Inspiration Plus Knowledge Is Wisdom
Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — it can feel as though I’ve seen all this hobby has to offer. The cause of such ennui is usually related to a deck-builder set in a licensed property. Event Horizon: The Card Game. Play the gravity drive card to trash your eyes cards. Yawn. Been there, winnowed that.
Every so often, however, something comes along that I haven’t heard before. Marc Neidlinger’s Vindication, for example. Its pitch starts out slow. “It’s an adventure game,” Vindication begins. Already my jaw is unhinging for the father of all yawns. Then Vindication finishes. “By way of resource conversion.”
By all rights, that shouldn’t be enough. I’ve been converting resources since my kids were in diapers, including the one that’s graduated to undies. But somehow, Vindication manages to not only make this idea work, but soar. It’s a strange world where tired plus tired equals really damn good.
Even though it’s the flashier portion, the adventure is the more familiar half of Vindication. There’s this island, see. And you — and your friends — are condemned wretches who have washed ashore. By traveling across this fantasy landscape, you’ll do something to vindicate yourself. Get it? Vindicate? Unfortunately, that’s where it gets boggy. What exactly are you doing? What causes a person to be vindicated? I know plenty of folks who would shrug at the idea of vindication. “Vindicate myself? From what?” they would say. And now we’re right back at the start, walking a path that always seems to lead back on itself, with no notion why we’re walking in circles to begin with.
To explore, silly. To push cubes. To gather victory points. They’re called honor, don’t you know. Don’t you want to be honorable?
No, not in particular. Honor strikes me as an outmoded notion bound up in medieval chivalry and martial imperialism. In fact, one could argue that society’s preoccupation with honor is responsible for any number of—
Honor. Come along. If Vindication regards its fluff with a shrug, why should you asking after motivations and plot arcs?
The reality of Vindication is that it’s a cube-pusher, and proud of the fact. There are two interconnected fonts of cubes to push, and they soon out themselves as the core of the whole thing. There are characters to grow and companions to meet and monsters to slay, and everything else an adventure game is required to include under maritime law. But underlying them all there are the cubes, occupying one place but desperate to be pushed to another place. And while the bad news is that this approach sets a certain distance between the player and the act of adventuring, a bit like reading a tough novel with a head cold, the good news is that, hey, the cube-pushing is actually quite good. Effective, even, at telling a very different sort of tale.
As I said, there are two main repositories of cubes. The first deals with resources, spread around the perimeter of the map itself: yellow for inspiration, red for strength, blue for knowledge. These are essential for certain activities, like visiting an inn to recruit a companion. Who will join you? Depends on what you spend. Two yellow cubes — pardon me, two inspirations — will let you take a companion from the yellow deck. The same goes for the other colors as well. Before long, your adventure is about gaining cubes in order to spend cubes. Visit the fort to increase your strength, then head over to the command post to exchange your strength for a faster mount and some points. From A to B to V for victory.
But that’s Vindication at its most basic. Each resource can also be transmuted with another into something more potent, like blending two colors and somehow coming up with literal gold. Inspiration and knowledge make wisdom, but inspiration and strength make courage. Two for one, but a superior one. These higher resources are necessary for the activities that really rake in the points. Slaying monsters is the domain of courage, doling out special scoring conditions. Wisdom bestows traits, permanent bonuses that alter the way you approach the game. And vision is necessary for entering the location that awards relics, items that would break the game if they weren’t limited to a few uses.
This might sound too straightforward. Doubly so because you can freely convert attributes to their heroic form. To add some much-needed complication, the resource system is tied to your character. When you wash up on the shore like so much flotsam, there isn’t much to you. A little bit of conviction, some influence, and a whole lot of potential. Don’t mistake these terms for mere fluff. They’re you, your character, descriptions of in-game items every bit as important as courage or honor.
Influence is the most common. Whenever you gain a resource — an attribute of your character, remember — you shift a cube from your influence pool to that resource’s spot on the board, strength or knowledge or wherever else it belongs. Same goes for leaning on a companion to gain their benefits; out of your influence pool your cube goes, and onto that companion’s card. You’re influencing them. Not just because the pool on your character board is called influence, but also because some portion of your character’s attention has been deployed to bend this person to their own ends. It doesn’t stop there. The more you need a companion’s help, the more cubes you invest. After a while, it may prove necessary to reclaim your cubes. There’s only so much attention you can pay to one companion. There are other people who need influencing, other attributes that need learning. So either you swing by a shrine, where you spend some inspiration to retrieve two cubes, or you reclaim all your influence cubes from that companion at the same time. That’s a major decision. All the attention you’ve paid to that companion, gone in an instant. So, too, is the companion.
Think about that for a moment. That’s a huge outcome for a game about pushing around cubes. There’s no flavor text spelling out what happened. At no point does the game tell you to flip to page 17 to read story blurb 119c. “Your companion has had it up to here with your shit and she’s moving on.” Nothing so coarse is necessary in Vindication. The tale is written right there on the table. Your influence has returned to its pool and there’s a companion-sized hole in the middle of your card row. Not to mention you’ve just suffered a minor ding to your honor. The Fellowship has suffered a falling out from which there can be no repair.
The other pools on your character board are similarly evocative. Conviction is how you break the results of something, whether to conquer a tile, prevent a companion from dying in battle, or draw additional options when pulling a card. In a game where the winner is often the person who most carefully selected her card combos, that’s no small thing. In each case, conviction functions exactly how a resource called “conviction” should function. It’s an indication that your character is going the extra mile. Stretching a bit higher. The polar opposite of potential, the stagnant pool where nearly half of your cubes are trapped when you wash ashore, waiting to be meditated or learned into being.
Put another way, Vindication isn’t just an adventure game by way of resource conversion. It’s an adventure game by way of character development.
This even shifts its narrative aimlessness into perspective. There’s no single arc because the development of a person has no single arc. As though to reinforce this thesis, even your goals and the game’s concluding event are wildly divergent. In the first case, your goals are assembled over the course of the entire session. A secret objective early on, a companion with a bonus a few turns later, a relic that generates loads of points after that. Maybe next game it will be the other way around. Meanwhile, the session doesn’t end until certain conditions are met, but those conditions only gradually reveal themselves, providing a handful of possible end-game triggers. Sometimes it will be based on how many companions you have, or relics, or proficiencies, or some other noun. Sometimes it’s based on territory control. Sometimes you flip the last trigger and realize the game will conclude imminently, many turns before you were expecting. So it goes. When is “the end,” anyway? When it comes. That’s as good an answer as any of us are likely to get.
You might be thinking, Okay, so how do I know how long a session will take? The answer is, you don’t. Like all great adventure games, Vindication tends to last a little longer than expected, occasionally has someone stop to ponder which card to claim, and features a number of little details that can slip through the cracks. Especially once you start mixing in the expansion modules, which are essential if you want the best of what it has to offer.
It also requires some squinting. I mentioned earlier that it sets its players some distance from the action. It’s easy to forget what all those cubes represent when you’re swapping them from source to destination. Same goes for your cards, which are easy to regard as resource generators and perks rather than characters and tools. Battles are also deeply abstracted, instant victories that roll dice for loot and wounds. Don’t expect any minigame duels. Then again, thank goodness for that. The one time Vindication steps away from the table for a boss fight, the result is too stuttery to be worth the effort. Better stick to the other modules. Either way, the point stands. Vindication can be rewarding, but it isn’t as grubby or hands-on as many of its peers. If playing an adventure game for points sounds too conceptual no matter what they’ve named them, best steer clear.
Despite a few hiccups, Vindication does the unexpected. As an adventure game by way of resource conversion, it could have taken the easy route and featured the alchemizing of fantasy materials. Dragon egg plus rupee equals mithril. Nerdy names, none of the impact. Instead, Neidlinger’s approach is more sensible than it has any right to be. By pitching your cubes as your character’s mental and emotional reserves — spoons, perhaps — the game becomes one of personal allocation. Attention, training, unlocked potential, even fanaticism. There isn’t time for everything in this wretched life, so pick the best destinations for your cubes. The fact that it’s completely functional as a point-chaser is almost secondary.
Almost. It still should be said that Vindication is a good game first and foremost. To follow its own formula for attribute conversions, a dash of inspiration plus a scooch of knowledge has generated… wisdom. I would have preferred vision. This once, I’ll defer to Vindication.