A Study in Emaciation
What made the original version of A Study in Emerald one of my favorite games of 2014 was the constant feeling that absolutely anything might happen. As a loyalist (or anarchist) trying to sustain (or smash) the regime of alien overlords that had settled in quite nicely by the time Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene, you’d be going about your business when everything went suddenly and irreversibly off the rails. Perhaps a zombie horde began spreading across Europe, or some vampires seduced your best agent into their coven. Meanwhile, a mi-go concealed a crucial assassination target’s brain on Pluto, Cthulhu consumed London for brunch, and Otto von Bismarck marched the entire Prussian army into Madrid. And the game was only half finished.
Martin Wallace’s new take on A Study in Emerald is less interested in star-crossed anarchic madness and more in being easy to get along with. Gone are the original game’s excesses, flights of fancy, and more outlandish occurrences. In fact, all sorts of things have been stripped out, right down to basic concepts like the dangers of traveling across occupied Europe or the individual appearance of various historical figures. In their place is something that will undoubtedly strike fans of the original as somewhat withered.
Paradoxically, it’s also the better game in a lot of ways.
Like many of Martin Wallace’s best designs — and like the original version before it — A Study in Emerald is a hybrid straight out of Y’ha-nthlei. Which, of course, is the many-columned undersea city of the Deep Ones and the destination of the inhabitants of Innsmouth after their transformation into fish people. I mean, sheesh, I didn’t think I’d have to explain this to you people. The point is, this is a deck-building game and an area control game and a hidden role game, and each system is as important as the others. I’ll try to elucidate, as though mortal tongues and minds could contain the ability to communicate and comprehend in the first place.
First of all, victory in A Study in Emerald isn’t accomplished by walking a straight path. There’s really only one way to earn points that can work to anyone’s benefit, and that’s by capturing cities. The trouble is that city cards are shuffled into their respective decks and don’t appear all that often. When they do, everyone tends to descend with a flurry of agents, assassinations, and bids for control. It’s chaos, and you’re liable to get hurt that way. Instead, most points will probably be earned through meeting your side’s secret objectives. As a restorationist bent on ousting humanity’s squamous overlords, the best thing you can do is hurl a stick of dynamite at one of the bastards. So if Nyarlathotep appears in Cairo or Rhogog in Rome, head on over with some agents, play the right cards, and boom, you’re one step closer to human independence.
There are two hitches to this. The first is that exploding a literal god is a fantastic way of signaling your hidden allegiance, opening you up to reprisals. Loyalist players earn points by wiping out restorationists, so being too overt about your intentions before you’re a force to be reckoned with is a great way to get your people shot in a drab alleyway. Or absorbed by a shoggoth.
The second hitch is that nearly every step towards earning points, from having enough agents in the right city for pulling off a hit to holding the proper cards in your hand, requires that you pick up some stuff first. It’s the A Study in Emerald equivalent of stopping by the hardware store on your way to a royalty bombing, except rather than picking up fertilizer and metal pipe, you’re recruiting Professor Moriarty and Vera Figner. This is where the deck-building and area control come in. You can only pick up cards in cities where you’ve established a majority of pieces, turning every acquisition into a miniature bidding war, agents and influence cubes piling up until someone claims a card. There’s an art to cycling your cubes in and out of your stockpile, bouncing agents between hotspots, and getting the right cards in your hand. It’s simple stuff, but hard as nails to outmaneuver everyone at once.
These interlocking systems are what give rise to A Study in Emerald’s most compelling moments. For example, in one game we had a restorationist player who had lost too much sanity from assassinating Old Ones, placing him in danger of ending the game before he could amass enough points to win. Desperate, he noticed that Sigmund Freud was kicking around Vienna. What luck! Not only would Freud’s radical new techniques of psychoanalysis cure his distressingly phallic dreams (“The probosces! The terrible chitinous probosces!”), but he would also hand extra points to all restorationist players. So our budding revolutionary called upon his connections in the Diogenes Club, sending as many agents as possible to Vienna to recruit the good doctor.
Well, as a loyalist to mankind’s benefactors, I was having none of it. Thus I loaded my own agents into the airship Nadar, flew to Vienna, and prepared to have Sergei Nechaev and Wilhelm Stieber put an end to this nonsense. Unfortunately, my opponent had planned for royal intervention. Irene Adler appeared out of nowhere, swapping one of my agents to the opposition, then had a lowly hired assassin shoot my other guy. Betrayal and reversal, both at once. Fortunately, someone else wasn’t too jazzed about this restorationist plot, so she gave the revolutionary player the night terrors, which forced him to roll for sanity. The game ended, the rebellion failed, and order was restored.
Or was it? Even though everyone is sorted into two teams, only one player can win. In a clever stroke of design, having an ally in last place at the end of the game means you lose a significant chunk of points. It’s therefore expedient for players on the same team to cooperate, at least for a little bit, before pulling ahead. In the aforementioned game, for instance, the restorationist may have lost his sanity, but since a loyalist player had performed most poorly, it was the rest of us who were jerked back in the final tally. It seems the revolution won after all.
Now, none of these beats are as fleshed out as they were in the original game. Agents on the board are generic tokens rather than individuals whose death means their removal from your deck as well, betrayal is almost entirely gone, travel has been simplified from complex movement along rail lines to an anyone-goes-anywhere affair, cities never change hands once claimed, and some of the coolest cards from the original game have been simplified or removed entirely. Apart from a few underlying concepts — the setting, the hidden teams, the basics of deck-building and area control — the two editions of A Study in Emerald feel almost entirely dissimilar. Where the first was a hodgepodge of ideas that could feel occasionally directionless, the second is a solid hybrid deck-builder, streamlined to an aerodynamic sheen, all its rough edges sanded smooth and its focus unwavering. It’s a faster, leaner, and in many ways better game, though also, unfortunately, the less imaginative one.
Then again, the second edition is the one that’s in print, somewhat diminishing any agony over which to pick up. All told, it’s an excellent piece of design, fun and tense in equal measure, and rewarding from its first tenuous acquisitions to final explosive assassination. While my love of the original remains undiminished, I still recommend the second edition as a worthy… successor isn’t the right word, so “worthy human interbred with monster fish thing” will have to do.