Essen, as we all know, is the most wonderful time of the gaming year. A time where the excitement of getting new stuff to play is only matched by the joy of discovering beautiful curios that you weren’t even aware of, made even better by picking up a copy of this mysterious release and finding out that holy crap, this game’s brilliant. Such a thing happened to me a couple of years ago when, after finished my interview with Simon from Japon Brand and picking up a bunch of stuff I’d ordered in advance, he added a tiny box to the top of my pile, telling me “You should have this. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
On returning to the UK after the show, that unassuming box sat there for a couple of weeks as my and my group worked through the haul of games we’d brought back from Germany. Then, on a night where no-one bar one friend was available, we saw the little box and noted that it was a game specifically for two players. Remembering what Simon had said, we opened it up and proceeded to have one of the weirdest gaming experiences ever. Trauma. Sadness. Relationships. Nuance. Coma. You get all this and more when you play The Ravens of Thri Sahashri.
Or rather, if you managed to get hold of a copy. Ravens was released in very limited numbers that Essen, so an English language version of the game was near impossible to actually hunt down. Now though, the game is set for release by Osprey Games, a British company probably best known for their historical wargaming releases. Others may recognise the name as the folks who seized the rights to remake Odin’s Ravens following the Kickstarter debacle of 2013. Being good chaps, they ensured as best they could that everyone who pledged for that campaign got a copy of their release of the game, winning themselves a place in the gaming community’s good books.
And now, here we are, with the all-new Ravens of Thri Sahashri about to hit the shelves. Boiled down, it’s easy enough to dismiss it as a two-player co-op game, but there’s an awful lot going on below the surface. One player takes the role of Ren, a young girl who has suffered an unnamed trauma than has seen her fall into a coma. Trapped inside this world, her memories have been destroyed by some unknown force, and without them she will never wake up. The other player, Feth, has the ability to reach into her unconscious and will hopefully be able to piece together her past and return Ren to the world of the living. Storywise, so far, so good – but did I mention that the whole game is supposed to be played in silence?
Yes indeed. Remember, Ren is in a coma, and as such she would never be able to speak if this were happening for real – so both players are encouraged to work through the whole game without saying a word. All communication is through the selection of cards and their placement; anything more than that is considered against the spirit of the game, taking you out of the world of Ravens and essentially spoiling the whole thing. No verbal communication makes for a very intense experience indeed, and provides something very different to most games. Where the majority of co-ops encourage open discussion and forward planning, the previously mentioned nuance is what drives this game, and as such it won’t be something that everyone can get their head around.
From a gameplay standpoint, Ravens is actually a pretty tricky beast with plenty to consider when playing. A central deck is built of five different coloured cards, each set numbered from one to five. At the beginning of each hand, the person acting as Ren draws four cards and keeps them face down in a row after noting what they are. As each round plays out, both players need to work together to guarantee that the play area (called the Atman) is made up of cards of these colours – and only these colors. Pretty tricky when communication is pretty much forbidden.
Every round, the Feth player draws cards from the shuffled deck (as many as they like, though more cards means a higher risk of failure). These are then added to the Atman, laid over blank areas of cards that are already in play in a bid to reconstruct the memories of our poor, unconscious victim . The deck also contains several Ravens cards, each of which will “eat” discarded cards of their colour and potentially remove them from the game.
When Feth is done with drawing a placing cards, Ren chooses one of them from the Atman and puts on top of and “incomplete” hidden card; the one that’s furthest to the left hand side of her row of secret cards. A hidden card’s pile is deemed complete when there’s a total of seven cards (including the original secret one). The fourth pile, however, is made up of only five cards, and once all four hidden cards have the requisite amount of cards on them, the round ends. If the Atman is built up of only the colours represented by the four original hidden cards, the duo are successful and move on to the deck set of memories. If there’s even a single abberation in there, then the game comes to a close and the players have failed to wake Ren from her sleep. Oh, and you can also lose if you draw all five Ravens, or if you run out of cards in the deck. Harsh!
This, as you can probably tell, is not a game for the faint of heart. You will lose many more times than you’re victorious, and can occasionally feel somewhat screwed over by the card draw – after all, there’s little you can do if you keep drawing those titular Ravens – but I honestly feel that the innovative ideas in The Ravens of Thri Sahashri outweigh the often punishing difficulty. It’s such a different game to most of the stuff in my collection, and I put it on a par with the more curious items I own – something like …and then we held hands provides a similar kind of experience but feels completely separate to what Ravens offers as a gameplay experience.
When I first played Ravens a couple of years back, I knew that this game was quite special, but didn’t see how it would ever make it to a larger market – if feels incredibly niche, even today, but I’m delighted that Osprey Games have decided to take a punt on it and see if it will work with wider availability. The production is beautiful; the art is given space to breathe on the larger format cards and the whole thing has a very high degree of polish throughout. Rather than a standard box, it’s presented in a folio style slipcase with a sleeve to keep the contents safe within, and while I love my original version of it, I feel that this will be the edition that gets played much more often in future. A definite recommendation, especially if you’re looking for a two-player game that will challenge both players in a very different way to anything you may have tried out before.