Posts Tagged ‘board games’

Iteration and progression in games: Iterative Games

Lately, I have been playing a number of little games on my computer: Reus, FTL and Now Boarding, among a few others. In all three, you play a series of relatively short games. But each game will impact the next game in some way. That made me think of how important iteration is in many games. Thus, I’ll be doing a small series on iteration, progression and entropy in games, both computer games, board games and roleplaying games.

Iteration means repetition. From Wikipedia:

Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Many, many games use iteration – the basic turn-taking that is present in a vast majority of board games, and in the combat system of many, many roleplaying games, is one example of this. Take a game like Race for the Galaxy: You choose a role, reveal all roles, then go through the phases selected from lowest to highest. Rinse, repeat.

Today, though, I want to look at what I would call “iterative games” – games where a central part of the game is playing it several times, often in a row. Usually there’s a mechanical effect of one game on the next, but sometimes the effect is very subtle. The spill-over might just be each player’s feeling for the social dynamics of the group – like which player is more likely to bluff, or to fall for a bluff. I’d like to give a few examples below.

Poker

One of the best examples I can think of is poker. The game as written is roughly this: the players are dealt some cards, they bet, then change or add some cards, then bet some more. Players may fold if they don’t want to follow the betting. If there’s more than one player left at the end of the round, the players compare their cards and see who has the best hand. That’s it – the winner takes the pot.

But you can’t really play just one game of poker. The real game of poker is what emerges after you’ve played a few hands: chips are redistributed and players start getting a feeling for each other. The real game ends when only one player remains at the table.

In other words, a play-session of poker consists of playing a string of games; with one game determine the starting layout for the next game. If one player has more money than the others, he can afford to be bolder, while someone who has lost most of their chips might be forced to take desperate measures, going all in on a mediocre hand to try to get back into the game. Which might of course lead to the next game having one less player.

Reus

In the computer game, Reus, you play a planet-deity, expressing your will through four elemental giants. Each game is called an “age”, and the idea is that you and your giants go through periods of activity interspersed by periods of sleep. While you sleep everything reverts to a flat and barren state.

Each age starts with an empty planet. The giants can add terrain and resources to the land, attracting people to settle and build on the planet. Each age lasts a set amount of time before the giants (and you) fall back asleep. At the end of each age, you earn achievements which unlock things for future ages: more advanced resources, more advanced projects that the humans can build, and longer ages, allowing you to achieve more in each age.

As such, each game starts with a blank slate. But you will be able to do more things than you could in previous games, and you will be faced with more difficult achievements to fulfil. Each iteration of the game is both a game in itself, but also a part of a larger arc of playing the game.

Spirit of the Century

Roleplaying games are not usually thought of as iterative in the sense that I just described – you play a campaign that keeps progressing, or you play a one-off thing. But there are actually a few of them out there. One example is Spirit of the Century. The game is designed to accommodate a string of linked but independent stories. At the beginning of a campaign, you get everybody together to make characters. Before each session the GM will find out who will be part of that session, and design a scenario to fit those heroes, taking cues from the aspects on their sheets.

At the end of each session, you don’t hand out experience points, but players may change their aspects to reflect things that happened during the game. There are some progression rules in the game, allowing players to add one more aspect every two games, and also a new stunt once in a while.

Spirit of the Century could be used to play the “big plotline” campaigns that traditional roleplaying games often excel in. But the strength of the game is in the episodic games, where you get a group together and play a game based on those characters. In TV-terms, this is more like the Simpsons or Star Trek than it’s like Lost or 24. It’s important to note, though, that that doesn’t mean it has a static starting point: each episode will change the backstory of the character, giving him new facets, reflected in new aspects.

Magic the Gathering (or Pokemon, or Netrunner, or…)

When Magic: the Gathering came out, it created a whole new genre of games unto itself: the Collectible Card Game, or CCG. What defines this genre is not something that is written in the actual rules of the game. That is because, just like in poker, the real game of a CCG is not what is written in the rules – it is what happens as you play the game over and over. Thus, CCG is a whole genre of iterative games. Lately the genre has evolved into the Living Card Game (LCG), and most of what I say about the CCG goes for the LCG as well.

In the basic game of Magic, two people sit down with each their deck of cards. They keep playing until someone loses all their life or runs out of cards.

The real game of Magic is on a larger scope, however. While you can get a readymade deck and just sit down to play, really playing Magic means collecting cards and assembling your own deck. You buy cards in random booster packs, and then select ones from your collection that complement each other to make a well-balanced deck. When you have a finished deck, you take it out to play with it, then take it home to tune it based on what worked and what didn’t.

This also means that success in Magic doesn’t necessarily mean winning more than you lose. The designers of magic have described three personas of magic players: Timmy, Spike and Johnny (read the very interesting article defining the personas here). Two out of the three care more about how they win than how often: Timmy wants to get out his huge cards and smash his opponent, while Johnny wants his carefully constructed engine of cards to kick in and do what they were designed to do. Only Spike wants to have a deck that can beat them every time.

Magic shares this meta-game with other CCG’s and LCG’s, like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Android Netrunner. For the people who seriously play these games, sitting down to play is as much a way to test your deck as designing a deck is preparation for play. In this way, these games are iterative: you play, then reset, adjust, and play again.

Other iterative games

A few other iterative games, off my cuff here:

  • Las Vegas: In this game, you play three rounds. Each round is basically the same, and the winner is the one who earned the most money at the end. Only difference is the knowledge of how much money everybody else has.
  • Meyer and Cheat: small bluffing games with dice often played while drinking in Denmark.  It is customary to play more than one round of either
  • Rummy, Whist, Bridge, Hearts, Oh Hell!: In these games, you play a number of games, totalling the number of points you get in each round. The winner is the one who earns the most (or least, in the case of Hearts) points at the end, or the first to a certain number of points.
  • Classic D&D: In classic D&D (which I’ve never really played, so I have some reservations) you make a party, go down the dungeon, come up, divide loot and level up. Rinse, repeat. Plot-arcs optional.
  • Hinterlandet: Morten Greis’ remake of classic dungeoncrawl is even more so. You bring your character, then go out to a dungeon, hopefully returns to town with loot and experience, say bye bye, and take your character home. Next time, you may play with someone else, and your character is better for having been out before.
  • Kingdom of Loathing: In KoL (as it’s known among friends) you play through 13 levels of questing and levelling up. When you are done, you can “ascend”, which basically means starting over with a new character class at level 1. You get to keep your stuff (though you can’t access all of it), just as you can make skills carry over from ascension to ascension. Each time you ascend, you can modify your next run-through of the game, restricting what you can do or gaining special items to help you in this incarnation.

The march of progress!

That’s it for purely iterative games. Tomorrow, I’ll post something about games that do the opposite: progression and entropy in games. The third post in this series will deal with ways of mixing iteration and progression/entropy in games.

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It’s a brand new year!

So, last year, I had aimed at writing 52 blog posts – here and two other places. Well, that didn’t happen. It almost did – if I had finished my (unofficial) advent calendar, I would have been there. Then life (and Chrstmas) happened. Ah, well.

But what my mad dash towards the end told me, was that I really want to do more with this blogging stuff. The blog’s been more or less in limbo for a while, as I didn’t play a lot of roleplaying games – or games of any kind, really – and I didn’t have a lot of energy or drive to write stuff. Well, that’s changed. I’m playing more games, and I am feeling more of an urge to blog. Plus, I have some projects that I want to write about (but more about that a bit later).

In any case, I want to make some adjustments to the way the blog works. These changes may not be noticeable to anyone outside of me, but I’d still like to state them clearly.

I write about all manner of games (and sometimes other things)

When I started this blog, I was mostly focussing on writing about roleplaying games. Since then I’ve had much more time for board games than for roleplaying games, not to mention computer games. Roleplaying games still fascinate me more, and I will probably still spend more time talking about them than about board games, particularly in relation to how much I play them. But as I play many more board games, and as I play more indie computer games, I’m starting to notice things in those two genres that is interesting – and often ways in which the three types of games are similar, or ways in which they diverge.

I also want to write about films, books, and maybe even podcasts. When I started the blog, I said it was about storytelling, and that is still my focus – when  I play board games or computer games, I mostly prefer ones with an interesting and engaging story (a topic I might very well return to). Generally, if I can see the connection, I’ll write about it.

I often write reviews

I like writing reviews. And I like finding out what I think is good or bad about something. My biggest challenge is often convincing myself that there is merit to my opinion as to what is interesting or noteworthy in something. I’ll try to be bolder, and rely on you, my readers, to call me out when I’m wrong.

I write often – whenever something is on my mind – but I endeavour to be brief

I have a tendency to be long-winded. Once I get going, I just keep on rolling. But that also means that writing a post becomes more of a task, and that makes me refrain from doing so. I want to write more often, but the average length of the post may well decrease. You don’t have time for idle chatter anyway.

I think one problem for me is that I feel like I have to be intelligent on this blog. I will try to allow myself to be searching and questioning when I write something – you guys can help me find an answer.

But about what?

And that is it. My blogging endeavour for this coming year is to write more regularly, and more interestingly. There will still be play-reports from whatever I’ve been playing, but hopefully, they will be interspersed by more posts about other things.

Like I said before, I have some projects that should help me come up with more content for the blog, just as I have some ideas for things I want to explore.

But before I do that, I would like to hear from you guys. What should I be writing? Which posts have interested you? What are the strong points of this blog so far? What do you want to see more of? Concrete ideas for posts are welcome, as is all manner of constructive feedback.

Advent reviews: Shadow Hunters

I love secret identity games. In a game that does secret identities well, the air above the table will be crackling with meaningful indications, suspicious gazes and innocent looks. Werewolf does it well, as does Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. A Study in Emerald too, in its own peculiar way. And so does the game I’m looking at today: Shadow Hunters.

What kind of game is this?

In Shadow Hunters, the Shadows and the Hunters are trying to eliminate each others, while a number of other characters are in the middle, trying to achieve their own ends that may take them into alignment or opposition with one or both of the opposing factions.

At the start of the game, everybody receives a colour and a secret identity card. Your identity card will tell you your hit points, special power, allegiance and victory condition. The two latter are connected: Hunters win when all Shadows are dead, Shadows win when  all Hunters or three neutral characters are dead, and neutral characters each have their own unique victory condition, which can be anything from being alive at the end of the game over killing the third character to being the first character to die.

The basic mechanics of the game are pretty simple. The board has two tracks. The first is a health track that starts at 0 damage and goes upwards. Everybody starts at zero, and dies if they reach their health level – so if you have a health of 7, you die if you get to the 7th space on the damage track. The track is marked with the health levels of the different characters, so you can deduce which characters somebody plays by seeing them pass certain characters on the health track. The other track is the location track. This is organized with three pairs of spaces. On each space you will put a location card at the beginning of the game, meaning the pairs will be different each game.

You will be moving on both tracks. Each turn, you will roll the dice (the game uses a d6 and a d4) and move to the card specified. On a seven, you get to choose. Then you carry out the action of the card, then you may any other player on the same pair of locations by rolling the dice and dealing damage equal to the difference.

The card actions are pretty simple as well: heal damage, deal damage, steal items, or draw a card from one of three stacks. Of these, one is interesting: the stack of Hermit cards. Hermit cards contain an instruction like “I bet you are a hunter or a neutral character. If so, take one damage.” When you take one of these cards, you look at it, then give it to another player. They then read it, carry out the instruction, then hand it back to you to allow you to read it again before discarding it face down. This allows you to get an idea of who your opponents are (except, of course, that one of the Shadows may pretend he is something he’s not when being faced with a hermit card).

The game ends whenever somebody declares victory. If this is the Shadows or the Hunters, it will be obvious that they’ve won, but the Neutrals may win at any moment. This also means that several people may have won at the same time – for instance the Shadows may win because the last Hunter has died, while one neutral also wins because he killed the third character and a second neutral because she managed to stay alive for the entire game.

How many people should you play this with?

Many players is good. You can play with four, I believe, but five is really the lowest number I would like to play with. The maximum is eight, as far as I recall, and that can be a lot of fun to play, but I think the best number is five or six.

What do I think of this game?

I really like the game. The design is relatively minimalist, and only shows you what you need to see, and so doesn’t confuse you. There are two things to watch on the board: Where people are and how much damage people have. And all the mechanics are quite simple, but still give you a number of interesting choices.

That leaves you to ponder untangling people’s identities. What beginners often miss in this game is that the most important pile in the game is the one that doesn’t give you any mechanical advantage: the “hermit” deck. The hermit deck is a great mechanic, because something happens between two people that everyone can see, but only two of them know the significance of what is going on. That means that everybody else is involved as they will be second guessing what is going on.

Adding the “neutral” characters is a great way to mix is up. It means you can’t be sure who people are, because you won’t always be told that somebody is a hunter, but that they are a hunter or a neutral. It also means you can’t always predict when the game is going to end, as somebody might have a victory condition you don’t know about.

The game is a bit tough to wrap your head around, and  it is easy to be left in the dark if somebody else quickly find each other. But I’ve enjoyed the game every time I’ve played it. It is also a hidden identity game that can be played with not too many players, and I like that as well.

A few interesting things to note

  • A constant debate when playing the game is whether it is a good idea to hit someone at random when you don’t know who they are. Statistically, you are much more likely to hit someone not on your team – but you don’t KNOW.

Advent reviews: Quarriors

Dominion brought the deckbuilding genre into the world of card games. Well, the inventers of Quarriors thought dice games should get in on the action. The result is a game that is light and silly where Dominion is deep and lean. Too bad the inventors had a fetish for the letter Q.

What kind of game is this?

In Quarriors, you’re building a pool of dice. Each turn, you draw six dice from your dice bag and roll them. All the dice are special Quarriors dice, of which there is 13 different kinds in any given game of Quarriors: Three representing spells, seven creatures and three basic dice.

Each side of a die gives a certain effect. A creature might have sides that allow you to summon a level 1, 2 or 3 version of the creature, two that give you “quiddity” (magical energy), and one that gives you some other effect.

You use quiddity to “capture” (buy) dice from the the “wild” (the common display), and to “summon” creatures in order to activate them, let them deal damage to other players’ creatures and stay in front of you in the hopes of scoring points next time it’s your turn.

If a creature survives until it’s your turn again, you can score it, earning points according to what it kind of creature it is, and you may “cull” a die – that is, remove it from your pile of dice. An “advanced” version that I would recommend playing with changes this rule, so that you must cull a die to score it.

The first player to a certain number of points wins.

How many people should you play this with?

Good question. I have most often played this game two people, but particularly with the “Quartifacts” expansion, I think it might be even more fun with more people.

What do I think of this game?

So, first things first. Quarriors, quiddity, quartifacts, quarmageddon – do I need to go on? The people who made this game have an obsession with making everything start with “qu”. All, right, fair enough, that’s their call. I personally get sick of it after a while. It doesn’t break an otherwise enjoyable game, but it annoys me when I’m looking at the game – it strikes me as a kind of “noise” that I have to ignore in order to enjoy the game.

And I do enjoy this game. It plays quickly, and it has a very whimsical, wild feeling to it. I compared it to Dominion earlier, but while certain core mechanics are modelled off what Dominion does, this plays nothing like that game. Where dominion can  be a very thinky and strategic game, this game is just about getting out there, rolling some dice and doing the best with whatever you rolled.

That can also be seen as a weakness in the game: most of the time, it is pretty obvious what your best move is. This is alleviated a bit with the two advanced rules that are presented in the expansion rules, as this adds a few more strategic decisions.

But all in all, this is a game for quick, fast paced fun, and not for engine building and strategising. As a matter of fact, engine building is alsmost completely impossible – not only must you draw the right dice together, you must also roll the right faces. This means that you can’t really rely on chaining specific effects on specific dice.

One gripe I have is with the cards. Each type of die comes with three or four different cards. This means that you can play with one of three different versions of the same creature, getting the most out of the most expensive part of the game: the dice. Unfortunately, the cards have the same piece of artwork, and the names are almost identical. This means that it’s almost impossible to remember which of the different versions of the card you played with before.

All in all, a good game that we have played many a time here when we haven’t had the mental energy for a game of Dominion.

A few interesting things to note

  • Just as trashing is an important aspect of Dominion, culling is a very important aspect of this game. The difference between being allowed to cull any kind of die (say, a basic quiddity die) and being required to cull the die you score has a huge impact on game scoring. Being able to cull weak dice when you score means the person who scores will be more likely to good dice in the future, creating a snowball effect that allows a player to widen their lead once they have it. Being forced to cull your good dice when you want to score points for them makes it a strategic decision whether to keep it and use it later or cull it and get the points, plus it means that scoring points will slow you down.
  • The Quartifacts expansion adds quests, which are an alternative way to earn points. I would really recommend this expansion, as it adds yet another strategic element to the game that I really like.

Advent reviews: Snowdonia

I used to live in Wales. So last year, when I heard that Snowdonia was about to come out at Essen, I asked a friend to buy it for me. It’s not the greatest worker placement game of all times, but I like it.

What kind of game is this?

In Snowdonia, you play contractors building a railroad up the Snowdon Mountain in Wales. You need to clear rubble, lay track and build stations in order to create the railroad.

At the beginning of the game, you lay out station cards around the edge of the board, and put cards between them, representing the amount of track that needs to be laid to get from one station to the next. As you lay track and build station, you will place cubes on the parts you have built, earning you points at the end of the game.

As in all worker placement games, the main focus of the game is placing the workers on spaces on the board to carry out certain actions: Collect resources, clear rubble, lay track, build stations or trains, take contract cards and a few others. Each round, you will place first one worker, then another, on the board. Once you have a train, you can pay a coal resource in order to place a third worker. When all workers have been placed, the workers will be taken off again, going from the first action space and continuing onwards. As each worker is taken off the track, the player may perform the action connected to that spot. This means that actions are always performed in a certain order, making it possible to gather resources, convert those resources into track and then lay that track on a space that was just cleared – all in the same round.

There is a finite supply of resources that are drawn from a bag each round. The bag also contains white cubes are laid along a track. This will make certain actions occur – spaces will be dug out, track will be laid and stations will be built (representing, I believe, other contractors). All of this will have the effect of progressing the game towards its end – particularly if players are stockpiling resources.

One important way of scoring is by way of contract cards. Each contract card gives you points for having achieved certain goals at the end of the game: digging a certain amount of rubble, laying so much track or building so much station. Each contract also gives you a special prover that you can use once in the game.

The contract cards also determine the weather – which affects the amount of digging track-laying you can do each action (rainy, muddy ground means you can’t work as fast, while fog prevents you from digging or laying track). There are three possible kinds of weather: sunny, rainy or foggy. You will have three discs out, showing the “weather forecast” for the next three turns. Each round, you will move  the discs up the track, then fill the lowest space on the track with a disc corresponding to an icon on the back of the top card in the contract pile.

The game ends when you have built track all the way to the last station. Points are earned from contracts, track laid and station built, and from certain train cards.

How many people should you play this with?

The game box says 1-5. I have tried with 3, 4, and I believe I’ve played it with 5. I think 4 is the sweet spot. 3 is fine, and I think 5 was fine as well. I’m a bit hesitant to recommend playing it with 2. The solitaire game is a game unto its own; I don’t think I would play that at all – mostly because I’m not much of one for solitaire games.

What do I think of this game?

The game is not perfect, but it has a charm that I like. The mechanics are pretty simple, but it forces you to gamble on whether someone else will remove the rubble you need to lay track, and whether the game will build that track you are saving up to build next round.

Another thing I like about it is its pacing and rhythm. The rhythm of placing and removing workers almost feels like a train in motion. The way the game completes sections of the board can be very frustrating, but it paces the game and drives it through a conclusion. Not least, it means the end of the game is not ultimately controlled by any player – if players try to stall, the game will force the game to end. This limits the number of points you can gain in the end, and makes for a very tense last couple of rounds.

The game comes with two different sets of stations. There are two expansions out, featuring a total of three different train lines to build, each with their own special rules. The Daffodil Line has you fill canals and gather daffodils, while Jungfraubahn and Mt. Washington has you set off dynamite. I haven’t played with either, but it sounds like fun ways to mix it up.

Snowdonia is probably not the smoothest and most ingenious worker placement game, but it is a nice and enjoyable game.

A few interesting things to note

  • This is a game about building a train line – but it is not a train game the way that Ticket to Ride or Trains and Stations may be a train game. It is a construction game, and you just happen to be building a train line.
  • This game has a lot of interesting ways of forcing players to act. Hoarding resources will make the game bring out more random actions, reducing the potential points each player may gain.
  • One worker placement particularly distinguishes from all others by the specific ways of placing and removing workers. In Snowdonia, you are putting your workers in a particular order – you know what will happen before and after, and that makes removing them both  very quick, but also interesting, as you depend on the decisions of the people before  you.

Advent reviews: Revolution!

I am no big fan of Munchkin. Sure, the images are nice and the game has loads of funny references, but I am not overly fond of the gameplay, which will often fail to end when you think it will, and end only when someone tries to gain their tenth level after everybody has exhausted their means of stopping them on the previous two or three people to try to win the game.

There’s another game, also made by Steve Jackson Games, that I much prefer, even though this game might also not end when you think it will: Revolution! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title).

What kind of game is this?

In Revolution! you play agitators in a colony on the brink of revolution. Throughout the game, you use certain… assets… with certain members of society to gain what you need: support in the general public; influence in powerful institutions such a the church, the plantations and the army; and resources to gain more …assets… with which to exert more pressure.

Mechanically, this is a double area control game. On the board are representations of several powerful groups within the colony – a plantation, a tavern, a fortress, the market. Each has a number of spaces for cubes and an associated point value. Whoever has the most influence cubes on a group at the end of the game takes the points.

Influence cubes are placed using a secret bidding mechanic, the second kind of area control I mentioned above. At the beginning of a round, all players reveal how many of each of the three different kinds of resources they have: money, blackmail and force. They will then place a screen in front of their player board, and secretly put their tokens out on the board to bid on the different characters. When everybody is done, all players lift their screens, and you determine control of each character in order from top left to bottom right. Control is determined first by resource quality, then by quantity: one force beats any amount of blackmail, while one blackmail beats any amount of gold. At the same time, one force and one blackmail beats one force. Some characters, however, are not susceptible to susceptible to certain assets. The general, for instance, ignores force (but not blackmail), while the innkeeper cannot be blackmailed, though he bows to force.

The characters will each gain the player who wins them some combination of support (victory points), influence and tokens for next round. A few has special effects, like switching two cubes or replacing any cube with one of your own.

At the end of the round, you take stock of all your tokens. If you have less than five, your “secret benefactors” give you gold so that you have at least five tokens to use to bid with. The game ends when all influence spaces have been filled.

How many people should you play this with?

This is a game about getting in each other’s way. It is fun with three, and probably easier to strategize, but the real game, in which you get in each other’s way all the time, doesn’t start till you’re four players.

What do I think of this game?

This game hurts my brain – but I really like it. It’s very stimulating, trying to figure out where you can bid, and how not to be outbid, but also not to bid too much. I’m not always very good at the game, as it varies a lot, depending on the people involved. This also makes it a game that beginners win surprisingly often, as they don’t always play how you expect them to, throwing you off course.

I like this game, not just for its core mechanics, but also for its pacing. I feel like interesting things are going on, right up till the end. A clever play can swing a 4-3 lead in one area and 3-2 in another into a 2-5 loss in the first and a 7-0 lead in the other. And because the end of the game is very dependent on player actions, you may think the game will end, but because of people tripping each other up, it goes on for a few more rounds – just in time for the board to shift decisively.

The game has a great game design, and good components to boot. I would probably recommend getting the expansion, adding another area, more characters and two more player – but it isn’t really necessary. The game is good on its own terms.

A few interesting things to note

  • You might think that allowing players to keep resources from characters they bid for but didn’t get would could serve as a catch-up mechanic. I thought so. But when we tried it (it’s a variant rule) I quickly discovered that I was wrong. In fact, the result was that the people who won some characters would gain resources while at the same time not losing anything from characters they bid on – while people who got little would at most keep what they had but would never gain more.
  • This game relies a lot on psychology. One player gets an early lead on an area? It is quite possible that nobody ever challenges him, just because “Oh, he’s going to get it anyway!”
  • It is very easy to get too focused on winning areas. I’ve seen people win by almost only using the “printer” character, giving them ten points they can’t  ever loose – as opposed to the fortress, which gives them 55 points that they can loose, and which requires around 10 cubes to close.

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.