The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance
Publisher: Twogether Studios
Release Date: August 20, 2020
MSRP: $39.95
Designers: Keith Baker and Jennifer Ellis
Number of Players: 2 - 5
Playing Time: 60 - 90 minutes
Product #: 860062000482 (UPC)
Age Rating: 13 and up
ICv2 Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5

The Adventure Zone is a popular podcast about role playing games featuring the three McElroy brothers and their father.  It has spawned a series of graphic novels from First Second Books which sits near the top of ICv2’s list of best-selling Author Graphic Novel franchises (see "PRO: Top Graphic Novel Franchises – Summer 2020"). Now it has spawned a board game called The Adventure Zone:  Bureau of Balance.  But does the game capture the spirit or role playing the way the podcast and graphic novels do?

Summary:  The players act as members of the "Bureau of Balance," a magical organization based on the moon that sends its agents, called "Reclaimers" to retrieve dangerous artifacts before the forces of evil can do whatever it is that evil forces do.  Each player’s character is given a traditional fantasy class such as Wizard or Rogue, which determines their area of expertise and unique ability.  The rules stress that players must flesh out their character by giving them a name and three defining character traits:  A Halfling Warrior who enjoys Extracurricular Activities and can call upon his deep Experience to help his teammates, for example.  This story-telling element is important to the play of the game, because ultimately it attempts to capture the basics of role playing.

Mechanically, the game uses decks of cards to present the players with a series of challenges, often with a rather humorous or tongue-in-cheek take on fantasy themes:  They may have to face animated ice sculptures while crossing a river of lava as they run away from a horde of "Gerblins."  Confronting a challenge is straightforward enough:  Add your character’s ability score to any bonuses from the equipment you have purchased from "Fantasy Kostco" and any help your fellow adventurers can give you.  Then roll the unique 20-sided die and add the result.  Roll high enough and you succeed.  Critical failure and success results on the die mean that there is always an element of risk.

But where the game shines is by the introduction of storytelling bonuses.  Most encounters award some kind of advantage if the player tells a little story about how they are going to confront the challenge, using leading questions to help those with limited role-playing experience along the way.  Based on the playing hints/designer notes at the back of the rulebook, this is the true goal of the game:  an easy-to-learn and fun way to explore some basic concepts of role-playing games in an innovative way.

Originality:  There have been plenty of games that have sought to translate the role-playing experience into a board game form.  They have existed almost as long as role-playing games themselves.  Few of them attempt it as explicitly as The Adventure Zone does.  The intent here is very much to create a group story-telling experience, and it accomplishes it quite nicely.

Presentation:  Considering the background behind the game, the artwork is suitably comic book-ish, and does an excellent job of communicating the theme and style of the game, as well as the humor at the heart of it.  The title is clearly and boldly displayed, the box feels solid and has a healthy "heft" to it, and the box back has a nice view of the game components and a good description.

Quality:  The game components are all of good quality -- sturdy cardboard tokens, an easily-readable d20.  The cards are nice and flexible, but I would have preferred to have more artwork on them.  Each player gets a character sheet from one of the generously-sized pads so you can keep a permanent record of your adventures, and thanks to a variety of Relic, Villain, and Location decks, there is a lot of potential for replayability.  The rulebook is laid out attractively and is written in an engaging style, and provides a healthy section with hints how to enhance the storytelling aspect of the game.  For those who prefer a video presentation, it includes a QR code and web address for an alternative way to learn.  Which is good, because the rulebook itself is unfortunately a little bit vague in a few places, and some rules are located in less-than-intuitive places.

Marketability:  The popularity of the podcast and the related graphic novels as well as the general popularity of role-playing games right now are all plusses for the game.  But, the minimalist nature of the game system may limit its attractiveness as a pure board game.  The question will be whether the "role playing lite" style of the game will appeal to people who are interested in those games but not ready to take the plunge, or if it will appeal to experienced role players who might want a light-hearted but similar experience, perhaps for those nights when a key player cannot attend.

Overall:  I found The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance to be refreshingly entertaining.  Though light on strategy, its straightforward mechanics and blatant invitation to silly, over-the-top storytelling allowed us to simply have fun with the game.  There is nothing heavy or serious about it, and sometimes that’s all you really want out of a game:  a pleasant diversion for an hour or two with friends who can enjoy laughing at each other.

But in some ways, this is a game in search of its niche.  It is neither role playing game nor board game, yet a little bit of both.  It is neither a tactical game nor a storytelling adventures, but a hybrid of the two.  Nonetheless, players who can embrace that dichotomy, including some who typically dislike games that "force" them to tell stories, The Adventure Zone:  Bureau of Balance offers a lot of fun.  And that’s why I’m giving this game 3.5 out of 5.

And a tip of the hat to Twogether Studios for lending a hand to independent retailers in our pandemic economy by limiting the availability of the game online (see "Twogether Studios Keeps ‘The Adventure Zone:  Bureau of Balance’ Off Amazon for the Holidays").

--William Neibling