Vaster Than Ever
I dug Vast: The Crystal Caverns back in 2016. More than that, I still dig it. Just a couple weeks back, I called it “the king of wild asymmetry that actually works.” And I stand by that. The beauty of Vast isn’t just that each of its five roles is fiercely different, it’s that they work in near-perfect harmony, breaking apart to pursue their own objectives only to come crashing back into one another’s orbit time after time.
With that in mind, does a game with five asymmetrical roles really need three more? Or worse, six more?
Vast: The Fearsome Foes displays three new roles on its cover. What you’re really getting is three roles that can each be deployed in two different configurations. The ghoul, for instance, comes in either vanilla Ghoul, an equal opportunity stalker and serial stabber, or Vile Ghoul, who fills in for the original Goblin tribes on their day off. Similarly, the Ghost can either chase down artifacts while possessing its opponents, or replace the Cave while still possessing its opponents. And the Unicorn either relieves the Dragon of duty or acts as an automated antagonist, trampling down the halls and generally pestering everyone.
Did you get all that? Because I’ve played this thing a handful of times and I still had to look up the roles to remind myself what’s going on.
Right from the beginning, The Fearsome Foes has the same problem as a food addict trapped inside the world’s grandest buffet. With so many roles to pick from, how do you choose who will be included? Where the original game was relatively compact (default: leave out the Thief), now it’s possible to bog down in discussion, and that’s before the rulebook gets cracked open. What if somebody wants to play as the Dragon while someone else is hankering to be a Unicorn? Not only did I never envision myself typing that phrase, but it’s also a hard no.
The point is, it’s possible to have too many options, and Vast: The Crystal Caverns was already nudging into that territory. The number of roles has effectively been more than doubled. Workable asymmetry is one thing. Eleven sides, each with their own components, rules, tics, and optimal strategies? That’s something else.
Okay, but here’s the thing. If that doesn’t bother you, you’re in for a real treat, because some of these roles are even better than the originals.
My favorite example is the Ghost. Or maybe the Ghoul. Seriously, both of these are a delight.
Let’s start with the Ghost. In its most basic form, the Ghost is all about haunting the crap out of the cavern, accomplished when players move artifacts — which begin in their care — into one of a handful of special tiles that have been mixed into the deck. As you might expect, this quickly leads to situations where your opponents steer clear of those tiles. Therefore, in order to ensconce its artifacts into their proper spots, the Ghost has a couple of cool tricks at its disposal. Telekinesis is the more workmanlike option, but the real deal here is possession, granting temporary control over other roles. Just like that, the Ghost can march its puppets over to the right spot and, faster than you can whisper boo, you’re one step closer to being the scariest spook in the neighborhood.
Possession is one of Vast’s niftiest tricks, and strikes a careful balance between being too powerful and too slight. And rather than doing the same thing, each possession mirrors that role’s set of options. A possessed Dragon, for instance, will make use of the Dragon’s power cards and even use its abilities, perhaps hindering a runaway player in the process. It’s the sort of role that should appeal to veterans of Vast, effectively giving you temporary control over anyone you choose to target.
Even better is the Cave Ghost. More than a mere stand-in for the Cave, the Cave Ghost is doing the same stuff — slowing everyone down, building the cavern, collecting omens — but doing so with an actual presence on the map. And its presence matters, veering between getting close to players to trigger omen abilities and hiding in remote corners to grow in power. It generates a pleasant rhythm between hiding and haunting, and it’s good enough that the Cave feels a tad obsolete.
The Ghoul, meanwhile, operates best in its non-replacement form. Like the source material he was plainly cribbed from, the Ghoul is a bit schizophrenic, in terms of both fluff and mechanics. His movement and combat strength are generated via dice, with enough control that playing him isn’t painful, but with a dash of madness that robs you of any real certainty whether he’ll be able to physically assault the Knight that turn. Most importantly, while the other roles new to The Fearsome Foes are reserved for expert players, the Ghoul’s homicidal desires mean he’s a great option for newcomers who would rather stab than creep around as the Thief.
I was less taken with the Unicorn in both of its forms. The Nightmare Unicorn replaces the Dragon, using its personal set of cards to gallop, attack, and teleport all over the dang place, while pursuing largely the same goals as its predecessor. This time, the Unicorn will take shape by leaving its “mark” (definitely nightmare urine) on certain tiles or collecting treasures, at which point it makes a beeline for the exit. It’s fine, albeit somewhat chaotic, but feels less distinct as a replacement than some of The Fearsome Foes’ other offerings.
Its other form, the Shadow Unicorn, operates as an automated force of nature bent on pestering everybody it shares a cavern with. It fleshes out the game with a smaller number of players, and can be battled solo, but for me Vast is the sort of thing best enjoyed with a group.
Still, it’s a tribute to The Fearsome Foes that even its least interesting role doesn’t really detract from the experience and can be easily ignored. I could continue to play with the Ghost and Ghoul for a very long time before this game ran dry of surprises.
One word of warning: The Fearsome Foes is not the sort of expansion that redefines its parent game. Nothing is streamlined here. If anything, it makes Vast even more cluttered with competing agendas, sets of rules and decks of cards and the occasional loose token, and additional teaching time. For many, that won’t be a problem. The joys of Vast are found in the interplay between roles, and two of these roles in particular are exceptionally solid. But anyone thinking that this might revitalize a game that never clicked for them will find themselves disappointed.
For fans of Vast’s labyrinthine asymmetry, you could do a lot worse than The Fearsome Foes. It sort-of doubles the available roles, comes crammed with new ideas, and even recasts a couple of old ones in a newer mold. It might even be enough to hold us over until the sequel hits.