Here we are at last, taking a look at the final installment of John Clowdus’s second-latest trilogy of Small Box Games games. This time it’s Hemloch: Dark Promenade, and it’s by far the most interesting of the three.
The first and last thing you’ll see in Hemloch: Dark Promenade is the city itself, a trim three-by-three grid of twisted city blocks, all Boneyards and Alley Mazes and sparkling Courtyards, just begging to be seized by your shadowy household. It’s a game of control, as the games of Clowdus’s Hemloch setting have always been, though with the essential distinction that control is a matter of perspective.
Literally, in this case. Both households are bent on gobbling up as many of the city’s districts and artifacts as possible, but both are coming at the project from an entirely different direction. As in, while both sides are all about sending minions to influence the city districts and hopefully swing them onto their side, one household is influencing rows while the other manipulates columns. It’s the same puzzle of interlocking demands, but solvable from two divergent angles. And crucially, while you might be holding minions that would absolutely dominate in your opponent’s position, you’ll have to get clever to put them to good use from your side of things.
The minion cards are a clear highlight, as they’re the goons who’ll be propelling your household to prominence or poverty. Each of them sports a fairly wide range of abilities. First up they have an influence value, which they can add to any location in their avenue. But most of them also have a bonus, things like the Cutthroat being worth a bit extra if deployed to the cramped Alley Mazes, or the Gravedigger breaking any ties in the Boneyards. If that wasn’t enough, there are also plenty of abilities to leverage. Some minions force your opponent to lose a particular district, some reclaim them from the “outskirts” — a discard pile for bad neighborhoods, essentially — while others steal minions or artifacts, swell your hand, or even rearrange the city itself. Many of the best abilities are conditional, requiring you to play a minion to an avenue with the right type of district, which occasionally forces you to sacrifice a card to a lane where it will only add its influence or trigger an ability.
It’s also very, very mean. Not always, mind you. Often, it’s possible to go an entire in-game week without realizing that your rival household is doing anything other than adding influence to all those city cards. Then they’ll plop down an Acolyte and steal the card that was the linchpin of your strategy, or have an Alchemist triple-load an avenue that you thought was full, or send the Deceiver to rob your cards of their influence values. That’s when you’ll remember that seizing control of a haunted city isn’t about being nice.
If anything, Dark Promenade’s sadistic streak is both its greatest asset and an illumination of its least-savory sewers — and like a sewer, the problem is that it can occasionally become clogged. Each week opens with both households receiving their allotment of seven minions. For better or worse, these are the guys and gals who will seize the city, steal the artifacts, and ruin your rival’s day. But in a space as tightly controlled as Hemloch’s tableau, just nine random districts plus whatever’s been dumped in the outskirts, it’s entirely possible to find yourself holding cards that don’t necessarily amount to the same opportunities as your opponent. Worse, since you can’t hold onto cards between weeks, a minion that’s perfect for a different spread won’t stick around long enough to make itself useful.
Which is why Dark Promenade almost feels like the back half of a great game. The city-grabbing spatial stuff is smart, the abilities feel clever, and there’s nothing quite like messing with your opponent’s perfect arrangement of minions with a well-timed Charlatan. Which is why it’s hard to avoid wondering why players couldn’t acquire their minions from a rolling card offer, or some other system that would allow the strategies to evolve along with the changing state of the city itself. As it stands, your success or failure may well come down to how well you drew.
By the same token, the flavor of each city district comes solely from the way minions interact with it rather than on their own merits. The abilities that let you rob an opponent of a specific district come across as petty rather than conniving because all of the game’s four districts are effectively interchangeable. It would have been grand to see some sort of set collection bonus in place, if only to really burn bridges with your significant other when you make off with his only Spires district.
Of course, I’m only nitpicking because I like Dark Promenade enough to care. Some of its ideas could have been given a bit more muscle, especially since it seems like certain improvements could have been made without any real modification to the game’s components or concepts.
But without its central gameplay, this wouldn’t have earned enough of my interest to draw those criticisms in the first place. Its central spatial puzzle is fantastic, forcing players to adapt as their rival household adds influence along an entirely different vector, and often meaning that both sides are able to pursue divergent strategies at the same time.
Which is why, for all its faults and omissions, I like what it’s doing enough that it may well find itself in the pile of Small Box Games that stick around.