Our new reviewer Emma Laslett returns, this time armed with a well rounded knowledge of Neil Gaiman books and Martin Wallace’s Wikipedia entry. Now that these two worlds have collided to create the new game A Study in Emerald, what’s the result?
Courtesy of my period of inadvisable spending on Kickstarter board games (on which more to come), here’s A Study in Emerald, the new Martin Wallace game based on the Neil Gaiman story of the same name. It’s a team-based/competitive/deck-building/hidden identity/area control game about an alternate Victorian England ruled by Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, and also vampires and zombies are in there too for some reason. First up, full disclosure: I’m a fan of everything Neil’s ever written, and I’ve honestly never played a Martin Wallace game before, but I hear his name is gaming currency. Now, assuming I still have any board game cred at all left with you guys, here’s my thoughts on it.
I’ve only played ASiE a few times, so I don’t know if I have the most qualified opinion on it yet, but honestly, that’s one of the issues with it. It’s almost deliberately obtuse, with a massive number of conflicting rules and a learning curve so steep it’s almost vertical, and the somewhat poorly-written rulebook doesn’t help matters. Thanks to all of this, it’ll take you probably a good half hour to actually explain the rules to people, even if you understand them completely yourself – in my second game, I managed to overlook one tiny rule, which then proceeded to completely destroy the balance of the entire game.
We worked it out eventually, but by that time, one side had already romped to a runaway victory. Also, this learning curve tends to stretch over several games – I just about felt I had a grasp of the rules after the first two or three games, which came accompanied with the realisation that I had played all those games wrong and in the grand scheme of Emma-playing-board-games, they didn’t count at all. This is all kind of frustrating, which has had a tendency to put my friends off it, which is a shame, since there’s a good game lurking under all those rules. It does something I haven’t seen before by integrating deck building into an area control/points-scoring game, and I really like the theme – my weird fangirl admiration for the author aside, it does something new with the Cthulhu Mythos theme, which is getting really overdone by now.
That said, the theme does feel kind of pasted-on at times – even Wallace himself, in the design notes on the rulebook, admits that this was originally a completely unrelated game – and the addition of vampires and zombies makes no thematic sense at all, and feels like they got thrown in because they’re flavour of the month, an impression only strengthened by the fact that each of them is tied to one specific card, so they won’t even come up in the vast majority of games. This is kind of a sore point for me, as if you’re going to take one of my favourite authors and stories and plaster their names all over the box, I’d like it to be thematically accurate to the source material, but maybe that’s just me.
On the upside, there’s the art – the board looks a bit busy at first, but is actually more comprehensible than you think, and all the cards have lovely art on them that really helps build the turn-of-the-century atmosphere, as well as providing some brilliant bits of subtle humour. However, the cards seem to have art to the exclusion of everything else – the only thing that actually matters on each card is a couple of symbols in the top-left corner and maybe some text, and most of the ones that have text have an entire page of the rulebook dedicated to explaining them, so you’re constantly looking back either at the book or at the player aid sheets, which for some reason there are only two of in this five-player game.
Finally, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on one of the most unique things about ASiE – the teams and the scoring. Each player is secretly assigned a team, either working for or against the royal monsters of Europe, and at the end of the game, the entire team containing the lowest-scoring player is eliminated, leaving the highest-scoring member of the other team to win. This means you can’t just concentrate on scoring points, but have to work out who else is on your side and arrange for them to get enough points to not be last when the game ends. This is a cool idea and all, but has some problems, chief among which being the sheer number of things that only give points to one team – as soon as a player takes one of these actions, their identity is all but certain, barring an *incredibly* clever/stupid bluff. This takes the teeth out of the secret team mechanic, as everybody knows who everyone is by the midway point, leaving the rest of the game a mad scramble for the fast-swinging city points before the end of the game. And the end of the game could come at any point – with five different game-end conditions, games can take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, and if people play the game wrong (for example, by coming into their first game without an exhaustive knowledge of rules and strategy), it can be over practically before it’s begun.
All in all, then, A Study in Emerald is a game with problems. But apart from these, there’s one important thing you should know about it – it’s fun. Sure, it’s often needlessly complex and deeply flawed, but underneath all that, there’s a genuinely fun game. Ordinarily, I’d say wait until the second edition comes out and irons out the rulebook problems, but given Treefrog’s usual problems with reprinting games, that might not be so doable. So if you really like Martin Wallace and/or Victorian anarchists, and are prepared to spend a lot of time and effort looking for the good game inside all the messy rules, I’d recommend getting your hands on a copy – otherwise, maybe one to avoid.