Game Review: A Study in Emerald

a study in emerald second edition board gameI’m lucky that my children are all into my gaming hobby, at least somewhat. A-, at 19, still enjoys a quick game of Cribbage, while G- is always up for Monopoly (a family vice), Cribbage, Rummy or his two new favorites Bullsh*t and Presidents, and my youngest, K-, has fallen in love with Lords of Waterdeep, a fun, light worker placement game from the same development team as Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, “Waterdeep” is a famous location in the D&D mythology, but that’s another story.

Speaking of mythology, though, I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes and the entire Holmesian universe that Arthur Conan Doyle created with his fictional detective and his trusty, albeit somewhat testy sidekick Dr. James Watson. Portrayed time and again in movies and TV, Holmes is one of the most beloved detectives with his fiercely analytic mind and extraordinary powers of deduction.

Lesser known, but just as interesting, is the Cthulhu universe as originally imagined by horror writer H.P.Lovecraft. In the rather frightening Cthulhu stories, Lovecraft imagines a world where hundreds of years ago The Old Ones, led by Cthulhu, are trapped underneath the Earth and are in somewhat of a state of suspended animation, trying to take over the world through mental powers, manipulating everything for their own nefarious plans.

While Doyle might have been relatively optimistic about a world bounded by rules and people who wanted to impose law and order for the public good, Lovecraft was a much darker personality, and believed “in a purposeless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their limited faculties, could never fully understand. The cognitive dissonance caused by this led to insanity.”

Enter the fantastic modern sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman. You might know him for his popular Sandman graphic novel series, but he’s also written a number of really enjoyable and entertaining books too, including American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, Unnatural Creatures and one of my favorites, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Turns out he was also intrigued by both Lovecraft and Doyle and wrote a tremendous short story called A Study In Emerald, where he imagined a crossover of the two worlds and posited a crime against a Lovecraftian Old One that the narrator, a contemporary of Mr. Holmes, must try to solve. ‘nuf said on the storyline, it’s surprisingly nuanced for a 9-page short story!

Tip: You might just be able to find a downloadable PDF of the titular short story through Google if you search for the story name and add “filetype:pdf”. Just saying…

The story creates a great world and game designer Martin Wallace (whose credits include Brass, Age of Steam, and Onward to Venus) decided to create a board game version of the mythic world, pitting the people who were happy with the Old Ones as overloads against other people who wanted to overthrow Cthulhu and its minions and restore Earth to humanity.

He released A Study In Emerald in 2013 and it gained popularity but also was a lightning rod for criticism due to some of the more random elements of the game and its end game scoring mechanism.

So he’s released a second edition, with many changes, including a simplified game board:

a study in emerald, second edition, game board

The Second Edition also introduces simplified game play and a less chaotic end game scoring system. Some people love the changes, and others complain it loses some of the whimsy of the original — super complicated — game. Having never played the first edition I can’t speak to that other than to again suggest that Google search is your friend if you want to read more about the debate.

Phew. With all that back story, I invited four of my gamer friends over last weekend and the five of us cracked open the second edition of A Study in Emerald for a first play.

Knowing it was going to be tricky, I suggested that everyone watch a few YouTube video reviews of the game in advance. Unfortunately they ended up more discussing first edition vs. second edition and weren’t much benefit, which is disappointing because it ended up taking pretty much the entire play time for us to really start to grasp the nuances of this deck building, worker placement, secret teams game.

And Old Ones. As playing cards:

old one cards, a study in emerald board game, 2nd edition

The game takes place in 1882 and the Old Ones have been in control of the world for hundreds of years. In fact, all royals are actually Old Ones, whether they’re in London or Constantinople. The “Loyalists” are one faction in the game and they’re okay with the status quo, working to stop the “Restorationists” who seek to assassinate the Old Ones and return Earth to human control. Each player is secretly assigned one or the other faction and are dealt ten starting cards comprised of a random mix of game cards.

City cards are shuffled into each city’s mini-deck, as is Royalty. There are nine cities in the Study in Emerald world: London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Rome, Cairo and Constantinople. Each City card and Royalty card has a point value: taking control of a city yields what are called “neutral” points (beneficial to your regardless of your faction) while Royalty points are earned by either hiding or assassinating them: Hiding is beneficial for Loyalists, of course, while killing the Old Ones gains points for Restorationists.

Every card in the game has action icons and, occasionally, other symbols. Here are two cards so you can see what I mean:

two cards from a study in emerald board game

The Freemasons card has three icons on the top, a railroad (which lets you move an agent), a “1st” card which lets you claim a card from a city you have majority influence in, and a grey box with a red arrow coming out of it which lets you retrieve an influence cube from limbo so you can place it in the city of your choice and gain influence. The second card is agent Peter Rachkovsky and he gives you a lot of interesting powers, including moving an agent (the railroad icon), getting a card (“1st”), and placing an influence cube in a city (grey box, blue arrow). In addition he lets you place two of your own agents in the city you retrieve him from (the two white hats silhouette on the top) and can also place a bomb to help assassinate an Old One or an enemy agent.

Which leads to the very obvious question: agents? What agents? So it turns out you have two kinds of workers you place on the board as you play A Study in Emerald. Agents, denoted by their silhouette, and influence cubes, which are, well, cubes. You can see both in this close-up picture of the board during play:

a study in emerald board game, close up, st. petersburg and vienna

You can see that yellow (that me!) has three agents and one influence cube in St. Petersburg, aiming to score the “Hide Royalty” card. If I get that card, it’s easy for the other players to deduce that I a likely a Loyalist: A Restorationist would want to assassinate Royalty, not hide them!

The other city is Vienna, and it has its City card on the top of its mini-deck by a lucky coincidence. Note that the city card also has action icons and other symbols on it, notably the grey “4” which means that it’s worth four neutral points if collected. Red is heading in that direction, but the rules of claiming cards require that you have at least one influence cube, so he’s not quite in a position to get it yet.

There’s a lot going on in the game and we found it difficult to differentiate between moves we’d make to improve our own lot in the game, our individual victory points, versus our faction’s place on the Loyalist or Restorationist track. In the former case, any player who gets to 20 (for a 5 player game), and in the latter case, any faction that gets 10 faction track points triggers the end of the game.

Each person also has their secret identity too, making it impossible to know who are your allies and who are your enemies, and those are protected by “sanity” tokens: some actions require that you roll the Sanity Die and potentially lose one of your three sanity points. Lose them all and you can also trigger an end game scenario, depending on your faction.

AND FINALLY, MY REVIEW

There’s a lot to really like in A Study In Emerald. It has a fun deck building component, some interesting worker placement elements and interesting goals with you either trying to assassinate other agents or trying to kill the Old Ones to help Restore the world to how it was before Cthulhu and its ilk arrived.  The theme’s fun, and the artwork is quite enjoyable. All good.

Unfortunately, there’s also one heck of a lot of complexity and it took us a long time to figure out what actions produced points that moved us on the individual victory points track and which would move the Restorationist or Loyalist marker on its own track. Definitely not every point scored moves the main faction tracks, otherwise the game would last about 2-3 rounds total!

Indeed, it feels like there’s too much going on and that another round of simplification might make this game more fun, particularly for gamers who don’t like to study the rules and keep track of ten or fifteen different things at the same time. Since we didn’t quite get the nuances of the game on this first play, we also very quickly identified each other’s faction, something which makes me suggest that for beginning players, the Secret Identity might work a whole lot better as a public identity. One less variable, one less nuance.

What really helped us get going, however, was when I printed off a half dozen copies of the Play Aid crib sheet on the back of the game instructions. Here’s the most important portion of that:

a study in emerald play aid, essentials

You can get a PDF of the entire 20 page rules [PDF] from the Treefrog Web site: Read it before you play and consider printing out the last page for each player too.

Most of us were up for meeting again and having a second go at A Study In Emerald. There’s really a lot to like. But go into this particular game prepared to study and flail as you try to figure everything out.

Now about defeating the Old Ones…

A Study in Emerald, from Treefrog Games. $48.17 from Amazon.com. Learn more about the game at Treefrog Games

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