No County for Old Men
After I declared Mind MGMT my favorite game of 2021, the pressure must have been unbearable for Off the Page Games. All right, all right, I doubt they noticed. Still, Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim’s adaptation of Matt Kindt’s comic series was such a zinger that any follow-up would be swimming upriver.
Case in point, Harrow County: The Game of Gothic Conflict, co-designed by Cormier and Shad Miller as an adaptation of the comic series by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, which is on Kickstarter for the next two days — yes, I’m running behind — carries itself with an exerted air. It does so many things in a short span of time. Maybe it should have doubled down on two or three.
Spooky stuff’s afoot. That’s the gist of Harrow County, as near as I can gather. At the outset, two factions struggle for the county’s destiny: one to protect its denizens by guiding them home, the other to wreck their houses. Between the haints, the terrifying storms, and the constant barrage of magic, the place has big “They should sell their houses to Aquaman and move elsewhere” energy.
In practice, this translates into a game with a rather fluid identity. Broken into chapters, it begins as a thin two-player game about spawning monsters to clobber other monsters, grows into a pleasantly dense two-player game with just enough knobs and levers to make the county map worth poring over, and then morphs once again into an overstuffed three-player game in which an interloper faction preys upon the other two with all the gentleness of a cat toying with mice who were heretofore nipping at one another over a sliver of cheese. Apparently there’s already an expansion in the works that allows a fourth player to join the fray. I have no idea how that’s going to work, but I have an inkling it’ll be even messier.
The core experience revolves around those first two factions, the Protectors and the Family. They’re largely similar, apart from a few mechanical particulars and presumably an underlying divergence of morality. These factions alternate breaking mason jars. Each jar offers its own possibility. The first lets you take lots of inflexible actions, whether drawn from a literal grab-bag as the Family or selected from a specialized row as the Protectors. Another is similar, granting fewer actions but allowing a greater degree of control over whether you move, spawn haints, or gather your strength for battle. The third is for performing magic. This is where the two sides depart most radically, flinging around special abilities and trying to pursue their unique objectives.
The last mason jar initiates battle. It also represents the first time I haven’t despised a game’s cube tower. Rather than simply jumbling up your cubes and spitting them out onto a specialized tray the way Dead Reckoning did, this tower is filled with obstructions. Battles that begin with five cubes per side may tilt one way or the other as cubes are caught within. Over time, however, the cubes added by further battles will jostle them free. Unlike brawls with dice, misses are therefore banked and threaten to reappear later for unexpected turnabouts of fortune. It’s a clever system, and squares nicely with the sense that you’re handling unpredictable forces that may backfire rather than consume your foe.
Once Harrow County gets up to speed in its third chapter, this system of oscillating vandalism sprouts an extra row of teeth. New tiles are arranged between the two rows of mason jars, each providing some minor perk to whichever side claims it first. This presents the whole thing at its best. Every action is barbed, a tradeoff between the jar that provides the best action and some possible combination of jar and bonus that affords a nudge elsewhere — or denies your foe a much-needed perk.
It helps, too, that although Harrow County never becomes exactly deep, it does manage to dampen more than your shins. Given the testiness of battle, it isn’t long before every advantage is well appreciated: extra magic and combat range from mountains, a barrage of upgrades and power cards, the vulnerability of the brambles, the agonizing exchange between superior numbers for battle or spreading out to bring home as many extra action tokens as possible. Both sides are invested in careful positioning — the Protectors earn their best points by guiding survivors home, while the Family wants to wreck those homes by painstakingly expanding a network of storms — so it isn’t long before both sides are tussling over crucial ground.
Around the midgame is when it feels best, the first few upgrades acquired, the first battle lines staked, the initial upsets already fired. Not long afterward it accelerates to a pulse-wrecking velocity, usually with one side hammering the other into submission. I don’t know if it has to do with how the game’s various sources of points are amassed, the balance between factions, or what, but its final round feels as brittle as the glass of its neglected mason jars. Even at its best it’s a messy sort, with plenty of fumble accompanying its more delicate footwork. The Family, for instance, tends to flounder when it’s time to draw from their grab-bag of actions. Still, it’s a mess that’s enjoyable enough to roll around in.
The appearance of the third faction hurls that brittle balance against the side of the barn. Hester she’s called, a witch hellbent on devouring the powers of the other factions. She plays like a train engine, both metaphorically and, to my surprise, somewhat literally. In the first case, I say that because she’s slow to start but increasingly difficult to halt. In the second, because unlike her glass-breaking peers, she sows roots — or is that routes? — across the landscape. Her initial goal is twofold: first, she needs proximity to all those haints running around, and second, she gathers power from whichever type of land her roots touch. Over time, she spends this power to infect haints by sticking a snake in their ear. (Cue everyone going, “Ohhh, that’s why the minis have little holes in their heads.”) Control over infected haints is shared between their original summoner and Hester, who can smash them into rival infected haints like squishy protons in an arcane particle accelerator. This sparks bonfires, which in turn lets her physically manifest on the map. Then she begins pursing rival characters to take big bites out of their flanks. Enough bites and she wins outright. Victory points? What are those? She’s here to snack on unwitting happy meals.
Hester is very gothic, and very gory, and very cool. She’s also a handful. Her appearance upends the regular factional conflict. Now the Family and Protectors must play keepaway as well, tucking infected haints into hard-to-reach corners, warily eyeing those spreading roots, and fleeing whenever Hester appears in the flesh. It turns out that while this is a mad delight for Hester, it’s a more anxious undertaking for her prey. Hester’s appearance simultaneously feels like Harrow County coming into its own as a true horror game and like an unwelcome intrusion into a tighter contest of strategic positioning and action optimization.
This is ambitious, but in practice it presents a mixed bag. Hester doesn’t interface with the mason jars or their bonus tokens. She doesn’t chase down extra actions. She doesn’t stomp on the seesaw for victory points. These details aren’t problems, but they do speak to a degree of disconnect not present elsewhere. For example, because Hester doesn’t interact with the common elements on the board, players are more likely to find themselves caught off guard by what she can accomplish. She’s complicated to play as and play against, layering the equivalent of a second game atop the first. As we battened down for another play, those staffing ordinary factions were weary, prepared to be eviscerated once again. The match concluded in victory for the Protectors, but not until double the game’s usual duration had passed. That’s how thoroughly she transforms Harrow County. Which might be appropriate for a hanged witch born again to wreak vengeance on the living, but still.
My feelings on Harrow County can’t be reduced to a single statement, in part because its two-player matches are such a distinct experience from those with three. It heaps one mess atop another and hopes the accumulated sediment will pass for depth. Which it does, in a sense, requiring more plays to fully excavate the possibilities. But it becomes a sloppier brand of enjoyment. At two, it’s all careful one-upmanship and tense action selection, although even this, in the end, comes across as incomplete. At three, it becomes almost too complete, a game with leftovers spilling from the lid, a cat-and-mouse-and-mouse session that’s equal parts bold, terrifying, and awkward. Perhaps that’s the natural consequence of adding a third player to a two-player action-selection system. Or perhaps it’s a testament to the shock of Hester manifesting on the board. I can’t decide.
Instead, I’ll say this much: I’m eager to try more. I want to scrape down through the mess, brush away the sediment, and see what I can take hold of. I want to try it with a group that knows all of Hester’s tricks. I want to try it with four players, if only to witness how much further it can contort itself. I want to watch in horror and awe as it bends and breaks and is made anew. Harrow County is many things. So many that I’m not even sure that it knows what it is. I’m fascinated to uncover its face.
A prototype copy was provided.