Hemoglobin & Luck
Blood & Fortune claims to be about a monarchical succession, something about picking a suitable king with the wisdom of ten thousand dragons amid the burgeoning threat of civil war. I dunno, considering the thing is an import from Japan and talks about duplicity in conflict, it’s all warring daimyos and moonlit recitations of epigrammatic war poetry to me. Autumn leaves fall all around; on desperate ground, fight. Or, in the case of Blood & Fortune, when the river flows from behind, give ’em your twos. That will make sense in a minute.
All warfare is based on deception.
I’m going to say this right up front: Blood & Fortune is a tricky game to talk about, and playing it isn’t much better. If that sounds like a slam, it’s only a half-hearted one. The truth of the matter is that this is an odd duck of a game, difficult to parse until the second or third play. On our first try, we mostly sat in silence, played cards in silence, and very occasionally broke the silence by wondering aloud what we were supposed to be bluffing about.
This isn’t to say that Blood & Fortune isn’t the game of negotiation, deduction, and betrayal that its back cover claims. Just that it’s deeply abstract, doesn’t wear its intentions on its sleeve, and doesn’t even bother with the gold-leafed “theme” that many games use as a means to help contextualize their actions. It’s clear that you want influence points, and you’ll need to both hand them out to other players and persuade everyone else to do the same for you in order to amass them. Why do you want influence? “To be influential,” the game seems to respond. Well, alright. When you’re playing a proudly Japanese game — meaning that every card is bilingual — but where your faction symbol might be the lion of England, a pair of unicorns, or a kraken, you learn to stop asking what’s going into the sausage. What are you doing in Blood & Fortune? Trying to win.
Not that “trying to win” is all that simple. Every round revolves around a hand of influence cards ranging in value from one to two. As in, you’ve got some ones and you’ve got some twos. Every turn, you hand someone a pair of cards, they pick one to hold and one to give back, and place whichever they chose to keep into their lengthening conga line of cards. At the end of each hand, you get points for all the cards you’ve been given and all of your cards that scored in someone else’s conga line.
Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline; simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.
____—Sun Tzu (yep, still)
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Almost too easy? Well, the first trick up Blood & Fortune’s sleeve revolves around those double influence cards, because while ones always count towards a player’s influence total, only the last two in a player’s conga line actually counts towards their score. Right away, this gives everyone something to talk about. By not handing out your twos until the right moment, you can try and ensure that you score those points later on. By convincing everyone you aren’t in first place, you might entice them to send more cards your way. By lying about what you gave to someone else, you might prevent them from blocking your own cards, or wasting a precious double influence card to block a card that you only claimed was a two. And of course, there’s that classic line of negotiation, “Give me cards now and I utterly swear I will give you cards later.”
This isn’t especially deep stuff, but for such a slim game it does an okay job of providing room for some minor social maneuvering. The card values could have had more range — and thus more impact — but hey, this is shooting to be simple. It accomplishes that.
Where Blood & Fortune actually gets interesting is with the “optional” role cards, which are mandatory for anyone who wants the game to go from merely simple to interesting. These provide a number of small bonuses, like transforming all cards into singles or doubles, giving points to the player in last place, letting you score multiple twos, and so forth. These can be offered to other players alongside regular cards, with the twist that whenever a player accepts one, they must then give you one of their own influence cards. This can mean extra points for you, and can be a great move if you were holding one of the role cards that doesn’t really confer a benefit when they’re resolved at the end of the round. In either case, these more than double the number of considerations each hand, and add the slightest dash of watchfulness to the proceedings as you try to figure out what roles everyone else is trying to fulfill.
There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general, and the fifth of these is over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
____—Sun Tzu (I refuse to quote anybody else, and yes, I realize Sun Tzu wasn’t Japanese)
All in all, Blood & Fortune is an acceptable travel game that’s unfortunately held back by its opaque setting, murky gameplay, and, for a game about negotiation, lack of things to squabble about. It’s enjoyable enough with the right crowd, people ready to insist they aren’t winning even when there’s a string of cards sitting right there in front of them, and the role cards transform it from functional to interesting. Sadly, we’re living in an era when social deduction games are widely available; in such a time, Blood & Fortune simply fails to stand out.