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Review: They Who Were 8

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The gods are fickle and mercurial beings, always toying with us and…wait a minute.  I feel like I’ve said this before.  Oh, that’s right, I have.  Well, it rings true again, nonetheless.  But this time, you must tell their story.  Which deity among the pantheon will rise to influence, but use enough trickery, treachery and seduction to snatch victory from even the more glorious of their brethren?  Whoever it is, will you preserve their story for the coming generations?

How To Play

In They Who Were 8 players are bards recounting epic tales of the gods.  Players resolve action cards to bring glory (positive points) and infamy (negative points) to the various gods in play, represented by tiles.

In the individually competitive Titanomachy variant each player serves two immortals in particular, one paired with another from each of their neighbors.  Your goal is to bring lots of glory to a pair of deities containing one of your patrons, but not too much glory to yours specifically.  The winner is the player whose god has the least points among the pair with the highest total value.  Perhaps this shows they’re magnanimity?  Or possibly their chicanery.

Alternatively in the 4-player partner Pantheon variant, your god tiles are not paired with those of others.  Instead you endeavor to bring glory to your patrons, while blemishing the good name of your rivals with infamy.  The team with the most glory between their four deities wins.

The temples align…

Play is simple.  In addition to their tandem immortals, players begin with three action cards.  On a turn you’ll play one of these.  Actions generally add, remove or transfer glory and infamy tokens to, from or between gods.  The catch is that almost every action cannot affect any of your own gods as the current active player.  Except in a 2-player session when there’s no other choice.

There is one card that applies only to you when played.  There are also a couple that may affect any gods in the pantheon.  However, mostly you’re manipulating the glory and infamy heaped upon others’ patrons.  The seesaw process, then, means bumping up the points in pairs that include you and reducing points elsewhere – all while trying to keep you own gods low enough to win inside the dominant pair.

Each god also has a special ability you may use once during the game.  When you resort to that power, flip the tile over to also designate one permanent infamy.  You may not use that god’s bonus again – unless you play the right action card to regain it.

After each bard has played one card in a round, everyone passes one from their hand to the player on their left.  The first player tile advances clockwise.  The discard pile is shuffled back into the draw pile and everyone draws one card.

The game ends immediately when one of the piles of tokens are emptied.  The action card played to trigger this must be able to use the exact number of tokens remaining in order to do so.  After all you must have a tidy conclusion to your epic.

What characteristic should we attribute to the gods this time?

The Gods Must be Amazing

Todd Sanders is designer, illustrator and graphic artist for this wholly singular experience.  He’s well-known within the print-and-play community with a sizable ludography of titles in that medium, especially solitaire games.  Thus began the life of They Who Were 8, reportedly based on some poetry Sanders wrote nearly two decades ago, until LudiCreations picked up the design.  And while it doesn’t completely deliver the reflective, cerebral sentiment that poetry often conveys, it is still a standout change of pace.

Sanders’ illustrations and graphic design radiate the first expressions of that freshness.  Its starkness hints at some underlying symbolism probably associated with his poetry.  If so, that connection is lost without any reference to that source material.  Otherwise, it looks rather postmodern, although very minimalist and without all of the philosophical and social backlash, I’m sure.  Initially from its appearance alone, I felt a sense that I was sitting down to experience something wholly unique.  Ironically, the result proved exactly that, but not necessarily because of the theme, which rather quickly disconnected from gameplay.

The melodious action cards sing to you.

Namely the poetic element is a bit of stretch.  While playing “The Valour of” on “Bold Endymina” with its dulcet-sounding “stepping upon the plain…” is lyrical enough, the mechanics unfortunately leave it all rather unresolved as the next player takes her action.  You’re not really crafting a linear storyline with plot or moral, even though a narrative ebb and flow develops some as gods rise and fall in fortune or ignominy.  Sometimes the card effect follows naturally, as in this case.  “The Valour of” assigns two glory tokens to another’s god.  Yet just as often the prose doesn’t mesh with the power.  Not to completely discount the setting and style.  It certainly voices a relaxed and casual vibe.  But the play itself is what really sets They Who Were 8 apart from the rest of a crowded market.

More specifically the competitive Titanomachy variant creates that sentiment.  The team Pantheon version is simply an exercise in giving glory to your partner and infamy to your opponents.  While the partnership dynamic is fun and a welcome inclusion in a hobby that sees little of that aspect, the card play element is still quite rudimentary and altogether familiar.  The all-for-one game, however, is brilliantly different in both action resolution and endgame scoring.

In and of themselves, the action cards aren’t terribly dissimilar from other designs as far as effect and resolution.  The difference is with their scope.  As most of these are limited to increasing glory and infamy on other players’ gods, it can be tricky manipulating affairs so that your patron not only ends up in the dominant pair of deities, but that yours also has fewer points than the other.  Typically in board games we take actions that move, activate, build on, strengthen, and etc., our own individual pieces and components.  Or the majority of the time.  Yet because most actions do not directly impact your own gods, wielding this design’s two currencies requires thinking contrary to the ways in which we usually approach games.  There is a slight learning curve to grasp that, and while the rules are not complicated, it can seem awry to parse out.  Indeed, even after several plays we still invariably find moments of awkwardness strategizing in terms of playing, keeping and passing cards with the design’s unique premise in mind.

The unconventional action play goes hand-in-hand with the similarly unique victory condition.  Gamers are used to having to score more points, and less frequently fewer points.  But in combining the two, They Who Were 8 offers a fresh angle.  No, it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s enough of an innovation to be alluringly interesting.  When adding glory, you’re happy to pile it on a neighbor and increase the value of the pair at their expense.  But when you need to shed some points or assign infamy to lower your own patron’s status, you sure wish you could direct those actions to yourself.  Between using actions to influence other gods while relying on the whims of players to impact yours, you almost feel like you’re not playing your own game sometimes.

Does anyone else get the “Darmok at Tanagra” vibe from Star Trek TNG?

Constantly refreshing the deck is another uncommon twist.  Normally discard piles are not reshuffled until the draw deck is exhausted.  It may not be quite as profound as the limited action scope and victory condition.  But it is quite different.  I read that rule three times – very slowly the third time – to make sure I was seeing it correctly.  When you consider there are only sixteen cards, then it’s not as crazy as it first sounds.  Still, cards played in the previous round are shuffled right back into the deck before players draw a new one.  That means you can never count a card out for even a moment.  And it’s not unheard of to receive the same action multiple hands in a row – and play them in succession!

In designs with variable powers, one of the more difficult tasks is balancing them.  Unfortunately They Who Were 8 can often seem like “I Only Want 3 or 4.”  A few are more effective than others.  For example, Naxos let you keep a card instead of passing it during the renewal phase.  Rymon lets you redirect and action played against one of your patrons.  Those are nice, sure.  However, Piton grants you the power of any god that has not yet bestowed their gift, really opening up your options.  Praxis becomes immune to further actions, potentially locking him down as the lower value in a pair.  And Aristiphane allows you to swap glory and infamy tokens of any two gods, which can truly be a game changer!

Now They Who Were 8 is assuredly casual, though still smart, and plays quickly at a brisk pace.  So the unevenness isn’t insurmountable.  And granted, there are occasions or points in the game where any of the abilities may prove less effective.  So they can be situational.  Having said that, the player with Aristiphane has won the majority of our games.  Mostly, you are limited to the one-time use, which also helps prevent any of them from overtaking the narrative.  Although look out for, or beware of, the action card “The Bargain of” as it allows you to regain the power of one of your gods – and add two infamy tokens to it!

The design includes a helpful reference tile.  All of the cards’ actions are indicated by icons, which mostly make sense.  The guide helps clarify those.  Especially since gameplay can be less than intuitive in the beginning.  It helps to make everything else as easy as possible.  With that said, I can still recommend They Who Were 8 to everyone, even casual and non-gamers.  Just know that the learning curve increases with the less one is acquainted with the hobby.  The tiles are good and thick, the tokens a nice touch of texture and the tarot-sized cards have a linen finish.  It won’t knock you over, but there is an intangible attraction to the entire production’s art and layout – and all rather beginning with that quizzically melodious title.

I’ll take some Infamy with that Glory…

If we’re being honest, there are too many games produced every year.  It’s just a cold hard fact.  Most new releases rarely stand out as truly unique, innovative or much different from others beside them on the shelves.  The majority are forgotten mere months after release, if they weren’t even stillborn.  They Who Were 8 is a rare gem, an exception to the hobby’s general uniformity.  Now that doesn’t guarantee that it will emerge an evergreen classic, standing the test of time.  And it doesn’t even mean that it’s your type of game.  But I applaud it’s distinctiveness.  With its combination of restrictive action resolution and singular scoring, this minimalist design is both thought-provoking and relaxing – a wonderfully casual half hour that also rewards artful play.  They Who Were 8 may never become like the legendary stories of its gods.  But as a refined and canny filler, for players who enjoy clever card games, or who are looking for something markedly different, it’s a joy to retell now and again.

 

Passport Games Studios provided a review copy of They Who Were 8 for this review.

They Who Were 7.5 out of 10

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

Singular style and feel
Quick, yet smartly satisfying
Two variants for two different games

Cons

Actions not intuitive at first
Poetic theme isn’t strong as source material is unfamiliar

7.5 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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