Wakey Wakey, Gods and Bakey

This is not how my handwriting looks.

Narrative board games — now there’s a phrase that’ll get me yammering. There’s no quicker way to make my eyelids droop than by forcing me to read a middling Young Adult novel in between rounds of combat. There are exceptions. Ryan Laukat’s Near and Far and Above and Below were both charming enough to stick around for a few plays, even if their marriage of choose-your-own-adventure snippets and Eurogame sensibilities wasn’t entirely harmonious. I enjoyed them in bursts before largely forgetting they existed.

But then there’s Laukat’s latest offering, Sleeping Gods. In sharp contrast with both of his earlier narrative games, this is a landmark title. Not only is this his strongest work by far, and not only is it an entirely smooth merger of narrative and cardboard, but it’s possibly the first time I’ve been persuaded that a narrative game can accomplish something remarkable.

I can barely draw stick figures, so this is functionally dwarven magic to me.

Look, we all know this thing is going to be gorgeous.

Let me begin by offering two contexts that go hand in hand.

Like a nautical version of The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Gods opens with a storm that whisks its players to a fantastical parallel world that’s rich with color and imagination. The protagonist is Captain Sofi Odessa and the crew of her ship, the Manticore. They’re a colorful bunch, with faces and skills and even voices that will soon adopt the familiarity of dependable friends. The otherworldly sea that has ensnared them is similarly characterful. Drawn in Laukat’s trademark style, it’s thick with overgrown islands and safe harbors. Wonders abound. Perils, too. It isn’t long before one questions why Odessa would be so determined to return to the dreary reality of 1929.

I first heard about Sleeping Gods in 2018 when Ryan asked if I’d be willing to sit down for a few hours to try out something he’d been tinkering on. Later I would play through a more finished version and coach Ryan through a writing session to help him punch up his prose. I mention this for two reasons. First, because I’ve had a hand in this game’s creation. I’m listed in the back of the rulebook as a consultant, a generous mention on Laukat’s part given the smallness of my contribution. Longtime readers will already know that I never write with the intent to sell games. Nor is that my goal here. Still, be aware that my lens for viewing Sleeping Gods may be distorted.

With that out of the way, I’m free to declare that the completeness of Laukat’s accomplishment leaves me breathless.

Ryan described his goal to me as “Skyrim as a board game.” You’ve probably heard the pitch, especially now that so many video games take place in open worlds: if you see something cool, you can walk to it and explore it. That’s true here, at least within the limitations of the medium, something we’ll discuss momentarily. You’re free to wander these waters, plundering or adventuring as you please. The three times I’ve ventured from its starting point, I’ve traveled via divergent routes and survived diverse encounters. There’s still far more yet to see.

Note that there's no lavatory.

Selecting which ship action to take.

But Skyrim as a board game this is not, and thank goodness for that. Sleeping Gods is a board game first and foremost, not some hackneyed adaptation.

In Laukat’s previous outings, there was a distinct split between gameplay and narrative. Here these halves are encapsulated by two spiral-bound books. The first is a book of maps. The Manticore trucks from one destination to another, sometimes flipping between pages as new sights come into view over the horizon. Destinations are marked as numbers, which leads the player to the storybook, a dense tome filled with, you guessed it, story snippets.

Here’s the thing: unlike Near and Far or Above and Below, it doesn’t quite work to speak about “halves.” The beats in Sleeping Gods are always feeding into one another. You’ll land the Manticore on some distant shore, which leads to a few paragraphs in the storybook. More often than not, the decisions, skill checks, and combat sequences that result from these prompts will award new quest cards, items, and hints that nudge you in new directions in the map book. They’re almost perfectly interwoven. Pausing your journey to resolve a decision or fight a battle doesn’t feel like an interruption. Nor does it feel like an interruption when your crew returns to their ship, battered but wealthier, ready to return to a nearby harbor for a bath and some shopping. These modes have different tones, but that’s natural; there’s a difference in tone between hacking through the underbrush and the relative ease of sailing across open water. I’d even describe them as complementary, not unlike the exposition, development, and recapitulation of a sonata.

The easy argument is that these modes complement thanks to the change in format. Laukat’s previous outings were competitive Eurogames. Shifting into narrative represented a break — or less kindly, an intrusion — into the pacing of the game. By contrast, Sleeping Gods is fully cooperative. When the game changes modes, it changes for everybody. Nobody is left contemplating what they’ll do on their turn. Everybody is thrust into the same story beats, the same conundrums. Which means there’s no downtime for somebody to grow bored in.

I call such an argument “easy” because I suspect it undersells just how gamey Sleeping Gods can be. Every turn opens with a decision over which room of the Manticore to use, a light version of worker placement that doles out healing powers, occasional resources, useful skill cards, and most importantly a few command cylinders for activating abilities and items. Turns themselves consist of two actions, often carefully measured to maximize how much you can accomplish within a tight timeframe. Keeping your crew alive and happy and the Manticore shipshape is effectively a long-term resource optimization game. These systems are individually simple. Together, they present a challenge that tempts you to explore just one more nook before fleeing for the safety of the nearest port.

I was surprised, but pleasantly so, at the "Disappointed with the inadequate progress of modern society" token.

Your crew gets wounded — and poisoned, depressed, cursed, you name it.

The binding element is a timer. Not a literal timer. That would be awful. Rather, this timer is an event deck. In addition to everything else, each turn requires you to draw an event card, which spits out minor skill checks or a lost resource or the odd wound. You know, event card stuff. During setup, you build an event deck of 18 cards. When you reach the bottom of that deck, you’re guided to the storybook for another strand of narrative, and then you’ll create a new event deck. Three times through the deck and the game is over, for better or worse depending on… well, discovering that for yourself is the whole point.

Curiously, the few times I’ve mentioned the timer on social media, there’s been some pushback. How dare Ryan Laukat put me on the clock! I want to explore at my own pace! Why can’t this game be exactly like real life, where there are no such things as time pressure or conclusive endings!

The reality is that nothing in Sleeping Gods would matter without its event deck. A moment ago I mentioned temptation. Before long, the weight of the timer begins to inform every decision. Combat is the closest the game comes to a true interruption, pausing everything while you bash some monsters and get bashed in return. It’s a minigame, but one that’s far more interesting than it has any right to be. It’s also achingly dangerous. Even early fights can leave your crew limping. If you aren’t careful, you’ll bumble into battles far beyond your ability to handle. These are the moments Sleeping Gods shines brightest. Sure, you could return to port for that hot bath. But when you’re out and about, that return trip might require two or three turns, plus a turn recuperating. What will you do? How far can you push yourself? Is it possible to earn some extra coins or find that lost artifact before seeking shelter? Or will you get wiped out, which elegantly handles defeat by peeling a few cards from your event deck and returning you to port?

In the absence of rival players, Laukat establishes stakes through the timer. This is the principal element that makes me appreciate Sleeping Gods over a straight adaptation of an open-world video game like Skyrim. Rather than letting players fast-travel back home after every encounter, Laukat insists upon a framework. Sleeping Gods takes a handful of sessions to complete, saveable at any point but most comfortably beginning and ending at port. The event deck anchors those sessions to a single shared goal. It looms overhead like the Sword of Damocles, demanding constant forward action without ever becoming so oppressive that it becomes paralyzing. It’s the driving force that spurs players to commit to decisions and trade-offs rather than tugging on every single loose thread that springs from this narrative tapestry.

You'd think a floaty eye would be easy to defeat. Just poke it.

Combat is tense without becoming too complicated.

I promised we would return to the limitations of the medium. There’s a certain finiteness to Sleeping Gods that’s inescapable. For example, the game includes a notepad of charts for marking explored locations, jotting down keywords, and saving the conditions of your ship and crew in between sessions. This chart also reveals a few regions that are only found in Tides of Ruin — teasing content that isn’t accessible until you buy the expansion, like board gaming’s first release-day DLC. Meanwhile, it isn’t uncommon to dock at a new harbor anticipating a host of new options but only uncovering a handful, or to receive a quest that hints at a destination inadequately, with no clarifying quest-giver in sight. Also, yes, there’s already an errata.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that Sleeping Gods can’t quite compete with the expansive vistas, sprawling content, and automatic patches offered by digital games. The second is that it doesn’t need to.

Laukat has figured out how to weave together storylines with a serious economy of volume. His system revolves around a robust deck of quests and keywords. When you arrive at a destination, you’re first greeted with a list of these keywords. “If you have AMBROSIA, turn to 131.4.” That sort of thing. As you undertake quests, new keywords are added to your list. Your ever-growing stack of keywords eventually grows exhaustive, usually near the tail-end of a campaign, but it also permits a degree of granularity that has no parallel. In one instance, my group decided to defraud a monster, which gave us a particular keyword. No problem, we figured; we never intended to return to that location. Except Laukat had seeded that keyword elsewhere. As we explored, our decision returned to haunt us, quite literally. Everyone at the table was hollering with a mixture of delight and terror as we reaped the rotten fruit we’d sown hours before.

Of course, similar encounters happen all the time in open-world games. They often land, however, with a sort of digital cheapness, often telegraphed when an NPC sprints toward me across a great distance, plainly upset about that time I kicked his dog or stole his carrots, less a consequence than yet another foe to numbly vanquish. Rather than filling in every blank, Sleeping Gods uses its limitations to its advantage, deploying narrative where appropriate and letting the game systems fill the negative space. The result is that it bridges the gap between hand-crafted narrative beats and the imagination of a role-playing session. The cracks are easier to overlook, often because they aren’t there to begin with. The surprises are more unexpected. The choices carry consequences that may or may not manifest, rather than lining up like items on a checklist.

Not suitable for starter IKEA tables.

Table hog alert!

Most importantly, Sleeping Gods has accomplished something done by very few narrative board games — or open-world video games, for that matter. It made me care. Not about every crewmember equally, but about their plight as a whole. About the world we had come to inhabit. About where these narrative threads would take us. It’s a singular accomplishment, one that speaks volumes of Laukat’s talent and the learning experiences of his previous games. It shouldn’t escape notice that he’s pulling triple duty as designer, illustrator, and writer. By filling every role, the result is a unity of vision that few imagined worlds can attain. His approach is also so labor-intensive that it doesn’t leave me hopeful that it will be replicated anytime soon.

At the very least, it’s an approach that should be studied. Sleeping Gods gets many things right. Foremost among them, it declares that narrative board games have yet to tell their best stories.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 19, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Avian Overlord

    Your description of the role of the timer makes me think not of Skyrim but of roguelikes, which tend to have soft time limits, usually referred to as “hunger clocks.”

    • Well, yes, that’s what I mean. Skyrim is enjoyable enough, but in the same vein as most open-world games that let you pursue any tangent that strikes your fancy, it isn’t exactly a high-stakes adventure.

      But I like the roguelike comparison! I’ll have to give that some thought. Sleeping Gods doesn’t “loop” like a roguelike, but I wonder if that wouldn’t be a useful design space. Just, please, let’s not do T.I.M.E Stories again.

      • Avian Overlord

        I don’t really understand what you mean by “doesn’t loop”. Unless every game is supposed to be part of one big campaign like a legacy game, couldn’t you just play the game again? If the game has a fixed map, I suppose that would undermine its roguelike credentials.

        As for time stories, I have trouble thinking of anything more antithetical to the roguelike spirit than having you go through the same content over and over again until you learn the exact sequence of actions you need to preform to succeed.

      • Yes, I mean that it has a fixed map. There’s really nothing stopping you from pursuing the exact same progression of islands the next time you play, but… why would I do that? The whole point is to explore. After three campaigns, I’m still finding new places to visit.

  2. There is much to parse within this review, but may it be said that the care and feeding of each paragraph, leading readers both nascent and seasoned through the beats of this game demonstrates once again your preeminence in the field of criticism.

    Understanding and alluding to Ryan’s underlying mechanics without either crowing to the unlearned nor dropping a winking, insider crumb allows us all to learn about, enjoy, and imagine whether our own experience might be similar. To see the designer’s intent, your belief in whether it was achieved, and how it may make one feel.

    Am I a co-op fan? Not usually. Am I more interested in the game? Perhaps. But do I walk away from reading your words with a truer sense of the game’s quality? Most assuredly.

    Kudos, once again.

    • Thank you for the kind words, sebastianxy!

      For what it’s worth, it’s a rare cooperative game that will ensnare my interest this completely. The tension of struggling against a system just isn’t the same as feuding with thinking players. I think one of the reasons Sleeping Gods works is that its central conundrum feels very natural. You aren’t struggling against a system so much as struggling within that system. There’s very little systemic artificiality. Which lets the focus return to the characters and the narrative, which is where it should be to begin with.

  3. I still remember seeing Sleeping Gods on Kickstarter, around the same time Oathsworn, Aeon Trespass, and a number of other narrative games were looking for funding. It was an easy pass, mostly because of its theme. (In the end, I decided to back Oathsworn.) Now, I’m wondering whether the game is worth a second glance. I’ll have to do some more digging.

    How’s the mouthfeel, by the way?

  4. My group is only in the first half of our first game, so I don’t know what payoffs the story will have for us. But your argument for the game’s timer rung a bell. I don’t play a lot of open-world games, but Star Control II had a time limit, with a similar effect of making me care about the setting. The very-bad-thing is going to happen if I don’t do something! There’s even an optional quest to extend that timer, which feels like both a gameplay relief and a narrative turning point.

    And of course it’s the timer that gets the most complaints there too. I get that it’s slightly stressful, trying to explore while a deadline’s in the back of the mind, but in hindsight that made everything I did have some weight.

    • As snarky as I was when writing that portion, I understand the complaint. At some point, though, it’s more useful to ask why a particular limitation was included. The timer in Sleeping Gods is a central element. If someone really wants to truck around the map having low-stakes adventures, they’re free to remove it… and any possibility of the game reaching a satisfying conclusion.

      I’m also reminded of the first Fallout game. That was on a timer! I believe it only advanced when you traveled. It also included a quest where you could send a water caravan to your vault, which would extend the deadline.

  5. An endorsement by Dan Thurot weighs heavily, but I think, this is not for me. The world reeks of Lovecraft, whom I hate with a vengeance, his world, his worldview and his lack of style, and coop has its own problems, notably quarterbacking – how is the game dealing with that?

    • Hm, not sure I see the Lovecraft comparisons. There are certainly “others” in this world, but the game doesn’t approach them the way you might expect. I’d say more, but that’s spoiler territory.

      As for quarterbacking, I can’t say I noticed any. But I’m one of those weirdos who believes that’s a player problem more than a game problem. Some games lend themselves to heavy quarterbacking. This one lent itself more to governing by consensus.

  6. Dan, I’ve recently been playing through Forgotten Waters with my group. On the surface, they seem similar (nautical story rpg) but obviously Sleeping Gods is crunchier and story seems more involved and emergent.

    Any thoughts on how their approaches to story compare? And is FW a natural stepping stone to SG?

    • Good question. As you’ve pointed out, there’s an interesting balance to be struck between a “hand-crafted” narrative and an “emergent” narrative. Both Forgotten Waters and Sleeping Gods are hand-crafted, while also being emergent in the sense that you’ll only see some portion of their overall narrative. In Forgotten Waters, this happens mostly by omission — as in, there are x number of things that can happen in a scenario, but you’ll miss out on x minus some percentage. In Sleeping Gods, you uncover narrative more by comission. There’s x amount of narrative out there, but you’ll only uncover a small percentage of it. They’re both hand-crafted and emergent, but Forgotten Waters leans toward the hand-crafted while Sleeping Gods leans toward the emergent (although remember that all of its content is still hand-crafted).

      This is something I want to tease apart in a future writeup. The wheels are turning.

      Also, yes! I think Forgotten Waters leads into Sleeping Gods quite naturally.

      • Thanks Dan! I am excited to read the future analysis.

        Storytelling in games is really interesting to me, usually either solely emergent or just reading a bad novel, like you wrote. As someone who loves story, I realized a while ago that what I was looking for is easier to find in RPGs rather than board games, but it’s exciting to see games find ways to fit the best slice of an RPG inside a box.

  7. Thomas Romanelli

    SG is an ambitious narrative experience that’s very fulfilling but also marginally handicapped by some its mechanics that I felt unduly influenced some of my choices. I wish there were more ways to remove fatigue, because the numerous challenges are often meant that it’s easier to take small bits of damage or lose health rather than exhaust my crew. This issue is exacerbated by a very tight economy- I would spend hard-earned coin restoring the crew rather than saving enough discretionary income to purchase market items. Just looking at the “easy mode” Ryan recently published (players get +20 coin and +20 XP to spend at start) suggests “normal mode” may have been problematically calibrated.

    Combat seemed an overly complex affair that offered the illusion of tactical choice but really just reinforced a rush strategy to kill the creatures as quickly as possible to avoid taking damage that would later cost coin and turns to refresh your crew. I don’t know why the final round “creature strike back” is there and just slowed the process without adding immersive drama, and the experience gained from defeating creatures seemed inadequate for the investment in lost health, ability card expenditure and market-acquired weapons to bolster my attacks. Something of a troubling sign when one of the game’s key features is a mechanic you try to avoid.

    There’s still a lot to admire here: 1] the replayability is phenomenal; 2] solo mode and 2-player is great (but we found higher player counts had wonky moments); 3] the artwork is among Laukat’s finest. I also appreciated the diverse cast of characters, although some backers felt it was not divers enough based upon the forum exchange during the original KS campaign.

    I’m very happy I own SG (and the expansion content), and expect I will continue to enjoy it for years to come. However, this was not the magnum opus I’ve read about here and elsewhere (at least for me).

    A wonderful review as always, Dan! 🖖

  8. Intriguing review. I’ve discovered when it comes to board games never say never. There’s been plenty of mechanics and themes I’ve dismissed (trick taking games, hex war games, negotiation, Eklund games) that I’ve either come around to thanks to a winning title, or come to love.

    I’m with you – narrative and exploration games come near the bottom of the pile. Just not interested, though I did try a few (Stuffed Fables being the last). I just don’t like the grind of exploration or the bad genre story telling of the narratives. But this looks good. Solid euro gaming, beautiful presentation, interesting story. Perhaps it’s time to try the final frontier? Actually, that’d be CCGs. But this has received seriously good press. I will try to take a look.

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