History is a funny thing. Ask yourself, what era do you live in? The modern age? Postmodern? Information? The Holocene, more specifically the Meghalayan? Or will the historians of far-flung generations assign a designation that doesn’t capture any of the details you personally associate with this moment? Everything our culture has accomplished, compressed by distance and necessity, into the Aluminum Age. At long last, the dead of the Bronze Age will nod in satisfaction at our diminishment.
When I spoke to Cole Wehrle about Oath, he called it a “hate letter” to civilization games and legacy games. It’s easy to see why. Like digging the fragments of a lost civilization from the compacted mass of an ancient trash heap, there are fragments to be found, shards and sherds, enough to make out an unmistakable imprint or two. Oath is a civilization game, but not like any you’ve played before. And it’s also a legacy game, but even less familiar. This is what I think about it. This is also the story of my first six plays. I hope you’ll soon understand why they’re the same thing.
What I most appreciated about Vast: The Crystal Caverns was its improbable intermarriage of two ideas. The first was its dungeon, generated in roguelike fashion from a generous stack of tiles, producing a sprawling cavern filled with perils and plunder. The other idea was deep, even idolatrous asymmetry. Far more than the possibility of the multiple heroes offered by so many other dungeon crawls. Rather, it was an all-inclusive medley of characters and play styles. The knight versus the dragon, but also the sneaky thief, a pack of suicidal goblins, and even the haunted cavern itself, all working at cross-purposes.
Just as Vast beget Root, Cole Wehrle’s more approachable take on rabid asymmetry, so too does Patrick Leder’s Vast: The Mysterious Manor emerge from a paradigm established by Root. Which is really just a fancy-pants way of saying that this is a kinder, friendlier Vast — when it comes to learning the rules, at least.
Root is mighty cool. I wrote as much last week. But that was before trying my hand at everything offered by its first expansion, Riverfolk. What follows are my thoughts on every last additional ingredient it tosses into Root’s already-potent stew of factions. Like so:
Card Holders: These are card holders. If you don’t know how you feel about card holders, then you don’t know anything at all.
Got it? Great. Let’s do this.
The cats are in charge. The noble birds are swooping from their roosts. A gathering of woodland smallfolk agitate in their holes and burrows, whispering, whispering. And a winsome raccoon packs his rucksack and sets out for adventure.
Adorable and ferocious in equal measure, Cole Wehrle’s Root is Redwall by way of A Distant Plain. And it’s both a total delight and the most accessible asymmetric experience Leder Games has produced thus far.
Vast: The Crystal Caverns always possessed one glaring fault, which was only compounded by its expansion, The Fearsome Foes. What to do when you want to play this beautiful sprawling asymmetrical thing, but don’t want to teach four, five, six, seven separate roles? Much of the time, the simplest answer was also the easiest: don’t. It was the sort of game that quickly established itself as the bane of groups with rotating players, especially since it only truly came to life once the roles were learnt and the interactions between its characters and haunts became second nature.
Vast: The Mysterious Manor doesn’t solve that problem, not fully. Any game with multiple roles is going to require its players to learn those roles, and the Vast series — I think we can safely call it that now — has always thrived on the broad differences between its sides. But The Mysterious Manor is at least going to make the task of teaching its rules faster, easier, and more rewarding than before. And the result just might strike the balance between the sweet, sweet asymmetry that gave Vast its appeal in the first place and the approachability to make sure its players stick around long enough to learn its rhythms.
I dug Vast: The Crystal Caverns back in 2016. More than that, I still dig it. Just a couple weeks back, I called it “the king of wild asymmetry that actually works.” And I stand by that. The beauty of Vast isn’t just that each of its five roles is fiercely different, it’s that they work in near-perfect harmony, breaking apart to pursue their own objectives only to come crashing back into one another’s orbit time after time.
With that in mind, does a game with five asymmetrical roles really need three more? Or worse, six more?
One of the things I appreciated most about Geoff Engelstein’s board game rendering of The Expanse was the way it took the venerable Twilight Struggle’s very serious, very wargamey card system and bolted it over the top of something that had nothing to do with real-world history or politics. It was, if you want to be dramatic about it, a democratizing move. Where any quantity of board gamers might shy away from engaging with “serious” topics in their leisure time, The Expanse boasted a deeply smart card system layered over a fictional world, right down to its dumber-than-a-bucket Captain James Holden. If the hero doesn’t bust his noggin over political statements and colonial implications, why should you?
Now, in a surprise alliance between political-game veteran Cole Wehrle (Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic, the forthcoming John Company) and one of the industry’s freshest publishers of asymmetric buffoonery Leder Games (Vast: The Crystal Caverns), we’re witnessing what just might shape up to be the next step in the process of bending the branch of wargame-style gameplay into reaching distance of a more general audience.
The game in question is Root. It’s still in playtesting, likely won’t be out for a good long while, and details are still subject to change. But my impressions of an early build have been almost entirely positive.
In the November 2016 episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, join Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen in a discussion about asymmetry in games, fluctuating mic levels, and Vast: The Crystal Caverns with the game’s developer and producer, Patrick Leder!
As a sidenote, Vast: The Crystal Caverns is currently on Kickstarter for its second printing, and will fund until December 18th. You can find all the details over here.
The prospect of asymmetry in board games has always been a tricky one, promising great variety and depth while also threatening to overwhelm its participants with — and I believe this is the scientific term — a metric butt-ton of rules. Unlike digital games, which might handle calculations behind the scenes or offer helpful tips whenever you get stuck, in the analog world of board games every single rule must be relayed, parsed, and understood between all players at all times. Or at least most of the time.
Not only is Vast: The Crystal Caverns by Leder Games not an exception to this rule, it’s pretty much the definition. But does that do it a disservice or make it one of the richest games to appear on our table this year? Read on to find out.