Full disclosure: A review copy of Proving Grounds was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Alright, we’re back up with another game from Renegade! This time we’re covering a very specific niche in gaming, the wide wide world of solo games! I’ve covered some in the past, like Unbroken (or Sprawlopolis, debateably), but I don’t cover a ton, typically. That said, I’ve traditionally been pretty favorable towards Kane Klenko’s games (Cosmic Factory and Flip Ships, among others), so I figured I’d check this one out. Let’s dive right in and see what’s up in Proving Grounds.
In Proving Grounds, your mother, the queen, has died, and you’ve been framed for her murder! Not great, all things considered. Thankfully, you remember that you can always go for a trial by combat, and so you’re cast into the Proving Grounds to show your worth among attackers from two kingdoms. Battle, strategize, and always watch your back as you deal with conspiracies, inspiration, and the very sun and moon itself. There’s also a dragon, which is fun. Will you find a way to take back the throne that was stolen from you?
First thing, set out the Encounter Board:
Take out the dice, and put a green / yellow / blue die in a stack on the heart immediately below the Health Marker:
Put one white die on each of the spaces on the right side of the board, as well. Shuffle up the Enemy Cards:
Set one in each of the six slots on the board, and place a Battle Marker on each of the highlighted spaces:
Put the Health Marker (the heart) on the top-left heart of the board. You’ll need a one-minute timer; the Renegade App has one, or just use your phone, whatever.
Once you’ve done that you’re all ready to start!
You might notice there are some extra pieces here that I haven’t mentioned. These come from various modules, and I’ll explain how to set those up, now, as a bonus.
Module 1: The Dragonling
For this one, add the Dragonling Die to your initial pool of dice. It’s the black one. Also, put the Dragonling token in play:
Module 2: Chariots
Chariots, just shuffle the Chariot Cards and reveal one:
Module 3: Inspiration Powers
Inspiration Powers are generally helpful, so it’s okay if they’re a bit annoying to set up. Take the Inspiration Cards:
Remove all the ones that refer to modules you’re not using, shuffle the remainder, and reveal one. You have that bonus ability for the entire game.
Module 4: Shields
For Shields, just add the Shield tokens:
Module 5: Conspirators
Conspirators! Shuffle the deck of Conspirator Cards and reveal the first one:
Module 6: Sun and Moon
For this one, you’re going to change some stuff. Add the Sun and Moon Dial to the board and place the blue / green / yellow dice on it, rather than on the Health Track.
A game of Proving Grounds takes place over a series of rounds as you try to fight off enough attackers that you can survive. Thankfully, each round is only a minute, so the game won’t take you very long to win (or lose?). Each round has three phases, so let’s go through them:
This one is the crux of the game, essentially. Once you’ve rolled the dice the first time, start the one-minute timer.
Group your dice by result — any die without another matching die is a single, and any value with at least two dice displaying that value is part of a set.
Now, if you like your roll, you can stop immediately, but it’s more likely that you’ll want to reroll. Here’s where it gets tricky. You may only reroll your dice if those dice are part of a set. Singles cannot be rerolled unless, after a reroll, there are additional dice of that value (since they’d now be part of a set).
Continue doing this until you’re satisfied with your result or time expires.
Place your sets / singles next to the corresponding numbers on the Encounter Board. Then, resolve the attacks, starting with 1 and finishing up with 6.
Different enemies have different requirements, and those are displayed on the card. You may spend dice adjacent to that enemy to move up on that enemy’s Battle Track. If it shows a dice of a certain color, that die must be among the dice you use to move up, or you cannot. If it shows a value like 3+, you must use at least 3 dice to move up on that track. If you do, you’re considered to have scored a hit. If you do not have sufficient dice to move up the track, nothing happens unless you only have one die of that value.
If you only have one die of that value, immediately move the Battle Marker down the Battle Track (unless otherwise stated). If the Battle Marker is now in the red zone at the bottom of the card, you take a wound! Add one of your dice to the Exhaustion Track on the right side of the board (stacking if there are already dice there), move the Health Marker down one space, and move the Battle Marker back to the highlighted space. If the Health Marker hits the last space of the Health Track, you lose. So try to avoid that.
If moving the Health Marker ends up on or after the space with the blue / green / yellow dice stack, you may swap one of those dice for any die in your dice pool. Use this if you need an extra boon or if you’re struggling against some of those enemies.
If after resolving these, the Battle Marker is at the top space of any enemy’s card, you’ve defeated them! Discard that enemy and place it in a pile.
Now, take all the dice assigned to enemies back, and move the entire Exhaustion Track down one space. This means some dice will (hopefully) move off of the Exhaustion Track, so they’ll come back to your pool.
If there are any slots empty on the board, refill them with new enemy cards. Then, start another round!
End of Game
If you ever defeat eight enemies and survive the round, you win!
If your Health Marker hits the end of the Health Track, you lose!
The six modules I mentioned earlier drastically change gameplay; use them to tweak your experience. Let me explain how those all work.
Module 1: The Dragonling
In The Dragonling Module, some enemies have a weakness to the Dragonling, which is nice. You’ll see on their cards.
When you roll dice, you may roll the Dragonling Die (and reroll it with any set). It is considered a white die for all card effects and cannot be combined with a single for reroll purposes.
At the end of the round, resolve its effects:
- Talon / Tail / Teeth: This can be combined with a single / set of a certain number to act as a set / larger set, provided the enemy has the displayed icon on their card. It’s handy!
- Wing: Protects you against the Battle Marker moving down when a single is played.
- Chaos: Reroll all blue / yellow / green dice before applying results. You don’t want this one.
Beyond that, play as normal.
Module 2: Chariots
Each Chariot adds a usually-annoying effect to the game, which you can dispel by placing dice on the Chariot during play.
Once time is up, if you didn’t place the correct dice on a Chariot Card, its effect activates. Sometimes that’s okay. Either way, discard the Chariot Card at the end of the round and draw a new one.
If there are currently no dice on the Exhaustion Track, draw another Chariot Card and put it in play. Have fun!
Module 3: Inspiration Powers
Not a whole lot to say about this one; like I said, they give you an ability for the entire game, so you just … have that.
Module 4: Shields
These are interesting. So, when you attack an unshielded enemy with a set that’s not the correct combination (missing the right color, not enough dice), they raise their shield. Place the shield token on their card.
If you attack a shielded enemy, things go differently:
- Attack with a Single: You break the shield! Remove the Shield from the card.
- Attack with a Set: Move the Battle Marker down one space and ignore the hit.
Sort of changes the cadence of combat. Have fun with that.
Module 5: Conspirators
These Conspirators just annoy you for the entire round. At the start of the round, roll one of your dice. If its value matches any face-up Conspirator, their effect is now in play. If not, nothing happens.
At the end of the round, for every enemy that you defeat, reveal a new Conspirator.
Module 6: Sun and Moon
Saved the most challenging one for last. So, you’re using the Sun and Moon track, now, and this depends on what direction Maia, the main character, is facing. Before you roll and start the timer, move Maia so that she’s facing a different enemy slot. This means that the Sun is pointing towards a different enemy location than the previous round.
Now, at the end of the round, place any dice you took from the Sun and Moon dial back on it, and resolve attacks based on how you interacted with the Sun and Moon enemies:
- Scored a hit on the Sun Enemy: Gain a blue / yellow / green die into your dice pool for the next round.
- Did not score a hit on the Sun Enemy: Nothing happens.
- Scored a hit on the Moon Enemy: Nothing happens; score the hit as normal.
- Did not score a hit on the Moon Enemy: Move that enemy’s Battle Marker down one space.
Continue playing as normal.
Player Count Differences
None! It’s a solo game.
- Try to avoid singles. I mean, they basically only hurt you, so try to mostly get your dice into sets, if you can. Naturally, if you’re playing with Shields or you have the right Dragonling or some other specific card effect (certain Chariots?) this may not specifically apply, but your general best advice is to try and routinely roll the dice so that you can group them. If you manage to figure out a way to do this consistently, let me know so that we can go to Vegas.
- Also try to avoid large clusters. This one is a bit more interesting. You don’t really want giant clusters of one number, because if you end up rolling a bad single (one that will cause you a wound), you will either have to eat the hit or reroll all of those dice, which will introduce a lot of variance into your life when you don’t necessarily have time to deal with it. I generally try to avoid dice sets of more than four so I can stay flexible.
- Holding patterns aren’t the worst thing. Even if you’re not consistently dealing damage to your enemies, you’re hitting them, and that’s something. Or, rather, that’s much better than rolling singles and taking wounds. Besides, the longer you hold out for, the more dice you’ll gradually reclaim from the Exhaustion Track, so you’ll have more to work with.
- Know which enemies you need to hit and which enemies you can waste singles on. If you’re not going to take a wound from a single, it’s fine if you ignore that enemy. If you need to go all-in to try and win the game, that’s also fine. Just make sure you don’t lose.
- You need to make quick decisions. You can’t agonize over which sets to reroll; you need to be rerolling very quickly if you want to avoid taking a bunch of wounds via the singles. Don’t forget that wounds also cost you dice, which may further limit your options down the line.
- If you have the Dragonling, always reroll Chaos. You don’t need that kind of indecision in your life. It’s best to get that die to settle on Wing, if you can swing it, unless you’re specifically trying to hit one of your enemies with its indicated symbol.
- Not all Chariot Cards are worth addressing. Some are, for sure, but others do things that don’t affect you, like force dice to move up the Exhaustion Track (which is fine, if that track is empty). Even the one that turns a set to a single might be helpful if you’re trying to break that enemy’s shield?
- Be careful with the Sun and the Moon. You need to almost always hit the Moon Position player, otherwise you’re going to take some pretty aggressive penalties. Choose your opponents carefully!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Solid art. It’s realistic enough without being like, photorealistic? I’m a fan of it. Cool cover, too.
- Cool premise, as well. I like the idea of a lone heroine taking on a ton of bad guys to clear her name and take back her throne. It’s a solid premise, and I appreciate that they also included a novella in case you want to read the whole tale. I skimmed it.
- I do like real-time games. Always a fan, and Kane Klenko is one of the go-to designers in the space for real-time games, I feel. He’s done work on Cosmic Factory, this, and Pandemic: Rapid Response, as well as Fuse. That’s a lot of games in one genre!
- The dice are very nice. I always appreciate when they actually etch the dice as opposed to just screen printing them. There’s nothing wrong with screen printing, of course, but actually engraving the dice is super cool.
- I appreciate the modular content. It makes the game very configurable, so you can gradually increase the difficulty (or just modify it so you don’t get a game that’s consistently samey). Thankfully, they also include a module or two that lowers the difficulty (Dragonling and Inspiration Powers), so that’s also great news for players who are having trouble.
- I also appreciate that taking damage doesn’t result in a poor-get-poorer scenario. Having fewer dice isn’t necessarily worse; if anything, it lets you process your resources more easily and assign them well. Naturally, if you have fewer than 6 dice you run the risk of getting slammed with a completely unplayable set, but beyond that having more dice just makes things harder to manage. You can do more damage if you can get your act together, but you can take more damage, too. I appreciate that more dice is more risk, more reward in that sense. I think its a smart way to balance it.
- Hoo whee you can complicate the game by adding all the modules at the same time. That’s a lot of moving parts happening simultaneously. Be careful with that idea. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely high-complexity.
- The theme doesn’t really do much for me. I think it’s got that Vague Fantasy feel and that’s just an area of Mild Disinterest for me. No disrespect; just not my personal cup of tea.
- Can feel a bit random. As throwing random sets of dice and hoping for certain sets of values to come up can. Unlike Sonic: Dice Rush, however, the restrictions on rerolling make the game quite challenging, and the timer provides a pretty persistent threat. There aren’t a lot of ways to mitigate particularly bad rolls beyond rolling again, and if you roll poorly enough (or have too few dice), that might not be an option. I feel really bad for the person who rolls 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 on six dice and has to take hits across the board.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I think Proving Grounds is pretty fun! There’s a fair bit to keep track of, especially if you’re using all of the modules, but it is, at its core, a solid solo game (and it seems to be part of a longer gambit, if the Solo Hero Series is to be interpreted as written). Klenko’s understanding of real-time dice games really shines here, as the game is quick, snappy, and complex in a way that forces me to think, and the modularity of the game is very interesting, as well. I think, for me, there’s a bit too much variance happening in specific rolls, at times (this is probably why I prefer Sprawlopolis as a solo game, since the cards tend to not be as much at once). But that’s okay! I still quite enjoyed Proving Grounds, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what’s coming next from the Solo Hero Series. If you’re looking for a solo dice game, you enjoy real-time games, or you want to play as a badass lady mowing down her enemies to take back the throne, Proving Grounds may be right up your alley!