Vaster, More Mysterious, More Manor
Vast: The Crystal Caverns always possessed one glaring fault, which was only compounded by its expansion, The Fearsome Foes. What to do when you want to play this beautiful sprawling asymmetrical thing, but don’t want to teach four, five, six, seven separate roles? Much of the time, the simplest answer was also the easiest: don’t. It was the sort of game that quickly established itself as the bane of groups with rotating players, especially since it only truly came to life once the roles were learnt and the interactions between its characters and haunts became second nature.
Vast: The Mysterious Manor doesn’t solve that problem, not fully. Any game with multiple roles is going to require its players to learn those roles, and the Vast series — I think we can safely call it that now — has always thrived on the broad differences between its sides. But The Mysterious Manor is at least going to make the task of teaching its rules faster, easier, and more rewarding than before. And the result just might strike the balance between the sweet, sweet asymmetry that gave Vast its appeal in the first place and the approachability to make sure its players stick around long enough to learn its rhythms.
The basic concept for The Mysterious Manor is going to be immediately familiar to anyone who played The Crystal Caverns. Possibly even a little too familiar. Where the original game featured Goblins chasing a Knight chasing a Dragon trying to escape a Cave that wants to kill everybody, this time it’s a pack of clattering Skeletons chasing a Paladin chasing a Spider trying to escape a Manor that wants to kill everybody.
So wherein lies the difference? If the dynamic is the same, why bother with an entirely new set of rules?
For the most part, the answer is found in the roles themselves. While each of the game’s sides mirrors a counterpart from the original Vast, these ones are set apart by a certain fluidity that was absent in their predecessors. They’re leaner, meaner, and generally more of a pleasure to play, trading finickiness for ease of use.
Consider, for instance, The Mysterious Manor’s most complicated role: the Spider.
Much like the original game’s Dragon, the Spider just wants to grow powerful enough to escape the Manor so she can work her ghastly supper upon the surrounding countryside. But where the Dragon slowly awakened by moving cubes from one of its many tracks onto another track — a process that was as nitpicky as it was laden with cubes, limitations, and a sprawling list of potential actions — the Spider’s focus is on wreaking as much havoc as possible. Rather than getting bogged down in which track does what, the Spider’s goals are straightforward. Loot a treasure, gain a terror. Attack other players to gain blood, then exchange it for terror. Nurture a demonic egg into maturity, gain two terror.
It isn’t that this is necessarily any less complicated than what the Dragon was doing, but it’s certainly less intrusive. The rules exist to enable cool concepts rather than whining at you to only move so many cubes each turn. And the concept is far more interesting than playing as a lethargic lizard, mostly because of all the shape shifting.
That’s right, shape shifting. This Spider isn’t merely a gigantic arachnid. Sometimes that’s the case, and in this form you’ll be able to chow down on your rivals with ease, messing with their board state in exchange for droplets of blood. But sometimes you’ll want to become the Caster, the form that can reveal portions of the board at a distance, nurture eggs automatically, and select from additional cards at the end of the turn — all for the (hopefully) insignificant trade-off of not being able to scuttle away from the Paladin as quickly. But never mind that. If you’re injured or need to beat a hasty retreat, you can always burst into a horde of Spiderlings, each one scuttling through the cracks in the walls and providing a new spot for a future transformation.
Sounds like a lot, right? Sure it is. There’s no getting around that. But it’s also more intuitive, the rules stepping out of the way so you can get down to the business of weaving webs, laying eggs, and ambushing your foes. And it clicks within one play rather than two or three.
This relative simplicity extends to every other role as well. Where the original Goblins represented a messy management sim, the Skeletons are a clattering conga line of death. They want to kill the Paladin — the undead cannot abide a servant of the light — but they’re the sort of baddies you’re tasked with clearing out at level one in an RPG. One swift kick will shatter them, and their weapons are old and rusted and will likely bounce right off any Paladin’s armor.
So what can they do? Resort to a movement puzzle, obviously. By surrounding the Paladin, the Skeletons can raise a distraction, then plunge forward to make their mark on his hide. But the Skeletons have all sorts of limitations that prevent them from actually getting into position. Lit tiles slow them down. Walls, too. Webs, lamps — pretty much everything, honestly. Meanwhile, they’re only able to act in a particular order that’s always changing as they’re shattered to dust and forced to reform on the edge of the map. This is important because each one boasts a separate ability, like the ranged shooter or the caster who can make dancing lights that pester the Paladin. But when you’re frail, afraid of the light, and wrestling against your play order, you’ll need to get creative to bring down your quarry.
I won’t belabor the other roles. Suffice it to say, the Paladin is all about leveling up while managing stockpiles of light and fire, which are useful for purging evil, burning through walls, adding some punch to an attack, or even recovering from a wound. The Manor is tasked with, uh, playing Tetris. Sort of. The goal is to manipulate the layout of the house, but this time it’s so that the Manor’s wraith can trace certain patterns through open rooms. The problem? That rooms tend to become gummed up with all these fighting characters and the junk they leave behind. Nobody said the afterlife of a malevolent mansion was an easy one.
As you might expect, the real joy of The Mysterious Manor is watching these roles bounce off each other like a hurricane rolling through a McDonald’s PlayPlace. Skirmishes butt up against neighboring conflagrations, and moments of reprieve are welcome but nearly always short-lived. You might, for instance, be happily tending some eggs as the Spider, only for the Paladin to sweep through with four Skeletons on his tail, and then the Manor brushes everyone out of the way for its next attempt at tracing some rooms.
And while the roles initially seem clearly delineated, it isn’t long before everyone is hassling everyone else. The Manor and Spider might reveal additional tiles to slow down the Skeletons, or the Paladin might leave behind some additional junk or refuse to slay some poltergeists in order to clutter up the Manor’s path. As in The Crystal Caverns, you aren’t only playing your game. You’re playing against everybody else’s.
With all this streamlining comes some limitations. Mainly, some of the zaniness of The Crystal Caverns has been smoothed away. For one thing, the map is far less interesting. It’s bounded, with edges and everything, and there’s no expanding beyond its exterior walls. Gone is the go-anywhere feel of the original, and doubly gone are the terrains — the chasm, the lava lake, the river — leaving the Manor feeling somewhat featureless beside its predecessor.
Meanwhile, the clarity of the roles somehow dispels a bit of their mystery. Finding a powerful set of items for the Knight or a particularly nasty monster for the Goblins felt like you’d discovered something on your own. You probably hadn’t actually done anything of the sort, but that dizzying variety meant it was possible to glimpse something between the cracks. Here, every option has been carefully parceled out, balanced, and fine-tuned. And of course that’s a very good thing. But the resultant polish can sometimes seem to diminish the original game’s texture. It’s the better game for a number of reasons, and will only grow more interesting with new roles — I didn’t even get a look at the Enchanter — but for now, I’m not sure whether I’ll feel as compelled to plumb its depths as thoroughly as I did for the original.
Then again, The Mysterious Manor is a huge stride forward, both for the Vast series and asymmetrical gaming in general. There’s still a lot to learn, to understand, and to grasp before you can play it with a new group. But its click-point arrives sooner, a workable strategy is more immediate, and the overhead is significantly less of a burden. There’s an immediacy to it, both to the rules and the pacing of its struggle, that’s more intimate than anything The Crystal Caverns accomplished. By staying in, The Mysterious Manor has a real chance of breaking out.
The Mysterious Manor is on Kickstarter for the next three days. Seriously. Only three days. You can find it over here.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I’m also an asymmetrical game, in a sense, if you stretch the definitions of “asymmetrical” and “game” far enough.)