A Study in Emerald
Publisher: Treefrog Games
Release Date: December 2013
Get it Here: Tree Frog Games
Based off of Neil Gaiman’s short story by the same name, A Study In Emerald is a board game that essentially pits characters by Arthur Conan Doyle against those by Howard Philips Lovecraft. The game was a huge success on Kickstarter nearly 2,000 backers (including myself) to pledge a total of 124,415 pounds for this Eurogame endeavor. While there were a few delays and some minor errors (Backers did not get their poster or signed sticker by the designer, and two tokens have minor printing errors on them) along the way, the game was released relatively on time (two months late) by Kickstarter standards. Of course $75 (plus $10 for shipping) is a lot for a single board game, even if you’re a big fan of Holmes and/or Cthulhu, so if the game money well spent, or is it worth investing in, or is your money better spent on something (or somethings) with a lower price tag? Let’s find out.
A Study in Emerald is a game for two to five players. The game takes places in an alternate 1882 where the emissaries of the Great Old Ones (Star Spawns more or less) rule the world and have done so for centuries. Now though, a group of humans labeled the “Restorationists” are fighting to free mankind from their yoke. The fighting is done subtly and in the shadows. It is a secret war marked by assassinations and double crosses. On the other side are the Loyalists, humans who side with the current world order and who are more than happy to leave the Old Ones in charge of the Earth. Although each side can take the same actions, points scored for each side come in very different ways. To make things all the harder, the side you are on is assigned randomly at the beginning of the game and no player will know the side of any other until the game is over and points are tallied. As such, the player you are hurting by your actions could be on your own side, thus dragging down your overall point total. At the same time an action that you take which could help someone else, might be helping the other side. You don’t know and so there is a level of strategy and forethought to A Study in Emerald lacking from a lot of other games…but there is also a level of paranoia and distrust higher than in most board games as well. It’s also worth pointing out that due to the random nature of what side each player is on, it is completely feasibly than everyone in a two or three player game is on the same side, which of course ends up being hilarious, tragic and utterly insane all at once. This is yet another way that a Study in Emerald stands out from the other Euro style board games.
The materials in A Study in Emerald are very well made and combine to make the game appear very striking but also extremely confusing looking due to the layout. Once you play the game, the board design makes a lot of sense and flows really well but the first time you open up that six panel reinforced cardboard spread you can’t help but wonder what kind of a game needs to look that busy. Besides the well made board (sturdy enough to withstand an attack by my rabbit!), you have a veritable deluge of wooden tokens for use with the game. Most are just generic cubes and discs of varying colours, which is a bit dull to be honest, but you should take note of the eight zombie meeples the game contains. They’re very well done. You also have over 140 cards, each of which has an old-timey style artwork. The design and colouration feels more like Old West style than Victorian England, but the art is still a lot of fun as there are great pictures, portraits and monstrosities on each card. Be careful with the cards though as there aren’t any replacements and although pretty, they are thinner and easier to tear than your average playing card. Finally you have seventy cardboard tokens you’ll have to punch out and sort before you play the game for the first time. This is your only real set up and the tokens range from character representation (human and vampire variant), five agents, safe, mad, sane and double agent pieces. Again, each of these is irreplaceable and so make sure you don’t lose any of them.
So let’s talk playing the game itself. Setup doesn’t take that long, but you will spend a few minutes sorting the cards into their respective piles (Game, City and Permanent Effect), setting up all the markers, sorting all the wooden tokens out, getting the Victory Points, Revolution and War tracks set up correctly, shuffling the sanity and double agent tokens and deciding who goes first. Again, there are a lot of little pieces, so make sure something doesn’t get knocked off the playing area or eaten by a curious pet. Play starts with each person getting double agent tokens (four in a two-player game, three in a three-player game and two in a four or five person game) and then placing a small pile of cards on each city location on the board (four cards for a four or five player game and three for a two or three person affair). The first card is turned up and if an agent is revealed, you place the correct agent counter (Say Sherlock Holmes or William Morris) on the card to show they are up for grabs. The remaining pile is set aside for now. Each player takes their specific initial deck, shuffles them and then takes the first five (out of ten) cards to act as their starting hand. From there the first player (and each thereafter) get two actions on their turn.
Actions include: placing influence cubes on the board (you start with six but this will ebb and flow as the game goes on) by using cards from your hand, claiming a card or city where you have the most influence cubes and/or agents (This then becomes a permanent part of your personal deck), retrieve influence cubes that you have placed on the board and return them to your personal stock, buy new influence cubes from the bank to add to your personal stock, move agents across the board to new locations, move markers on the Revolution and/or war track, discard from your hand, reveal one of your double agent tokens to take control of that character, perform a card action (an action based on one of the cards in your hand which may be a free action instead of counting towards one of your normal two), reveal your allegiance (which can only occur if it will end the game) and pass without taking one or both actions. Most of these actions involve using cards from your hand. You’ll use these cards for influence cubes, gold to move characters and bombs for assassination, which is why you want to constantly be adding cards to your personal deck. Some actions, like assassinating or hiding royals can only occur if you have a card which allows you to do so, so much of the early game will be vying for these types of cards.
Now because loyalists and restorationists have very different ways of scoring victory points, one would think that a particular action will reveal their true allegiance, but you’d be incorrect. After all, if you bid heavily to get a Save Royal card from the board that doesn’t mean you are a loyalist. It could mean you’re just trying to keep that card out of the hands of the loyalists and thus prevent them from getting victory points. You might have turned an agent into a vampire but that doesn’t mean you are a loyalist either. Sure only loyalists gain victory points from having vampire agents, but a vampire agent can’t be assassinated and it can’t be killed in an assassination attempt, nor can it be lost due to madness. So you main lose a victory point by converting it, but you may gain a lot more down the road. Heck, you can even be a Loyalist and save a bunch of royals because you have the cards allowing you to do so, hoping you’ll get the rare chance to switch sides, like via a permanent effect card, at some point in the game. It’s all about thinking ahead and weighing the long term effects of a decision. What might cost you a few victory points now might costs your opposing side a lot more down the road. So just because an action appears to reveal a player’s side, it might just be obfuscation and subterfuge. It’s also worth noting that the victory track on the board is never accurate due to the hidden allegiances. It’s merely tracking the known points a player has had.
Assassinations and Saving Royals (Great Old Ones, Elder Gods, Etc) are the big focus of the game. You’ll need cards from the board to do that (either ones that give you control of an agent who can assassinate/save or a general card that mimics the effect) Assassinating an agent requires having enough bomb icons to meet or beat a city’s rating. Assassinating or hiding a Great Old One takes a number of bomb icons (on cards or agents) equal to their own specific bomb rating. So for example, Cairo has a bomb rating of three, so you’ll need three bomb icons to assassinate an agent there. To get the Great Old One who controls Cairo (The Crawling Chaos), you’ll need four bomb icons. Attempts can be stopped by revealing an agent to be a Double Agent belonging to a different player or a few other methods, so there’s always a counter to be had, but rarely a counter to a counter.
The game ends in one of four ways – when the someone gets enough points on the Victory Point track to end things, when the Revolution or War track is filled up, or when a Restorationist is publicly revealed either by a loss of sanity (Total of three MAD markers collected through play) or some other manner. A Loyalist being revealed only ends the game if it boosts the player’s victory count total to where it would end things. Again, you might choose to end things in a way contrary to your alignment. Let’s say you know you have more than enough victory points to win as a Loyalist but the Revolution track is only one step from filling up. You could take an action that fills that to end the game early and thus give you the win. Winning the game is a bit convoluted though. Once the points are added up, the token for each player is moved to the now correct victory point total for each one. Whichever side has a player with the lowest total automatically loses. So if the Loyalists have a player with 30 Victory Points and a player with 10 while both Restorationist have 15 points each, the Loyalists still lose. The winner amongst the surviving side is determined by who has the most points or, in the case of a tie, who has the most control discs on the board. I’m not too comfortable with this determination of who wins and loses. It really should be each side adds up their total victory point amount and that side wins. The current method really just doesn’t work for me and it’s silly to have a winner chose from a side rather than have the entire faction share in the win. It’s really the only negative thing I can say about this game.
This is a very rough and quick guideline for A Study in Emerald. Of course the fact it’s taken me over 2,000 words to do what I consider rough and quick should tell you how complicated the game can be and how deep the strategy involved gets, especially since I don’t feel I did the game enough justice here. The entire piece, from the box to the zombie meeples are exceptionally gorgeous and the production values are top notch. I really like the game personally, but it is rather slow moving and there is less resource management and more of an emphasis of deck building than most euro-style games, so hardcore devotees of that genre may be disappointed by the genre hybridization here. People who strongly prefer faster paced American style board games might find this a bit too slow or dull for their tastes. Fans of Doyle and Lovecraft will get a kick out of the alternate reality provided in this game but honestly, the trappings of the two authors (and the short story Neil Gaiman wrote that inspired the game) are really window dressing. The game could function just as easily as something about terrorism and/or featuring a different time period or just real world events and it would still play the same way. Is it more fun to have vampires, shoggoth, Great Old Ones and Professor Moriarity running about? You’re damn right it is. The $75 price tag is probably too steep for a lot of people unless they are big time board game aficionados. I think the game would sell a lot better if it was fifty dollars or less, which would definitely be doable, but the wooden tokens would have to be replaced by cheap plastic and the other production values would suffer as well.
As such, A Study in Emerald remains a very fun game, but also a very expensive and niche product. If my description of the game and the pictures included here have you at all tempted at making a purchase, you’ll probably get your money’s worth out of A Study in Emerald. If the price tag gives you sticker shock, you don’t play board games regularly (or have enough friends that like to play them), you’re probably better off not spending the money on this game. It’s an expensive investment, so while being well designed and a lot of fun (as well as purposely unbalanced), you really need to decide if you the cost outweighs the use you’ll get out of this game…or vice versa.