"This is the wandering sea. The gods have brought you here, and you must wake them if you wish to return home”. With these words, your adventure begins. And in my opinion, that adventure is one of the best board games ever made.
Set in 1929, you and up to 3 friends play as the crew of The Manticore. Your ship was caught in a storm on the journey from Hong Kong to New York and you now find yourselves stranded in a strange land with only one way home - you must wake the Sleeping Gods.
This is a campaign game, played over a number of sessions as you explore the world. You will go on quests, fight strange monsters and meet a host of characters, each of whom will shape your unique journey.
A Captain And Her Crew
The first big difference to most other campaign games is that you will each control multiple characters throughout the campaign. The Manticore is captained by Sofi Odessa and crewed by 8 other (wonderfully diverse) people. You will divide these roles as equally as possible between players, with Sofi always being controlled by whoever is currently taking their turn.
However, a lot of the actions you take during the game will require skill checks and everyone can get involved, which means you’re always excited when another player takes their turn. It also means you’ll be equally invested in how each character improves and evolves during your play through.
Those improvements come in the form of level cards, which are permanent upgrades that cost XP, and abilities, which are temporary but only cost command tokens to equip. What are command tokens you ask? Well, let me explain…
Command & Conquer
Each turn of the game is divided into three phases - the ship phase, drawing an event card and the action phase. During the ship phase, you will take one of six ‘ship actions’.
Each of these actions will give you a benefit (healing one of your characters, more ability cards etc…) and a set amount of command tokens. These tokens are used for all sorts of things -
- Your items each have a command cost and can only be activated by placing that many tokens on them.
- If you want to help another character out during a skill check, you have to discard one.
- Each character has innate skills (printed on their board) that can be activated using tokens.
- Some ability cards require tokens to be spent to activate their powers.
The beauty of this system is that it requires you to get very creative. The supply of these tokens is limited, so if you’re supposed to collect some on your turn and there are none left, you’re out of luck.
One of the ship actions returns all the tokens back to the supply, but you can’t do the same ship action two turns in a row. This means you always have to be planning ahead. Do you use that item now, knowing you won’t be able to get the tokens back (and therefore won’t be able to use it again) for two turns? And what if you want to save some for a tough skill check or surprise combat encounter?
Every decision feels weighty and fosters lots of conversation around the table, as you try to plan ahead for your next adventure.
We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
Speaking of adventure, it’s time to talk about the real heart of this game. The majority of your time in Sleeping Gods will be spent sailing around the world map (a beautifully illustrated atlas) and getting caught up in all sorts of weird and wonderful quests.
The game comes with a 170-page storybook, and there are over 200 locations to visit on the map. Each one will lead you on some sort of mini choose-your-own-adventure, in which your crew will be asked to make tough decisions, skill checks and possibly fight monsters.
A lot of these stories come with quest cards, which contain a keyword and a short summary of the mission you’ve undertaken. In terms of game mechanics, this means that when you explore, the storybook might throw up options that require these keywords (e.g ‘You spot some markings on the cave wall - if keyword TABLET, turn to option 2. Otherwise turn to option 3’).
This works on a number of levels - if you have the relevant keyword, it’s wonderful to feel like you’re actually on a quest and to maybe reach the conclusion of something you started hours ago. But if you don’t have the keyword, the rulebook encourages you to annotate your map (a scaled down version of the entire atlas), so that you can come back later if you start the relevant quest.
By the end of our campaign, our map was absolutely riddled with keywords, clues, hints for future playthroughs and warnings. It’s so immediately thematic, despite being such a simple touch, and I wish more games employ something similar.
The other brilliant thing about this mechanic is that, unlike some games in this genre (I’m looking at you, Tainted Grail), the story is never held hostage by skill checks. If you fail a check, something bad usually happens (lose some health, gain fatigue etc…) but the narrative continues.
This makes your decisions so much more freeing, as the advancement of a quest isn’t based entirely on a lucky card draw. You still get to experience the story, but your character might come out the other end a little battered and bruised.
I’ve mentioned combat a few times, so it’s probably worth explaining how fights work -
Each combat encounter starts with you drawing quest-specific monsters from a facedown deck (the rulebook instructs you not to look at these cards beforehand), shuffling them, and then setting them out in a line.
The monsters each have an attack and defense stat, as well as a 3x3 grid showing various symbols. On your turn, you will activate one of your characters and draw a fate card, adding the amount shown to their accuracy stat (modified by any weapon, item or skill you might want to use). If the total is the same or higher than the enemy's defense, you hit!
However, it’s not as simple as just taking HP off the monster until it dies. Every monster has a certain number of hearts somewhere on their grid and you need to cover them up to defeat it. Therefore, combat becomes a sort of spatial puzzle that you solve over multiple turns.
Say you do 4 damage on your turn - you’ll place 4 damage tokens onto the grid, but each one has to be adjacent to a previous token. This means you have to be really tactical with where you choose to inflict damage. It’s often not possible to kill a monster in one hit, so you want to make sure you’re helping out the next player as much as possible.
Combine this with the fact that monsters also have other effects on their grids (bonus damage, status effects etc…) that are prevented when you cover them up, and you’ll see how tricky your decisions can be each round.
Of Space & Time
One of the other interesting aspects of Sleeping Gods is that the campaign is always the same length, but there is no set path to take during your time in this world.
As I mentioned earlier, you will draw an event card on every turn of the game and the event deck acts as a sort of timer. You start by making a deck of 18 cards and once this runs out, you will face a scripted event in the storybook. Do this two more times, for a total of 54 events/turns, and the game is over.
However, there is no definitive ‘win condition’. There are 13 different endings to the story, so the choices you make will always lead somewhere. The goal of the game is to find as many totems as possible, but it’s entirely up to you how you go about it.
Do you want to focus on a few sections of the atlas and visit every location, trying to complete every quest? Or do you want to just sail the seas and see what happens, maybe simply learning more about the world for a future play-through?
During my campaign, there were 2 whole pages of the atlas that we never even saw. I have no idea what awaits me in the frozen north, or in any of the 160 locations we didn’t have time to explore, but I can’t wait to find out.
At this point, I should probably let you in on a secret - we played the campaign on easy mode. After the game was released, Ryan Laukat added an official easy variant for the game (you can find it on BGG/Red Raven’s website) to help ease new players in. You start with a few resources, extra money and 20XP, which can make the early game much more manageable.
It’s not that I think the game is liable to be particularly unfair on normal mode, or that any of the rules are unbalanced or not fun. It’s simply that we wanted to enjoy the story without worrying too much about the possibility of defeat around every corner.
That said, the game was no walk in the park. We had our fair share of tough fights during our adventure, and we failed plenty of skill checks. I know lots of people enjoy the challenging, against-the-odds nature of some campaign games, but I think it’s worth knowing you have options, should you wish to use them.
What A Wonderful World
Finally, I have to talk about the aesthetic of this game. Simply put - it’s gorgeous.
Every component is fantastic -
- The atlas is full of character, with little touches that help guide you during quests.
- The characters are diverse, with lovely illustrations (and backstories) on their boards.
- The monster deck is full of wild and beautiful creatures, each lovingly hand drawn.
- All the tokens are wonderfully tactile, whether cardboard or wooden.
- The storage solution is great, most notably a magnetised box to hold all your quest and adventure cards.
- Did I mention you get a plastic ship?!
The love and attention to detail that has gone into this world is, quite frankly, insane. I think Ryan Laukat might be a wizard.
Adventure Is Out There!
At this point, it goes without saying that I absolutely recommend this game.
Do I think it’s for everyone? Not at all. If you don’t like campaign/story games, this won’t change your mind. It’s definitely less complex than some others on the market, but it’s still a big investment. Our first campaign took around 20 hours and we ended up leaving it on the table for 2 weeks straight. The thought of packing it away and then unpacking it each time was too much to bear.
However, if you do enjoy this type of game, and you’re looking to get swept up in a new adventure, I genuinely don’t think they get better than this. From the production, through the storytelling and mechanics, this game delivers on all fronts.
And all of this is without factoring in the Tides Of Ruin expansion, which expands the map and adds more than 100 new locations to visit. There’s also a Dungeons expansion that should be coming to retail this year, adding even more replayability.
Simply put - Sleeping Gods is the best game I played in 2021.