Game Review: Black Sonata by John Kean

You’ve watched Shakespeare’s plays as movies, hopefully seen at least one performed live, and maybe even read some of his many engaging and amusing tales, but how about his sonnets? Do your homework and you’ll learn that a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets were about a mysterious “Dark Lady” and four centuries later, scholars still can’t agree on the identity of the woman.

Which makes it a fun and unusual theme for the fun and quite engaging solo only game Black Sonata. You read that right; it’s solo play only, though you could certainly turn it into a group co-op if everyone teamed up to play the detective trying to track down the elusive Dark Lady.

I played an almost-production-quality print and play version of Black Sonata, and all the components fit neatly into its 8″ x 6″ box. Unfold the map of 1600s-era London, set up everything as needed (I’ll get back to that in a sec) and here’s what you’ll have on the table:

black sonata game review

But let’s start by talking about setup, because as a solitaire tracking and deduction game, it’s easy and there’s a tedious element both…

BLACK SONATA SETUP

See the horizontally oriented (bigger) cards approximately bottom center? Those are the Dark Lady cards and are basically a stack of potential women who might be the Dark Lady. It’s in five suits – rose, oak, bluebell, acorn and sage. You basically shuffle the stack of 11 possible identities, then randomly pick one and slip it under the top left of the board. I’ve already done that in the above. Like Clue, that’s the identity of the Dark Lady for this particular game and the other cards will all have clues that will help you identify her. If you can spot her and identify her enough times before you run out of time!

To the left of the Dark Lady cards are what’s known as the Stealth Cards. The one on the top of my deck has a beer mug symbol indicating that it’s associated with taverns in London where the Dark Lady is presently located. Not randomly shuffled, setup of the Stealth Cards is tricky and I’ll tackle separately. To the right of the Dark Lady cards are two more small, vertically oriented stacks. The clouds with the “?” symbol are fog cards and they’re what you’ll run out of faster than anything else. Adjacent to them are the location keys; Southwark is revealed and you can see that it has both a tavern and church by the symbols along the bottom.

On the right of the map are 7 deduction tokens. Your goal is to identify the three attributes of your particular hidden Dark Lady and confront her successfully before you run out of time. That’s the winning scenario, but there are a bunch of ways you can lose, making this game darn difficult. Run out of Fog cards? She gets away! Go through the Stealth Card deck thrice? You lose.

For the most part, setup is quick and easy. Except for the Stealth Cards, because those are going to actually map the Dark Lady’s movements in the game, so they have to be organized in a very specific alphabetical way. There are 16 primary ways you can stack the deck making for lots of variation in play (and dozens more in the manual), but you’ll want to know your alphabet. 🙂

black sonata stealth card ordering

You can see in this photo how it works: Each Stealth Card has eight letters, four along the top, four along the bottom. You choose one of those eight possibilities, then you’ll go through the entire deck sorting all of these alphabetically, A-Z. Each will end up with 6 cards that have no place (letter) in a given sequence, and they’re discarded. Okay, the hardest part of setup is done. Now simply decide to sort them A-Z or Z-A, randomly split the deck so that she starts somewhere else each time, and you’re ready to go!

PLAYING BLACK SONATA

Gameplay is surprisingly easy given that alphabetical shuffling setup. Each turn consists of turning over a new Stealth Card and updating the Dark Lady’s possible locations, then taking your turn, either moving to an adjacent location, searching for the Dark Lady at your current location, using the fog action card as needed or passing to let the Dark Lady keep moving (hopefully closer to you!).

You’ll notice that there are four black tokens included in the game. They let you mark possible locations for the Dark Lady. Depending on where she’s at, she can be anywhere from 2-4 places on the map. For example, there are lots of churches in Shakespearean London but only two taverns. In fact, here’s a map closeup showing that we know she’s at a tavern and that the two taverns are marked in Eastcheap and Southwark with tokens. We’re at Southwark too, which is a spot of good luck:

black sonata map detail

Since we’re in the same place she might be (because of course she could be at Eastcheap tavern, the Boar’s Head Inn, instead) we can opt to search for her at The George Inn. This is the most novel part of the game because you slip a Fog card under the topmost card on the Stealth deck (to hide the next location), pull off the current Stealth card, then stack it atop the location card that matches your current location. Each location card has a hole and if you can see the lady through the hole, you’ve found her!

black sonata location cards

On the right is a Stealth Card underneath the Southwark location card: The circle is in the middle of the magnifying lens and guess what? She wasn’t at The George Inn! Drat! Since we used a fog card, that means we’ve used 1/10 possible searches and are already in trouble because we didn’t know where she was.

Here’s where logic comes in, however, because now we actually do know where she is: since there are only two taverns we can deduce that she must be at the Boar’s Head Inn. I denote that by removing the black token at The George Inn, though that’s not how the rules say to play the game. Succeed or fail on your investigation, you now move N cards from the top of the Stealth Deck to the bottom, minimum of 1, but one for each Dark Lady clue card you have earned. At the beginning that’s no big deal, but later in the game it’s painful to go through the deck so fast!

Here’s where I had the most fun with the game because at this point there’s plenty of deduction. Remember, we know that the Dark Lady must be at Eastcheap, so when her next Stealth location card shows a boat, there are not three places she could be but only two. Heck, even without that knowledge you can look at Blackfriars, where there’s riverside activities, and see that there’s no way she could, in one move, go from a tavern to that spot so it’s impossible she’s at Blackfriars:

black sonata tracking the dark lady game

Since we do know she’s at Eastcheap, moving to a riverside venue means she must now be at London bridge. Now, can we move to a location and either wait for her or intercept her so we can reveal some clue cards? Since you’ll have to save that last fog card for when you unmask her identity, you only have 9 total investigations so the race is afoot!

I really really enjoyed this map analysis and deduction portion of the game, and after a while figured out how to keep track and minimize possible locations, which meant I could get a very high success rate on identifying her. Eventually I actually ended up with six clue cards:

black sonata - six dark lady clue cards

The second phase of deduction I kinda fell down on, however. Look back at the original photo in this review and you’ll see that the Dark Lady is part of the green oak suit. Knowing that, each of the above cards has traits on the left and a key on the right matching the suit. For example, top right, Anne Whateley has oak = 1, which means that one of the three trait icons, heart, music, chain, will be an attribute of the Dark Lady. Six sets of clues that together should be more than enough to identify the three traits. I came up with heart, bracelet and inkwell, as shown on the left with the tokens.

How did I do when I confronted her? Well, let’s just say that the Dark Lady laughed and waltzed away, her identity still a secret:

black sonata identity dark lady

Suffice to say, my tracking skills are solid. My deduction skills suggest I might need to hire Mr. Holmes from Baker Street to help me identify the traits and get ‘er next time. 🙂

OVERALL

I might have been a bit lazy with my deduction and analysis of clues, but I have to say that I really enjoy the heck out of tracking the Dark Lady in Black Sonata. It’s an ingenious mechanism that rewards careful thought but retains plenty of variability that this game will support dozens, if not hundreds of play thrus. As you get good at the basics, setup will take you just a few minutes and games will last maybe 30min or so. Black Sonata is good fun, highly recommended for you more cerebral types!

Check it out: Black Sonata on Kickstarter. From Side Room Games.

Disclosure: I was sent a pre-production copy of the game for the purposes of this review.

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