A Study In Emerald, from Grey Fox Games, is an area control, deck building hybrid with a rather excellent source pedigree and a hidden role twist. Set in the grim past of an 1882 where the Great Old Ones have not only risen but rule the world, A Study In Emerald is based on the short story by Neil Gaiman of the same name. While the majority of the world has accepted the centuries-long rule of the Great Old Ones, a small band of revolutionaries, called the Restorationists, seek to undermine the status quo and free humanity from alien influences.
Andrew: Now, we just want to say up front that we are reviewing the 2nd edition of A Study In Emerald. We never played the 1st edition, so we’re not going to be making any sort of meaningful comparison of the two, though we have been lead to understand that this edition is more streamlined than the first. I like streamlined, so that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.
Jess: Also, fair warning; A Study In Emerald brings together a few of my favorite things ever – the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes, Neil Gaiman’s writing, and deck building mechanics. While it’s true that there isn’t much in the way of theme penetration, I absolutely adore where the game is coming from, theme-wise as well as mechanically.
Gameplay is a bit of an odd beast, merging deck building, area control, sort of an auction system, and a little hidden role action all at once. Each player will, in classic deck building tradition, start with an identical deck of starter cards. These cards will allow players to take different actions, including gathering and placing influence, manipulating the Loyalist/Restorationist score tracks (more on that in a sec), move (and assassinate) agents, and gather more cards into your personal deck.
Influence, played here by the ubiquitous colored cube, must be added to the game’s 9 locations in order to establish which player has majority control over that space. Only by holding majority in a location can you take cards from that space. The idea is that players will treat influence cube placement almost like an auction – by placing cubes, you are essentially bidding how much you are willing to pay for a card (the cubes you commit must be re-gathered once they are spent).
However, since only the player who claims a card actually ‘spends’ their cubes (the others are returned to the players who placed them), players can frequently drive up the influence cost of cards by placing just enough cubes to tie the lead player.
Jess: Bidding isn’t my favorite mechanic, but A Study In Emerald does make it a bit more strategically interesting because all the ‘auctions’ are happening simultaneously – each of the 9 areas has a pile of cards that can be claimed, and influence cubes will sprinkle all over the board as people try to hone their personal decks.
Aside from placing and moving influence cubes and agents, several of the actions available to players will move the two scoring tracks, the Loyalist and the Restorationist. These two factions are at war with one another, and each player is secretly allied with one faction or the other.
Throughout the game, the two faction score tracks will go up and down, according to cards played, and these score changes will, uniquely, affect all players, since each player could secretly belong to either faction. When the game ends and faction loyalty is revealed, players will adjust their scores to reflect their true value, based only on the faction track to which they actually belong.
Unlike many hidden role games, the distribution of these factions is totally random – it is entirely possible that your group might contain all of one faction or the other, or any mix in between.
Andrew: …Which is odd, really. See, in most hidden role games, the existence of a traitor is assumed, or at least likely. In A Study In Emerald, you never know who is on which team or which teams are even in play, which is great because it really ups the paranoia, but it also kinda doesn’t matter who is on which team, which is less great.
Factions sort of don’t matter because even players of the same faction are in competition with each other. Ultimately, there is no ‘faction’ victory; at the end of the game, it is the player with the highest score who wins a solitary victory. That means that even Loyalist players have reason to screw with each other, and Restorationists have it even worse – if the Loyalist players figure out you’re a Restorationist, they can more or less steamroll the end of the game by attacking you directly. Of course, they may not want to (if the Restoration has a strong lead, for example), but your in the vice as soon as they smell a traitor.
Jess: And I think that’s my biggest problem with the game. In A Study In Emerald, one of the ways that a player can score points (which is how you win) is to assassinate the Royalty, which is to say the Great Old Ones. Of course, doing this is incredibly obvious – you might be pretending to be a Loyalist even while you increase the Restorationist track (‘I know it gives those filthy traitors some points, but I need to move my agents!’), but as soon as you shove a bomb down Nyarlathotep’s throat, the jig is up – no Loyalist would ever make that move…despite the fact that it would be kinda hilarious to watch.
Andrew: Agreed. And that’s not really the problem itself. You would think that killing one of the Great Old Ones would net you just a huge boatload of points, but the fact is it really doesn’t. And considering how tough it is to actually amass the resources to do it (you have to start building your deck towards getting enough ‘Bomb’ icons in your hand to meet the Great Old One’s defense value) and the fact that you essentially out yourself as a Restorationist as soon as you do it, the relatively few points you get from it often aren’t worth it.
Which is a shame, because we feel like assassinating an alien god should be sort of a big deal, and a major turning point for the Restorationists. Certainly not an auto-victory, but definitely more than just ‘you get 4 points and now the Loyalists know who to target’. Of course, if those points are what put you over the top for a win, then awesome, but otherwise, it feels shockingly anticlimactic.
The fact is that, while thematically appropriate, the way Restorationists are always on their heels is one of the unbalanced parts of this game for us. Loyalists get to play however they like – aside from blowing up a Great Old One, nearly anything they do makes sense. And the penalty for Loyalists getting revealed? They gain resources. Meanwhile as soon as the Restorationist is revealed, the game immediately ends.
Andrew: I don’t think the faction mechanics are broken in this game, but I also feel like they could have been somehow more interesting. I love the idea of a hidden role game that works with 2 players, and I love the paranoia of not knowing at all who is working for whom. But as soon as I turn over my own card and see Restorationist, I know that, perhaps appropriately enough, the deck is stacked against me, and if I am outnumbered even by one or two, my game is likely going to end badly.
A Study In Emerald is a really interesting game, mechanically speaking. We love how each card presents a player with multiple options on actions to take and we absolutely adore the theme and presentation. Deck building by area influence/auction is a really neat idea, and we had a lot of fun with the push-pull of that aspect of gameplay. The faction mechanic, while sometimes flawed, does succeed in adding tension and influencing gameplay decisions, although we do wish it felt a little more balanced in that influence.
Overall, while we did have one or two issues with A Study In Emerald, we do think it is a good, enjoyable game. As fans of the source material, we enjoyed the theme and presentation a whole lot, and the gameplay mechanisms themselves are clean and playable. We just wish it had embraced its nature even more, and let the two factions really stand out from one another.
If you want to check out a really interesting deck builder with some cool thematic elements, and if you don’t mind the slightly wonky faction mechanic, A Study In Emerald does have a lot to recommend.
(Thanks to Grey Fox Games for getting us our review copy of A Study In Emerald. Our opinions were not influenced by their generosity, no matter how many cubes they might have placed on us)