Cthulhu. Sherlock Holmes. Neil Gaiman. Boardgames. Are you excited yet? A Study in Emerald is loosely based upon Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning short story. In this story, we are cast back into 19th Century, but instead of Queen Victoria sitting upon the throne of England, we have a typically Lovecraftian Old-One: Gloriana.
In this secret-semi-co-op game, players will either attempt to assassinate the Old Ones (Restorationists) which are now ruling the world or (as Loyalists) thwart those attempts by first identifying and assassinating those who seek to bring about that change.
Playing the Game
A Study in Emerald has a medley of game mechanics and an assortment of custom meeples and cards which are used to guide you through this game of deduction and assassination.
- Deck Building - Eight Cities from continental Europe and the UK are represented on the game board, and each has its own City Card and ensconced reigning alien monstrosity. Action cards are then added to each location and shuffled to create a unique city deck. The topmost card is revealed and this is the card players can purchase – or if it is a Royal; can then be assassinated. Players begin with a starting deck of ten cards, which they can then use in a variety of ways, but mainly to buy new cards and build their decks.
- Area Control - Players will use their cards to increase their influence in a city – needed to buy cards, or to stop opponents buying cards, but they will also move their Agents, to be able to make assassinations.
- Hidden Roles - All of the above is done whilst playing as either a Loyalist or a Restorationist, so you’ll be trying to buy cards that will help you, but not give away which side you’re on, while also trying to work out who is also on the same side as you, because…
- Semi-Co-Op - This is sort of a semi-co-op game, only one player will be the true winner, but; the player with the lowest score will actually drag everyone on their side down five victory points during final scoring. Also, as a Restorationist, you never want your identity revealed, done by either losing all your Sanity tokens – via the Sanity die - or losing all your Agents from the board, because that immediately ends the game.
When thinking about this game, and how to review it I’m struck by two phrases which I think sum it up: Chekhov’s Gun and Rachel’s Trifle.
Anton Chekhov is a playwright and short story writer who is widely known for his instruction to only include “elements” in a story if they are relevant and necessary. Rachel, a character in the nineties TV show FRIENDS once accidentally cooked a Trifle and Cottage pie as one thing.
How do these apply to this game? Well, it could easily be argued that neither Neil Gaiman nor his short story have anything to do with this game (or at least very, very little), despite the title and the name emblazoned across the box. This “disassociation” also extends to the Sherlock Holmes link – yes there are some cards with character names from the cannon but it is literally the name and the likeness which is used.
If Holmes and Watson were replaced by Bert and Ernie it would have zero impact on the actual game. Zombies and Vampires; these creatures don’t really feature in Sherlock Holmes stories to the best of my knowledge, and although zombies appear in Lovecraft’s work; it isn’t alongside Cthulhu, and yet the game comes with some cool zombie meeples, which only get used if one of 66 cards (1.5% chance) is drawn and seeded into one of the city decks.
Good & Bad Points
There are a lot of things going on in this game, a lot, which does lend to the chaotic and confusing theme but not necessarily always in a good way. Each of the individual mechanics work, and work well, but the mixing pot of them all, explained in an obtuse rule book means it is a very bumpy ride playing this game. In fact you’ll need several play-throughs to really get to grips with how to play it, and those play-throughs may be pretty frustrating.
The artwork is something that can’t be ignored in this game, and much like the gameplay I feel is much divided. The box, as you would expect has an Old One stomping through/over Victorian London, the board is brilliant, with really detailed hieroglyphics about the Old-Ones coming to earth seven hundred years before the game is set and even the iconography of the nine possible actions make all of the cards really clear.
But the card art, the thing you spend the most time looking at is…well, it’s not a style I like very much (reminds me a lot of Tim Sale’s work on the Batman’s the Long Halloween amongst many others), and I don’t think really fits the theme very well, but more so than that, I think it is quite poor.
I’m not knocking the artist; Ian O’Toole, (I think Vinhos and the Gallerist are particularly lovely looking games), but the card artwork in A Study in Emerald looks like they are all half-finished colour roughs.
A Study in Emerald - Final Thoughts
Ultimately; this game has some good mechanics, the hidden-role-co-op is particularly interesting. The theme and IP is interesting if not fully or as thickly applied as the box cover may lead you to believe.
The short run-time (for a game like this) is very short, and the player interaction is really very good. But, you will have to work at this game, you will have to slug through the rule book and look to FAQs and so on to really understand it, so getting it to the table might not be that easy, or frequent, but when you do, you may well find the experience if not enjoyable, at least interesting.