[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.

[Actual Play Review] Territory Control Double Feature: Scythe (Stonemaier Games) & Rising Sun (Cool Mini Or Not)

I’m starting to get the hang of this board game business, I think – insofar as I’m starting to get a feel for what I actually like. Co-operative games will always be my preference, but if we absolutely must compete, the pure abstraction of the resource/worker placement game where everything’s different coloured cubes or discs and theme is some variant on “yer a capitalist Harry” is not for me.

I feel like I’m into a good hearty territory controller; something with the whiff of a grand strategy vidjagame such as Total War or Civilisation or Crusader Kings about it. Actually engaging in battle is optional – I like a diplomatic solution as much as the next reasonable fellow – but the theme of conquering and claiming an important patch of land speaks to the wargamer in my soul. I also appreciate actual models – they don’t have to be super-sophisticated but if you show me a cube and tell me it’s a worker I’m never going to be that interested.

Both the games I’ve tried in the last ten days, at Croydon’s Ludoquist on either side of a trip to Venice (it was superb, thanks for asking), have struck the right kind of chord in my heart. Neither is quite on Near and Far‘s level – i.e. ‘practically perfect in every way’ – but they’re both up there and they’ve helped me work some things out. They both also strike me as the sort of games it’s worth playing a lot – bedding in on and learning in greater depth than my infrequent voyages into these strange waters have afforded so far. Let’s have a natter about them.

Scythe

 

Scythe is a dieselpunk extravaganza, set in a corner of Eastern Europe that never quite was and involving several factions scrambling to control a huge factory complex and the surrounding resources. You have soldiers, you have mechs, and you have a named character leader with a backstory. Aesthetically, it talks to the Iron Kingdoms fan in me, even before you factor in that one faction (the one I played) is essentially Khador.

I shan’t bother with describing the mechanics, as Stonemaier provide an excellent summary on their site. Instead, I’m going to say that Scythe is one of those rare games I wanted to play again straight away, because it feels learnable in a way that’s sort of familiar to me, probably because of how wargamey it feels. Once the basic mechanics of collecting and using resources are down there’s an immediate sense of “OK so let’s try focusing this next”.

I do have a little beef with Scythe, though.

Firstly: it does the same “draw your playstyle at random” thing Lords of Waterdeep does. It bothers me less here, because you still get to pick your faction and so you have some control over the mechanics available. Rusviets still gon’ Rusviet – they’re still going to have their teleporting trickery and their combat bonuses for workers and their ability to bully across rivers early on. It’s only the precise economy involved – which resources you’ll need to prioritise and which actions you’ll need to select – that changes, and I think that’s more like playing an unusual scenario in a wargame.

Secondly: if you’re not paying very close attention to what everyone’s doing, someone can ‘play with themselves’, ending the game by achieving a bunch of conditions with maximum efficiency and collapsing whatever you’ve spent the last twenty minutes anticipating. I grasp that that’s the point of the game, but it’s one thing to lose because your big gambit didn’t pay off and another to lose because the game ended before your turn.

Despite this, I could see myself getting into Scythe, almost as a substitute for the wargames I don’t have the luxury of playing much these days, and as something that works more smoothly as a scales-to-multiplayer endeavour. I’m going to have a poke through the strategy articles on Start Your Meeples and see how the other factions play (I don’t think “I always play Rusviet” quite aligns with board game etiquette), and then I might venture some spending money on a base set. If nothing else, it’s more likely to see use than the 40K army I started this time last year and have done next to nothing with.

Rising Sun

Rising Sun is a CMON game, so it’s going to have minis: some quite nice plastic jobs which seem to need a level of assembly. They’re one of the things I like. I’m also quite taken with the game’s alliance mechanic: each season of play opens with the opportunity to buddy up with another player, sharing bonuses on the actions you declare and allowing you to amicably resolve conflicts over territory without anyone necessarily having to die. It’s all represented on the table with some nice little yin and yang pieces that sit together, and I think it could make quite an interesting couples’ game (with the ever present option of betrayal on the cards too). Finally, it’s refreshing free of logistics; there are concerns about bringing in currency to pay for things and support one’s endeavours on the battlefield, but there’s no mucking around collected three black cubes and two red cubes before you can get a white cube. If you want to recruit some lads you play the action that lets you recruit some lads and you will get at least some lads for your trouble.

There is some gristle in the gist though. The variable turn sequence is enjoyable – being able to choose from four actions and getting to do something fun on your ally’s turn means there’s a reasonable chance of getting to do something like the thing you wanted to do. However, it is vaguely frustrating in that IF one has constructed a scheme in one’s mind AND one has a fairly inflexible core faction ability AND the right actions refuse to come up THEN you find yourself stalling for a season. With only three seasons to play through, that can spell defeat in a manner quite unsatisfactory.

Games that mutate under my hands and change the structure of the turn don’t sit well with me; I have a strong dislike for Race for the Galaxy and its variants because I’m not good at second-guessing people and rules at the same time. More serious board game people tell me this sort of thing is ‘more strategic’: I disagree. I think it spreads the strategy out differently. I personally appreciate a firm sequence of structure and play so I can concentrate on reading and predicting the opponents’ behaviour, or a firm alliance between the actual players so I can concentrate on understanding the shifting situation.

What I’m saying is: I like my strategy distributed for depth rather than breadth. I also suspect that my level of ‘spergery means I’m always going to get a bit narky at operations that change every turn unless I’m playing something like Fluxx where there’s nothing else to think about; no map placement, no alliances, just focusing on the pure flow of rules.

That said: I’d like to play Rising Sun again. Its potential for fun kingmaking alliances and bizarre gambits outweighs the minor frustration of its inconsistent structure, I think, and it’s probably another of those games that rewards a level of mastery. We certainly found that knowing the autumn card decks in advance would have given us an idea of what sort of approaches to build into during the spring and summer. Perhaps people who are more accustomed to board game conventions than I could read ahead and guess that there might be bonuses for going all in on oni or virtues or similar? I wouldn’t know. I’m still figuring out all this stuff. Where’s the tape measures and why aren’t there dice?

[Actual Play Review] Near & Far (Red Raven Games)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Near & Far

Finally! I can talk about a game I almost unequivocally like. I am committed to Near & Far, for several reasons, and I am aching to get on to those reasons, but first I must slide two small but detailed grievances over the table to get them out of my system and indicate that absolutely nothing in this world is perfect.

Firstly, I found it weirdly hard to build and maintain momentum in this game. That is absolutely a problem I have with most games (it’s telling, for instance, that my most successful wargaming is done with ‘undead’ themed forces whose ‘attrition and restore’ style allows for compensation should the controlling player lose tempo), but it was a minor sticking point, like a puddle of salty caramel ‘neath the remorseless boot of progress. If you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated when other people charge across the map and you’re plodding away taking three turns to reach all the good shit they’ve hoovered up – that might be a concern for you.

Secondly, the ‘bad guy’ options – the specific artefacts which demand that you accumulate negative Reputation in order to purchase them – are sometimes weirdly expensive for what they can do. The little utility ones are fine, but big fuckers like the flaming crossbow and the iron crown are punishingly expensive for very little payout, especially when you’re taking an overall score hit by being unpopular enough to use them.

I came into this game thinking that there was a way to make crime pay, a viable reason to choose Being Bad. Now I think those artefacts are in there as a sort of consolation prize for people who’ve had to be Bad and would otherwise be shut out of the game. If you come at this like it’s an RPG, think of it firmly in terms of old D&D where being an evil character was an accident you made the best of, rather than a balanced alternative to being a goodie.

Right. That’s that done. Let’s talk about how fucking great Near & Far is.

Near & Far is a really really good, competitive-but-not story/exploration game. It has a lot of the trappings of the Eurogame – multiple resources which are generally harvested one or two at a time, random asset drawing, token placement, abstract victory points system – but it couples them to a delightfully soft-aesthetic pseudo-RPG.

Players pick a character and set off on either a map-based sandbox campaign or a personal storyline campaign. (Those of us who have played Shadow of Mordor give a thousand thanks that Near & Far doesn’t have those concepts squatting cheek by jowl throughout the entire fucking experience.)

In either case the ultimate goal is to locate and explore the Lost Ruin, a sprawling city full of perils and risks and potential (though as we discovered, often hollow) rewards. Play cycles between going on adventures and time spent in town.

The length of adventures is governed by limited rates of movement, bonuses to skills/combat and searching, a renewable modifier resource (hearts) and a non-renewable ‘worker placement’ resource (tents).

All of these, except the tents, can be extended by hiring henchmen and purchasing items, which demands the accumulation of reputation, gold, gems, food and faction prestige. There are multiple ways to scoop up these resources – mining or farming in the town, settling in the wilderness, or accumulating them as quest rewards – but exchanging them and hiring henchmen has to be done in town, and the almost-exclusive way to replenish hearts is to come back to town and leave again.

As characters complete quests, they acquire simple ‘colour this in when you’ve earned it and black it out when you’ve spent it’ experience, which can be spent on talents – generally simple modifiers to things you already do, or straightforward resource generators, rather than entirely new ‘skills’ and ‘spells’, which come into play on the next map.

The net result of all this is a pleasant tempo where sooner or later, even the most fully optimised of characters will have to come home for a breather, and although some people might be able to get further across the map, nobody’s mucking around taking three turns on the trot and zooming ahead while you wait for them to stop winning.

Remember what I said about Brass, and not confusing depth with complexity? This has depth. It’s not simple or easy by any means, but it’s elegant enough in its design and intimate enough in its scale that it teaches itself rather than dumping a huge map and forty possible decisions on you and making you get on with it. There’s town. Do you want to leave town? Better not – you can’t settle anywhere. You’d best hire a henchman. Hit the saloon. That’s what I mean about elegance. No need to come back here and tell people the best way to start playing, no sir.

The glorious strength of Near & Far is that its opportunity costs are generally well balanced. You may be a great duellist but your Reputation’s probably sunk through the floor and you’ll have spent your quest completions on being good in town instead of good at adventuring. It does seem like Meditation plus something that auto-generates Food plus Gem Trading is a bit too powerful, but this… isn’t really a game about winning, as such.

I’m sure you could play Near & Far like a total cockbag and aggressively hunt points, hoover up quest tokens from the map so nobody else gets any, but – in character mode, at least – there’s no real incentive to do that.

If you must bully other players, reading out their quest descriptions from the book-o-quests (a sort of choose-your-own-adventure kind of affair, generally presenting two choices – an easy way and a hard way, a way with a hidden cost and a way with a resource drain, that kind of thing) gives a little flicker of Schadenfreude without you actually having to be a cut-throat little shit.

During this week I’ve talked about the importance of player agency and about multiple rewards, ways to ‘win’ even if you haven’t scored the most points. Near & Far does both of these things really, really well. 

The storyline through which your character moves may be pre-defined, but the kind of person you are isn’t. I ran through three maps as Vera, the guard captain tangled up in a revolution against a corrupt governor – on my first one I felt honourable but bemused, on my second I’d gone full outlaw, swaggering around town with a duelling pistol and a Reputation score as low as it could go, on my third I’d built a strong team of robot pals and actually felt like my last choice meant something – personal glory and conquest or the humility to aid the revolution before setting off for the Lost Ruin?

While the storylines run off some pretty simple tropes – it all felt quite young adult JRPG, particularly the storyline for the robot character Grear – they all deliver on those archetypes and hit the right resonances.

(I’m not sure the others agree – Katy in particular felt like I was the only person who got a ‘good’ ending, even if I personally regretted not staying full bastard, but I’d argue that the endings are dramatically and thematically satisfying, even if they all feel like qualified victories. It’s all quite mature really.)

I didn’t actually win a single round on points, and at least once I screwed myself by eating the penalties for low Reputation and discovering there wasn’t much payoff to doing so, but I didn’t ever felt like I’d lost – only, perhaps, that I’d lagged behind.

Bottom line: Near & Far is great.

It’s like low-prep modular D&D for people who aren’t into D&D – like Katy, who I suspect would make a really good DM if she was working off a decent module (and I hadn’t thought that about her before, so this game wins out on ‘learning things about your mates’ too).

It’s rewarding to explore in multiple ways with different priorities, and it’s brave enough to let you go about things your own way.

Highly recommended. Check it out.

[(Not) Actual Play Review] Sushi Go (Adventureland Games) / Brass (Tree Frog Games)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Today I’m taking on the two games I didn’t actually play, but either watched played or gave up on. As with Warmachine Mark III, this is less a review of the games and more a description of why they’re not for me, so if you came here for semi-objective commentary I advise you to hang on until I do Near & Far tomorrow.

Sushi Go!

I didn’t play Sushi Go! because it was late and I was tired and I’m not the sort of person whose idea of a between-games palate cleanser is… another game.

It’s a three round card-drafting game. It’s lightning fast, it’s piss-easy to play, it’s basically a competitive simulation of a simple situation (shovelling tasty fish derivatives into your fish derivative hole at a restaurant, only you’re fighting over them instead of waiting patiently for your order to come around like a proper gentle creature), and you can still play it while you’re wasted enough to unironically anime-squeal “Sashimi!” like you’re a fuckin’ magical girl calling her attacks.

(Incidentally, Hark squealed “SALMON NAGIRI!” into my mouth at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I really, really dislike salmon. The taste makes me urge and I always associate it with a particular kind of bourgie social climbing that pushes me the rest of the way. Reminding of salmon right before kissing me is not on, not at all. I am now accepting auditions for the role of Von’s New Wife.)

I don’t see the point in it but then I don’t see the point in sushi either. However, I can see why the ladies needed it after ninety minutes of trudging through the other game on the table today:

Brass

Or, as it’s known to its friends, Capitalism Simulator 1832.

Brass is… fuck it, I’m going to break with tradition and link to its Board Game Geek page, because I do not understand Brass at all. It has locations, and things you can build in them, and resources, some of which need to be moved in a simulationist manner, some of which don’t. It has cards, and you discard or play cards to do things. It has currency, and you spend currency to make currency. It has Victory Points, which for some reason don’t co-exist with currency even though it’s a capitalism simulator and surely accumulating the highest and steadiest income is the win condition.

I don’t know, okay? I tapped out on the first turn, having just about parsed the long-ass explanation of Canal and Rail phases and how the turn sequence worked and all that, but I had no idea how to convert these cards in my hand into actual solid actions on the map. Not just ‘no idea how to play well’ but ‘no idea of what I was playing for or what a viable play might look like’. The others made it to the end of the Canal Phase and then dropped it too.

Brass is one of those high-level micro-manage-one-aspect-of-a-civilisation games that operates on an abstract plane to which I just don’t have cognitive access. I felt like one of those poor Peter Principle fools who may be damn good chalkface teachers but then get promoted to headship and adminstration and suddenly their skill set doesn’t work any more.

In its defence, the odds were not in its favour. Brass was the last game we tried out, the hardest of the games we tried out, and the only one Katy (who generally teaches the rest of us how to play these things) hadn’t played before. It’s also the most ‘pure game’ – it has a theme, something to do with industrialising Lancashire by building mills and works and canals and railways everywhere, but it has that hardcore Eurogame vibe which suggests ‘theme’ is just ‘way of deciding what the icons look like’. Finally, and this is the most damning point against it, the developer felt obliged to include a two page letter clarifying that actually it’s not as hard as you seem to be making it, here’s how it’s supposed to work, the optimal first move is this but some people have had success doing that –

Look, mate, if you have to include something like that I guarantee you have over-developed this game. Some games have complexity and some have depth and some people, including developers, get them mixed up. I can understand issuing developer’s notes as errata, or to cover corner cases, but when you have to sit people down and hold their hand through making the very first choice in the game, you’ve done something wrong. That proverbial pudding isn’t over-egged. It’s just an egg. You’ve sprinkled cocoa on it and put it in a glass of brandy, but it’s still an egg.

I’m not predisposed towards games like Brass, but I suspect it’s not a well designed game even for people who are. What makes it all the more galling is that the same fella designed Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, which is a blinder of a game (and, now that I think about it, is better at being Lords of Waterdeep than Lords of Waterdeep is, probably because it gives you one static-state victory condition and doesn’t fuck around randomising everything else). I don’t know what he was on with this one.

[Actual Play Review] Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Lords of Waterdeep

Basically, this is a worker recruitment Eurogame, under the D&D licence, which inverts the usual process of D&D. Now you get to play the quest givers – the movers and shakers of Waterdeep, sending your agents out into the city to a) read the word on the street, finding out what quest-like activities can be done to serve your agenda, b) recruit adventurers to fulfil said quest-like activities and c) screw around with the other Lords through a little thing called Intrigue.

All of this is done by taking meeple and assigning them to buildings. Some buildings let you buy other buildings, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you collect quests, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you draw Intrigue cards. At random. From a stack. There are four different kinds of quest. Your Lord will benefit from pursuing two of them. Your Lord is drawn. At random. From a stack.

I… don’t know if I like this game. We played it twice. The first run was fine, although I didn’t do well. The second left me feeling a little salty, and I suspect the salt levels would only rise with repeated playthroughs. I wanted to like it, and I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure it deserves the amount of effort that liking it required me to put in.

Quite often, the D&D trappings are just trappings. The Harpers make an appearance, but there’s no reward for playing them Neutral Good; they’re just a colour of token. I ended up playing the City Guard as a pious den of thieves run by a moneylender Lord because of how the game shook down, and that felt slightly off to me – just arbitrary, I suppose.

As I type it out I nod sagely and start homebrewing an explanation for that, which is fine, but if I think like the kind of person who’s super-into the Forgotten Realms, the potentially inappropriate combinations may bother me a lot more, because that’s not the lore. Being a homebrew kind of guy whose contact with the Realms came through a bunch of turn-of-the-millennium computer games, I was able to recognise some things and go “oh hey, neat, it’s that” but still (mostly) back off and accept that they’re just green meeples and victory conditions and it doesn’t really matter who’s who.

The real problem with all the random drawing isn’t faith to the setting, though. It’s more a matter of agency.

Firstly, Lords of Waterdeep can straight out disengage players who aren’t into the theme of the Lord they drew. This happened in my second run, and while I was able to roll with it, it kind of seasoned all the other ways in which I could feel the game pushing me this way and that.

From the pure Eurogamer perspective it doesn’t matter that the quests are called Warfare and the orange cubes are called Warriors (Katy just calls them all ‘cubes’), but Lords of Waterdeep is going out of its way to attract roleplayers to Eurogaming by invoking themes and yet not affording the agency that I think most of us want. I’m fine with pre-generated characters but I still want to pick which pre-generated character I get, y’know?

Secondly, some of the quest types really struggle for resources unless particular buildings come out early on. In our second run I found my turns becoming very samey. I’ll try to model the reason why.

My Lord wanted to complete Commerce and Piety quests. Hardly any Commerce quests came out, so I had to bed in on Piety. Most Piety quests require at least two Clerics. Clerics were slow to recruit – the base board only provides one per turn, and there weren’t many Cleric-friendly buildings coming out, and the Plot quest that converts other adventurers into Clerics didn’t show its face until near the end.

What this all meant in practical terms was that every turn I’d have to a) hope I was still going first, because otherwise I could be locked out of a quest completion by not having access to two Clerics every turn, b) recruit two Clerics from the same two buildings and c) make sure I had a Piety quest to complete, which locked me in to visiting the tavern. At least I was generating Warriors and Rogues aplenty from the available buildings, so I generally had the other adventuring resources I needed, but if something needed a lot of gold I was generally taking two turns to ramp up to one quest.

It worked, in so far as I came a solid second, but it was a) demanding in order-of-execution terms and b) too easy to derail if one other player happened to want a Cleric this turn. If there hadn’t been a building that let me hijack other buildings I’d have been gimped.

This combination of scarcity and randomness makes the game feel self-solving, in a way that doubles down on the arbitrary assignation of objectives. If particular quests or buildings don’t show themselves, and if one player happens to be the only person who needs to pursue a particular kind of quest, it’s easy for some players to be stuck in a resource war while someone else can bed in on stuff for which there’s no competition.

The game tells me who I am and what my priorities are and, as particular cards and buildings come up (or don’t) how I’ll have to get there. It’s like the difference between solving chess puzzles and actually playing a whole game of chess, and I don’t know if there’s a way out.

If I’m competing with someone for Commerce and someone else for Piety, and if someone else is establishing a clear lead because they’re the only person going for Arcane, then can I win by abandoning the contest (and my victory point bonuses) and bedding in on Warfare instead? I’m not sure.

On top of that… because the game’s assigned me a character, a role to play, I found it harder to do what I did with The Castles of Mad King Ludwig and tell it where to get off because screw the win conditions, I’m in this for the aesthetic.

Ultimately I think Lords of Waterdeep imposes a little bit too much – it’s able to screw you in three different ways and you’re stuck going along with it. I suspect I’d like it a lot more if we could pick or at least draft our Lords rather than just picking one out of the bag. That would restore a measure of control, and make the arbitrary scarcity of objectives and resources during play a lot more bearable: if we end up in a bad place it would at least be one of our own choosing.

The next game I’m going to discuss doesn’t have any of this roleplaying baggage -indeed, it’s the most ‘pure Eurogame’ of the titles we played together – but I found it the most alienating and intimidating of the lot. Stay tuned for fun and frolics with Brass.

[Actual Play Review] The Castles of Mad King Ludwig (Bézier Games)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Players compete to build a castle which best satisfies the arbitrary whimsies of the local monarch, expressed through a set of public, shared objectives and private, secret objectives.

Maybe His Majesty likes square rooms, or a really large living room, or the most square feet of corridor. Maybe he’s secretly confided in you that what he really likes is kitchens and round gardens. Maybe you’ve just decided to say ‘fuck it’ and build nothing but dungeons and theatres because who is King Ludwig II of Bavaria to you anyway?

One of you gets to be the Master Builder every round and set the price of the rooms that everyone else will be buying. The Master Builder gets paid for rooms, and pays their own building costs back into the bank to keep the money moving. The competitive side of the game hovers around this ‘setting the price of available rooms’ activity, and also around using ‘completion’ bonuses (for building something on every doorway out of a room) to take extra turns, grab extra resources and otherwise get yourself ahead of the curve.

I enjoyed this one. Not too many moving parts, a theme that I can wrap my head around, a genteel and indirect ‘screw your neighbour’ mechanic that involves adjusting the cost of various rooms, and a clear reason for abstract ‘victory points’ being present.

Normally, I have a bit of a problem with ‘victory points’ in Eurogames, because they generally have something else like currency or territory or material which is the point of the endeavour as far as theme is concerned, but then subsume that into something that exists purely for the game’s sake.

Here it feels more viable, because the King’s whimsies are so varied and numerous that you’re trying to please him in multiple ways (stop that sniggering at the back) and abstracting all those factor together to find the clear winner feels like… an adequate simulation of the monarch’s decision-making process. Victory feels like a continuation of the theme rather than an abrupt step outside it for purposes of Winning The Game, and I endorse that.

Tactically, it rewards the ‘playing with yourself’ system mastery shenanigans of the blue-deck Magic: the Gathering player. (Erin, who is good at finding ways to take multiple turns in succession, barnstormed this one both times we played). However, “choosing to lose” by tunneling into other priorities (like making the dungeon you like the most, or fulfilling both your secret objectives to maximum effect) feels more rewarding than it usually does.

Erin and I had a chat after this about the concept of competitive play and how worthwhile it is to pursue that kind of absolute, gulf-of-separation victory. Neither of us are particularly interested in that kind of win for its own sake, and in my native environment (two-player wargaming) I find that sort of thing really dispiriting, because it generally means you haven’t been able to do anything.

What’s the difference here? First off: multiplayer. There’s a reason to keep on competing even if one person’s definitely going to win, because ‘best of the rest’ is still a possibility. Secondly: agency. Even in the second run, where I totally bottomed out on the score, I was doing something every turn, pursuing something which felt like a victory to me. I think this game works so well because it offers an alternative reward – an aesthetic or narrative or fictive-ethical outcome which offers its own kind of fulfilment.

Another of the games we played over the weekend delivered this in spades, but first I want to talk about the ones that didn’t, mostly because I don’t want to end this series by cussing out Brass. Stay tuned for that.