Review: Critical Role’s new board game is a rousing success

Review: Critical Role's new board game is a rousing success

Darrington Press, the publishing imprint of Critical Role’s media empire, began with a tumultuous start. Its debut board game, Uk’otoa, flooded and failed to impress. I approached this new release with a reasonable amount of skepticism, fearing the worst. Come to find that this approach was unfounded: Till the Last Gasp is no uninspired board game with a coat of Mighty Nein-branded paint. Rather, it’s a story-infused tabletop design that crosses genres and hangs together extraordinarily well. It’s a design that speaks to the publisher’s strengths, and more effectively appeals to the brand’s target demographic — fans of improvised storytelling. In short, it’s a rousing success.

Till the Last Gasp straddles the line between board and role-playing game. There is a central map of a location with point-to-point spaces representing interactive opportunities, such as a throne room or animal pen. Players don’t move individual pawns, instead shuffling about a token that highlights where both combatants are currently fighting. Each character is represented by an individual player board that hosts dice pools and organizes information to ease play. All of this is in service to structured combat as the foundation for freeform storytelling.

The duel is evoked through a clever action point system. It feels most like a board game when players are fiddling with their dice pools and generating action points for the round. These are spent for discrete options like wounding a foe, pushing them to a new location, or interacting with terrain. The environment itself boasts several opportunities, such as ringing a bell tower or grabbing an improvised weapon from a scrap heap. These are contextual based on the setting you’ve chosen with a solid variety on offer.

A game of Till The Last Gasp set up for play, with both players facing one another across a small setting board.  A player sideboard filled with dice sits before each player.

Picture: Darrington Press

What’s compelling is how the design crosses over into more free-form improvisational theater. A wound for instance is not mechanically tracked with health or tokens. Instead, your opponent simply describes the hit and how it alters or informs the narrative. Same when you spend an action to grab a drink at the bar or accuse your foe of treachery in the throne room. There’s a general sense of freedom and trust afforded to the players that is refreshing and novel in this form.

That approach is fragile, however. When played with someone who is uncomfortable with the general concept of role-playing and narrative improv, it can be dull and lifeless. Often mechanical effects do accompany the outcomes of actions, such as changing your opponent’s stance and altering their options on the following turn, but the real spark of Till the Last Gasp is in building the shared story. Those expecting a traditional board game will struggle here. There is strong guidance and the advice is made clear, but there is simply not enough tactical meat on the bones to satisfy such desires. Traditional board game players will push quickly toward accomplishing their objective card, rapidly ticking off their boxes, and then going in for the kill. The spirit of play wants more, however. It wants you to savor each moment and hang on each word. It wants you to be less concerned with winning and more focused on the resultant story.

A Desperate City, one of the several locations included in Critical Role's Till The Last Gasp.

Picture: Darrington Press

Another setting card for Till The Last Gasp, titled The Anemoi's Revenge.  It's a flying ship that seems to float among light clouds.  There's an eagle man on the prow.

Picture: Darrington Press

This focus on role-playing and shared narrative is evident throughout the entirety of the design. Play begins with an abbreviated “session zero” where both players discuss the setting they’d like to explore and then create characters. Motivations, weaknesses, and concise backstory are all conjured before the struggle begins. The relationship between the fighters is also agreed upon, as this is a core principle of the narrative and the arc of play. For those wanting a more brisk or effortless experience, you can use one of the pregenerated characters or roll your background up on the included charts. This is naturally the less fulfilling approach, but it’s nice to afford the option of simply jumping into the conflict and wrapping the entire session up in less than an hour.

Once the violence begins, the story continues to punch through at opportune moments. Often, one of the protagonists will be forced to draw a drama card. These prompt questions and quips, including effects such as “compliment your foe, to irritate or enrage them.” Sometimes they will probe each other’s backstories and secrets, teasing out additional character development and thereby enriching play. but that play is the story, and those looking for mechanical crunch may find that disappointing.

Leaning in, however, it’s clear that Till the Last Gasp‘s sense of narrative exploration and collaboration is expertly handled. Those comfortable with embracing this direction will dig into their roles and create something special. The format is flexible as well. You can reuse characters, perhaps meeting again and again throughout their lives to continue an eternal duel. Or perhaps one of the players returns as a previously fallen character’s child, seeking revenge upon their parent’s killer. You could even adopt the roles of iconic heroes from established intellectual property. With just a bit of creativity, you could reenact Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s magnificent lightsaber duel on the second Death Star — just with a narrative envelope that encompasses everything you know about the prequels, sequels, and everything in between. A duel such as that could easily flash over from drama to high comedy, and players firmly have their hand on the tiller.

Despite a modest box and just a handful of components, Till the Last Gasp potential bleeds. This is a singular design which offers a structured yet story-oriented tabletop experience that pulls from traditional board games as well as indie RPGs. It’s engrossing yet light, allowing for complex narratives or concise poetic duels shrouded in mystery. After the misstep of Uk’otoaI’m frankly shocked at how effective and moving this game manages to be.

Till the Last Gasp was released on March 14 online and at local retailers. The game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Darrington Press. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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