One of the many wonderful things about A Study In Emerald is that you're never quite sure what cards will reveal themselves, let alone make it into the game, so it makes it all the more special when the really distinctive cards make an appearance.
First, though, a little background to this particular session. I took this along to a meet-up with a cool, local board gaming group that my friend discovered. On the downside, it meant trying to introduce and explain the game to complete strangers. Fortunately, one of the de facto leaders of the group (who I had met once previously) was keen to try the game and had been reading up beforehand.
On the plus side, the group always has a good atmosphere, everyone is very friendly... and it was in a pub. Very British, I know.
And, as the title will have tipped you off, zombies also showed up for a bite. Us Brits are very accomodating, see.
So I set up the game board, dealing out all the cards to give everyone an idea of how it all worked and then mentioned there might be special elements that I'll explain if they come up, uttering the phrase, "The zombie card isn't out, so we don't have to worry about that for the moment" without a hint of irony.
Whether everyone took it for a cheeky bit of misdirection or not (they shouldn't have), two of the players had noticed, but did not point out that in fact the Zombie card very much was on the board. In Paris. Oui, les zombies.
I will stress that the board was upside down from where I was sitting, and that I had mistaken it for another potentially madness-inducing card at first glance. That's not a knock against the glorious artwork, I was just staring at a lot of various cards and wondering how the hell I was going to be able to cover everything without eyes glazing over. On second thought, yelling, "Zombies!" probably would've helped.
The agents in action and turn order were:
Agent Monday (myself)
Agent Thursday (the somewhat prepared player)
After a comprehensive run through of how cards work, how roles and scoring work and all the available actions, the game was afoot.
I went first, more in order to demonstrate how a typical turn might look more than anything else and because the person after also had a general idea of how to play.
I started in Constantinople and placed a cube down for The People's Will, ignoring Vladimir Burtsev up in The Hague because I wanted to give the other players a chance to get something a little more interesting. And, yes, I completely missed the Zombie card. Big mistake.
The other players soon got to claiming their own agents and cards uncontested. Notably, Agent Thursday grabbed the Zombies (with a free Mad token thrown in! Whoops.) while Agent Friday grabbed Burtsev. Personally, I was ignoring the agents at first because I was a Loyalist, and the available ones were all VP-givers for Restorationists (ooh, targets) and instead focused more on getting Hired Assassins and some early city grabs for extra icons and the War track marker-uppers. That's not to say I wasn't watching who was bidding for those agents (no one, for ages...), or placing some 'false' bids down myself.
My first move was to grab Constantinople while still in the city itself. Becoming Known to the Authorities and then sitting there with that 1 bomb agent assassination requirement and no other agents for my cause did raise Agent Thursday's eyebrows, but I explained that it would be unwise to try and assassinate my main agent so early. If I'm a Loyalist, the game goes on and it's all still to play for; if I'm a Restorationist, I win because I have points, while everyone else is at 0 and Loyalists lose in a tie. Another plan to sow confusion was to grab Rome and raise the Revolution track once (keeping it for its other purpose), but then I figured that maybe I wouldn't need to do that after all...
The game continued through the usual, tense and quiet, early stages while everyone built up their decks and went after uncontrolled and unoccupied cities rather than making any definitive, bold moves. That was fine by me, I was perfectly content to see a few city decks become exhausted and no one seemed to want to spread their agents across the board. I was sure I could lure them out later...
Although, something was definitely about to spread across the board...
And lo, Agent Thursday announced, "Okay, I'm going to place some zombies."
At which point I expressed my surprise, "Wait, where did you get the zombie card?!"
Everyone else then confessed that they all saw it sat right there during game setup and that I'd been mistaken in what I thought he'd grabbed. Thanks, guys...
The zombie army began in Zurich, spread to Rome and then lumbered towards Agent Friday who had been loitering in Madrid. I warned the others about the consequences of that card coming back around and explained how to deal with it, but I think the finer details somewhat eluded them. Hmm.
As play proceeded, I grabbed Cairo, Berlin, Rome and Vienna at various points. If only briefly in some cases.
Meanwhile, Agent Wednesday lingered in Washington for a while, claiming the city, draining the deck, building up a group of agents and toppling He Who Presides In The New World with great aplomb. Or should that be 'a great bomb'? Upon spotting the cards he was using, I also pointed out that he needn't use his agent card for the assassination and risk losing them to a Mad token draw if he can cover the bomb total requirement via other cards. He can and saves Baron Ungern Sternberg from a dose of insanity. Aren't I helpful? Mwaaahahah-ahem.
Agent Friday's Burtsev card finally came back around. I should mention that we later discovered he had flipped his discard pile rather than shuffled it; the player being entirely new to deck-building mechanics themselves as well. No biggie, that can hinder more than help. He uses Burtsev to check my identity, but keeps a pretty good poker face so I receive no clues as to which side he's on. Based on earlier comments and questions, I'd guess Restorationist, but nothing definitive.
Still, Thursday must be a Loyalist, right? I thought. What with the zombie army now having spreading farther afield, to Paris, Washington and Vienna.
I can only assume that I must have popped to the bathroom during another play of the Zombie card, so wasn't quite sure of the entire order of the spread (could've started in Paris and not Zurich). Note to self: must not take breaks with an impending zombie apocalypse.
Soon enough, the zombie-led killing spree began. The Baron may have dodged madness, but he couldn't dodge zombies. His death was followed by Friday's Wilhelm Stieber in Paris. Then it came down to a decision between Agent Monday and Peter Rachkovsky (as portrayed by Paul Giamatti). Thursday elected not to risk a sudden game end and, plus, Rachovsky had originally been in his employ. Death to the traitor!
The board was looking a little emptier now, a little... greyer, and yet no one seemed too worried about it... My main concern is that I wanted to kill them.
Soon after, Friday wanted to make use of Burtsev's services once again but was torn between which of the remaining players to check. I didn't share my (ultimately correct) thoughts on Wednesday, partly because his allegiance seemed pretty obvious (no offence, it was just how a newbie Restorationist might play; myself included) and I wasn't sure if he was enjoying the game all that much or prepared to engage in the social deduction shenanigans if called out. Me neither, which is why I prefer to let the actions do the talking in most situations.
That said... I did try and offer advice, once again explaining how the zombie card would work for a Loyalist; which Thursday very well could be, what with the massive spread of zombies and their agent-killing spree.
Whatever his reasons - general curiosity, board positions or own conclusions - Friday opts to look at Wednesday's card.
Then on the next turn, as if to prove me wrong, Thursday gets even more murder-y and takes out a member of the royalty. Yes, Agent Thursday, Supreme Commander of the Zombie Army, Architect of the Zombie Apocalypse assassinates... well, I can't remember who exactly. I think it was The Spinner In The Darkness, but it could have been Rhogog. I was too befuddled by this sudden switch in approach. I'd suspected he was Loyalist, but now I wasn't so sure. Guess I need to keep up with constant this-or-that VP maths to determine how this might pan out, I thought anxiously.
I believe Sergei Nechaev (Sam Rockwell) or Evno Asef lost their mind, and presumably their life in the process, but they weren't missed by their controller. More targets for me gone...
At this point, everyone pretty much had all the special card they wanted, and so the territory wars began in earnest. Wednesday took Vienna off of me while I tried and failed to take London from Friday, even thought he was locked in an influence cube and agent war with Thursday over Paris. In fact it weakened the latter of the two more, as his influence cube pool ran dry and Wednesday was able to steal London from him.
Wednesday did get to experience the feeling of being the faraway leader who gets knocked down to the last after everyone switches their attention to them. An observer who joined us after his group left is loving it. That and the zombies.
At this time, I was also tempted to dart over to Vienna and off Wednesday's pesky agent there, but decided not to since he seemed increasingly annoyed/bored by the game, talking more to the observer than keenly observing events unfold. Plus, you know, it just seemed extra mean. I chose to discard my 'hand of death' but did manage to retake the city while he was preoccupied somewhere else.
Gradually, I manoeuvred to grab enough cities to bump up the War, keeping Berlin and Rome in hand while sensing that my 'killer' cards should reemerge soon. I claimed Élisée Reclus just to try and confuse others but it turns out he works for Thursday, the blighter! Fortunately, I claimed some manner of revenge by getting a blocking disc down to temporarily ensure Berlin didn't fall into his dastardly clutches, with his agent and two influence cubes meant to up the ante.
Somewhere along the way, Friday got Burtsev back for a look at Thursday's identity. Now he had all the information he needed. Plus, I soon discovered he'd actually grabbed a Shoggoth. Must have been something I missed during another bathroom break. This game took nearly 4 hours, and we were in a pub where the toilets are a considerable trek. Cut me some slack! Shame, though, as seeing that card might've clued me into his allegiance.
The oh-so delightful 'Change of Heart' card made a late appearance, yet no one seemed interested in claiming it. I was managing to keep a small lead from turn-to-turn, but was wondering if I should be concerned.
With all the knowledge of people's allegiances in his grasp, it wasn't long before Friday made his move. He claimed a middle-scoring city, enabling him to draw level with me and then asked, "Am I allowed to assassinate him?" while pointing to Agent Wednesday.
I checked the board. Wednesday was Known to the Authorities thanks to his assassination and one city, plus all his agents were (un)dead. "He's certainly a legal target, but you don't have any agents in the same city," I replied.
"What about this?" he enquired, producing the Shoggoth from his hand. Oh, great..
"That would work!"
(The enthusiasm is because I was glad that it was very likely that I hadn't won and that this new player had understood everything well enough to manufacture such a victory)
And so Agent Wednesday died, revealing what we'd suspected and what Friday knew: he was a Restorationist. Game ends.
I instructed everyone to reveal their allegiance so that we could go round the table and work out the final scores. Though, really, I didn't pay close attention to the actual scores because I got the sense that Friday had timed it perfectly, with a massive gap between us and the other two. Should've taken a picture, really...
Firstly, we looked at Friday, who was a Loyalist. He'd just killed Wednesday, a Restorationist, squeaking into a 1VP lead. Then we looked at Wednesday, who had The Black Hand, which meant he leapfrogged Thursday's current score, but still far behind me. I'm a Loyalist who regretted not baring his teeth earlier, stuck 1VP behind Friday.
Then we get to Thursday, the two-thirds insane Zombie Commander and I see his card for the first time...
"But you... you had all those zombies!" I exclaimed.
"Well, I knew it was a powerful card, so I didn't want it falling into Loyalist hands."
"You could've faked bids, or put blocking discs on it..."
"But it's zombies! I wanted zombies."
Fair comment. And he certainly had me fooled. Though, he didn't say it, I get the feeling I'd equally fooled him.
He earned a total 4VP bonus from some of his agents, but it's still wasn't enough to close the gap.
Agent Friday wins!
A thoroughly enjoyable game and it seemed to go down well with at least two of the others. I'm not sure if Wednesday was overfond of it, and I can't imagine it's nice being the 'cause' of the game's conclusion in that manner.
I remarked that, really, Thursday's zombie army had paved the way for Friday's ultimate kill.
Wednesday agreed, lamenting the situation and giving this session an immortal line, "That Zombie Apocalypse wasn't exactly helpful..."
"They rarely are," Thursday chuckled. "They rarely are."
Discussing the game a bit afterwards, I looked at the state of the board, mulling it over, and commented that Thursday might have done well to grab that Change of Heart card. That would've been 8VP for all the zombies he got out, plus another 2 for killing Wednesday's agents, plus another 2VP from the War track. I didn't get a chance to do the maths because I'd not paid close attention to the actual scores and we'd begun packing away, but he might have been able to clinch it.
Honestly, though, I would've gone to great lengths to block anyone taking that card, even with my foolish conclusions over allegiances. I couldn't be having drastically game-changing conditions like that occur. Not after last time...
Funnily enough, he hadn't actually considered the move, since he would've lost the bonus VP from his agents. Too caught up in the small details, or just too preoccupied with the city grabs and other elements? Maybe he just didn't have the right cards at that crucial moment. Alas, that is the peril of A Study In Emerald, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I love this game. I hate teaching it.
I am not a cyborg!
I love this game. I hate teaching it.
I love this game. I hate teaching it.
I think this group did a pretty good job for their first-time though, especially since one of them seemed to be more a fan of Munchkin and other simpler games.
Chaos is a ladder
Awesome write-up. I love this game.