Today on Dice Hate Me, we’re lucky to have a guest review by the most excellent and always helpful Marc Specter. Marc takes a look at Lyssan – a sprawling boardgame that racked up some nice funding last year on Kickstarter, at about the same time as Carnival. So grab ye some mead, dear readers, and dig into this special feast!
The arrival of Lyssan is upon us. As team leader of the group that was privileged to run Lyssanat Origins this year, I feel it incumbent upon me to provide you, gentle gamer, a preview of your next great game.
We play in a time where few games make it to the table more than a few times, and where the new hotness is taking the shelf space as the old hotness leaves it. Lyssan is not the fast food gaming experience. Lyssan is the multi-course meal, to be savored for the experience, and whose depth can only be appreciated with reflection and re-engagement. The great thing is that as games go, Lyssan deserves to be played repeatedly.
Lyssan invites you into its story: a kingdom in strife for 200 years, now 4 forces have arisen, one of whom will finally seize control of the kingdom and lead it into the next great era. Will it be the faction that you control? Take the role of the Wolf, Hawk, Vulture, or Council and control your knights, nobles, priests, and spies in a bid for Triumphs. Claiming these triumphs will make you the ultimate ruler, and your enemies will be no more, shamed into oblivion.
Aesthetically and tactilely Lyssan is top notch. From the rulebook to the quality of the pieces, Thornhenge has not cut corners at any stage. The rulebook easily wins the award for the most unique cover, even if it is a bit fantasy trope-ish with its warrior maiden. And the title sets the tone for the experience: “A Young Lady’s Guide to Treachery and Military Operations.” Subtitle: “…or the rules to the game of Lyssan.” The rulebook is laid out well, with each aspect of set-up and play first described, then illustrated on the facing page. There is a lot going on in Lyssan, and Thornhenge has done a good job of boiling that down to what you need to know so you can get to playing.
The board is a fantastic and colorful homage to many a map of yore, with the names of each region in faux German for flavor. As playing spaces go it is varied and appealing without distracting from play or burdening your eye with unnecessary detail. The playing pieces are fantastic: thick cardboard chits with artwork and iconography whose meaning is easily understood. Knights are represented by swords, nobles by crowns, shame by crying peasants, and so on. The original art on the playing cards is museum quality, and depicts medieval scenes in an impressionist style. The story of the game is very well represented and carries throughout. The pièce de résistance however are the chunky little castles that are so perfect you can just see your tiny armies marching out. As Kickstarter projects go, Thornhenge has delivered a product that is a work of art as much as a game. Many projects from longer established companies have done much worse by their supporters.
Lyssan plays out over rounds that represent years in game time. Each year comprises four seasons in which you are allowed to take actions with your forces, where you will jockey for control. Sounds pretty typical so far, right? At first glance at the map and markers, you might think Lyssan is a game of “world domination,” akin to Small World. You’d be about 25% correct. While possessing territory is a part of the game, occupation alone won’t get you to the coveted Triumphs. Each game will play differently based on the Triumphs you are working to claim. In some games the brute force of your knights might be rewarded, while in others the sly workings of your spies might win the day. And the Triumphs are not apparent at the outset, but revealed as the game progresses. So while a player might have a smashing victory, claiming the first Triumph, what it took to get there might leave him in a uniquely inappropriate position to claim further Triumphs. Hence the need to keep your actions in some measure of balance. And that does not even begin to address the Influence cards, whose play can easily shift the game in unexpected ways.
Game play begins with the Prelude, in which each player sets up his holdings by placing his knights, nobles, and castles (with either spy or priest). Once done, each player may play as many Influence cards as he wishes (and can afford) to turn the game in his favor. The Influence cards range in cost from 0-3, and their efficacy varies with their value. There are 3 types of influence cards. Surprises will have a one-off effect, and help to throw off your opponents’ otherwise carefully laid plans. Courtiers will stay in play throughout game, providing a permanent advantage, like an additional resource during taxation. Vassal Courtiers will also stay in play, but actually give you additional forces to count as your own. Each player begins the game with a hand of 4 Influence cards, and then has to pay for the cards he uses with other Influence cards. Since the number of Influence in hand directly affects turn order in subsequent rounds, the player is compelled to carefully consider how it is spent. This is a brilliant balancing that keeps in check an otherwise very powerful hand provided through random dealing.
After the Prelude, the year begins. The seasons play out as spring, summer, autumn, and winter, each with specific actions to take. Spring can be thought of as the set up season. In spring, a new Triumph is revealed, and an earlier Triumph may be awarded if conditions are met. If during spring a player acquires the number of Triumphs he needs to win the game, the game comes to an end.
The major actions and interactions will take place in summer and autumn, and they play out along similar paths, with one significant difference. At the beginning of summer and autumn, you will ready your agents, having exhausted them in previous turns. You will then resolve shame. Shame, a unique aspect of Lyssan, is acquired when one of your agents is killed in the field or when you are denounced by an opponent’s priest. If a player is unable to get rid of shame he is out of the game. Perhaps equally significant, an overabundance of shame, even if you can resolve it, will derail your plans. Resolving shame requires the sacrifice of valuable resources or puts you in debt. Lastly, in summer you will collect resources (Influence, Conscripts, Coin), where in autumn you will gain 2 Influence.
All of this readies each player for the second half of each season, where you can take various actions to advance your position in the game and angle for the Triumph to be awarded in spring.
These actions are:
- Use a ready agent. Each agent—knight, noble, priest, or spy—has specific actions it can take. Use these to either damage or threaten to damage your opponents.
- Hire a new agent; begin or finish a castle. New agents can be hired from your own forces or from those of your Vassal Courtiers. Slain agents can also be replaced. Castles are your strongholds, and not only do they hold territory, but they also provide protection to agents in the same province. If you lose all of your castles your game is over.
- Play Influence. Influence can be played from your hand at any time during your turn as long as you can afford it. You will pay for Influence with a number of cards equal to the value of the card you played.
- Clear debt. One of the ways you can relieve Shame in Lyssan is to incur Debt. There are a number of Debt conditions and you can settle them up during this phase. Clearing Debt means a sacrifice of resources, sometimes to the hand of your opponents.
- Trade with the bank. In order to bring new agents or castles onto the field, you need to pay for them. Sometimes you don’t always get what you need through taxation. Here you can trade with the bank to get new conscripts or coin.
- Any other command that a card provides as an option. Played Influence cards will provide flexibility of action that will fall outside the scope of the above possibilities.
These actions can be taken in any order, and each player gets to execute his full turn before it passes to the next. The explanations above only scratch the surface of how these actions will affect gameplay. It is in the careful consideration and execution where the game will be won or lost.
Once spring and autumn have played out, cold bitter winter sets in. In winter player order is reset based on both Influence and Debts. It is the player with the least of these in hand at the beginning of winter who will go first next spring. Make no mistake, player order can have a significant impact on subsequent gameplay. And the years will continue to pass until one player has claimed the requisite number of Triumphs and declared victory.
So where does Lyssan suffer some bumps and bruises? I think Lyssan loses a touch of its shine in 3 areas, all of which are pretty minor in consideration of whether or not a game will make it to my table again:
- Let’s not ignore the ele-font in the room. Despite the incredible art and graphic design, the primary font used for the game’s title as well as on the cards is a challenge to read, especially when it is placed on the rich backdrops. Fortunately, it is in the title spaces alone where this font is used, and any text that is functional is in a much cleaner script.
- There is also a bit of a coloration issue. (Here I must say that I played a very early version of the game, and it is possible that this coloration issue might be eliminated in the final version.) There are a few color pairs, i.e., green & gold, red & orange, that are so close together that it definitely takes the mind an extra beat to process exactly which one you are looking at. Fortunately, all of the player colors are very distinct from one another, and this only becomes an issue when particular Vassal Courtier chits are introduced into the game.
- The last and perhaps most significant issue with Lyssan is that it has a very high bar for entry. Lyssan is easily the heaviest game in my collection, with a steep learning curve. You should probably plan a night around your first game of Lyssan, as your initial game will easily clock in at 3-4 hours. And if you have an AP-prone player, for everyone’s sake break out a timer and limit summer and autumn to no more than 5 minutes per player. It takes a good amount of time to understand the nuances of your agents and the effect any one move can have on the game. Even after my third game I find myself referencing my player board to review my options. But this does reduce over time, and a game of well-versed players should be no more than 2 hours.
Despite these issues, Lyssan will reward you for the time you spend with it. Even on my first play, it had that indefinable something that makes me want to play it again. I am not a heavy strategy gamer—my preferences tend to run toward games with a bit more luck—but Lyssan will have me coming back for more. I find myself compelled to understand the game in a way that most games not only don’t draw out of me, but can’t, because they are just not that deep. You will find yourself drawn into the world of Lyssan, vying for the Triumphs, and seeking to unite the land under your rule.