Friday, 16 December 2016

A Study in Emerald (2nd edition)

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A Study in Emerald is designed by Martin Wallace, and is based on a short story by Neil Gaiman. The setting is a fictional 19th century, which mixes up the Sherlock Holmes universe, the Cthulhu mythology universe and real history. The world has been conquered and ruled by evil gods for hundreds of years, and now some humans want to fight back, to liberate humankind from evil and to restore human rule. These are the Restorationists. There are some humans who serve the evil gods loyally. These are the Loyalists. Their job is to stop the revolution. Some players will be Restorationists, and some Loyalists. However the identities and the number of members in each faction are both secret at the start of the game. Some identities may be revealed in the middle of the game. Some will only be known when the game ends. This is not a team game though. Victory is individual. Players of the same faction will share some common goals, but they are not partners. Ultimately there is only one winner.

The version I played is the second edition, which is supposed to be more streamlined and optimised than the first. I have not played the first so I can't compare.

The core mechanism is deck-building. Everyone starts with the same thin deck of basic cards. During the game, you acquire more cards from the nine locations on the board, augmenting your deck. Hand size is five. There is no limit on how many cards you can play on your turn. At the end of your turn you always draw back up to five. Unplayed cards remain in your hand. The more cards you play, the faster you will exhaust your draw deck, and thus the sooner you will reshuffle your discard pile (which probably contains recently acquired cards). You only get to perform two actions on your turn though. Every action requires at least one card. If you have multiple cards with the same action icon, you can play them all at once to perform that action to a greater effect.

There are 9 locations (cities) on the board. During setup, each is seeded with a number of cards depending on the number of players. Some cards are predetermined, while some are randomly drawn. The topmost card at each location is revealed. These are what you may acquire. You have two types of pawns. The cubes are your influence, while the portrait pawns are your agents. You spend influence to acquire cards, while you use your agents to fight. In both cases, you need to have the most pawns at a location to perform the action. When you acquire a card from a location, all your influence cubes there are consumed and go to a limbo pool. You will need to perform a recovery action to bring them back to your personal supply before you can deploy them again. When you fight, you either kill another player's agent, or you kill a monster. Killing an agent is worth victory points only if the victim is a Restorationist and you are a Loyalist. Killing a monster is only worth VP's if you are a Restorationist.

The scoring system is quite unusual. Some actions are worth VP's only if you are a Restorationist, and some only if you are a Loyalist. Some actions score for the whole Restorationist faction, and some for the whole Loyalist faction. Whenever anyone scores during the game, you assume he is both Restorationist and Loyalist, i.e. you always increase his score. The VP's which his is not entitled to are only deducted at game end. Naturally this creates a false reading on the scoreboard. Things are not what they seem.

One way the game ends is when one player's apparent score reaches a certain number. Another way is when a faction specific score reaches 10. Both are situations you need to watch out for and be prepared for. When the game ends, all identities are revealed, and VP's which you are not entitled to are deducted. After this, you check who has the lowest score. This guy has just disgraced his faction, and all members of that faction lose an additional 5VP. Only after this penalty is applied that you determine the final winner. This mechanism forces players of the same faction to look after one another, to a certain extent. You don't want your compatriot to come in dead last and drag you down.

The game board. There are 9 locations. The score track is in the upper half, at the centre. This was the start of our game so our scores were all 0. The two tracks in the middle are for the faction specific scores, purple for Restorationists and green for Loyalists.

These are some of the starting cards. The icons on them tell you what you can use them for. The train track icon means you may relocate your agents. The blue cards icon means you may acquire cards. The cube upwards icon means you may recover your influence cubes from the limbo pool. The cube downwards icon means you may deploy your influence cubes onto the board. The letter A means attack, i.e. you may fight. When you fight, the attack card is permanently discarded. So fighting must not be taken lightly. At the bottom of this attack card, you see a purple portrait icon and a green hexagon. This is a reminder that killing an agent is only worth points if the agent being killed is a Restorationist (purple) and the 3VP is Loyalist (green) points.

This is Sherlock Holmes. He's the main character in the short story, but he doesn't always appear in the game. During setup only a subset of cards are drawn from a draw deck to seed the 9 locations. When I played the four player game, less than half the deck was used. Also, by the time the game ended, there were still many cards not yet revealed. So only a small subset of cards will come into play in any game of A Study in Emerald.

Sherlock Holmes is an agent you can recruit. When you acquire this card, you also gain a new agent at this location. Blue and yellow are now fighting hard for him, with blue currently leading, five pawns vs four.

Sorry about the poor focus. This is another agent you can recruit. The purple hex at the top right means you score 1VP for Restorationists when you acquire this card.

The game has a sanity mechanism. Everyone starts with 3 sanity tokens. Some actions force you (or another player) to roll the sanity die, which may result in losing a sanity token. When you lose the last sanity token, you go nuts and reveal your identity. If you are a Loyalist, this is a good thing. You gain some benefits which strengthen your position on the board. If you are a Restorationist, the game immediately ends. The sanity mechanism is closely linked to the secret identity aspect of the game. When a guy is trying to drive himself mad, you will become more and more convinced that he is a Loyalist. Or is he feinting? The fact that a Restorationist going crazy will end the game can be a weapon for both factions. It is yet another timing consideration. If you are leading comfortably, this is one way to end the game while you have the advantage.

The Play

We did a four-player game, which is probably the minimum to make the game interesting enough. Jason has played this before, but Han, Allen and I were new. With four players, the faction distribution could be 2 vs 2 or 1 vs 3. Many aspects of the game are related to the factions and how identities need to be kept secret. I did not have a good grasp of the criticality of this and how to make use of it. So I decided not to worry about it too much. I wasn't going to spend extra effort to feint when I couldn't see a clear Return On Investment. I ended up playing the game like a Euro efficiency game. I just tried to score points as efficiently as possible. I was the first to reveal hints of what my faction was (I was Restorationist). Jason was next, and it looked like he was a Loyalist (which he eventually proved to be). Han and Allen mostly stayed non-commital. I couldn't figure out what they were. My straightforward approach worked well for me. I was focused and did not waste energy or resources scoring points which would eventually be deducted, for the sake of sowing confusion. The game felt short. It seemed we didn't have much time. This made me feel that feinting was costly and thus inefficient. But perhaps it is not a matter of feinting. Perhaps it is just a matter of not exposing oneself too early, which is more passive and thus less costly. Our game ended at a time when I felt we were about 80% through. I took a faction scoring action which pushed Han (who was leading) to 22VP to end the game. However he was not Restorationist, so after deducting the Restorationist points from him, he fell behind and I won the game.

In the game I played, all the elaborate rules related to secret identities didn't seem to matter a lot. My simplistic Euro efficiency strategy seemed to work just fine. I wonder whether it was because our game turned out to be a 2 vs 2. Allen was a Restorationist too. Had it been a 1 Restorationist vs 3 Loyalists game, my impetuous approach might have been suicide. The lack of tension from the secret identities might have been a result of groupthink too. I am not sure.

I always tried to play as many cards as possible. More cards being played meant the actions I took became stronger. I would be drawing back up to five cards anyway. Exhausting my deck sooner also meant my nifty new cards would come into play earlier. This was just basic tactics. Occasionally I would need to hold some cards and save them for a particular action, e.g. sometimes you need to save an attack card and some bomb cards to start a fight. All cards have multiple functions, so you often need to make difficult choices.

The competition at each location uses the area majority mechanism. You need to have more pawns than others in order to perform the action. Sometimes it is better to just go somewhere else with less competition. You will spend less to perform similar actions. However you can't let your opponents get all the good stuff too easily either. It's a tricky balance. Your ideal scenario is all the others fight, leaving you to pick up all the other stuff with no resistance. However it is not easy to steer things that way. Your priorities and others' priorities will conflict. Sometimes you apply persuasion, diplomacy and even misdirection, to encourage others to fight and / or to leave you alone. Everyone needs to be responsible for ensuring no one gets an easy life.

In our game I focused on buying city cards in the early game, because quite a few of them could be used to score Restorationist points. They came to good use later on, helping me push the whole faction ahead. When the game ended, Allen my fellow Restorationist was not last, so neither of us needed to take the 5VP penalty. Both Jason and Han had to take the penalty, pushing their scores further behind. I felt it was a team win. However this was wrong. A Study in Emerald is not a team game. Victory is individual. So in fact when Allen saw me leading, he should have joined forces with our "enemies" to pull me back. Maybe he did, just that it was too late to do much, because the game did end a little abruptly. Or perhaps he was happy to aim for second place given the situation then, which was valid too in an individual victory game. If first place is not realistic, you aim for second.

Jason did warn us that the game was fast before we started. I had the feeling that I could have done more, like the game was 1 or 2 rounds short. That may be the hallmark of a good game. Think Agricola. It leaves you with just that little bit of unsatiated thirst. Throughout the game I did see my card purchases take effect, and I did see my strategy pan out. You need to be alert of all the possible game end conditions. Don't be caught unprepared.

The Thoughts

My biggest impression? The game made me curious. This first game felt fast. It felt like I hadn't savoured the game properly. I guess I can only blame myself - I consciously chose a simplistic strategy. I hadn't explored the secret identity aspect much. I can't say whether it really works as intended. Another thing that makes me curious is the many cards I haven't even seen yet. The world of A Study in Emerald is rich and strange. There are still many characters and monsters I have not met. I wonder how each game will differ when different combinations of cards come into play.

A Study in Emerald is quite an unusual game. The factions mechanism and the hidden identity mechanism create a complex strategic landscape among players. I'm not entirely sure it works well, but I am happy to explore further. The tactical execution layer works fine - the deck-building, the various actions, the cards, the area majority, the resource management. It supports the strategic layer well. I'm curious to see how that strategic layer plays out differently in different games.

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