If you’ve read my unapologetically specific nerdmance, Looking for Group, you might remember that there’s quite a big chunk in the middle where Drew and Kit play a game called Planescape Torment. Honestly, they’re actually the wrong generation to be playing it, but I subtly fudged this issue by having someone of approximately my generation insist they had to.

Basically this scene is in there for two reasons. Firstly, it’s there because, in my experience, a lot of relationships between nerds (both romantic and friendly) are based primarily around a shared passion for something most other people aren’t interested in (actually, that’s sort of pretty much a potted definition of nerd culture as a whole). And so I thought it was important for my nerdy couple of share a nerdy thing together.

The second reason is simpler: I just really love Planescape Torment. And I’m aware that’s not an especially original statement. Pretty much everyone who played PC roleplaying games in the late 90s loved Planescape Torment, which is why when a large chunk of the original team got together a few years ago and Kickstarted a “spiritual successor” it raised approximately ten bazillion dollars.

Like most Kickstarted projects it had its fair share of teething problems. It was supposed to drop in 2014 and didn’t actually get here until, well, now. And there were a bunch of things promised which didn’t materialise (although I understand they’re patching some of these in later). The last time I checked, the top reviews on Steam were pretty much all backers freaking out because they didn’t get the underwater city they’d been expecting or because they felt it was completely betraying the spirit of the original that the new game uses turn based combat instead of real time with pause.

Anyway, I downloaded my Kickstarted copy of Torment: Tides of Numenera (this being the somewhat unwieldy name of the spiritual sequel) and my partner and I sat down together and, to steal a phrase from the sadly defunct Some Other Podcast, poopsocked it. I should stress that, beautiful as that visual metaphor is, it is most definitely a metaphor. No socks were harmed during our play through of T:ToN.

My reaction to  Torment: Tides of Numenera can be summed up as roughly like this: oh this going to be shit isn’t it, crap this going to be shit, look at this intro, it’s going to be shit, oh that was shit, WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY, OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT, actually this is genuinely turning out to be quite good, hey check out these really well structured things, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, hey that’s a cool bit of world-building, oh my God that’s gross and awesome, ALL THE FEELS, we should really go to bed now but I’m pretty sure we’re nearly finished, OMG SO EXCITING, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, zomg, wow that was really cool, hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

With reviews like that, I should work for PC Fucking Gamer.

I know it sounds like my experience with Torment: Tides of Numenera was bookended by rubbish but it really wasn’t. I was very, very timorous in the beginning but I thought the ending was actually really good (not flawless, but satisfying) and it’s only in retrospect that little details like what the villain’s motivation was, how the plot fit together, or whether the central premise of the game made any sense at all started to matter to me. And, to be honest, they still don’t really. My partner and I kicked off our relationship playing Torment together (in a very different context to one that occurs in Looking For Group) and here we, however many years later, still playing Torment together. And that’s genuinely special to me.

Although, I admit, not necessarily a reason to recommend a game to another person.

And, actually, this is pretty much the problem with reviewing (insofar this is a review) Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s basically impossible for me to judge how it works as a game. I mean, I can try (FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM) but I have no way of disentangling my experience of playing this game now from my experience of playing its predecessor the best part of twenty years ago and my experience of playing it with again with H when we were first going out. Fuck, I’m getting old.

To put it another way, Torment: Tides of Numenera really had to do two jobs. Okay, maybe three jobs. Firstly, it had to be a good game in its own right. Secondly, it had to be good as a successor to Torment. And thirdly it had to remind people who played Torment in 1999 of playing Torment in 1999 without feeling too much like it’s just saying “hey, remember that other game you liked.” It mostly succeeds. I do think some of the game’s biggest weaknesses seem to be in the area where it is doing things Torment did just because Torment did them and not because they’re necessarily the right things for this game to be doing. This is generally fine, although I would point out that one of the things that the game seems to have done the way Torment did it because Torment did it that way is, well, quite a large part of the premise. And that makes some bits of the game feel a bit wobbly.

This is going to get detailed and spoilery. If you’ve read more than two of my blog posts that shouldn’t surprise you in the least.

oh this going to be shit isn’t it

I’m always very wary of Kickstarted nostalgia projects. I think they have a very strong tendency to focus entirely on giving the most hardcore fans what they think they want instead of just making the best product they can. There are so many things that can go wrong with a Kickstarted game, from intrusive backer rewards (see Pillars of Eternity) to writers and developers losing all self-discipline once free of editorial control (see Pillars of Eternity) to just not being very good (see Pillars of Eternity).

Torment: Tides of Numenera opens with your character falling from the sky to a slightly gravelly voice-over by either the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series or someone doing a reasonable impression of the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s, um, kind of quite over-written, long on similes, short on clarity (and I am aware that I am the last person who should be levelling that as a criticism against anyone else’s writing). I’m not sure if the quality of the writing actually improves over the course of the game or if I just settled into the patterns of it. The original Torment had a style that, honestly, would have got you chucked out of most creative writing classes but it worked for what it was. And, actually, thinking about it I suspect the introduction suffers a lot from being fully voiced. Harrison Ford famously once told George Lucas that “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” and I think the self-consciously flowery, Vance-meets-Dunsany-meets-Lovecraft-meets-Bulwer-Lytton prose works when you look at it. Not when some poor schmuck has to try and read it out loud in a portentous voice.

It doesn’t help that Torment: Tides of Numenera has quite an unusual setting and where the original Torment was perfectly content to let the player wander around for a couple of hours with no fricking clue what was going on (or maybe just to assume that everybody who played the game also played D&D) T:ToN tries to at least fill the player in on some of what they can expect from the game’s setting (somewhat confusingly called The Ninth World). Unfortunately this turns about the first twenty minutes of the game into an info-dump from two bickering characters, who you have no particular reason to care about and neither of whom are especially engagingly written.

The first major decision the game presents you with involves these two characters having a sudden and unexpected falling out (it’s suggested later on that this is a psychic consequence of your character’s awakening, but this doesn’t really help the situation) requiring you to decide which of them you’ll continue to travel with. Since you know nothing about either party and I’m profoundly allergic to arbitrary pseudo-meaningful choices, I promptly told them both that they could fuck off.

It is to the game’s credit that I never suffered for this. Although slightly to its detriment that I didn’t regret it either, given that these two characters represent fully one third of the recruitable NPCs in the game.

WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY

Things pick up a lot when you get to the city of Sagus Cliffs which, let’s be clear, happens very early in the game. I should probably point out at this stage that Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on a tabletop roleplaying game called Monte Cook’s Numenera, which was written by a man named, well, Monte Cook (he was one of the big driving forces behind third edition D&D and is something of a legend in the industry).

I did actually pick up a copy of Monte Cook’s Numenera around the time that the Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera launched. And I never really got to grips with it. There was a lot about the game I wanted to like: it’s set in an impossibly far future (literally impossibly far future, owing to Monte’s shonky grasp of astrophysics the game is set on an Earth that should, technically, already have been swallowed by the sun’s evolution into a red giant) and is based around that overused Arthur C Clark quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from the industry-leading collectible card game. The world is full of invisible nano-machines and weird ancient technologies called Numenera. These things are basically magic and let people do magic.

Now I’m a big fan of things that mash up science fiction and fantasy and will occasionally ramble on about how the modern notion that they should be completely separate genres is pretty much a post-Tolkein invention. But, honestly, I had a lot of trouble getting into the setting of Monte Cook’s Numenera because, while the art was lovely, and there was really quite a lot of specific detail about locations and settings, I didn’t feel that the book gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Walking into Sagus Cliffs in Torment: Tides of Numenera gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Within two minutes of entering the city, you meet a merchant who is (quite contentedly) turning into an insect, two scholars who have captured super-intelligent, sentient squid that they fully intend to release and which they only captured in order to test a machine they later intend to use to trap a malevolent god that is plaguing their home city, and a guy who is being executed for treason by a method that involves his own words being wound out of his mouth and wrapped around his body, a process which is being overseen by a member of a quasi-legal death cult who are tolerated by the city on the grounds that their capacity to consume the memories of the dead is useful in the investigation of crimes and which is guarded by purple-armoured constructs called levies—which, you quickly learn, are created from the life force of the city’s citizens, each of whom give up a year of their lives to create a levy as a form of national service.

What’s really remarkable about all this is that (in contrast to a lot of what you get told at the start of the game) none of this feels like an info dump. You encounter something weird, a fundamental assumption of the setting is that weirdness is local and therefore people are used to explaining their local weirdness to outsiders, and the weird person or entity explains the weird thing in a matter-of-fact characterful way that (and I’m looking at you here, Pillars of Eternity) doesn’t require you to read three screens of text or segue into a discussion of events that happened three hundred years ago.

To put it another way, every one you encounter is a fascinating but, crucially, optional weird fantasy vignette. We basically talked to every single NPC who wasn’t just called “commoner” or “merchant” and okay this was partly from years of cRPG training but it was mostly because they were all genuinely interesting. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which it’s easier to make “lady who is turning into an insect” or “alien who studies the reproduction habits of earth species because his people reproduce by cutting off their limbs and he’s surprised that other people don’t” interesting than it is “relatively ordinary inhabitant of lowkey Medieval fantasy setting” interesting. But it meant that every single NPC we encountered made an impression.

There’s a bit in Looking For Group where Kit wakes up in the middle of the night, prods Drew awake, and says something like “why don’t we take the black-barbed seed to Mourns-For-Trees”. Again, that bit is in the book because when this type of game works that’s how it works. There’s side-quest quite early in the Sagus Cliffs where you encounter a woman called Loss-of-Self who, it seems, is slowly having her personality transformed into the personality of another woman. You later discover that this is happening to lots of other women throughout the city and are tasked by the ghostly manifestation of the woman all these other women are being turned into with tracking them down. And, one day last week, my partner and I were walking home and, out of nowhere, I found myself saying “I bet the girl with girl with the flute is one of them because she said that thing about seeing ghosts.”

You can’t buy that kind of experience. I mean, obviously you can. You can buy it for £34.99 on Steam. But metaphorically you can’t buy it.

Also: the art design is just lovely. Genuinely squicky in places (I honestly think I read the word sphincter more often in the third act of this game than I have in any other work of fiction I have encountered) but lovely.

OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT

Games like this have to walk a very fine line between being their own thing and being a successor to the thing they’re supposed to be a successor to. The way I took to articulating this to myself while playing Torment: Tides of Numenera was that I felt the game was at its worst when it was trying to remind me of Torment and at its best when it was just good in the same way that Torment was good.

And, don’t get me wrong, I liked all of the little shout-outs. You learn quite quickly that the immortal being who once inhabited your body used the name Adahn, which is a random pseudonym the character in the original Torment can give people if they ask him for a name and if you do this enough the raw power of your assertion conjures this Adahn into being. There’s a weird entity in the pub of psychics called O who, it is strongly implied, is the same weird entity called O who appears in the inn in the original game. Early on you pick up a quality of life item that allows you to summon party members and it takes the form of a dull, bronze sphere which I’m pretty sure is a reference to the highly plot significant dull bronze sphere the original Torment made no attempt to stop you from selling to the nearest vendor for a few copper pieces.

Torment: Tides of Numenera, like the original Planescape Torment, is at its best when it is evoking something larger, stranger and more wondrous than the thing you are actually encountering. For example, Sagus Cliffs is ruled by powerful families known as the Slave Families for reasons that don’t particularly become apparent and aren’t particular relevant, but the fact that they have that unusual name stands out. The government is also based in something that is fairly explicitly a crashed space ship and there are obviously high-level political things going on in Sagus Cliffs that your character simply does not interact with. The entire third act of the game takes place in a settlement inside a gigantic malevolent, dimension-spanning organism that slowly devours the people inside it. And this is just sort of where you are. You get to interact briefly with the entity but you don’t particularly change anything or do anything about it. Well, okay, you do get the option to try and stop its heart but I didn’t take it because I was, frankly, far too scared.

Basically you never go more than five or ten minutes (unless you’re stuck in a long combat sequence or back-tracking to solve a question) without encountering something that is both weird and cool.

Where the similarity to Torment is less successful is where it’s more explicit. And it occurs to me that I’ve got nearly three thousand words into this review and haven’t really told you what the premise of the game is or, for that matter, what the premise of the original Torment was. And since I’m now going to talk about the similarity between these two things I should probably fill you in.

So long story short.

Original Planescape Torment: you are an immortal being called The Nameless One who wakes up in a mortuary with no idea who you are, why you’re immortal or why you are being pursued by scary tentactular beings of shadow. Over the course of the game you learn about things you have done, how you came to be the way you are and what controls the scary tentacular beings (spoilers for a twenty-year-old video game: in a very real sense it’s you).

In Torment: Tides of Numenera you are an immortal being called The Last Castoff (this is a terrible name. It’s like the world’s worst slang term for your penis) and you wake up atop the smashed remains of a crystal coffin where you’re confronted immediately two scholars who explain exactly who you are (you’re The Last Castoff) and why you’re immortal (you were created as a host body for a powerful techno-sorcerer called The Changing God who builds his bodies to be well-near indestructible but nevertheless periodically abandons them, causing them to be awakened to their own consciousness when he does so) but who can’t explain why scary tentactular shadowy things are chasing you. Over the course of the game, you find out more about things The Changing God has done and are able to access his memories. And you are also find out what’s sending the weird tentactly shadowy things although the answer seems to boil down: it’s the thing that controls the weird tentactly shadowy things.

I initially had quite a lot of misgivings about this setup (see “this is going to be shit isn’t it” above). I felt quite strongly that the difference between a story where you find out about things your amnesiac character has done in the past and a story where you find out about things that somebody who is cooler and more powerful than you did in the past while inhabiting your body or other bodies now inhabited by other NPCs you may meet later was significant in a point-missy way. A massive occupational hazard of this kind of spiritual successor is that every fan has their own idea of what “the whole point” of the original was and any change between the original and the successor will outrage somebody (like that one person on Steam who seems to have felt that what made Torment was its real time with pause combat system).

And, thinking about it, I’m not sure why I mellowed on the premise because I do think that this distinction between, for want of a less glib way of putting it, a story about who you used to be and a story about someone who used to be you is important, and I do think the former is more interesting and more personal. But I suppose once I’d settled into the game I realised that you couldn’t really do that twice. And I think I came to the conclusion that Torment: Tides of Numenera had found a good way to tell a story in which immortality, memory and philosophical questions about the nature of being and the indelible shadows of the past were important without it having literally having all the same story beats.

And thinking about it more detail, I think what’s quite clever about the way in which the story of Torment: Tides of Numenera echoes and evokes the story of Planescape Torment is that The Last Castoff (from T:ToN) is almost nothing like The Nameless One (from P:T) but The Changing God (from T:ToN) is actually an awful lot like The Nameless One (from P:T). So you still have that ever-changing, slightly ambiguous immortal fucker as a central character. But you interact with that character in a very different way. Which is actually pretty cool.

hey check out these really well structured things

We’re straying deeper into spoiler territory here but there are lots of things about both the gameplay (not including the combat system, fuck the combat system) and narrative structure of Torment: Tides of Numenera that fit together really well. That, in fact, fit together much better than their equivalents in the original game (it’s almost like there’s been nearly two decades of progress in the games industry).

The level design is fabulous. The individual maps are small enough that you can’t get lost or bored on them, but they pack in a bewildering amount of stuff. Everywhere you go feels like a real place with real things going on and you never feel like you don’t know what to do next or like you’re pointlessly wasting your time looking for lost cats or abandoned vials of endless water. It does have, I’ll admit, a bit of what I’d call a nested quest problem whereby you find yourself doing a lot of going to x to get y for z so they’ll tell you about p who knows about q which you can use can to find r who can help you with f, which is the thing that you were supposed to be trying to do this whole time.

There were a couple of times when we were playing when H would be like “great, now we can be do this thing” and I’d be like “why do we want to do that thing” and H would be like “that thing is literally the whole reason we were here” and I’d be like “oh yeah, that thing.”

Mostly, however, I was incredibly impressed with the way that that the main plot, the side quests and the incidental details of the world interwove with one another. It’s a really minor detail but, apart from utility items like healing potions (sorry “spray flesh”) and money (sorry “shins”) pretty much every other item you find in the game is unique, even the vendor trash. Glossary note for none gamers: vendor trash is useless items you find in a video game that serve no purpose other than to be sold to in-game merchants for money. Which itself serves no purpose because, in most games, you find better stuff on the floor than anyone will ever sell you. It’s just so much nicer to be lining your pockets by selling on that magical singing fish you plucked out of the fountain or the weird parasitic worm that was too icky to be worth the combat bonuses than just to be flogging 23 wolf pelts. And, in fact, some of the vendor trash items were so well articulated that we kept them with us for the whole game, not because we thought they’d ever be useful because they were so cool or personal that we wanted to hang onto them.

Most tragically, we helped a mad ancient robot give birth at the cost of its own life (it wanted to do this, I should stress, I wasn’t just going around force-breeding automata) and one of the baby robots was stillborn. So I carried around a dead baby robot for the whole damn game. I just couldn’t bring myself to sell it.

The robot-death-reproduction side quest brings me neatly to another interesting structural point, which is the game’s big central question. This gets a bit a complex and was actually quite controversial during development so I’m going to need to do some explaining and you’re going to have to bear with me.

In the original Planescape Torment the reason your character was immortal is that, in order to escape the Blood War (the eternal conflict between demons and devils that at once devastates the D&D cosmos but also protects it by keeping the forces of evil fighting amongst themselves), your character went to a nighthag named Ravel Puzzlewell and asked her to make you immortal. Which she did. One of Ravel’s peculiar personality traits is that she liked to aske people “what can change the nature of a man?” This question, usually voiced in Ravel’s creepy witch voice, became something of a refrain throughout the game, cropping up at key moments and framing and contextualising the choices that your character makes. Also most of your NPC companions in Planescape Torment have had their natures changed in one ways or another, often by you. Oh, d’you see?

Now I didn’t pay that much attention to the backer-developer interaction during the early days of Torment: Tides of Numenera (I tend to stay out of that kind of thing, I tend to feel it’s developers’ job to make games, and my job to play them, and then go on about them at length on the internet) but my understanding is that the developers explicitly asked the backers if they felt that Torment: Tides of Numenera should have a central question that would be to T:ToN what “what can change the nature of a man” was to P:T. From what I’ve heard, people had quite strong opinions about in this in both directions. See my earlier comments about how everyone has a different idea of what’s fundamental to something. In one corner, you had people who felt that a strong central question was an axiomatic part of the Torment series and if Torment: Tides of Numenera did not have a clearly articulated central question it wouldn’t be a Torment game. In the other corner you had people who strongly felt that “what can change the nature of a man” was an aspect of Ravel’s character that had become an emergent property of the game. And that trying to build a question into Torment: Tides of Numenera would feel shit and forced and, of course, mean it could never call itself a Torment game.

In the end, they pro-question faction won and Torment: Tides of Numenera was shipped with the tagline “what does one life matter?” As a sort of uneasy compromise, it’s not literally on the splash screen but it is all over the promotional material. Having played the game, I kind of feel that both sides were right. That is, I feel designing the game around a clearly articulated central question really strengthened it but, whenever it is explicitly articulated, it feels really shit and forced.

In particular, an awful lot of the quests you do in Torment: Tides of Numenera (both the side quests and the main quest) very specifically address the question “what does one life matter” (and the more I say it, the more annoying and hackneyed it sounds, which is unfair because it actually serves the game pretty well) and they address it in a lot of different ways from a lot of different perspectives. Which makes the game thematically coherent on a level that a lot of RPGs aren’t. Most RPG side quests are a bit random, fetch a lost item here, assassinate a business rival there, defend a sculptor from brigands over there. The slightly forced central question of Torment: Tides of Numenera allows its quests to feel part of a larger whole. There’s a clear sense of connection between “do I allow this robot to sacrifice its life for its children” and “do I allow this slaver to sacrifice this child to protect her men” and “do I let my companion murder this guy in revenge for his lover” and “do I stop this man trying to resurrect his dead daughter at the cost of other people’s lives”. It even impacts on your choices of companion. Do I take this lost child with me on my dangerous journey? Having done so, and kitted her out so she’s actually quite effective, do I send her through a portal in the hope that she will find her parents? Do I look for a way to save my companion from the nano-demons who are tormenting him but also making him a fantastic warrior?

I do really wish they’d left it as a subtext. There’s a least one, possibly two situations, where an NPC randomly asks you “what does one life matter?” and it comes completely out of nowhere and makes no sense. And, worse, you have to pick between one of about seven options, none of which really reflect what you want your character to say. Asking seemingly meaningless questions to random people is something that a witch in a fairytale can do. It feels a lot of more jarring coming from the immortal administrator of a militarised sanctuary in a science fiction universe.

FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM

I feel really ambivalent about this one, not least because I’m aware of That One Guy On Steam who was disproportionately upset that the combat system was turn based. And, actually, I quite like turn based combat if it’s implemented well.

This is not implemented well.

If I was feeling snide, I might suggest that having a shit combat system is, in fact, very much in-keeping with the Torment legacy. The original game had quite a lot of combat bits and they were just tedious because the designers were clearly in no way interested in designing interesting action sequences.

The combat in Torment: Tides of Numenera is three steps forward and about eight million steps back. To give the designers their due, they have way scaled back on the amount of combat in the game and most of it is actually avoidable. I think we had about five-to-ten fights (or “crises”) in the whole game. And, on the one hand, because they were all set pieces the designers had put a lot of effort into giving them stakes and alternative strategies and uses for a variety of skills. On the other hand, they base combat was so awful and clunky that all of the things that were included to make fights more interesting just wound up making them more frustrating.

I feel kind of bad about this, especially because part of the reason I was so frustrated by the fights I couldn’t avoid was that were so many I could.  Since I’d got about halfway through the game without ever having to swing a sword or shoot a slug thrower in anger, I really hadn’t optimised my party for combat which meant the moment a fight kicked off I was very close to being hosed. I eventually found a system that worked: get my small child to hide and lob grenades (come to think of it, I was a terrible influence on her), while I stand at the back buffing, and my two vaguely competent characters try to kill the enemy. But it was never anything resembling fun.

And, actually, there were quite a lot of combat abilities that you could spec into—by the time we were approaching end game we were so good at everything that we had actually started buying combat abilities because we didn’t need anything else. But they all seemed really hard to actually use in a fight. And because they were so few fights and they were all so high stakes you never really got much chance to experiment with them. Basically what would happen was, a fight would start and I’d think “ooh, let’s use that cool new power we got at our last level up” only to discover that it did 3 damage and had a 20% chance of succeeding. So I instead I’d just park in a corner and skip turn or pop off the odd shot with my rifle.

I think part of the issues here come from the fact that the game is based on a tabletop RPG with a very streamlined combat system. And that’s fine in a tabletop game where players can improvise around the framework of the system but it’s just dull in a game where you have to click to move and attack with each character separately, then wait and watch while up to a dozen enemies and perhaps allies laboriously act one after the other.

The very bare bones combat system also makes a lot of the potentially interesting combat options much less interesting. At least one “crisis” I encountered actually wound up not being a fight at all. The deal was that the people I was talking to would start fighting after a few rounds but I got the option to say some things to them first, which I had to say in actual combat time. Which meant I had to say them in initiative order. Which was really annoying because, obviously, my fastest moving characters were not my characters who were best at talking. And while I understand that the realities of a fast paced combat situation don’t always line up in a way that is convenient for the combatants turn based action is a purely game mechanical construct. There is no reason at all that my guy-who-is-good-at-smashing-things has to sit on his arse this turn just because the smashing has to happen after the mystical lore stuff and he has happens to have a higher initiative score  than my character-who-is-good-at-mystical-shit.

While I’m talking about the game mechanics, I should add that the non-combat skill system is a bit burned on the outside, raw in the middle. Again, it’s based on tabletop Numenera in which your character has a pool of points for each of Might, Speed and Intellect, and may spend points from this pool as Effort to make tasks easier. As you level up you gain “edge” in these pools which reduces the number of points you have to spend to get any given bonus and you also increase your static skills that increase the bonuses you get on common tasks. What this all means is that at the start of the game you will tend to have a 20% chance of success at something and have to spend half your pool to up that chance to 50% or greater. Later in the game, you will get a 100% chance of success at most things you’re specialised in (and with the party system it’s easy to have at least one character who is specialised in everything) for free. Neither of these situations are interesting, although there is at least a pleasing sense of power in having 100% chance to mind control a transdimensional alien.

The early high-cost, high-failure stage of the game, however, is just awful for so many reasons.  Firstly, it seems deeply counter-productive to have a system whereby you spend points from a finite pool to increase you chance of success on a task that you could simply re-try by saving and re-loading the game. We did this for quite a lot of the early game because our pools were so small and we would otherwise have blown through them so quickly.  Secondly, you quite often have no idea what you’ll actually get from a roll until you succeed at it. Particularly early in the game, this means that you can end up spending points from a pool in order to succeed at a roll that gives you a reward that is less valuable than the points you spend. This is nonsense.

I can see the value of a system like this in tabletop because you have a human GM and so the player spending points on a roll isn’t just about improving their chance of success, it’s about signalling to the GM that this is something they (the player) care about. And the GM can react accordingly. Any halfway decent Numenera GM will make damn certain that if you spend Effort on a roll, you get something worth having if you succeed. Also in a tabletop game, if you’re low on points and it’s getting dull, you can pretty much always rest to replenish your pools. Whereas finding rest locations in Torment: Tides of Numenera is fiddly and expensive. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which that was a deliberate extent to balance the Effort system (otherwise you could just put maximum Effort into everything and rest every three minutes) but it never felt like a meaningful decision.

ALL THE FEELS

In the third act of Torment: Tides of Numenera I was genuinely blindsided by how much I’d come to care for my NPCs. Like, an “I actually cried” level of blindsided. Everything I’ve read about the game suggested that the recruitable characters were a little bit half-baked, possibly because they’re nowhere near as outlandish as the ones you pick up in the original Torment. None of them are flying burning corpses or animated suits of armour or celibate succubi. What they are, however, is lightly but compassionately drawn people who are embedded in the world and feel real insofar as videogame characters can.

When I sent my small child home, I sincerely missed her. When I learned why the apparently comedic paladin-esque character behaved the way he did I was heartbroken for him. When my dashing rogue discovered (spoiler) that he was directly responsible (and in a really, petty, shitty, cowardly way) for the death of the only man he’d ever loved I had to stop and have cuddles.

I think part of the reason I reacted more strongly to the characters in Torment: Tides of Numenera than the characters in the original Torment is that the NPCs in the original game revolved around the player character to an almost embarrassing extent. You’ve got the guy you turned into an embodiment of flame, the guy whose religion you invented, the two women who are randomly in love with you in one way or another, the skull you pulled out of hell … pretty much the only NPC you didn’t actively create in Planescape Torrment is the comedy robot voiced by Homer Simpson. There’s this slightly awkward bit at the end of P:T that explains that you are like the embodiment of torment or something and you draw tormented souls to you. But, actually, these tormented souls are just people you’ve personally dicked over.

By comparison, the NPCs in Torment: Tides of Numenera are all ultimately responsible for their own misfortune (as, arguably, is The Changing God). Ironically, in T:ToN game you’re pretty much the only person who is genuinely innocent (since you were literally born yesterday). This makes the characters much more sympathetic because while, yes, I can feel bad for the evil wizard who’s only evil because my past self kept holding his hands in fire until he went mad that’s sufficiently outlandish that it’s hard to identify with. By comparison, the child who lost her parents but blames herself because she ran away over a silly argument or the shepherd who let his curiosity get the better of him or the man who ruined his relationship out of selfishness and fear … well … I can relate to all of those.

And even if you do have a positive effect on their life and do what you feel is best for them it still feels very much like their stories are about them, not about you. You can’t bring the rogue’s dead lover back, you can’t offer the shepherd a middle ground between nothingness and self-destructive vainglory, and while you can get the lost child home you can only take her so far and she has to find the rest of the way herself.

The NPCs are really good is what I’m saying.

hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

Okay, so this is the awkward bit. I genuinely loved 90% of Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s just that the 10% I didn’t love includes most of the bits with the main plot.  And I should stress that isn’t because the main plot is bad, or at least it’s not bad while you’re playing the game. It’s just a bit … nothingy.

So you are The Last Castoff. The Castoffs are immortal beings created when the Changing God abandons his old body for a new body. They are caught in an eternal battle called The Eternal Battle (and I really, really feel that this only here because of the Blood War) between those who are loyal The Changing God (despite the fact he is obviously a fucker) and those who are loyal to the First Castoff (despite the fact that she is obviously a fucker, and has supposedly been dead for centuries). Castoffs are sustained by and draw power these things called the Tides. Were I feeling cynical, I might suggest that the Tides as an in-setting concept were invented after Tides of Numenera was suggested as a subtitle. Because, honestly, they don’t entirely make sense or fit with the rest of the game’s themes.

The reason that the First Castoff and The Changing God are locked in their eternal conflict is that The Changing God wants to sacrifice all of the Castoffs in order to stop a being called The Sorrow. This is the tentacly, shadowy thing that is hunting you at the start of the game. And, which again, feels a bit like it’s only in the game as a callback to the tentacly shadowy things that were after you in the original Planescape: Torment.

Now, in Planescape: Torment it turns out that the reason there are shadows chasing you is that when Ravel made you immortal a condition of your immortality is that every time her magic saves you from death, somebody else dies in your place and their spirit becomes a shadow that hunts you down and tries to kill you. As you’ve spend the whole game cheerfully throwing yourself onto spikes, down pits and through razorblades, knowing that death doesn’t harm you, this is a genuine gutpunch. The sudden realisation of the sheer number of deaths your characters has caused is nasty as fuck, marred only slightly by the fact that, since it’s a 1990s cRPG, your character has probably also killed hundreds of largely innocent humans in hand-to-hand combat just because they happened to want to stop you getting somewhere you wanted to go. It is further revealed that the strange, malevolent entity controlling the shadows from a fortress built of regrets in the negative material plane is, in fact, your own mortality separated from you by Ravel when you first came to her. This is awesome and spooky and ties everything together really nicely.

In Torment: Tides of Numenera it is revealed that The Sorrow is … um … just a thing that exists in the world and is called The Sorrow for … um … no particular reason. And it’s killing Castoffs because they fuck with the Tides (even the ones who don’t ever do anything with the Tides) and it was created specifically to protect the Tides and prevent them from being abused. Which … um … falls quite flat. Not least because the Tides themselves are never especially well articulated.

It doesn’t help that one of the main pieces of evidence that The Sorrow cites in the final confrontation (when it suddenly starts talking to you like a reasonable person, having been an unstoppable and implacable killing machine for the rest of the game) is the tremendous suffering caused by the Eternal Battle. Except, of course, the Eternal Battle only exists in the first place because The Changing God and the First Castoff are fighting over the best way to deal with The Sorrow. So essentially it’s trying to wipe everybody out in order to deal with a problem of which it is itself the primary cause.

It also goes on to outline all the ways in which your character has brought harm upon other people throughout the course of the game, presumably for an “aaah d’you see” moment. But, unfortunately, if you do the standard lawful good play through (which I always do because I’m a goody goody and it’s how these games are always set up anyway) then it hasn’t really got much to confront you with. The only thing it had on us during our play through was that we’d persuaded a drunken, washed up mercenary captain to do something that was probably a bit dangerous but that, for all we knew, wouldn’t especially hurt him (we’d done the same thing and been fine, as had loads of other people) and he’d got killed. I mean, okay we could have taken care of him better but it wasn’t exactly a “be sure, your sins will find you out” moment.

And all of this would have been fine if you were allowed to call The Sorrow out on how irrational it was being—ideally causing it to explode in a puff of logic—but the game seemed to expect you to take everything it said at face value.

What’s really odd about the whole ending is that there’s a completely different and much more interesting story going on at the same time. Towards the end of the game, it becomes very clear that the random side quest you did right at the start with Loss-of-Self and the women who are slowly having their personalities replaced is, in fact, the origin story of The Changing God. He first started working with the Tides and Consciousness Transfer in an effort to save his dying daughter, who, in another slightly confusing, quirk of storytelling died of some incurable disease at roundabout the same time as an implacable army of merciless conquerors was sweeping across The Changing God’s homeland. And maybe the idea was for there to be a central irony in this—“I could destroy the invaders and save my people, but I could not save the one person I cared about”—but that’s never really articulated. So it just looks like The Changing God gets two personal tragedies for the price of one.

Basically, I spent most of the game expecting The Sorrow to be in some way connected to The Changing God’s reasons for doing what he did, rather than the mechanics of how he achieved it. I assumed that it was going to be the remains of his original self or an embodiment of his daughter’s anguish at having been non-consensually kept in stasis and then forcibly and imperfectly resurrected again and again over the course of centuries. Or, possibly even, in some way connected to his relationship with the First Castoff, who, again, I expected to have more nuance to her. In the end her relationship to The Changing God is very poorly explored, although to be fair we may have missed something. For it to turn out that The Sorrow is, essentially, an automated defence system grossly undercuts the thematic resonance of that whole story arc.

The history of The Changing God represents one complex and somewhat twisted answer to the game’s central question. Confronted with the death of his daughter, The Changing God asks himself—wait for it—what is one life worth and over the centuries demonstrated that, to him, it was worth both everything and nothing. Everything because he wrought wonders and horrors in pursuit of his daughter’s resurrection. Nothing because his actions were ultimately vain and self-serving and he clearly had no regard for his daughter’s wishes, individuality or, indeed, life.

The giant squoogly space monster doesn’t really bring anything to this narrative. Although, unfortunately, without it the player character has far less motivation to do, well, anything.

And, um, those are my thoughts on Torment: Tides of Numenera. If you’ve got this far, well done. I’ve kind of spoiled the game completely but if you are interested in playing it, I have a spare Steam key which I would be delighted to give to anyone still alive at this point. Just leave me a comment and tell me why you’d like it and it’s yours. If more than one person asks for it, I’ll stick them in a hat or something. I’ll also throw in a hard copy of LFG as well if that’s the sort of thing that appeals to you. Although, obviously, you can just have the game without the random book.

indulgence, musing
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Sometimes, I worry that my tastes are narrowing in my old age. The last few games I’ve reviewed on this blog have been a cooperative Lovecraft themed board game, a cooperative game in which you use customised decks of cards to explore a series of unusual scenarios, and a cooperative horror game which had as one of its most interesting features a set of custom decks of cards that characterised the player characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

Today I’m going to review a customisable Lovecraft-themed cooperative card game in which you control characters represented by decks of cards and explore locations and scenarios represented by other decks of cards. The game in question is Fantasy Flight Games’ new LCG (Living Card Game) Arkham Horror: the Card Game, and it’s kind of Arkham Horror meets T.I.M.E. Stories meets London Dread meets the LCG format (of which more below).

I should say that part of me feels a bit like a sucker for picking up AH:tCG. I’ve now bought at least the base set for every Cthulhu-themed game that Fantasy Flight Games have put out (except Elder Sign, the dice game – that one passed me by for some reason). I suspect I’m not alone in this – Lovecraftian stuff is so popular that at least one game I’ve seen (Smash Up, I believe) has an expansion just called The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion. Honestly I suspect that Arkham Horror and its spin-offs (which I’ve just learned are collectively known as the Arkham Files games) sell so reliably well that the whole IP is a bit of a license to print money. Although since both expandable board games and (especially) customisable card games are also notorious money sinks it might even be more like a license to issue licenses to print money. (I mean, by niche board gaming standards, it’s not like we’re talking billions here).

Anyway, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is the latest in FFG’s “you’re all one of these recurring Cthulhu characters who show up in all of our games and you’re trying to stop bad things happening somehow” line. This one’s an LCG. What’s an LCG? I’m glad you asked.

I mean, perhaps you didn’t ask. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Living Card Games

Once Upon a Time, back in the strange era known today as the “early nineties” a man by the unlikely name of Richard Garfield came up with a new and genuinely industry-redefining idea for a card game. (Again, industry redefining by niche board game standards, run with me on this one). The concept was for a card game in which players would be able to customise their own decks, using a collection of cards that they would put together piecemeal from randomised packs. The game was called Magic: the Gathering and it was wildly popular. It spawned a whole genre of games (Collectible Card Games – CCGs for short) and was so successful that some people actually genuinely play it professionally. Seriously, google it.

Anyway, a decade or so after Magic appeared on the scene (along with a veritable tidal wave of imitators, successors and clones), some people became a little disillusioned with the CCG monetisation model. Because CCG cards are sold randomly, you have to pump an awful lot of money into the game to get the (often relatively few) cards you need to actually make a competitive deck. It essentially adds an element of gambling to the process of collecting that some people like and others find really, really offputting.

Enter the LCG.

Like CCGs, LCGs are designed to be played with customised decks of cards put together by the player from a collection that they have built up over time. Unlike CCGs, LCGs are not randomised. When you buy a set of LCG cards, you get all the cards in that set. When an expansion comes out, you get all the cards in that expansion. Now in one way this is really good, because it means that players no longer have to waste money buying dozens of copies of cards they don’t need in order to find the two or three they do (or pay extortionate amounts for single cards, some magic cards sell for literally thousands of dollars – although admittedly this is as much as collector’s items as anything else). In another way, though, it is scarcely an improvement at all, since all LCG cards are released in fixed expansions, you still have to buy more or less every expansion that comes out just so that you can get the one or two cards in each expansion that are important for making the decks you want. LCGs also tend to have much more aggressive release schedules. Since you can’t sell people useless copies of cards they already own, you have to make new cards at a faster rate. This makes keeping up with an LCG really challenging.

It’s one of those steps forward, steps back situations. How many there are in each direction depends very much on your tolerance for randomness and desire for completeness.

Anyway, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is an LCG. The players take on the role of investigators in Arkham (each investigator represented by a custom deck). To give you some idea of how intense an LCG release schedule is, the base game came out towards the end of 2016, and it already has two stand-alone scenarios, one deluxe expansion containing 156 cards, and a smaller expansion containing 26 player cards, plus a new scenario, with three more expansions scheduled for release imminently.

So this is one of those situations where one of the biggest take-homes actually comes before the review proper. If you really want to get into this game, you’re more-or-less committing to spending $15 on new cards every 1-2 months. You can just buy and play the base game (I just bought it and just played it), but it feels a bit … thin. Like you’re missing out on half of what the game is about. And I at least couldn’t shake the idea that this was deliberate, that the core set is almost a taster more than a sincere attempt to sell me a complete gaming experience.

Then again, maybe I only feel that because I know it’s an LCG, and I like deck-customising games. Either way, I have to start this review off with a bit of  buyer beware. This game follows a very specific business model and if you want to get the most out of it, you’re going to be making a non-trivial commitment of both time and money.

The Game Itself

 There are some mild spoilers in this bit, be warned.

 If you’ve played, or read my reviews of, Arkham Horror or Eldrich Horror then you’ll already know a certain amount about how Arkham Horror: the Card Game works. You play characters who investigate Cthulhoid mysteries through a mixture of two-fisted action that certain purists consider incompatible with true Lovecraftian horror (I’d argue that these purists are wrong, Lovecraft can be pretty pulpy at times) and bookish investigation. If you’ve played, or read my reviews of, Arkham Horror or Eldrich Horror you will be in no way surprised to discover that the core mechanics of the game involve collecting Clue Tokens and using them in a sort of abstract way to advance your understanding of a mystery (the mysteries here represented by “Act” cards) while racing against a time limit set by an ever-rising stack of Doom Tokens (which here accumulate on sinister “Agenda Cards”). Nor will you be surprised that the game frequently and randomly screws you over. This is pretty much how these games always work.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the game specifically without spoilers, and because it’s a customisable card game, how it plays will vary radically depending on which characters you pick, what cards are in your deck, and (perhaps most importantly and possibly most problematically) what cards you happen to draw. I’ll talk more about the card drawing issue later, first off I should probably fill in a bit more about the basic gameplay loop.

A round of Arkham Horror: the Card Game proceeds very much like a round of Arkham Horror: the Board Game. The players take it in turns to take a number of actions (three, in the case of AH:tCG) and then they draw a number of Mythos Cards (one each, which allows the game to scale fairly straightforwardly with multiple players) which control what terrible things happen to you. Sometimes characters will be called upon to make tests, which they will make by drawing tokens from a bag. This essentially works like rolling a (roughly) sixteen-sided die, but has the great strength that the dice can be customised depending on how hard you want the game to be, or in order to give a different flavour to different scenarios.

The test resolution mechanic was one of the first snags I hit with the game. The bag o’ tokens (the “chaos bag” as it is called by the game) contains 16 tokens on easy or standard difficulty, ten of them numbered, six of them with special symbols that have a different effects in different scenarios. The way the mechanic works is that you add the number on the token (or the number on the symbol reference card) to your character’s stat. Your character’s stats range from 1 to 4, and the numbers on the counters range from plus 1 to minus 4. Now I am very aware that there is no mathematical difference between a range of +1 to -4 and a range of 0 to +5, but it’s very psychologically different. And this is good in some ways because it makes the game feel more horrific – penalties make you feel helpless while bonuses make you feel powerful even if the final result is the same – but it’s bad in others because having the random element of the game expressed in negative terms just feels unfun if you aren’t prepared for it.

The game comes with three scenarios that link together to form a campaign. Each one can be played through in about 45 minutes to an hour, and we played through the entire thing in an evening. We played the first scenario on Easy difficulty (for some unfathomable reason the “initial game” setup in the cheerily-entitled “Learn to Play” booklet instructs you to set up the Chaos Bag for Standard difficulty even though you have no idea what you’re doing) and the next two scenarios on Standard. Frustratingly, we found Easy difficulty slightly too easy and Standard difficulty slightly too difficult. Part of this might have been to do with bad luck, part of it might have been to do with misaligned expectations, but I rather felt that on Standard difficulty we were often completely unprepared for the challenges the game put us up against.

To get numbersy for a bit, your characters’ starting stats are actually pretty okay. Characters seem to get at least one 4 (sometimes 2) and no more than one 1 (sometimes 0), so they can succeed relatively reliably at tasks of Difficulty 2 or less. Thing is, there aren’t that many tasks of difficulty 2 or less. Of the sixteen tokens in the bag on Standard difficulty, one is an automatic failure, one is a -4, one a -3, two -2, three -1, two 0 and one +1. This means that to stand a reasonable chance of succeeding at a task you really have to beat its difficulty by 2 points or more (the special symbols usually have at least a -1 modifier). But in the second and third scenarios, the average challenge seems to be Difficulty 4, making it difficult for any character to reliably succeed on it without discarding cards. A character can always discard cards from their hand to boost their stats for a particular roll, but the cards discarded have to show icons matching the challenge in question, and it’s very easy to wind up with a situation where you need to make an Agility test and aren’t holding any Agility cards, and even if you are holding Agility cards, it’s not easy to know whether it’s best to spend those cards now or hold onto them in case there’s a more important Agility test coming up.

To some extent, we got especially unlucky in our playthrough of the final scenario. One of our characters got hit with a Frozen In Fear condition, making all of his Actions (at least all of his actions of the types you’d most commonly want to use – movement being the especially important one) take two Actions rather than one. Since the game is basically all about action economy and achieving your goals against a set time limit, this was genuinely incapacitating (especially in the final scenario, in which movement between locations is rather awkward). And getting rid of the card required a Willpower Test against Difficulty 3. The character only had a Willpower of 3, and wasn’t holding any Willpower-Boosting cards. This meant that his only hope of success was to draw either the +1 or one of the 0s from the Chaos Bag at the end of his turn. And he never did. Which made the whole game very, very frustrating.

It doesn’t help that the game seems to have a bit of a built-in death spiral. Failing at tests causes you to lose resources or take penalties, which in turn make it more likely that you will fail at future tests and lose more resources or take more penalties, and so on and so forth. The game has an interesting setup whereby you technically can’t lose any of the scenarios (although you can get a less desirable ending), but the way that this works in practice is that doing badly on one scenario puts you at a disadvantage in the next, which puts you at a disadvantage in the next, and so on. The second scenario in the introductory campaign requires your characters (spoilers) to track down and eliminate six cultists. Despite playing as efficiently as we could and (we felt) actually getting pretty lucky with our draws, we only managed to catch five of the cultists, the sixth getting away. I originally felt that this was fair enough: when we finished the scenario, it seemed that the goal had simply been to catch as many cultists as possible and that the difference between catching five and catching all six was much the same as the difference between catching four and catching five.

Then it turned out that you had to discard two of your five starting cards in scenario 3 if you didn’t catch all the cultists in scenario 2. This is a big deal. Now true, you could spend two of your three actions on the first turn to draw back up to five, but then you’ve wasted almost an entire turn, and that’s potentially a major setback given that these games are very much run on a time limit. (Although actually having poked around the internets a bit more, it seems we missed a trick in that we caught five of the six cultists with two turns in hand and knew we couldn’t catch the sixth in time, and looking back at the scenario we could have gone back to the starting location and taken the Resign option, meaning we’d give up on the sixth cultist but that our time wouldn’t have run out, and we’d have been spared the card penalty. Then again we had no real way of knowing this at the time).

Basically my experience of Arkham Horror: the Card Game was that I thought the first scenario was too easy (although admittedly we played it on Easy), the second scenario was about right (it felt tight, we nearly did it, but I do think we got lucky in that we both managed to get some very powerful cards in our starting hands) and the last scenario was a complete disaster. I should probably stress that this is very much an issue of perspective – and from a certain point of view having the final mission be a doomed scrabble against insurmountable odds is actually pretty thematic. I think I might have preferred that those odds come from something a bit less anti-fun than one of the characters getting hit with an essentially unremovable debuff right out the gate, and if it had felt a bit more like we were failing because of our poor choices rather than blind luck and bad draws, but I can see how some people like the idea that you sometimes just can’t beat the Old Gods.

In retrospect I think the draw dependency was particularly upsetting. We played with the recommended starting decks and characters – Roland Banks the Fed and Wendy Adams the Urchin. Roland’s deck is a mixture of “Guardian” (combat with a vaguely police theme) and “Seeker” (research and clues with a vaguely librarian theme) cards. But that meant in scenario 2 he wound up with a hand full of combat cards, making him quite ineffective in investigative situations while in scenario 3 he had a hand full of research cards, making him pretty useless in combat. Wendy, meanwhile, has a powerful item in her deck called Wendy’s Amulet, which allows her to play the top card of her discard pile as if it was in her hand. In scenario 2, we managed to arrange things to that Wendy was able to indefinitely replay a particular card that gave her +2 to basically everything, which meant she kicked ass. Then in scenario 3 she didn’t draw the amulet, which made her pretty close to useless for much of the game.

The thing is, card games are inherently random for hopefully obvious reasons, but part of the skill of deckbuilding is managing that randomness. Unfortunately LCG starter sets tend to be a little bit – and I appreciate this is a loaded term – stingy with the amount of material they give you to start off with. You usually have enough cards to make one okay-ish deck for every character/faction/whatever in the game, but you usually can’t make more than two decks at once (since most decks will share cards) and your decks won’t be very optimised. In particular, one of the best ways to minimise the randomness  involved in a customisable card game is to always run the minimum deck size (this is normally easy to achieve, since it involves having a smaller collection rather than a larger one) and to include the maximum number of copies of any card you want to be able to reliably draw. In Arkham Horror: the Card Game you are entitled to include up to two copies of any card in your deck (except for the unique signature cards that each investigator gets for flavour) but the core set only includes one copy of most of the best cards. This makes the starter decks wildly suboptimal. And perhaps more annoyingly, it strongly limits the game’s customisability unless you buy two starter sets. And that’s a big enough point that I think I’m going to put it in its own section.

The Heart of the Cards

 Arkham Horror: the Card Game is, in many ways, several different games mashed up together. And they’re games I like. The Encounter, Agenda, Act and Location cards in the game all function exactly like their counterparts in the other Arkham Files games. You draw them, they do stuff that screws you over. The cards I want to talk about now are the other cards. The ones that you draw from in order to actually do stuff in the game. These are the cards that you actually collect in this collectible (sorry: “living”) card game. In any given scenario, you will always have the same locations (with a few slight variations), the same encounters, the same Acts and Agendas. But you might well be playing with completely different characters or, even if you’re running the same characters, completely different decks. For me, this is a big part of the appeal of this kind of the game. Being able to swap cards into and out of your deck and see how they work with each other is really good fun.

 Except you can’t really do that in Arkham Horror: the Card Game. At least not with one copy of the base set.

 The base set of AH:tCG contains 103 unique player cards. Of these five are investigators (your actual character, which doesn’t go into your deck) and ten are the unique assets and weaknesses that go with those characters (these do go into your deck, but can’t be changed). A further eight are “basic weaknesses”. Each character is required to add a randomly selected basic weakness to their deck as well as their signature weakness. Ten more are neutral cards, usable by any character (although two of these cards are advanced cards that can only be purchased with experience points, of which more overanalysis later).

 The remaining 70 cards are divided between the game’s five classes: Guardian,  Seeker, Rogue, Mystic and Survivor. There are 14 cards per class, of which 10 are basic and 4 are advanced cards that you have to buy with experience points. The basic set includes duplicates (2 or 4 copies, usually two) of the neutral cards, but only one copy of each class card.

 Constructing a deck for a character requires 30 cards, plus your signatures and a random basic weakness. If I want to construct a starting deck for any given character, I have to build a 30-card deck out of twenty class cards and sixteen neutral cards (since you have the option to include two copies of each). This means that there are only 36 cards (not even unique cards, just cards) I can possibly put in a starting deck, which starkly limits my choices, and if I want to play two-player I’m even more strictly limited, because most neutral cards come as a pair rather than a set of four, so if I choose to – say – put two Manual Dexterity cards into my deck, you can’t put them into yours. After we assembled our recommended starting decks for our initial playthrough, there were exactly two zero-cost neutral cards left in the box, everything else cost XP or was was for other classes.

This puts an incredible number of restrictions on your choices in the base game. Not only is the level of customisation available to you restricted to six cards out of thirty (less if playing two player), but there are also a fair few characters who simply can’t team up on the same investigation. Remember there are five characters, each with access to two classes (each class gets used twice, and no combination appears more than once). For example Wendy the Urchin gets Survivor and Rogue cards, while “Skids” O’Toole the Ex-Con gets Rogue and Guardian cards. But if I wanted to play a game where … um … where an ex-con teams up with a small orphan girl (actually that could be adorable rather than skeevy if you framed it right) I’d have to build two thirty card decks using only Survivor, Rogue, Guardian and Neutral cards. I need sixty cards in total, but there are only forty-six (thirty class, sixteen neutral) meaning I’d fall well short.

The first expansion (the Dunwich Legacy) helps a bit. It adds three unique zero-cost cards for each class (plus one card with an experience cost) and, perhaps more importantly, it includes duplicates of each. But this still leaves the customisation options pretty slim when you look at it. Since the base characters have access to two classes, they effectively have twelve new cards to play with, which is almost enough to make it feel like you get a real choice. But things are much more constrained if you still want to play Wendy and Skids’ Grand Adventure. Adding six cards to each class deck takes the number of cards they have between them to sixty-four. So basically all but four of the cards in the game (including neutral cards, remember) have to be in one or other of their decks.

And the expansion gets even weirder because it introduces five new characters, all of whom have access to only one class, but have the option to include up to five cards (in total) from any other classes. This is cool and increases your flexibility, but also means that these characters need to build a twenty-five card deck using only one set of class cards, plus neutrals. So that’s a twenty-five card deck to be built using only the sixteen cards in the character’s main class and the sixteen neutral cards. That’s not terrible, although I’d point out that if you want to play a game with two of these new characters, that means you need to put together two twenty-five card decks (fifty cards total) out of two sixteen-card class decks plus the sixteen-card neutral deck, which is 48 cards. And in fairness I should add that there’s actually one (count it, one) new neutral card in the first expansion as well, so that does just about make a game with two new characters possible, but you have to use literally all the cards you have. (Okay, you actually get four each of torches and flashlights, so you might have one or two left over, but still).

All of which brings me back to the conclusion that if you want to seriously engage with the customisation element of the game (and this is a really big part of what appeals to me about it), you actually do need to buy two core sets (especially if you’re ever intending to play with more than two players, which I’m pretty sure is genuinely impossible even with the expansion).

I’ve literally just this second finished running the numbers on this one, and I’m still trying to work through my feelings. I’ve seen it argued in some places that since to really get involved with this kind of game you need to commit to spending about $10-$20 a month on cards and expansions, actually springing for a second copy of the base game isn’t a big deal. The hyper-rational part of me that enjoys arguing in favour of letting pandas become extinct (seriously, we could save dozens of less cute animals with what we’re spending on pandas) quite respects this argument (and after all, I’ve bought an awful lot of expansions for Eldrich). Another part of me, however, really objects to being sold a product that I can only use to its fullest potential if I buy it twice. Especially since half the cards in the game (all of the scenario cards, basically) would then be completely wasted. I mean the big advantage that LCGs were supposed to have over CCGs is that you don’t have to waste money on duplicates you don’t want.

If I’m honest, I think part of the reason I’m so angry about this is that I know there’s at least a 40% chance that I’ll buy a second set. Because I am exactly the kind of person this sort of thing works on. Fuck you, Fantasy Flight Games.

Something Approaching a Conclusion

 I don’t know how I feel about Arkham Horror: the Card Game. Because it’s such a strange hybrid, I find it hard to think about it without comparing it to the other games to which it’s similar. And peculiarly, I think it might wind up being one of those strange intransitive preferences, where it somehow becomes possible to think yourself into a corner where you like A better than B, like B better than C, and like C better than A.

 To be more specific, the games with which I feel Arkham Horror: the Card Game most closely compares are T.I.M.E. Stories and Eldrich Horror. I could compare it to other card games like Netrunner, but since I have such a massive bias in favour of co-operative games these days, I actually think the comparison is less useful for me than it might be for some other people (although I’ll add a footnote about how I feel AH:tCG stacks up against other LCGs specifically later on).

 Comparing AH:tCG to Eldrich Horror, I tend to feel that Eldrich is a more complete experience out of the box, gives you more customisability straight away, and feels like it dicks you about less. So I guess I prefer Eldrich Horror to Arkham Horror: the Card Game.

 Comparing Eldrich Horror to T.I.M.E. Stories, I feel like T.I.M.E. Stories has a kind of strange magic to it that Eldrich just misses out on. It’s an event game rather than just a big game, and I feel like for what I want to use it for, T.I.M.E. Stories beats out Eldrich. So I guess I prefer T.I.M.E. Stories to Eldrich.

 Comparing T.I.M.E. Stories to Arkham Horror: the Card Game, I almost think AH:tCG has T.I.M.E. Stories beaten. It plays faster, comes with three scenarios in the core box rather than one, is more replayable while still retaining that joy of discovery, has a less frustrating and opaque release schedule, and actually (I think) achieves just as much storytelling as T.I.M.E. Stories with even less card text (being able to inherit assumptions from all the other games and the original source material helps here, of course). Also, it has actual gameplay where T.I.M.E. Stories has more guesswork and dice-rolling. So I guess I prefer AH:tCG to T.I.M.E. Stories.

 Which is helpful. (And actually a bit untrue, the truth is that T.I.M.E. Stories does do what it does so well that it will always be my go-to game for that thing, it’s just that that thing is very specific).

 To be serious for a moment, I think that like T.I.M.E. Stories or Eldrich I could get super into Arkham Horror: the Card Game. It contains all sorts of things that I really, really like. But I also think that the game will only properly come into its own with quite a lot of investment of time, energy, and money.

 Of the three games, I would hands-down recommend Eldrich Horror over either T.I.M.E. Stories or Arkham Horror: the Card Game if you want a game that plays well out of the box, and which you can enjoy for a good long time without ever spending another penny on supporting material. I would hands-down recommend T.I.M.E. Stories if you want a real event game. Something you get your friends around to play once every three months, and spend as much time talking about afterwards as you spent playing it in the first place (or perhaps that’s only me).

 As for AH:tCG. I’m not sure I’d hands-down recommend it for anybody. Although I think I would make a qualified recommendation for a fair few different people.

 If you aren’t interested in the deckbuilding and customisation elements of the game, but still want to check out the core box, it’s worth a look (well, it’s worth a look if you think £30 is a reasonable amount of money to spend just to take a look at something). I wouldn’t recommend it as highly as Eldrich, but then it’s half the price, and I actually would recommend out-the-box AH:tCG more highly than I would recommend out-the-box T.I.M.E. Stories (did I mention how much I hated Asylum?). My one big recommendation for anybody wanting to play core-only Arkham Horror: the Card Game is that it is probably a very good idea to play on Easy. The manual does this really wanky thing with the difficulty settings where it tries to imply that only the highest difficulty is really worth playing (it uses the same trick Deus Ex used where each difficulty setting is tagged with “I want X” and the lowest level is “I want a story” while the highest level is “I want [Name of the Actual Game I Fucking Paid Money For]” as if any setting but the most pointlessly brutal is somehow an invalid gaming experience). I say this mostly because, when you think about it, playing with a lot of cards that allow you to build a consistent, powerful deck that can effectively overcome challenges actually makes the game way easier. Sticking with the limited decks that you can build using the core box is actually a challenge in itself, easily equivalent to the (perhaps rather less interesting) challenge of putting extra minus-numbers into the Chaos Bag.

 If you are interested in the deckbuilding and customisation elements of the game, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stick with me just a little bit longer.

 Arkham vs Other Customisable Card Games

 Wow this has been long. I mean, honestly, if you came here expecting brevity you probably haven’t read any of my other blog posts.

 Anyway, I quickly want to sum up the reasons that Arkham Horror: the Card Game might finally be the game to actually get me into customisable card gaming when titles like Netrunner haven’t.

 And actually it’s a pretty short summary: it’s co-op. I seriously prefer co-op games these days. Perhaps I’m just a namby-pamby tree-hugger, but I much prefer working with my friends to overcome a challenge than working against my friends to chase some arbitrary goal.

 I don’t really know the genre well enough to be able to say if AH:tCG is the first fully co-op LCG (I think the Lord of the Rings game might have had co-operative elements as well) but it’s the one I’ve noticed, and I’m weirdly excited by it.

 The first big thing here is that this kind of game relies heavily on having people to play it with, and on having people to play it with who are at least as into it as you are. Since I probably like this sort of game slightly more than most of my friends, this made getting into Netrunner or the equivalent a little bit pointless. Because even though I could always buy the cards and then lend them to people so they could play against me, there’d be this uncomfortable sense that it was like challenging your Dad to a game of Mortal Kombat or Fifa. “Come on, play against me at this thing I’m way more invested in and better at than you, it’ll be fun!”

 Fundamentally, it’s a bit churlish to keep inviting your friends over so you can beat them at things you care more about than they do.

 Making the game co-operative fixes that problem. It doesn’t matter if I know the game inside out while you’re only passingly familiar with it because we’re working together, and while quarterbacking (one player telling the other players what to do) is always a danger, it’s a bit harder to do in a game where everybody is controlling a unique character with unique abilities.

 I’m also weirdly interested in the unusual structure of AH:tCG and how it intersects with the customisable card game format. The game is designed to be played in campaigns, with each actual scenario being relatively short, but each campaign taking the best part of a day. Your ability to modify your deck between scenarios is limited by experience points, which means that there’s this whole extra layer of gameplay that takes place in the downtime between scenarios, which I think could be genuinely interesting. And FFG seem to have noticed this so, for example, one of the upcoming expansions includes cards that have effects between scenarios rather than during scenarios. But these cards will be dead draws in an actual game. So you’re balancing the meta-game against the game in-the-moment. There are even cards which do something completely mysterious if you use them, and you won’t find out what they are until you do (for example, one card is called Mysterious Solution: Unidentified and when you use the card successfully you record in your log that you have identified the mysterious solution). It could all be totally awesome.

 Or crap. It could wind up being crap.

 I’m also really keen to see how well the deck-building and customisation elements work when taken co-operatively. I actually think that once I’ve got a few more cards it will be really interesting to sit around with my friends and actually design decks together that complement each other. It’s all the fun of deckbuilding, but you get to do it with your friends. And doing things with your friends is best. Because friends are cool. Yay friends.

 The final thing I’m excited about with AH:tCG is that it’s weirdly low pressure compared to other LCGs. The problem with most Living Card Games (and Collectible Card Games, for that matter) is that the longer they go on, the harder they are to get into. There are so many new cards out that you’ll never be able to compete against strangers because they’ll have literally years worth of expansions backing them up, and you won’t. You could play against friends with your own collection, but that’s the play-your-dad-at-Fifa problem again. This isn’t an issue in a co-op game. Getting into Arkham Horror: the Card Game two years from now will be like playing a two year old single-player video game. Okay, you’ll be a bit behind the curve, and you won’t be playing through the content the cool kids are talking about, but it won’t really matter. That’s very different from trying to get into a very well established competitive game, where you really do have to do a crapload of catching up.

 Oh, I should probably add that while there isn’t much pressure to keep up with the metaphorical Joneses, there is a bit more pressure to buy complete expansion cycles, because every cycle tells one story, and if you don’t buy every pack in an expansion cycle you will miss out on bits of the narrative. How much of a problem you think this is will depend a lot on why you feel you play this sort of game.

 So yes, I’m weirdly fascinated by AH:tCG. If you are also weirdly fascinated, give it a look. But do be warned that you will probably end up having to buy two core sets. Because FFG are canny bastards.

people & cardboard
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So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve embarked upon a probably ill-fated project to finish my old shit before buying any new shit.

I’m actually quite enjoying it so far. But then I’m also being careful not to turn the whole affair into a self-beating stick – I mean, if I super, super want something, I’m going to get it and if I hate something, I’m not going to force myself through it. But I’ve called a halt to general acquisitions.

And, some ways, it’s actually relaxing. There’s just so much … culture out there available for consumption that it often feels simultaneously over and underwhelming. Basically I have this problem, except with books:

But having my choices gently curtailed means I spend time less filled with existential dread over the fact I’ll definitely die before I’ve read everything I want to read. And more time actually reading.

So, here is an update on, um, my shit.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

I think I picked this up because it was an Oxford book, and I have a weakness for Oxford books. It’s sort of half The Secret History half Brideshead Revisited, while not being nearly as good as either. It’s readable enough, I guess, and the intricacies and insularities of Oxford are well-depicted but it all felt very been-there-done-that to me. The narrator is ye typical ‘normal’ outsider person who gets drawn into a circle of fabulous Bohemians, led by a damaged homosexual. The problem is, this sort of book turns on that character being as fascinating to the reader as they are to the narrator. And despite Mark Winters having all the designated attributes—beauty, money, promiscuity, Catholic guilt—I kind of failed spectacularly to give any fucks about him. And the rest of the cast is similarly un-fuck inspiring.

I think part of the problem was a lacklustre dismantling. These novels have a particular trajectory: The Normal comes to university, full of hopes and dreams, is initially disappointed to discover the place isn’t what they imagined. Then they find their low door in the wall and are for a little while blessed, dazzled, enraptured, believing they have what they didn’t originally realise they were searching for. Then it all goes horribly wrong. In The Secret History it’s because they literally murder someone. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian’s descent into ruin mirrors the destruction caused by the coming war. In The Lessons … it’s more just kind of an eh. Things are a bit depressing. People make ill-advised choices and are sad. Oh, the narrator is gay outta nowhere. That must have been one hell of a handjob.

There’s some really well-articulated stuff about Oxford itself though:

What is Oxford? It is like a magician, dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention. What was it for me? Indifferent tuition, uncomfortable accommodation, uninterested pastoral care. It has style: the gowns, cobbled streets, domed libraries and sixteenth-century portraits. It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold. Walking in Oxford, one catches a glimpse through each college doorway, a flash of tended green lawn and ancient courtyards. But the doorways are guarded and the guardians are suspicious and hostile.

And I appreciated the shout-out to the St Giles toilets.

I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer Purcell

Wow, this was awful. Awfully sad and awfully funny. And I liked it awfully. Like The Lessons above it’s a familiar story—this time the subgenre ‘being fucked up with another fuck up’—but, to my mind, it was a lot more successful. Because while “I’m messed up and I’m in love with someone messed up and no matter how hard we try we keep messing each other up” is familiar ground for a memoir, especially a queer memoir, the devil is in the details.

Set in New York in the 90s, Kilmer Purcell works as an advertising executive by day. By night, he performs as his alter-ego Aquadisiac. Though, mainly he drinks. Then he meets an escort called Jack, who keeps a penthouse apartment and helps Josh bring his life fleetingly into some kind of order. And, of course, it unravels with Jack spiralling into drug addiction, and then both of them falling apart together.

Despite the fact that the narrative has one direction, and the direction is down, I still found this really readable: it’s defiant and cynical and unsentimental and charming. I sometimes struggle with memoirs that want to wring a structure from the chaos of being alive. To me, it can feel too neat, too much like fiction. Not everything has meaning, a lesson to learn, a conclusion to find. IANMTD, by contrast, is very much about a particular time and a particular place—the legacy of something real, half-revealed and half-concealed by the artifice surrounding it. If it is “about” anything, I’d say it’s about love. Not in the sweeping romance, HEA way. But love as a thing that happens to you. The ways it changes you and the ways it doesn’t. All the ghosts we leave behind us of the people we were when we were in love.

The last chapter, in particular… eeesh. Left me full of unexpected feels.

This Charming Man by Ajax Bell

Hurrah! I enjoyed this very much. I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about the genre (genrelisations?) but if we accept m/m is a complicated spectrum of voices and agendas and presumed/preferred audiences … this felt consciously queer to me. And, yes, I’m aware this is an arbitrary and entirely subjective judgement.

It’s a coming-of-age story set in … um … somewhere in America … um … Seattle in the 90s? Omg, I’m rubbish. We follow our hero Steven as he grows from aimless party boy to a young man who has decided the sort of life he wants to live. As you can probably tell from my attempt to summarise the plot, most of the action is internal and emotional, but it broadly works. I mean, I could have done with slightly less “Steven talking to everyone about the same things over and over again” but I was sufficiently invested in him as a character that the occasional pace-slowing conversation didn’t trouble me too much.

Steven’s two main relationships are with John, an older man he has as crush on, and Adrian, his fabulous but bad-for-him best friend. Adrian is, well, we’ve all met this character, a few times in life, repeatedly in fiction: beautiful, stylish, shallow, promiscuous, cruel, wounded. Steven starts the book entangled with him, entranced and frustrated, at least half in love with him, while knowing deep down that Adrian will never be with him the way he wants. I feel kind of ambivalent about Adrian. I found him a more successful depiction of someone I was supposed to be attracted to than Mark Winters in The Lessons but I never felt as if I had any direct access to whatever it was that drew Steven to him beyond the generic appeal of someone who is like that. Basically it was like Steven was responding to a fictional archetype he understood to be tempting rather than something specific about Adrian. I mean, possibly that was the point but, in my experience, when we do get tangled up with someone bewitching but destructive it’s highly personal. Otherwise we’d get out of there much more quickly.

I was braced for Adriaan to die horribly at some point because characters like Aidan always die … but (spoiler) he didn’t! In fact, I found the novel generally balanced in its portrayal of queer life and choices.  Drug-taking and partying and having casual sex is bad for Steven in the long-term because it interferes with what he wants to with his life and stops making him happy, but I never got the sense that was part of a broader commentary on the lifestyle. It wasn’t that buckling down, getting a degree and going steady with John was better per se. More that, as Steven figured out his life, it became what he wanted.

In fact, Steven has quite a lot of casual sex and, while sex with someone you love is portrayed as demonstrably different to sex with someone you don’t, I liked that casual sex had a place in the book. And while it wasn’t always completely healthy (like when Steven fucks Adrian in the first chapter) it never crossed the line into bad, abusive or wrong. There’s even some fulfilling friendsex in the middle that is good for both parties. This is actually pretty rare in romance and while it may cross the NOPE line for some readers … I appreciated it very much. Sex is many things. Can be about many things. I personally don’t like the idea that the only valid sex is love-of-life-HEA-sex.

As for the romance … it was … fine. It was nice. Gently kinky, which was a touch surprising since Steven-is-a-bit-of-a-sub kind of emerges slightly untethered towards the middle of the book. But the romance isn’t really the focus here. And mostly that’s okay—except John is a very distant figure sometimes. Their ‘big misunderstanding’ such as it is involves John not phoning Steven because of some shit he’s got going on in his head about not being ready for a potentially complicated relationship with a younger man. And this leads to them spending literally months apart and only gets explained via direct dialogue—which was both understandable, as a natural consequence of limited third person narration, and emotionally unsatisfying to me.

A Charming Man is a bit ragged in places—I wish the pacing was tighter, I’d have liked more emotional depth to Adrian and more access to John. But I loved the sense of place and time—I was teeny-tiny when this book is set, and I’ve never been to Seattle, so I have no idea if it’s authentic or not. But it felt like it had been written with love. Much like the book as a whole: queer and compassionate and unique in many ways.

PS – isn’t this cover pretty? Also A+ Smiths reference.

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A McKillip

Note of shallowness: I am sad I do not have this with the original cover which is super ornate and gorgeous.

I burned out on fantasy quite a few years ago, but there was a lot I enjoyed about this. The fact it wasn’t eighty thousand gazillion pages long, for example, and it’s not the first book of a trilogy, which ends on a cliff-hanger, and book two of which is due for release in 2046. Also there are women in it, which fantasy as a genre is still working on—a variety of women and they get to do cool stuff. It’s a multi-viewpoint thing, bringing together a young scribe, left orphaned outside the library, a trainee wizard, a young queen, and a terrifying sorcerer from beyond space and time.

It took me a while to get into this because you don’t really figure out what’s happening until about halfway through. The stories feel disconnected and the characters a little distant (Bourne, in particular, the trainee wizard remains an attractive cipher throughout) … but once the pieces snap into place, it’s fucking awesome. It’s got all the usual fantasy type tropes in here—magic, war, politics!—but in the end they fall away to tell a very personal story about love and language, and the power of both to control people and save them and tear them apart.

I also loved the depth of the world-building here. While the book never bogs down in detailed explanation—there’s a floating school for magicians, a vast library built into a cliff, a warrior-king sleeping in a cave—there’s an intense sense of place, history and myth. This is very much my personal preference because I know some fantasy readers want six thousand years of timeline and a map. But, me, I want a fantasy author to make me believe they know how the magic works, and what happened 543 years ago, without necessarily feeling obliged to tell me about it.

And the writing, oh the writing is incredibly pretty. So this one was a win for me.

Every moment is like a wheel with a hundred spokes in it. We ride always at the hub of the wheel and go forward as it turns. We ignore the array of other moments constantly turning around us. We are surrounded by doorways; we never open them

And – well, that’s my shit. Come back some other time for some more shit.

Oh, I forgot disclosure and stuff: I know none of these people either personally or on social media.

my old shit
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So, just gather together some stuff I’ve been meaning to actually announce for a while.

First up: I did a proper, official, pretty-looking version of Wintergreen for them as want it. That’ll be available to download from the issue of my newsletter, which I’m hoping to put out on Valentine’s Day but will inevitably and end up sending out some random Wednesday in April. So, yeah, sign up to the newsletter if that’s a thing you think you might want.  Apart from typo-swatting and fine-tuning, there isn’t a lot of difference between the shiny version and the version I posted on the blog a few months back. So if newsletters aren’t you thing you don’t have to worry about missing out.

Sorry I keep trying to force people to sign up for my newsletter all the time. It’s very sporadic but I quite enjoy writing it because it feels like a very opt-inny type of social media. And it means I have something to point at triumphantly when people are like, hey, why aren’t you doing any promo?

Secondly, the billionaire book that’s come out this year (end of April, I think) finally has an agreed title. At least, it’s up on Amazon so I assume it’s been agreed. I keep expecting someone to turn round and be all, “No, you can’t call your book How To Bang A Billionaire.” But it looks like I’ve got away with it.

How to Bang A Billionaire on Amazon UK 

How to Bang a Billionaire on Amazon US

Although I will add that the unadvertised advantage of calling your book How to Bang a Billionaire is that you will definitely be the first hit when searching under the title. Am marketing genius.

Thirdly, I mentioned this on Twitter but I haven’t said anything a more formal medium yet. I recently contracted a three-book series with Avon’s digital imprint. So that’s super super exciting. It’s a Regency-set, well, I was going to say trilogy but it’s not really a trilogy, more just a bunch of books with some connecting characters, anyway it’s a Regency-set one of those and it’s, um, m/f actually.

I’d be more concerned that this looked like a pretty serious branding detour except I like to think I’ve comprehensively established my brand as “all over the fucking place.” I’ve wanted to do historical for a while so this felt the right way to go. Although the books are m/f I still very much see them as an LGBTQ+ series in that at least one, occasionally both, of the protagonists are not normatively heterosexual. The first book has a bisexual hero, the second book as a demi-sexual hero, and the third book has a bisexual heroine and a heteroflexible hero. Although obviously it’s a bit hard to talk about sexuality in those sort of terms in a historical setting.

So, um, yeah, I hope you’ll enjoy those. They should be bawdy, rompy and queer as fuck. I’m also hoping to fulfil a dream I’ve had since I starting writing romance, which is to have a splendid frock-cover. I’d also like big swirly golden writing, but you can only dream so big.

And fourthly: Nicholas “Male Hawke from Dragon Age 2” Boulton’s audio-version of Glitterland is a finalist in the Audies which are like the Oscars of spoken word so … um. Wow. This feels weird beca
use it’s my book but Nick’s performance is kind of its own thing entirely. It was huge privilege to have him lend his talents to Glitterland. If you haven’t heard it, maybe you could hop over to Audible and check it out.

Buy from Audible.co.uk | Audible.com | iTunes

Social media wise, I’m still tweeting nonsense with the help of my social media person. I’ll continue updating the blog. There are still games in my board game collection that remain unreviewed, not to mention seasons and seasons of Star Trek so I like to think I’ll have content for a while. Someday I might even talk about writing but, honestly, I have way more to say about board games.

Another thing I’ve been thing I’ve doing, since rolling into 2017 weighed down by conspicuous consumption, is Finishing My Shit. Because I tend to be very busy, but do have a disposable income, I have an awkward habit of equating buying something with consuming it. So I’m now allowing myself any new shit until I’ve finished at least some of my old shit. I may blog about the old shit that I have finished. Because you can’t go wrong with a blog post about old shit.

Also: I have a newsletter. Did I mention the newsletter? *points at newsletter*

newsery
64 Comments

 So a few months ago I wrote a couple of very, very long posts about a game called T.I.M.E. Stories – a game primarily distinguished by the fact that you can only play it or its expansions once. Since writing those posts I have since bought and played three more T.I.M.E. Stories expansions, and I thought it might be worth looking back at the game now I’ve spent some more … well … time with it.

Long story short, I’ve not really changed my opinions very much, I have very mixed feelings about the game and still feel it only really fits quite a narrow and niche group of players. That said, I do have some specific comments on the expansions, and since T.I.M.E. Stories expansions are as distinct from one another as – well – any other instalments of serial fiction, I thought they were worth reviewing in their own right. I also have a couple of general comments based on a greater familiarity with the game, and on having looked more deeply into other people’s experiences.

Those General Comments

Back when I wrote my original post, I think I probably underestimated quite how much some people love this game. I should stress that I’m not saying that in a disparaging way, just that I was genuinely surprised by how strongly some people seem to have responded to it. The only review I watched before playing was from Shut Up and Sit Down and their experience pretty much mirrored mine – it was fine in some ways, not so fine in others, and the abrupt ending to the introductory scenario left the whole thing feeling a bit hollow and anticlimactic.

Watching and reading a few more reviews on the interwebs, however, I’ve been genuinely amazed at the intensity of people’s reactions. They used phrases like “mind blowing” and “most immersive board gaming experience”. And as far as I can tell they were doing it completely unironically. Even more surprising (from my perspective) was that several of the reviews specifically singled out for praise elements of the game that I’d found needlessly frustrating. (I mean, I say surprising, I’m not a total narcissist, I do get that people sometimes have different opinions from me, it’s just that it’s often surprisingly hard to predict exactly where differences in perception will crop up – this is why politics is so complicated).

More specifically, some people absolutely fucking love the rule that you’re not allowed to show your cards to other people. To them the fact that you’re constantly percieving the world through the distorted mirror of your friends’ interpretations of the way their receptacles (the characters your time traveller controls during the scenario, for thsoe who’ve forgotten) would see things is what absolutely makes the experience. As one reviewer put it, a player might pick up a card, look at it with a growing expression of shock and horror, then put it back down saying “whatever you do, do not go there” (I think he was describing a hypothetical scenario, rather than actual play since he didn’t quite explain how this player would implement the game mechanical effects of the card). Said reviewer seemed super stoked by this idea.

Personally, I would absolutely hate to play a game like that. As would all my friends. But in retrospect my original review didn’t pay enough attention to the possibility that other people might enjoy that style of gameplay more than I do. Hidden-information games are, after all, fun (and I do enjoy Spyfall, for example) and I do actually understand why I’ve-Got-A-Secret can be a cool game to play in some situations.

The other thing I’ve realised is how diverse people’s reactions to specific scenarios are (which is part of the reason that I think these three expansions are worth reviewing seperately). Virtually every review I’ve seen that has covered multiple scenarios has had a completely different order of preferences. SU&SD (who tend to be my go-to reviewers for the simple reason that I tend to agree with them) found Asylum cliched, confusing, and not unproblematic in its portrayal of mental illness. I felt the same (indeed I disliked it so much that it nearly put me off playing any more scenarios) but I’ve seen at least one reviewer who cites it as their favourite. Conversely Prophecy of Dragons was the scenario which convinced me that the game was worth playing regularly (or at least as regularly as scenarios came out) but at least one reviewer cited it as the scenario that made them worry that T.I.M.E. Stories had gone completely off the rails. That same reviewer felt the fourth scenario (Under the Mask) saved the game by putting the emphasis back on story, cutting the gimmicks, and delivering a compelling narrative. Other reviewers found UtM dull and flavourless but loved Prophecy.

Basically there’s an extent to which T.I.M.E Stories (and incidentally I’m beginning to really resent having to put a dot between all the letters in “T.I.M.E.” every time – sorry, every t.i.m.e. – I type the name of the damned game, and I know I could copy-paste it but it’s the principle of the thing) isn’t really one game and its expansions so much as a set of loosely interconnected games with similar mechanics. It’s sort of like the Telltale Games series on PC. Just because you like the one about zombies doesn’t mean you’ll like the one about knights (actually it’s a lot like the Telltale Games series).

Aaand I look back and notice that I’ve spent the best part of a thousand words saying “newsflash, different people like different things.” I am awful at blogging.

Before I move on to the individual reviews, I do have one final throwaway comment to make about the game’s monetisation model. I’m still a bit torn about a game that’s designed around expansions that cost £18 and can only be played once, since I’m used to getting more play out of most games. But I have just realised that in the past few months I’ve bought a truly staggering number of expansions for Eldrich Horror, and since I’ve yet to beat the same Old God twice, I’m not totally sure that I can say All the Eldrich is any better an investment than All the T.I.M.E. Stories. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s worse if I look at it objectively.

Anyway, on to those scenarios.

There will be some spoilers from here on. I will do my best to flag them up.

Under the Mask

I’m doing these in the order I played them, which isn’t publication order (The Marcy Case was unavailablefor a long time). The first scenario we played after Prophecy of Dragons (and the last one we were able to get our hands on for several months, because the game seems to go out of print with a slightly worrying regularity) was Under the Mask.

I don’t remember a huge amount about Under the Mask, partly because it was a long time ago and partly because it doesn’t have anything like as many obvious hooks as the other games. Indeed it was in listening to other people’s reviews in order to remind myself about the scenario that I discovered quite how polarising it seems to be amongst players.

Under the Mask is a bit of an anomaly amongst T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios. Virtually every other story is basically just a well-explored narrative genre lightly dusted with the game’s framing device. Indeed of the four other scenarios, three seem to be inspired directly by specific tabletop roleplaying games (Asylum is explicitly a tribute to French RPG Malefices, the new expansion Expedition: Endurance is clearly a Call of Cthulhu scenario and Prophecy of Dragons is Dungeons and … well, you get the idea) and the one that isn’t is about zombies. And zombies are in everything.

By contrast, Under the Mask feels strangely low-key, and also unusually well integrated into the broader context of time travel. One of the reviewers I watched for research suggested that they were disappointed that the game wasn’t more like the late ’90s Mummy movies – you never get attacked by anything undead, never encounter a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs, and you’re never cursed by anybody. Instead you do things like visiting the dyer’s district and giving people wooden toys for their children. Personally (having been, I admit, a bit twichy about the potential for cultural appropriation), I was really happy that the designers seemed to have decided to treat Egypt as a real place where real people actually lived, rather than as some kind of movie set. Although I suppose it’s a bit ironic that this team of French game designers produced a simplified but ultimately sympathetic and down-to-earth portrayal of New Kingdom Egypt while presenting 19th-century Paris as a Grand Guignol full of satanists and evil doctors.

Under the Mask includes (and this is a very minor spoiler, but it’s a spoiler for literally the first scene) a cute mechanic whereby your characters can switch receptacles mid-run, taking over the bodies of people they encounter on their travels. Leaving aside the dubious ethical implications of this (there is no indication of what happens to the receptacles you leave behind), it’s an interesting attempt to engage with the game’s actual premise (something basically none of the other scenarios do). The net result is that in Under the Mask, pretty much uniquely amongst T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios, you actually feel like body-jumping time travellers attempting to solve problems in the past, rather than body-jumping time travellers who have chosen for some inexplicable reason to play a specific session of a tabletop roleplaying game. I suspect that it is this distinction which accounts for the scenario’s mixed responses amongst reviewers. If you specifically want T.I.M.E. Stories to do what it says on the tin, it’s great, because for the first time you really feel like you’re playing  T.I.M.E. Stories instead of  T.I.M.E. Stories Does D&D or  T.I.M.E. Stories Does Zombies. If, on the other hand, you liked the fact that the other scenarios were basically disconnected genre pieces, I can see why you’d be disappointed.

I have to admit that, much as I aesthetically appreciated the game’s commitment to Ancient-Egypt-As-Real-Place instead of Ancient-Egypt-As-Theme-Park, I did find Under the Mask a bit forgettable, perhaps precisely because it didn’t have a clear genre to hang its ideas on. I’m speculating wildly here, but I feel like most of the other scenarios were designed by people who were genuinely super enthusiastic about whatever they were about – creepy asylum horror, zombies, whatever – while UtM seemed a bit more constructed. More like they’d been casting about for a setting and said “oh, how about we do one in Ancient Egypt”, and somebody had dutifully sat down and written a scenario set in Ancient Egypt, which was nicely realised and researched but which didn’t have the same raw fire and enthusiasm that some of the others had.

Expedition: Endurance

There is a famous Lovecraft story about an ill-fated Antarctic expedition called At the Mountains of Madness which inspired a famous Call of Cthulhu scenario about an ill-fated Antarctic expedition called Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Expedition: Endurance sees Bob (remember Bob, your aggressively unsupportive handler?) dispatching your little group of Time Agents to discover what happened to an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. I mentioned above that Expedition: Endurance was basically a Cthulhu scenario, and while I appreciate that this was technically a spoiler, it barely counts as one. I mean it’s not quite as explicit as The Marcy Case where there are literally zombies on the first card you put down in the game, but I honestly can’t imagine anybody being surprised to discover that there are Lovecraftian elements in E:E – I mean it has Insanity cards, for pity’s sake.

The other reason I was a little bit blasé about spoilering the Cthulhoid elements of Expedition: Endurance is that I honestly feel that  T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios are easier to enjoy if you know going in what to expect. The major problem I had with Asylum was that I didn’t have a clear idea what the story was going to be like. Certainly I wasn’t anticipating naked cultists and demons in a game about time travel.

In a lot of ways, I don’t have much to say about Expedition: Endurance. I basically felt that it was uncomplicatedly good. My most significant issue with Asylum was that I didn’t have a clear handle on what was going on, but in Expedition: Endurance I didn’t have that problem. A Call of Cthulhu scenario was going on. People were going mad and there were monsters and cultists and a mysterious black monolith. I knew exactly where I was with all that. And for what it’s worth I suspect I’d have liked Asylum more if I’d know its source material as well as I knew that of E:E.

Perhaps the feature of Expedition: Endurance I found most interesting was the way in which it seemed to explicitly build on the feature of the game that I hate and a lot of other people love – the “I’ve got a secret” feature. One encounter involves a player being given a card that does something mysterious and a bit unspecified. The card not only says that they can’t show it to the other players, it also says that they keep it not just for the rest of the game, but for all future games of T.I.M.E. Stories. This suggests some very weird things about the way Space Cowboys (the designers) expect people to be playing their game. Do I have to bring this card if I play it with a different group of players? At a games evening? At a con? If I skip town and change my name? A tiny part of me really hopes they go all the way with this and start putting this one card in all their other games too (“If you have Item 2 from the T.I.M.E. Stories scenario Expedition: Endurance, draw a card”).

Your characters can also lose Sanity (like in Call of Cthulhu) and gain randomised Insanities (like in a certain style of Call of Cthulhu). Again, these often exploit the presumed way in which the game is played. For example (and this is a bit more of a spoiler, but I think it’s interesting – skip the next couple of paragraphs if it bothers you) one of the Insanity cards is called Paranoia. The game mechanical effect of the Paranoia card is explicitly “You cannot take the last action suggested to you by another player”. Which I can completely see being balls-out-amazing for people who enjoy the immersive style of play in which you get an incomplete picture of the game world through the other players’ descriptions, but which would have bugged the shit out of me if we’d drawn it (we actually managed to avoid insanity entirely through a mixture of genre savvy and a carefully deployed husky).

Even more bizarrely, there are a set of cards which you are explicitly not allowed to look at even after you finish the game. You can look at them if they come up in play, but if you look at them afterwards the rules explicitly say you are penalised (they take away some of the post-game rewards you are supposed to get but which my group never bothers to track). Spoiler: these cards consist almost entirely of oblique hints about future scenarios, or callbacks to earlier scenarios.

I actually really enjoyed Expedition: Endurance, but at the end we kind of felt we’d have got more out of it if we’d played it more in the spirit in which it was intended.

The Marcy Case

This was the first expansion released and the last one I played. Funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t it? I do feel that it was the scenario that I enjoyed the most, but I’m not sure how much of that was to do with the game and how much was to do with the fact that T.I.M.E. Stories definitely grows on you the more you play it. Its quirks become more expected and therefore less frustrating, and you have a much clearer idea of what you can and can’t expect from it. Once you get used to the idea that the core gameplay loop is “get information, fail, get chewed out by Bob for doing a completely expected part of your job, get more information, fail again, get a third lot of information, win” it’s both engaging and satisfying.

This is going to get particularly detailed and spoilery, so stop here if you’ve not played The Marcy Case, are intending to play it, and care about that sort of thing.

The titular “Marcy Case” is a weird mashup of Terminator, Heroes and the Walking Dead. You’re told to “save Marcy, save the world”, that you have to go back in time and rescue a young woman because she’ll be important to the future timeline, and also there are zombies. The situation seems fairly straightforward – you have to go back to 1992 and find a girl called Marcy who is somewhere in this small US town. The zombies are a bit of a complication (and one that Bob doesn’t tell you about, for basically no reason) but really we all know how to deal with zombies by now, don’t we (aim for the head, don’t make too much noise, definitely shoot anybody who even looks like they’ve been bitten). The real twist in the tale is that as you explore the town you will find four different girls, all of whom could be Marcy, and you have to work out which is the one you’re after.

This “spot the Marcy” mechanic is … tricky. As a puzzle it’s quite satisfying, there are suitably cryptic clues scattered throughout the ravaged town that allow you to narrow down your choice, and when you work out which Marcy is the real Marcy you feel genuinely clever. Where it gets more problematic is when you look at it from a perspective of either verisimilitude or … umm … squickiness.

Because “which Marcy is the real Marcy” is the core puzzle of the game, it is important for Marcy’s identity to be hard to determine. This means that they can’t let you just ask them their names because … well … that would spoil things rather quickly. So all the “Marcies” are in a drugged stupor when you find them. They’re also kind of all identical looking, distinguishable primarily by the bracelets they wear with codes like “Subject VPX-234-182-JLN” (I made that code up). Various bits of data give you information about the different code numbers, so you might learn that subject VPX-234-182-JLN is only 16 when you know Marcy is 17 (this is a made up clue as well although Marcy really is 17, of which more later), so then you know that Marcy isn’t the right Marcy and you can safely … umm … leave her to die in a zombie apocalypse?

Yeah, this is where some of the squickiness starts.

I should say from the outset that I understand that T.I.M.E. Stories is working with a very limited set of resources. All of the rules, special effects, locations, mechanics and people have to be represented by cards, and half of those cards, by default, are labelled “Item” even if what they actually represent is a rules change or a character. I should also say that I understand the fact that in any rescue scenario, the person you’re trying to rescue will inevitably wind up being a voiceless McGuffin, and that you want to make the central puzzle challenging. But when you spend most of the game picking up these girls, all of whom are specifically designed to be difficult to distinguish from one another, all of whom are drugged so that they can’t speak, all of whom are slowly dying in front of you and only one of whom you are in any way incentivised to care about saving, and who are all literally represented game mechanically as “Items” … well … it all just gets a bit too objectificationy for me to be totally comfortable with it.

Even apart from all that, though, the fact that the Marcies all seem to be physically near identical seems just plain implausible. You go in knowing only that Marcy is in town, that she is seventeen, has been abducted by parties unknown. You get to see one photograph, but it’s from when she was ten, so it’s not really much use for identifying her as a teenager although it does tell you that she probably has red hair. You find a number of girls who could be Marcy, all of whom seem to have been part of some kind of shadowy experiment at the Secret Military Base. They are all in their late teens. They are all redheads. They are all identified by ID-Numbers, and this is the only way that the Secret Military Base Scientists ever refer to them.

Just … what was the plan here? What the hell kind of research are you doing at this place that specifically requires you to abduct four identical-looking red-headed teenage girls? Some of the in-game information suggests that they’re doing the obligatory supersoldier research that all Secret Military Bases do, something about “muscle strengthening” or the like. But what made them think they needed red-headed girls to make it work? There’s one clue that says they hypothesised that the procedure would only work on people under the age of 19, but why would they think that in the first place? Why is 19 magic? Different people’s bodies develop differently and at different rates. I mean I know that the real answer is so that you can find out that one of the Marcies is 19 when you know the real Marcy is 17, so you can eliminate her from your enquiries, but it’s never really justified in-character.

It’s probably to the game’s credit that so much of this is fridge logic. My experience of playing Asylum was one of being constantly jolted out of the game by confusions and frustrations, waiting somewhat impatiently for the point at which the game would start making sense and getting increasingly annoyed when it never did. The Marcy Case, by contrast, left me with a very clear sense of what was happening. There is a Secret Military Base. They are doing Bad Science Experiments at the Secret Military Base. This probably unleashed the zombies that we are currently fighting. They also probably have Marcy, but there are several different test subjects and we don’t know which one she is. It was only about half an hour after we’d finished the game that I realised how little of what I’d understood to be the plot had actually been supported by the game we played. The most hilarious moment being the point at which I realised that, from the actual information presented to us in-character, there wasn’t only no real information about the experiments the secret military base was doing on Marcy, there was no real evidence that (a) any of the girls were Marcy at all or (b) the zombie plague had anything to do with the experiments that the Secret Military Base People were doing on their interchangeable redheads.

There is no evidence for (a) because you identify Marcy by process of elimination. You learn that three of the four girls can’t be Marcy, so the fourth one must be. But this doesn’t actually follow at all. After all, we know that the SMBP, by accident or design, captured at least three girls who were identical to Marcy but were not Marcy. There’s no especial reason to believe that they didn’t capture four. There is no evidence for (b) because you find a fair number of notes from the experiments that the SMBP are doing on the girls, and the notes tend to say things like “subject  VPX-234-182-JLN showed early promise, but life signs are now fading” or “subject  OMG-221-940-FML is too old for the process to work correctly.” None of them say anything like “subject HNZ-008-811-PEW shows signs of turning into a fucking zombie.” More than that, the Marcies (along with several other characters you meet in town) are all “infected” with a condition that causes them to die after a certain number of time units pass. None of these characters turn into zombies. The one character you meet who does turn into a zombie is also the one character you meet who isn’t flagged as infected. So actually not only is there no evidence that the experiments being carried out at the Military Base are responsible for the zombie uprising, there’s actually a small amount of direct counter evidence.

I’d also point out that if the experiments the SMBP carried out on Marcy were responsible for the zombie uprising, that would be yet more reason to suspect that she was not amongst the Marcies you rescued. If the zombies were created by the Marcy experiment then it follows that a Marcy would have been patient zero, so there would be a pretty good chance that the real Marcy was out there somewhere shambling around trying to bite people.

I am probably overthinking this. Although I do like the idea that the scientists in the secret military space were carrying out their sinister experiments and then got interrupted by a zombie apocalypse that occurred for totally unrelated reasons.

Conclusions

 As I suggested at the start, I’ve not really changed my mind about  T.I.M.E. Stories. It has a whole lot of flaws, a whole lot that is frustrating, and a whole lot of potential to be a really engaging and fun experience.

 Normally what I’d say about expansions is “if you like the base game, you’ll probably like this”, but T.I.M.E. Stories is different in that respect. Each story is sufficiently different that your experience of previous games will be a relatively poor guide to your experience of this one. I can’t really tell you whether you’ll enjoy a particular T.I.M.E. Stories expansion or not. Nor can I tell you if any of the existing T.I.M.E. Stories expansions are worth buying the base game for if you were put off by the idea of Asylum as the introductory scenario.

 I think as a general rule of thumb, I’d say that if you already own base T.I.M.E. Stories you should try whichever expansions feel most like they’re about the sort of thing you like things to be about. If you like zombie scenarios that make no sense when you think about it, you’ll like The Marcy Case. If you like Lovecraftian horror or, even more specifically, tabletop Call of Cthulhu, you’ll like Expedition: Endurance. If you like the idea of being a time traveller in a version of Ancient Egypt that’s big on dyers’ districts and short on mummies, you’ll enjoy Under the Mask.

 If you don’t already own base T.I.M.E. Stories, this is a slightly tougher call. I’d recommend getting it either if (like a great many reviewers) you’re fundamentally enthused about the whole idea of the game, or if you actively like the idea of Asylum, or if you think you’d be interesting in checking out more than one or two of the expansions (it probably isn’t worth buying a base game with a scenario you don’t want just to play an expansion with a scenario you do want, that you’d have to buy separately).

 So that’s my thoughts on all the T.I.M.E. Stories expansions I hadn’t played last time. They seem to be putting out about one new story every three months, so stay tuned for the next one of these some time around Christmas.

 

people & cardboard
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Hi! Welcome to another one of my sporadic board game posts. Normally in this, well, I call it a series but perhaps “infrequently updates set of things” might be a slightly more apposite moniker… anyway, normally in this series I talk about quite big, chunky, time intensive games that need a whole evening to finish. Okay, actually normally in this series, I talk about Eldritch Horror and I have just got the new expansion for that so I might blog about it at some point. But today I thought I’d talk about games you can buy for less than twenty quid and play in less than twenty hours.

Partly because short games are, well, shorter than long games and partly because I like themes more than is perhaps rational I thought I’d review multiple games in this post and, specifically, that I’d review a set of games, each of which revolves around some kind of hidden identity.

Game 1: Love Letter

Because I’m an awkward bugger, I thought I’d start my post about hidden role games with a game that isn’t really a hidden role game, but which shares a lot of similarities with the genre. I actually mentioned Love Letter briefly in my first post in this non-series, in which I outlined its main selling point as being its simplicity, its surprising depth, and the fact it comes in a little velvet bag.

The game is played with a deck of exactly sixteen cards. They are, in descending order of value: one princess, one countess, one king, two princes, two handmaids, two barons, two priests, and five guards. Every player gets one card (the leftovers remain in the deck) and, on your turn, you draw one card from the deck, then play one of the two cards you now hold. The game continues until there are no cards left in the deck and the winner is the one with the most valuable card at the end of the game. That is literally the whole of the game play.

This seems both very simple and a little bit random (essentially whoever winds up with the princess wins). But it’s made more complicated because some cards allow you to manipulate other people’s cards or even eliminate them from the game entirely. When you play the Baron, for example, you compare the other card in your hand with another player and whoever’s card has the lowest value is knocked out immediately. When you play a guard, you guess what someone else’s card is and, if you’re right, they’re knocked out immediately. Some cards can make people discard their hand and, if you discard the princess, you’re knocked out immediately.

The crucial thing about this gameplay loop is that pretty much every card becomes more powerful as you gain more information. And because every played and discarded card remains face up on the table at all times it becomes more and more possible to make accurate deductions about what cards people are holding. More than that, it’s possible to make higher level deductions based on what choices people make and what effects cards have on other cards.

For example, if someone plays a Baron then you know that one of the two Barons has been played. But you also know that their other card is either good enough that they expect to win the Baron challenge or unplayable enough that they have to risk knocking themselves out. Once the challenge is completed, you know who won, which means you know the other person’s card is higher. (Remember, that when someone is knocked out, their card gets put face up on the table). A relatively common and deeply terrifying situation in a game of Love Letter is to find yourself holding the Baron and the Princess. Now, on the one hand this is great because you know you can definitely eliminate any player of your choice (you play the Baron, you compare hands, your hand will definitely be harder because the Princess is the highest card in the game) but you also know that if the person you eliminate is holding another high card, then every other player in the game will know that you card was higher than theirs. The absolute nightmare scenario (and, bear in mind, that I’m saying nightmare scenario within the context of a light-hearted card game about sending love notes to a pretty lady) is they’re holding the Countess (the second highest value card) in which case everybody immediately knows that you have the Princess and can therefore remove you from the game almost at will with a Guard or a Prince.

It all comes together to form an adorable but beautifully rigorous deduction puzzle. Once about half the cards have been played, you can narrow everybody else’s hand down to a very small number of possibilities and can often predict who must win given what combinations of cards in a way that makes you feel a very small amount like a chess grandmaster.

Because the game itself is a little bit random (in that you can potentially get eliminated before you’ve even had a turn, if you get unlucky) it is played over several hands. The winner of a given hand gets a ‘token’ (a little red cube, representing some sign of the Princess’s favour) and the winner is the first person to get to a particular number of these. And I think this might be one of those situations where my friends and I have been playing a game a wrong for years and I’ve only worked it out because I wanted to check something for a blog post. We’ve normally played as the first to two or three tokens, irrespective of the number of players. This has the drawback of making the game get longer with more people, but it’s always felt about right to us, and we have a relatively consistent number of friends. Double-checking the rules, it turns out the number of tokens needed to win is actually 7 for a two-player game, 5 for a thee-player game, and 4 for a four-player game. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it’s nice that they’ve chosen to scale things with number of players. On the other hand, and maybe this is just me, as much as I enjoy Love Letter I tend to get a little bit tired of it after four or five hands. So requiring a minimum of four hands and a maximum of thirteen hands to finish a game feels a little bit excessive to me. Having said all that, this rule is clearly easily ignorable, as evidenced by the fact that my friends and I have clearly ignored it.

In short: Love Letter is a light-hearted, relatively fast-faced (if you ignore the play a million hands rule), easy to understand game of bluffing and deduction. Also its theme is just genuinely nice. It’s not often you get games about interacting socially rather than, well, killing shit. Although, to be fair, that might be a reflection of the games I choose to play rather than the games that actually exist.

Game 2: Coup

So Coup actually is a hidden role game. And I should probably explain what those are. Annoyingly, the best way to do that might be to explain what role games are because the best to understand hidden role games is that they’re role games but the roles are hidden.

Basically, a role game or role choosing game is one where, on any given turn, every player gets to pick a particular role which gives them a particular ability. These roles are normally limited in some ways, often there will only be one or two copies of each, and it is frequently the case that some roles are legitimately stronger than others. Success in a role game depends strongly on choosing the right role at the right time to properly execute your strategy. Examples include, Citadels, Puerto Ricco, and so on.

A hidden role game is like a role game except you’re allowed to lie about what your role is. In Citadels, every turn one person gets to be the King and whoever gets to pick first, can pick the King and then no-one else is King. In a hidden role, one person gets to be the King (which usually means, one person has the card which says they’re King) but, even if you don’t have the King card, you can lie and say you’re the King and get away with it as long as no-one challenges you. I understand that is broadly how most European monarchies functioned between the 12th and 18th centuries.

In Coup each take player takes the role of a shadowy puppet master in a Dystopian future with a slightly Capitol from Hunger Games aesthetic. Each player controls two, well, the game calls them influence, but it’s basically cards with roles on them. The aim of the game is to eliminate the other shadowy puppet master by destroying their influence – that is to say, by making them discard their cards. You generally do this by building up money until you have enough to pay for a coup or an assassination.

There are five roles in the game: the duke, the assassin, the captain, the ambassador and the comtessa and each one either enables you to take a special action or block an action. On your turn, you may do one of four things: take a small amount of money (which no-one can stop), take a larger amount of money (which the duke can stop), pay seven monies to stage a coup (no-one can stop that either), or use a character ability. You don’t have to use the ability of a character you’ve actually got.  But whenever you use a character’s ability, everybody else in the game has the option to challenge you. If you claim to be the Duke (and, therefore, entitled to use the Duke’s super money gaining powers) but you aren’t the Duke and somebody says you aren’t the Duke you discard one of your characters (remember you only have two cards, and if you lose them both you’re out the game). If you are the Duke, however, you can reveal your Duke card, meaning the person who accused you loses one of their cards, putting them one step closer to being forcibly run out of the shadowy manipulation business and you (and everybody else) one stop closer to winning.  Once you’ve revealed your Duke, you then shuffle it back into the deck and draw a replacement.  You can also be challenged if you attempt to use one of your cards to block somebody else’s action.

All of this leads to a surprisingly tense game of bluff, counterbluff, vindictive aggression and naked fuckery. In a game we played fairly recently, one of my friends pretended to have forgotten what one of her cards did, which led her own husband to assume that she was bluffing about having it in the first place. She wasn’t. Because it’s a game where you directly eliminate other players, there is (or can be) quite a lot of picking on people and I’ve not played it enough yet to work out the optimal amount of picking on to do (and, obviously, this varies a lot depending on the social dynamic of my group). Get ahead too early and the other players are quite likely to gang up on you. On the other hand, depending on what friends are like, there might be that one person who it’s fun to gang up on pretty much regardless of the strategic situation. In my friendship group, that’s usually me.

There are a number of things I find elegant about Coup. Because of the simple but varied interactions between enabling cards and blocking cards and between honesty and bluffing it makes even quite simple action-reaction events feel quite layered. For example, two of the cards in the game are the Assassin and the Comtessa. The assassin allows you to force somebody else to discard a card (much like the Coup action) but it only costs three money, less than half the price of a coup. I sort of have this image of your shadowy manipulator sitting in their office, saying Soon, soon all the pieces will be in place. I will have my pawns in the highest tiers of my enemy’s power structure. I will have my spies watching his every moment and, with but a word, I shall be able to destroy him only to have the assassin come up and say yeah, we could do that, or we could just shoot him in the head.

Anyway, calling an assassination against someone is probably the single most choice-inducing action you can take in the game. If someone coups you, that’s it, you lose a card, you might be out. If somebody assassins you, suddenly there’s a whole lot of shit to weigh up. First of all, as they point out in the rules, if you let the assassin through you lose a card but if you challenge it and you’re wrong you lose a card for the assassin and a card for the incorrect challenge (which puts you out immediately). So there’s already quite high stakes here. And if you do decide to try and challenge an assassin, there’s actually two ways to do it. You could either try to call your opponent’s bluff, say they don’t have an assassin and risk losing if they do. Or you can claim to have the Comtessa. The Comtessa blocks assassinations and that is all she does. Of course, if you claim to have the Comtessa and you don’t, you’re in essentially the same situation because if you’re opponent calls you on your Comtessa-less status, you lose a card for making a false statement and the assassination still goes through. So you’re out the game again. But what bluffing the Comtessa does do is put the ball back in your opponent’s court. Because now they’re the one who has to decide whether it’s worth risking the loss of a card in order to see whether or not you’re bluffing. So if someone tries to assassination and you haven’t got a Comtessa, the decision then becomes “is it more likely that my opponent has really got an assassin or that they will decide to gamble on my not having a Comtessa” and you’ve got to make that decision fast enough that your opponent doesn’t read into your hesitation the fact that you’re weighing up challenging assassin versus bluffing Comtessa, given that you can reasonably assume that if you really had a Comtessa you’d just declare it immediately. Of course that leads to yet another level of potential bluffing (and this is essentially what happened during the minor incident of marital strife the last time we played this game) in that if you know you have a Comtessa you can pretend to have forgotten that the Comtessa is an option (which people often do if they aren’t holding one) in order to bait your opponent into challenging your Comtessa play, when you know you really have one.

Like I said: fuckery.

Like Love Letter the game replies partly in the players’ abilities to make deduction based on the fact that the number of role cards is limited. There are exactly three of each role in the game and all discarded cards (not recently shuffled cards) remain face up in front of the player permanently. This means that sometimes you’re deciding whether to call somebody’s bluff on the basis of additional information about what cards they could possibly have. If I’m holding an assassin and there are two assassins face up on the table and somebody calls an assassin against me I can be pretty confident in challenging it.

The final thing I’ve noticed about Coup is that it often builds towards a strange sort of inevitability. It might just be the way we play it, but the game tends to end up with everybody one card and then eliminations start to happen quite quickly. Once you’re down to two players with one card, the dynamic becomes very interesting because essentially whoever gets to seven monies (the coup threshold) first definitely wins. Bluffing an assassin isn’t an option because your opponent is guaranteed to call you (since they have nothing to lose) so the head-to-head tends to fall into a stable pattern where both players have a best role to call and both players calling those roles will lead to one player hitting seven first, meaning the other person’s only hope of winning is to call the other player’s bluff. Which essentially means that the head to head is decided by whether the person whose optimal role choice leads to them winning actually has the card that corresponds to that role.

Alternatively, it comes down to whoever has the assassin.

Because the final conflict has this sense of inevitably about it the dynamic between three or four players gets very strange indeed. If three players are all sitting on five to six coins, then whoever calls coup first will almost certainly get immediately counter-couped by the person they didn’t eliminate. Which makes it feel that sometimes the best option would be to pass, but you’re not allowed to pass. And if you bluff something that would let you set up for endgame you might get called and lose, but then again you might not because everyone else is risking elimination as well. So wah!

Basically, it’s scary, thinky and bluffy. Which is a really good game for the sort of person who likes that sort of thing (and I personally do).

Game Three: Mascarade

Mascarade is a hidden role game except you don’t know your role any more than anybody else does. It has the same basic set up as Coup or Citadels: a bunch of different characters, each character has a special ability. Like with Coup, you can claim any ability in the game, but you get penalised if you claim falsely. There are three of four significant differences between Coup and Mascarade, which, taken together, make it a lot weirder.

Unlike Coup, Mascarade (by default) gives each player one identity rather than two, and does not involve player elimination.  Like Coup, it involves racking up monies and winning once you’ve reached a certain monies threshold. But in Mascarade it’s just “get 13 gold and win”, rather than “get enough gold to get knock somebody else out the game, only to find this has left you vulnerable to somebody knocking you out the game wargle wargle wargle.”

Like Coup, on your turn you have the option of taking a character action or one of the game’s default actions. Unlike Coup, money is gained only through character actions and the default actions are, well, a bit more confusing. Not because there are a lot of them but because they are as follows:

  1. As your action, you may look at the card in front of you. This might be really important for reasons we’ll see later.
  2. As your action, you may take a card from another player, swap them under the table (you are allowed to keep track, but other people are not supposed to be able to see it) and then return one card to the other player, and keep the other for yourself.

So basically, you can start out a game of Mascarade with one of you as a judge, one a king, one as  fool, one as a witch, and two as peasants (if the peasants are in the game, there are always two of them, every other role is unique) and, after a couple of rounds have gone by, the king will have become a peasant, one of the peasants will have become a witch, the fool will think he’s still the fool but will actually be the judge, and the judge won’t have a clue what’s going on.

Like in Coup, you declare an action you like but other people can challenge you. unlike in Coup, the only way a person can challenge is by declaring that they are the person you are claiming to be. I am the King, you say, I will take three gold from the treasury (this is a good ability).  No you are not, says another player,  I am the King. Then you both turn  your cards over. At this point, it is extremely likely that neither of you are king. It is entirely possible that the person who originally claimed to be king was deliberately bluffing, it is equally possible that they sincerely thought they were the king, but had lost track in all the confusion. It is possible that the person who challenged sincerely though that they were the king. It is also possible that they knew full well they were not the king, but also strongly believed that the first player was not the king either and felt they would rather take the incorrect challenge penalty, than let player 1 get three gold for nothing.

This brings us to the other important difference between Mascarade and Coup—and it’s also why I think I slightly prefer Mascarade, even though Coup works better with the number of players I have access to. A lot of the time, in Coup, I found that people were hesitant to challenge and I think hesitant to bluff because the penalties for being caught out were so severe. In Mascarade, a called bluff or an incorrect challenge have the same penalty, which is that you pay 1 gold into the court house. This is enough of a deterrent that you’d rather it didn’t happen but mild enough that it doesn’t really discourage people from bluffing (either deliberately or accidentally) and calling. Also, unlike Coup, you keep you card even after it’s been revealed (it gets put back face down in front of you) so challenges give useful information and I’ve known several people deliberately challenge another player just because they had no idea who they were and were willing to pay one gold to look at their card without wasting a turn.

I appreciate that I use the word elegant a lot but one of things I find elegant about Mascarade is the way the penalty system works. One of the problems with first past the post games is that they lead inevitably to knobble the leader. If somebody’s on twelve gold, you have to take gold off them or else they win. It really is that simple. This effect becomes incredibly frustrating in some games, like SJG’s Munchkin, where the aim is to get to level ten but because you can play cards that make people lose levels the game just drags on and on and on as people reach level 9, get blasted down to level 8, climb back up to level 9, get blasted down to level 8 and so on until you’ve played every card in the game, or quit in sheer frustration.

In Mascarade, however, money never leaves the economy. Some characters , like the witch or the thief, can steal from other players. And some, like the king or the queen, can take money from the bank. But money never goes from play back to the bank.  All fines, paid for incorrect challenges or incorrect claims, go the court house, and all the money on the court house can be taken by the judge (or someone claiming to be the judge). The game contains more roles than you use in a given session but one of the key rules is that the judge must always be in play. This means that the further the games goes the closer everybody gets to winning and it becomes inevitable that someone will cross the threshold before it gets too dull.

I think the other reason I favour Mascarade over Coup is that often in Coup I felt forced onto the defensive or like there wasn’t I could do that was interesting or exciting. And, to be fair, this is just a feature of the game. Coup involves a small number of roles that have a limited and specific set of actions. And the gameplay games from using that knowledge and those actions efficiently and effectively. In Mascarade, by contrast, it’s quite hard to have strategy because it very quickly reaches the point where nobody has a clue what’s happening. As a result, the game is a lot more about taking risks, doing things that seem like a good idea at the time, and generally embracing the chaos. There are also a lot more comeback mechanics built in. The witch can swap her entire fortune with another player. The widow can immediately claim enough coins to bring her total to ten. Depending on how other people have played, the judge can produce massive swings. It means never quite get that situation where it’s just Player A on six coins and Player B on four coins, and all B can do is bluff the captain and hope his opponent doesn’t have the duke.

I think what I find most interesting about Coup and Mascarade as a pair is how different they wind up being with such similar mechanics. Coup, based on player elimination, high stakes bluffing and a steady increase in available information leads to a tense, all or nothing game with a lot a strategy. Mascarade with a first-past-the-post system, low stakes bluffing and systems designed to obscure information at every step leads to a chaotic whacky game where you can think you’re a bishop but really be a queen. And haven’t we all been there.

In summary, I’d say two things about Mascarade. The first is that it really works with more than four people, which can be quite a high bar for a gaming group, depending on, well, how popular you are and the relative nerdiness of your friends. The second thing I’d say, is that it does do your head in. Shut Up And Sit Down suggested that one of the things about Mascarade that catches out new players it feels more accessible that it perhaps is. For the first couple of rounds, you can just about keep track of who everyone else is, but as that becomes more and most impossible it can, for new players, be more and more frustrating.

The final thing I’d say about Mascarade is that I have friend who is very, very good at it. And I sometimes wonder if I haven’t made the same mistake with it that I always make with Takenoko. That is, for all I’ve said about Mascarade being a hilarious chaotic game about nobody knowing who they are or what’s going on, you could also argue that it’s a ruthlessly efficacious bluffing game about managing a resource income. I’m not sure, but I think my friend plays Mascarade with a much closer eye on who has how much gold, who can afford to call what bluffs, and how many turns it takes to win. This means they tend to do a lot better than those of us who just like to shout “I’m the judge!” at the top of our voices while having no idea if we actually are.

In Conclusion

I’ve basically said all of this above but just to reiterate: I recommend all three games. Of the three, Mascarade is probably the least accessible to children because the whole hidden role keeping tracking thing is a bit confusing and can be hard to explain. I know people who have played Coup with a real ten-year-old and it went surprisingly well. The rules are simple, it’s clear what your options are and we only think kids are bad at lying because they’re bad at keeping track of evidence. When your child tells you they didn’t eat the chocolate cake that nobody else could have eaten, that’s obviously not true. When a child tells you they’re the Duke and therefore needs to given three monies from the bank, you’ve got a lot less to go on. Love Letter has an appealing theme (if your kids are more into princesses than dystopias) and because hands are quite fast I think it’s probably quite accessible. I do wonder if the surprisingly high amount of deduction you have to do to play successfully and the potential for early, unfair eliminations might make the game less child-friendly than it seems at first. But, unlike Coup, I don’t know anyone who has road-tested it.

Obviously, I own all three of these games and even though I’ve reviewed them as a bunch this isn’t one of those situation where I feel there’s only room for one in your collection. It’s completely viable to have all three. They’re all short and low commitment. Mascarade works best for bigger groups, almost like a party game, while Coup and Love Letter are more suited as part of a more traditional games evening. If you come from the kind of social circle where traditional games evening are a thing.

people & cardboard
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One of the many awesome things CS Lewis said was this: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. Which is a slightly self-conscious way for me to ‘fess up to the fact that—since becoming a grown up—I’ve acquired a pretty impressive collection of plush animals.

I could probably trace this back to childhood trauma (only in the sense that you can trace everything back to childhood, not in the sense of being actually at any point traumatised) but basically I think it comes down to the fact that … they’re really cute.

My favourite supplier (is supplier the right word? makes it sound like drugs) is Keel Toys because their animals are super soft and snuggly, charmingly characterful and sometimes just plain weird. Like … everything you need to know about Keel Toys comes from a brief glance at their ‘Bobballs’ range. Bobballs are teeny-tiny squishy-round animals with silly expressions and googly eyes. Needless to say, I’m into them. Here’s a picture:

click to embiggen

So, yeah, you’re probably looking at that thinking “okay, right, it’s some cute animals, what’s he getting so excited about” but keep looking … spotted it yet?  Bottom row, fourth from the left there’s … yep … that’s a pineapple.

I would totally love to be have been a fly on the wall in that design meeting.

Manager: Okay team, we’re introducing a new range called Bobballs. The concept is adorably spherical animals. What have you got for me?

Designer 1: Um, well I’ve made this super happy looking clownfish

Manager: Nice work, Michelle. I imagine that’ll be really popular because the second Finding Nemo film just came out.

Designer 2: I did a tiger

Manager: Okay Imran, I see what you’re going for there. It mean it’s very inside the box but kids always love tigers. Good call.

Designer 3: I made this … yellow bird thing, could be a chicken, could be anything avian to be honest, but it’s got a hilarious look on its face.

Manager: You know something, Helena, I’m going to trust on you on this. I love the suppressed madness in its eyes. What about you, High-As-A-Kite Bob? What have you got for us?

Bob: … a pineapple.

Manager: … a pineapple?

Bob: Yeah, man, a wild pineapple, king of the beasts.

[Long pause]

Manager: I LOVE IT.

They also do a range called Pippins, which I don’t think Bob was involved in, the design principle of which simply appears to be: so cute it hurts.

Ahhhh omg look at its trunk and it’s faaaaace and its feeeeets ahhhhh

 

Anyway, I was recently on Amazon where my ‘inspired by your shopping trends’ is almost 100% cuddly animals and romance novels. And up popped this adorable duck.

Omg, looook at her! Loooook! With her chubbly duck cheeks and whimsically uptitled duck beak. And the little duck feet – omggggg. She looks like Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice if Charlotte Lucas was a cuddly duck.

So, obviously, being a mature adult I had to have her.

Charlotte Duckas was listed as “keel 30cm duck with sparkle eyes’ and the description was simply ‘soft cute cuddly’ – which seemed, at the time, fair enough. There was one review, as below:

click to embiggenify

Thus, I felt no particular qualms as I ordered my adorable cuddle duck.

And then my duck arrived. Here is a picture of my duck.

Yep. She hates me. She hates everything. She is the angriest duck in the universe. A duck with a grudge. A duck you would not turn your back on. Or allow to approach you down a dark alley in a dodgy part of town.

Which left me in a bit of quandary because, while she definitely wasn’t the duck I had ordered, I wasn’t entirely sure how to return her:

Dear Keel Toys

I ordered an adorable duck from you, but the duck arrived hateful. The description of the duck is listed as ‘soft cute cuddly’ but my duck would be more aptly described as ‘malignant sneery hostile’. Under the trade descriptions act, I believe I am entitled to a new duck.

Best wishes,

AJH

PS – Please do not tell the duck I have written to you, as I believe she will kill me in my sleep.

Anyway, I brought the problem (and the duck) home to H – who promptly accused me of being mean to the duck, since apparently some people can’t help being hateful, and refused to let me return her.

I am now constantly trolled in my own home by an angry duck. Sometimes H tucks her into my side  of the bed when I’m out of the room:

And I swear to god she’s watching me:

Plotting something:

Obviously we couldn’t call her Charlotte Duckas any more – because while Charlotte has a wicked streak, she is not a psycho. So the duck was re-named Caroline Beakley, which seemed more appropriate.

Sometimes we also call her Chris Duckicho because she looks like a bit Chris Jericho when he’s heeling it up:

click for largification

And sometimes Harvey Duck because, once we got used to her mean little face, we realised that it’s actually an angle thing – and while she looks utterly contemptuous most of the time, she’s kind of adorable if you come at her from the right direction:

Ducky knows how to work a myspace angle

Although, honestly, day-to-day we usually call her Ducky.

Her hobbies are going for walks, watching The Sopranos and playing Eldritch Horror.

she was born under a bad sign, got a blue moon in her eyes

Sometimes, though, we’re not sure if she’s on our side or THEIRS…

But I’m secretly glad I didn’t return her because she is much better than an ordinary cute-faced duck could ever have been. Or maybe this is Stockholm Syndrome.

In any case, I think the moral of this story is that sometimes life will send you a really angry duck. And that is okay.

absurdity
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So, towards the start of this series, I wrote a blog post about Arkham Horror in which I observed it probably wasn’t worth getting the follow up game, Eldritch Horror, because they were sufficiently similar that you couldn’t really justify a place for both in your gaming collection. A little while after that, I wrote a second post in which I explained that I had, in fact, bought Eldritch Horror despite having Arkham Horror because I’d got sufficiently tired of Arkham that Eldritch felt it would be a whole new game. This will (I hope, although that might be optimistic) be my last post about the game and I’m going to use it to talk about, well, all the expansions. Because I have now bought all the expansions.

As with several of my other board game posts, I’m going to do the conclusion first. The Eldritch Horror expansions are definitely worth buying if you play a lot of Eldritch Horror. If you have a limited board gaming fund then it’s very hard to justify a set of expansions some of which, on their own, cost as much as a new, standalone game. That said, if you do have Eldritch Horror and are considering investing in expansions for it, here are my thoughts.

What I Said Before

To some extent, this post is going to start off fairly uninterestingly in that I more or less stand by some of the predictions I made in my last article in which I suggested that the core design structure of Eldritch Horror made it significantly more future proof than Arkham Horror had ever been. The new expansions add a host of new cards, some add whole new game boards, and of course they also add new characters, new mechanics and new Ancient Ones. But the game is designed such that it is technically against the rules to use all of the new stuff at once. I mean, yes you could decide to play a game with the Egypt and Antartica boards both in play but since those boards are tied to either specific Ancient Ones or specific prelude cards (of which more later) you’d either need to be flagrantly ignoring the rules or vastly limiting your game setup in order to do so.

This genuinely fixes about half the problems I had with the post-expansion Arkham Horror. And while it’s a bit weird to spend £50 on an expansion for a board game only to find that the rules tell you to use the key feature of that expansion one time in twelve it’s actually strangely liberating. The point of that kind of massive game is that you can’t experience it all in one sitting. But if you have the option to throw everything in together you usually feel like you should. Even though you, well, probably shouldn’t. A rules setup that forces you to ration the use of your shiny new toys for the sake of game balance actually means you get a lot more out of them in the long run.

I will say that Eldritch Horror isn’t completely without feature creep or expansion bloat. There are far more conditions to keep track of in the expanded game and the spell deck has a whole lot more chafe in it. And some of the new features sometimes feel like deliberate distractions in that there are a lot more things you can spend your turn doing that aren’t trying to solve the mysteries and stop the Ancient One. Of which more, well, now.

New Mechanics

Because I picked up the expansions pretty much in bulk (I blame Xmas) I’m not really capable of identifying exactly which mechanics are introduced in exactly which expansion, especially because several of them are introduced multiple times. There are basically four key new mechanics that get introduced over the whole of the—for want of a better word—expansion cycle of which two unambiguously make things better, one arguably makes things worse, and one is, in all honesty, a bit of a toss up.

The first mechanic that undeniably makes things better is focus. Basically, as one of your actions (as well as moving, shopping, buying tickets and so on) your characters now have the option to focus. This gives you a little token that you can spend to re-roll a die or, in response to board or card text, spend to receive some kind of bonus. People who’ve played either Arkham Horror or base Eldritch Horror will recognise that this is functionally very similar to the way clue tokens work. Essentially clues are a lot of harder to get hold of in Eldritch than they were in Arkham—they spawn more rarely, you have to have specific encounters before you can collect them, you can’t pick up more than one in a turn, and they’re often vitally important for advancing mysteries. As a result, the re-rolling dice and trading for snackies function of clue tokens is hardly ever used. It’s very rare that you’ll want to spend a clue token to roll an extra die on a test when you know you might need it to stop Cthulhu eating the world in three turns time. A focus token is basically a clue token that you can only use for the ‘nice to have’ functions that clue tokens could be, but in practice never were, used for.

This is just a brilliant quality of life feature. Between resting, acquiring assets and focusing characters now always have a least two things to do on their turn, even if they need to remain in the same space in order to have another go at a gate, a clue, or a mystery. Prior to introducing the focus rule, I’d often found that characters were left with a spare action.  And now they aren’t. Which is great. In fact, I’d say that focus tokens improve the game so much that it’s worth introducing the rule even if you don’t buy any of the expansions. It’s trivially easy to substitute eldritch tokens, small change or jelly beans for focus tokens as needed and they just make the whole game run more smoothly.

The other mechanic that unambiguously improves the game (though it’s impact is substantially less than that of the focus mechanic) is the introduction of cards which advance the current mystery. You win a game of Eldritch Horror by resolving ‘mysteries’. Each Ancient One gets a deck of cards, and each card describes a spooky thing the Ancient One is doing that you are looking into. Once you’ve spent enough clues, or visited enough ocean tiles, or killed enough monsters or had enough special encounters, the mystery resolves and you’re one step closer to winning the game. The thing about this, though, is that pretty much anything you want to do that doesn’t directly advance the mystery is less useful than anything that advances the mystery. And, to an extent, part of what makes the game difficult are the various sticks and carrots it uses to try to distract you from the task at hand.

This can become problematic because sometimes advancing the current mystery will require resources that a particular character simply does not possess or have any practical means to access. The ‘advance the current mystery’ mechanic adds cards to the games’ expedition deck and to some otherworld and research encounters that simply ‘advance the current mystery’ (they have flavour text as well, obviously, otherwise it would be terrible). So if the current mystery is defeat a monster, those cards damage the monster, if it’s to gather clues, they give you clues and so on. This has the affect that if you can’t do anything about the current mystery (and I’m aware I’ve said current mystery a lot, that’s the downside of talking about game mechanics) you can at least go through a gate or on an expedition and have a small but non-zero chance of advancing the current mystery anyway. This makes those sort of activities feel more proactive and less like filler. Which is good.

The mechanic that I feel might make the game worse is called impairment. Basically, impairment is the opposite of improvement. One of the things I liked about base Eldritch was that your character’s stats tended to increase over the course of the game and you tended to have a certain amount of control over how they increased depending on which locations you visited. If you want to improve your influence stat to make you better at shopping, you can head to Istanbul and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have an encounter there that improves your influence stat. This remains more or less true, even if you play with all the extra cards from expansions, but there’s now a mechanic whereby some cards (and, most problematically to me, some location encounters) can reduce your stats instead. Part of me feels that this is perfectly fine. Playing this kind of game is, after all, about taking the rough with the smooth and having your character’s stats impaired is potentially more interesting than losing health or sanity or just getting killed outright. And I have no problem at all with impairment when it’s a consequence of, say, making a terrible pact with an eldritch being or leaping through a gate to another universe. I have more of a problem with the stat impairing encounters that occur on the named city spaces on the game board.

Previously, if my character didn’t have anything to do I could quite productively go to, say, Sydney and try to have an encounter that improved my body stat. Post-expansions, if I do that, there’s actually a non-zero chance that I’ll have an encounter which impairs one of my other stats and if I’m really unlucky, doesn’t improve my body either.  Now, in some ways I suppose this improves the flow of the game by making more risk-taking strategies relatively more attractive. If I can suffer permanent and lasting damage just by hanging around Buenos Aires then I might as well have a go at fighting that Hound of Tindalos or closing that gate to Yuggoth.  But the other side of this is that it means I get doubly penalised if I happen not to have a very productive turn. Not only do I have to spend a round moving to San Francisco just so I can get in position to go to the Amazon next turn, I also run the risk of suffering a permanent penalty to my willpower because, for some reason, I can’t change boats at the docks without getting waylaid by the medical examiners and forced to stare at a disturbing corpse.

I suspect that part of the problem here is that I personally respond much better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Even though on a rational level I understand that getting minus 1 to something is the same, in the long run, as losing the opportunity to get plus 1 to it, I don’t like to feel I’m being penalised. It isn’t fun (or perhaps I should say, it isn’t the sort of fun I’m interested in having, or more succinctly it isn’t fun for me) to have something taken away. I do appreciate that mileage varies massively here and that for a lot of people the fact the game will sometimes randomly screw you is genuinely part of the appeal.

The last mechanic is unique items. Unique items are somewhat unfortunately named since quite a lot of them are specifically not unique (for example, a square on the Antartica board gives you access to the dogsled unique item. There are enough of these for everyone to have a dogsled). Essentially this provides a way for the game to give you specific named resources and allies without those resources and allies being able to show up randomly in the assets or artifacts decks. This is a fairly low impact introduction. It adds a small amount of extra fiddliness because you’ve got a few new decks of cards to keep track of but with the benefit of giving you shiny new toys to play with. There is a slight peculiarity in that the unique assets that represent named characters tend to be strictly more powerful than the allies you can find in the asset deck while some of the other unique assets, especially the ones you can reliably pick up from the Antarctica board, are no better or occasionally worse. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that but it might offend some people’s sense of neatness.

Gosh, I went on about that for a long time, didn’t I? I should probably say something about the expansions themselves.

The Expansions Themselves

There are, at time of writing, five expansions available for Eldritch Horror. Three of them are cards-only expansions (Forsaken Lore, Strange Remnants, Signs of Carcossa) and two are big expansions that come with an extra board (Mountains of Madness, Under the Pyramids). Because I’ve played with all the extra mythos and encounter cards from all the expansions shuffled in together I can’t give a full separate review for each set but I can give an overall impressions based on what I’ve played and what I remember being in each box.

Forsaken Lore focuses on Yig who, honestly, I wouldn’t have predicted as the first God to get the expansion treatment, although I think they actually made a quite a good call in that one of the strengths of Eldritch is that each ancient one feels interestingly different to the others. And snakes everywhere is a fairly obvious theme. (Thinking about it, I might be inclined to remove the Forsaken Lore encounter cards the next time I play a non-Yig game because they’re often quite explicitly snakey). Perhaps the most important feature of FL is that it adds extra mystery cards to the Ancient Ones from the main box (it is also the only expansion that does this). This is quite important because the Old Ones in the base game only have about four mysteries each and you need to solve three to beat them, so you’ll have seen all their mysteries after you’ve encountered one of them two or three times. FL not only adds an extra Ancient One for you to fight, it also extends the lifespan of the base game. I’ll also add that pretty much all of the expansions add extra encounters to the location decks, meaning that if you pick up any one or two of them you’ll be much less likely to cycle through any given deck, even if you spend the whole game hanging out in central Europe.

Mountains of Madness is the first big box expansion and introduces two new Ancient Ones (Ithaqa and Rise of the Elder Things) as well as the Antartica game board. It also very importantly introduces the prelude mechanic which is almost a meta-mechanic for managing expansions, which is why I didn’t mention it in my run down of the mechanics above. Basically, at the start of the game you can draw a “prelude card” which will change the setup in some way. Maybe everyone gets the opportunity to take an injury in exchange for a clue, or to improve some stats and impair others, or something. One (and only one) of these cards tells you to set up the Antartica side board. If you don’t draw that prelude, you don’t use Antartica, unless you’re facing the Rise of Elder Things Ancient One or, y’know you really want to. While I’m on the subject of the Elder Things, one of the, um, things I really appreciated about MoM was that one of the two Ancient Ones it introduces isn’t actually a mythos deity at all. It’s the collective action of one of the minor mythos species (specifically the Elder Things, although I’m assuming you could have worked that out from the title). Toward the end of its run, the Ancient Ones in Arkham started to feel like a mostly interchangeable set of tentacly blobby things with mildly differentiated mechanics. And I was pleased to see that Eldritch stepped firmly away from this by giving you the option to play a game where you face, essentially, an alien invasion rather than a big squoogly god monster.

They doubled down in this approach to the Ancient Ones, in the next expansion, Strange Remnants, in which the Ancient One isn’t an entity at all: it’s a cosmic alignment.  Your characters run around the world poking at ley lines and messing about with Stonehenge. The last small expansion, Signs of Carcossa, goes back to the big named deities in that it pits you against Hastur and I honestly don’t have much to say about Hastur. I’ve only played half a game against him and, partly because we decided to try playing two player, it wound up being brutally difficult.

The last big box expansion (so far, anyway) is Under the Pyramids.This sees you going to Egypt to fight either Nephran-Ka or Abhoth. This is probably super nerdy of me but I was interested to notice that Nephran-Ka (to the best of my understanding, and this is mostly RPG canon, rather than actual story canon) is technically an avatar of Nyarlathotep which suggests to me that, rather than making Nyarly one of the Ancient Ones you fight they’re going to include several different masks as independent options. Which makes a lot of sense to me and also explains why he wasn’t in the core box. It seems fairly clear that, by this point, they’ve got their core mechanics sorted in that UtP basically doesn’t introduce anything that’s not in MoM.

Final Thoughts

I think basically you probably already know if you want to own all the Eldritch. I suspect that the only undecided people reading this might be those who had the base game, were considering buying the expansion but were worried about overcomplicating things. If I had to recommend any one of them, it would probably be Forsaken Lore simply becausae it expands the base game more directly and, as I mentioned earlier, I’d strongly recommend house-ruling in the focus mechanic even if you don’t have Mountains of Madness. It’s interesting to note that, having gone back and checked the rules, the impairment mechanic (the mechanic I was least enthusiastic about) only appears in SoC and UtP so if you want to avoid getting arbitrarily hosed maybe move those expansions down your pick up list.

I think I have, on the whole, been really impressed with the expansions for Eldritch because they go to a lot of effort to put a lot of detail into quite small parts of the experience. I mean, yes you only get one Ancient One in a small expansion, and two in a big expansion, but each individual Ancient One comes with three or four custom decks of cards (Abhoth, for example, has one just for the Spawn of Abhoth, which replace cultists in his games). And it’s that attention to detail that I appreciate the most about the whole Eldritch Horror experience. And that keeps me coming back to play it when I’ve long since tired of Arkham.

Anyway. Thanks for reading. I promise I’ll write about something other than Eldritch Horror soon.

Although The Dreamlands expansions is coming out later this month so, err, maybe not.

people & cardboard
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Having ducked out of the end of year blog post already I was vaguely thinking about putting together some light hearted blog content to see us into 2017—which I semi-started with yesterday’s Mystic Messenger post. I also thought maybe I could review Star Wars Rebellion or possibly do yet another post about Eldritch Horror because I’ve got totally obsessed with it lately.

Then George Michael died. Then Carrie Fisher died.

Fuck you, fuck you 2016. Seriously fuck right off.

At times like this, I weirdly missing working in an ice-cream shop. Because, no matter how bad things get, giving someone an ice-cream (or a sorbet if they’re lactose intolerant) always makes them feel better. I don’t sell ice-cream anymore, but I do write stories.

So I wrote a story. And I hope some people will like it.

It’s probably not as good as an ice-cream but what it is?

The story in question is called Wintergreen. It’s a short piece of gender-ambiguous asexual teakink. At some point I’ll try to tidy it up, get it properly edited, make it look pretty, and put it a more helpful format than blog post. But, for now, here we go:

Wintergreen

 To Eli, who will probably never make tea in the microwave again

Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.

M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

            Frost has gathered in crisp fractals in the corners of the kitchen window panes. The cold scratches as listlessly as a half-slumbering cat. But I’m warm, always on the edge of too warm, in my cage of satin and bone.

I take the kettle from the stove—you would not countenance electric—and shake the last few drops of water into the sink. They break like glass.

My heels mark the journey to the fridge. Each step is its own clean, careful click. I know better than to hurry or to stumble. You will be listening.

Grace was the first thing you taught me. I have never known anything as merciless as your patience.

I pour water from the filter into the kettle. Then return the filter to the fridge, the kettle to the stove.

Always use fresh water. Never re-boil the same water twice. Tea is like you, my dear, you said, drawing the ribbon tight around my throat. It needs oxygen.

The balls of my feet are hot with agony. Once, I would have shuffled and wriggled, trying to ease the ache. But you hate fidgeting— a vulgar habit—and, besides, it never helps. Stillness is the companion of suffering. Peace the heart of pain.

Taking down one of your teapots, I pour a little hot water into it and swirl it gently. The porcelain wakes beneath my hands, its newfound heat a beating heart.

I didn’t do this once. I’m still not entirely sure why. But I think, perhaps, I wanted to be sure you’d notice.

Of course, you did.

And I’d never felt such happiness: a lark’s flight of exultation. I was yours from that moment. More completely than I’ve ever been anything.

We warm the pot¸ you told me later, as your cane traced bared flesh, because tea leaves are sensitive. They must be coaxed. Not shocked.

You welcome Darjeeling on winter afternoons, second flush particularly. That deep warm wine-wood taste you said was muscatel. If you cared for kissing, I imagine this how your mouth would taste. And, like all the teas you’ve taught me, I would know you blindfold.

I add a scattering of leaves to the pot. They look like nothing: twists of blackish-red and yellow-brown. These days, I can judge how much by eye alone but you used to make me measure it to the gram.

The water is close to boiling now. I can tell from the steam and the way the bubbles gather beneath the lid. And there’s a thermometer if I need it.

You value precision as much as grace. I feel it in every mark you give me. From the stripes of your cane to the edge of your blade. And the deep grooves your corsets leave across my skin.

Clumsiness, you believe, is inelegance of the body. As carelessness is inelegance of mind.

I take the kettle from the heat and pour the water smoothly over the leaves. You have shown me how to cherish each part of this process, this ritual as refined and exquisite as you, but this, in particular, is a moment I love: the quiet alchemy of brewing.

And you, of course, have wrought your own transformation in me.

Three minutes and thirty-five seconds is your preferred steeping period for second flush Darjeeling. I close my eyes and count in time with each constricted breath.

The clothes you choose are your hands on me. Beauty is the instrument of your bondage. And I have never felt more lovely than when my back aches and my feet burn and the sweat slips silent and unseen down silk-wrapped skin.

Never put the tea on the teapot while the tea is brewing.

It will trap heat¸ you told me, and prevent oxygen reaching the leaves. You used dark red candles that night, and the wax ran as riotously as fresh blood.

At three minutes, I take down another teapot. Unlike Wilde, you have nothing to fear from your blue china. Though, of course, it’s very beautiful: so fine, it’s almost transparent, with a pattern of languorously coiling leaves and flowers. Sometimes, when the shadows fall just right, I half-expect those heavy-petalled blooms to stir and shake their heads, and prowl away like lions through the dusk.

With a little left-over water from the kettle, I warm the pot. My hands are trembling a little and I force them to stillness.

You appreciate fear, savour it even, but only when it’s pure—a gift of your own creation. Not this grotesque, unravelled thing made of all my failures.

There was another teapot that I dropped one day.

You found me on the floor, sobbing among the shards. Nothing smashes quite like china, so musically and so utterly. Something fragile turned suddenly savage—all those pieces, broken butterflies with knife-edged wings. It was my own fault. All my fault.

I’d been distracted. I used to be a lot in those days, when you were just a client with particular tastes and I was—

Different.

When I believed I was invincible. Before you showed me what a hollow thing I had made of myself. That to be unhurt is not to be free.

I’d cut my palms open, trying to gather up the remains of your teapot. Nothing serious, but enough to leave rusty smears across the ivory silk of the dress you’d chosen. Impossible that you would have overlooked it, but you said nothing at all.

You just carefully cleared up the mess I’d made, wrapping the jagged pieces in newspaper. Beautiful, as ever, to watch you work: the care in your fingers, the economy of every gesture.

There is no part of you, from the deep lines that bracket your mouth to the grey in your hair, that is not lovely to me. But your hands … I worship your hands and what they do to me. Their steadiness on the handles of your knives. Their strength as they tighten the laces on my corsets. Even the familiarity with which they hold a cane.

Of course, there are things they don’t do. They’ll never touch my cock or press inside my body. But sex I can get anywhere.

You are you. And only with you can I feel…

Well. We haven’t named it. I think you would find the word too debased for its implications. And I don’t need it either.

For those who know how to recognise it, your generosity is endless.

You cleaned my cuts with Germolene, the discontinued stuff that came in a yellow tin, and was as pink as the skin beneath a freshly picked scar. Even though nobody had ever tended to my scrapes and bruises before, the medicinal minty smell of the ointment was almost overwhelmingly familiar. I recognised it after a moment or two. Wintergreen: the scent of a childhood I’d never had.

Once my hands were neatly wrapped in gauze, you took me in your arms and held me. You let me cry for a long time.

Sometimes I think they were all the tears I’d never shed.

And, despite being in all other matters exacting to the point of tyranny, you never punished me for the teapot.

It was a few weeks before I thought to Google it, but I tracked it down easily enough. You had bought it at auction at Christies. Irreplaceable. Not that I could have afforded to anyway.

I strain the tea into what is now your favourite teapot.

You never leave tea to stew once it has been brewed, you told me, as I shuddered, wracked by pain and shipwrecked on the shores of pleasure, knowing you had the power and the will to keep me like that for hours. And you did.

Darjeeling should never be drunk with milk or sugar—some people like a few drops of lemon, but you don’t—so it doesn’t take me long to prepare a tray: just the pot, two cups and matching saucers, the little silver teaspoons.

The first time I served you tea, I did it so badly, so half-heartedly that the memory makes me blush. Resenting the suffocation of satin, the press and dig of bone and steel, I thought the tea was the prelude rather than the point.

But, as ever, you were patient with me. Those plain-coloured eyes of yours were warm. You smiled.

Then you said, “The eighth century poet Lu Yu believed that tea is best drunk from a porcelain cup beside a lily pond and in the company of a desirable lady. I think we can dispense with the lily pond since I am fortune enough to have two of the others today.”

I didn’t believe you then.

But, now, it is time to join you.

There are those who like me to crawl. Some will watch me, some will tie me, others whip me. You just wait for me.

And yet there nothing more difficult than this: to glide upon aching feet, bound in silk and sweat and suffering, half-breathless, bearing a tray that must not shake or rattle or spill a single drop of liquid. Beautiful to your design.

It’s close enough to impossible that I often fail. I gasp, I slip, I wobble, I make the spoons shiver in their saucers or show some other flicker of discomfort.

But I know you enjoy this too. Or will later, as you minister your corrections with an irrevocability that is its own brand of tenderness.

There are, however, days when—through luck, or grace, or skill—I achieve perfection. A fleeting thing, I know, and most likely an illusory one because it is only within the world you build for me.

But it feels so very real.

And for a moment it’s all true: I am everything you see in me. There is no pain that matters, but I am neither broken nor invincible.

I am wintergreen.

indulgence
29 Comments

So, like about 2 million other people (a significant proportion of which, admittedly, seem to be teenage girls), I’m currently obsessed with Mystic Messenger.

And, for the record, this has proven the gateway drug or, alternatively, the exception to the rule for some friends who don’t normally play computer games. So you might either want to stick with me or run away now, defending on your preference.

So Mystic Messenger is, to a large extent, free, available on Android or iDevice … aaaand it’s an otome game, which I feel potentially makes it a natural fit for romance readers. I’ve written a little bit about otome games before when I did my games-for-romance-readers series over at Heroes and Heartbreakers (in case you missed it, it’s in three parts: here’s part one, here’s part two, here’s part three).

Anyway, otome games (which I think literally means something like ‘maiden game’ tee hee) are generally characterised as being targeted at the female market – but to put it in a less-gendered way, I would say they’re targeted at gamers who want to play a game where the main focus is on developing a romantic relationship rather than, say, shooting people in the head or moving coloured blocks into position. And, while you can get same-sex oriented games of this nature, for the most part the emphasis on opposite sex relationships: so otome games will appeal to people who are interested in playing a game where you take the role of a female character and navigate her relationships with various attractive menz.

Usually these sort of games take the form of a visual novel: images and text, sometimes with music, voice acting and/or sound effects, interspersed with decision points, which change the course of the narrative for better or for worse. Some of them have additional mechanics (like juggling character stats or even fighting monsters) but mostly they revolve around selecting from a range of protagonist responses. I personally like to see this as playing emotional detective: essentially if the characterisation and the writing are strong enough, and you’re paying attention, you can figure out the ‘right’ thing to say or do to appeal to particular characters.

ANYWAY: the basic premise of Mystic Messenger is that ‘you’ install a mysterious app on your phone, which throws into you into a chatroom with five strangers. And … here’s where it gets clever … you see the app is … like the game … so you’re like playing the game but playing the game is using the app … which you installed on your phone. Oh do you see. It turns out the app you’ve stumbled upon is actually an all-purpose communication tool for a fund-raising agency called the RFA. And, since their organiser, Rika, passed away a few years backs they ask you—yes, you, a complete random who stumbled into their chatroom—to organise their next event.

And, okay, this isn’t the most plausible premise in the world but it doesn’t really matter because it’s really all about getting you involved in the lives of the five characters: ZEN, a beautiful, aspiring actor, 707, a zany hacker, Yoosung, an adorable college student, Jumin, a cold-hearted businessman, and his overworked assistant Jaehee. As you play the game you get to know them, you organise a fundraising party, you uncover bits of the backstory and you encounter the threatening ‘Unknown’ who—for mysterious reasons of their own—wants to bring an end to the RFA. And, of course, you get the opportunity to fall in wuv or mess up people’s lives horrendously. So that’s fun.

It’s not perfect: there’s some translation oddities, for example, and it’s occasionally glancingly gender essentialist (I think it’s only on one or two conversations but I remember being slightly off-put by characters making sweeping statements what What Women And Men Are Like Because Biology, and not really being able to challenge it without upsetting the characters). And while one of the routes involves developing a … well … they say it’s a friendship but it definitely has romantic undertones too with another female character, one of the characters is canonically bisexual, and another (a side-character) appears to be non-binary, it’s not always as sensitive as it could be on LGBTQ+ type issues. There’s also at least one pointlessly racist throwaway. And I’m pretty ambivalent about both one romance plot and the game’s handling of mental illness, both of which I can’t really get into without massive spoilers and may address in a separate post.

But, all of this said (and I mention it largely so you can make informed decisions about what you’re getting into): Mystic Messenger is still the best otome game I’ve ever played and probably one of the best visual-novel type games. The characters are delightful, the characterisation is amazing, the artwork is beautiful, the writing is really strong and the localisation pretty decent (although, if you’re not familiar with Korean cultural norms, you might spend a lot of the game wondering why everyone is obsessed with whether you’ve eaten), the voice acting perfect, and it’s genuinely just charming, surprising and … unexpectedly moving. I might have shed legit tears at various points.

There’s also a couple of other factors (outside of its general quality which is exceptional) that I think distinguish it from other similar-type games and also make it a really good entry-point or even one-off experience for people who might not normally go for this kind of thing.

It’s free

Essentially, there are two ‘currencies’ in the game, gold hearts (which you get by saying things characters like and also by random chance) and hourglasses. You can buy hourglasses with actual money or convert gold hearts into them, and it’s the hourglasses that allow you to do extra things like replay missed chats, call the characters (yes, you will get in-game calls, and this is super charming), and unlock some content. I did, in the end, splash out on some hourglasses because I wanted access to the other story routes and because I’m a financially privileged person and it therefore feels appropriate to support stuff I like.

But the game is pretty generous with hearts and you can play the routes of ZEN, Yoosung and Jaehee without spending a penny. Which means that if you’re curious but not sure if Mystic Messenger is going to be your thing, you can jump right in and get for a feel for it without having to do anything except make space for it on your phone.

It’s serialised

The way the game works is that chats unlock at various times of day (sometimes even at 3am—which means I have, occasionally, been stirred out of slumber because a fictional Korean actor was feeling lonely. And such is my fondness of this game that I genuinely wanted to be there for him. Yes, yes, I know, I’ve lost it) and take between one and five minutes. These chats will stay ‘open’ until the next chat is due and then close. You can still see closed chats but your character won’t participate in them. Or you can pay five hourglasses to unlock them and participate as if they’re open. If you miss too many chats you can bring the game crashing to a premature end but it’s pretty reasonable on that score and I’ve slipped through okay with daily completion at about the 60% mark. But basically I tend to want to unlock all chats because they’re really fun to read and engage in. And, obviously this isn’t going to be a format that works well for people with either normal sleeping habits or a job that won’t let them pause every now and again. Not one for forklift truck drivers or trapeze artists is what I’m saying.

But, for me, this serialised story-telling is absolutely perfect. The game does let you pay hourglasses to unlock all the chats over a twenty-four period but it’s quite expensive and I can’t really see the advantage of it. I mean, unless you were a truck driver or trapeze artist. But one of my problems with visual novels on mobile phones (and *cough* I’ve played quite a few) is that it doesn’t seem a genre that is naturally suited to the sort of things you want to do when fiddling with your phone. VNs by their nature require you to be comfortable and time-rich enough to be able to read a hefty block of text. If both of those criteria are met (I’m cosy and have time), I’ll probably want to do something that is not on my phone. I mean, my phone is great but it’s less good in terms of entertainment opportunities offered than, say, my computer. Or a book. Or the television. Or talking to another human. I do, of course, play games on my phone fairly regularly but they’re “oh I’m stuck waiting for ten minutes” type games.

So a VN that is delivered to me in five minutes chunks across the day? Yes please.

It feels kinda real…

Because of the way it’s serialised, the game unfolds in real time over the course of eleven days. And while, admittedly I probably wouldn’t fall in love with someone in eleven days (but who knows, I might?), it does feel more like you’re getting to know someone than, say, reading a story about them. Most VNs I play in a single session which doesn’t really give much space for emotional development on my side. But Mystic Messenger makes the characters a very natural part of your life which I guess founds faintly creepy but … I liked it? I felt as if I was really getting to know them. That I had spent actual time with them. And my attitudes to them fluctuated and changed as I grew more familiar with who they were and where they’d come from, much as I respond to well, real people.

And the fact that the game unfolds in chats and text message and phone calls makes it incredibly familiar to anyone with close online friends and strong online communities. My Mystic Messenger notifications would pop up throughout the day alongside my texts from my partner, my Fb notifications, and messages from my friends. Obviously the characters in Mystic Messenger are fictional (I do know this!) but the mechanisms by which the game delivers its interactions to you are the ones we use every day to keep in contact with our real friends and loved ones. This makes using it almost second nature (you don’t have to set aside time, any more than you would set aside time to reply to an IM or pick up a call so, weirdly, it doesn’t actually feel like playing a game so much as engaging in your normal interactions) and unbelievably immersive.

I know I’ve already banged on about the excellence of the writing but it also deserves mention here because I’m so impressed by the depth and detail has gone into every character. I’m, uh, kind of obsessed with voice (as a writer and a reader) and I … I could study this game forever. Everyone you talk to has their own distinct voice, distinct daily routine, even distinct typing patterns: Yoosung tends to be prone to typos, especially when he gets emotional, 707 types faster than anyone else, Jumin is slower and favours full sentences and declarative statements. And, unlike a lot of visual novels where the responses of protagonist are quite limited and usually only come down to key decisions, here you get to say things and express yourself in every chat, which makes the whole experience more engaging. You’re not going to change the whole course of the game by telling Yoosung whether you had breakfast or not, but it feels like you’re having a conversation. Not just picking options in a game.

It gave me all the feels

The way all these various factors come together—the art, the voice acting, the writing, the immersion, the serialisation, the sense of ‘myself’ as a genuine participant—made this game hit me real hard in the feels. I laughed, I cried, I winced, I worried, I woke up at 3am, I kind of honestly fell in love a bit. And I’m a little bit at a loss to know what to do myself now I’ve pretty much played every route and discovered every secret. I mean, except play my favourite route over again. Because that’s how much I loved this game. Oh, and write a lengthy blog post about it, of course. In the hope of dragging the rest of you into my obsession.

If you’re still reading at this point … um, thanks for sticking with me. I’m going to wrap up with a few non-spoilery tips for the game to get you going, since otome games have their quirks (and so does Mystic Messenger) that might not be obvious the first time you pick one up

Getting The Most Out Of Mystic Messenger

  • It’s not really about you. In general, I’ve found doing or saying what I would do or say in otome games generally ends up with my character dead or alone. So basically accept that “you” are someone who would be naturally interested in and compatible with a particular character, and focus your attention in getting a good sense of who they are, which will help you choose what to say to them. You’re not really you-the-player, you’re you-the-protagonist and who the protagonist is becomes defined by the sort of person she would end up in a romantic relationship with. Which is obviously icky in one way but not in another, since essentially we tend to end up with people who, to some extent, reflect ourselves. In real life, I’m dating an enormous nerd, for example. And clearly that says something about me. And also the enormous nerd I’m dating.
  • Pick your person and go all-out. You can’t really hedge your bets in otome games. Each of the characters in MM is colour-coded for your convenience: grey hearts mean you’ve said something ZEN likes, green for Yoosung, yellow for Jaehee, blue for Jumin, and red for 707. A black heartbreaks means you upset someone. My recommended playing route is: ZEN, Yoosung, Jumin, Jaehee, 707. You can definitely skip anyone who doesn’t appeal to you, and I would recommend skipping Jumin if you have issues with alpha bildom behaviour, but if you want to understand the whole backstory about Rika and the RFA then 707’s route is a must.
  • What someone likes is not necessarily what is good for them: black heartbreaks are always bad, but you will get hearts with the characters even if you’re encouraging them in unhealthy or damaging behaviours. For example, Jaehee will react positively if you encourage her to work super hard … but bear in mind that she’s already massively overworked and feels like a robot in a corporate machine. Similarly, Yoosung will initially really like it if you encourage him to basically think of you as Rika … but there is no way that can lead to a healthy relationship.
  • Don’t be psycho. I’ve played quite a few otome games where you’ve had to be a spineless nonentity or a basket case but, for the most part, Mystic Messenger wants you to be sensible. Yes, be concerned about your safety but don’t be selfish about it. Yes, be flirty but don’t be obsessive. Yes, be supportive but don’t be clingy. While I occasionally said and did things I wouldn’t in a million years have said or done myself, I mostly navigated the game by being reasonable. I challenged people when their behaviour seemed dodgy, I was playful when the mood was light, I was assertive but not reckless. And it seemed to work out. Yay.
  • The structure of Mystic Messenger is: the first four days will be the same regardless of who you romance (although they are different in casual and deep mode). Days five to eleven will change depending on whose romance route you’re on. Once you’re on a certain route, you can’t change. In casual story mode you can only romance ZEN, Yoosung, or Jaehee. Jumin and 707 will be present in the game but you won’t be able to romance them. Unlocking the romance route for Jumin and 707 is a onetime payment of 80 hourglasses. When in deep story mode you can only romance Jumin or 707. ZEN, Yoosung, and Jaehee will still be there, but non-romanceable.
  • There are multiple endings in Mystic Messenger: a generic bad ending which you get if you either aren’t in the chatroom enough or you don’t get enough hearts with any one character to get onto their romance route, a normal ending when you do the romance right but don’t invite enough party guests, a good ending when you do the romance right and invite enough party guests, and then various bad endings for the characters if you goof up romancing them. Some of these are hardcore sad and I confess I haven’t been able to do any of them because I can’t bear the thought of anything bad happening to any of the characters.
  • The hosting a party part of the game is essentially a mini-game within the game. You will get various emails from potential guests and you have to reply correctly in order to get them to attend. If you reply correctly to three emails they will definitely come, if you reply correctly to two, they’ll probably come, if you reply correctly to one there’s a small chance they’ll come. If you don’t reply to their emails or fuck up your first reply they won’t come at all. If you get ten guests or more and have done the romance correctly, you’ll get a good ending. Otherwise you’ll get a normal ending. To me, as a gamer, what you might call the party mini-game doesn’t fit with the rest of Mystic Messenger quite as neatly as it could: there are a lot of potential party guests but the answers are quite random and occasionally non-obvious and while I’m okay to get a bad ending because I accidentally drove Jaehee to a nervous breakdown or fucked with the head of a grieving college kid so badly he thought I was his dead cousin … I’m less okay with doing everything right on the romance route, but still getting a less good ending because I didn’t correctly invite a cat to a party. Your mileage may vary but I would recommend using a walkthrough for the party if you get to about day seven and it looks like you’ve pissed off half of Korea.
  • When to buy or spend hourglasses: so, as a reminder, 100 golden hearts can be converted to one hourglass, and you get the golden hearts from any heart received in chat or by clicking the little spaceship that bobs around the bottom of the screen when it lights up gold by landing on the honey Buddha chips. You also get 1 hourglass per correctly invited guest on the first occasion only. You can get those by reading the guest’s story at the end of the game under ‘Extras.’ In general I spend my hourglasses (5 per time) to unlock missed chats and to phone people back (5 again) if I’ve missed their call. I sometimes ring people (again 5 hourglasses) spontaneously if they seem to be going through a major event … but if you ring people they sometimes won’t answer because they’re at work or in class or just too emo or whatever. The phone calls are always lovely but, again, your mileage may vary on what’s ‘worth it’ to you. I also unlocked deep mode and each of the extra endings, which are unlocked when you do someone’s romance route correctly. This is essentially a mini-epilogue that shows you your future life together. Gawww. I never unlocked 24 hours’ worth of chats in a bundle because I didn’t see the point – even when I was desperate to know what happened. Again YMMV.
  • If at all possible, play with a friend or friends. I mean, not literally play with as in share a phone. But play while other people you know are also playing. It’s the sort of game you will want to talk about and over-invest in, and this is always way more fun in company.
  • Yoosung is my favourite. That’s not a tip. But it’s important.

Slightly More Spoilery Tips

The best way to figure out the characters is just to get to know them. But this can be a bit intimidating at first so here are some of my thoughts on each of them:

ZEN: is an aspiring actor and seems like a total narcissist at first (and, who can blame him, he’s terribly pretty) but is actually surprisingly sweet once you get past that. His relationship with his looks is actually fairly ambivalent because, while he derives validation from knowing he’s hotcakes, they’re also the only thing he knows is concretely good about himself. Which means you have to tread a careful line between admiring him but also not making it seem like his looks are all you care about. In one of the early chats, there’s a conversation about who would be someone’s perfect partner and significantly ZEN’s is “a sensible woman.” Not a mindless fan, in other words. I actually liked ZEN more in other people’s routes than his own, because he’s really protective of you and your agency, which is nice. Especially when other people, cough, do not care so much about your agency. The other thing that will help you successfully woo ZEN is recognising that he’s incredibly lonely.

Yoosung: is a nerdy college student who is completely adorable in every way. He’s a little bit naïve and a little bit immature, but he’s also incredibly loyal and sweet and emotionally generous. He also likes playing computer games a little too much so, y’know, I identify. He’s fairly straightforward to romance in the sense that you just need to be nice to him, but not in a patronising way. A large part of his arc involves him dealing with his grief over Rika’s death—basically, don’t be creepy about this. He’s the most vulnerable of all the characters, I think, and consequently—for me—the bravest. Um. I think my Yoosung bias is showing a bit.

Jahee: This was my second favourite route after Yoosoung. I have slightly ambivalent feelings in general about whether I wish her route had been more explicitly queer (there’s a lot of talk about friendship, but 707 does say you’re dating and then corrects himself, and, in one phone call, Jaehee confesses to other feelings she would like to explore with you someday) or whether there’s actually something more subversive in the idea that you, as a character, could have four lovely men to romance and instead to decide to become really good friends with an awesome woman. In any case, it works either way. Jaehee’s story made me cry, Zen is awesome in it and it’s pretty straight forward, I think: support Jaehee and encourage her to think of her own happiness. It is so rewarding when she does. Also if you are going to play Jumin, you’ll need to do him before Jaehee because he’s kind of the antagonist of Jaehee’s route and I seriously wanted to punch him. Repeatedly.

Jumin: oh dear. Jumin. I have very complicated feelings about his route because it’s interesting and problematic and I still haven’t untangled my brain about it. I did actually conclude at one point that Jumin was to some degree probably non-neurotypical and that’s what feeds a lot of his bildom behaviour. Which, y’know, was a twist on the trope I found kind of fascinating. So, yeah, Jumin is controlling, powerful, possessive, cold and obsessed with his cat. But he’s also … not some of those things. Or those things don’t mean exactly what you think they do. Basically the key to Jumin’s route is trying to understand him because he doesn’t understand other people and he doesn’t really understand himself. There’s a lot that’s quite heartbreaking about him but he also does some totally unacceptable things. He did, however, buy me a really pretty frock and insist that I wear it – so, y’know, I guess he’s not all bad. So yeah: try to trust him and stick with him, even when he’s crossed a line (and, to be fair, he recognises he has crossed a line but is too messed up to be able to step away from doing it) and don’t go all 50 Shades of Grey and you’ll probably do okay.

707: this route is super dark and complicated because it ties into the backplot and the background stuff with RFA and Unknown. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling everything but 707 is neither the person you think he is or the person he thinks he is: the trick is just to help him see that he’s both. In the chatroom, he’s whimsical and ridiculous and hardly ever serious, so he needs someone who can keep up with him, who gets his weird jokes. But he also has a damaged and serious side, so you need to recognise when he needs you to be silly and when he needs you not to be. He’ll also do some incredibly self-destructive shit but he’ll get through it if you don’t lose faith.

So. Uh. Yeah. Mystic Messenger. I’m happy to answer any questions if I can—though I am by no means an expert. But also just to talk about the game forever. Because, yeah, still obsessed.

absurdity
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