Designed by: Anne-Marie DeWitt
Published by: Fireside Games
Copy supplied free of charge by Fireside Games for review.
Back in those darker days when nobody had heard of Kim sodding Kardashian and we still liked to solve problems by building castles and stabbing people with swords witches were not exactly treated kindly. Or to be more specific the typically innocent people accused of being a witch were not treated kindly. These days, of course, we tend to be a bit more civilised and much prefer treating innocent folk unkindly because of far more sensible things like oil. Thank Hades’ for progress, eh?
On paper the theme is awesome; as a witch it’s your simple goal to screw around with a small village’s inhabitants in the name of enjoyment and being evil. You’ll send out minions into the village to gather up ingredients and then use those ingredients to cast spells that turn hapless villagers into frogs, make them fall in love, summon them to certain locations and more. All of this is done to complete your scheme cards in order to earn points and hopefully beat the other players.
To setup you shuffle the six modular boards together and then lay them out on the table to form an oblong, although you can create different shapes provided the grids match up. These boards contain a few different locations; the tithe barn, the lord’s manor, the mill, the farm and the forge. You shuffle special Eye of Newt cards into the ingredient decks and then place them on their respective locations around the boards. It’s these that will be the fuel for your spells. Each player is given five familiars in the form of tokens, two of which are placed on locations that generate ingredients, and a third one is placed in the village green. After that everyone is given three scheme cards that tell them what they’re going to be doing and a screen to hide them behind that also lists the various spells and ingredient requirements. Once all that’s sorted out everybody gets two ingredients from each area they placed a familiar, which in most cases means they’ll begin with four cards. The forge creates fire, the mill pumps out flour, the manor is full of silver coins and the farm produces soil. With each player holding a few starting ingredients the game begins.
Each turn starts with players having to pay a tithe in the form of a single ingredient from their hand to the tithe barn before they can enter the casting and movement phase where all the action happens. Firstly you can move your familiars and/or any of the six villagers a total of six spaces around the board. These 6 points of movement can be split up between familiars and villagers which lets you scoot minions across the land in order to get different ingredients or position villagers for your nefarious plans. As a witch you are never directly step onto the board as a playing piece, rather you circle the village high above on your broomstick and simply have your familiars do all the groundwork for you. Cackling is optional, but encouraged.
There can only ever be an amount of familiars equal to the amount of players within any given location, otherwise an effect called scattering activates. If this happens the villager that began the game in that location will be recalled and all but the last familiar will be sent back to the village green. It’s an interesting mechanic that stops one player piling familiars into one location or everybody going for the same stuff, potentially forcing them to alter their plan.
To cast any of the spells you just need to announce your intentions and discard the required ingredients, with the Eye of Newt cards acting as wildcards that can take the place of anything. There’s a rule included that states player’s must say the incantation as well or else the spell will be cancelled and the ingredients lost, but unsurprisingly that can become tiresome quickly unless everyone at the table is in a good enough mood to keep it up or possibly drunk. Things become far more entertaining if use your own incantations, but even then it becomes old rather fast. By casting spells you can do a small variety of things, such as summoning a villager to a location containing one of your familiars. You can also make villagers fall in love with each other, switch places or even transform them into frogs. On top of that there’s a spell to let you grab ingredients from the tithe barn and another to summon extra familiars. Finally there’s a binding spell that stops anything moving in or out of a location and blocks spells too until the location is unbound, and there’s one that let’s you cancel out an opponent’s spell, too. Sadly you can’t hurl some fireballs or curse anyone with the pox. Damn.
These spells will be used to complete your witch’s schemes, objectives that remain hidden from all the other players and must be completed to amass the 13 victory points needed to win. At the start of the game you’re randomly dealt one from each of the three decks. The easiest cards are worth a single point, the second deck is worth two and final deck of cards are worth three points each. Obviously, though, the more points the card is worth the harder it is to actually complete, typically requiring several spells or a good bit of setup to achieve. You might need to summon a villager to a location and then turn them into a frog or get several people into one area. Some of the objectives can be achieved passively, which is to say they can happen without your own agency, but others have to be actively done by you. Interestingly you can complete a scheme out of turn by paying one silver and then casting any required spells. This lets you take advantage of any opportune situations that pop up. When a scheme is completed you take one card from each deck and choose to keep one of them, meaning you can decide whether to chase easier quests or go for the bigger points There’s some minor balancing issues here as there’s sometimes when you’ll draw some cards and discover that one of them is very clearly better than the others. There’s a couple of these cards spread through the decks that could have done with being nerfed a touched.
As you can tell it’s not a hugely complex or difficult game. It’s almost a puzzle as you quickly work out which schemes are going to be the easiest for you to complete based on the ingredients you currently have and the position of various villagers around the settlement. You have to decide whether it’s worth maybe moving familiars around to gather different ingredients needed for a level three scheme, or if you should use what you have and perhaps just finish up a quest worth a single point so that you can get to pick out a new one that could be more favorable in the current situation. See? A Puzzle.
At least, that’s what it seems like at first until you realise The Village Crone basically boils down to player’s screwing each over entirely by accident. Each player’s schemes are hidden, and thus while you can take vague guesses at what people are up to and attempt to mess up their plans a lot of the time stopping an opponent happens completely by accident. You might bind a location to complete your objective, for example, only to hear a groan of frustration from the opposite side of the table as somebody else realises they’re not going to have to spend ingredients to unbind that location so they execute their scheme. With two players it’s bad enough, but with four people trying to cast spells the game becomes a giant game of tug of war as villagers are shifted around, locations get binded and folk are turned into frogs or made to fall in love. You’re just as likely to end up helping an opponent out as you are to ruin their plans entirely, leaving little room for genuine strategy. In most cases I noted that my group tended to favor hoarding ingredients in order to execute everything needed for a scheme in a single turn in order to hopefully avoid getting screwed over by somebody else who was just trying to sort themselves out.
There’s a solo mode included for folk like myself who have friends that love boardgames but struggles to get said friends together frequently because people have commitments, responsibilities and evil lairs to maintain. For this reason I did consider running The Village Crone review under my Single-Player series, although obviously I opted to give it a regular review. In the single player the ingredient decks are reduced to just 10 cards each with Eye of Newts and the goal is achieve 15 points before you run out. Without a bunch of players vying for control over the board the game turns into more of a puzzle where you have to try to optimise your moves and pick out which scheme’s seem the best to aim for.
The components are another area where the game doesn’t hit the mark. The modular boards are reasonably thick and sturdy but they look utterly boring. The generic buildings are surrounding by flat green terrain with some half-hearted attempts at decoration in the form of minimal foliage. The villagers that inhabit these boards are drawn on reasonably thick card that slots into cheap plastic bases. In a nice touch, though, you can download free files from the developers official website that can be used to 3D print miniatures for the game. The ingredient cards are okay, but the schemes are dull to look at and are printed on thin card. At least the tokens for the familiars are a bit better as they’re made out of reasonable stock. I do also appreciate that you’re given pink rings for use with binding spells and some love hearts that can connect villagers together. I also have to say the art is quite lovely, especially on the box itself. I’d love to have seen the artist given more room to play with the boards.
It’s ultimately the theme that left me feeling disappointed in the game as its vast potential goes largely wasted. Most of this problem stems from the scheme cards which struggle to connect themselves to the theme properly. Some of them make sense, such as being tasked with storming the Lord’s Manor by getting two villagers to that location or having to smirch the priest’s reputation by getting him to the tithe barn and then using the fortune spell to steal three ingredients from it.. Others however, don’t make quite so much sense. You may be told to smite the villagers, for example, which you do by making two of them fall in love and then switching them with a familiar. Or you may be told to embarass the priest by getting him and the blacksmith to the mill, and then summoning the priest to the tithe barn. It works, but only loosely.
And that defines the game for me; it works, but only loosely. Some flavour text on the scheme cards could have boosted the thematic clout of the game a fair bit by giving your actions a little more context. Meanwhile the gameplay doesn’t have enough variety or depth to be strategic, but isn’t fun enough to attract an audience just looking for a bit of chaos, either. It is chaotic, just in the wrong ways. Constantly having your plans thwarted by somebody who doesn’t even know that they’re screwing you over becomes frustrating. With two players there’s some enjoyment to be had from the frantic summoning and transforming into frogs, but as soon as 3 or even 4 people sit down around the table it becomes a tug of war from hell with players accidently helping out opponents simply because they were trying to set up their own plans and had no idea what everybody else was doing.
I guess the best and most vague way to sum up my feelings is that The Villager Crone didn’t click with me at all. I quickly grew tired one of its gameplay as one scheme felt pretty much like the other. It was comparable to constantly trudging through RPG fetch quests but without the cool reward at the end, the equivalent of being told to go and gather 10 of something only to return and find out that the reward for doing the quest was the quest itself. It’s a shame because I really wanted to love The Village Crone; the theme really appeals to me, the artwork is lovely and the idea of using workers to gather materials to cast spells on hapless villagers is pretty awesome. It just doesn’t come together.