By Robert Florence on February 25th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
I haven’t read any of the Discworld books. Don’t judge me. I’m just – DO NOT JUDGE ME – not that big a fan of fantasy stuff, really. I couldn’t even make it through Lord of the Rings, that stuffy phone book of a thing. I was a horror guy in my youth. Stephen King and James Herbert and HP Lovecraft. Wizards? Nah. Not my bag. So Discworld was something that passed me by. Which makes it VERY INTERESTING that I now review a Discworld board game, because I have no fucking idea what any of the stuff refers to. ONWARDS.
Martin Wallace designed this game, and he’s a guy who designs a lot of really intimidating games called things like THE TRAINS CARRY-ON and STEELWORKS OF THE LANCASHIRE AGES-AGO and CAN YOU AFFORD TO PRODUCE THAT CAR? He’s a great games designer, but his games are very intimidating. Ankh-Morpork isn’t intimidating at all, though. When you read the rules, you go like this:
Then you read the rules again. You glance at the camera, raise an eyebrow, and say “That’s it.”
Here is what IT is.
There’s a board representing a city, with lots of different areas. The city is Ankh-Morpork, I think. And all the areas are probably cool places out of the books, I dunno. You have a bunch of tokens representing “minions” and tokens representing “buildings”. And there is a big deck of cards too. You draw up to five cards, and then, turn by turn, you play a card and take the actions on the card. These actions are things like “PLACE A MINION” or “REMOVE A MINION” or “CARRY OUT TEXT PRINTED ON CARD”. Let’s take one of the cards – a guy called “Carcer”. He has a knife and stuff, and looks like a murderer or something. I dunno. But he lets you roll a die twice and kill minions in the areas the die rolls suggest. This is probably really thematic – yes, a quick google tells me that this character is a psychopathic murderer in the books, and so his in-game power makes sense. That’s nice.
But what is all this for?
At the start of the game, you take a character card (you keep this secret) and you win the game by meeting that character’s objectives. One character asks you to take control of a certain number of areas (by placing enough minions). Another character wants you to build buildings. Another wants you to just keep the game unwinnable until the deck runs out. This part of the game I get, and I like. The game’s all about understanding what your opponent might be trying to achieve, and trying to block that.
It’s kinda… nice.
There are a LOT of cards. A lot. And you burn through them really quickly. The actions on the card are optional, but must be activated from left to right as they’re printed. When you start playing, it feels chaotic.
“Okay, fuck it. I’ll play… Nobby Nobbs. He lets me take money from another player. Sorry, pal.”
“Okay then, I’ll play um… this Librarian, who seems to be a monkey. He lets me take more cards into my hand.”
And then, as the game unfolds, you start to realise that the game is a push-and-pull of game states. Buildings are erected and then burned down. Minions move around the map, causing trouble wherever they meet opposition minions. It can end super-fast if players don’t quickly understand what their opponents might be swinging for. It’s an interesting little game. Very interesting.
There are little chaotic Random Event cards too, and these get activated by certain characters. Rincewind, for example, makes you draw a Random Event card whenever you play him. I think he’s a bumbling wizard in the books, so it make sense, right? These random events can cause riots and dragon attacks and all sorts of stuff that alter the game state even further or even end the game outright. What an odd little game.
What an odd little game. It’s definitely, definitely one for Discworld fans. All the cards are unique – every card depicting a character or organisation or place from the books, and the art is beautiful. The components are beautiful. The board is beautiful.
Life is beautiful.
And it’s easy to learn too. It feels like a family game, y’know? “Granny, just do what it tells you to do on the FUCKING CARDS!!” There is no fussy business. It’s just play a card/do what it says. DONE. The only real problem is this…
Here’s the problem.
It’s a big problem.
Martin Wallace is a fine designer, right? And he designs deep, thinky games, right? So he gets asked to do a board game with the setting of these popular books. And so he makes it accessible and easy to play, right? But you can’t change the true nature of a designer like Martin Wallace. He’s thinking – “I will make a family game, yes. But I will make a family game that, over time, will allow players to understand how to play strategically and so on and so on and yadda yadda.”
If you play Ankh-Morpork only once, you’re really just bumbling along, letting shit happen. And a lot of family games only get played once, then put away for a while, then brought back out again for a second game that feels exactly like the first play. Are people really going to LEARN this? Get better at it? Or will they just play it occasionally and kinda stagger through it? Or do they just want a cool Discworld game to play?
I like the game. It’s chilled out and pleasant to play. But I worry about exactly where it sits for different gaming audiences. You could easily play the game, roll through for a while, then someone says “I won!” and that’s it. That’s probably exactly how most first and second and maybe third plays of this game, for casual players, will pan out. More advanced players might be all like “WAIT! Repeat those win conditions for me. Now let me think…HM!” But those people really should be playing something else anyway.
Like another Martin Wallace game.
Like CAN YOU PAY FOR THIS TRAIN TO YORKSHIRE YOU SOD? or something.
See you next time. Stay dicey.