Harry Potter Wouldn’t Last Two Minutes
I might be more partial to the University from The Name of the Wind than I am to Hogwarts, but I don’t think there’s a single human being among us who can say they haven’t dreamed of being accepted into a school of magic. Ah, what a life! The power, the prestige. The non-committal make-outs with gorgeous magically gifted people. The, uh, education, I guess.
Now there’s one more reason to head off to magic boarding school. It’s Argent: The Consortium, the newest title from Level 99 Games, set in the perplexing world of Indines where people spend roughly 92% of their time punching each other. Now they’re punching each other with intrigue. Also the not-so-occasional fireball.
(Magic) Worker Placement
At this point in my boardgaming life, one of the surest ways to get me to tune out a conversation is to talk about the newest worker-placement game. “Sure, yeah, workers,” I’ll mumble, surreptitiously checking my watch. “So you sent him down to the river to collect some reeds? Yeah, that’s fascinating. Then you had him make papyrus? Wow, two whole bushels? Jeez, that’s amazing. I can’t wait to play it.” Ten minutes later I’ve left your party. Sorry, but my couch ain’t gonna find anybody else to sit on it in their underpants.
Argent is a worker placement game, but don’t hold that against it. For one thing, it manages to be surprisingly fresh. How so? Because your workers do stuff. And I mean beyond just going where you tell them. Look, the easiest way to explain it is with an example.
In one recent game, there was a spot I wanted to send one of my apprentices — whether that spot provided knowledge or spell research or gold or mana, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, I wanted it and nobody was keeping me from it. Unfortunately, Somerset had already placed one of her students in the very same spot that I wanted. Normally that would block me from going there, but I was skirting that rule left and right with a spell called “Zero Hour,” which permitted my apprentices to “shadow” other mages by moving into an alternate planar dimension and completing their task there instead. Then I looked down at the table and realized that Somerset had occupied that precious spot with a divinity mage — and since divinity mages are immune to the effects of spells, my apprentice couldn’t break through to the alternate dimension. Drat.
However, I happened to have a sorcerer handy! Sorcerers are real punks, because as long as you spend a mana when you place them, they can spit a fireball at another mage to send them to the infirmary and take their place in line. Two seconds later, Somerset’s divinity mage was mending in the infirmary and I was chuckling at how cool it was that I’d just severely injured one of the school’s students.
Pretty much every mage has an ability like this, from the mystic summoning himself into the school when you cast a spell, to natural magicians being immune to wounding. Instead of filling up the board with generic workers, after a couple rounds it’s a hodgepodge of various abilities, immunities, and vulnerabilities.
In short, it’s the most involved I’ve been in a worker placement game in a long time.
In the Game of Argent, You Get Voted For. Or You Don’t.
I suppose I should step back and explain what’s going on in Argent, because it actually reflects the game’s goal.
Turns out, the magical university of Argent is losing its head chancellor at the end of the week, and voters are being brought in from all over Indines to select who will next inherit the position. You play as one of the university’s leading candidates, and without exception each of these characters are utterly badass. One of them is an ex-dragon who got tired of eating adventurers. Others include an invulnerable alien parasite, a research lead known for imploding her students, and an ancient wizard who keeps trying to take over the world. Even the student body president is a powerful adventurer who has only come to Argent because he wants to undermine it. And each of these candidates has the power and spells to back up their claim to the chancellorship.
Okay, that’s story fluff. What really matters is that there are twelve voters, and you only know the criteria that two of them intend to use for judging each candidate’s worthiness. The other ten are hidden at the start of the game, their identities protected. Possibly for their own safety.
This is where the intrigue comes in. Not only are you sending out your apprentices to research spells, bring back treasure, and occasionally raise hell; you’re also doing everything in your power to figure out what on Indines you need to do to become the next chancellor. At the end of the game, the only thing that matters is how many votes you can pull in, but where one game will award votes to whomever acquired the most loot from the university vaults and gathered the most mana, the next will reward the candidate who curried the most loyalty with the divinity school and gained the most spell research. There are loads of potential votes — functionally anything you can gather in the game might appear as voting criteria — so it behooves you to spend at least a little bit of time spying on the voters. Particularly clever players might even keep an eye on what their opponents are doing, since they’ll also have a sliver of the big picture.
“Avada Kedavra” Is Completely Allowed at Argent University
Let’s talk about spells, because a candidate without a healthy selection of magic is a most pathetic sight, loathed by all. Especially by the assembled voters.
You don’t have many spells at first, but as you send out workers it becomes possible to acquire new spellbooks. Every spellbook contains the knowledge of three spells, each one more difficult — and more powerful — than the one before it. However, each level must be researched before you can cast it, and it’s your choice whether you want to spend your time learning a wide array of low-level spells, or dedicate the time and effort into researching the more potent stuff.
Here’s an example of how they work. In one of our games, two players had become locked in a feud, wounding each other’s apprentices and jockeying for position. One of them researched Retribution, the third level of the Wrath of Heaven spellbook. Whenever one of his mages was wounded, he could wound two of the offending player’s mages back. Ouch. However, his rival had figured out a way around that: by researching Oakskin, his apprentices became immune to wounding for a short time, negating Retribution entirely.
Not all the voters are interested in magic, but if you’re going to make a victory omelet, you’re going to have to break some mana crystals. By the end of the game, you’ll be wounding entire rooms of students with Inferno, healing everyone in the infirmary and gaining bonus influence for healing rival apprentices, revealing the identities of voters, casting spells you haven’t yet researched, stealing mana or knowledge, and even using Possession to swap one of your apprentices with one of your opponent’s — permanently, which is a great way to unload that useless first-year student in exchange for a planar mage. Last game, Somerset made use of a ridiculous time-bending spell from Temporal Calculus, 6th Ed. that let her take three full actions in one turn, getting all her apprentices out on the board before anyone else had a chance to do anything about it. There are even a handful of ultra-powerful legendary spellbooks that don’t appear in the regular lineup.
In short: magic is rad in Argent.
Argent Oozes Cool Like Pus from a Fireball Wound
Perhaps the thing I like most about Argent: The Consortium is that avoids the optimal moves of most worker placement games by providing so many interesting ways to play. If you want to be mean, go ahead and cast horrible spells at everyone! If you want to be sneaky, go ahead and quietly accumulate supporters, vault cards, and learn the identity of each voter! There are plenty of aggressive options, but just as many defensive spells and items, all of which provide avenues for seizing control of the university. Chances are you’ll ease into an ebb and flow as you alternate between the aggressive student-murderer and a more pacific “You kidding? I’m not in the lead!”
In addition to those secret voters, there’s more uncertainty to be found in the way a round might end very suddenly if the player going before you decides to take the final bell tower card. You can never be sure how much time you have, creating a hand-wringing tension to whether you should put your grand plans into effect now or wait until you’ve seen your opponents’ strategies develop a bit. After all, you’re never sure what’s in everyone else’s personal discard piles. Was Geoff focusing on gaining mysticism supporters? Is he even aware that mysticism is one of the votes?
This being a game from Level 99, there’s also an intimidating amount of variety packed into the box. Each room in the university has a more complicated B-side, and even the apprentices can take on a second, entirely different set of powers. Which is to say, Argent can provide a completely different game every time it appears on the table.
As for my group, it will be appearing on the table regularly. Hands down, it’s one of the most varied, aggressive, and clever worker placement games I’ve played.