I Have Three Sisters
Pitch me the words “three sisters” and my mind reacts in this precise order.
- My actual three sisters.
- The play “Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov.
- Three Sisters Peak on the north end of Salt Lake Valley.
- The “three sisters” standing stones down in Goblin Valley.
- The “three sisters” even farther south in Monument Valley.
- The Three Sisters method of companion planting, in which Native Americans planted maize, winter squash, and climbing beans together for their mutual benefits.
- Now also a roll-and-write game by Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle.
- There’s a tomato plant called Three Sisters that grows one of three different sizes of fruit.
- Seems a lot of people had three sisters.
Was that a lot? Wait until you get a look at Three Sisters. The board game. Not one of the standing stone formations. It’s also a lot.
On Saturday, we played a stack of roll-and-write games in one sitting. The experience was reminiscent of the deck-builder explosion about a decade back. Even though it’s a genre in its infancy, there were so many new ideas and quality innovations. Also, unfortunately, a few duds. The kind that leap up and down shouting “I’m doing it too!” Except they aren’t doing it too. They aren’t doing it at all.
Three Sisters didn’t fall into the latter camp. But it also didn’t quite make it into the first camp, either. It fell into the same camp that so many deck-builders fell into once upon a time. The “more is better” camp. Which, in case you’re already scheming how to get plastic miniatures into a roll-and-write game, is not the best camp.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good things happening in Three Sisters. It has a lovely little rondel action-selection system. Each player claims a die, which indicates which of their six gardens they’ll work in, plus the printed action the die was sitting on. After that, everybody at the table also gets to use the lowest die and its associated action. Oh, and also the end-of-round action. Okay, so it’s a lot. I already said that part. But picking your action from the rondel feels like exactly the right sort of decision. Compact but impactful. Comprehensible but worth studying for a moment. It even replicates the whole “shared input” thing most roll-and-writes are doing without actually requiring identical inputs for everybody.
But then you start penciling those inputs onto your paper. And the whole thing gains the mass of a black hole. Not your ordinary baseball-sized black hole. The black hole that binds an entire galaxy together. That one. The leviathan of the stars that will in some future epoch swallow us all. Because Three Sisters doesn’t use only one piece of paper. It uses two. And it doesn’t only use those two pieces of paper. It shrinks your inputs down until they’re the size of biotic samples in a controlled lab that uses electron microscopes. And it doesn’t stop there. It gives you approximately five thousand of them. And it doesn’t go, “Hey, you know what? Five thousand inputs the size of an ant’s postage stamp, that’s enough.” It also piles on as many bonus actions as it can. Bonus actions everywhere. Bonus actions like Oprah handing out bonus bananas to a screaming audience. Bonus for days.
According to Three Sisters, gardening is all, “Thanks to my recent purchase of a compost shovel from my local Home Depot, I was able to shovel three piles of compost to grow peaches; the peach harvest was so juicy that I used its excess juice to water my third garden, which swelled two patches of winter squash to such rotundity that my hyacinths and tulips bloomed like crazy; as everybody knows, the scent of tulips has aphrodisiac properties, except instead of making people get horizontal they make gardeners long to exert themselves tending to their raspberry patch (not a euphemism), so I did that for a minute; consequent to the altered genetic composition of my peaches — courtesy of my tulips and triple-locked pie safe — along with all my extra pumpkins and raspberries, I made such a killing at the farmers’ market that I came home, stretched, and thought, ‘Shall I take a break? No. I shall not,’ and instead tended to my crocuses, whose diminutive violet blossoms and my recently acquired hive tool gave me the fortitude to give my apiary a good prodding; properly riled, the bees stung me into further action tending to my peaches some more. And the cycle began anew.”
That was an actual turn in Three Sisters. One turn. Technically, it was only a portion of a turn. I had to write down the steps because I was sure I was forgetting some. I still suspect I missed a few. I can only imagine that my in-game gardener has contracted a strain of mind-controlling fungus, compelling him to tend his plants until at last he climbs onto the roof of the shed and allows the birds to feast on him and carry the spores to further unsuspecting horticulturalists.
During play, Three Sisters must suspect what it’s doing. It so immaculately replicates one of those shoddy open-world video games with so many quests and locations and barely differentiated NPCs and speed bump enemies. Every few minutes, if not seconds, if not fractions of seconds, you complete something. There’s a treasure chest with a purple-coded axe in it. A “boss” enemy who’s slightly more spongy to your attacks. A quest that gives a little trumpet fanfare when you unknowingly cross it off the list. More boxes to scratch out. Bubbles and stars to fill in. Bonus actions. “Bonus,” like you earned them instead of tripping over them on a three a.m. stagger to the bathroom. Fill in the bubbles. Fill in the boxes. You’re doing something. Never mind that none of this makes sense. That there’s no reason an apiary should add three hours to your day to tend to your blackberries, or that irises should grant greater latitude when determining which of your gardens you’ll water this morning. Why are beans only worth one point when corn is worth three? Why are blackberries so inferior to raspberries? Is this a reflection of genuine market considerations? I’ve never seen a grocer stack endless cartons of blackberries to match the raspberries. I’m more likely to buy a labeled thing of jam than a non-labeled jam. The non-labeled jam could be anything. Drugs. That’s what DARE taught me.
I can’t decide whether Three Sisters doesn’t give a hoot about its setting or if it went cynical somewhere. Did it care in its younger days, when the world seemed fresher and not so uncaring? Maybe it’s as much a victim as anyone. We’re so bad at telling the difference between a reward we’ve earned and a reward we’ve been given. The dopamine rushes in. We’ve picked up our tenth bonus action in a row. We smile.
Anyway, I recommend Three Sisters. Then more Three Sisters. Three Sisters to fill the hollow left by Three Sisters. Three Sisters. Three Sisters.