Game Buzz: A Study in Emerald

I’m not very familiar with the works of Neil Gaiman.  I’ve read a couple of his books – Stardust and Good Omens – and tried to read his Sandman graphic novels.  But I have yet to really get into his stuff.  However, I know he’s a popular author, and Martin Wallace is a popular game designer, so it’s no wonder this project is gaining some buzz:

image by BGG user Frog1
image by BGG user Frog1

A Study in Emerald is a new game currently on Kickstarter, designed by Martin Wallace and released by his company, Treefrog Games.  It’s based on a short story by Neil Gaiman from 2004 that combines the works of Arthur Conan Doyle with H.P. Lovecraft.  Sherlock Holmes meets Cthulhu – color me interested.  The game is for 2-5 players and plays in 90 minutes.  It’s Kickstarting for about another week (already funded), but I don’t know if it will ever be available outside of Kickstarter – Treefrog tends to do some pretty limited one-time runs for the games they release.  We’ll see.

In the game, you get a board, 60 game cards, 12 city cards, 6 player identity cards, 50 initial cards, agent counter, double agent counters, sanity counters, hide royalty counters, zombie counters, and player agent counters.  There are also 10 blocking discs, 2 game markers, 100 influence cubes, and 75 control discs.  At the start of the game, each player gets a loyalty card: you’ll either be a Loyalist or a Restorationist.  Players each get 20 influence cubes, 15 control discs, a player agent counter, and 10 initial cards (you begin with a hand of six cards).  Four game cards go in each location of the map, and each player gets two random double agent tokens.

On your turn, you get two actions, then draw back up to six, reshuffling as you need to.  There are 12 different action options:

  • Place influence cubes: Play cards with cube symbols on them, and take that many cubes from your available stock and place them on a face-up game card or in a city box.
  • Take a game card: If you take this action, it must be the first action you perform.  Take a face-up game card from any space on the board where you have more influence than any other player.  It goes in your discard pile.  In this way, you could get an agent under your control in the location the card came from.
  • Take a city card: This also must be a first action if you take it.  If you have more influence in a city box than any other player, take the matching city card (from the deck, or from a player you have just wrested control from).  You place a control disc in the city.  The card goes in your discard pile, and gives you VPs at the end of the game.
  • Retrieve influence cubes:  Play cards with cube symbols and take that many cubes from the board.  These can come from a variety of places.
  • Buy influence cubes: Play cards with gold symbols.  For every two, you can take a cube from the pool and add it to your available stock.
  • Place/remove block disc: Play a card that allows you to place or remove a blocking disc on a face up cards.  As long as it is there, no one can take the card.
  • Move agents: Pay a cost printed on the board to move between spaces.
  • Move markers: Move the war or revolution tracks a number indicated by the number of arrow symbols on a card.  The Restorationists want revolution, the Loyalists want war.  The higher the counter, the more points your side gets at the end of the game.
  • Discard cards: Discard as many cards as you want.
  • Reveal your identity: This is a free action, so you don’t have to spend one of your actions to do it.  Adjust your VPs immediately.
  • Reveal double agent: This is also a free action, and can even be done during another player’s turn.  This identifies an agent as a double agent, and prevents them from doing whatever activity they are trying to accomplish.
  • Pass: Do nothing.

The game ends when the war track marker reaches 15, the revolution track reaches 15, a player reaches a set number of VPs, a Restorationist’s main agent is assassinated, a Restorationist receives three “Mad” sanity counters, or a zombie card is played as a first action with no zombies out on the board.  Add the VPs for each player on a side, and the side with the lowest total is out.  The single player with the highest score on the winning side wins.

I don’t really know what to think about this one yet.  I don’t get much of a sense of the theme from reading the rules, but that’s kind of the way it is with Martin Wallace games.  Also, I haven’t studied the cards, so I don’t know how everything will work together.  The biggest thing that stands out to me is the semi-cooperative nature of the game.  There are hidden identities, so you don’t know who’s on your team.  However, you’re trying to help your team do the best they can, because otherwise you can’t win.  On top of that, there’s a single winner on a team.  It seems to me that this is how semi-cooperative games should work – people working together out of necessity, but not trying to give someone an edge.

I think A Study in Emerald looks…OK.  It’s certainly not something I’m dying to back, but Martin Wallace has a good pedigree, so I’ll play if someone brings it out.  If you’re interested, go pledge – £50 and it’s yours.  Thanks for reading!

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