But Who’s Fate?
You may have heard the story about the fertility doctor who donated his own, ah, material to his patients, thereby fathering a host of children. A surprising amount of ancient mythology falls back on pretty much the same concept. So does Veiled Fate, the game of questionable divine parentage by Austin Harrison, Max Anderson, and Zac Dixon. Everybody at the table is a god. The nine heroes roaming the board are their demigod offspring. Nobody’s sure who belongs to whom. When will we get the daytime talk show version?
Here’s the good news. This melodrama opens the way for one of my favorite fledgling board game concepts: shared control over common pieces. Those nine demigods? They’re none too bright. They’ll heed any divine source that pops into a swan’s body to honk orders at them. Like every other god, you’re trying to propel your kid to greatness. But you’d best take care lest somebody order a test kit from Ancestry Dot Com. Or lest you’re witnessed paying too much attention to any one particular mortal. If the beans get spilled on your child’s identity, a rival might command them to undertake a profoundly stupid quest. Gargle scorpions. Attend the high school theater production in a loincloth. Open the shade-rift when everybody else is trying to seal it. The usual stuff that makes a would-be hero look like a dunderhead.
Shared control games aren’t always known for their elegance, but Veiled Fate manages an understated simplicity. You can boss around any demigod, whether to stride across the map, take on a quest, or wander somewhere totally useless. The one exception, when a demigod is already pursuing a quest, isn’t even a real exception — they can still be moved, but only if you spend some cards to activate a god power. Portals for propelling them to the far side of the continent, smitings to send them (temporarily) to the underworld, transfiguration for swapping them, musical chairs-like, into somebody else’s position on a quest.
Such measures aren’t undertaken lightly. Gods are easily exhausted. Run out of cards too early and the sniveling rivals you share a pantheon with will be able to act with impunity. Anyway, you need those cards. To measure its heroes’ success at a given quest, Veiled Fate uses a familiar system, one drawn from titles like Battlestar Galactica, Unfathomable, and Homeland. When you assign a demigod to a quest, you also add one of your cards to that quest’s pile. As soon as the quest is fully staffed with demigods, the pile is shuffled and revealed. Based on the quest’s outcome, demigods gain or lose renown. Or, on rare occasions, they’re thrown into the underworld.
As you may have gleaned, two contrasting frictions give Veiled Fate its spark. The first is identity. You want your offspring to succeed, but you can’t be seen aiding them too directly, at least early on, or your rival gods may tank their renown or repeatedly hurl them into the darkness. Then there’s hand management. You need cards for resolving quests in your favor — and for sabotaging the efforts of your rivals’ children — but godly manifestations are expensive, so most of the time you’re better off nudging the odds in more cost-effective ways. Like striking flints, these concepts work in opposition. One is there to drive you forward. The other drags at your heels.
Well, a crackle, anyway.
In another world, Veiled Fate might have been my favorite game. Not only as a concept. The execution gets so many little details right. The petty house drama that passes for a divine court. The way rule-bending powers are tied directly to the game’s mundane economy, but at such a price that they land with the force — and rarity — of an actual miracle. The shared control, done with such ease and freedom rather than persnickety caveats and hangups. The deck with its pleasantly meager five card types, enabling effortless assessment of one’s odds. The way gods team up as the player count increases, but without anybody knowing who they share parentage with. The heroes themselves, vividly drawn, yet — refreshing in this era of asymmetry — so unburdened. There are no special rules in Veiled Fate. It’s easy to see how it could have succumbed to the temptation and overcomplicated itself.
Instead, it falls prey to the one emotion no game of shared control should touch: capriciousness.
There’s caprice aplenty, you see. In the genre. In the concept. Shared control is insanely difficult to get right. How do you make an act satisfying when that same act can be undone by a rival almost without thought? I move my demigod here, you move them there. My offspring gains power, you strip their power away. You see the problem? Veiled Fate understands it deep in its bones. That’s why it’s so difficult to enact those god powers. Undoing somebody’s move is trivial until it isn’t. Then it carries an exceptional cost. As soon as a demigod places their feet on a quest, wresting them away is going to make you bleed.
Why, then, are there so many instances where that careful touch is brushed aside? Perhaps the best example is the city card. The map of the world is a wheel, the City at its spoke. When a demigod travels to the City, a token advances along the city card, triggering bonuses as it goes. More often than not, the reward for doing this is an extra card — a card of the usual variety, the kind that permits a god to enact their powers or tilt a quest toward their intended outcome. An extra card. Say it with enthusiasm. An extra card! An extra card in a game where one additional card is a tremendous boon. An extra card in a game with no other economy. It’s hardly surprising that each of the game’s three eras begin with every player immediately triggering the City, provided there’s still a bonus to be had. Can you get an extra card? Then move a demigod into the City. Move two if necessary. Move a demigod out to the forest and then back in, sometimes. This isn’t the same as another bonus, the extra card for climbing a demigod out of the underworld. Without some perk, demigods would languish down there forever, or else betray their divine parent’s identity. That rule is there to give smiting some edge, some reason to aid a fallen hero who isn’t your own child. The City’s extra card? It’s a bonus for sitting in the proper chair in the turn order.
Or maybe the best example is the coin. Some quests don’t display a single reward or penalty. Instead, they show a coin. When the quest resolves, you flip the coin to determine the demigod’s fate. Infinitely worse, when a quest comes up tied, the coin is also flipped, now determining the fate of multiple demigods at once. To be clear, on a thematic level this is a touch I can appreciate. Ancient peoples practiced cleromancy far more often than we customarily realize. Dice weren’t balanced because their spill expressed something divine and deliberate, not the jumble of equal chance we moderns prefer. If we, who are the gods in this scenario, cannot decide an outcome, then surely it should be left in the hands of Fate?
But as appropriate as the notion may be to the game’s setting, it’s unbearable in practice. Cards only contribute either one or two pips toward one side or the other. It isn’t enough to make ties a rarity. They will happen. Not always, but more often than you’re expecting. In that instant, the flip of a coin may well determine the outcome of the game. They surely decided more than one of ours. Is it justice that even the gods should rage at Fate? Maybe. But in a game that already teeters on the edge of nonsensical thanks to everybody’s shared control of all its major components, such a step is the final headlong plunge over the edge.
Does this ruin Veiled Fate? That depends on one’s definition of ruination. The game remains an excellent example of shared control. Elegant, smooth, not overburdened with rules. Best if played while taking notes, and with people who’ll put in the effort rather than playing crazy. But its efficacy is diminished. It becomes a warning, too. Here’s how to take a system that’s always wobbly and give it too much spin. Here’s how to take a game that’s a little too long to feel so wild, and give it just enough of a shove to send it stumbling.
Because in the end, the game’s titular veiled fate isn’t its secret parentage. It’s the whims of the turned card and the flipped coin. It’s the half-heard laughter of the crone’s hands drawing the thread taut, scissors drawn, and more senseless to our pleas than we’d prefer. Veiled Fate, indeed. In this myth, however, we aren’t Fate.