Geralt Was Never This Unsexy
It was announced back in January that The Witcher would soon be transformed into cardboard form courtesy of an alliance between Fantasy Flight Games and Ignacy Trzewiczek, famed designer of Imperial Settlers, 51st State, Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, and The Convoy. For fans of The Witcher, it was quite a bit like when Geralt of Rivia teamed up with Siegfried of Denesle to take down the rogue Grand Master of the Order of the Flaming Rose.
For the uninitiated, that was a pretty cool moment. Best bromance ever, at least until Geralt teamed up with Vernon Roche in the sequel. Sniffle.
And no, I’m not crying about the bromances. I’m man enough to admit these are tears — but this time, the thing bringing water to my eyes is the fact that The Witcher Adventure Game simply doesn’t live up to its legacy.
The Witcher vs. The Mold
(And I’m not talking about the green mold Geralt had to find in order to remove that compromising tattoo in the second game. I mean mold in the sense of, I dunno, a plastic mold or something)
For anyone who’s played some of Fantasy Flight’s other adventure games — let’s say Eldritch Horror since it’s fairly recent — the formula on display in The Witcher will be familiar. You’ve got a big beautiful map of the Northern Kingdoms, a deck of skills for gradually empowering your chosen character, and quests to accomplish. Or rather, one big quest with some sub-jobs attached to it.
It’s simple fare. You get two actions each turn, and most of your time is spent traveling around to gather clues, though you can also spend time learning skills or preparing your potions or spells for combat. The most interesting option is to “investigate,” drawing a card and resolving its little story to maybe find another clue, though there’s always some risk involved. You might run into an old nemesis and have to discard some of your skills or get wounded or whatever. Or you might find a clue, heal a wound, and make a contact, holding onto the card to use sometime later. When your turn is over, you have to fight a monster or resolve a “foul fate” card, both of which are usually as simple as rolling a few dice and checking to see if you’ve taken a wound or lost a coin. Then you’re done.
All told, it’s one of the lightest games of this type I’ve played — either “streamlined” or “dumbed down” depending on your attitude. There’s some innovation to be found, like how wounds fill up your character sheet and prohibit different actions, but these just force you to spend some time resting and don’t amount to much more than a setback. Unlike some of those other games (and especially Eldritch Horror), there’s no timer to beat other than your fellow players, no way to die; just a world full of setbacks, delays, and the occasional wasted turn just to make the experience extra-special.
Let’s Go on a (Grindy, Tedious, Repetitive) Quest
The quests themselves are the most interesting aspect of the whole game. They’re printed on these big cards, crammed with text, and they offer a few different options and snippets of story.
For instance, while playing as Dandelion the Bard, you might have the urge to win the Tourney of Troubadours. The main goal of this very important quest is to gather a bunch of purple clues, turn them into a certain type of item (possibly the highly illegal “harmony doping” that’s been plaguing music schools recently), and take them to a particular city. But he can also visit a couple different cities to help prepare himself, picking up bonus points along the way, or let a friend “support” him by spending some of their clues, which gives both Dandelion and the helper even more points — which is, by the way, the only interaction permitted between players. Once the quest is done, you get a bunch of points, maybe some bonuses or extra monsters on the map, and a new quest. Once somebody finishes three quests, the game is over, and whoever has earned the most points wins.
If it sounds anticlimactic, that’s because it is. Everything boils down to finding more clues, and since this is most reliably accomplished by picking up the free clue from traveling each turn, it’s common to see Geralt, Dandelion, and Triss Merigold running around in these big circles in order to collect the color they need. Or worse, just jogging back and forth between two locations. Then you turn in a quest and start chasing more clues. Or maybe investigate to get clues even faster. Or spend clues on another person’s quest. Or drop your clues under the table and crawl around looking for them in the dark because it’s slightly more interesting than playing the game, because playing The Witcher Adventure Game is like a pick-up-and-deliver game where there are only three things to pick up and your reward upon delivery is a soul-crushing sense of ennui.
It is, to use a more colorful adjective, sort of boring.
A Wasted Opportunity
All in all, The Witcher Adventure Game is quite the letdown. It feels like the worst sort of license cash-in, made from the perspective that The Witcher is about its least-compelling parts, like the sections where you gather a thousand flower petals or grind to collect barghest skulls, and not about its richer elements.
The worst part is that although it nails the setting, from the appropriately Witcher-like text, monsters, characters, and even the occasional implied sexual encounter, it utterly fails to engage with any of the themes that make The Witcher so compelling — stuff like moral ambiguity, uncertain decisions, tenuous allegiances, racial intolerance, or even just the idea that you’re a monster hunter barely scraping by in a largely disinterested world.
And why not? Many of these are themes that Ignacy Trzewiczek could have evoked with systems from his other games. I’m picturing this game with the benefit of the card system from Robinson Crusoe, where actions have long-term consequences that might bite you in your pasty witcher-bum at some point down the road, or where resources are scarce, or where monsters have a genuine chance of killing you, and it’s potentially brilliant. Hell, it could have ditched its watered-down “solo versus” act and gone fully cooperative, putting that “war track” to use for something other than adding monsters and foul fate tokens to the map, and it might have at least invoked some sense of urgency.
Whatever the change, almost anything would have been an improvement, because right now the only sense of urgency found in The Witcher Adventure Game is the forlorn hope that somebody will finish their third quest soon enough that you can play something more interesting.
To use a Witcher analogy, this time, Fantasy Flight Games is Nilfgaard.