Writer Mark LaFlamme takes on Lewiston man at his own game

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There was a beautiful moment or two in which I genuinely believed I might beat Tom Deschenes at his own game.

Literally, that is.

I had just slapped a “Fallen Debris” meddling card on him, blocking his chosen path to the apothecary.

There was also the fact that Deschenes had been battling level 10 monsters all afternoon, including the fearsome Dragophant, a three-headed, fire-breathing beast that had cost the poor soul 14 precious breaths.

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Yep. I had Deschenes on the ropes and the apothecary was in sight. This victory would be sweet, indeed.

Alas, in that rousing, 90-minute round of “Quest for the Antidote,” my opponent had a few distinct advantages. The main one being that he had created this game, from the very story line that sent us racing toward the apothecary to the monsters that tried ferociously to block our paths.

The objective of “Quest for the Antidote?” I”ll let Deschenes tell you directly:

“We’re all subjects of King Mithridates,” the game maker says. “He’s been experimenting on us. We’ve been poisoned, but now we’ve escaped and we get to venture out into a vast and dangerous landscape to collect items we need for our antidote. The first player to get back to the apothecary in the center of the board without expiring wins.”

Sounds simple, right? It isn’t.

“You’ll also have to search for treasures, dodge traps and avoid the meddling of fellow players in order to survive,” Deschenes explains. “But here’s the real kicker: Since you’re poisoned, you’re getting weaker by the minute, and you only have 50 ‘breaths’ until you expire. Any time you roll the dice (which you do each turn to determine movement and to fight monsters), you lose a breath.”

I’ll tell you something: I’ve never been much of a board gamer. Complicated games like “Monopoly” frustrate me to the point where I rarely make it a single time around the board. Simpler games like “Life,” “Sorry” and “Clue” I find tedious and short on stimulation.

So it was a weird surprise to me when I found myself sucked deep into the ghoul-haunted landscape of “Quest for the Antidote” from the very first roll of the battle die.

When I slew my first monster – I believe it was the level 9 Resurrected Baroness – I gritted my teeth with savage delight. By the time I used my first meddling card to impede Deschenes’ strategy, I was outright snarling.

He’s a nice fellow, Deschenes, jolly in his enthusiasm for the game and extremely generous in introducing it to me. A real gentleman. Heck of a guy.

I wanted to take him down.

A DEMENTED VILLAIN IS BORN

Deschenes, 35, spent five years putting “Quest for the Antidote” together, testing and tweaking and spending thousands of dollars on artwork and prototypes. Every drawing had to be just right, and every back story, too.

“At first, the monsters were generic, but then I began giving each of them unique backgrounds and traits,” Deschenes says. “Then I came up with different antidote ingredients that sounded like they belonged in a witch’s brew: eye of cyclops, wing of bat, snow of the mountaintop, etc. . . .  Everything was falling into place nicely, but “Quest for the Antidote” was still missing its super villain. I needed a Darth Vader or Voldemort. Again, when I least expected it, I was reading a book for grad school and came upon a footnote alluding to a “Poison King” of Greek antiquity, Mithridates VI of Pontus. I started to research him, and Mithridates turned out to be the perfect villain for my game.”

Deschenes’ attention to detail paid off last year when Upper Deck agreed to begin distributing the game through all the big channels, Walmart and Amazon among them. By last week, the game was sold out just about everywhere, although Bull Moose in Lewiston is said to still have a few copies of the game in stock.

Deschenes, for one, was not altogether shocked by the success. He had, after all, tested it thoroughly before a diverse number of people.

“Kids just absolutely love it,” he says. “Adults love it. We had a table of four 80-year-olds who were playing it at one of the game conventions. They said it was the most fun game – they were just hooting and hollering, these four octogenarians.”

MAKING MY MOVE

But enough about Tom and back to what I thought was my incredible prowess on his game board. I really did believe, for those glorious moments, that I had a chance to best the man. He was, after all, losing breaths at a startling rate, and taking risks that would cost him more.

“I like to take calculated risks when I play games,” Deschenes told me, “and sometimes that pays off – but more often than not, I bite off more than I can chew with my strategies.”

Exactly what I wanted to hear as I limped my way toward the apothecary with all the ingredients needed for a cure and for victory.

“Oh, my gosh,” Deschenes said, as I made quick work of another monster. “You are cooking.”

I admit it: I was licking my chops in anticipation of this unprecedented “Quest for the Antidote” upset.

And then, about a minute later, even as I was preparing my victory speech, Deschenes made his way around the fallen debris I had left in his path and he was marching toward the apothecary.

“Uh oh, Mark,” he said, with what I’m sure was genuine empathy. “I think this could be it. I’ve made it to the apothecary.”

And like that I was vanquished. And although I had at several turns felt high hopes for victory, in retrospect, I don’t believe I ever had much of a chance. It’s not just that he created this game and thus knows better than anyone all the secrets of Mithridates’ kingdom. As it turns out, Tom Deschenes is just one heck of a strategist.

In his arsenal, you see, were many tools he had collected during all those battles with high-level monsters and from the risks he had taken since the first roll of the die. There were three meddling cards, for instance, he could have used to send havoc my way – including one that would have sent me scrambling for an additional ingredient the very moment I stepped into the apothecary.

Deschenes had my number, in other words. Which is not to say he’s invincible.

“I can admit it,” he says, “I’ve been trounced by more than one 8-year-old when playing ‘Quest for the Antidote.'”

To me, the absolute joy of the game is the stunning variety and endless uncertainty. There are a whopping 50 monsters to be fought, for instance, of varying power levels. There are 10 loot cards providing extra tricks and cheats. And – my favorite – 18 meddling cards, which enable one player to absolutely wreck the strategy of another at a time of his own choosing.

No two games of “Quest for the Antidote” will be the same, in other words. The chance for monotony is nil. To advance that idea even more, Deschenes has introduced more than a dozen alternate ways to play the game, including a kid-friendly version and cooperative mode, in which players take on Mithridates as a team.

There is also dueling between players, which occurs when two game pieces occupy the same space. Deschenes and I never got to dueling, mainly because we chose different paths across the board and because we were each too busy battling monsters and employing our meddling cards.

And there’s looting of the bodies of those players who have expired due to lack of breath; a concept I find deliciously morbid.

I believe that hour-plus of “Quest for the Antidote” was the funnest time I’ve had playing a board game since I was a 6-year-old enthralled by “Trouble” and its weird pop-up bubble. It didn’t hurt that Deschenes is about the most affable man you’ll ever meet or that he has all the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed child when playing the game he created.

Heck of a pleasant chum, Deschenes.

It would have been a thrill to watch him expire.

Writer Mark LaFlamme, right, plays “Quest for the Antidote” with game creator and Lewiston native Tom Deschenes. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Tom Deschenes thinks about using one of his meddling cards while playing Mark LaFlamme in a game of “Quest for the Antidote.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Writer Mark LaFlamme plays “Quest for the Antidote.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

I believe that hour-plus of “Quest for the Antidote” was the funnest time I’ve had playing a board game since I was a 6-year-old enthralled by “Trouble” and its weird pop-up bubble.

Tooth of Beaver is one of the ingredients for the antidote in “Quest for the Antidote.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A 10-sided battle die in the game “Quest for the Antidote.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A random sample of “Quest for the Antidote” monsters:

* Rabid She-Wolf

* Irate Pigeon

* The Killbot

* Terror-Dactyl

* Bloated Gnome

* Riled Gorilla

* Throttling Dwarf

* Barrel-Bellied Spider

* Savage Succubus

* Dandy Lion

* Bog hag

* Flaming Banshee

* Grumpy Shrub

* Vile Kitten

* Jittery Skunk

* Sorceress of the Abyss

Writer Mark LaFlamme thinks before his next move while playing “Quest for the Antidote.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Mark LaFlamme gets ready to play “Quest for the Antidote.”  (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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