It took a while to assemble players for a few games of A Study In Emerald, a hidden-role deck-building game from Treefrog Games. This was not so much because of anything wrong with the game, but more pandemic- and work-related scheduling challenges for many of my usual board game players. Nevertheless, after a long hiatus. Project Alphaboard is back!
A Study in Emerald is based on a Neil Gaiman short story that mashes up Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (as in “A Study in Scarlet”). In the game, you take the role of either a Loyalist who supports the rule of the Great Old Ones over 19th century Europe, or a Restorationist, who wants a return to human rule. The catch – you don’t know which of your fellow players fall into which faction. Gameplay takes place on a board representing the major cities of Europe and the Mediterranean, each of which has a ruling Great Old One to protect or overthrow. In the center of the board are influence tracks for each faction. The difference between these tracks, along with points scored by capturing cities and conducting assassinations, provides victory points to decide the winner of the game.
Each player starts with a generic hand of cards, a card indicating their faction (which is hidden from the other players), and three Sanity tokens. Each card in the hand has symbols indicating actions that can be taken when it is played. The actions are pretty simple. First, you can take influence from your player board and place it on a city. Influence cubes (along with Agents, more on those in a minute) determine who has enough power in a city to take its resources and/or conduct assassinations there. Second, if you have the most influence, you can pick up a card from a city and place it in your discard pile. This is the mechanism for building your deck. If the card you pick up has an Agent symbol on it, you can recruit and place an Agent on the city where you picked up the card. You start with two Agents in cities of your choice on the first turn. When you pick up a card, all influence in the city (yours and others’) is removed. Yours goes to “Limbo”, basically a holding spot on the board; every other player gets theirs on their player board.
The third action option is to pick up influence from the board, either from Limbo or from a city; the fourth is to move your Agents from one city to another; and the fifth allows you to move either the Loyalist or Restorationist track marker up, depending on the color of the icon. The sixth allows you to perform an assassination – more on that in a minute. There are several nuances to playing cards on your turn. First, you can take two actions, but picking up cards can only happen on your first action, and your influence majority must not be composed of Agents only. Picking up some cards also has the potential to cost you a Sanity token based on a die roll. Second, you can do the action as the number of icons on the card or cards you play; for example, playing three cards with a total of four “retrieve influence” icons allows you to pick up four influence cubes, assuming you have that many on the board. Last but not least, as an action you can choose to discard as many cards from your hand as you want – but you don’t draw replacements until both actions are complete. Some cards also have special actions on them – these can be played as one of your two actions as well.
Now to the messy part – assassination. Either Agents or Great Old Ones can be assassinated. To perform an assassination, you have to play at least one card with the assassinate symbol; then, you have to play cards and/or have agents in place to meet a target number of “bombs”. Each Agent in the city counts as one bomb, and cards can have one or more bomb symbols on them as well. You must have at least one Agent in the appropriate city, and you cannot exceed the target number of bombs. Each Great Old One has its own target; if you are assassinating an enemy Agent, the target is based on the city where the operation takes place, with London being the most expensive and Cairo the least. If you meet these conditions, the Agent or Great Old One is removed to your player board, you score victory points, and your assassin card is permanently removed from play, and all influence is returned as in the case of picking up a card.
The game ends when either someone maxes out the Loyalist or Restorationist track; a Restorationist player loses their last Sanity token, requiring they reveal their allegiance; or a player reaches a predetermined number of “neutral” victory points based on player count. At that point, scores are adjusted for each player based on their loyalty. Restorationist players lose points for assassinating other Agents; Loyalists lose points for assassinating Great Old Ones; and the point spread on the faction tracks is added to the winning side. Last but not least, all players sharing a faction with the low scorer lose five points. This last wrinkle is very important; it means that once you figure out who’s on which side, you need to support your faction members to avoid losing the game through this penalty.
All of this sounds fairly complex, but in practice it’s not as bad. The main issue with learning the game are the little details in the rules, like where influence cubes go after a card pickup or an assassination. New players were fairly comfortable with the game within four or five turns. Unlike pure hidden role games, it becomes pretty obvious where loyalties lie about halfway through, at which point the game can get a bit cutthroat as Restorationists rush to assassinate Great Old Ones and Loyalists to kill off Restorationist agents. Interestingly, in one game where we had one Restorationist and three Loyalists, the Restorationist still won, probably because he wasn’t competing for points with another faction member.
So is it fun? It helps to be a bit of a Victoriana buff. The Agent cards are a mix of fictional (mostly Sherlockian) and real historical (often anarchist) characters, and some knowledge of both makes for a better story as you play through the game. It plays fairly quickly once people know the rules, and my players who are comfortable with a bit of head-to-head competition and a bit of complexity (myself included) generally enjoyed it. Basically, if you read the short story and think “That’s so cool!”, you’ll probably like the game as well.
Coming up next after a (hopefully) shorter interval on Project Alphaboard: Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps.