More Vaster, Less Vastish
What I most appreciated about Vast: The Crystal Caverns was its improbable intermarriage of two ideas. The first was its dungeon, generated in roguelike fashion from a generous stack of tiles, producing a sprawling cavern filled with perils and plunder. The other idea was deep, even idolatrous asymmetry. Far more than the possibility of the multiple heroes offered by so many other dungeon crawls. Rather, it was an all-inclusive medley of characters and play styles. The knight versus the dragon, but also the sneaky thief, a pack of suicidal goblins, and even the haunted cavern itself, all working at cross-purposes.
Just as Vast beget Root, Cole Wehrle’s more approachable take on rabid asymmetry, so too does Patrick Leder’s Vast: The Mysterious Manor emerge from a paradigm established by Root. Which is really just a fancy-pants way of saying that this is a kinder, friendlier Vast — when it comes to learning the rules, at least.
For those not in the know, here’s the lowdown. There’s a manor on a hilltop that’s known around these parts to be haunted. Only it’s not just haunted — it’s haunted, and haunted, and haunted again. Maybe toss in another haunted. Three times haunted? Four? Maybe it doesn’t matter. After two, who’s keeping count? Nobody’s about to gentrify the place.
Much like its predecessor, five roles enter the mansion, each chasing their own prize. Into this unhallowed place walks the Paladin. He’s here to slay a Spider, who happens to be a magical sorcerer capable of changing her form at will. In turn, her aim is to grow in power until she can break free and terrorize the local peasantry. Meanwhile, the Skeletons have a fetish for murdering Paladins, there’s a Warlock who’s working some funky magic on the resident poltergeists and treasure chests, and the Mansion itself seems to be arranging and rearranging itself in order to trap everyone inside its guts for all eternity.
So far, so Vast. You don’t even need to squint to see how most of the roles are reflective of the original game’s quinquepartite cast of heroes and beasties. The immediate concern is the same one that dogged The Crystal Caverns’ heels throughout its tenure as the most asymmetric game on the market. Namely, if you’re learning five completely different roles, and need to engage with those roles comprehensively in order to play well, how damned hard is this thing to learn and teach? In my original review, I highlighted how this process was both complicated and, well, vast by including an image of the five roles’ interlocking interests and objectives. It looked something like this:
As you can see, The Mysterious Manor turns on as many hinges as its predecessor. Sure, it’s entirely possible to dive in with a single character. Learn a single set of rules, wade into the mansion, and cross your fingers that things go okay. But your plans probably won’t pan out. Not unless you know at least the outline of what your rivals are doing. Why is the Spider lurking way over there in the corner? How can I prevent the Skeletons from boning the Paladin long before I accomplish my own goal? What in the spotted hell is the Manor’s wraith doing with all those rooms, anyway?
But this is where Patrick Leder and the rest of his crew prove they’ve picked up a few tricks over the past few years. Not only is this excursion far easier to learn than its predecessor, but nearly everything has been tidied up and given a fresh splash of color. And although some of the original game’s unpredictability has been sacrificed in the process, the result is a game that’s far snappier at pretty much every level.
Nothing is more immediately indicative of this change than the map. Veterans of The Crystal Caverns will notice that the mansion is enclosed by four walls, surrounding an empty grid for holding tiles. No more of that boundless to-the-edge-of-the-table-and-beyond sprawl that marked the original cavern. On the one hand, this jettisons some variety. There are fewer types of tiles, no surprise ambushes or event spaces, and certainly none of the special terrain features that gave each cavern its wildest tics of personality. At a glance, it might even seem flat by comparison.
However, the advantages of this enclosure are considerable. For one thing, there’s no real setup. Where the original saw you sorting crystal tiles and shuffling stacks, the mansion almost puts itself together. Four armories, an entry hall, and there you have it. When it comes time to explore, the process is similarly expedited. Instead of fretting over tile placement, stringing out the cavern’s layout to ensconce crystal tiles securely near the middle so that the inevitable collapse didn’t kill everyone too prematurely — that’s all gone. All the better that the Mansion feels more like a role and less like a tyrannical game master whose idea of fun involves killing everyone right before their major plot twist. Exploration is now a process of learning the mansion’s hallways and destinations, its bottlenecks and marathon expanses. It’s no longer a crazed fantasy hodgepodge, for better and for worse. But mostly better. The mansion is a place, with boundaries and creepy exterior breaches and, most importantly, fewer rulesy considerations sucking up bandwidth. If I never worry about exploring around a crystal again, I’ll be happy.
The same goes for those five roles. Even the most vanilla character, the Paladin, is an improvement over his counterpart from the original. In many ways their private game is similar. Every turn revolves around assigning hero blocks to different attributes in order to move and do battle. Exploration and defeated enemies unlock new hero blocks, replicating the sensation of “leveling up,” while treasures gradually yield new abilities. It’s an action RPG played against the backdrop of all the baddies being imbued with the same sense of direction and will as yourself.
But here, the Paladin gets some much-needed streamlining. Where the original Knight was always juggling blocks between three attributes and her equipment — including one attribute, perception, which was difficult to track — the Paladin never feels stretched so thin. Instead of spending blocks for bonuses, the Paladin stores up two special resources, fury and light, which can be spent to activate all sorts of cool abilities, like battering through walls or dropping holy lamps to hamper attackers. This even acts as a balancing agent, as the Paladin’s fury increases every turn he doesn’t strike the Spider. It’s simple but effective, and keeps you focused on where you’re going and what you’re slaying rather than painstakingly balancing two separate but interrelated stats.
Of course, simpler isn’t the same thing as better. It would be a shame if The Mysterious Manor, in its quest to streamline its gameplay, pared away everything that made the original so special.
Fortunately that isn’t the case, and the Skeletons are a prime example of how The Mysterious Manor actually endows its roles with a deeper sense of character rather than stripping them bare. Like the Goblins of The Crystal Caverns, they’re the arch to the Paladin’s protagonist, laying traps and clattering from the shadows to deal injuries. In practice, they tend to absorb a lot of casualties and quickly bounce back from defeat. Exactly like those armies of identical skeletons every RPG sees you smashing through.
But where the Goblins were faceless hordes with the occasional special monster mixed in, each Skeleton has a unique personality that determines how it approaches the Paladin. More than that, the entire roster is arranged in an ever-shifting “march order,” forcing you to consider new arrangements with each new turn. They deal damage by “distracting” the Paladin — in essence, by surrounding nearby tiles before sending in somebody to land the final blow. But where one of them can spend stability, the Skeletons’ resource of choice, to deal extra damage, others can shoot from afar, or cast a distracting spell, or command a companion to move. By taking advantage of their abilities, their ordering, and their eventual upgrades, it’s possible to duck into the mansion from the grounds outside, crawl through pits, and eventually set up attacks from multiple directions.
This is far cooler than the ambush tiles from the original game, because you’re springing an ambush of your own manufacture rather than triggering an event. Each blow is the result of careful preparation, movement, and even tactical sacrifices to put your chattering warriors in the right order. They’re a comedy troupe of murderous bonemen, and it shows in every suicidal bum-rush against the hero.
The same could be said of the other roles, with each member of the cast feeling both more mechanically grounded and better characterized. The Spider shifts between three forms, transforming from a hulking arachnid to a spell-flinging sorcerer to an entire swarm of tiny spiderlings. Each of these forms has a vital use, whether sucking blood, tending eggs, or fleeing from pursuers. The Mansion has its own aspirations beyond “fall down” this time, with its wraith charting a zigzag course through open rooms to gradually seal the house shut — which requires a whole lot of rearranging doorways, shoving opposing figures out of the way, and plopping down distracting treasures and poltergeists. Those same treasures and poltergeists are then utilized by the Warlock, who chains them together with curses, effectively establishing closed networks that provide spells when his bound possessions are unsettled and nudging him closer to victory when they aren’t.
As was the case in The Crystal Caverns, the joy of these interactions is twofold. It’s delightful watching them individually, seeing the ways their roles have been fine-tuned to reflect their unique strengths and aversions. The Spider plays nothing like the Warlock. Crud, no two roles have much overlap at all, beyond the basics of movement and attack, and even those can be upended. Despite this, each role quickly coheres to a strong internal logic. Of course the Skeletons can move through spaces without tiles; those are the crypts beneath the floorboards. Naturally the malevolent spirit of the Mansion can rearrange its own hallways.
Far better, there’s nothing quite like throwing everyone into the blender and watching them claw at each other. This is where it’s important to know not only your own goals, but those of your rivals. If the Skeletons are on the cusp of bringing down the Paladin, even the Spider might break some bones, or the Mansion can arrange an easy passage of escape for the do-gooder, or leave endless walls in the Skeletons’ path. If the Mansion is about to seal you away, the Warlock can clog the hallways with excess poltergeists to prevent the wraith from charting a clear course. If the Spider is hurting, a pile of Skeletons clacking up a single space can provide a crucial delay. This is never base altruism. It’s good wholesome selfishness, buying you enough time to meet your own ends. But it’s crucial to the experience of Vast, each player prompted to behave in unexpected ways.
Is it a limitless experience? No. Not even compared to its predecessor. Nor is it free of its predecessor’s transgressions. It takes a while to play, still requires some chops to teach properly, and raises the occasional interaction question that will send you scurrying back to the rulebook. The Mysterious Manor is still Vast, after all.
But it’s Vast made far more approachable — and in terms of its cast, more flavorful. Its roles are both streamlined and filled with such character that I hardly missed the original crew. It certainly helps that the game is more explicitly comedic, reveling in the way its characters help or hinder one another. A stabbed sorcerer dissolves into scampering spiderlings. Smashed skeletons spring back fully formed right outside the mansion. Halls are rearranged in a frenzy, then broken, then rearranged again. Treasures lure combatants to the fringes, only for their objectives to pull them back into the fray.
In other words, as much as it provides plenty to compete over, it’s a game meant to be played with a light heart and an open diaphragm. Expect to laugh as often as you grind your teeth. Vast: The Mysterious Manor is the craftsmanship of one of the most exciting game publishers working today, and it shows at every level.
A complimentary copy was provided.