Reviewed by Pevans
FORGOTTEN WATERS (Plaid Hat Games, 3 to 7 players, ages 14 and up, 2 to 4 hours; $59.95)
I do like games that are experiences, where things happen to the players (well, their characters), that produce stories that continue to be told after the game. Chief of these, as far as I’m concerned, is Tales of the Arabian Nights (Fall 2009 Gamers Alliance Report); until you’re cursed, pursued by a djinn and then thrown into a pit for not following local customs, you haven’t lived! So I was thrilled to be introduced to a new game of this type by one of the regulars at Swiggers games group.
What really made Forgotten Waters, though (as designed by Isaac Vega, J Arthur Ellis and Mr. Bistro), is that we could play it as a group, despite being remote from each other. In a technological advance on Arabian Nights, this game has an app. Effectively, the app is the paragraph book, telling the players what’s happening and giving them a decision to make. There is a book as well, giving detailed illustrations of locations players may visit (“Open Sea” is a regular) with a set of actions available to players – some of which may be compulsory, while others can be carried out by as many players as want to.
What’s more, the “remote assistant” app supports remote play (and we used a Discord room to discuss things). Intriguingly, while the players must co-operate to achieve their goal, they are also trying to advance their individual character and each player only wins if the group succeeds and they complete enough personal goals. As you can imagine, this sometimes pulls players in different directions.
And the reason I’m “raising the Jolly Roger” in this review is that the game is subtitled “Piratey Misadventure in a World o’ Magic”. Irresistible! The players are the senior crew, filling one or two specific roles each, of a pirate ship in a fantasy world. They have to manage the ship and crew and resolve encounters and adventures while following their Captain’s quest. And just what that quest entails is not clear; players need to find out more as the game goes on – not least because this gives them an idea of how to respond to events.
There are five scenarios currently available, but the rulebook insists that you first play “Beyond the Ocean’s Edge” (I wonder what this scenario is about?). Only once you’ve successfully completed this one should you attempt any of the others. And this is a tough scenario: I’ve played it several times (with the group and solitaire) and only finished once (and that required a little, ahem, cheating). The only problem with repeated play is that the scenario requires you to do specific things in a specific order and these become very familiar. On the bright side, the ‘random’ encounters around the main plot vary hugely, so you have a different journey each time, although the route is well-known.
The rulebook is thin (eight pages, of which only four are actual rules) as the app does most of the work. However, there are physical components, dished out according to the roles players have taken. Thus the gunner has control of the ship’s cannons. (For remote play, the remote app provides this: all players can see what the situation is, but only the player with the appropriate role can change things.)
The key physical element is the small board on which hexagonal tiles are placed as the ship (a cardboard stand-up) explores and moves. The tiles give an idea of what you’ll find by moving there (an island, a storm, a ship), but the app gives the details, according to the index number on the tile. The board is one thing the remote assistant does not handle – we put photos onto Discord as required.
More importantly at the start of the game, players set up their characters. There are 21 different character sheets, each with a backstory for players to fill in. This is one of the game’s amusing touches: you pick some words (“a flightless bird”, “a food you dislike”) which then fill in the gaps in the text in unexpected ways. (“Your father died of ‘flightless bird’ disease.”)
However, the essential bit is the first page which shows the character’s ratings at six skills. As your character does things, you improve these skills – though you will be limited in some of them. Improvements may mean filling in a ‘star’ on your character’s ‘constellation’ (a line diagram). Filling in a marked star is an event from your character sheet (another amusing paragraph) and you need to achieve 4-5 of these for a personal win. Something nobody in my group achieved in that tough first scenario.
Players take markers for their character, including a stand-up figure, and role. The board is set up as instructed by the app and the players start on a specific page in the book. This is ring-bound, so that the two pages lie flat alongside each other. As already mentioned, one is a full-page illustration. The other is a list of actions that players can take. Symbols on these show which can only be done by one player and which can be carried out as many times as wished. And there are often actions that someone must take.
More symbols show the likely skills and/or results involved in the action. There’s a timer (on the app) to stop players spending too long discussing who does what. In turn order (according to the ‘Infamy’ track), players place their stand-up on an action. Then the actions are resolved, top to bottom. A lot of the time, this will involve increasing a skill and then making a ‘skill check’: rolling a d12, adding your skill (and any bonuses) and seeing what result this gives you. This will often increase/decrease the ship and crew’s statistics, improve your skills or change your Infamy.
Crucially, these actions may further the Captain’s quest, lay tiles on the board or move the ship. To wrap up, you enter the code from the bottom of the page to the app, which tells you what happens next. Moving the ship is important, since staying in one place will cause damage (of some kind). However, moving generally increases the current ‘Threat’ and may require the level to be checked. If this matches the current ‘Objective’ card, something bad happens. And if you reach the last of these events, you all lose. Generally by being blown out of the water by the dread Cap’n Razor. (Yep, I’ve been there.)
Players also lose if the ship’s ‘Hull’ value reaches zero (glug, glug) or the ‘Discontent’ level matches the ‘Crew’ level (Mutiny! – I’ve avoided this one). To win, the team must succeed in each Objective provided by the scenario in sequence – there are four of these in the first scenario. First time my group played, we lost before we’d achieved the first one! We got better.
I’ve gone on a bit about the game’s mechanisms, but these fade into the background once you start playing. What matters is the story and achieving your goals. Both as a team and individually. This can cause tension. For the team, you want the player with the highest skill to take an action to maximise the chance of a good result. However, that player may prefer to improve a different skill. The discussion may well decide what the team should do, but players put down their markers one at a time, so may do something different. I was particularly miffed the first time we fought another ship. While most of us were loading and firing the cannons, somebody went for “Sail the ship” and we sailed away with victory in our grasp!
Officially, the game is for 3-7 players, but the app has variant rules for one and two players. The solitaire game has you using four pirate stand-ups, letting you take four actions each turn. However, for all other purposes, you are just one pirate. It also has a clever tweak to the Infamy mechanism, making it harder to complete those significant stars on your character sheet. Of course, playing on your own means you don’t have the benefit and delight of the group discussion, but it’s still a challenging and entertaining game.
So far, I’ve been blown out of the water by Captain Razor’s fearsome man-o-war, fallen off the edge of the world (it is a fantasy setting), stared too long into the abyss (my soul never recovered), lost a leg – replaced with a particularly impressive peg-leg – and been the bearer of the Titan’s Trident (and very necessary it was, too). Not to mention my three-legged cat. Every time I’ve played Forgotten Waters, something different has happened and we (or I) have come away with a story to tell. That’s 9/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – – – – Pevans
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Winter 2021 GA Report articles