Hollow Earth Expedition was one of the first games that I received to be sent straight to the top of my "to read" stack. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I love the idea of a good pulp game, and from everything I had read about it HEX seemed to be exactly that.
It didn't disappoint.
The book is absolutely beautiful. Every piece of art, from the cover through the interior artwork evokes the pulp theme. It's attractive, well-made, and hits the mark squarely.
The book starts with a piece of opening fiction that really serves to set the mood for the game. It manages to do with eight pages what Scion was unable to do in forty, it makes you want to sit right down, make a character, and start exploring.
After that it jumps right into setting information, explaining the world of 1936 in an interesting, entertaining way. It sets the whole vibe for the world, delving not just into history and world events, but explaining the fashions and popular entertainment of the day. This, in my opinion, is the game's real strength. It's fun to read, tells you everything you really need to know, and does so without needing a hundred pages of exposition. In less than twenty pages you get a basic overview of the upper world told in a fun way that leaves you a little disappointed that it's over.
After that we get into the rules themselves. As a crunchy kind of guy I feel like, if this game has a weakness, this is it. Not that the rules are bad mind you, it's just that the rest of the book is so rich and interesting that you almost want to push past them to get on with it.
For me I think that is because the rules feel so familiar that you can jump right in and know what you're up against right away. My first thought was that the rules felt like some kind of unholy union between d20 and White Wolf. Not that it really borrows much from either, but to me at least that's how it feels.
The layout of the rules section probably serves as the strongest reminder of the d20 system. The clean, easy to navigate rules section will be familiar to DnD players, and the Talents section has the smell of Feats about it. The die system is your fairly standard "count successes" type, which should be immediately familiar to anyone who has played using White Wolf's system or the newest iteration of Shadowrun. They even use White Wolf's assumption that more damaging weapons are easier to hit with, which I think it a real shame.
Not that it's all just a clever rehash of existing stuff. The system, like everything else in this book, serves to evoke the pulp feel of the game and keep the story flowing. Unlike other systems where you roll and count successes, your dice will succeed far more often. In fact, there is a 50-50 chance that each die will be a success. To that end you can also "Take the Average", letting you simply take the average roll for the number of dice you throw. If you have twice as many dice as the difficulty of the roll, no need to throw dice. You succeeded, move on.
There's a lot of good stuff here, but it's time to press forward. Simply stated, the rules maintain the flow of the game, and add to the flavor and theme. Heck, I haven't even had time to talk about Style Points yet, which are probably my favorite part of the game. Like the various benefit points from other games these help the player to turn the randomness of the game and their die rolls in their favor, but unlike most other games, you get these points for playing or expanding your character and making the game fun for everyone.
I need to wrap this up, but let me at least touch on the Hollow Earth section at the end of the book, since it is really the meat of the game. Like the rest of the setting details this section is a fun, interesting read. Details are explained as simple fact, like real science or history. They don't take you out of the world to explain to you what the world should be. The tell you how it is and make you want to believe.
This book is easily one of the best I've read thus far. It's at least a 9 out of 10, and probably deserves more. Every part of this book makes you want to read more, until you finally run out of pages and are disappointed that its over. I can't wait until I can get my hands of the expansions advertised in the back of the book.