Wot I Think: thievery digital boardgame Antihero

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The quintessential element of boardgaming, I would argue, is the OH YOU BASTARD moment. When your world falls apart because long-brewed plans are coldly destroyed by another player’s action that you never saw coming. When, just for a blood-red second, you genuinely wish sudden death upon them.

Sure, multiplayer videogames frequently involve such emotions, but there’s a more transitory quality to them – you lost that round, that base got swiped, that idiot shot you in the back of the head. You move onto some other priority almost immediately. Turn-based strategy games are closer, but even then they generally work on such a scale that you’ve got something else to focus on when disaster strikes.

Boardgames, often briefer, often dependent on one core plan, will rip your heart out. Antihero [official site]? Yeah, that does that. Even if you’re playing it on your own.

Antihero is a videogame with a boardgame ethos, as opposed to a boardgame transplanted into a videogame. I find the latter have mixed success, due to the loss of tactile cards and tokens, and perhaps trepidation about taking any liberties with the source material. Anithero has had a close look at the core concepts of fast-ish play, moment-to-moment competition, keeping cards close to one’s chest (so to speak) and, of course, OH YOU BASTARD then stuffed them inside a hugely characterful turn-based strategy/roleplaying hybrid.

The theme is rival thieves in a ‘toonish Victorian setting, all grime and gangs and ale-loving toughs and workhouses and masters of stealth. A bit like Dishonored but with bobbleheads and no magic or whales, I guess. Robbing houses gets gold, which is spent on hiring recruits with which you can seize, kill or otherwise disrupt the opponent’s pieces.

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Urchins occupy production buildings in order to gain a steady stream of resources; Truant Officers, who are essentially the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, ‘evict’ Urchins so someone else can snag the building; Gangs can attack other units; Saboteurs plant traps in buildings; Thugs can block streets so the enemy can’t pass unless they spend a precious action killing them.

In the midst of it all, your own Thief, upgraded as a game wears on (each one takes around half an hour, though they can be won and lost in a lot less than that if you or your opponent are horrifyingly efficient). They scout, they steal, they can kill if you pick those upgrades, but they cannot themselves be killed.

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This is key to how well Anithero works, I think: it’s a battle of fast but pacey resource management, not a frantic murder competition. Your Gangs and Thugs can be slain, as can NPC assassination targets that earn you a point towards victory, but you will remain in the game until the bitter end.

The Oh You Bastard moments happen not as sudden knock-outs, but as the loss of a Gang you have painstakingly built up over half a dozen turns, or the sudden eviction of all the Urchins inside a key building, or as a devastating combination of actions that moves the enemy’s victory counter on several places within a single turn.

Antihero is not overly complicated, but has just enough moving parts that you can have a sure battleplan for victory within the next couple of turns in your head, only for it to be undone by something you never saw coming. It’s beautifully balanced, randomness only existing in terms of where/when assassination targets might appear and some building placement, but these alone are never enough to ensure success or failure.

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Possibly more problematic is the AI if you’re playing it in the impressively robust and substantial singleplayer mode. In the main, it does a good job of being a consistent opponent, merrily creating its fair share of Oh You Bastard moments and having a good working sense of which structures and units are most valuable to you.

But sometimes it’ll sleep on the job, missing something entirely obvious and enabling you to dominate proceedings unduly. Only sometimes though; it’s absolutely capable of winning too, and doesn’t give an easy ride.

Crucially, I didn’t play it thinking ‘this is a waste of my time and I should playing in multiplayer instead.’ The computer was my enemy, and I desperately wanted to crush the bastard. What more could you wish for?

Multiplayer’s clearly a strong component of it, however – that’s where you will be screeching obscenities at an opponent who just assassinated your max-damage gang or chucked all your urchins out of that pub you desperately needed. There’s both online and hotseat modes, and the latter’s a particular hoot if you’ve got a friend round – take the chair and watch the results of your chum’s actions in their last turn play out at the starts of yours, witnessing the devastation as they snicker about what they know is about to happen.

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It is only two-person multiplayer, which I think is eminently sensible in order to prevent matches from wearing on endlessly. Clear rules, with an emphasis on x countering y rather than layers and layers of complexity, and no cards to worry about keep it lean, putting it square in that ‘yeah, I’ll have a crack at that in my lunch hour’ catoegory.

It’s big on personality too, from the wide choice of thief avatars to the Gangs Of New York toughs and the comedy cockernee urchins, and I dig the Darkest Dungeon But Chipper cut-out art style.

Most of all, it’s boardgame ethos inside a videogame I can play on my computer, either by myself or against another, without being dry or artificial about it. The greedy part of me would appreciate a few more modes or units – the few faces do make it feel slightly small after a while – and, sure, I’d love to see what a four-player contest looks like. But by staying small it stays elegant, and that’s what makes Antihero such a pleasure.

Antihero is out now for Windows and Mac, costing $14.99/£11.99/14,99€, via Steam, GOG or Humble.

11 Comments

  1. Robert The Rebuilder says:

    Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.

    So, should this get the “RPS Recommended” decal?

  2. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    I’ve enjoyed the game so far. Tis lovely looking and plays well.

  3. MrMcDonald says:

    Perhaps it’s worth a mention, too, that there’s a chess-like multiplayer mode in this game, whereby you can play your turn, close the game, and then get notified by email when it’s your move again. You can either be matched with others to play in this way or invite someone by email, and I’m told this mode works between players on PCs and Macs as well. (Incidentally, I wish there were more games that had this feature, but I’d be interested in any recommendations others might have in this respect.)

    • Toppins says:

      That’s commonly referred to as PBEM (play by e-mail) and is a staple of turn-based wargames like Combat Mission, but it fits well in any turn-based game. Good to hear it’s available here!

      • MrMcDonald says:

        Ah, yes, I was wondering whether it fell into the category of “play by email”, or if that phrase was reserved for games that you literally do play by email, as against “play by web” games, which I see also get a mention. At any rate, I’m yet to win a single Antihero match, so let my asynchronous education begin! (And cheers: I had a quick look at Combat Mission.)

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          Phasma Felis says:

          I’d wondered that as well. I might even just return to the old “play-by-mail”–PBEM was born from games that were literally played by mail, with a game master receiving everyone’s moves and sending out updates. They were advertised in Dragon and wargaming magazines, with turns processing once every week or two.

          • MrMcDonald says:

            Funny, isn’t it. What patience this species once had! (What with having a couple of penfriends still, in some ways I’d feel better geared to that kind of turnaround time.)

  4. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Looks great. I’ll probably pick this up.

    On a similar note – I bought Gremlins Inc. in the sale and that’s a lot of fun once you play a few games. It can seem incomprehensible at first but you soon pick it up. It’s RNG heavy, but it’s about managing risk and has enough mechanics to keep it interesting. Beautiful aesthetic too, both sound and visual design.

    • Scrofa says:

      Good recommendation! I bought both of these games recently and they’ve been really scratching that boardgame itch for me each in its own right. I feel like Gremlins Inc. is way more fun in singleplayer than Antihero though, probably due to the heavy reliance on RNG which kinda smooths the AI shortcomings (although Gremlins Inc. has an extensive ranking system and even tournaments which honestly boggles my mind), and I found Antihero’s SP content pretty lackluster, so I would recommend it more for MP needs, it can be a pretty competitive experience.

  5. Lykurgos says:

    Yup, this is a great tabletop-style asynchronous MP game. I’m playing as Lykurgos – challenges welcome :-)

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