The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance Is a Fantastic Gateway to Roleplaying Games

The box cover art for The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance.
The box cover art for The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance.
Photo: Beth Elderkin/io9

Way up in the stars, there’s a secret moon base called the Bureau of Balance. It’s a place where anything can happen—including a visit to a Fantasy Costco. It’s here that we set the stage for The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance, a card and board game that might be one of the most accessible entryways into RPGs I’ve ever experienced.

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The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance from Twogether Studios is a collaborative game where 2-6 players work together to face a number of obstacles (organized in “challenge decks”) leading to one of three final bosses—Villain, Relic, or Location—two of which have to be defeated in order to win the game. Challenge decks include things like fighting swarms of rats and escaping a haunted mine (with the occasional “smack talk a mean skeleton” to add a bit of levity), and each is designed to intersect with the others on the board, providing unique narrative and combat opportunities. One person is also designated the Team Leader, who works as a quasi-Dungeon Master to guide players along and encourage them to think uniquely about each challenge (while still getting to play!). But it’s not all on their shoulders, thanks to the card prompts, so don’t worry if all players are first-timers to roleplaying games.

During every round, players decide which obstacle they’re each going to face and say how they’re going to do it, adding bonuses for their character’s stats, assistance from allies, and magical items they’ve received from the Fantasy Costco before rolling the modified D20 die. It’s a repetitive concept on its face but one that benefits greatly from the way the game has gone about it.

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This is a very busy tiny tomb.
Photo: Beth Elderkin/io9

Bureau of Balance is good at encouraging storytelling and cooperation, with much of the gameplay focused on building stories that explain the challenges and develop the world. For example, many challenge cards give prompts asking players to explain what’s happening, and stat bonuses are awarded for roleplaying creative ideas and solutions. They aren’t generic or interchangeable either, at least for the most part—they feel like things a Dungeon Master would ask their players as they got ready to face down a new threat. The more you build on the stories with your teammates, the bigger your characters’ world becomes. Unlike Hasbro’s Dungeons & Dragons: Adventure Begins, which I would consider this game’s closest equivalent, Bureau of Balance succeeds in making roleplaying an important (and fun!) part of the game.

Another equally impressive thing is the variety afforded to players, something I did not expect to be saying. I figured the game would come with a couple of scenarios to try out, with further ones coming in possible expansions, but there’s a lot more to it. Bureau of Balance comes with three Villains, three Relics, and three Locations, all of which are interchangeable and can work with each other. Each feature their own storytelling prompts, along with unique advantages or disadvantages for different styles of combat, and several come with their own gameplay rules and ways their challenge decks are organized. Not just that, but every challenge deck is double-sided. All these things combine to ensure players have several game scenarios on-hand before they start to repeat, and lots of opportunities to get into roleplaying.

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Some of the roleplay does lean into The Adventure Zone esthetic, with several in-jokes and references to the podcast’s Balance Arc, but it’s still accessible for newcomers. My husband has only listened to the occasional episode of The Adventure Zone on road trips and he told me he never felt out of the loop on anything happening in the game. However, much like Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty, the humor might not be for everyone.

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If you’ve listened to The Adventure Zone and didn’t care for it, or you aren’t a fan of getting silly in RPGs, this won’t be the best fit. It’s also not ideal for folks wanting to learn the rules and lore of games like Dungeons & Dragons. You’ll come out of this knowing a few tricks about cooperative storytelling in gameplay, but not what kind of damage a Mimic can do in its amorphous form.

There are also a couple of things I felt made the game a little too easy at times—although I really appreciated how much thought and effort went into making a decent two-player mode! The main thing was that combat rarely felt like a huge undertaking, mostly because player assists can be tossed around a bit too frequently for my taste (they reset every round). It might be good to add some house rules about how frequently players can help each other out. After all, sometimes it’s OK to lose.

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Yes, that is a The Adventure Zone reference.
Photo: Beth Elderkin/io9

As a final note, some advice: Don’t go into Bureau of Balance expecting to cosplay as characters from The Adventure Zone. Taako, Merle, and the others are included as special assist cards and aren’t designed to be player options. Technically you can do whatever you want since it’s a roleplaying game, but I would advise against it in any case. This game is about creating your own characters, not pretending to be Rick or Morty.

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The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance is a great card game for folks wanting to try out (or get back into) RPGs, or more seasoned players who want a cooperative storytelling experience that takes out some of the legwork and guesswork for an afternoon. It’s not going to give you all the thrills and chills of a traditional RPG, but it does enough to simulate the experience—and it provides an impressive amount of variety in gameplay and storytelling while doing so. Whether you’re a diehard TAZ fan or someone who just likes trading insults with a skeleton, Bureau of Balance is well worth the trip.

A review copy of this game was provided by Twogether Studios. The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance costs $40 and is available here.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

DISCUSSION

arcanumv
Arcanum Five

I’ve always found that good entryway into RPGs is an RPG.

You have the new player join with experienced players, hand out a character sheet with a prose summary of what the character is and does, and start playing. It’s better if the first character is something simpler to imagine (say, a gunbunny, swordswinger, or brick instead of a wizard) until the player groks the rules and any magic/decking/psionics/etc. It’s helpful if the game resembles a genre the player knows, but not absolutely required.

You also make sure everyone playing knows this is a story to introduce a new player to the game, so you don’t drop that player into the final act of your megacampaign. Do a side quest or a one-off.