One of my favorite questions to ask fellow historians is “When did the Roman Empire fall?” Not because I have a firm answer — it’s a harder question than you might think — but because our answers say a lot about how we conceptualize historical narratives. It’s easiest to respond with a year. Say, 410 or 476. If we remember Constantinople, maybe 1453. A conclusive final chapter. The end of an era. The opposing answer is that Rome didn’t fall so much as transition; that the Merovingian and Carolingian kings who fancied themselves emperors had no less of a claim than the string of weaklings who had ruled the Empire for centuries. This narrative is more meandering, but still, in its own way, unsatisfying.
And then there’s the answer that one aging professor offered in a course many years ago: “Why are you asking when something imaginary ended?”
I spent a good two years trying to figure out what that meant.
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.
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?
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.