A Vast Vast Review
The prospect of asymmetry in board games has always been a tricky one, promising great variety and depth while also threatening to overwhelm its participants with — and I believe this is the scientific term — a metric butt-ton of rules. Unlike digital games, which might handle calculations behind the scenes or offer helpful tips whenever you get stuck, in the analog world of board games every single rule must be relayed, parsed, and understood between all players at all times. Or at least most of the time.
Not only is Vast: The Crystal Caverns by Leder Games not an exception to this rule, it’s pretty much the definition. But does that do it a disservice or make it one of the richest games to appear on our table this year? Read on to find out.
Picture this: five players sit around the table, eager to learn the new game about dungeon diving. They’ve played these sorts of games before, so they have a good idea of what to expect. The dude who owns the game starts with the explanations. “There’s this Knight,” he says, and goes on to explain how the Knight is there to slay the Dragon, though before she can do that she’ll have to avoid some monsters and level up by collecting “grit,” this game’s version of experience points. Everyone nods sagely, even impatiently. They’ve heard this before.
Over the next half hour, their expressions will change. They’ll glance at one another in confusion. They’ll ask questions, request clarifications. Maybe over and over, because there are a whole lot of things to clarify. This is because Vast isn’t just a game about a Knight versus a Dragon. It’s a game about a Knight versus a Dragon versus a horde of Goblins versus a Thief versus the Cave itself, and each of them are doing their own thing. Not just in the sense that they have their own goals or a different splash of paint over the top of similar mechanisms, but rather that they’re each playing an entirely different game. It’s no wonder that the number one criticism of Vast is that the only thing more terrifying than the prospect of figuring it out is the prospect of teaching it.
For that reason, and because it’s hard for newcomers to grasp just how different each of Vast’s five roles can be, I’m going to avoid dissecting the game as a whole for the next few minutes and instead treat each role on its own terms.
Of everything going on in Vast, it’s the Knight who’s the most familiar. Everyone else might be wrestling to get a grip on their own unique play style, but the Knight knows what’s up. Just plop her into any old dungeon, give her a bow and shield and a handful of bombs, and she’ll beat a path. In fact, she’ll have to, since it’s in the process of beating a path that she’ll earn grit, gradually unlocking extra cubes that can be spent each round to unlock stuff like extra moves, strength, and equipment. Need to get away from a bunch of goblins? Pour your cubes into speed and you can practically zip from one end of the cavern to the other. Has the cave shifted, blocking you behind impassable walls? Spend a cube or two on the ancient map to get past them. Just want to explore and fight? Load up on perception and strength and have at it.
This isn’t to say that any of this is necessarily simple. Once the cavern has begun to spread across the table, there will be any number of ways to pursue the dragon. Should you search for some extra grit for those last couple cubes? Or is it time to start chasing the beast down, dropping bombs into its sub-cave to score a few early hits? Like the rest of the roles in Vast, the Knight is presented with tough choices early and often.
The beauty of the Knight is that pretty much everything she does is going to tick off one of the cavern’s other inhabitants, in part because her life philosophy is that people are doors of opportunity to be opened, by violence if necessary. Even the inoffensive act of opening a treasure chest — which yields powerful loot or grit, depending on whether she accepts the offered card or righteously spurns its temptations — means depriving everyone else who needs that treasure as badly as she does. It isn’t surprising that everyone often goes out of their way to cause her trouble when they’ve got a spare action or two.
Kill the Knight. It’s an easy enough goal. The problem is that the Goblins are, well, kind of frail. In order to survive, they’ve got to band into tribes, avoid infighting thanks to overpopulation, and persuade some monsters to tag along for the ride.
The result is best described as a Goblin Home & Garden Simulator. You’ve got to both manage your board, complete with all those monsters and rage meter and secrets cards, and your tribes as they hunt the Knight across the map itself. The trick is that you can travel as many spaces as you like, so it isn’t ever possible for the Knight to evade your reach entirely, but spend too much time in the light and your little guys will skitter away in terror. Certain monsters can help launch ambushes or pack some extra oomph, but even when you do manage to land a hit on that armored punk, the Knight will merrily wallop you back, forcing whichever tribe landed the blow to retreat and lick their wounds. Worse, the Dragon is determined to chow down on your guys like they were two-dollar bags of extra salty tortilla chips, so the very target the Knight is rushing towards is the one you’ve got to keep some distance from.
All of this adds up to a pleasant ebb and flow. A new round will start, plumping up a couple of your tribes and giving you a monster or two to play with, then you’ll lose a tribe to the Dragon or a vindictive Thief, have a group get trapped in a corner by the shifting of the cavern, then finally rush forward to land a blow, only to do it all over again the next turn. It’s surprisingly cerebral for a bunch of greenskins.
Where the Knight was about assigning action cubes so she could chase her quarry and the Goblins were about being opportunistic little turds as often as possible, the Dragon is surprisingly shy. This is probably because he was built to soar, burning towns and nabbing cattle from high above. Trapped underground, there isn’t quite as much wiggle room. Especially when he’s so sleepy.
The Dragon’s goal is to wake up from his centuries-long slumber, emerge from the sub-cavern into the main cave, and then get to the entrance so he can rain fire down on the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, the Dragon is still trying to rub the sleep from his eyes, waking up little by little as he eats goblins, hoards treasures, and reveals particular types of tiles in the cave. If you’ve been paying attention, every single one of those goals puts him at odds with somebody. And since you can accomplish multiple of those goals per round, a good turn will see you making enemies with a whole bunch of people at once.
Cleverly, the Dragon’s turn revolves around a sort of hand management game, where a bunch of cards sporting various symbols are drawn and then cashed in to take different actions. Wing symbols are good for moving around or slapping the Knight away, claws for snacking on goblins, and flames for illuminating the surrounding tiles. Bigger combos yield greater results, like using three claws to decrease the Knight’s grit or a bunch of flames to lay a flame wall that basically murders anybody who enters it. It’s a rare turn where you draw exactly what you need, which is where Dragon Gems come in. These are special tiles you can seed around the cave, each one corresponding with one of your symbols, and therefore expanding what you can do on your turn. The downside, however, is that everybody wants to get their grubby mitts on your gems: the Knight earns a pile of grit, the Goblins increase their rage meter, and the Thief steals it. It thus behooves you to jealously guard your gems, storing them in some out-of-the-way corridor behind a wall or two.
At first glance, the Cave looks like the administrative role, the underappreciated dungeon master who’s there to make sure everybody else has a good time. When the Knight or Dragon illuminates new tiles, you’re the fellow who puts out new ones, choosing from your hand in an effort to drive the action. When the Knight finds loot or enters an encounter, it’s you who picks what happens.
The thing is, you actually are driving the action. This is thanks to two little details.
First of all, you’re the game timer. Once all your tiles are out on the board, the cavern reaches its farthest limit and begins collapsing. At that point, if you can remove five crystal tiles the Cave will collapse, killing everybody and fulfilling your destiny. But beyond just slapping down tiles, you’re able to affect how everyone approaches them, which brings us to the second detail: you’re the one keeping everyone from winning. When the Knight starts poking the Dragon too much, it’s up to you to separate them with an inopportune rockslide or rotating corridor. When the Knight is surrounded by too many Goblin tribes, drive them off with a cloud of giant bats. Dragon waking up? Shake some soporific mushrooms in his direction. By drawing special omen tiles and using them to take actions — a system reminiscent of the Dragon’s, though lending itself to longer-term plans as you gradually shape the arena of play — it’s entirely possible to delay everybody until it’s time to bring the house down.
The thing about being the Thief is that it seems so simple at first. By tiptoeing into the cave, you can pick up treasures and dragon gems, then drag them back to the entrance for upgrades like climbing gear and finger glue (to become a better pickpocket, of course). It would seem that the cycle of upgrades would make it easy to accomplish your goal. After all, why should anyone pay attention to little old you?
Well. Leaving aside the fact that everyone wants to get their grubby mitts on the same stuff as you, it’s also pretty beneficial to kill the Thief, at least unless you’ve wasted a bunch of actions on making yourself look less appetizing. Sure, there’s a curse on you that makes you pop back to life every turn, but that’s scant consolation when you died returning from a good run with a bunch of treasures in your rucksack.
Of course, this is where your ability to manage your sneaky abilities comes in. By assigning a higher stat token to your stealth, you might make it impossible for anyone to prey on you. Then again, you’ll also be making it so that you can’t run very far or use many action cubes. This pitches the Thief as a game of risk versus reward, where it’s possible to crawl safely through the shadows and get barely anything done, or take enterprising advantage of any windows of opportunity that happen to open in your vicinity. Say, when the Knight has a choice between killing you or getting a good whack at the Dragon, or the Goblins are too busy riding on each other’s shoulders or something.
Okay. Whew. What a mouthful.
The thing is, Vast isn’t just smug about how varied each of its roles are. It revels in it. It gets down in the mud and squirms with it. Every role interacts with every other role in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track of them, even with a rulebook and five double-sided reference sheets. To say this thing’s got a learning curve is to bend the definition of a curve.
Take treasure chests as an example. The Knight wants them because they dish out powerful items. The Goblins want them so they can increase their rage meter, which in turn increases how many cards they get to draw each turn. The Dragon wants them so he can wake up a bit more. And the Thief wants them because dragging a bunch of shiny stuff back to the surface is his goal. Logical enough, right? Well, even the Cave wants them, because the more unclaimed treasures there are out there, the more omen tokens they pull from their bag each turn, so the Cave is constantly squirreling them away in odd corners while everybody else hunts for them. But that’s not all, because there are also crystals, and dragon gems, and event tokens, and all the other bits and bobs that affect everybody but in different ways. This is asymmetrical gameplay — yet interconnected gameplay — at its most brilliant.
Obviously, this makes the game a bit beastly to learn. But what that criticism fails to illuminate is just how genius the complete package is once it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s not unlike the COIN Series, Volko Ruhnke’s opus system about the asymmetrical nature of modern warfare. Or some of the work of Phil Eklund, willing to hand its participants a few rules that might not matter in four out of five plays. In short, it’s daunting stuff. But with a solid group of people willing to explore the game’s nuances, to engage in table trash-talk to drag down whichever role is winning, and to grapple with complex, interlocking ideas, Vast is one of the most rewarding experiences out there.
Even that might seem like faint praise, but I’m not saying a group needs to be composed of hardcore gamers to appreciate this creature. Vast even makes concessions to those who want a more balanced experience by providing difficulty cards that can make a role harder, perfect for hobbling the experienced player in a group. In fact, some of our best sessions have happened with rookie players, newcomers who have yet to be ingrained with a thirst for abbreviated, crisp experiences or expect bang-for-buck or thrill-per-minute ratios. To them, sitting down with a game is an adventure for its own sake, as ideas and systems and ways of socializing collide into something entirely new. When we told them this game might take a few hours, that it would be difficult to understand, that we would undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, they didn’t groan because there are faster, more elegant games out there. They just nodded, rolled up their sleeves, and dived in headfirst.
Vast: The Crystal Caverns is one of the smartest games I’ve ever played, not to mention deep, satisfying, and constantly breathtaking with how it uses such a diverse set of rules to generate moments of tension and release, risk and reward, boundaries and ways to circumvent them. Perhaps the best compliment I could give it is that I could probably play it a hundred times and still discover something new.