Insert Edgar Allan Poe Joke
Every so often, I come across a game that’s so artistic in its vision, so inventive in its mechanical execution, so determined to march to the beat of its own drummer, that’s it nothing short of breathtaking. After playing a few dozen nigh-identical deck-building or worker-placement games, creativity can be its own reward.
Unfortunately, sometimes that game stumbles in just such a way that it becomes nearly impossible to recommend it. And so it is with the asymmetrical cooperative game The Ravens of Thri Sahashri.
The idea at its core strives for beauty, though even then The Ravens of Thri Sahashri sure knows how to get my eyes rolling until all I see is black. This is a love story, you see, and a youthful and tender one at that. The boy is Feth, a young man joining his father on a business trip to Japan; the girl is Ren, whose main attribute seems to be that she was “a courtesan, and not by choice.” Right from the start, the delivery could be described as heavy-handed.
I had a sense of cold foreboding, Feth tells us, a sense of danger flying around me, settling in the rafters of my hope. For all the darkness that surrounded her, I could sense a presence that was darker still. I could almost hear a cawing.
Poignant stuff, Feth.
Sure, it’s fluff, but it’s fluff that the game wants us to be invested in. And it permeates the game itself. During an attempted escape, Ren gets herself shot and fades into a coma, where spectral ravens begin assaulting her memories in order to rob her of her identity. Fortunately for her, Feth is an amateur oneiromancer. Into her dreams he goes, stitching together her remembrances to save his love.
Okay. The thing is, substantial as a bridge made of cotton candy though it may be, this goofball tale informs everything both players will be doing in the game proper. And it’s neat stuff, totally asymmetrical to the point that both players are steering only half of the complete game, and from entirely differing perspectives. The player controlling Feth, for instance, will be going through Ren’s dreams — a big pile of jumbled memories — and laying them together in the “Atman.” The goal is to give Ren a wide selection of colors and numbers to choose from while also trying to build matching sets of seven, which will allow Ren to reveal her “heart,” one of the face-down cards in front of her. This is crucial because it lets Feth finish the Atman with the correct colors, stripping out whatever Ren doesn’t need that round. On occasion, Feth can use one of the cards claimed by Ren for its bonus, to manipulate the Atman or save some cards from the spectral ravens who appear every now and then. Did I mention that spectral ravens appear every now and then? They do, and they’re real pests, stealing away cards permanently. Since a full game of The Ravens of Thri Sahashri is really three attempts strung together, these missing cards make each successive effort that much more difficult.
For her turn, Ren selects one of the cards from the Atman and… well, that’s pretty much it.
In terms of raw mechanics, that’s the major problem nipping at the heels of The Ravens of Thri Sahashri. The game positions itself cleverly: Feth sets up the Atman while Ren draws from it. And there’s a lot going on here that’s difficult to express in text. When Ren takes that single card from the Atman, perhaps trimming some of the cards away when it’s split into pieces, what is she trying to tell her partner? Did she remove a red card because she can’t brook red cards in her Atman that round, or because she does want them? Or was that simply the only value of card she could use, since she’s trying to assemble a particular sum? Because she isn’t allowed to speak aloud about what she’s hiding in her heart, all her communications must be nonverbal. The single card she selects each round is easily the most important portion of the entire game.
So when I tell you that this is problematic, it isn’t because Ren doesn’t have anything to do. It’s just that she doesn’t have much to do, not when placed alongside Feth. His turn is a sequence of hard decisions. He must decide how many cards to draw, risking the appearance of another raven with each one drawn. He must study the layout of the Atman, expand it, match the patterns on the cards, and do his best to create those stacks of seven. He might use the cards already claimed by Ren, but those are one-offs, yet another tricky choice in a string of the things.
For such a difficult game — and it is truly challenging — Ren spends an inordinate amount of time sitting around, waiting for her companion to provide the tools for her rescue. It leads to a tragically unbalanced experience, with one player constantly engaged while the other gets fifteen seconds in the spotlight every few minutes.
Of course, whether this major imbalance in player involvement is surmountable is entirely in the hands of the game’s players. The Ravens of Thri Sahashri provides a beautiful and distinctive experience, highlighting the way two people can speak to one another without requiring the precision of the spoken word. When both partners are in total sync, the puzzle falls together. The Atman grows organically, ravens are dispelled, the heart is revealed, and victory is assured. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. And if it arrives too easily, the box even contains legacy-style envelopes that continue the doomed tale of Feth and Ren by adding even tougher rules to an already-tough game. Best of luck with that.
All too often, however, Ren spends her time yawning. Which raises the question: why bother rousing someone from a coma when they’d rather be asleep in the first place? The Ravens of Thri Sahashri is a singular experience; too bad it isn’t a more equally engaging one for both of its participants.