Game Buzz: Black Sonata

Thanks to TGG Games for providing a review copy of this game.

In days gone by, old Shakespeare wrote his lines
And left us clues in sonnets he designed
A game now seeks to bring his chase to light
To find his lady obscured by the night

OK, so I’m no Shakespeare, and writing iambic pentameter is hard. Nevertheless, time to talk about

image by BGG user JohnKean

Black Sonata is a solitaire game designed by John Kean, first published in 2018 by Side Room Games. Before that, it was a print-and-play game that won the 2017 Solitaire Print and Play Contest on BGG. The game is about Shakespeare’s fabled Dark Lady, who is the subject of some of his sonnets. No one really knows her true identity, though there’s a lot of speculation. In this game, you are trying to pursue her through London, pick up clues to her identity, and discover her secret.

The game has a board that shows eleven locations around London. You have a pawn that will start somewhere on the board. A Dark Lady clue card is selected at random and placed in a designated spot by the board. The other card of the same suit as the Dark Lady is placed under the 11 location keys. A fog deck of ten cards is shuffled and set nearby, and a deck of stealth cards are organized around one of eight different paths. A countdown card is placed a the bottom of the stealth deck to indicate when the game will be over.

image by BGG user Blix

The first thing you do each round is update the Dark Lady’s location. This is done by moving the top card of the stealth deck to the bottom. The symbol that you see on top of the deck now is a symbol that can be found at her location. In the example above, we can see a house, which means she’s at one of the four house symbols on the map. These are useful in narrowing down where she could have gone.

Next, you can take your action for the turn. You could move to an adjacent space, collecting the location key for that spot if you don’t have it yet. You could search for the Lady in your location (more on that in a moment). You could use a Fog action if there’s a Fog card on top of the deck. You could also just do nothing.

When you search for the Lady, you’ll take the top Fog card and place it under the top card of the Stealth deck. This keeps you from seeing the next card, and will represent some movement you don’t know about the next time you go through the deck. Then you’ll take the location key (as long as you’ve already claimed it) and place it under the top Stealth card. Flip them over. If you see the Lady through the keyhole, you get to reveal a Clue card. If not, you haven’t found her. In either case, you’ll discard the Stealth card and then cycle through as many cards from the top of the deck as you have revealed clues.

If you ever use a Fog card action, slide another Fog card under it, then reveal the top one and take its action. This Fog card is then returned to the bottom of the Fog deck.

When you have enough clues and think you know the three symbols associated with the Lady, you need to first find her, then accuse her. If you’re correct, you win. If not, you lose. You also lose if the Countdown card, which cycles down every time you reach it in the deck, has hit zero already when you reveal it.

image by BGG user pleroph

Components in this game are nice, and fairly unique. The board is fairly small, but it’s really as big as it needs to be. In fact, my only component complaint is about the board, in that mine doesn’t want to lie flat. But it’s well illustrated and the paths are laid out pretty clearly. The clue cards each have a suit on one side, then an illustration of a possible Dark Lady on the other. You also get the three symbols you are trying to figure out if she IS the Dark Lady, as well as symbols she has in common with the Dark Lady if she is not, all based on the suit. It’s a clever design. Additionally, there are seven wooden tokens, each matching a symbol to help with your deductions, and four Lady markers, to help you with narrowing down where she may be.

All other cards in the game are the small size, which I’m generally not a fan of. It’s OK here in this compact package. The location keys each have a hole for you to punch out that will enable you to see if the Dark Lady is at a particular location. The cards that mark your path have a symbol on one side, and a set of up to 8 letters on the other, as well as a mark showing where the Dark Lady is for that card. The 8 letters are organized in two rows, and you sort them in alphabetical order based on the same letter position for every card. This way, you get eight different paths to follow. Again, a very clever design.

Thematically, this game is very unique. The basic gameplay is fairly abstracted and doesn’t necessarily immerse you in the overall story, but a lot of work has been put in to educate you about what’s going on. There’s a whole booklet with information about each potential Dark Lady candidate, as well as the various locations on the board and Shakespearean sonnets that reference the Lady. I always like it when people put in that work. Even though I’m not usually thinking thematically as I’m playing, I like finding out new things when confronted with a topic I’m not familiar with. At the end of each game, when I find out the identity of the Dark Lady, I’ll go to the booklet to read more on her, as well as the location I found her in. It definitely enhances the experience for me.

The game itself is a straight deduction exercise, more akin to a logic puzzle than anything. There’s some guesswork when you’re figuring out where she is on the map, though you can often narrow it down to one or two places. If you don’t catch up to her in time, however, her possible paths will diverge again, so sometimes you just have to be lucky. Memory can help on the second or third time through the deck.

The actual identification of the Lady is the logic puzzle. You try to narrow down which symbols she could have, and then logically figure out which ones couldn’t be. If you’ve ever done one of those grid-based logic puzzles, this is solved much like those. It’s a nice mental exercise.

This brings me to a couple of sticky points about this game. The first is replayability. If you’ve ever done a logic puzzle, you may know that once it’s done, it’s done. You might be able to do it again on another copy, but you may remember what was done. I think this game is structured so that you’re not going to get the exact combination of clues every time, so that’s helpful. Still, each suit has only two cards, and when you see one, it’s possible you could just remember the other one. To that I say…don’t be that person. If you’re the type of person who’s going to do everything they possibly can to win, including memorizing pertinent game information, this is not the game for you.

There’s also a finite number of paths to follow, though the game tries to mitigate that by having you cut the deck after alphabetizing it. There are some other suggested paths that aren’t alphabetized of varying degrees of difficulty. This means that, while on the surface, replayability seems limited, there’s more than meets the eye. I think the replayability is fine, especially if you space out your plays. It may not be a game you can play a hundred times, but I don’t have that many games I’ve played that much anyway.

There’s a couple of loss conditions with the game – you hit the countdown card when it’s already on zero, or you can’t use any more fog cards because you’re out. Once you’ve passed the countdown card and started the last lap, you can generally estimate when your game will be over and start planning for that – I tend to spend the time before that collecting clues and trying to do my deductions. So far, I’ve been successful every time in figuring her out. My big trouble in winning is just finding her so I can win. I have managed to do that in every game I’ve played, but it’s been close a couple of times. I said in another recent review that I tend to feel like there’s something wrong with the game if I win every time, but in this case, I’m not feeling like it’s a walk in the park, I’m still feeling challenged.

The game has an endgame scoring to see how you did, but I’m finding that I’m not really a fan of that. To me, the win/loss condition is successfully finding and identifying the Dark Lady. I don’t really care if I’m a Chimney Sweeper or an Immortal Bard. I found her, I win. Also, I keep forgetting to check my score until after I’ve started putting stuff away, so there’s that.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I really like this game. It’s a challenging solo logic game that really succeeds in making you use your powers of deduction. Plus, it’s educational. It’s one of the more unique games I’ve played, and I would recommend this to fans of solo games, deduction games, and Shakespeare. And, in keeping with the theme of the game, here’s an attempt at a review in iambic pentameter:

A logic game for seeking clues of old
To find the one, you must be brave and bold
This is a game I gladly recommend
One you’ll enjoy from start until the end

If you’re interested in getting this game yourself, it can be purchased at the TGG website. Thanks again to TGG Games for providing a copy of this game for review, and thanks to you for reading!

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