A Study in Emerald (2nd Edition) Review


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Posted by Michael on Feb 17, 2016

First released in 2013, A Study in Emerald uses an award-winning Sherlock Holmes story by fantasist Neil Gaiman as a jumping off point to create a Victorian setting in which the Great Old Ones- Cthulhu and the gang- have for 700 or so years dominated the Earth. The “Royals” are these flabby-tentacled gods, and among their subjects are Loyalists determined to serve these masters and Restorationists seeking to overthrow them and return humanity to power. It’s an interesting setup and although Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, Inspector LeStrade and Irene Adler are in the cards, this is not necessarily any kind of Arthur Conan Doyle-inspired mystery game. These characters are in fact merely players in a conflict that spans all of Europe and includes many historical and fictional personages from the period.

Mechanically, the design is a sort of area control and card drafting game at its core. With deckbuilding, direct player conflict and secret player factions to boot. Yet it is quite restrained overall, and once you get through the initial haze that comes from reading the rulebook for a Martin Wallace game it mostly makes sense and moves along nicely. This second edition is also significantly different than its earlier version, with several elements from the original release modified, simplified, or completely eliminated. I’ve not played the first edition, but I will state that from what I have learned about it this is a case where revision has resulted in a game that is smarted up- not dumbed down.

A couple of concepts are brought forward from his past several games, and he continues to explore meshing deckbuilding with board play. Here, you’ve got a board with several European locations on them and a stack of cards in each one. The top card of each is flipped over, and that is effectively the card that it is up for bidding in that area. But each stack also a card for its city (representing that you can “take over” an area) as well as a Royal card- whichever Great Old One holds sway there might show up over the course of the game. Each player starts with a seed deck of ten cards, agents and assassins. You get two actions each turn which you affect by playing cards using one of their available icons. Many actions can stack, so you might play multiple cards to increase the value of one action.

Typically, actions tend to move pieces onto, off of or around the board. Each player has a number of Agent figures, which represent personalities involved in the Loyalist/Restorationist conflict. These are great for carrying out assassinations or increasing your control of a city and they can use a Move action to get to where they are needed most, but to play the action that allows you to claim the face-up card there you have to have not only the most pieces there, but also at least one influence cube. These are a limited stock that discard into a Limbo area on the board and must be recalled into your available stock with card actions.

There’s actually a lot going on in this basic structure. Controlling the flow and investment of your primary resource, influence, is critical. You’ve got to determine if it is worth getting into bidding wars in certain cities- thus tying up valuable cubes- or if you should use multiple actions to place influence in several cities, hoping to play a compound claim action and gain several cards in a fell swoop. Keeping agents on the board and in positions of effectiveness is crucial because influence doesn’t move. Only the Agents can, at least without having to play recall actions and then further actions to re-positon your influence.

Now, the catch is that you are either a Loyalist or a Restorationist, and these are dealt in secret at the start of the game. There are cards, actions and other effects that produce points for one side or the other. For example, all assassinations provide green Loyalist points. Acquiring some cards puts Restorationist points in your deck and on your board. But at the end, you only keep the points for your applicable side. And on top of that, there is a track in the middle of the board that can be adjusted up and down by card play that adds or subtracts points from all players based on the difference in score between the factions. Whichever side loses in that struggle incurs a five point penalty to everyone that reveals that they were on the defeated side.

Where it gets really interesting is how these agendas interact with your choices. You might be a Restorationist, but you really need to assassinate an agent. Is it worth the “temporary” points that may also cause other players secretly on your side to suspect you of siding with the Royals? Or you might find yourself under suspicion for taking particularly a particularly valuable like the Vampires or Zombies that give Loyalist points. If you are a Loyalist, is it worth blowing up a Royal (you can do that) for Restorationist points that you will lose at the end just to throw off players that are harrying you at every turn?

It’s also quite compelling as to how revealing identities works. Everyone has three sanity markers, and you lose these by rolling a die after you claim particular cards or as a result of certain card effects. If you lose all three and you are a Restorationist, the rulebook says that you “shoot yourself”. Yikes. That makes the game automatically end for everyone. You can also be revealed if you lose all of your Agents on the board. So a Loyalist player that has sussed out a Restorationist can invest heavily in assassination cards to try to force an early end while in the lead on points. The Loyalist player gets a big boost in Agents for being revealed, so it is an asymmetrical proposition.

These roles give the game some great opportunities to tease out intrigue, bluffing, negotiation, suspicion and deal-making- things you usually don’t see in deckbuilders or most area control games for that matter. This is also a much more competitive, conflict heavy game than many might expect. There is a lot of good stuff here.

But to get to the good stuff- and this game is definitely full of good stuff- you’ve got to be willing to spend some time with it. It is more demanding than the usual flavor-of-the-week release, and I don’t think the many great (and often subtle) things that this game does are apparent until players have a few sessions’ experience with it. I stuck with it after a few initially disappointing outings not only so that I could give it a fair review from a position of veterancy, but also because I couldn’t stop thinking about the game after each play. And when I played it with friends who had played either in a disastrous first outing with me or elsewhere, it started to click. At this point, I would call this my favorite Martin Wallace design to date.