Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Play-testing A Study in Emerald

Monday night saw four of us gather for our weekly games night, including Chris who was keen to join us again after two weeks on honeymoon.  This time the game was Study in Emerald a currently prototype boardgame by Martin Wallace that is in its Kickstarter project phase.  The prototype is available for play testing before the board, rules and design are finalised.

Proposed box art

The game picks up where the wonderful short story by Neil Gaimon ends: with the sun setting on the Victorian Empire, Sherlock and Watson take what seems to be another assignment - a murder, a word written onto the wall beside the body and no apparent clue as to the culprit.  But as they investigate further, the assignment becomes stranger than any other: the body is not, well, human; its blood is green and although there is little that is left of it one can tell that it is not of this world...

For those who want to read the story I won't give too much away, but the story ends with the uncovering of a movement of people in Europe against the established royal families and other elite.  Known as the Restorationists, they strive to restore the natural order of things by removing the rather unnatural aristocracy.

Anyway, back to the game.  The game play is based on the accumulation of victory points.  One accumulates such points by taking control of cities, by killing agents, or by assassinating the named royalist in that city.  The board is set out with a number of cities on it, linked by movement tracts, and cards immediately above them with the top card turned over:

The board and it's groundbreaking artwork 
Each player has a deck of ten cards, of which (s)he draws six.  Each player has their agent on the board.  The game has an "influence" mechanic whereby a player bids either on a city or on a card deck by playing influence tokens on them.  If at the start of their next turn they have the most influences on the city they can take control of that city (and get the city card as well as the victory points) and similarly if they have the most influences on a card they get that card which enables them to do different things during their turn.

Bidding far a card
(Mrs Peacock is the white player with the sheep from Agricola)
A highly contested city

A turn consists of two actions: if you are to take a city or a card, that has to be your first action and you can only do that once per turn.  A basic action requires the playing of cards, which have symbols on them - block to enable you to place an influence block and a coin to move places or buy more influences.  A normal action involves placing influences on one card or one city.

There are more actions than that involved that I won't go into: blowing up agents / royalists, turning yourself or others into vampires, bringing on zombies, accumulating more agents, having double agents (which is cool) and the like.  There is a lot of variety to the game play and I could not get my head around tactics for most of the game.  You are also either a Royalist or a Restorationist.  Whichever you are appointed to at the start affects the way you play as there are only royalists on the city squares to blow up so the Restorationists have more ways to accumulate victory points.  The Royalists are, if you like, defending more - trying to kill agents before the agents kill the royals.

The restoration and war tracks 

Without the board game bling, we were never going to be "wowed" by the game.  I can see, however that the game would be fun and could be played a number of times with different tactics depending on which side you are on and how the game unfolds.  So my lasting impression is quite favorable and I am keen for Steve to buy it so I can play it more often.

I think with some cool pieces and an attractive game board that it could be a real winner.  The rules do need a bit of clarifying though - there were some "rules moments" which us gamers all know about: particularly around free actions but also whether you are playing with your fellow Royalists / Restorationists or whether it is every (wo)man for themselves.  Zac and I as the Royalists came out on top with a bit of rules bending and Steve and Chris in true anarchist fashion fought each other and came last and second to last.

Stephens restorationist card,
looks a little bit like a spy from the Resistance

Allocating points is always random so I say 7.24926 / 10.

Zac dedicates his victory to Nadar


  1. It was a fun night. I agree the game was fun but the rules, or my rules teaching needs to be polished. Plus I think it takes a couple of plays to fully get a game and it's strategy where cards play a big role as you can't teach every cards effect.

  2. Not to spoil anything, but I think you should change the terms in your introduction to "the great Consulting Detective" and "his companion", or something similar. If you ask why, just reread the story...

    All the best,

    1. That makes me curious. I took that as an obvious reference to Sherlock and Watson, but clearly the is some sub-text going on here that I have overlooked. I would be obliged if you could explain.

    2. There will be MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead, so please, anyone who doesn't want the story by Neil Gaiman SPOILED, please DON'T READ ANY FURTHER, as the SPOILER will RUIN THE STORY by Neil Gaiman for you!!!

      Danisnotatree, that also goes for you - the spoiler will possibly ruin the story for you. I'd recommend reading it here:
      ...where the publisher and the author have presented it for everyones perusal...

      ...basically, you are right. The game, and the story, is an obvious reference to the Sherlock Holmes stories.
      However, Gaiman wrote the story with a unique twist. The setting is different - the Great Old Ones have risen and rule the earth. It is in this setting that the Consulting Detective and his new companion take on the case.
      They are never named. However one of their adversaries (they are, of course, two) is named, while the other one has a quite obvious nickname.
      From these hints, and from the signature of the narrator, it becomes clear that the Consulting Detective of this story, the Traditionalist, is Moriarty, with his companion Sebastian Moran, while the "bad antagonists" who murder royal (eldritch) blood are, indeed, John Watson and (presumedly) Sherlock Holmes.
      In this world, therefore, the roles are reversed. And that is why it is not Sherlock, accompanied by Watson, who takes the case. It is Moriarty, accompanied by Moran.
      This also fits with the cover art of the game.

      However, if the reviewer wrote that, he would give away the twist of the story and spoil it for everyone (like I did just now, only I warned you). So the best in this case is to be vague yet enticing. That is why I would opt for "Consulting Detective" and "Companion" instead of giving names. It would keep the illusion for all parties interested, while not making a mistake...

      All the best,

    3. Thank you for that Dumon - the decision not to name the consulting detective and his assistant was curious to me - as was the naming of Watson elsewhere. I thought nothing of it - especially as I thought that a well known consulting detective at Baker Street left no doubt as to who it could be. That twist however is fascinating and does add a whole further dimension to the story. I do hope that Mr Gaimon develops it further in the future.

  3. I like the sound of it especially the period and the main characters!

    1. Likewise. With Empire of the Dead our main game right now this fitted into our current love of everything late Victorian.


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