you.

I would recommend DUEL OF AGES II only if you don’t mind putting up with a convoluted set of rules. You will either have to memorize a lot of exceptions, or agree on house rules ahead of time. The other alternative is constantly referring to the rulebook, which is no fun for anybody.

Game Name: Duel of Ages II Basic Set and Duel of Ages II Master Set
Designers: Brett G. Murrell
Publisher: Worldspanner
Year: 2013
Players: 2-8 (Basic Set), 2-32 (Master Set)
Ages: 12+
Play time: 60 minutes to 20 hours (depending on the scenario)
Mechanics: Modular map, variable player powers, skill checks
MSRP: $49.99 (Basic Set), $139.99 (Master Set)
Weight: Medium