Review: Diamond Trust of London (Nintendo DS)

Diamond Trust of London
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Publisher: Indiepub
Genre: Euro-Style Board Game
Release Date: 08/28/2012

Diamond Trust of London is a game that will go down in the record books for a several of reasons. First, it’s got a print run of less than 10,000 copies, which means gaming collectors will have their eye on this for a long time to come. Second, it’s the first (and so far, only) handheld game to be successfully crowdfunded. In fact, I was one of the 1,305 backers for the Kickstarter project Jason Rohrer threw together. I happily threw out $55 for the Limited Edition version (although somehow I got #356 even though I was the very first backer of the campaign…) because I wanted to see a console title finally succeed on Kickstarter (The only other one is the sequel to Dux, Redux, for the Sega Dreamcast.) What was in the Limited Edition version? Not much really. You got the numbered and signed copy of the game, a stamp from Angola, a coin, and a few other trinkets, so for those of you who can only pick up the standard version of the game with a price tag of $30 – don’t feel bad. Had I known that this is what would be in the LE, I’d have gone standard myself.

So with the game in my hand for about a week, the only question is how good the game actually is. Has Diamond Trust of London given IndiePub (aka Zoo Games) its first actual quality release, or did Majesco drop this game back when it was being developed for a good reason?

Let’s Review

1. Modes

There are only two modes with Diamond Trust of London: Two Player or Vs. the computer. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot, and you’re right: it isn’t. As DToL is very similar to Euro-style board games, one would have liked a few more options, especially for the price tag. Most board games aren’t for a scant two players, after all. Still, it’s important to note how well done the Two Player mode is. Not in terms of gameplay and flow (We’ll cover that later) but in that the game is almost contagion like.

Most DS games require all players to have a cart of the game in order to access the multiplayer modes. This would royally suck if DToL had that limitation due to the exceptionally small print run. It would mean that you would have to have conventions just to find someone to play the game with. Instead, Jason Rohrer went with the far less used but far more awesome route which is the single card play option. In this situation two gamers need only one cart between the two DS systems. The player with the cart wirelessly sends a limited version of the game into the other DS’ memory and then multiplayer can begin. With Diamond Trust of London‘s single card play option you get THE ENTIRE GAME sent to your friend’s DS. The only thing missing is the music and it takes longer for moves to occur. That’s not a bad trade off. Even better is that if I, with my DS and copy of the game, send the cardless version of the game to two other friends (let’s say Mark and Sean), they could then play Diamond Trust of London against EACH OTHER; no cart (or me) needed! This is the only DS game I can think of that fully utilizes the single card play mode to this detail and Anubis knows I’ve reviewed way too many DS games. Most importantly, this lets DToL spread like wildfire amongst your friends and, with luck, will cause some of them to buy the cart versions of this game.

So in one respect, Diamond Trust of London has very little in the way of modes, far less than other games with the same price tag. In another, this little indie game uses single card play better than even first party Nintendo developed titles. Maybe it’s because I’m a glass half full kind of guy, but I think the fact the game can be spread amongst so many people for free makes up for the inability to have three or four people play the game at once.

Modes Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

I won’t lie. Compared to nearly every other DS release out there, Diamond Trust of London looks as low grade visually as it gets. The graphics shown here could easily be done on a much weaker system like the Game Boy Color or the NES. Now that doesn’t mean the game could actually be replicated on those systems. It is pretty touch screen intensive, after all. It’s as bare bones as a video game can get in 2012.

Of course, the whole point of DToL is to replicate the feel of a board game and in that respect, it fares pretty decently. You’ve got a map of Angola and a few little figures that run across it based on where you and your opponent place your agents. You’ve got some text and diamond images and…that’s actually about it. No, the game isn’t visually impressive. Far from it. So if you view graphics to be more important than gameplay, you might as well stop right here because Diamond Trust of London is arguably the ugliest game ever released for the DS. Now if you care about the opposite….read on MacDuff.

Graphics Rating: Worthless

3. Sound

The music in Diamond Trust of London is all done by Tom Bailey. I personally have never heard of him before, but after playing through DToL, I have to admit, the guy’s quite the composer. The music is very catchy and I found myself humming tracks long after I turned the game off. However, that’s not to say that the music is overbearing. Diamond Trust of London is, after all, a Euro style board game at heart, which means concentration and planning ahead is key, and that’s hard to do with something fast paced or frantic. No, the music in DToL is subdued and yet sublime. At times you don’t even notice it consciously, but then you’ll find yourself humming along to a song you didn’t even realize was playing. This is especially true on higher difficulty levels against the computer as it can take FOREVER to make a turn. I admit I wasn’t expecting the music to be this good. In fact if the screenshots were anything to go by, I was expecting a single MIDI file that played in a never-ending loop. I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. The music of DToL might not make or break the game, as the single card player without music is still just as fun, but the tracks are very well done and a highlight of the finished product. So if you’ve received a downloadable version via a friend’s cart, remember the music makes the game all the better

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

4. Control and Gameplay

As I’ve said throughout this review, Diamond Trust of London is basically a Euro-style board game in a video game package. With that in mind, you’re probably wondering why Mr. Rohrer didn’t just make a board game. Well, there’s a very good reason behind that and it’s due to the fact that each player has several agents as their disposal. Agents that can be bribed and give your secret plans to your opponent. Things like where they are moving to next, how many diamonds they are carrying, who you’ve bribed of their agents and far more. The AI required for this couldn’t be done with an actual board game and so DToL is a video game.

The point of the game is pretty simple: to have more diamonds than your opponent. You have nine rounds to accomplish this goal and each round is made up of six turns. First up is paying your agents. You pay your agents to keep them loyal to you. If a bribe is bigger than the salary you are paying them, they will turn to your opponent and give them secret info. Bribes take place in this same first turn, so make sure to allocate your money wisely. Paying your agents ensures loyalty, but bribing gets you all sorts of important information so you have to decide what kind of a balance to strike. It’s important to note you can’t bribe on the first turn, so at least for one small part of the game, you know who you can trust.

The second turn is moving your agents on the board. If they are on your home base, you can move them to one of the regions on the map. Doing so lets you collect diamonds from that region. Moving someone from a region to your home base lets you store your diamonds permanently. Trips cost money so again, you have to really balance how much you spend. After both sides have picked their moves, they are executed and you can see if you and your opponent have stymied each other. This is also the point where you see who has bribed the UN inspector and also if there in a regional conflict. A regional conflict occurs when each player has an agent in a location. Whoever paid the most to that agent gets the diamonds.

The third turn is storing diamonds. This occurs if and only if you moved someone how in turn two. Turn four lets a player move the UN Inspector. Who gets to is determined by who gave the Inspector the most bribe money. When an Inspector is on a region, several things happen. First, diamonds cannot be collected in that particular location. They are stored until he leaves. Second, the Inspector takes diamonds from whatever agent is at the location. This is a great way to shut down your opponent.

The fifth phase is collecting diamonds from each region. Remember, no one gets diamonds from the location the UN Inspector is on and if both players are on the same spot, the diamond goes to whoever paid the most money. The sixth and final turn of the round is selling diamonds off. Remember the goal is to have as many diamonds as possible, but you need money to collect diamonds, move agents, and bribe people, so selling some is a necessity. Careful with selling, though, as there is only a set amount of money to be earned. It doesn’t matter how many diamonds you sell, if you’re the only one selling, you can sell one or twelve and it’s still the same amount of money. Also remember that if both are selling, you get a percentage of the set pot. This means sometimes it’s better not to sell anything as you do get an influx of cash each round even if you don’t sell, and sometimes the influx is bigger than what you get from selling if you’re both hawking your wares. Repeat all six parts many times over until the game rounds are at zero and whoever has the most diamonds wins!

All in all, the game is simple to learn, hard to master, and it involves a great deal of thinking ahead in order to stay ahead. It’s a great little board game and my only complaint is that it’s not open to more than two players or that you can’t pass around the same DS.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

5. Replayability

Honestly, unless you find a friend (preferably several) who really like Euro board games, there isn’t a lot of replay value in this. The A.I. is pretty easy to beat, and even on the highest difficulty settings I was winning by double the amount of diamonds the computer had. Sure you CAN play the computer but even the instruction booklet says the single player mode is just to give you practice for PvP games. As this game has such a limited print run, make sure you’ll be able to get enough use out of the game with your friends before picking it up. I found it to be a lot of fun, but there’s no denying playing against the computer gets old fast. At least there are multiple AI settings for those that have to play the game alone.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

As mentioned above, the A.I. for the game is pretty easy to dominate. Even at the highest settings, it becomes more a test of patience then wits as the computer takes FOREVER to take its turn. It’s with another person where DToL really shines. You never know what another human is going to do and a move that makes no logical or rational sense just might be what they choose, thus screwing up your plans and wasting a lot of hard-earned money on unneeded bribes. There are so many different options available to you and no two games should play the same. The game itself is exceptionally well balanced – it’s just up to your opponent as to how hard it is.

Balance Rating: Great

7. Originality

There aren’t a lot of Euro-style board games converted into video games. Settlers of Catan is one of the few. However, it’s even rarer to find a Euro-style board game made especially to be a video game. I think there’s one for the Xbox 360, but that’s all I can think of. So this pretty much puts Diamond Trust of London into a class by itself. It needs AI to work the agents, so it could never be an actual physical board game, yet it still feels more of one than, say, Mario Party or Dokapon Kingdom. Although DToL definitely isn’t for everyone, it’s an incredibly brilliant idea for a video game and it’s definitely something that makes the DS shine in its dying days. Although the game will remind you of several board games (if you rock the Euro-style games), there’s nothing quite like Diamond Trust of London – especially for the Nintendo DS.

Originality Rating: Unparalleled

8. Addictiveness

While Diamond Trust of London is a fun game, it’s not necessarily one you’ll play several times in a row. Games are quite short – lasting no more than an hour usually. After an hour of sitting there with your DS deciding what minute but all-important changes to make to your moves and how much money to allocate, you’ll definitely want to move on to something else. That said, while playing the game, time goes by exceptionally quickly and you’d be surprised how much fun deciding how to spend that last dollar can be – which generally isn’t the case in real life. At least DToL teaches you something about budgeting, even if it is budgeting for a ruthless evil conglomerate whose riches come from the blood and suffering of native Angolans.

Basically a thumbs in the middle here. Diamond Trust of London is not a game for marathon sessions, but you’ll definitely come back for another run through here and there.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor

Even Jason Rohrer will be the first to admit that Diamond Trust of London is an exceptionally niche product. It’s more of an experiment than anything else and the low print run (which was admittedly more than Rohrer would have liked to have had made) reflects that. There aren’t a lot of people clamoring for board games on the Nintendo DS, especially board games that only two people can play. Worse yet, the Nintendo DS is all but dead, with most publishers and developers having moved onto the 3DS. Currently the DS is pretty much Pokémon and this game in terms of exclusives for the year. So you’ve either got to be a fan of Rohrer’s work, a collector, a DS enthusiast, or a fan of Euro-style board games to want to pick this up. It helps if you fall into several of those categories. I personally backed this game on Kickstarter because I wanted to see a console title have a successful campaign over there, I’m a fan of seeing indie games succeed on a console, and because my DS collection is pretty much digital cookbooks and Pokémon games. As a board game fan without a lot of friends that like to play them, this was something perfect for the wife and I to play, or for just myself when I get the urge to play a board game.

Only 1300 people backed the Kickstarter campaign, so that shows that there is a small but dedicated audience to this sort of game and several thousand other gamers will probably purchase this as word of mouth grows, but Diamond Trust of London is not for everyone and it was never meant to be. Make sure you pick tehis up if you’re either going to get a lot of use out of it or if you’re a collector who just wants it for the novelty.

Appeal Factor: Poor

10. Miscellaneous

In the end, Diamond Trust of London was a successful experiment. The end result was a fun niche little Euro-style board game that you can play on the DS. It showed that even in the final days of the DS, there is still a market not only for quality titles, but highly original and even indie games as well. I will say that the limited edition and even the regular edition are both overpriced for what you are getting, but that’s due to the low print run more than anything else. A perfect price point for this would be $19.99 like a lot of budget DS titles, but the extra ten dollars goes to support a really excellent developer in Jason Rohrer, a quality composer like Tom Bailey, and to indie gaming in general. Cart based gaming is expensive to begin with, but the fact DToL was successful and managed to get $90,000 off of Kickstarter while becoming the site’s first successful console release is worthy of both respect and applause. Is Diamond Trust of London one of the greatest DS titles of all time? No, it’s not even the best DS game released this year. However, it’s a very fun game that deserves a lot of attention from the gaming media and proof that you don’t need a team of programmers and a multi-million dollar ad budget to make a memorable and highly quality game. If you have the money to spare and this review has piqued your interest, go pick up Diamond Trust of London. You’ll be happy you did.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores:
Modes: Decent
Graphics: Worthless
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Great
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Diamond Trust of London isn’t the type of game that is going to blow you away with top of the line graphics or a killer story. Instead it’s proof that a single person with a vision and backing can put out a high quality title. Diamond Trust of London is a fun little Euro-style board game for two players. Sure that means the potential audience interested in picking this game up is extremely limited, but those that do will be impressed by the easy to learn but incredibly deep gameplay. It’s a bit pricey due to a low print run, but if you’re a collector or just a gamer looking for a highly original title to plug into your DS, DToL won’t disappoint. At the end of the day, though, it’ll mostly be remembered as the first console game to be successfully crowd-funded and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.