Designed by: Ignacy Trzewiczek
Published by: FFG
Copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games for review.
The idea of a Witcher boardgame developed by the same man responsible for highly thematic Robinson Crusoe is an inherently fascinating one. How could I not want to play it? I mean, The Witcher 3 was my favorite game of 2015, beating off all competitors with its silver sword before dragging their sorry carcasses back to the local village to earn some coin. The Witcher series, though, doesn’t seem entirely compatible with a board game. But hey, who would have ever thought XCOM would make a great board game?
The goal is to wander the land as one of four characters from the game; Geralt, Triss Merigold, Dandellion and Yarben, following up on leads that let you acquire the necessary information to complete quest cards that earn victory points. Each character draws quests from a specified deck that caters more to their individual skills, thus Geralt’s red deck tends to feature more combat and daring adventures, while Dandellion is far more suited to talking about things, also known as diplomacy if you’re posh. Yarben is the only character who has the option to draw from two decks,. Quests that are worth more points tend to also force characters to get into situations that they simply aren’t as good at for, thus it’s a rewards vs risk mechanic when it comes to gunning for those bigger points. Geralt may be great at stabbing things in the face with swords, but he’s utterly crap at diplomacy, making any quest with a bit of smooth talking required troublesome for him.
The method of completing these quests is somewhat strange. Each card has two icons that indicate which two Proof tokens must be taken to the correct location and cashed in to complete the objective. To get Proof tokens you must gather up Leads of the correct color and convert them into a Proof token, with each character having different conversion ratios. Geralt needs three red Leads to create one red combat Proof token, for example, but he needs 7 purples to create a single diplomacy Proof token since he’s incapable of saying more than a few words without feeling the urge to draw his sword and kill something. Triss, on the other hand, needs 3 blues to create a single Lore proof, five purple to craft a diplomacy token and seven red for a combat Proof, despite her ability to turn people into whatever she damn well pleases. Seriously, who would piss Triss Off?
Confused? That’s understandable. It’s not the most intuitive idea and doesn’t exactly feel like it meshes with the Witcher videogames that well. These Proofs are presumably meant to represent how in the videogame you typically travel around gathering information, but it doesn’t translate very well. But how do you acquire these magical tokens? The most consistent method is simply travelling from place to place, just as you would when playing The Witcher 3. On your turn you can perform a maximum of two actions, with the first being to travel from one spot on the board to another. You can actually travel along two routes in a single turn if you wish, but doing so forces you to draw a Foul Fate card, a deck consisting of horrible outcomes from which you’ll have to take a card all too frequently, but we’ll come back to that. Almost every location on the beautifully drawn board grants you a Lead token of a specific color, while others give you a choice of colors. Travelling from town to town in this manner is the only truly reliable way of gaining Leads, unless of course your ability to travel gets impeded. On the one hand it lets you do mental calculations, forming routes that will gather you the Leads needed to complete quests, freeing you up to focus on other things, too. On the other hand it also resulted in a lot of players leaping madly back and forth between two areas, farming for Leads.
The other main method of gathering up Leads is to perform an Investigate action on your current location, letting you draw from either the purple, red or blue investigation decks, each differently colored deck obviously representing which color of Lead you might be able to snag. Sometimes these cards also offer up tasks, asking you to do something specific in return for a reward, like travelling to a certain location or fighting a monster. They also offer up small snippets of storyline that add to the quests overall narrative, and thus the descriptions are kept small and fairly vague. Depending on the card, for, example, a friend from Foltest’s Court might send word of some upcoming conquests, granting you a Purple lead and giving you the task to head to Wyzima, where your reward will be another purple and a red. Maybe your investigations will uncover A Lucrative Contract, an offer to slay a beast that has been attacking passing merchants. Become delayed for a turn and you can fight the monster, gaining some coin if you defeat it. Or maybe it’ll be something simpler, like trouble with the local guards who need to be bribed with a few coins or else you’ll be delayed for a while. Although vague between the main quests and investigations pleasing stories can develop, giving each player their own little narrative.
The main quests themselves further this with their text which sometimes attempts to emulates the Witcher’s frequently dark outcomes. As an example playing as Geralt I embarked on a seemingly noble quest to help out a peasant boy and an elven archer that had fallen in love. Some of the Scoia’tael elves disagreed with the union, and thus I set out to persuade them that a relationship between the two lovers could help bring peace to the region. Each card also boosts two optional side-quests that earn you extra victory points, and so I headed to Brokilon to ask Dryads for support, and then spent two purple tokens to explain the political benefits of an alliance to the elves. Eventually I gathered the Leads required to produce a purple Proof and a red Proof and headed to Ard Carraigh to finish the quest. Feeling rather proud of myself I read the consequences portion of the card, only to discover that while some of the Scoia’tael had agreed to tolerate the union, others hadn’t appreciated my meddling ways and had murdered the peasant boy while he slept in the arms of his one true love. As a result tensions in the are increased, and the family personally blamed me. For completing the quest I gained plenty of Victory Points and even got to claim two Good Fortune cards, powerful pieces of card that can potentially grant huge bonuses. I also earned a Development card, something which we’ll come back to later. However, I also suffered some negative consequences, having to advance the War track and suffer some bad luck for a while in the form of Foul Fate tokens. It’s a dark turn, and that’s exactly why I always told my friends not to read the consequences portion of the quest cards when deciding which one to take, because it spoils the game a little. In fact, on that topic this is a game where you very much need to read each card, otherwise the pretty standard gameplay mechanics are going to get old quite quickly.
Really, then, the game is a race between players more than anything else, the winner usually being the one who gets a bit of good luck in the Investigation decks and comes up with the most optimal way of travelling around the board to secure Leads and convert them into Proofs. And yet despite the fact that you are in competition with the other players there’s an intriguing element of cooperation included as you can complete the Support quests listed on other player’s quest cards provided you’re in the same location as them, netting that player three victory points and six for yourself. I’ve seen some reviews talk about how they feel the game being competitive is rather odd given the main characters are all friends and allies, and yet I believe it makes sense; Geralt, Triss and co. are friends, yes, but they also all have their own agendas, their own things that they are attempting to do and their paths intersect at certain points where they’ll frequently help each other out, typically finding ways to further their own interests in the process. It doesn’t quite fit smoothly, but it works.
Sadly that’s about it for player interaction, though. Players can trade Leads and there are cards that affect more than one player, usually negatively, but there are very few opportunities to mess with other players directly or even help them out further in similar fashion to support quests. Occasionally you’ll snag a card that lets you potentially throw a spanner (monster) in the works or something like that, but they are rare. For the most part everybody is just running around on their own, doing their own thing and infrequently interacting with each other, which feels like a wasted opportunity.
Each character’s third action is called Develop, acting as a way to mimic the acquisition of near gear and skills from the videogame, though it neatly ignores the fact that typically these come when completing quests and such, whereas here you can do it whenever you please. Don’t worry, though, quests do frequently reward you with development cards. When you opt for a Develop action you draw two cards from that character’s specific deck and then keep one of them. Geralt, for example, can unlock his Igni sign for a combat boost or get some Witcher Gear that lets him suffer a wound for some extra attack power, while Triss can gain some spells that make her potentially deadly in a fight, and Dandellion has plenty of Friends that do various things for him in return for some cash. Sadly opting to spend an action on developing a character was often ignored by my group, as a lot of the cards aren’t very useful and other’s are clearly superior to the rest. And in cases of Geralt and Triss Triss they have to spend an action to prepare a spell or potion through their Brew and Prepare actions. That’s a lot of wasted time when other players are scrambling round the board, although used carefully and with thought these extra abilities can be powerful. It took a round of me developing in the early game for the rest of the players to see the potential benefits later in the game that having a stronger character could offer, but even then Develop actions weren’t common.
Being able to Rest is an action shared by each character, giving them a chance to heal wounds. It’s impossible to die in the Witcher Board Game, a rather curious design choice since you can most certainly get your ass royally kicked in the videogame. Still, it’s understandable that the designer didn’t want players getting eliminated early by chance. Instead wound tokens are placed on your the actions on your character sheet, stopping you from taking that action. A single Rest action, which can’t have a wound placed on it for obvious reasons, can heal up to two of these tokens, or a single serious wound. The player gets to choose where wounds are distributed, and so we typically saw them get put down in a very specific order, with Travel and Investigate left until last since those two options are the most vital for winning the game.
Each character also gets an action specific to them. Geralt has his Brew, and Triss can prepare spells as we’ve already covered. Dandellion, meanwhile, can sing to earn two coins, which feeds into the fact that many of his quests and Development cards need cash. Yarben the dwarf, meanwhile, is the most unique of the bunch as he gets four companion cards, plus has two points of armor that can absorb wound tokens. Even with these differences, however, the game doesn’t feel much different regardless of who you opt to play as, which is a shame.
At the end of a character’s turn they must deal with an Encounter. At the side of the board there’s a space for each region that can be occupied by a facedown monster token and/or a Foul Fate token. If there’s a monster lurking it must be fought using the game’s simple and rather lackluster representation of combat. Essentially you grab the three combat dice, add your heroes die/dice and then roll, aiming to match or beat the number of swords and shields shown on the monster token, which also lists what happens for success or failure. Get enough swords and you’ll defeat the creature, and maybe earn a victory point or something if it’s fairly powerful. Failure to roll enough shields typically results in taking a wound or other penalty as you would expect. You can also spend a dodge roll and attack to generate an extra shield for defense. It’s pretty basic stuff, and doesn’t exactly do a very good job of representing the Witcher 3’s wealth of monsters and creatures, each of which have specific weaknesses, abilities and behaviors.
Those hero dice I mentioned are one of the few ways heroes differentiate themselves. Triss, Dandellion and Yarben get a single die each, while Geralt boasts three that give him a much better chance of winning any combat encounter. These dice also include other symbols, such as Witcher Signs for Geralt that can be used to activate development cards. They are also used in other instances, too, including Investigation cards.
As for the Foul Fate tokens, these force you into drawing from the Foul Fate deck that was mentioned earlier. As its name suggests it’s hardly a collection of rainbows and bunny rabbits, rather it’s a lot of cards that make life miserable for the player, sometimes even affecting everybody. Occasionally you’ll get lucky with a card that simply states nothing happens, but other times you’ll be far less fortunate. Crappy outcomes can include stuff like Dijkistra’s men redoubling their efforts to find you, thus making you place a Foul Fate token on ever region that doesn’t already have one, or some sort of fearsome beast might start roaming the land, forcing you to place a gold monster token in the region.
If there’s neither a monster to do glorious battle with or a Foul Token to cry manly tears about then you must advance the dreaded War Track, which is supposed to represent the carnage being wrought by the Nilfgardian army. It doesn’t, though, really. What it actually does is make you place a Bronze monster or Silver monster or Foul Fate token on your region. And that’s it.
Thematically, then, it’s all a little hit and miss, which is hardly surprising as I don’t think anybody would have ever considered The Witcher 3 a prime candidate to base a board game on. After all, this is a series known for it’s dark tone, moral grey areas, tough choices, fascinating and expansive world and its roleplaying. That’s a lot to jam into a boardgame without it looking like a hodge-podge of mechanics and components designed by a chimp that’s been sampling the finest LSD . And then you see the game setup and it looks remarkably simple. Could they really capture the essence of Geralt and co in just a few decks of cards?
You can see how the designer has intended certain things to thematically mirror the videogame. The random encounters of monsters and Foul Fate events as you amble around the board does a reasonable job of recreating how you can come across just about anything on your travels in the videogame, and it’s nice to see side-quests included in the primary quests, mimicking how the main narrative in The Witcher frequently branches out. The flavor text on Investigation cards is kept deliberately vague since they aren’t location specific in the same way that something like Arkham Horror is, but it still helps brings a reasonably powerful story element to the game when combined with the primary quest cards that could be mistaken for something out of The Witcher 3 if you squint hard enough, albeit without the tough moral decisions and same hard-hitting narratives, although it does give it a shot. Yes, some of the endings to the quests are suitably dark, but the blunt truth is that without a lot more text to expand on these events and give players time to actually get invested they can’t even come remotely close to something like the Bloody Baron storyline from the Witcher 3. Still, from a story perspective this boardgame does do a better job at telling an enjoyable tale than most, so kudos for that. If you really like other games like Robinson Crusoe because they create stories for the player using flavour text then The Witcher Board Game might be for you.
So yes, the game is trying to mirror its videogame cousin pretty hard and it does sort of succeed at times, but ultimately I couldn’t shake the feeling that when I was playing it….it just wasn’t evoking much of a Witcher feel. It could have literally been any generic fantasy setting and it wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference. Now, you could say the same of something like XCOM The Board, that if you stripped away the name it wouldn’t ultimately matter. But the thing is if you stripped the XCOM name away from that game and handed it to me, the first thing I’d probably say after playing it is, “bloody hell, that’s XCOM in board game form”, whereas with this there’s absolutely nothing that would make me think of the Witcher.
You also need to play it with a firm understanding that skill isn’t a major factor in winning. There’s some strategy in picking out the best route around the board and deciding whether it’s worth aiming to complete a side-quest or support quest, but the Investigation decks hold a lot of sway over who wins and who doesn’t, as do the Foul Fate and Good Fortune cards. You can only really steer your character toward victory, but as you stand there gloating over your friends you won’t be able to pinpoint any strategy or decisions you made that really cemented your triumph.
The final thing we have to talk about is….well, just look at the pictures. How God damn pretty is this board game? I mean, seriously, just look at it. The game is awash with vibrant colors, especially the board which looks truly, truly beautiful, featuring a wonderful art-style. For the players to make their way around the board they get some detailed miniatures of the four characters, with Geralt and Triss looking particularly awesome, as you can clearly see. Of course they aren’t the most detailed miniatures in the world, but they still look damn good and I can’t wait to get ’em painted up. Meanwhile the various cards are all made of nice, textured stock, with my only complaint being that certain ones use a different artists whose style I just can’t gel with. Quite simply this is one of the best looking board games I’ve ever seen.
It’s interesting, really. From a thematic standpoint the Witcher Board Game just isn’t doing it for me, rarely evoking any sense that it’s connected to the videogame series. Nor is it anything particularly special. There’s no mechanics that stand out as very interesting, hence the lack of a full-blown recommendation sticker at the end of this review since it’s reserved for. Here’s the kicker, though; I kept playing it. I had fun watching stories form from the Investigation cards and quests, and there’s a pleasing, almost soothing feeling that stems from the rhythm of the game. It’s not particularly complex, either, making it a good way to spend a few hours with friends who aren’t willing to read a small book just to figure out what a dice roll means.