Considering how long Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have been available and the rich story that they weave, there’s a surprising lack of games based on them. There’s the reasonably decent Thud and… that’s about it really. This year, however, sees a couple of additions to this list that take completely different approaches to the Discworld experience. The Little Metal Dog Show has already covered a very early build of Martin Wallace’s Ankh Morpork. First out of the gate, however? Guards! Guards! from Z-Man Games.
Due for release later this year, the tale of Guards! Guards! is one of a labour of love. We actually covered it in detail on a recent episode of the show but the short story is that the guys behind it had a hell of a time. The game began as a project for the friends of designers Leonard and David but they soon realised that they possibly had something special. Many publishers expressed interest but the rug was pulled out far too often, especially after a particularly disappointing visit to Essen. However, the lads thankfully persevered and the game is now tantalisingly close to release.
The game’s backstory is the usual messed up extravaganza that you’d associate with the Discworld. Rather than specifically focusing only on Guards! Guards!, it’s actually based on elements from all of the books – however, the City Watch are involved in the game. As usual, magic is causing trouble. The eight great spells that make up the Octavo have disappeared from the Unseen University, so the Watch are attempting to recruit folks to get them back. Each player takes on the role of a member of the Watch that has been asked to work with one of Ankh Morpork’s many guilds. Each of the guilds have offered to assist in the spells’ return – first to get the five specified on their guild’s board back to the University is declared the winner! Easy, yes?
Not at all. Because that would be far too simple.
Guards! Guards!, at first appearance, is a reasonably straightforward game to play. You move around the board collecting/pressganging various volunteers (taken from the books) all of whom have various attributes. These can either be charmed into joining your ragtag band – screw that up and you can always resort to good old bribery to get them onto your team. Once you’ve moved to a space on the board that shows one of the spells you need to collect, you declare that you’re about to head on a Spell Run – in other words, you’re going to try and get the spell home. The board is split into four quadrants and you declare which ones you’ll be passing through in order to get back to your start space.
This is where stuff gets trickier. You need at least one volunteer in your hand , while your opponents have the option of secretly placing saboteurs in your path that will have to be dealt with before you get the spell back to the museum. Get through them and you’ll be faced with increasingly difficult challenges (based on the volunteers’ stats and a dice roll) from the University Wizards before the spell is ‘officially’ returned. Any volunteers who took part in the run are discarded and you get on with fetching the next one – the only difference occurs with the final spell which requires you to get back to the Unseen University yourself.
As the game progresses, you’ll also be building up your own stats, marked on the guild board that you’re given at the start of the game – these make your life easier as the game progresses, especially when it comes to charming volunteers when they’re drawn from one of the three stacks. Each guild also has a special ability that can be used any time apart from on your turn – if someone wanders nearby, you can trigger your ability in a bid to hinder their progress. Guards! Guards! is very much a game of taking your chances to screw your opposition as often as possible – being utterly horrible is actively encouraged! Items and Scrolls can also be bought so your life is a bit easier or to make things harder for everyone else…
It’s not just your fellow players you need to be careful of, however – there’s plenty going on in the game that you have no control over whatsoever that can ruin your day. There’s a rather famous piece of Luggage running around hell for leather that will knock you out, sending you to the nearest hospital space – and as we all know, medical care will cost you. The Luggage moves every time a volunteer is recruited according to the instruction at the top of the card. Some volunteers also have other logos to pay attention to – a large gothic ‘F’ means you must draw a Fate card which could be something nice, but will generally mean that terrible things are about to happen. There’s also a charming little disease called the Pox that knocks your Charm statistic down until you find a cure – I’ve actually had a couple of games where this has caused stand up rows. You see, any time someone touches a card that has ‘Pox’ on it, they immediately catch it – particularly funny when you slide a card near someone else and they pick it up by mistake. I never thought my wife knew such florid language…
Another symbol to watch out for is the Mark of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. Should a certain card be drawn from the Fate deck (“The Call of the Supreme Grand Master”), all players must declare and show any volunteer cards that display the Mark. If three or more cards are shown, a Dragon is placed in the home quadrant of the player who pulled the Fate card. Dragons can also be summoned by a player who happens to have three Brethen in their hand. But why would you summon these beasts? Well, if one is on the board, no player can recruit volunteers, collect Great Spells, get money or buy items from that quadrant – a whole quarter of the board is pretty much useless until that dragon is defeated. Oh, and if all four dragons appear? Everyone loses. And they’re absolute buggers to try and defeat in combat too.
So that’s about the size of Guards! Guards! – get volunteers, get the Spells and get them home, covering your own back while scuppering the efforts of everyone else. The game starts quite slowly at first, but as players collect more volunteers and useful items the speed really seems to ramp up. There barely feels like a turn passes where someone isn’t going “Not so fast…” and declaring that your plans are about to change. Fans of games where you have a glorious plan stretching out over your next twenty turns will detest Guards! Guards! to its cruel core – it even says in the rulebook that the winning isn’t important… making people lose is fun as well!
The game captures the chaos of the Discworld well – you’d hope so, of course, as anything that comes out bearing Terry Pratchett’s name needs to be cleared as worthy by the man himself. The artwork throughout the whole game is provided by regular Pratchett contributor Steven Player, and his gloriously grotesque style really gives the game a distinctive flourish. Each volunteer card also has a quote lifted directly from one of the books – as mentioned above, this is definitely a labour of love. It’s a game where you need to be watching what everyone else is doing and taking your chances at the optimal time – or just figure that you’ll have as much of a laugh by kicking opponents when they’re down. Where many licensed games fall down on the actual content, the guys from Backspindle have created an entertaining (if challenging) title that well deserves a look. Fans of the series will appreciate the detail that has gone into its creation, while those not into the Discworld will find a solid game that could well spark a new interest.
Guards! Guards! will be published later in 2011 by Z-Man Games. Designed by Backspindle Games (better known as Leonard Boyd and David Brashaw) between two and six players will take around two hours attempting to capture and return the Eight Great Spells to the Unseen University. Please note, this review is based upon the prototype version – I’ll do an update as soon as I manage to get my hands on the finished product!