A Study in Emerald gets Lovecraft and Doyle in your peanut butter and chocolate

, | Game reviews

A Study in Emerald is often at odds with itself. I say that out of admiration. It is a study in opposites, or at least juxtapositions. Here is a territory control boardgame and a card-centric deck builder. Here is a historical setting and a dark fantasy world. Here is a team game and an every-man-for-himself stampede. Here is an open-ended game clock and a collection of abrupt sudden-death victory conditions. Here is combat and subterfuge, bomb throwers and dirty tricks. Here is a zombie apocalypse a century before it was even invented. Here is a melange of detective fiction, existential horror, and the industrial revolution. Here is one of the best boardgames I’ve ever played, fitted with jagged edges and abrupt corners, yet still an elegant collection of systems, simultaneously non-Euclidean and elegant. It’s elementary: I have failed my sanity check. Or at least my saving throw to resist unique gameplay interpretations of H.P. Lovecraft.

After the jump, a few acres of R’lyeh

Before we consider what we’re doing, let’s consider where we are. A Study in Emerald is set during the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, but it’s got far bigger fish to fry than simple social upheaval. All that stuff is just the backdrop. The main event is a steel cage deathmatch between the birth of detective fiction and the birth of existential horror. Sherlock Holmes vs Cthulhu, while the Prussian secret police hunt down the Bolshevik menace and Golodinsky scribbles away at The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a basement in The Hague as Otto von Bismarck marches on the New World and Moriarty in his zeppelin descends murderously on early women’s rights advocate Emma Goldman, only to be betrayed by someone named Prince Kropotkin. I have no idea who Prince Kropotkin is, other than the guy who foiled Moriarty’s attempt to murder Emma Goldman. lt’s all just crazy enough that not only might it work, but it might be absolutely glorious.

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The Sherlock Holmes vs Cthulhu element is ingenious, but it’s not unprecedented. It’s no surprise at least a videogame has been here before, because you just have to jigger the Doyle or the Lovecraft a tad, adjusting them just so, to piece them together. What’s a few decades between literary genres? Existential horror, meet detective fiction. Detective fiction, meet existential horror. It’s literary candy for nerds who read books from before George RR Martin and Terry Pratchett and even Robert Heinlein. You got your expensive chocolate in my organic peanut butter.

But the catalyst that makes this formula work is boardgame designer Martin Wallace. Existential horror and detective fiction, meet the Michelangelo of boardgame design. Wallace’s background is chiefly historical stuff, bound by the conventions of brass, steam, and struggling empires. His most recent game before this was A Few Acres of Snow, which is about France and England scrapping for control of nascent colonies in America’s frozen east. The going was slow and methodical. Wallace imagined this as a deck-building game married to a simple battle map where Indians ran raids along trails and rivers pretty much determined where you could go. A boat! A boat! Your kingdom for a boat!

In the initial stages of its design, A Few Acres of Snow was a sci-fi game about distant star systems and warp lanes. But at some point, Wallace grounded it in snow and history. What makes me want to read Last of the Mohicans again could have been something that made me want to read The Forever War again. Six of one, half dozen of the other. I suppose the James Fenimore Cooper makes me look more learned if someone sees me reading it in a Starbucks.

But as a fan of A Few Acres of Snow, I can’t help but wonder a little wistfully where Wallace’s flights of game design fancy might have taken a game that wasn’t bound by brass, steam, and struggling empires. Yeah, sure, it’s plenty evocative to settle Baltimore to build up the English navy or push into the Great Lakes to develop the French fur trade. But what about warp lanes, and proton beams, and interstellar cruisers, and whatever stuff Wallace would have come up with that isn’t as boring as those sci-fi words I just wrote?

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Enter Neil Gaiman’s short story, A Study in Emerald. It’s a short but interesting trifle about Sherlock Holmes solving a murder in a world ruled by the minions of Cthulhu. It seems to exist mostly for its twist at the end. But Wallace uses it as a premise for the game, a jumping off point for those flights of game design fancy missing from A Few Acres of Snow. He has brilliantly fleshed out Gaiman’s elliptical glimpse at alternate history into an orgiastic symphonie fantastique of pulp and polyp, history and oddity, anarchists and the occult, strange squirming monarchs presiding over familiar cities. It’s not just alternate history. It’s eldritch history. Who needs more trite steampunk when you can have Elder Gods running roughshod over the Victorian era?

A lot of the history is relatively obscure. This is no easy league of Victorian gentlemen. Wallace expects us to do our own research into Okhranas, Finians, and Vladimir Burtsev. Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty and maybe even Irene Adler (she was the naked chick in the second season of the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch). But a lot of the cards will send you to Wikipedia for want of flavor text. I guarantee you’ll find some pretty interesting stuff. If I didn’t worry it would make A Study in Emerald sound tedious, I’d say that it’s educational.

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But even if you don’t care to read up on all these mustachioed men and behatted women, this is one hell of a boardgame for all its lurking narrative, waiting to lunge out at you, sometimes violently. Zombies and vampires completely break the game, dragging Study in Emerald almost into another genre. Vampires let loose immortal assassins happy to throw any semblance of balance out the window. Zombies usher in a compressed minigame of Pandemic. Of course, the Society of Leopold undercuts them. And the tsar’s secret police at The Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery — cryptically but mercifully shortened to The Third Section in the game — can trump both. Or either. Or neither. Where’s Inspector Lestrade when you really need him? Oh, here he is in Rome!

Other cards crack the game as well. Cthulhu and Otto von Bismarck mess up the map. Airships and a flying Mi Go ignore it. And given the way some of the cards are randomly shuffled onto the map and others are put away in the box until next the next game, you may never see any of these. The only thing certain in Study in Emerald’s changing landscape is that nothing is certain. Where’s Inspector Lestrade when you really need him?

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This heady swirl of narrative and game design means games will unfold in unique ways, many with distinct choices. Will you opt for shrewd deck management — Mrs. Hudson, Watson, and the Freemasons — or simple brute force? Will you build up an economic engine, a land grab, a combat deck, or sneaky espionage to appropriate another player’s hard work with the flip of an innocuous tile representing a double agent? Do you have the finances to take a quick and dangerous trip to Cairo to murder its ruling monsters? Sure you do, since you know enough to control the riches of Zurich and the New World. But look who’s followed you to Cairo. Now your agents are dead.

Mechanically, there’s a lot of really smart stuff going on here. Instead of a game clock, there are a variety of ways to end the game abruptly, but you have to end it when you’re winning. The scoring feeds into the team structure in a unique way: the player in last place disqualifies his entire team, but team identities start secret and sometimes stay secret, and they aren’t always evenly divided. And even the term “team” is misleading, since there’s only one winner. As a two-player game, Study in Emerald is mostly a race. But with three or more players, Study in Emerald introduces dynamics unlike anything else you’ve played. In fact, that’s pretty much A Study of Emerald in a nutshell: unlike anything else you’ve played. Lovecraft, Doyle, Gaiman, and whoever Prince Kropotkin is should be proud.

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  • A Study in Emerald

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  • Cthulhu vs Sherlock Holmes. 'Nuff said.
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