Advent reviews: A Study In Emerald

I recently received a game that I Kickstarted called A Study in Emerald. The game is derived from a short story by Neil Gaiman, which in turn is based on the Sherlock Holmes story called A Study in Scarlet, but with elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The story is great – but what about the game? Well, lemme tell you my opinion after two games.

What kind of game is this?

A Study in Emerald has you play major actors in the underground world of politics, conspiracies and assassinations in a fin de siecle Europe ruled by Great Old Ones from the Cthulhu Mythos. Mechanically, the game is a mix of deck building and Area Control, with some hidden identities thrown in for good measure.

The game is played on a board with fields representing major cities in Europe (plus North Africa and Washington). The cities are connected by transport lines, and will have a small pile of cards connected to them. Each player starts the game with one agent, named after a weekday, six influence cubes and a deck of ten basic cards.

You will also receive a secret identity card, telling you whether you are a Loyalist or a Restorationist – in other words, for or against the Great Old Ones. Now, your identity will tell you what you should do to gain points. At the same time, it is also important to find out who is on your team. At the end of the game, you count out all the points – and then the player with the lowest number of points AND EVERYONE ON THEIR FACTION (unless everyone belongs to the same faction) will be eliminated. The remaining player with the most points will then win. This means you won’t want to close the game until you know the player with the lowest number of points is not on your faction.

Each turn, you can play two actions per turn, spending actions to put influence cubes on a card or city field (there are cards associated with each city), claim cards, move agents, play special actions from cards and a few other types of actions. You can only claim a card with your first action, and only if you have more influence on that card than anybody else – influence meaning cubes plus agents in the city. You must also have at least one cube on the agent. This means you must stake a claim to a card, then wait a round to claim it. In that time, all the other players can counter your stake – if it’s important enough for them. Whenever you claim a card, you add it to your discard pile.

Most actions are carried out by playing a number of cards from your hand. Almost all cards have a couple of symbols that can count as resources when played as part of an action. For instance, when you want to assassinate another agent or a Royal Person (Great Old One), you must play a certain number of bombs from your hand.

Now, what you want to achieve depends on your allegiance. Restorationists are the simplest. They want to control cities, they want to kill Royal Persons, they want to incite rebellion and they want to control certain key agents. The Loyalists, meanwhile, want to control cities, protect the Royal Persons, cause a World War, put zombies or vampires on the map and kill Restorationist Agents. Some of the Loyalist scoring options are depend on certain cards, and won’t be available in every game.

The game ends when one player gains a certain number of points, when the players cause a War or a Revolution, or when a Restorationist player is eliminated.

How many people should you play this with?

I have tried this with four and five players, so I don’t know how it plays with two or three players. It might work fine at low numbers, particularly with three – but I’ll have to try it out. Both four and five are fine – though I like the idea that a four player game might be four of one faction and one of another.

What do I think of this game?

This game suffers terribly from having a bad rulebook. A lot of things is not very well described, and that has made my first two play-throughs less fun than they could have been. This is compounded by the fact that the game is rather complicated with loads of interlocking systems, so it can be difficult to make a snap judgement on how to interpret an ambiguous rule.

Despite that, I’ve mostly enjoyed the game both times. It seems like a rich game with a whole lot of variety and loads of options. The mix of area control and deck building (plus more) is very interesting, and I like how you will have to fight for the good cards when they come up. It’s a good halfway point  between Dominion, in which you have several stacks of the same card, and something like Ascension, in which you just have to grab the best card available. Plus, even in the rare occasion when there’s no interesting card out, there is usually something else you can do – like get more cubes or maybe assassinate someone.

It is also a game with a rich opportunity for storytelling. Sherlock Holmes tried to assassinate He Who Presides in the New World, but Ravachol was a double agent, and spoiled the plan. It is more difficult to assassinate someone in Berlin than in Madrid, which obviously means that the security of the Spanish is more lax than that of the Prussians. Many of the actions you can take will have those possibilities for telling a story through the game, something certain other games do less well – a frequent criticism against Dominion is its lack of theme and storytelling.

A major element of the game – and a controversial one – is the way the secret identities work. In my first game, I was ahead, and the other player on my side, who had the lowest number of points, plainly stated that he felt no need to try to gain points, as that would permit me to close the game and win. This meant that I had to force him to gain points in order for me to be able to close the game and win it. In the second game, meanwhile, I was last, and the guy in the lead worked with me to prevent the Loyalist scum from winning. This provided a very different play experience. I think that if you want to get the best experience from this game, you must go into the game thinking that it is more important for one of your side to win than for you to be high on the score  list.

All in all, I enjoy the game a lot. It is very different, and it feels very meaty – there is a lot going on in this game, and each game will most definitely be different. If I could just get an errataed rulebook, I would be  very satisfied.

A few interesting things to note

  • The origin of the story of this game goes through Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman – quite a providence!
  • The way the loyalty deck is set up, you might have everybody in a two or three game on the same side. In that case, the losing faction won’s be eliminated, as that would eliminate all players. If you have one person belonging to a different faction than everybody else, though, the dynamics of the game changes. That player will win if he can just make sure to score more points than any one of the opponents, meaning that it might actually be easier for a lone wolf.
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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kristian on December 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Great description, Elias – and funny that we picked it up on blog just days apart.

    In our game the restorationist side suffered hard from a lack of avaliable agent with the ability to assasinate – they simply didn’t turn up. That, and that we three times were doubleagented during attempts to bomb some royalty. And a loyalist Moriaty were quite the danger to our agents on the board all while the loyalists grabbed a lot of victory points from controlling cities.

    And neither zombies nor vampires got into play.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Elias Helfer on December 10, 2013 at 2:13 am

    Glad you liked it!

    Ouch! Yeah, luck of the piles is a big factor in the game. In one of my games, the vampires card came up in one of the very last rounds, far too late to use it for anything.

    I’m not entirely sure what to think of the double agent tokens. They seem very powerful. In my last game (and the first one too, I think) Irena Adler came out and stole loads of double agents.

    Actually, that was something that tripped me up a lot: I just couldn’t get an agent. At one point, there was only one available agent – but I knew that Irena Adler had stolen that double agent token from me, which meant I didn’t want to expend the resources for that agent. Very frustrating.

    Reply

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