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Pirates: The City of Skulls

Van Ryder Games incorporates pen and paper style RPGs with forking path adventures in their stylized and cartoonish series of novels.

Gameplay

Each of the first three series differs (with each series featuring five books of varying theme, difficulty, and intended audience), but each book often follows a similar style of how information is presented, actions are carried out, and the consequences rendered by choosing these. In this review, we will look at two distinctly different Graphic Novel Adventure (GNA) offerings: Pirates: The City of Skulls, and Your Theme Park.

In Pirates: The City of Skulls, you will start off by creating your own character with various attributes assigned by who you choose and their abilities. As you read through the book, there will be choices and actions for you to decide upon, which will lead you to a different page. As you explore The City of Skulls in search of a lost treasure, your character will gain or lose attribute points, find useful items, and discover clues to the location of the treasure. However, there are dead ends and dangers that could cut the life of your created character short. 

With Your Theme Park, the objective is to build out your own theme park. To do this, you will navigate the prose within the book, making choices that can impact what you can build, where it can be built, and the monthly income that is gained and any expenses incurred. The goal is to build a thriving, successful theme park by gaining points in one of six categories. As you gain points, you will unlock new and often better things (such as increasing the cost of your park to better your monthly income). You have one year to achieve your best park, and Your Theme Park even offers a multiplayer variation (so long as other players have their own copies of the book). 

Where all GNA offerings are parallel is in the storytelling. You will have to read carefully, navigate the pages accordingly, and scour the animated panels for information, clues, and even secrets. Doing this will lead you to the outlined success of each novel.

Graphic Novel Adventures

Photos provided by the publisher

Review

Each Graphic Novel Adventure offers something great for all gamer types. Some are more story-driven, while others are propelled by pen-and-paper RPG actions. While many are designed for solo or couples to play, such as The City of Skulls, others offer unique multiplayer experiences such as Your Theme Park. If you’re in the mood for a unique gaming experience but don’t know your thematic mood, both of these — along with the other novels in the series — will scratch an itch.

Pirates: The City of Skulls is a fun RPG-esque adventure. It’s fun to explore the cartoonish island, encountering both danger and exciting new pathways. It feels like a point-and-click pirate adventure (akin to the old video game The Secret of Monkey Island) but here, you’re trying to actively improve the lot of your character, make them better, and be strategic about what items you carry (which is limited by your character’s strength points) and where you explore. 

Similarly, Your Theme Park offers a condensed version of another classic video game, Roller Coaster Tycoon. The need to expand the park’s land, improve its facilities, build the best coasters and attractions, and gain the most bonuses to improve one's score across the categories also touches upon the combo-laden roll-and-writes of modern board gaming. 

But what sets both apart is the storytelling. As you can tell, it’s hard to fully dive into everything these games-as-books (or books-as-games) offer because it would spoil the fun. The good news is they are designed to allow you to dive straight in yourselves. Your Theme Park does have two pages of small print instructions (so a lot) to digest up front, but it also weaves those rules and hints into the narrative of the story itself. As you can imagine, it’s unlikely success is going to come your way the first time (or even the second time) you work your way through the novel. Pirates: The City of Skulls presents its rules within the narrative as well, pausing briefly for a quick one-page introduction before resuming its story. With the different characters it offers, it’s inviting multiple playthroughs even if you have an immediate breakthrough on the first go-through (and again, you likely won’t). Above all else, these two novels represent the breadth of variety the series has to offer. 

Most of the GNA offerings are solitary affairs. They will be hard to read and play in your bed as a wind down from a long day due to all the back and forth between the pages and stat sheets. And the novels only come with single use stat sheets, so you’ll likely need to download and print copies from the web. But these are minor gripes about a series that is engaging and something different in an exploding hobby where uniqueness is becoming a unicorn. 

Van Ryder continues to grow the series with the fourth recently funded on Kickstarter. If you’re an older gamer who misses choose your adventure-style books, pen-and-paper RPGs, and point-and-click video games, or a new gamer who wants to experience those styles for yourself, Graphic Novel Adventures has you covered. 

Pros: Variety of themes, colorful and engaging storytelling and panels, something for every type of gamer and reader

Cons: Lack of stat sheets for multiple playthroughs, lots of page turning for people who prefer linear storytelling methods