One Raven Two Raven Three Raven Four
While Grant Rodiek is possibly best known for Cry Havoc, it’s his smaller games that stand out as the purest expression of his design ethos. With offerings like Hocus and Solstice — the latter of which was one of the most devious games of last year — Rodiek seems determined to present slick, carefully tested, and, perhaps most importantly, interesting games, often with a footprint smaller than an actual footprint.
Enter Five Ravens. This is Rodiek’s newest game, and it’s easily one of his best yet.
From word one, Five Ravens is an exercise in minimalism. John Ariosa’s illustrations are the most immediate indication of this, the game’s white-on-black cards evocative of a cityscape of endless night, only the barest flashes of color distinguishing one relic from another. Even the rulebook’s fluff wants to accomplish a lot with very little. There’s something about thieves and crows and some rotten baron up to rotten work in a rotten city — and a couple of those nouns are pure guesswork on my part.
But that’s one of the best things about Five Ravens. It’s so lean that it can’t even be bothered to make people sit around for an introduction. There’s a baddie with some relics that aren’t going to steal themselves, and… well, that’s about the whole of it.
In terms of gameplay, Five Ravens is similarly slight. Each round opens with some of the baron’s possessions being brought out of their musty compartments and into your shadowy awareness, with one of them remaining shrouded in mystery. The more “normal” of these treasures are chests of coins and glittering gems that grow more valuable as you assemble a complete collection. Unsurprising for a gang of thieves, it’s your task to accumulate as much loot as possible, striving to outdo the other gangs sharing space within this twilight city. The weirder stuff in the baron’s possession — the cursed skulls and glowing orbs and other tidbits with all the gory appeal of a saint’s severed pinkie bone — those are going to require some extra finesse.
Finesse is a good word for what you’ll be doing over the next twenty-odd minutes. Every one of your ravens — this darkened land’s nom de nice for “someone who burgles things” — comes with a pair of abilities. The first is a skill they can use during a normal round. Maybe you need extra cards, or want to take a peek at the baron’s face-down relic, or trick his household guards into swapping a mediocre treasure for something with a little extra sting. It’s the planning stage of the heist: cards are arranged to your liking, knowledge is gained or lost, and perhaps you receive a spot of help from someone on the inside.
Preparations complete, you commit one of your other ravens to infiltrate the baron’s mansion and the game is afoot.
At first blush, it seems like a slight pity that all these preparations don’t accomplish more. Rather than all that canvassing and card-moving determining whether your infiltration was a success, it largely comes down to the rank of whichever raven you sent after the baron’s stuff. Once each gang has committed a card, the ravens with the best ranks take the choicest loot while the street-level cutpurses claim scraps.
While this might first appear like a niggling misstep, it remains only a minor complaint for a handful of reasons. First of all, careful preparation often spells the difference between picking up precisely what you wanted and wasting a powerful raven on something that doesn’t really benefit you. More than that, each round adds complications as more of your ravens are captured — yes, we’ll get to that — so carefully measuring when to toss a raven into the fire is one of the most important decisions each round.
Now for the twist that elevates Five Ravens from a clever minimalist game to a truly devious one. Every single raven who smuggled something out of the baron’s mansion will be captured. It’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. But while your highest-ranking thieves are of no use whatsoever in the baron’s dungeons, everyone else in your gang is more accustomed to grungy work. While incarcerated, they bestow additional actions or even provide better scoring options, with the obvious tradeoff that they’re, well, in a cell beneath the ground.
At their best, though, captured ravens can squirrel away the loot they’ve nabbed, preventing it from clogging up your deck on future rounds, or even causing it to increase in value. Those nutty cursed skulls, for instance? Those aren’t of any value unless you’ve figured out a way to ensconce them in some hidden corner of the baron’s estate, where their curses will presumably cause him to over-tip his valet tomorrow morning.
Hey, like I said, Five Ravens is slender on setting. Fill in the blanks on your own.
The point is, it isn’t long before Five Ravens becomes a sequence of agonizing flashpoints. Should you have that one thief conceal a bunch of relics from prying eyes, or send her after a high-value chest of coins? Let your best thief get captured in the hopes that you’ll be able to bust her out later, or have her pick which cards you’ll draw next round? Stash a tasty relic beneath the deck then nab it with one of your lowest-level pickpockets, or something less risky? There are plenty of ways to employ your ravens, but never enough time to do everything you want.
Yet for all these decisions, Five Ravens has its eye on the clock and knows precisely how long to stick around. It offers some tense card play, a few tough decisions, and gets someone to yelp in frustration when they don’t get the relic they wanted, then tips its hat and disappears with your wallet.
When you get right down to it, this is the sort of game that crowdfunding was invented for. It’s quirky, boasts an aesthetic that bolsters its gameplay, feels thoroughly tested, and gets everyone thinking for a few minutes. Five Ravens is the real deal.