Upon critiquing Tournament at Camelot/Avalon, you could say I was eager for Ken Shannon’s next design. When I heard about Ettin, which merged one of my favorite genres with a mode of play I hadn’t encountered before, I was practically buzzing.
After playing Ettin a number of times, I can definitively claim that it’s appropriately titled. As a two-headed monster, it’s not always easy to tell which direction it wants to travel. Although that isn’t always a bad thing. Only when the goofier head is in charge.
Here’s a tip for aspiring designers: when you want to do something radically different, start in familiar territory. Take legacy games. Rob Daviau didn’t begin with SeaFall. To convince everyone to tear up their cards and sharpie the board, his opening salvo was almost painfully ordinary. Disposable, even. Risk Legacy, and later Pandemic Legacy, were successes not only because they were new, but also because they were old. Like a carnivorous lizard wearing human skin, the risk of those earliest legacy games was mitigated by the plainness of their appearance.
I don’t have any particular insight into the process behind Ettin’s development, but Shannon seems to have embraced this lesson. At first blush, Ettin is similar to any number of other lane-based area majority games. Like Omen: A Reign of War, it not only features those lanes — four at a time rather than three — but its armies are also staffed with colorful and rule-bending creatures you’d rather not meet in person. Like Air, Land, & Sea, its individual battles are less important than the overall conflict, and may be yielded for the sake of another fight. Like Haven, most of its unit cards are deployed face-down, placing a premium on information. Its tricks are familiar. Trustworthy.
Which is why it has such latitude to play with our expectations. Unlike every title I just listed, Ettin isn’t a two-player game. Nor is it as straightforward as a series of battles. Instead, it’s built around the idea of an entire table of players, up to eight with that first box, sixteen if you splurge on two copies, all the way up to infinity, the world’s strategic supply of cardboard permitting.
Picture this. You’re in command of a single faction; say, the Cannite Nomads, a pack of dogfolk who prioritize speed and ambushes. Since time immemorial you’ve been at war with your neighbor, the Daemons of the Void, with their tendency to accumulate pustulous vermin and flood across your borders. Seated on the other side of you, however, is the Kingdom of Joymore. They’re generic humies, but they’re also your steadfast ally.
That’s the setup: one ally, one enemy. It’s easiest to think of Ettin like a chain. Each pair is allied with each other while pitted against their neighbors. But rather than being a straightforward team game, this chain connects all the way around the table. You and your ally score together, your defenses bolster one another with reinforcements and extra coins, and every so often you’re allowed to swap units via a draft.
In fact, the foundation of Ettin is built on its periodic drafts. Across three wars, you’ll take part in quite a few, divided into two distinct types. The more common version is a skirmish. Along with your opponent, you pick four units from the mercenary deck, gaining some generic troops and preparing for the upcoming war based on what your opponent drafted. By contrast, peacetime drafts are entirely collaborative; you and your ally draw a pair of cards from your unique nation decks, and then whisper back and forth about your respective needs, weaknesses, and opportunities.
These drafts are kin in that they always provide two cards to choose from. But because each unit card must be purchased, there’s a balance to be struck between your army’s composition, the units you’re throwing away for extra cash, and, to a lesser degree, the leftovers you’re holding onto for future wars. Despite any similarities, these drafts couldn’t feel more different. Skirmishes are tense affairs, leaking essential information about your foe’s force while divvying up units you’d rather field yourself, while peacetime discussions offer much-needed shoring up — and an opportunity to complain, since you’ll undoubtedly be feeling some pressure.
That pressure comes courtesy of Ettin’s tidy diversity of units and the lanes they’re meant to control. In the first case, units arrive with plenty of abilities, helpfully color-coded to each war’s various phases. We’ll talk about wars momentarily, but for now it’s important to note the absolute legibility of everything. Units are given both icons and text descriptions, invaluable while fumbling through your first few battles. Lanes, meanwhile, are paired off against your opponent’s defenses, sometimes squaring a money-making city against a desolate ruin or a village against, well, a different village. The fourth and final lane always centers on an adventure card; win the fight there and any of your surviving heroes will square off against a roll that either earns a powerful defense, a heap of points, or kills them off for failure. If that sounds overly punitive for a game that otherwise provides fairly tight control over the fate of your units, maybe don’t wager your best champions on long odds.
If this sounds good, you’re a player of games after my own heart. Nearly everything about Ettin’s drafts is nigh-perfect, providing troops in achingly limited quantities and imbuing every pick with a desperate need to stretch your coin as far as it will bear. The units are varied but only require you to remember a small handful of abilities per phase. The possibility of sitting down with pretty much any number — yes, including an odd player, although this is a little more finicky than the regular system — makes it a strong contender for larger groups without resorting to either cooperative or free-for-all gameplay. Best of all, its tried-and-true foundation is just familiar enough to tinker with.
Too bad that tinkering is… well. Let’s start from the beginning.
To pay tribute where it’s due, Ettin’s combat is certainly compelling. The gist is that both sides deploy their armies into those four contested lanes by laying two cards face-down at a time. Troops with the scouting ability are allowed to go face-up, flipping any cluster of enemies of their choosing and leading to situations where you can tease out the location of a particular opposing troop — say, a dragon, so as to ambush it with some dragon hunters. This phase is every bit as tense as the gradual investments of the genre’s greats, every card representing an unknown threat. Is that card across from your city a lowly Trade Patrol or a worrisome Green Knight? Have you established your fortifications opposite a defense-wrecking Sorcerer Guild or some Ogre Bashers, or will the card flip to reveal pathetic Swordsmiths, who you’ll undoubtedly murder for the bounty on their heads? I’ll say one thing for Ettin, it knows how to instill every face-down card with the dread of an unreliable reconnaissance report.
Apart from a small handful of abilities, combat mostly revolves around raw numbers — a good decision that prevents wars from bogging down in traded blows. Ranged units can pick off weaker troops, but will retreat into your scoring pile in the process. Terrifying monsters scare opposing units into their owner’s scoring pile, which sounds lame until you realize you can frighten off even the deadliest of enemies. This is all done simultaneously, making for a brisk volley. Then numbers are counted and compared, with unbroken defenses potentially stalling a successful win. There are a few ambiguities to resolve, but for the most part these are crisp contests, quickly evaluated. The post-combat spoils phase lets the winner inflict casualties, stealing away units to their own scoring pile. But then everyone retires to their own scoring pile, apart from fortifications or units with special abilities. Then it’s time to do it all over again.
When this comes together properly, it’s a blast. Within the span of a single war you’ll witness feints, scouting actions, hulking units frightened off by proverbial mice, blowouts, successful campaigns that stall at the castle walls, an adventure mini-roll, last-minute tiebreakers, troops captured (accompanied by woeful violins) and different troops enjoying retirement (to swelling orchestration). It’s a lot for a single system to carry.
But it does! Some of the time. Then there are the wars where one side shows up with a dozen cards against your five. It’s the fantasy equivalent of a sapling versus a kilometers-long mudslide. There’s no need to place bets on that match.
I don’t often talk about balance. Principally, this is because no asymmetrical game actually achieves it. What’s more, navigating those imbalances is often a joy, in particular when the interactions between players arrive at something that resembles a balance in its own right. At such moments, the appearance of balance is the crucial aspect. As long as a game provides a chance of winning, all’s well. But Ettin took a long look at that proposal and then sprinted the other direction. Each of its nations packs its own strengths, whether stout fortifications, solid income, boons to their ally, or free units. And while they’re all intriguing, in the sense that the Risen and the Orcs of Ud and the Dommorian Giants all play quite differently, some feel different because they’re busy crumpling in the face of another nation’s tidal wave of free troops.
It’s an issue of economics. Which is better: cash or a free unit? Early on, perhaps the cash, but only by a little. Unit costs ramp up rather quickly, and by the second era a single free unit might be the equivalent of an entire kingdom’s cash flow. By the third era, when the Risen are pouring out of their graves (as in, out of their scoring pile) and the Skyhold Dwarves have recycled the same units through three successive fights, the outlook of lesser factions can come across as somewhat grim. Even worse when those factions are fielding units whose prices have ramped up without their income showing any commensurate increase. One scales while the other doesn’t. It’s functionally the cost/income ratio crisis of the past decade written into a board game by accident.
This isn’t to say such imbalances can’t be mitigated through clever play, or fumbled by their benefactor, or that they entirely ruin the game. They can, they can, and they don’t. But they do prove frustrating, to the point that even our most rewarding matches usually left one person saying they never stood a chance. In games with greater interaction and the possibility of convenient alliances, temporary gang-ups against the leader might have blunted Ettin’s sharper edges. But you only have a single ally, and your contact with them is limited to peacetime drafts, with nary an option to truly prop up an ailing friend.
The result is, as is often the case with innovation, an ingenious but flawed system. As a two-headed monster, sometimes it wanders along well-traveled roads only to veer into tangled marshlands for no discernible reason. Fortunately, this is more of a navigational error than the result of two directions poorly matched. If Ken Shannon gets around to an expansion or second edition, Ettin could become something truly special. For now, it’s an almost rather than a triumph.
A complimentary copy was provided.