Roll4 Review: The House Doesn’t Always Win

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, especially with The House Doesn’t Always Win. In this brand new tabletop created by Michael Whelan, that uses a standard deck of cards for outcome resolution, as opposed to the typically used dice. In this RPG, you always play as the underdog, going up against the full force of The House. However, if you’re smart, play your cards right, and add a dash of luck, you can topple the power hierarchy just as you planned.

The House Doesn’t Always Win

We were able to get a preview copy of The House Doesn’t Always Win (shortened to THDAW) for our review, and it’s beautiful. It comes as a 125 full-color PDF at time of review, although this may change slightly at full release. It comes with full-page stylized art reminiscent of traditional playing cards that really steal the show, perfectly complementing the style of the system. The layout is spacious and easy to read, which is good, because this system is quite a bit different from others, and you might need to go through it twice.

It comes equipped with a variety of examples, many of them including pictures, to make sure you fully understand every aspect of the game before you begin. One great addition for Game Master’s is the inclusion of not one, but nine different example scenarios that are ready to run straight out of the book!

Gameplay

THDAW exists in a place between a typical TTRPG, and a casino style card game. The resolution system is a bit of a mix between blackjack and poker, and it’s absolutely spectacular. It’s a rules-lite system, with strategy that unfolds and shifts during the course of play. 

Here are the basics:

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  1. Your character can take actions based on a suit of cards in the deck. These actions will require a challenge. 
    1. Clubs are for actions that require athleticism, strength, or willpower.
    2. Hearts are for cunning, persuasion, or wit.
    3. Spades are for actions that require skill, dexterity, or stealth.
    4. Diamonds are a special case. They count as wild cards when they are in your deck, however, they come at a cost.
  2. Depending on what action you’re taking, the Game Master chooses a difficulty between 1 and 11, and a suit. To succeed on your task, you have to draw a number of cards in the chosen suit equal to the difficulty BEFORE you draw 4 cards of any other suit. 
  3. Any cards you draw on a success are sent to the regular discard pile and can be used again later.
  4. If you draw any 4 cards of a suit not required for the action, every card that you drew for this action is lost for the remainder of the adventure, and cannot be used again.

At its roots, this is it, all or nothing purely based on luck. However, you’re not left without any tools. If at any point during this process, you don’t think lady luck is on your side, you can opt to fold. Folding causes you to automatically lose the challenge, but the cards are sent to the discard pile, and are still able to be used for the adventure. There are also mechanics called helping, stealing, and cheating that can help you to sway the odds in your favor.

Characters

Characters in THDAW are fast and simple to create. First, choose an archetype (called playbooks) based on one of the face cards for either Clubs, Hearts or Spades. Based on their selection, PC’s will have certain stats that can give them an advantage (or disadvantage) on certain types of challenges. They will also have a collection of skills for them to choose from that allow you to bend or break the rules for the resolution system, perhaps letting you sneak a peek at the next card before you draw it.

This is what lets the players really shine. The resolution system is fairly rules lite, once you understand the basics, you’ll be able to quickly pick up some strategy. Giving players unique skills that allow them to more effectively press their luck is what turns this from a party game, into a tabletop game in my opinion. Each playbook has skills that can make the players stand out from each other, giving them different strengths and abilities, to help themselves, or their allies.

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Our Thoughts

The House Doesn’t Always Win is a slam dunk. Its gameplay is unique, encompassing a heavy amount of strategy and forward thinking, without getting bogged down by intricacies. Its biggest strength lies in its universal application, and broad appeal. Want to play a casino heist? That’s what this was made for. Haunted house? Oh yeah, you can do that too. Just being a student trying to take on an oppressive student council? They’ve got that one already written for you.

The versatility of this system is incredible. If you’re a fan of rules-lite systems, you will like this game. If you also like party card games, such as Exploding Kittens, or Unstable Unicorns, you will love it. It’s a perfect fit for countless one-shots or shorter campaigns. Get ready to believe in the heart of the cards as The House Doesn’t Always Win will be released soon. It is ready for pre-order for £25.00 today!

Roll4 Review: The House Doesn\'t Always Win