It’s Pronounced “Dragger”
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Girl isn’t interested. The town of Stjørdal gets invaded by flesh-hungry undead. Flesh-hungry undead are the only ones who can pronounce “Stjørdal,” so by ancient tradition they now own the town. Boy, with nothing better to do with his misdirected masculinity, loads up on iron stakes and vials of holy water. It’s on.
We haven’t covered anything by prolific print-and-play designer Todd Sanders for a while, but the recent envelope printing of Todd’s solo microgame The Draugr by BoardGameGeek seems like as good a time as any to jumpstart our moldering heart. So listen up, because this one’s lean, gorgeously ugly, and arrives printed on paper you might bring groceries home in.
I’m not kidding. The cards feel like they’re made out of brown paper bags. And rather than featuring the original print-and-play’s custom die, this version uses a chit-pull system that’s both a functional sidestep and also super cheap by comparison. At least BoardGameGeek’s sales margins should be nice and thick.
But let’s focus on The Draugr, because it’s an exercise in both the possibilities and limitations of microgame design.
The first thing you need to know about The Draugr is that it’s a solo game through and through, and there’s no other way it could operate. Unlike Ghost Stories, the game it bears closest kinship to, your journeying slayer of the undead is strictly a lone wolf. The town of Stjørdal contains many skilled individuals who can aid your quest of purification, but they’re all alike in the critical absence of mettle. If this infestation is going to be uprooted, you’re doing the heavy lifting alone.
Fortunately, the process couldn’t be much simpler. Stjørdal is composed of a bunch of buildings and villagers, and every turn you’ll travel between them, gathering iron or holy water or maybe protecting something vital, and then… well, that’s it. Sometimes you’ll stay the night in the nunnery for extra resources (wink wink), or assign the shepherdess to protect someone (wink), or enlist the huntsman to help plunge some cold-metal stakes into the unbeating hearts of the local draugr (uh, wink?). But your actions are as straightforward as any boy’s desire to re-murder anything that has sprung free of its crypt.
Not that there aren’t complications. The first is the geography of Stjørdal itself. There are fifteen locations laid out in a tidy grid that will certainly make future urban expansion a simple matter, but our hero can only move two locations per day. The act of protecting the town is therefore also a question of charting the best possible course through its destinations. If you visit the seeress, will you have time to swing by the constable’s place on your way to the foundry? Or should you visit the tavern to help purify the cistern? Or is it time to have the mayor help you use the library multiple times in a row?
It isn’t that every decision is equally compelling. In fact, one of the unfortunate limitations of The Draugr is that locations aren’t particularly inventive with what they let you accomplish. If a character isn’t moving iron or holy water into your inventory, or from your inventory onto one of the town’s oppressors, then it’s probably removing corruption or extending a protective umbrella to someone else. On the one hand, fair enough; the corruption of the undead is what matters right this very moment. But on the other, it’s a missed opportunity to flex the game’s muscles and let you discover creative solutions to this draugr problem.
Still, low-key though it may be, there’s pleasure to be found in tracing an efficient route through town. Sometimes it pays to take a detour to sweep away some corruption. While those moments are occasional, it only makes them all the more important to unravel.
The second complication is found in the draugr themselves. Not content to go (back) into that good night, each turn sees corruption markers slipping into Stjørdal’s hearts and houses. It goes without saying that losing too many locations ends the game.
What’s less obvious is that you don’t have any real control over how quickly they appear. Whether by pulling chits or rolling a die, first a draugr’s row is marked, then a particular symbol is slated for temptation, then every instance of that symbol in that row is corrupted. At its best, this informs which draugr you’ll go after first, then second, then third. As they’re defeated, your vampiric rivals slide up or down to cover additional rows. The trade-off is heavy with tension: sometimes they’ll add corruption to both rows, while other times a pulled chit will match a re-deceased draugr and therefore won’t add corruption at all.
However, one of the limitations of The Draugr’s microgame format is that this system practically begs to be fleshed out. There are any number of forms this could take, though as always I’m loath to take a stab at “fixing” a game rather than merely critiquing it. Yes, the absence of player agency slots nicely into the game’s setting, wherein your lone hero can’t be everywhere at once. But it also stands in thematic defiance, never content to let you expend resources or otherwise hobble yourself in order to block that moment when, say, Lord Molton corrupts five townsfolk all at once. For a game about the purity of heroism against nigh-unbeatable odds, there are scant few noble sacrifices to be made.
Again, this is a more of a commentary about the limitations of the microgame format than a commentary on Todd Sanders’ design chops. Add too much — too many systems, too many components, too many exceptions — and you might as well be playing Ghost Stories. But it still stands that Todd’s combination of simple gameplay, creeping dread, and repurposed artwork leave me wanting more. Stjørdal may not be the best destination for a vacation, but it’s murky enough to be wallowed in.
Too bad the tininess of The Draugr doesn’t quite allow it.
Much like the town of Stjørdal, The Draugr’s diminutive footprint leaves it a house divided. As a solo microgame it does nearly everything right, providing moments of decision and shrewdness and a peculiar dread that settles into your stomach as your onetime allies are transformed into something else. But it’s also so full of potential that it seems a pity to consign it to such a format, wrapped in an envelope and crafted with bag-paper and shackled by the defense that it’s only a dice game. Pardon me, only a chit-pull game.
Whatever the description, The Draugr is a worthwhile microgame teetering on the precipice of becoming something greater. And I’m not talking about the afterlife.
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