The Eleventh Cardboard
Mistborn: House War is a bit of an odd duck. Based on Brandon Sanderson’s much-loved series, it sees you taking command of Vin, Kelsier, and the rest of those scrappy rebels as they seek to topple the rapacious Final Empire.
Except, oops, it isn’t about that at all. Instead, House War’s protagonists are the first book’s sub-baddies, the Great Houses who squabble, gossip, and often lend that “rapacious” an uncomfortable edge. And they’d very much like to kill off the heroes of the books.
Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with House War’s fascination with evil. Plenty of games require some manner of wrongdoing, often of their players, and rarely elicit a blink. This is a hobby overflowing with necromancers and zombies, colonial powers and old-fashioned greed, Hitlers both secret and historical. Guess which causes the greatest degree of misplaced consternation. If we weren’t allowed to play as the “bad guys,” wargames would cease to exist. And forget about reenacting the war for Middle Earth.
The peculiar thing about House War, though, is that it positions players as the thinnest of all flavors of evil. Sniveling, cowardly, and so selfish that they’re more likely to squabble over a loaf of bread than unite against a common threat, the Great Houses of Luthadel aren’t even their own book’s A-listers. They’re the quislings, the status quo, the Régime de Vichy of the world of Scadrial. Fair enough. Make me a lion, make me a weasel, it’s all the same to me.
Still, it’s the sort of decision we might generously term interesting, italics included. Unfortunately, it’s just the first in a string of them.
The day-to-day process for the slumlords of the Great Houses goes something like this. You rake in some resources — slaves and magical metals, bread and money, that sort of thing — and then watch as the troubles plaguing the Final Empire continue to fester and rot. Can an Empire built on festering and rotting be likewise festered and rotted? If so, that’s your domain, a sort of unending mold control where the mold are the folks who would very much rather not scrape out a pathetic existence under the Lord Ruler’s thumb. Problems appear and then creep across the board, things like peasant riots, rebellious noble heirs, or perhaps the gasp-worthy sluggish work of your slaves. Creep one step too far and they’ll “erupt,” raising new problems, sowing dishonor among the Great Houses, or perhaps nudging the Final Empire an extra step toward self-fulfillment.
Your goal, then, is to solve these problems before they pose an existential threat to your luxurious living. This is where the meat of each turn is found, as the Great Houses mark a problem and proceed to do everything in their power to contribute as little as possible to its solution while squeezing every last bit of prestige from its ragged husk. Defeating one of the rebellion’s major figures might pay out heaps of the Lord Ruler’s favor, but every one of the required slaves and warriors and foodstuffs and money must be paid from someone’s coffers, so all the better if they come from somebody else’s. The effect is not unlike wringing a towel for precious droplets of water, except the towel is mostly dry.
To its credit, House War hits the ground running, at least thematically. It casts you as a pack of rats and then tosses you the scraps to fight over, and in that regard it’s successful, if somewhat unpleasant. Each round’s negotiations are often bitter to the taste, in part because they feel more like dickering than striking a bargain, and it isn’t uncommon to come away from a deal with a whole lot less than you felt you deserved. Worse — or perhaps better — other than its tendency toward long periods of non-danger, it occasionally throws up turns where the threats are too many and the resources too few, forcing sacrifices to be made. In these moments, House War almost shines.
Strangely, House War’s strongest elements feel borrowed almost entirely from a very different game. I’m talking about Homeland, which remains one of the finest games of its class. Both feature creeping walls of problems that threaten to explode if left unattended, sport boards that look more like Excel spreadsheets than proper games, and see their players accumulating characters as a way of gathering strength, abilities, and points. In Homeland, these characters were the assets of covert intelligence work, people to be leveraged and deployed. In House War, they’re used in pretty much the same way, sometimes concealed face-down and other times springing into play to manipulate a particular problem’s required resources, steal from another Great House, or otherwise manipulate events in your favor. It goes without saying that maintaining a healthy staff of informants, heirs, and killers can be the difference between being swept along with the current or paddling your own course.
There are plenty of parallels between these two games, though they inhabit entirely separate genres. Where Homeland was a social deduction game, revolving around one’s loyalty to their country, a traitorous organization, or sheer self-promotion — a triple role that set it apart from many of its kin as unusually clever — House War’s open negotiations are front and center, and mostly played straight. Nobody is going to be a Secret Kelsier, for one thing.
The one notable exception is a matter of scoring. For the most part, each Great House’s goal is to amass as much of the Lord Ruler’s favor as possible. This is what gives each negotiation its sting, especially since nobody is going to last very long by bullying their peers. That’s where House War’s single trick comes into play. If the Final Empire prospers, the highest score wins. But if it collapses under the weight of its corruption and infighting? Well, you can probably guess what happens at that point. Suffice to say, it’s the only time that one guy in your group who always claims to win via golf score is going to be right.
It’s a good trick, and tends to make players cluster their scores or even exhibit outright generosity early on. Of course, the fact that scores are hidden helps the intrigue along, especially once somebody gets the right characters in place. Push somebody too far, deprive them of too many points, and there won’t be anything stopping them from aligning with the rebels and bringing the whole rotten thing tumbling down.
Not that this one moment of true smartness saves House War itself. As a game, it’s simply too wobbly to stand on its own weight for long. Leaving aside the unpleasantness of its setting and the drawn-out dickering of its negotiations, so many of your opportunities comes down to the personalities you wrangle from the character deck — or worse, the opening resources and automatic card draws you earn as a Great House. These are about as balanced as any chair I might make with my own two hands, including a single faction that can choose to be immune to most of the game’s worst penalties while none of its peers receive any special consideration at all. It’s entirely possible to watch in envy as a rival house stocks itself with dynamic personalities while you’re stuck with the Mistborn equivalent of stable boys. And the thing about stable boys is that they’re shitty.
Far worse, the game doesn’t seem all that interested in lending its very dire situation any real urgency. If anything, it’s too busy plodding from one problem to the next, only spitting out one crisis at a time and watching glassy-eyed as you solve them apace. In this regard, Homeland’s glut of terrorist activity feels like a blessing. When the world’s falling apart, at least there’s something to do.
Mistborn: House War can’t be bothered. Like the noble head of a Great House failing to repress even a slave’s unruly fart, it earns the Lord Ruler’s disfavor in spades.