Not a Single Hermit in Sight

"Ah!" I think. "Finally, I'll be able to put my knowledge of second-century Egyptian wisdom texts to some use!"

The first thing you notice about Hermetica is its crisp, unadorned aesthetic. Okay, that’s the second thing. The real first thing is its rectangular box, unlikely to fit neatly on even an obsessive organizer’s shelf. Then you peek inside. The springy mat, the suitably blank hexagonal pillars, the bright penny gem pieces glinting sharply against the grayscale landscape — evocative of a field of ash, perhaps, or the formless realm of thought, awaiting a kindling spark. For an abstract game, Hermetica sure knows how to pick a suit.

Then you notice something else. But that’s going to require more of an explanation.

"So it's... one of the pieces is Hermes Trismegistus, the great teacher, and the other is his disciple?" I say, still desperate to connect Hermetica to second-century wisdom texts.

Your average game of Hermetica.

Unlike a good rulebook, I’m going to break tradition and wait to talk about the what. Your objective, your goal, the context for every action — we’ll circle back to it. Don’t fret. There’s a good reason. I promise.

Instead, let’s start by talking about the elements.

There are only four types of pieces in Hermetica. Your adept is the big one, the Sun for one side and the Moon for the other. The others are elements, fire and water and earth, expendable grunts whose only purpose is to lay the stepping stones to that unspoken final goal.

They’re also the clear highlight of the entire game. Contrasted with the simple figures of something like chess, which adhere to one behavior with single-minded intensity, a goodly portion of their uniqueness comes down to their complexity. Fire elements, for example, act like miniature turrets. They’re slow to move, but are the only piece that can clamber atop the hexagonal barriers that litter the field. Once in position, they can freely zap anything that ends its turn within a few straight spaces of their position. Unsurprisingly, given the telegraphed nature of their attack, they’re often best employed as tools of control rather than harbingers of destruction, locking down lanes and zones rather than ever actually zapping anybody.

But a fire element atop a pillar is in a tenuous spot. So it goes in Hermetica, where every piece has the potential to interact with their fellows surprising ways. If that sniper’s perch of a pillar should ever be moved — say, by an earth element, which shoves other pieces around the map and attempts to crush enemies against walls or the edge — then the fire element is dead, goodbye, amen. The very same spot that gave it an advantage also becomes a liability just as soon as your opponent figures out a way to exploit it.

"The trenches of hermetic enlightenment, surely!"

Staring at each other across the trenches.

The foremost beauty of Hermetica is that everything has some purpose, and that purpose is generally interesting and often unexpected. This isn’t to say everything is useful to the same degree. The water element is a good example. Unlike the others, it flows across the entire mat in a single turn, provided there aren’t any pieces or barriers obstructing the way. Even better, upon arrival it will displace whatever it collided with. This isn’t necessarily fatal, though it can remove a barrier and land it atop the head of an adjacent enemy. Water flows until it crashes. And compared to that ease of movement, fire and earth are downright pokey.

There’s a flipside, because Hermetica is designed carefully enough that no single piece or strategy is entirely overwhelming. While water can move the fastest and hit hard at the same time, it always moves in straight lines. Fire and earth you’ll see coming from a mile away, but you can’t always be certain which direction they’ll bend. Water, on the other hand, is predictable. Swift but dumb.

Not that this stops water from being the most appealing element on the table. But it does highlight the need to use every tool in your arsenal.

What am I talking about? Combos, son. Each turn lets you make three moves, with each piece limited to a single action per turn. You can also spend two actions to conjure a new piece onto your back row, though this is often less exciting than transforming the board into a maze of tripwires and danger zones. With those three actions chained together, there’s no shortage to what you can accomplish, and like some of the best abstract games Hermetica soon reveals itself in layers. That first play, you’ll be grappling with the peculiarities of how each piece moves, how fire is both protected and vulnerable atop a pillar, which objects water can move to kill and which it can only move to move, or whether earth can push something or not. On your second, you’ll probably still be coming to terms with it all. Nobody said this would be easy. But on the third play? The fourth? That’s when you’ll realize you can use water to reposition fire to blast an enemy, or remove an obstruction with earth to provide a clear avenue for water, or use your adept’s mobile shield to unravel your rival’s entire plan. Like I said earlier, everything carries unexpected purpose. At its best, Hermetica provides moments of devastating surprise.

"Ah! But the eighth hermetic tract reminds us that things are changed or destroyed, but never die! For it's our limited perception of a thing's state that fills our mind with thoughts of death! Surely this game is about that."

The end result of all your struggles.

I’ve mentioned the adept now, which probably means it’s time to bring this tour back around to where we started. Let’s talk about Hermetica’s final realization.

Okay, so it looks good. And it does some smart stuff with its pieces, letting you summon them into existence and then leverage their complex but consistent abilities to disarm your opponent’s strategy.

But the problem is that it’s all in search of a better game.

This isn’t to say that Hermetica isn’t functional. Your goal is to guide your adept to the opponent’s home row. But your adept is a simple soul, moving only a couple of spaces and optionally summoning its mobile shield. If it dies — when it dies, since it’s a 50/50 blend of major target and sitting duck — you’re forced to waste some precious actions to return it to its starting space.

Simple, right? Well, yes, but also deeply unlikely. Between your adept’s slowness and the ease of summoning new troops to the enemy’s home row, Hermetica is less a game of shepherding your adept into enemy territory and more a game of purging hostile pieces until the adept’s route is secured. You’ll fight a skirmish, and the enemy will spawn new pieces. Skirmish again, lose some and kill some, skirmish yet again. The cycle repeats itself until one side couldn’t hold back a fart, let alone their rival’s adept.

Contrast this with that hallowed granddaddy of abstract games, chess. There’s attrition in chess. Tit for tat. Piddly exchanges of pawns and rooks. But in spite of that, its goal looms large over every moment, always worthy of consideration. It’s possible to win even when you’re losing the attrition game, just as it’s possible to win when you’re ahead.

Hermetica is really about elements eliminating elements. Which is fine. It works well enough. But it also needs something more. More than that, it knows it needs something more. Which is why it tells you to sneak your king — pardon me, your adept — into your enemy’s back ranks. It’s a goal beyond bloodshed, something that, in theory, you could pull off while everybody is watching the battle. The surprise victory is always more satisfying than grinding inevitability.

"Maybe someone will read the alt-texts and become my Hermetic friend."

You spend a lot of time staring at each other over those shields.

Too bad it doesn’t move beyond mere theory. Imagine chess without the possibility of checkmate. Instead, it’s about killing off all sixteen enemy pieces, or at least enough of them that it’s obvious who will emerge triumphant. Not quite the same, is it?

That’s Hermetica’s final realization. It looks great on the table. It knows how to give its pieces interesting things to do. It allows some devious maneuvers. It provides a snappy contest of entrapment and chained moves. And with a better objective, it still could have been so much more.


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Posted on December 5, 2018, in Board Game, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. excellent review! Thanks as always.

  2. Hermetica is such a brain burner. It’s definitely more about all the mini-puzzles, of a turn, or of the next 3-4 turns, rather than the goal.

    But when the victory happens, it does feel deserved, so that makes the inexorable march of it happening feel justified, because you did have to win multiple fights to win the battle.

    Even if yes, it is a bit of a foregone conclusion at some point, but that’s cause you won too many fights 😉

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