As with a lot of things, appearances in board games can mean a lot. Many a game has been undone by bad artwork, mediocre components and other aesthetic considerations that have little or nothing to do with how well the game plays. But when you’re paying $40, $50, even $60 or more for a game, a lot of people overlook the entertainment value of that cost and focus on the physical value. They’d better be getting a lot of wood and plastic for their gaming dollar. For me, bad art isn’t going to doom a game right out of the gate, but it’s definitely something it’ll have to be pretty spectacular to overcome. Tragedy Looper, which features a heavily anime/manga-influenced look, didn’t disappointment solely because of the preponderance of big eyes and ponytails, but it sure didn’t make me want to give the game much of a benefit of the doubt either. So when I saw the game that was on tap for tonight and once again saw that style of artwork, I braced myself for the worst. Fortunately, the anime style wasn’t quite so prevalent, and what’s more, the game it adorned was downright fantastic.
Argent: The Consortium — You’d be forgiven if you took a quick glance at this and thought it was a Harry Potter game. It has players as professors at a magical university, vying to become the new chancellor. It features different schools of mages that could easily be the houses of Hogwarts without too much trouble, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising fan does a detailed conversion (because if there’s one thing board game geeks love more than games, it’s turning those games into something else). But there are no evil wizards here, just the machinations of up to five players trying to win over enough voters to get elected and win the game.
Argent is a worker-placement game, a tried and true game format where players take turns placing a limited number of workers on a limited number of spaces. It requires you to not only think about what you want to do with your turns, but what your opponents might be doing. It adds a great wrinkle to this concept by having different types of workers — here represented as various colors of mages — that have different effects when they’re placed. Some are immune to magical spells and damage, others are able to be placed out of turn, still others can wound their fellow mages and take them off the board. So you’re forced to think beyond simple placement and to take into account these extra abilities. You’re also able to research spells and collect magical items and followers, all of which can manipulate the worker placement and the resources you get from the different actions. One of your mages got wounded and knocked out of their space? You might have an artifact that lets you move to another empty space instead. Feeling confident about that space you just took? Someone might have a spell that lets them switch places with you, or even swap one of your mages for one of theirs. You can’t plop a mage down somewhere and feel completely confident it’s going to stay there, and your backup plans are going to need backup plans if you want to do well.
Because at the start of the game, you only know two of twelve victory conditions. The Consortium of the game’s title has a set of criteria on which it’s casting its votes, and you’re spending the game trying to meet them. Certain actions let you peek at the remaining hidden conditions; they might be whoever has the most artifacts, or the most mana, or the most spells of a certain type. So the game becomes a dual race, both to find out as many of these conditions as possible and to meet as many as you can. The player that gets the most votes after five rounds of manipulation wins the game. Now it’s not essential to figure out every single category (in fact, the player who won tonight’s game had only discovered two of them, and won by spreading as wide a net as possible and lucking into some wins thanks to tiebreakers), but it can be helpful knowing three or four things to be focusing on. Of course, your opponents will see you focusing on them and realize what you’re up to. This is a game that requires a lot of attention, but that never feels like a number-crunching slog.
The replay value on this game is crazy. Every player character has two sides with different abilities, the board is made up of modular tiles that can be combined in different arrangements, the victory conditions are randomized every time out, and you draft your initial pool of mages at the beginning of each game, ensuring that each play will be a different experience. This isn’t a game that can be solved so that everyone knows the optimal strategy and it’s just a matter of who gets the pieces in place first. You’re engaged throughout, and what worked for you yesterday could be a recipe for disaster today.
And yes, it does have that pseudo-anime artwork going on, but not excessively so. Even if it had though, the game is strong enough that it would be enjoyable even if there were stick figures on everything. And that’s the sign of a great game. There’s more than a little magic going on here, and all of us that played are itching to give this another go as soon as possible.