Taking a Swig of Hemloch
The more astute among you have probably picked up on the fact that I prefer board games of the epic variety, and what little crevice I have in my heart for two-player card duelers has already been stubbornly occupied by Summoner Wars. And yet, there’s something about Hemloch from Small Box Games that has captured my imagination. Not only is their company delightfully and intentionally tiny (you can read about it over here), but John Clowdus has a way of filling even the slightest games with an immense range of compelling choices.
Imagine this: The end of an age of twilight is dawning over the city of Hemloch, and as the last member of an ancient bloodline you’ll need to manipulate, influence, cajole, bribe, and backstab to gain the allegiance of the city’s districts before the sun rises. And you’ll be doing it in about twenty to thirty minutes.
Before we get into all that useful stuff, we should probably hear from The Board Game Box Review. The bribes we receive from designers for better scores are what pays the bills, after all.
As you can see, Small Box Games definitely lives up to its moniker. The game comes with a nice fat stack of cards, some markers, and a manual, and all fit comfortably within the sturdy (and pretty) box.
Until it’s moved, that is. The problem is that the box, despite being a rather small box, is still a bit too big. So you’ll need to carry it with reverence if you don’t want things bouncing around and potentially bending or scuffing your cards. I wish I could give the box the full three stars, but you’ll definitely want to make a tuckbox or something to help store the cards at least. The same problem applies to Omen: A Reign of War and Tooth & Nail: Factions, the other two card games from Small Box Games (reviews forthcoming).
So the score is ★★. Good, but could be better.
Anyway. As I said above, Hemloch impresses me most by providing players with a number of meaningful choices. This is a big draw (hur hur) for me because most two-player card games feel like they’re played on autopilot, since once you’ve figured out the rules the best option on any given play is often apparent. This is not the case with Hemloch. You’ll be making tough decisions from the very first turn—and while it’s possible in any game to get sucked into a cycle of analysis paralysis, none of the options here are ever overwhelming or too complicated.
So let’s break it down! Following are the four ways that Hemloch provides interesting choices to the player, right from the get-go.
1. Hand Management
Every turn sees you managing your hand in addition to playing cards. Each turn lets you take two actions, and in general you use one action to either play or draw a card.
It’s easy to get into a rhythm of using your first action to draw and your second to play whatever card you just pulled, but this is rarely the best way of doing things. See, if you begin a turn with no cards in your hand, you draw a card that doesn’t cost you an action. This means that ending a turn with only one card in your hand is basically costing you a free action. Furthermore, you begin every week (four rounds) by drawing until you have two cards, adding another layer to consider.
So before you even begin slapping down cards, you have a tricky decision to make: do you play reactively, responding to the few cards that you have in your hand at any given time? Or do you use some of your precious actions to ensure that you have a nice selection of cards to undermine your opponent when the opportunity presents itself?
The cards in your hand are minions, which are played onto your side of each of the game’s four location cards. Most of the strategy in Hemloch comes down to choosing where to deploy these minions.
Each one is color-coded to a specific faction, which is important because their faction determines both their home territory (in this case, the Unfair Lady’s home is The Courtyard, as she is green and so is that location) and which district they can activate the special ability of (the Unfair Lady activates the ability in The Spires, because her color is printed next to that location’s ability). Each minion also has an influence number and a special ability.
Now, regardless of where you play a minion, they’ll give you their influence, which is important for influence checks (more on that in a bit), and their special ability. If you deploy a minion into their home territory, they’ll earn you +1 influence. Seeing as how much of the game is spent trying to have more influence over each region than your opponent, it’s often natural to try to place all of your minions into their homes.
But this isn’t always possible. Even when it is, it’s not always the best option.
See, the citizens of Hemloch are holding a series of festivals to celebrate the rising sun, so at the start of each player round, you’ll be marking one of the four locations as blocked by the festivities. Since that region is crowded with revelry, you cannot normally play minions there. Also, you can usually only play one minion per territory per turn.
So you’ll need to make a series of difficult decisions: do you play minions to their home territories, or to locations where they can activate a helpful bonus? Do you hold onto minions in the hopes that the festival will move somewhere more convenient? Do you place minions in locations where they get neither an influence nor a location ability bonus, because you need a small boost of influence to beat your opponent, or because their natural ability will be helpful? On any given turn, there are many possible ways to use the minions at your disposal, and it’s not uncommon for there to be multiple useful options.
3. Influence Checks and Markers
The game is broken into “days” and “weeks.” One day consists of both players taking a turn: the starting player first reveals a card from the week deck, which is either a Night a Day, and indicates where the festival will be raging that round. Both players take their two actions, and then the process repeats with a new week card. The week lasts until four such days have passed, and then the first player will replace one of the Night cards with a Day card, shuffle the week deck, and pass it to the other player, who will now go first in the following week.
Usually, a Night card is drawn and nothing special happens. But at the end of any day during which a Day card was drawn, and at the end of each week, an influence check takes place. For each location, both players compare to see who has the most influence. Whoever wins the influence check gets to place an influence marker on one of the open spaces on that location card.
At the end of the game, these markers score points—one for an isolated marker and two for a marker that’s adjacent to another of your markers. Oh, and certain minions can alter these layouts, adding or removing or replacing markers. So while these may be the simplest decisions in Hemloch, it’s often crucial to obtain blocks of markers for yourself, or interrupt connections between those belonging to your opponent.
Then, after the weekend influence check, you discard half (rounded down) of your minions from each location and begin the next week.
4. Trinkets and Potions
There’s one other aspect I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s also the other way to score points. Certain of your minions will be able to earn you trinkets and potions, whether by their own ability or by activating a location’s ability. These are worth two points if you have them face-up at the end of the game, but you have the option to use them, at which point they’ll be flipped face-down and only be worth one point. This might sound like a raw deal until you realize what they can do—a potion can give you an extra action, or you can use up two trinkets to bribe an enemy minion into joining your side. When you’re low on influence in a critical district and you’ve got both a Day and a weekend check coming up, suddenly the prospect of stealing away your opponent’s most influential minion can be mighty tempting, and damn the loss of a couple of points at the end of the game.
Downsides? / Conclusion
I’ll be frank: I wasn’t expecting much from Hemloch. I’m happy to be wrong, as it’s a thematic brain-twister of a game that crams ambition and disappointment and relief and bated breath into less than half an hour.
There is a bit of luck in which cards you’ll draw—last night, my wife’s starting hand consisted of a slew of minions who specialized in removing or replacing my influence markers, so they were perfect for mid- or late-game shenanigans, but were of limited use early on when there weren’t any influence markers to mess around with. This resulted in her having to dump quite a few of her actions into drawing cards rather than playing them. Even so, I’m convinced that this game is more skill than luck, and if luck does rear its ugly head to screw you, well… don’t complain, and try again in twenty minutes.
So my final score is that Hemloch is a shockingly good game. It’s well worth looking into, even if you do have to buy it straight from its creator’s living room.