Digital Cardboard: Antihero
If I were the Grand Emperor of Defining Things, in order to qualify as a digital board game — as opposed to qualifying as a digital adaptation of a cardboard board game — it would be a requirement that your digital board game do something that a regular board game couldn’t do sitting on my table. Yes, I just used the phrase “board game” four times in one sentence. That’s probably a world record.
To its credit, Tim Conkling’s Antihero is a digital board game that understands both the limitations of board games and how to stretch them when you place a screen between its players. Let me show you what I mean.
See that image up there? Give it a click if you need a better look. That’s how the city looks at the start of each game. Not exactly, since there are different scenarios and every match’s layout is randomized to some extent, scattering banks and churches and wealthy estates and strangefellow clubs all over the place. But for the most part, that’s what you’ll see — fog of war that’s literal fog, choking the city’s nighttime streets and making it impossible to know whether that’s an orphanage or a trading house on the next block over.
And it’s crucial to Antihero’s pacing that you don’t know the layout of the city your guild of thieves is looking to conquer. Did I mention you’re the leader of a guild of thieves? You certainly are. A guild of thieves and orphans and thugs and killers who look a whole lot like Daniel Day-Lewis in that one movie. Early on, your movements into the city are more about scouting than thieving or thugging. Send your master thief over here to reveal the path down the boulevard; zip over there to inspect a block and determine which businesses you can shake down with smelly orphans. Will it be something that will help your economy, like a trading house? Or a building that will decrease the cost of a unit you don’t plan to ever hire? Early on, there’s no telling until you hoof it over there to take a look.
But that’s not what I’m talking about when I say that Antihero does something that physical board games can’t. After all, this wouldn’t be impossible, right? A stack of tiles, maybe. Face-down map sections. A deck of cards. Board games love to spit out randomized discoveries and unfortunate turns of fate.
However, it’s only once your guild bumps into your rival that Antihero’s intent comes into focus. Sharp focus. Sharp like a shiv in the spleen, like a—
Oh, you got it? Right. Moving on.
The above image is from the same match after ten turns. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you embiggen it.
Certain details are immediately apparent. There are some additional units in play — thugs and gangs clogging up the streets, orphans shaking down local businesses, some neutral coppers running around. And yes, my guild is winning handily, thank you for noticing.
More than that, though, this also reveals a whole lot about how well both sides can project their guilds out into the city. This information is obvious on my end. If I’ve explored a street or block, they’re lit up and visible, while those I haven’t scouted are still shrouded in fog and remain impassable. For my rival guild, this is represented as little red footprints. Has my opponent gotten a glimpse of what I’m up to over here on the eastern portion of the map? In this case, they’ve probably peeked into my trading house, while my orphanage and church are still out of sight. For now — and “for now” can swing very quickly in Antihero — the packs of orphans I’ve sent to steal soup and beg for alms are secure.
Put another way, both players are looking at the same board, but seeing it very differently, their information limited to where their thief has scouted. That’s the first piece of “digital,” something that cardboard games can’t easily convey. The second is the way control of the city is presented as a series of bluffs, wagers, and second-guesses.
Information in board games has always been secure the same way a year-old firewall is secure. A hand of cards, some tokens behind a shield, and what’s in your head are every bit as safe as your ability to not tip something over or mutter your plans aloud. Anything on the board, though, is public knowledge. You probably couldn’t slip a trap into one of your buildings without somebody noticing, at least not with a hefty extra layer of component complexity.
In Antihero, that’s exactly what you can do, and the heavy lifting is shouldered by the game itself. Want to lay a trap for your opponent’s gang? You can do that without fear of information leakage, cheating, or having to fumble around with too many tokens or cards.
Most of the time, you spread your guild’s control through the city by sending orphans to hassle businesses. Hang around a church, trade house, or bank and you’ll bring home a few coins or lanterns, which are spent on units or upgrades. Control the local orphanage, strangefellow club, or powder house and you’ll decrease the cost of a particular unit. Invest a gangly of orphans at either and you’ll unlock other abilities — tougher units, more cash, even a victory point.
Speaking of victory points, winning isn’t as dry as accumulating “points,” though you’re free to call them that. Even Antihero doesn’t escape that trap. There are three main ways to assert your dominance over the city, each reflecting a form of control. You can buy a bribe with a significant investment of lanterns (economy!), swarm the local chapel with orphans (area control!), or take out an assassination target (military!). Amass enough of these rewards and victory is yours.
But to do anything at all, you’ll usually need orphans pestering businesses. And that’s where our second “digital” descriptor comes in. See, whenever somebody locks down a location with an orphan, it falls under their control. No sharing. Fortunately, there are ways to drive off their orphans, either having a gang beat them up or employing a truancy officer to lock them in a cage and return them to their factories. Neither of these options are desirable so much as necessary. Gangs are usually better employed elsewhere, while truancy officers are expensive and only good for a single sweep. What’s more, there’s always a risk that your opponent has hired a saboteur to trap the location you’re hoping to evict of orphans. Again, a saboteur will cost you, and their traps only last for a couple turns. But when an enemy unit bumbles into a trapped building, they’re stunned, you get some cash, and — most importantly by far — you protect your investment in that location.
Just like that, the struggle for control of the city becomes an escalating series of evictions, detonated traps, and stunned units getting picked off by opportunistic gangs. Sometimes the most obvious targets are also the most obvious traps, making it easier to go after something a little softer — or attack it twice in one turn. Once to set off the bomb, the second time to clap those kids in irons.
If this sounds pretty good, well, yeah. Not only is Antihero deeply clever, flexing both its cardboard roots and digital potential, but it also looks good in the process. Its turns are tense but provide just enough wiggle room to make a surprise comeback. There’s nothing quite like an opponent strangling your route to an assassination target with thugs, only to scout out a shortcut, upgrade your master thief’s tools at the last moment, and snake the contract for the win.
Unfortunately, Antihero’s one weakness will also be all too familiar to board game enthusiasts. It boasts a veritable burglar’s buffet of units, upgrades, and structures, then tends to reward one path over all others. In this case, it’s the gang that stands out as most worthy of your attention, pulling triple duty as a killer, orphan-be-gone, and roadblock. Other units are generally both expensive and disposable, pulling their trick once before disappearing into the smog with all the cash you paid for their services. Sadly, this means that much of your strategy necessarily revolves around keeping your gang alive and your rival’s gang six feet under.
There are some mitigating options, like arming your thief, hiring an assassin to remove an overwhelming enemy gang, or fielding two gangs at once, but these are buried at the bottom of the game’s upgrade trees. Most of the time, you’ll have little choice but to beef up your gang’s life with extra thugs, kill off your opponent’s gang every turn, and live in fear of having to start over with a fresh set of Bowery Boys. For a game that sports so much breadth, it all too often devolves into two gangs smacking each other out of existence before they can pose a real threat.
This flaw doesn’t make Antihero a bad game. There’s still room for a clever play or brash takeover, and victory usually goes to the player who most adroitly picked her way through the city, made sound investments, and guessed when to trap a building to catch a roving enemy. It does, however, mean that it often feels three-quarters balanced rather than tuned to perfection.
Despite its weaknesses, though, Antihero is exactly the sort of thing I look for in a digital board game. It has a strong vision and realizes it with style, including pulling a couple of tricks that wouldn’t be possible without the benefit of a screen’s distance between players and some under-the-hood slickness.
It’s available on, er, digital things. Not in cardboard form. That’s kind of the point.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Every time an orphan donates a coin, an angel kicks the deceased William Poole in the gonads.)