Alone Among Nobles

oh, it's a crown on a pillow

Nobles is a snack. Like John Clowdus’s Pocket Galapagos, it’s a bite-sized solo game preoccupied with the movement of cards from one place to another. Unlike that game, Nobles also taps into the joy of putting things into their proper arrangement, even when — perhaps especially when — it doesn’t feel much like a game at all.

I don't know what I thought it was at first, but it wasn't a pillow. I always imagined a crown-pillow as being large. Not, like, a pillow made to the exact dimensions of the crown. The crown should disappear into it, a statement on the enormity of rule. I think so, at least.

Let’s solve some Medieval problems!

Before we pick at the scab-like definition of “game,” let’s talk about what Nobles is and why it’s such a pleasure to operate.

On the table two types of cards have been dealt into thee piles apiece. The first type, events, are challenges you’ve been called to surmount. The second, nobles, are the cards you’ll use to surmount them. In pretty much every case, this process revolves around discarding nobles. Winning a battle, for example, requires you to discard two identical nobles or any three mismatched nobles. Since the game ends the instant any of your piles runs out, you’ll most likely want to go for that first option.

Except maybe you’d rather wait for the proper arrangement. Battles lose their sting when you spend veterans; those crusty boogers are so accustomed to war that they hop straight into a different pile rather than dying. The same goes for other exemplars of the nobility. Expansion events grow more costly as you cross off more of them, but the baroness counts as three cards toward their fee. Feasts are expensive, but debutantes refuse to budge when paid as part of their cost. Maybe you’re facing two coronations at the same time. Not to fret: an archivist, discarded for an event, completes all of that type currently on display.

This isn’t only about timing, although timing matters. It’s also about knowing when to move your cards around. The aforementioned archivist can also swap a pending event with one that’s already been completed. The construct and shade can bring deceased nobles back into play — although be wary of the latter, since discarding a shade for an event will kill off an extra noble. At any given time, you’re matching nobles to events, controlling the pace of each pile’s depletion, and trying to set up powerful plays without clogging up your kingdom.

It feels great. Every spent card is a sacrifice. Every gain changes those six piles in interesting ways. Better yet, in stark contrast with most of Clowdus’s oeuvre, it never feels overly procedural. There are four phases to a turn, but two of them are there to ask, “Did you lose? If not, take another turn.” I guess Clowdus couldn’t help but upgrade “take your turn” into a phase. We all have our addictions.

And I don't care... although it's probably better than what you could do.

Is this a good score? No idea.

When I say Nobles doesn’t always feel like a game, I’m not speaking in some exclusionary sense, the way some folks deposit titles like The Mind into an imagined second-class category. “It’s not a game,” they’ll say, with an undercurrent of distaste, “because it’s an activity.”

Nothing so belittling. Rather, Nobles doesn’t always feel like a game because sometimes it feels more like a soothing exercise. It’s meditative, even. Something that occupies my hands and a portion of my brain, just enough that everything else putters down and leaves me undertaking these definite processes — shuffling, checking for the right cards, counting how many remain in one pile or another — without shoveling coal into the boiler that rattles my higher brain function into full awareness. The effect is not unlike the games I’ll play on my computer when a few minutes need to be whiled away. A hand of solitaire, a few rounds of Minesweeper, some hex puzzle thing I’ve been obsessed with. Minimalism not as an aesthetic, but as a headspace.

I think the effect is intentional, at least on some level. When I first played Nobles, I was frustrated that there wasn’t a “win condition.” Sure, you’re trying to solve these events, and solving more is better than solving fewer. Even so, there’s no recommended score. My personal best is 20 events cleared. I imagine it’s possible to clear all 24 with the right timing and preparations and luck. My game-playing brain protested. What’s the number that divides a failure from good enough from genius-level play? Is 14 merely acceptable, while 15 means I should be teaching at Harvard? Has only one person ever reached level 23? Only after a few plays did I realize that the score wasn’t the objective anyway. It was the process. The meditative act of play.

That dilettante really is something else. Yikes, lady.

As always, Aaron Nakahara’s art is lovely.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the clamor already, not so different from my initial mental disagreeableness. “See? So it’s an activity,” as though there’s some threshold, as with Nobles’ points, where a deck of cards transitions from activityhood to gamehood.

Call it what you like. Personally, I expect Nobles is more of a game than some of the overproduced boxes of plastic I’ve wrestled through. This is “game” as a distillate. Clowdus has taken a game and squeezed its essence through a fine cloth until what remains is a sort of game reduction. Does a game need multiple players? Of course not. Complicated actions? Perish the thought. Victory conditions? “Nah,” Clowdus seems to opine.

Game or not, I’m glad to have spent time with Nobles, both for the pleasure of managing its piles and for its more relaxing qualities. You can too, for free, either as a print-and-play or a Tabletop Simulator mod, over here.


(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 August 25, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the two newest Clowdus entries! I’ve only played one two-handed learning game of Dirge, so I cannot comment too much regarding my thoughts of the game or what you wrote. That said, you did capture some of my initial feelings, most notably in regards what you said about having the same pool of cards to draft. It’s one I want to find a good gaming partner for.

    Based on your previous review/comment here regarding Pocket Galapagos, I think I enjoyed that one a bit more than you did (and even more than Nobles here). Nobles, to me, is what you say about it though. The picture with the caption, “Is this a good score? No idea,” was hilarious and also a bit of a flex (I think that’s a pretty good score). Played the game a bunch when I first got it, and I was also planning on playing a game during lunch this week too. Funny timing. Glad I own one of the sixty-ish printed copies.

    • Haha, I have no idea whether I’m flexing or not! Which I think might rub some folks the wrong way, but I’ve come around to appreciating not having somebody else’s arbitrary score to compete against. Having a printed copy is definitely cool. Clowdus has been designing so many interesting games lately that it’s almost hard keeping up.

      • My flexing comment was definitely meant in a jesting, lighthearted way! I hopped into Clowdus’s games once The North got a little bit of buzz upon its Kickstarter and haven’t looked back, scooping up everything he’s released the past couple years. The North (with the Provenance expansion) is definitely my most played, but I have a good amount of plays between Bronze Age and Cacti. And now these solo games have been played a lot too. Really want to get an “actual” play in of Dirge now.

      • Oh, no worries, I figured you were teasing!

        I have Provenance on my table, but I have yet to give it a try. What do you feel it adds to The North? I was originally going to write about all three this week, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I’ll manage Provenance that soon.

      • That’s completely fair- the games I’ve tried to table have unfortunately dropped off drastically the past couple week, and you’re learning/playing numerous games enough to write reviews/essays about them!

        As for what I think Provenance adds to The North, there’s quite a bit honestly. I had to jog my memory a little, but the first play through drastically shifted the way I played the game. A couple of the facilities in the base game play with using directives from ancients in the wastes or your discard, so a lot of time playing the base game is focusing on those two spots to create some busted combos. That’s fun, and we mix up the options, so it’s not like that’s gone in any way. A smart strategy in general is collecting cards worth two points (base or expansion[s]). With Provenance, I felt myself wanting to play more ancients in general though; I can’t say I’d intentionally play a two-point card unless I knew I could get it back, but more of my game pivoted to really get more ancients out. There are also just some really fun cards in general. One of my favorites is the Junktorch. It looks like what I might imagine a more mechanized “firefighter” would from “Fahrenheit 451” with an entertaining ability. In the base game, there were certain cards I’d avoid. Here, I like playing around with all of them. The art, in my opinion, is even better- there are some really striking machines/creatures. The interplay between the different facility groups obviously adds new dynamics. I just really, really like the expansion.

      • Wow, you’re really selling this thing! Guess I’ll have to try it sooner than later. More variety always sounded like a good idea, and I trust Clowdus would be able to shore up the original game’s weaker spots.

      • Your first sentence of The Dirge review mirrors my first experience with The North. I was blown away. The expansion impressively adds many layers with a relatively small amount of cards.

        A lighter sell: at the very least, Provenance urges you to play around with its elements a little differently. Whether you vibe with it as much as I did, I cannot guarantee that. Looking forward reading your thoughts!

  2. Thanks so much for the review, Dan! 20 is a *fantastic* score. Highest I’ve been told about was a lone 19. 18 is the most I’ve ever gotten. Hopefully, you’ll find it charming that Tiny Islands was a big inspiration behind Nobles. I don’t think the two games share much common space aside from what (I think) they’re trying to accomplish.

  3. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. Love the review. And love the game! Been playing it on Tabletop Simulator. Lots of fun. I look forward to trying some of his other games on there.

  4. I’m always happy to read your thoughts about John Clowdus’ design. As a european, his games are now too expensive for me to buy (shipping almost doubles the price) but the blend of clever design and beautiful art which won me over in Omen – a game I cannot play as much as I’d like – always get me when I see one of his new creation.

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