Something Familiar This Way Comes

Scary pumpkin-men are not my favorite thing to happen across on a moonlit night, but I've become very good at smashing them.

Madrid-based publisher Salt & Pepper Games has been on a roll lately. I hesitate to say that the secret sauce behind both Resist! and The Hunt was the visual work of Albert Monteys, not least because both would have been impressive even had they been illustrated by crayon. Honestly, though, it’s the art that catches the eye. There’s a humanity to Monteys’ work that breathes life into his subjects, whether they be dueling captains or ragged insurgents.

Or a coven of witches in Salem-adjacent New England warding off evil while placating the local judges. Designed by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley, Witchcraft! is the follow-up to Resist! In many ways, it’s a familiar outing. In others, it’s an improvement.

That's a play on words. Yeah. I'm a word guy.

Leave the church to its own damned fate!

For those who missed Resist!, let’s cover the basics.

Witchcraft! is all about completing missions. In contrast to the original game, which saw anti-fascist insurgents raiding bunkers and barracks, the Spanish countryside has been exchanged for scenes of Puritan living, a New World idyll undercut by niggling corruption that would feel right at home on the back cover of works like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or even Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. It’s a jarring transposition at first, swapping a real-world doomed insurgency for historical fiction, but the strangeness soon wears off. Given some time and room to breathe, the supernatural setting starts to feel more and more suitable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The objectives in Witchcraft! are functionally identical to those in Resist! Three dangerous vignettes are presented at a time and can be tackled in any order, but are accompanied by hidden dangers that threaten to whittle down your witches’ resolve. These begin as reasonable enough tasks for a colony of pilgrims: curing the villagers in a marked plague house, protecting livestock from predators, beating vermin away from the grain stores. It isn’t long before apprehension develops into paranoia. The eerie lights behind the schoolhouse become the campfires of deceased soldiers. Wolf tracks grow into the footprints of a bloodthirsty monster. Freak accidents are attributed to a scary pumpkin-man. Whether these are literal or imagined threats is hard to discern; perhaps it’s enough to say that they’re real enough to those living in their shadow. Much has been written about the magical worldview of the American frontier, how religion and belief and the terror of inhabiting an unwelcoming land gave rise to accusation, hysteria, and mass murder. Witchcraft! gives a face to those anxieties.

To counter them, every round provides only a handful of cards, each representing a witch, and possibly bogs down your hand with useless curses. With these meager tools you’re expected to pick a mission, overcome its obstacles, and go home triumphant. Triumphant-ish. As in Resist!, each witch is presented with one particular decision over and over again: whether to act in secret or reveal the full extent of her powers and land herself in jail. The witches of this Puritan colony have the wellbeing of their families and neighbors in mind, but they’re wholly aware of the aspersions that will be cast their way if their powers are revealed. This dual risk is the heart of the game. By acting in secret — scouting out dangerous positions, recruiting fellow witches, eavesdropping on the local judges — your witches are muzzled, but will return to fight evil another day. Or they can sputter brightly, purging plague rats and risen dead in a burst of mystical fire, only to find themselves locked up for the crime of saving the village.

Which curse to add to my hand? They're all identical apart from art, but I still spend time deciding. Well done, Monteys.

Hidden or revealed? That is the question.

From its inception, this system has focused on the ordinariness of its protagonists. In the previous game, your Maquis fighters were the sort of people you might see every day. Bakers, cobblers, men and women who lifted heavy objects for a living or taught in the local school. Their heroism was amplified by their common status. If such everyday people could make a stand against fascism, perhaps any of us can.

Witchcraft! carries on this tradition while giving it a few good scrapes over the whetstone. For one thing, it can’t be ignored that the coven is populated exclusively with women. Not all of Salem’s accused were female — the final count comes to something like three quarters — but the hearings and executions have come to be associated with women for a reason. When communities surrender to their terrors, their finger falls first on the vulnerable. By portraying its cast as not only women but as literal witches, Witchcraft! inverts the tragedy. These women, some of them only girls, are every bit as powerful as their accusers make them out to be. Far from being revealed as the colony’s tormentors, however, they’re kindly, generous, willing to imperil themselves to save the same community that’s locking them up.

For good reason. One of the game’s cleverest twists is that most of its characters belong to a family. This is represented via shared surnames. Mechanically, this introduces a slight element of set collection, witches growing in power whenever they gather alongside their kin. It’s also soon apparent that each family has their own gifts: the Miller triplets can bend public opinion, the Kents defang malicious curses, the Sullivans… there are a lot of Sullivans. Not every witch belongs to a family — one doesn’t require siblings or parents to be valuable — but it’s an extra reminder that these are members of a wider community.

Not only members, but pillars. Like their predecessors in Resist!, these women occupy all walks of life. They are schoolgirls and foragers, guards and smiths, book-binders and entertainers. They’re also the bodies putting themselves in harm’s way to combat the spectral takeover of the colony. There’s no escaping this game’s connection to Christian history, nor to the women who helped foster and maintain Christian communities across two thousand years only to be pushed to the fringes by jealous men. It’s a story as old as that of Jesus, and playing Witchcraft! one gets the sense of reliving that process yet again. Whatever ills have befallen the colony, it’s women who strive most fiercely to rectify them, yet it’s also women who are blamed for them.

That guy in the middle has definitely abused his position. Just sayin'.

The art of persuasion.

The question of blame is central to Witchcraft!, and not only in the background. Resist! was notable in part for its ambiguous ending. Rather than offering a simple victory or failure, players were allowed to choose when the insurgency was finished. There was still a tally that gauged how well your resistance fared, but it was a muted conclusion, a somber reminder that even righteous causes can atrophy and die.

That entire concept has been reworked. After each mission you’re still asked whether to call it quits or keep going, but the former option has been given a more concrete goal this time around. At the start of the session, you draw three jurors who have been tasked with deciding the fate of the town’s witches. These also determine which missions you’ll face and add a few unique cards to the obstacles deck, writing a narrative arc for you to follow. Lastly, each juror is dealt two number cards in secret. When you’re done playing, you reveal these cards to determine the juror’s total “conviction.” If you’ve strung together enough of the right missions, defeated the right monsters, and had the right witches massage public opinion, you might meet that number and persuade that juror of your innocence. Otherwise they’ll proclaim you guilty. Two out of three is enough to survive. Three out of three is better.

Maybe don’t expect that outcome, though, at least not very often. Witchcraft! is a fiendishly difficult game largely because it puts you between a rock and a hard place. At any given moment your coven is confronting both an external threat to the colony and the threat of the colony itself. Navigating these twin threats is tremendously difficult, constantly pressuring the player to determine whether they should reveal themselves or remain hidden. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic. All the more so because it’s a dynamic that will prove familiar to anyone who’s tried to make positive change through activism. Witchcraft! is historical fiction, but it’s a historical fiction that cuts through the manicured lawn and aerated topsoil to strike a root many would rather not acknowledge. This thing we call America has always relied on women and people of color, yet we’ve also rushed to scapegoat those same people for the problems we’re currently facing. Sometimes even for imaginary problems.

I mean, I think I remember. The goat eats a baby, right?

Uh oh. I saw The VVitch. I know what happens next.

Of course, much of the game’s delight comes from watching its victims turn around and slug evil in the nose — or at least, in the case of the town jurors, prove them short-sighted. In Witchcraft!, the vulnerable are made powerful. Maybe even powerful enough to save both their loved ones and their own lives. That’s the power of storytelling. Even when it’s pitting a coven of witches against reanimated skeletons and prejudiced jurors, sometimes it offers a more just outcome than our forebears permitted. By extension, it helps us reimagine the possible. Witchcraft! retreads familiar territory, but it improves upon the original’s gameplay in significant ways and offers a fresh spin on one of America’s oldest tragedies. This is one piece of historical fiction I can get behind.

Witchcraft! is coming to Gamefound in June. Here’s a preview link.


(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 prototype copy was provided.

Posted on May 9, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    Almost sure I already said this, because I say it everywhere I see Albert Monteys’s name, but really, really, if you like comics, check his stuff out. See here

    You can but his science-fiction antology Universe! for whatever price you want.

    Or check the comic adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five that he drew, should be available on bookstores online

    Monteys spent years doing some political-social satirical content in El Jueves, and I’d have never expected him to show such a mastery of the art as he does when not having to deal with the constrains of that format.

    Not that he was bad at that either, and he is now also now and then doing some stuff for Devir in which he basically does that kind of one-panel one-joke stuff about boardgaming, because he is not just an illustrator, he also plays 🙂 But again, I was absolutely astonished to see a more profound side of him both in mastery of the art form and in content.

  2. Christian van Someren

    Looks great!

  3. Very interesting! I quite enjoyed Resist!, and while I think the gameplay loop has legs to stand across different titles, it seems like Witchcraft! is more a refinement of the system rather than a significant tweak. Do the jurors interact with the game besides as the ending win condition? It seems like it would be compelling if they provided restrictions/benefits to certain approaches, which would make different playthroughs feel more varied.

    • The jurors don’t provide advantages or restrictions outright, but their missions and obstacles are themed. So one of them will see you facing possessed chickens, which add curses to your deck, while another might require you to defeat skeletons. Stuff like that.

  4. I really appreciate your callout of the oppression of the vulnerable. You’ve done a wonderful job elocuting the hysterical tyranny against good, well-meaning women. And it sounds like good story — and good fun — to see these women using powerful force to do what they do best. I admit the depiction of occult symbology to that end disturbs me somewhat. But it’s all disturbing, especially to consider the goodness and possibly well-meaning-ness of the Salem masses who lashed out in their hysteria. Given an ingrained belief system and a movement, any one of us can get caught up in reviling our neighbor.

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