A Study in Emerald

Reviewed by: Pevans

(Treefrog Games, 2-5 players, ages 13 and up, 90-120 minutes; about $79.99)

astudy1I guess I should start this review by explaining the title. It is, of course, a play on the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet – the BBC’s Sherlock had “A Study in Pink” as its first episode. The original A Study in Emerald is a short story by Neil Gaiman (freely available on his website: www.neilgaiman.com/mediafiles/exclusive/shortstories/emerald.pdf‎). This is a clever pastiche of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, purportedly the account by his faithful sidekick and chronicler of one of the great detective’s stranger cases. If you haven’t read Mr Gaiman’s story and want to do so, I suggest you read it now – otherwise I’m about to spoil it for you.

Okay, done now? Right, as you’ll have spotted, the story is set in an alternate late-Victorian world ruled by the monstrous Old Ones (Cthulhu et al) of HP Lovecraft’s horror stories. In his notes on the game, A Study in Emerald, designer Martin Wallace reveals that his original inspiration was the anarchist campaigns of bombing and assassination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Martin thought a game where players assassinated royalty might not go down too well. Then he discovered Neil Gaiman’s story – who could object to killing Lovecraftian monsters?

This, then, is the setting of the game. At the start of the game, players are secretly assigned to one of two factions. The Restorationists, whose colour is acid pink, are revolutionaries aiming to overthrow the Old Ones and restore rule by humans. The Loyalists, in virulent green, support their masters in suppressing the pinkoes and fomenting war as a way of bringing more Old Ones to Earth. Some of the things players score points for are common – controlling cities, for example – while others depend on which faction they belong to.

The game can end in a variety of ways – a player reaching a specific number of points or the green (War) or pink (Revolution) track hitting the top of its range. Players then reveal which faction they belong to and tot up their points accordingly. The player with most points wins – if they belong to the right faction. The wrong faction is the one to which the player with fewest points belongs! Yes, having the fewest points stops everybody in the same faction from winning.

There are two effects of this. First, it adds a co-operative element to the game. It is not enough to score the most points, you have to make sure that nobody else in your faction is at the bottom of the heap. You must play, in part, for the benefit of the faction as a whole. This is made trickier by not knowing who is in which faction, of course. The second effect is to make the game work for an unbalanced mix of faction members: 1 green versus 2 pink – or even 1 pink versus 3 green. The player on the short end of this mix doesn’t have to score the most points, just not have the lowest score! Very clever.

Returning to the basics, the box contains a mounted board, decks of cards, solid cardboard tiles and wooden playing pieces and markers. The board shows a network of cities, mostly in Europe, and the connections between them. Each city area has space for markers and for a stack of cards and shows the city’s ‘ruler’ and values for the city and its ruler. In addition, the board has the War/Revolution tracks (in the appropriate colours), a scoring track and several other spaces for cards and pieces. Players get ‘influence’ cubes and markers in their colour, their main ‘Agent’ tile and an initial set of cards. The cards are at the heart of the game.

astudycardsEach player starts with their own set of cards, though each starting set is the same. They can gain extra cards by bidding for those available on the board and these are added to their personal deck of cards. In Dominion style, players must manage their deck. Cards are played from hand, going on to a personal discard pile. At the end of their turn, players draw back up to five cards from their deck. New cards are added to their discard pile, which is shuffled whenever they run out of cards to draw. Hence it can take a while for a new card to work its way into your hand to be played.

Cards generally have a couple of uses and are played to power a player’s two actions in a turn. They can be played to use one type of symbol on the card – usually with other cards that have the same symbol – or to use the special action described on it. Some cards have ‘free’ actions and can be played in addition to the player’s two actions. The symbols on the cards are cubes, coins and/or bombs. Cubes are used to place the player’s influence cubes onto a card or city (as a bid for it) or to retrieve cubes from “Limbo” (where they go if the bid is successful). Coins are used to move the player’s agent tile/s between cities or to buy new cubes from stock.

The bomb symbols on cards are used when assassinating royalty or another player’s agent, which is a more complex action. To start with, you must play a card that allows you to carry out the appropriate action. You must have your agent in the appropriate city. Finally, you must have enough bombs on cards and agents to match the number shown on the city or the royal person, as appropriate. Assassinating royalty is the sort of thing only a revolutionary would do, of course, so it only scores points for Restorationist (pink) players. Hence these points are not scored until the end of the game when factions have been revealed.

Blowing up royals is also a key way of demonstrating your allegiance to other players. You could try to mislead players this way, but it’s an expensive way of doing so. It takes significant resources to carry out an assassination and you won’t get any points for doing so if you’re actually a Loyalist (green). There are a few cards that allow Loyalists to protect royalty, but they’re much more likely to be assassinated. What’s more useful; is that green players score points for dead agents – if the controlling player turns out to be pink

I’ve already covered a number of the actions available to players, but probably the most important one is taking control of a card/city. You can only do this if you have more influence (cubes + agents) on it than any other player and only as the very first action in your turn. Thus you can’t simply place cubes for your first action and grab the card for your second, you must wait at least a round. Taking control of a city scores victory points (yay!) and takes them away from the player (if any) who previously controlled it (double yay!). The most valuable cities are worth 6 points, which is a lot when the game can end if someone reaches 22 (with five players).

There’s a card for each city and this goes to the player who takes control of the city. Like other cards, these go onto the player’s discard pile – except for ‘Permanent Effect’ cards which are always in effect. If the card gained is an agent, the player also gets the tile for that agent and adds a marker of their colour to show who owns it. Agents are needed to carry out actions (and some are worth victory points), but they are also vulnerable to being assassinated by an opponent – or they may be a double agent, secretly controlled by another player!

Other embellishments to the game are sanity markers, which may remove agents (assassinating Old Ones is not good for your mental health!) or even end the game early, and blocking markers, which players can use to stop anyone taking a card or city. On top of the game’s rules, the cards provide additional complexity. There are cards that let players draw or discard cards, gain influence cubes, score points, remove other players’ cubes and so on. In particular, specific cards can introduce Vampires and Zombies to the game and these have their own sections of rules (it wasn’t until my fourth game that I saw either of these, though).

Phew! There’s a lot going on here, which is particularly daunting when you’re new to the game. Where to start? Well, despite having played the game several times, I’m still not sure! There are plenty of points to be had in controlling cities and, if you’re a Restorationist, in assassinating royalty. All players in a faction get points for the appropriate War/Revolution track, so increasing this is a useful way of making sure no-one in your faction has the lowest score. It’s also another way of signalling which faction you belong to. However, as with many games, it’s better to build up your resources initially, particularly by gaining agents and other cards. This means that the first thing to do is study the cards that are available (one per city plus the Permanent Effects) and decide which would be useful. Then the start player will bid for the card you most wanted! At least, that’s my experience. You should also remember that this is a hand management game and look at how you can get the right cards in your hand at the right time. That is, not just a card that lets you carry out an assassination, but cards with the bomb symbols you need as well.

A Study in Emerald is a clever, but convoluted game. It is big on atmosphere – helped by the ornate, Edwardian-style graphics – but can be quite chaotic (I have a nagging feeling that Ankh-Morpork is somewhere in its pedigree). I have had good fun trying to get to grips with it, but am constantly worried that I’m missing a rule. Last time, it was only at the end of the game that we realised the pink players hadn’t been taking Sanity markers each time they assassinated royalty. D’oh!

My overall impression of A Study in Emerald is that it’s not quite finished. Or, perhaps, would be improved with some judicious editing. It’s certainly an interesting game and one I expect to be playing for quite a while, but I can only give it 7/10 on my highly subjective scale. (Historical Note: that’s the same score I gave Brass when I reviewed it and that’s a game I play almost constantly now!)

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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