[Actual Play Review] A Study In Emerald; Gormenghast; Dark Deeds

It was tempting to put these out under the ‘Exegesis of Terrible Fiction’ heading. Two out of three of the games we played last weekend in London (either at Erin and Katy’s, or at the inexplicable but pleasing Ludoquist in Croydon) have a bit of a pedigree, y’see…

A Study in Emerald (Treefrog Games)

Based on the award-winning (and cynically award-grubbing) Cthulhu Mythos / Sherlock Holmes crossover fic by Neil Gaiman, A Study In Emerald is another of those literary games by Martin Wallace, aka The Bloke What Did Discworld: Ankh-Morpork – which I’ve also played, and liked despite not being good at it. Unlike Discworld, this one is a deck builder, with area control being a more abstract ‘influence’ mechanic that determines where on the board you can pull your cards from. Like Discworld, I like it despite not being good at it. (It’s a deck builder, so of course I tunnelled in on deck manipulation mechanics instead of actually paying attention to the scores and the dynamics of play.)

Essentially, there are two teams of players – Loyalists, who serve the Great Old Ones that rule over Europe and beyond, and Restorationists, of whom Sherlock Holmes is one, who want the Great Old Ones banished whence they came. However, you don’t actually know who’s a Loyalist and who’s a Restorationist until the game ends, which means it’s one of those “look at what people are doing and try to guess their agenda and hope you’re not screwing with someone who’s actually on your side” jobbies.

Players assign Influence to places and also dispatch Agents, who can be used to assassinate other players’ agents and attempt to blow up the local Great Old One in spectacular self-sacrificing Dynamiter Knight style. Surprisingly few Great Old Ones were blown up on our watch and I think it’s because the game ended rather earlier than we’d expected. There are multiple game over conditions, and it seems pretty easy to trigger one before a satisfying ‘endgame’ state has actually been reached.

For all that I don’t like the short story much, it feels like a safer bet for ‘gamifying’ than the actual Lovecraft, which (as I’m hopefully going to go on about in print before too long) are generally fictions of defeat, where the ‘right’ outcome for the story is a ‘loss’ in game terms. The more dynamic faction vs. faction premise of ‘A Study in Emerald’ makes for something competitive and objective-driven – if the Restorationists drive off the Great Old Ones, they win, and if they don’t, the Loyalists win, and that setup creates a nice bit of ludonarrative harmony rather than the “noodle around and try to avoid becoming a Lovecraft protagonist” affairs I’ve seen elsewhere.

I don’t remember enough to say that this was good or bad. I think I’d rather play Rising Sun, if I wanted to take over the world with giant monsters – the openness of the team allegiance in that game is more pleasing to me – but if we had an odd number of players this would do. And it’s better than Chaos in the Old World, but then so’s colonic irrigation.

Gormenghast: the Board Game (Sophisticated Games)

You might think that a procedurally generated competitive fetch quest game set in the crabb’d, ill-lit and most damnably long corridors of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is right up my particular alley, and you would be spot the fuck on there, mate.

Like the previous title in the pile, Gormenghast: the Board Game involves influence and control – specifically, influencing characters from the novel to go a-wandering around the castle, accumulating items and delivering them to specific locations to fulfil Plot Cards. Get the right person to the right place and it’s worth one victory point; have the right object in the room with them, by fair means or foul, and it’s worth three.

Influencing and moving characters is governed by Action Cards, and those Action Cards will have a “place this much influence” and/or “move a character you control this many rooms” and a “do something else” effect on them.

To complicate matters further, there’s Ritual. Of course there is. Some cards cause a Ritual to trigger; fulfilling a Plot Card always does. When that happens, you roll a d30 (a d30! I haven’t seen those outside Dungeon Crawl Classics!) and consult the Book of Ritual, at which point something weird happens. A room is blocked. A new room is discovered immediately. Everyone draws or loses cards. Some form of embuggerance occurs.

Gormenghast is not, apparently, very popular among serious board gamers, which just goes to show that serious board gamers don’t have the sense of fun the good Lord gave them. Anyone who likes Brass more than they like this needs their soul examined, assuming it can even be found.

Even ruling out my obvious biases, though, this game is heavy enough to demand a mental effort, but light enough that I can play it without fatigue, and I appreciate that.

It’s not perfect – the choices of quotations from the book are often eccentric, both quotations and rules needed a staunch proofread.

The mechanics are prone to both sudden death (“aww, I was about to…” came up in both our trial runs) and control wankery (“so I play this, interrupting that, move him here, then pick that up, fulfil a plot card, roll a ritual which I ignore by playing this, then play this to draw three more, then move him back over there,” and five minutes later when I’m done playing with myself I’m up four Victory Points but everyone else has lost interest.)

Also, the game is very dependent on flavour to make the simple mechanics really enjoyable. First time around we read from the Book of Ritual and did the voices and took the piss out of the characters and it was great. Second time around we were just describing the mechanics as they came up, and the experience was a lot flatter. I’ve noticed this with a lot of literary-adaptation games – if they’re treated as games first and foremost, by people who don’t roleplay or at least chat shit while they’re playing, they tend to become slightly tedious.

So. Gormenghast. Better than it has any right to be, better than its reputation suggests, but absolutely not one that you can play with mechanics-first people who aren’t going to have a Groan at its expense – and that might be where its reputation comes from.

Dark Deeds (Games and Gears)

Andy Chambers co-wrote it, Mark Gibbons illustrated it, and since I grew up on mid-Nineties Warhammer, Dark Deeds already has an easy way to my heart.

It helps that Dark Deeds is actually pretty good. Players are minions of some dark and sinister power that’s trying to take over a vaguely Mitteleuropean Renaissance city in a grim world of perilous adventure. (Sound familiar?) Meeting in the dank corners of the taverns, their dark master has bestowed various and somewhat counter-intuitive instructions on them, and they have to go out into the streets and sneak past (or fight) guards, pick the pockets of ordinary civilians who they’ve heard might be carrying good loot, and assassinate various prominent members of the citizenry.

All of this is executed through a deck of Street cards, which designate who’s out and about tonight, and a deck of Tavern cards, which set the resources and rumours available concerning them. Combat and stealth are both d12 rolls, modified by the loot a player has accumulated, with the key targets – Nemeses – obviously being harder to scrobble, requiring nines or tens or twelves. Successful minion activity accumulates both Victory Points and Suspicion Points, the latter evaporating when the Most Suspicious Minion (the bearer of that large silver coin, which attaches to the largest stack of Suspicion Points on the table) is invariably detained.

Now, it may just be that I seem to be good at Dark Deeds, or that it’s refreshingly uncomplicated, but I like it. It works smoothly, barring a couple of “wait, what are my options here?” moments that anyone who’s played a Chambers-designed game will recognise. It’s not a game you’d get together specifically to play. It’s a brilliant warm up or cool down game for a longer session, I’d imagine, and it’s a jolly little time filler for a couple of dead hours on a too-damn-hot-to-think Sunday evening. I also really like the way the wooden and metal tokens and the little burlap sack feel in the hand, for what that’s worth.

However, it does… play itself, to an extent. As citizens, guards and priority targets move along the Street, what happens to them is governed by the Suspicion points – sure, you can do things to raise or lower Suspicion, or transfer it to other players, but that’s very much governed by what cards you have in hand and what objectives are in play. Especially with two players, Dark Deeds seems to generate foregone conclusions, especially if one player’s had a good run of objectives and hasn’t ended up with a pile of Nemeses sat in front of them, no weaponry worth a damn, and nothing to do but roll a d12 every turn and hopefully get high numbers.

It’s fun, but in the way a one-armed bandit or roulette is fun – put your money down, take your chances, and let the dice fall where they may. Deep it ain’t, but deep ain’t always what I’m looking for.

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