Collect bands of bravery, find weapons, fight monsters, and solve puzzles: these elements and more await readers of the interactive graphic novel series Knights Club. With the tagline, “The Comic Book You Can Play,” the series is part choose-your-own-adventure and part fantasy tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons, setting out to engage middle-grade readers and inviting them to participate in the action.
For this review, I explored the first two graphic novels in the series, Knights Club: The Bands of Bravery and Knights Club: The Message of Destiny. Though both books have largely the same central characters, and allow readers to carry over character stats from the first to the second book, they can stand alone and are fairly different in terms of game elements offered. Both books, however, share the same choose-your-own-adventure style of navigation through the comic. Each panel is numbered, and somewhere within the art of a panel, readers are directed to specific numbered panels to continue. In some panels, there is only one option, while others may have a few to choose from: for example, a panel depicting a crossroads where each path is marked with a different number. Occasionally, numbers are subtle or intentionally tricky to find in order to create something of a puzzle.
The first book, The Bands of Bravery, is focused on gathering as many bands (bracelets) as possible within an allotted period of time. This is largely achieved with a hidden object-style approach, where readers must scrutinize panels to spot them. In a similar manner, players can pick up gold pieces, weapons, or items. Occasionally, there are choices about where to go next or how to proceed in an interaction with another character. Players are given some basic stats, strength, agility, charisma, intelligence—and can track their adventure with one of the Quest Tracker sheets provided in the front of the book, with extra printable sheets available online.
In The Message of Destiny, the interactive play gets a lot more complex. The Quest Tracker includes many more stats, ranging from abilities to experience points to strike points (essentially, hit points or health points). There is a simple (“squire”) level of play, in which battles involve readers comparing two numbers to see which is higher and who wins. The book is primarily designed for the more advanced (“knight”) level of play, in which readers must keep track of these changing stats and spin a paper wheel to determine actions within a battle. There are also cards readers can obtain through the story that allow for special actions or improve certain stats. The Quest Trackers, cards, and spinning wheel are available as pages within the book or online as printable sheets.
Both of the Knights Club graphic novels overall left me with mixed feelings. Neither book has very much story to speak of, with many of the panels simply showing an empty path or some natural scenery along with the number of the next panel. Each has an overarching idea of a plot (collect bands or deliver a message), but otherwise, encounters with other characters or creatures are random and the world-building is basic. Players also get very little sense of the character they are playing; each one is mainly a collection of stats without much personality or background. The role-playing and storytelling elements of games like Dungeons & Dragons simply aren’t found in these books.
Since navigating the book means jumping from panel to panel, and since many panels only take a moment to absorb, “reading” can often feel like quickly and repeatedly flipping from page to page. Many elements also depend on the honor system and how good a reader’s memory is. For example, the books explain that if you end up going through the same panel twice in a journey, you don’t need to fight the creature depicted a second time. The same holds true for picking up items or gold if you pass through a panel again. A number of panels look similar, and if you do multiple play-throughs of the book, it’s easy to forget when you have already been through a panel or fought a creature. More than once, I forgot to adjust my stats when I was supposed to. It’s also easy to simply skip things you don’t want to do or backtrack if you hit a bad ending.
For my tastes, The Bands of Bravery was a bit too simple, and mainly felt like endlessly flipping through panels looking for small details. On the other hand, I found The Message of Destiny too complicated, to the point where keeping track of all the complex elements felt like work rather than fun. I had trouble feeling invested enough to put in that work, as the story and characters are so one-dimensional. There is also very little diversity or variety among the characters. In the first book, players can choose from one of three generic white boys, while in book two, a player can choose from the same three white boys or an adult female knight (also white). Most of the human characters (quite possibly all) encountered within the books are also white, and are all generally similar-looking fantasy peasants, farmers, warriors, and royalty. Men and women fill mostly stereotypical gender roles, and male characters appear far more frequently.
Another issue I ran into with the comics was when things were confusing or did not work as intended. Since this game is played alone through a book, rather than in a group of friends like most tabletop games, players are left without a way to ask questions, gain clarification, or troubleshoot issues. For example, I printed some of the Quest Trackers and other documents from the comics’ website, and initially found myself confused during the instructions portion of the book, as some of the terms used in the text were different than what was on my printed Quest Tracker (i.e. force vs. strength, endurance vs. resistance). For other instructions, I would have liked to ask clarifying questions. I also found myself uncertain how to use the battle wheel provided for the second book. The text of the comic recommends spinning it between your fingers (which does not work well), while the instructions on the wheel itself say to spin a pencil on top of it (which also did not work well). Overall, I wished there was an online system or app I could use to interact with the books instead to make things simpler.
While the Knights Club books were not appealing to me, it may be a matter of taste, and there may be young readers who would enjoy them as an introduction or supplement to more typical tabletop games. The books are not a great choice for a library or for classroom loaning, however, unless use of them is being carefully monitored to make sure readers use separate printed pages and do not write in the book or tear out the trackers. Though the series tries to mimic playing a tabletop role-playing game, it’s certainly a different experience than playing together with friends in a more structured and collaborative setting with more focus on storytelling. Readers will likely have a wide variety of feelings on how enjoyable they find the interactive elements.
Knights Club, Volume 1 and 2
Art by Waltch Novy
Quirk Productions, Inc., 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/242719 (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)