Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.
I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).
But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.
So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.
Near & Far
Finally! I can talk about a game I almost unequivocally like. I am committed to Near & Far, for several reasons, and I am aching to get on to those reasons, but first I must slide two small but detailed grievances over the table to get them out of my system and indicate that absolutely nothing in this world is perfect.
Firstly, I found it weirdly hard to build and maintain momentum in this game. That is absolutely a problem I have with most games (it’s telling, for instance, that my most successful wargaming is done with ‘undead’ themed forces whose ‘attrition and restore’ style allows for compensation should the controlling player lose tempo), but it was a minor sticking point, like a puddle of salty caramel ‘neath the remorseless boot of progress. If you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated when other people charge across the map and you’re plodding away taking three turns to reach all the good shit they’ve hoovered up – that might be a concern for you.
Secondly, the ‘bad guy’ options – the specific artefacts which demand that you accumulate negative Reputation in order to purchase them – are sometimes weirdly expensive for what they can do. The little utility ones are fine, but big fuckers like the flaming crossbow and the iron crown are punishingly expensive for very little payout, especially when you’re taking an overall score hit by being unpopular enough to use them.
I came into this game thinking that there was a way to make crime pay, a viable reason to choose Being Bad. Now I think those artefacts are in there as a sort of consolation prize for people who’ve had to be Bad and would otherwise be shut out of the game. If you come at this like it’s an RPG, think of it firmly in terms of old D&D where being an evil character was an accident you made the best of, rather than a balanced alternative to being a goodie.
Right. That’s that done. Let’s talk about how fucking great Near & Far is.
Near & Far is a really really good, competitive-but-not story/exploration game. It has a lot of the trappings of the Eurogame – multiple resources which are generally harvested one or two at a time, random asset drawing, token placement, abstract victory points system – but it couples them to a delightfully soft-aesthetic pseudo-RPG.
Players pick a character and set off on either a map-based sandbox campaign or a personal storyline campaign. (Those of us who have played Shadow of Mordor give a thousand thanks that Near & Far doesn’t have those concepts squatting cheek by jowl throughout the entire fucking experience.)
In either case the ultimate goal is to locate and explore the Lost Ruin, a sprawling city full of perils and risks and potential (though as we discovered, often hollow) rewards. Play cycles between going on adventures and time spent in town.
The length of adventures is governed by limited rates of movement, bonuses to skills/combat and searching, a renewable modifier resource (hearts) and a non-renewable ‘worker placement’ resource (tents).
All of these, except the tents, can be extended by hiring henchmen and purchasing items, which demands the accumulation of reputation, gold, gems, food and faction prestige. There are multiple ways to scoop up these resources – mining or farming in the town, settling in the wilderness, or accumulating them as quest rewards – but exchanging them and hiring henchmen has to be done in town, and the almost-exclusive way to replenish hearts is to come back to town and leave again.
As characters complete quests, they acquire simple ‘colour this in when you’ve earned it and black it out when you’ve spent it’ experience, which can be spent on talents – generally simple modifiers to things you already do, or straightforward resource generators, rather than entirely new ‘skills’ and ‘spells’, which come into play on the next map.
The net result of all this is a pleasant tempo where sooner or later, even the most fully optimised of characters will have to come home for a breather, and although some people might be able to get further across the map, nobody’s mucking around taking three turns on the trot and zooming ahead while you wait for them to stop winning.
Remember what I said about Brass, and not confusing depth with complexity? This has depth. It’s not simple or easy by any means, but it’s elegant enough in its design and intimate enough in its scale that it teaches itself rather than dumping a huge map and forty possible decisions on you and making you get on with it. There’s town. Do you want to leave town? Better not – you can’t settle anywhere. You’d best hire a henchman. Hit the saloon. That’s what I mean about elegance. No need to come back here and tell people the best way to start playing, no sir.
The glorious strength of Near & Far is that its opportunity costs are generally well balanced. You may be a great duellist but your Reputation’s probably sunk through the floor and you’ll have spent your quest completions on being good in town instead of good at adventuring. It does seem like Meditation plus something that auto-generates Food plus Gem Trading is a bit too powerful, but this… isn’t really a game about winning, as such.
I’m sure you could play Near & Far like a total cockbag and aggressively hunt points, hoover up quest tokens from the map so nobody else gets any, but – in character mode, at least – there’s no real incentive to do that.
If you must bully other players, reading out their quest descriptions from the book-o-quests (a sort of choose-your-own-adventure kind of affair, generally presenting two choices – an easy way and a hard way, a way with a hidden cost and a way with a resource drain, that kind of thing) gives a little flicker of Schadenfreude without you actually having to be a cut-throat little shit.
During this week I’ve talked about the importance of player agency and about multiple rewards, ways to ‘win’ even if you haven’t scored the most points. Near & Far does both of these things really, really well.
The storyline through which your character moves may be pre-defined, but the kind of person you are isn’t. I ran through three maps as Vera, the guard captain tangled up in a revolution against a corrupt governor – on my first one I felt honourable but bemused, on my second I’d gone full outlaw, swaggering around town with a duelling pistol and a Reputation score as low as it could go, on my third I’d built a strong team of robot pals and actually felt like my last choice meant something – personal glory and conquest or the humility to aid the revolution before setting off for the Lost Ruin?
While the storylines run off some pretty simple tropes – it all felt quite young adult JRPG, particularly the storyline for the robot character Grear – they all deliver on those archetypes and hit the right resonances.
(I’m not sure the others agree – Katy in particular felt like I was the only person who got a ‘good’ ending, even if I personally regretted not staying full bastard, but I’d argue that the endings are dramatically and thematically satisfying, even if they all feel like qualified victories. It’s all quite mature really.)
I didn’t actually win a single round on points, and at least once I screwed myself by eating the penalties for low Reputation and discovering there wasn’t much payoff to doing so, but I didn’t ever felt like I’d lost – only, perhaps, that I’d lagged behind.
Bottom line: Near & Far is great.
It’s like low-prep modular D&D for people who aren’t into D&D – like Katy, who I suspect would make a really good DM if she was working off a decent module (and I hadn’t thought that about her before, so this game wins out on ‘learning things about your mates’ too).
It’s rewarding to explore in multiple ways with different priorities, and it’s brave enough to let you go about things your own way.
Highly recommended. Check it out.