A Study in Hodgepodge

At least this one isn't about how much Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dislikes Mormons.

By the year 1882, the Old Ones have already ruled the planet for seven hundred years. They sit upon the thrones that may have otherwise held human occupants, and their whims and appetites are law. All of humanity is a plaything, a subject, the victim of powers beyond their comprehension. For the foreseeable future, as with the known past, there is no hope that mankind might cast off the shackles of eldritch oppression, might seize what is theirs and awaken to a new dawn.

That is, until the invention of dynamite.

This is the bleak world of A Study in Emerald by Martin Wallace, an inverted — or rather, a perverted — take on the era of Sherlock Holmes, full of all the real-world romance of anarchism, but without all the unnecessary guilt over exploding royalty. Since they’re, y’know, aliens.

Best card in the game: Emma Goldman. No, really. She really is. ... PSYCH!

How will you begin?

Even before you really begin playing A Study in Emerald, you’re playing A Study in Emerald. Armed only with a card that informs you whether you’re a Restorationist, bent on overthrowing the elder powers that exert their unrighteous dominion over humanity, or a Loyalist, insistent that these powers are the surest steward of mankind’s fate, you’re already examining the board, agonizing over where to begin spreading your influence and establishing your underground network.

If you’re primarily interested in spreading the good word of whichever side you’re working for, maybe you’ll begin in Zurich, where a grassroots populist movement is already underway, or weasel your way into a membership with the far stuffier (but proportionately more powerful) Diogenes Club in London. Or perhaps you’ll travel to Rome to appropriate their copy of the Necronomicon, greatest work of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and surest source on the old ones (provided  you can skim past the “mad” parts). Or set up a friendly network in a city and buddy up to Otto von Bismarck, persuading him to move his forces into the city and eject your competitors.

If you lean towards the Restorationist perspective, maybe joining the Black Hand would be a good way to meet some friends who spend their weekends hurling sticks of dynamite at members of the royal family. The same goes for joining a vampire coven if you’re a Loyalist — though cementing either allegiance too soon might tip your hand and reveal your political leanings to your confederates, all of whom are possible allies or enemies. The safer bet would be to thin the herd of those “allies” by arranging a meeting with that hired assassin in The Hague, or sending a fungal Shoggoth to do the dirty work. You hear there’s one in Madrid, looking for work. Naturally, he might drive you insane. Proximity to fungus monsters often does.

There’s also the possibility you just want some close agents to do your dirty work and take a bullet for you if necessary. Emma Goldman might be the ugliest man you’ve ever met, but she’s recently surfaced in Paris and she’d be pleased to incite some riots for you; or perhaps you should meet Sergei Nechaev, none too bright, but great at killing people. If you’d like to play it closer to the vest, Wilhelm Stieber has left Bismarck’s employ and is hiding in Berlin, and apparently his politics are flexible. And if you just don’t know who to trust, Irene Adler has been pulling a con in Constantinople, and she has dirt on just about everybody — perfect for stealing the loyalty of your competitors’ agents right out from under them.

Those are just the options on the board itself. With all the things that drive men mad in this day and age, maybe you should contract Sigmund Freud to take the edge off through psychoanalysis, or direct Great Cthulhu himself to eat a city. You read that right: an entire city.

This is the sort of decision you’ll have to make before even getting to your first turn in A Study in Emerald, a constantly shifting buffet of a sometimes real-life, often purely fictional, and always alternate Victorian Age.

Go Loyalists!

The end of a five-player game.

The pedigree of A Study in Emerald is one of mashups, both in terms of its genre and its narrative. The story from which it draws its title, a snappy and effective one-off by Neil Gaiman that bears the same name and can be read for free on his website (which means you really should, since it’s ace), is a blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and the game hefts that torch and runs with it, adding turn-of-the-century anarchism, vampires, and zombies to the mix. Probably while giggling like a big nerd with no sense for when he’s overdoing it.

The game is also a slurry of disparate ideas. It’s got area control, which sees you spreading influence across the board in an attempt to out-bid your opponents and claim cities and the various cards they contain. Hand management, as you discard cards for various effects, like buying, spending, and regaining influence cubes, or buying train and boat tickets for your agents to travel around the map, or detonating bombs to assassinate alien royalty or eliminate enemy agents. Hidden roles, as you try to figure out who’s on your team and work with them — though only enough to propel you to victory and keep them from absolutely last place. There can be only one winner, after all. What do you think this is, a charity?

The most robust system of all is the deck building, as you take those cards you’ve been snatching up and add them to your spreading network of agents, societies, ideals, monsters, and tools. The way it’s handled is reminiscent of one of Martin Wallace’s previous games, A Few Acres of Snow, which had you overseeing the conflict between France and Great Britain for North America. As in that game, taking a city — say, Cairo — means you get to add it to your deck, just as you would do with any of the many cards on display. However, if an opponent moves in and overpowers you in that city, you’re sent digging through your deck and discard pile in order to shamefully hand over the corresponding city card. Tough. Should have placed a blocking disc on that city, or pumped some defensive influence into it.

Unlike A Few Acres of Snow, which was somewhat restrictive in its design, sending you along a few proscribed avenues and leaving you wishing for a single damn boat card so you could reach Fort Halifax, A Study in Emerald is broad and sandboxy. You won’t see everything in one game. In one game, you’ll work with the Freemasons; in another, you’ll join the Holy Brotherhood, or employ unruly Fenians to beat the crap out of your enemies. Some games will see you flying around the continent in a Nadar airship, or sending Lovecraftian night terrors to erode the sanity of your opponents. Some will see you partnering with Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty. Or both, just to confuse your friends and hope nobody gets one or the other of them to betray you.

No surprise. Who wouldn't want to read a book by a "Mad Arab"?

The Necronomicon, hotly contested as always.

The cautious part of me worries that A Study in Emerald isn’t a very good game. For instance, some of its most interesting ideas, the vampires and zombies and the “hide royalty” cards that give more scoring opportunities to the Loyalists, have an equal chance of not appearing in a particular game at all. Another problem is the scoring system, which is nearly incomprehensible until you’ve finished at least one game. Losing even though you’re in first place just because you had a pooper of a teammate who came in last, is galling; even worse, I imagine, would be losing because your teammate realized he was allied to you, he had the lowest score, and he tanked the game to keep you from winning because you blocked his purchase of the Infernal Machine.

I love that the game can suddenly change to everyone teaming up to stem the tide of a zombie apocalypse.

Beware an outbreak of zombies…

The thing is, the cautious part of me can go to hell, because I haven’t had a game like that yet. I haven’t experienced a single match where all we had were boring cards like agents and societies, or where the out-of-the-blue scoring system wrecked the experience. Rather, in all my games, each card reveal was tense and exciting, even if the card that appeared wasn’t necessarily balanced. The score count at the end was more than a mere surprise; it was a twist ending, as faces sank when they realized they were allied with the guy they’d been picking on for two hours, and someone else lit up because they realized they’d just won even though they were 15 points behind the leader. Every time I’ve played, it’s been wild, unbalanced, and somewhat sloppy; but always an excellent ride, full of theme and good memories. It might not have been fair that I revealed my friend’s agent as a traitor just as he was about to assassinate Baoht Z’uqqamogg, but it sure was hilarious.

And if you take hilarity and mix it in with alternate history and a solid mash-up of game mechanics and genres, you’ve got a winner in my book.

* * * * * * *

Whether you’re rooting for the old ones or the squishy human beings, there’s one thing we can agree on: Space-Biff! is pretty cool. Especially when it’s featuring reviews like this one here. So do the right thing, don’t hate capitalism like Emma Goldman, and support Space-Biff! by purchasing A Study in Emerald through Amazon using this magical internet link.

Posted on February 10, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great review, and spot on. ASiE is incredibly difficult to describe to the uninitiated, and this does as good a job as any, especially since it plays so differently with different sets of people. I played it with my usual mates and we hardly had any direct conflict. It was a subtle game, with lots of patient feints. By the end, nobody was really sure whose side most of the players were on. A couple weeks later, I taught it to a new group at my local shop, and everybody was setting off bombs and sending assassins. The game ended when one of the players, a Restorationist, was run off the board. Excellent times.

  2. I love the short story, but haven’t had a chance to try the game yet. I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to do it justice, but it sounds like they may have done so…

  3. Wow, this looks FASCINATING! I wasn’t a fan of A Few Acres of Snow (the theme: ugh), but this looks right up my alley.

  4. Hi there, I read your blog daily. Your story-telling style is witty, keep
    up the good work!

  5. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t
    appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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