Ash Jones
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Introduction
After an anticipated wait, I have finally acquired an Essen English release of A Study in Emerald (second edition). Being drawn to the innovative mechanisms and twists designer Martin Wallace brings to tabletop gaming and the highly intriguing themes presented, I couldn’t pass on trying and persevering with the first edition of A Study in Emerald. It was definitely worth it and has become one of my favourite games, likewise with other players in my community. Despite some mixed discussion in the board game community I was nevertheless highly excited to buy and try the second edition. However, note this is not a reprint of the previous game, as outlined by a disclaimer on the back of the box by Treefrog Games:

“Second edition note: if you have never come across this game before then please ignore the following. This is the second edition of ‘A Study in Emerald’. This version of the game is significantly different to the first edition. If you were seeking the original version of this game then you had best put this one back on the shelf. However, as the first edition will never be printed again and is very hard to obtain you might want to take a punt on this version.”

While touching on some differences between the first and second edition, my focus will primarily be a review of this second edition. For those that own the first edition and would like a brief summary of the changes, see my file uploaded:
A Study in Emerald: changes in second edition.pdf



Setting
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is placed in the world of H.P. Lovecraft, whereby the world is under a totalitarian regime in 1882, being ruled by monstrous Old Ones. Mankind is in slavery, Loyalists have sworn allegiance to their new masters. However there are an increasing number of agents operating in the shadow inciting a revolt against the Old Ones to restore world order. These are the Restorationists, will you join them or hunt them down?

The game is named after the Hugo Award winning short story by Neil Gaiman. It is a great read that is excellently crafted; being freely available you can easily see if it inspires you:
A Study in Emerald.pdf

Theme
The theme is an absolute winner in my opinion. In addition to Doyle’s Holmes and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, the game designer Martin Wallace has integrated many real world 19th to 20th century anarchists, organisations and inventions. Popular fiction, notably vampires and zombies also make a cameo giving a further spice to the mix, which is fantastic. Everything integrates well and fits the setting. I have never had a player declare negativity about theme, only intrigue and admiration.

Design and components
Firstly, the eye catching box art is highly appealing and captures the atmosphere of the game. I quite like the antique gold border around the box which is reminiscent of Victorian antiquities. I dislike how prominent the “Neil Gaiman” text is displayed, being distractingly as large as the game title and roughly five times larger than “Martin Wallace”. This may be for marketing purposes, but has been overdone.

All artwork from the first edition has been redone: board, cards and layouts on each. I personally really liked and appreciated the art of the first edition, which captured a Victorian murder mystery horror atmosphere with many black and white portraits. Nevertheless, the new game art is fantastic in its own right. My favourite is the city cards; the artwork really shines in this area with upmost quality. The Royalty cards (Old Ones) also have a similar level of quality. I really love the “confidential letter” style of the secret identities, an innovative idea that is simple and super effective. The bulk of cards are the variable “game cards” added to each city containing suites of actions and characters. These are of good quality and quite suitable, although I do find some artwork on human characters reminiscent of cartoons or comic books, which isn’t my taste. Of particular, I didn’t like the top background portion of each card being removed (which is illustrated unique for each card). This is replaced by a generic tentacles reaching out (exactly the same on each card), which takes up approximately 25% of the card art and gives a medusa effect to some human characters. This is a shame, as there is plenty of room for tentacles on the card backing. Lastly, the graphic designs for the cards look good but are not completely user friendly. While most action symbols are grouped on the left, bomb symbols are on the right, meaning you cannot see all symbols at once while having five cards in hand splayed. Having sanity and victory points on the right is great, as these are applied once and immediately on card gain. If a player is rotating his cards around or splaying the opposite way, it is obvious he is looking at how many bombs he has which means he wants to assassinate!

All other game components are of high quality. Influence and discs are the same wooden components from the first edition and it is great to see the custom zombie meeples being retained: these are the best meeples in board gaming! Agents are now custom meeples with hats, the same from “Discworld Ankh-Morpork” by Wallace. Only a very minor dislike, but the agents are significantly shorter than the zombie meeples (as they are cut in half and don’t have legs). Would like to see full sized agent meeples, with the hat, but also legs or perhaps a cloak?
The newly introduced sanity tokens are generic white wooden discs that look like Mentos candies, which are somewhat disappointing, should have been an elder sign or green starfish shape etc for theme. Likewise, the sanity dice is a little generic (same wooden style as “The Witches” by Wallace). Could have been a little more creative, also the dice gets dirty quickly. Lastly the board is very good quality art and production. The heavy use of green could be limited though, simply by adding some other colours. Although functional, I felt the board could be a little bigger as cities become very busy with agents and cover the bomb requirement to assassinate someone there. Likewise influence spills out of limbo when full.


*Fantasy Flight Supply™ clear standard card game size sleeves not included (product FFS05 sized 63.5 x 88 mm).

Gameplay
Each player will have a secret identity, being a Restorationist or Loyalist, which will shape how your end game scoring happens, but not necessarily how you play! You can bluff like a madman if you wish, or jump straight in revealing your intentions, such as assassinating all the Royalty (great Old Ones), giving the Loyalists a “come get me” telegraph. There is even a card that lets you change sides, so anything is possible, where your bluffs may even be made legitimate if you got carried away.

There are nine cities on the board; each will have a randomised set of 3-5 game cards depending on the number of players. In addition to these game cards, each city will have a specific city card (containing victory points) and a Royalty card (to assassinate or hide) shuffled in. Only the top card of each city deck is displayed, which is now available to the players. Accordingly, the city and Royalty cards may appear at any time, not being necessarily available from the beginning.

A Study in Emerald (second edition) has the following game mechanics all elegantly integrated:
•Deck building mechanism: adding agents, assassins, Lovecraft lore, inventions and victory point cards to boost your actions, abilities and score.
•Bidding: to add a card to your deck, you must bid by placing influence (agents also boost the bid). Many cards will definitely be fiercely contested!
•Area control: to perform an assassination of another player’s agent or a Royalty, a player must have dominance in the city (most pieces), at least one agent and enough bomb points (each agent also counts as a bomb piece in addition to some cards). Agents can be moved between cities to achieve this.
•Resource management: you must ration your limited influence and retrieve influence, also care must be given to how many agents you have; if all are lost you will reveal your secret identity, possibly ending the game. Likewise all symbols on cards must be taken into consideration for subsequent turns and long term planning.
•Semi co-operative: movement of the Loyalist and Restorationist tracks to give points to all members of that respective team. Identify team mates and help them.

There are a variety of symbols on each card, some have special text. For each card, you can only choose one symbol or text to carry out one of the following actions:
•Place influence cube(s): any number in one city.
•Claim card(s): must be first action and winning majority for each.
•Retrieve influence cube(s): from limbo or the board.
•Move agent(s): one agent anywhere per symbol played.
•Move marker(s): team specific score tracks.
•Assassinate: other player’s agents or Old Ones (must have majority to initiate).
•Specialised card actions: for example Cthulhu can obliterate a city.
•Specialised cards with an interrupt: played out of turn to prevent an action against you.
•Specialised cards with a benefit: applied to boost a certain action.
•Discard cards: no symbol required, always an option.
•Pass: no symbol required, always an option.

Gameplay critique
Upon playing my fist game, it was highly enjoyed, being viewed as a good game. The notion was quickly put forward to play again immediately and we did. This enthusiasm was great to see and is highly encouraging. However, there was one player who immediately disliked the artwork change between editions and strongly protested that the game was simplified opposed to streamlined. But that player eagerly played again in the second session! I find the game captures tension quite well (with a willing group) as players contest city majorities and get up to whatever mischief they see fit. The game feels quite agile compared to its predecessor, with the fantastic change to claim multiple cards as your first action, rapidly move many agents anywhere and carry out multiple assassinations with a single action. Some tactical gameplay has been lost by change in agent movement and the switch to generic meeples over named agent chits. Although I do miss this aspect, as there is no thematic connection between agent cards and generic meeples, it does make for a quicker game and easier to teach new players. During my games so far I felt like I was in total control with a collection of important decisions to make. Card management for future planning is required, but I never felt like I was hindered by a bad draw, having never passed in any game thus far and discarding cards only once in an end game rush.

Game balanced?
There is asymmetry in the game depending on whether you are a Restorationist or Loyalist, but from my experience good players can consistently win regardless of their secret identity dealt. The only potential imbalance issues arise from how many players are on each side. The game is best with five players as this ensures there is a minimum two players per side (there are six identity cards: three are Restorationist, three are Loyalist). With four players, by chance it may be one player versus three. As with the first edition, a single sided player will have an uphill battle trying to win, although it is possible. Note that being on a single sided team will be a terrible experience for a new player. This however can be easily overcome by only offering two Restorationist and two Loyalist identities to be randomly selected from (guaranteed two versus two). Likewise, we frequently do this when playing with three players, to ensure at least one player is on the opposite team. However I would like some official compensation in the rules for a one sided team player, for example +5 victory points in three player games, +8 in four and +12 in five player games (extremely rare but can happen due to change of heart). Lastly, I have never played a two player game of A Study in Emerald, first or second edition; I cannot see any value in doing so, it just doesn’t work with two players.

Replay value
Good games that are worth re-visiting have random setup, variable tactics, events and offer a new game experience each session. This game has it all in spades. Firstly, there is asymmetry between the Restorationists and Loyalists as well as a variable unknown number of each. Of the 66 game cards, only 27 to 45 cards are used in each game depending on number of players. This creates significant variability per game. Furthermore, due to the random setup of game cards, characters such as Holmes, Moriarty and Cthulhu could appear anywhere at any moment totally changing the game (likewise with the city cards and Royalty cards). The game has multiple end game triggers: a victory point threshold, assassination of a Restorationist’s last agent, insanity of a Restorationist, or the Restorationist /Loyalist track maxes out. I have played games ending in each; there is no heavy bias to one method. Each game will be different; every player will approach the game from a different angle and can easily tailor their own strategy to their liking. I see friends and myself substantially re-playing and enjoying this game many times in the future.

Advantages
•Good pick up and play time: 45-90 mins.
•A fantastic blast with five players. Likewise with four players when two Restorationists versus two Loyalists.
•Streamlined rules, easy to teach, intuitive for new players.
•Plentiful interaction between players. Three less cities combined with random appearance of city cards and Royalty creates a fiercely contested race for victory points. Solitaire activity is near impossible, which can happen in the first edition by players camping within inactive areas usually at the bottom of the board (e.g. Restorationists assassinating weaker Old Ones, Loyalists slowly acquiring many low point cities).
•Movement of agents is quick and easy, which further adds to player interaction.
•Addition of interrupts and benefit cards. The interrupt creates a dynamic nature of the game and also gives the feel of double agents from first edition.
•Blocking discs removed from previous edition: this is a great decision. These were slow and mechanical, not essential for gameplay.
•Permanent effects removed, the best ones are reworked into available game cards. In the first edition, permanent effects were an afterthought add-on from the Kickstarter campaign. Few were extremely powerful and game changing, most rarely received any attention.
•Zombies and vampires more balanced and streamlined, no longer an extensive set of rules within external FAQ documents concerning these two cards.

Disadvantages
•Card functionality: action symbols should all be placed on the leftmost edge of the card for ease of play. Symbols curl inwards and bombs are on the right. The five cards in hand need to be splayed right and left or cycled around in hand. This can give away intentions (looking for bombs to assassinate) if other players are particularly observant.
•In a three player game, it is not a fun experience if all players are on the same team. Becomes a plain game of mediocre fun. I usually ensure one player is different by removing one Loyalist and one Restorationist identity card (thus three players randomly select from two Restorationist and two Loyalist identities).
•A one sided team in a four player game is a terrible experience for a new player. With four players I ensure it is two versus two by removing one Loyalist and one Restorationist identity as above.
•No individually named agent chits does reduce some depth of the game; meeple agents can be seen as generic because there is no connection between an agent card and the meeple placed. Furthermore problem agent cards, like Moriarty continually moving the loyalist track up three points cannot be dealt with by killing him; no agent cards are removed upon being assassinated.
•Cannot move the Restorationist or Loyalist track down. Although absence of this action does make the game quicker, it removes some avenues for bluffing and then switching later. Also, as agent cards such as Moriarty cannot be removed from a player’s hand, he cannot be controlled by opponents, apart from moving the Restoration track up.
•When Loyalist secret identity card is revealed, they place agents on the board to bring their total to three. However a fellow Loyalist can take advantage of this by shooting another Loyalists last agent to help them, as they gain a net two more agents, placing all three anywhere, no action required. Feel like the game should go on with the last agent remaining where he is and maybe retrieve some free influence from limbo instead. Seems unbalanced and not fitting of the theme.
•Limbo is a little bit small and frequently full of cubes. If players are a little careless, cubes can flow over into adjacent cities (St. Petersburg and Constantinople).

Neutral or ambivalence
•Artwork changes from first to second edition: some will like the change, others will hate it, some like me are ambivalent.
•Retrieve influence cubes: second edition introduced an extra icon for this, which I found frustrating at first. However I do feel it necessary to slow players down in how much they can retrieve otherwise they recover almost immediately from gaining a card through bidding. Perhaps place and retrieve influence could have been the same icon, but when retrieving the ratio be 2:1? (two symbols to retrieve a single cube from limbo).
•Removal of double agents from first edition: these were a great idea to have in a board game. However they can create massive swings and extensive rules clarifications were needed outside the original first edition rules manual. Some players hated the double agents and felt cheated when hit, others definitely love this!
•Two player game is not very appealing. However, I see no reason why you would wish to play a game containing secret identities with only two players.
•Sanity tokens and dice are somewhat boring design and mediocre quality despite being made of wood and painted white. Some production opportunities were missed here. However, it’s great to see sanity streamlined into a dice roll.

Target audience
This game is now appealing to a very large audience, being much more accessible than the first edition in terms of availability and gameplay rules. Nevertheless, everyone has varying preferences in games, just like anything in life:

Who SHOULD consider A Study in Emerald (second edition)? If you:
•Like secret identity games with hidden roles, traitors and bluffing.
•Like dynamic games that can be quite tactical while still maintain long term strategising (minimal levels of luck).
•Want to try something that is different and unique: a game like no other that has a mix of European and American game elements.
•Like the first edition but want to play the game with as many different people as possible with ease.
•Find the works of Doyle, Lovecraft and /or Gaiman highly appealing.

Who should NOT consider A Study in Emerald (second edition)? If you:
•Dislike secret identity games with hidden roles, traitors and bluffing.
•Dislike unpredictable events that you possibly cannot control.
•Dislike aggressive interactions such as player assassinations, where you could be heavily targeted.
•Own the first edition of the game and are happy with additional rules, FAQs and longer play time.
•Cannot accept the theme of placing Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Lovecraft’s world.

Conclusion
While the game doesn’t achieve “more with less”, it definitely creates the fun, suspense, opportunities and feel of the first edition, with less than before. By just succeeding in that, Wallace and Treefrog Games have made a significant achievement. The game can now be enjoyed by a much wider audience, of many ages. There is lots of fun to be had with this version, for a long time too. Although some have nostalgia for the first edition, if you let the good times roll with this edition you will create new and equally valued experiences. As Treefrog Games proposes: “…take a punt on this version”!!!

My rating by Board Game Geek guidelines: 8.5/10
(You know my methods, Wallace).
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birchbeer
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Great review!

DISCLAIMER
I guess the disclaimer on the back of the box definitively kills the first edition: "However, as the first edition will never be printed again...” soblue

CARDS
Nice catch on the icons being on different sides, especially since it would seem to be an unavoidable 'tell'.

AGENT MEEPLES
As for your request for better Agent meeples, I use these:


THE SANITY DIE
While I think this is a good 'streamlining' idea, instead of drawing tiles from a bag, the problem is that it doesn't account for how the odds are skewed as the game progresses. One of the many expansion ideas I was kicking around for the original game was to have certain characters with an ability to alter the composition of the sanity tiles, i.e., to add or remove certain tiles from the bag a'la (War of the Ring style).

ADVANTAGES
I'm wondering if your group talked about some of the changes they really liked that could be applied to the original game in some form? For example,

*Remove the blocking disks and change the blocking card in each player's basic deck to some other option. Perhaps something powerful like the ability to 'take a second card' from the board as if it were your first action?
*Make purchasing influence from stock a free action?
*Change the cost for movement to one coin per city.
*Make the Permanent Effects cards not permanent. Either they have a one time effect or they occupy your hand like other cards (modified accordingly) and mix them in with all the other cards.
*Simply the vampires, zombies and a few other cards with ambiguous rules.


DISADVANTAGES
My biggest concern is one you didn't specifically touch on. That is the inability to recapture city cards from another player. With the last-place-faction losing mechanic removed, and the ability to lower War tracks removed, there seems no real ability to slow down a runaway player (which happens). Just losing five points at the end if you happen to be on the losing faction (which is just random chance) is not a deterrent to a runaway. In fact, it seems he would try to end the game even more quickly.

GAME BALANCE
The original game was asymmetric and even imbalanced... in a balanced sort of way. The early game favored Restorationists, the later game Loyalists. This created a very interesting and unique dance which was balanced by the last-place-faction losing mechanic. Discovering other peoples' secret identities was also critical. Holding back, even playing the lagger for a bit to keep your identity hidden, rather than just dashing for points, was a real cat-and-mouse option. I consider this the real heart of the original game.

So with the second edition, I'm curious if the two factions are now completely balanced? By that I mean, were the cards redesigned in such a way that Restorationists and Loyalists have an equal footing? It doesn't sound so, especially if you are suggesting some 'official compensation' points to be applied in some cases.

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Greg Wilson
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bamonson wrote:
So with the second edition, I'm curious if the two factions are now completely balanced? By that I mean, were the cards redesigned in such a way that Restorationists and Loyalists have an equal footing? It doesn't sound so, especially if you are suggesting some 'official compensation' points to be applied in some cases.
Haven't played first ed, but there are definitely more cards in the deck that give Loyalist VPs on gain than Restorationist, and more cards that move the Restorationist track than Loyalist.
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Ash Jones
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Thanks for your feedback and comments bamonson. You definitely have some agent meeples worth envying

bamonson wrote:

THE SANITY DIE
While I think this is a good 'streamlining' idea, instead of drawing tiles from a bag, the problem is that it doesn't account for how the odds are skewed as the game progresses. One of the many expansion ideas I was kicking around for the original game was to have certain characters with an ability to alter the composition of the sanity tiles, i.e., to add or remove certain tiles from the bag a'la (War of the Ring style).
I also did like being able to account for how many sane and mad tokens in the original, for strategy purposes. It can be introduced into the second edition easily, which I hope to try soon. However, I have had games with the first edition where most or even all the sane chits were drawn very early, giving minimal to no chance for other players to take the 'lucky dip'. Both methods are acceptable. I like your expansion ideas!

bamonson wrote:

ADVANTAGES
I'm wondering if your group talked about some of the changes they really liked that could be applied to the original game in some form? For example,

*Remove the blocking disks and change the blocking card in each player's basic deck to some other option. Perhaps something powerful like the ability to 'take a second card' from the board as if it were your first action?
*Make purchasing influence from stock a free action?
*Change the cost for movement to one coin per city.
*Make the Permanent Effects cards not permanent. Either they have a one time effect or they occupy your hand like other cards (modified accordingly) and mix them in with all the other cards.
*Simply the vampires, zombies and a few other cards with ambiguous rules.
Some interesting suggestions. Some would be difficult.
*In the first edition some cards are extremely powerful and are often controlled with blocking discs. I do like this aspect. Also as cities can be retaken, blocking discs are frequently used to prevent this. Second edition all cards are quite balanced and cities cannot be taken so blocking discs definitely are not missed. Removing from the first edition will definitely change some dynamics!
*Purchase influence as a free action sounds great. Would intensify bidding wars early game until each players influence stock is transitioned to limbo. However, maybe intensifying bidding wars would just slow down card drafting and prolong the game. Worth trialing.
*We had thought that changing the cost of movement to make it easier would give Loyalists an advantage, being able to jump on Restoratioists immediately. In the second edition this is possible but to initiate an assassination you must have the most pieces in the city (so its somewhat controlled). Also the city is the only area where agents and influence are, unlike two independent areas in the original.
*Last two points are quite difficult to do. Would require significant changes, as already seen in the second edition. Will ponder on this.

bamonson wrote:

DISADVANTAGES
My biggest concern is one you didn't specifically touch on. That is the inability to recapture city cards from another player. With the last-place-faction losing mechanic removed, and the ability to lower War tracks removed, there seems no real ability to slow down a runaway player (which happens). Just losing five points at the end if you happen to be on the losing faction (which is just random chance) is not a deterrent to a runaway. In fact, it seems he would try to end the game even more quickly.
Definitely there are runaway leaders in the first edition and it is great that they can be dealt with accordingly in a strategic manner. I find there is much less opportunities for a runaway leader in the second edition, especially with the random appearance of city and Royalty cards: everyone is in fierce competition for these frequently. If cities could be taken after along battle to claim, it would be an endless seesaw as there is minimal to no way to protect it (with blocking discs now gone). The dynamic of gaining a city has significantly changed in the second edition. Close attention needs to taken when one appears. In the first edition 12 cities are available immediately; you can reclaim a city but its very difficult stopping someone claiming a city in the first place. Lastly all cards are balanced well which prevent runaway leaders.

bamonson wrote:

So with the second edition, I'm curious if the two factions are now completely balanced? By that I mean, were the cards redesigned in such a way that Restorationists and Loyalists have an equal footing? It doesn't sound so, especially if you are suggesting some 'official compensation' points to be applied in some cases.
I currently feel the game is balanced, although it is difficult to judge! There is still an early game favour for Restorationists and the later game Loyalists, but more subtle. Retsorationists will have bursts and can run out of steam, Loyalists can sustain throughout. There is less cat-and-mouse options but it can still be seen. Suggestions on compensation points are not faction specific, but when a faction of one single player versus the opposing faction containing three or even four other players (possible due to change of heart). Even an experienced excellent player will have a near impossible chance of winning if alone and opposed by three or more others (both editions, especially the first).
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matt A
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This thread is old but I was wondering how Zombies are put on the board and can agents be turned into vampires?
 
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Greg Wilson
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There's a Zombies card and a Vampires card.

The first time you play Zombies, you put zombies on the board. Subsequent plays let you attack people with zombies, and place more zombies.

Vampires has a reaction that saves one of your agents from being killed, and a one-shot action that turns an enemy agent into one of yours.
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Ash Jones
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Correct. Unfortunately agents cannot be readily turned into vampires like the first edition, however this does save on FAQs (intuitive with all people I've played with). The card is still powerful and thematic.
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