The Somethingwreck Arcana
There are competing theories about how often you should be able to win a cooperative game. Once every two plays? One in three? One in five, but you can improve that by building a solid deck? Nearly every time, but with graded scores? One in a hundred, because your game is Ghost Stories?
The Shipwreck Arcana — which trucks a little bit in the arcane but not even a titch in shipwrecks — hews closer to one in one. So close that even with the occasional loss, you’re hardly even rounding up.
There isn’t much to say about The Shipwreck Arcana’s wallpaper. You’re fortune tellers telling fortunes to hopefully help each other avoid the vagaries of destiny. All with the aid of numeric logic puzzles. Huh. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that The Mind is more occult.
Thank goodness, then, that the gameplay is so easy to dive into. Basically, everyone is presented with a shared row of four arcana cards, each showing the criterion for placing a token beneath it. On your turn you draw two tokens — randomly numbered from one to seven — figure out which you want to place, and slap it down below a matching arcana card.
Precisely two twists emerge from this. The first is that everyone else at the table now hopes to predict your remaining number. If you lucked out on arcana cards and number tokens, this will be easy. Say, because you slapped a 2 onto a card that says “place your higher number here.” The only possible answer is 1. Huzzah. You’ve just inched one step closer to victory.
Not that predictions are always so easy. In fact, The Shipwreck Arcana is at its utmost best when you get a clue that’s solvable, but only after burning some brain glucose. Each player has a row of numbers in front of them, which their compatriots can flip down to keep track of clues. Sometimes this is necessary, whether because your first clue was ambiguous enough that your friends need you to take another turn or because they’re examining why you picked this arcana card and not these arcana cards. It’s even possible your token won’t work with any of them, instead forcing you to place it on the score tracker — although this can still result in a solvable puzzle. It’s deduction by omission rather than commission, which also describes my favorite sins.
The second big twist is that you’re always keeping an eye on the clock. Unsuccessful predictions inch the doom marker forward, but those are rare. The main culprit is the arcana cards themselves. Whenever you place a token on them, they “age” and eventually fade away. This provides a one-time perk, which you can use to sharpen a prediction on a future turn, but also jumps the doom marker forward by two spaces. The whole thing is positioned as a race: reach the end of the track with successful predictions before the doom marker gets there.
When everything comes together — the right arcana cards, the right numbers, the right faded powers — The Shipwreck Arcana produces a heady puzzle, requiring careful placement of your token to both provide information and prevent arcana cards from fading. More than that, it’s weirdly soothing to play, especially for a game with mortality dogging your heels. The process has a pleasant tactility to it, from rummaging through the fate sack to slapping down your number, and there’s a particular joy in untangling a tough set of clues.
It’s good that this pleasantness lingers despite the game being way too easy. Certain clues are dead giveaways, and some of the faded powers make testy predictions too certain. There’s rarely any need to take a leap, those moments where you’re 60% sure but 40% doubting. The longest guessable odds tend to be when you’ve reached a coin flip between two numbers — and there are “guess twice” and “eliminate these three numbers” powers for such occurrences. Two optional sets feature tougher clues and weirder faded powers, but these are marginal improvements and often vaguely worded, making the game one of ambiguous wording rather than ambiguous numerals.
I’ve seen some folks mention that it’s possible to play without the easier cards. Sadly, that represents a major missed opportunity, since The Shipwreck Arcana doesn’t bother to identify the usefulness of each card. It would have been nice to choose between levels — say, various mixes of easy, medium, and tough cards. Levels exist, but they’re determined by giving the doom marker a head start, which doesn’t change the difficulty of making predictions themselves. Any modification to the deck will require your own legwork; an unfortunate requirement for a game that only lasts twenty minutes.
Sadly, the result is a cooperative game that puts up all the resistance of a wet reed, which gives the entire thing an air of pointlessness. My earlier assessment stands: it’s pleasant to play — soothing, even — and each attempt will likely produce a handful of trickier moments. Those are genuine highlights. But the remainder of the time it feels less like deduction and more like identifying which number between one and seven is higher than four but lower than six. Much like The Shipwreck Arcana, I’ll provide yet another clue: it’s what I’m rating this game out of ten.