Leder Games has made a name for itself by focusing on highly asymmetrical games. First came Vast: The Crystal Caverns followed by the megahit Root. These aren’t games that simply have variable player powers, but games where each player interacts with the game in fundamentally different ways. So with another game under their belt, they’ve returned to the game that started it all with Vast: The Mysterious Manor.
How it Plays
When I sit down to teach a group a new game, I like to give a little context and explain the premise and the ultimate goal. “In this game you are brave adventurers trying to loot the most gold,” or, “You are a factory manager trying to produce the most widgets.” Vast isn’t so straightforward. Before understanding how to play Vast, it’s important to know which role you’ll be playing. The five included roles not only play completely differently, but they also have completely different premises and objectives.
The paladin is a force for good and is on a quest to vanquish the giant spider. The giant spider feeds on fear and once full will try to escape the mansion. The skeletons are a pack of hooligans who are out to kill that goody-two-shoes paladin. The warlock is honing his magic skills and trying to dominate the old spirits of the house. And if you take on the role of the haunted manor, you’re trying to seal everyone inside because it’s lonely being a sentient domicile.
Now that you know your goal, you still need to know how to play. The paladin utilizes an action point system that has him gaining experience, exploring the dark rooms of the manor, and collecting treasure that will help him take on the giant spider.
The giant spider has a deck of spells to lay eggs, collect blood, and spread webs around the manor. She can also change forms, each with their own special abilities and movement patterns.
The skeletons are controlled via an action programming system, forcing them to carefully consider their approach. Their strength comes in numbers, and they will need to surround the paladin if they want any chance at taking him down.
The warlock is a sneaky fellow who uses card spells and action points in order to dominate the spirits of the house. He is all about positioning and making sure the right pieces fall into place in order to create a network of poltergeists under his control.
And the manor controls the map by sliding and swapping rooms to meddle with everyone’s plans. If it manages to manipulate the rooms in the just the right way, it gets closer to sealing everyone inside.
Vast’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness, but not in the way you might initially think. The five distinct roles create some truly enjoyable interactions, but there is a lot of up-front information you’ll have to digest in order to get a session up and running. And since the roles are so divergent in their abilities and play style, every player will need dedicated explanation time in order to feel comfortable. Thankfully, Vast does an admirable job at making things relatively approachable. The rulebook is clear and gives thorough examples that explain the game well. There are a few edge cases that caused me to search online forums for answers, but no more than usual for a game of this involvement. Each role has a setup sheet that details its unique traits, general strategy, and even what kind of player would enjoy that particular role. And each character has a player board that nicely lays out the anatomy of their turn. Simply follow the flow of the board from top to bottom, and all of your options are clear to you. This is a lot of information, but Vast handles it well. So what’s the problem? Well, I think it’s me.
When it comes to gaming, I’m the one clamoring for new things. New games, new variants, new experiences. Everyone seems to enjoy it, but I know I’m the one primarily benefiting from it, and I feel a certain responsibility for being well prepared. I spend hours before the first session reading the rules, looking online for clarifications, and then running through a few practice rounds on my own to smooth out any wrinkles. I think I do a fairly decent job at it, but inevitably a question will arise that I don’t know the answer to. Everyone turns to me and I hurriedly scramble through the rulebook for the answer. I hate that feeling. The last thing I want is for someone to feel like they had the deck stacked against them because I didn’t properly explain something to them. It’s deflating and unsatisfying for all. It’s not that I can’t teach someone how to play their role. Like I said, Vast does a good job at facilitating that. It’s how they all interact with each other that’s a little trickier. Questions arise like:
“She can bite me through a wall?” or
“What? They can walk outside the manor?” or
“I thought we weren’t allowed to walk on the dark spaces!”
Knowing how to level up your paladin is important, but it’s just as important to know that the manor can wall you in and change your route with ease. Knowing how to bend a poltergeist to your will is as important as knowing that the giant spider can split herself up into multiple little spiderlings. It’s these interactions where the game shines. Watching the edges of each role bump and grind against each other is a pure delight.
The manor erects a wall to slow down the paladin, but he just laughs and busts through it for a showdown with the spider. But the spider scatters into spiderlings and drops webs as protection and creating a perfect path for the skeletons to strike. It’s moments like these that make you realize that everyone has a part to play in this fantastic contraption. And while enjoyable, I found it incredibly stressful.
The last time I felt this way was when I tried to GM a role-playing game. Everyone had a good time, but every pause and hitch in the action felt like my responsibility. My heart starts racing and a cold sweat forms on my brow. I feel the pressure of making sure everyone is having a good time. But what makes this any different than explaining all other moderately complicated games? Perhaps it’s the fact that whenever I take time to explain something or clarify something, it may not apply to everyone? Or perhaps it’s the fact that every role is relatively digestible so everyone feels ready to go once they get their explanations?
Of course, as with most games, with practice and experience, these stresses are lessened, and I can relax and just enjoy the experience. But if just one new person is introduced to the equation, the cycle starts all over again. It’s possible to ease them into the experience by having fewer players in the session. That means fewer interactions to keep track of and less potential questions. But it also means less of what makes Vast special. The game is at its best when all roles are present and accounted for. The sparks that give the game life come from the friction of each role grinding against each other. Memories are made when the warlock blocks in the paladin with force walls only to watch him charge through the walls to stare down the giant spider who reacts by scattering to the shadows. With each missing character there is less potential for such moments. In fact, at two players it isn’t even possible to play as the warlock or manor.
I want to make it clear that my main issues with Vast stem from my feeling responsible that everyone at the table has an understanding of what is happening, what is possible, and that they are having a good time not from the inherent complexity of the ruleset. I spend a lot of time playing MOBAs, an online computer game with dozens of characters and hundreds of abilities and traits to keep track of. It takes a lot of time to simply understand all the abilities in play, but I enjoy learning them because of the wonderful and strange way in which they can interact. But I can enjoy the learning process because I’m not the one responsible for teaching all my teammates and opponents how everything works. That burden is placed on the shoulders of a computer. But when it’s me who drops a new game on the table suddenly it’s me who shoulders that burden. And I really, really don’t like that feeling.
Vast has a lot of things going for it. I love how it’s able to tell stories without relying on heavy text. There are hardly explanations as to who these characters are in the manual but you quickly understand who they are because of the actions that they take. You don’t need to have an elaborate backstory of why a house is sentient; you simply fill in the blanks as every action you take is geared towards trapping everyone inside. You don’t need to know from what kingdom the paladin hails; you just know that he is deeply motivated by a great evil within the walls of the manor. It’s the way stories in games should work, by showing and not telling. It’s rather lovely. The art is charming and conveys the dark, moody tone of the setting without being gruesome or off putting. And watching all the players bounce off of each other in this playhouse of horrors is delightful.
If I could reliably know that everyone at the table was familiar with the game and with their roles or if the burden for keeping the game running smoothly was on someone else, then I could breathe easy and enjoy the raucous fun within. But those early sessions drained me enough that I could never get to that point. If that feeling at all resonates with you, think carefully before exploring this house. If you can’t relate and can reliably get four or five players to buy in, then I’m sure you’ll have a great time in the mysterious manor.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Leder Games for providing us with a copy of Vast: The Mysterious Manor for review.