PC/Mac (mobile version coming soon) •
When Antihero launched for PC/Mac last week I assumed that, like any board game, I would get 3-5 plays in and be ready to put quill to parchment and regale you with opinions so clear and well thought out that they’d bring a tear to your eye. While Antihero is definitely a board game, I found that 3-5 plays simply wasn’t enough to see everything it has to offer. I’ve worked my way up through the campaign and several skirmish games, and even an online game or two and I think that I finally have Antihero’s nuances all sorted out. I can’t promise that my florid prose will bring a tear to your eyes, but I can promise you that Antihero doesn’t disappoint and is a well designed and intriguing board game.
Antihero is an original digital board game and the developers, Versus Evil, have used the digital environment to make Antihero do things its cardboard cousins never could. Varied maps, changing victory conditions, invisible units, and fog of war. They’ve also breathed life into it with great voice acting (wait until you get a load of the Truant Officer…creepy!), brilliant animations, and an art style that is parts Charles Addams and part Edward Gorey.
Antihero puts you at the head of a guild of theives in competition with a rival guild for control of the gaslit Victorian city that is the game board. You begin the game with only your Master Thief to control, but via discovering technologies in your guild, new members of your crew become available to purchase with a bit of coin. Unlike your Master Thief, however, your minions are all one-hit wonders. You recruit them, they do a job, and then they’re gone. All except The Gang, which is displayed as Bill the Butcher with a crowd of shadowy ne’er-do-wells behind him.
The Gang is your main muscle on the fog shrouded streets of Nowheres-burg. They can attack enemy or neutral figures on the board, earning gold for their troubles and leveling up their abilities with each kill. They can also evict Urchins from buildings, which brings us to the resource gatherers of your clan, Urchins. These Baker Street Irregular wannabes are used to infiltrate trading houses, pubs, churches, and banks around the city, ensuring that you earn gold or the secondary currency, lanterns, each turn. If enough Urchins inflitrate an establishment, it will level up and produce additional goods. This can be simply more gold or lanterns, or the ability to beef up other characters, or even earn one of those elusive Victory Points.
You can hire Thugs to block roads or to join your Gang and make it an even tougher force to reckon with. You can hire Truant Officers who will evict Urchins from establishments with a little too much glee. There are Saboteurs who will lay traps for unsuspecting Truant Officers or Gangs, making them easy pickings for your blade. Lastly are the Assassins who immediately do six damage to any target, which is enough to put just about anyone into a pine box.
The game lasts until one side earns enough Victory Points to win, the number of which changes depending on the map you’re playing. You can also customize each game to play with anywhere from 1 to 10 victory points, meaning you can easily set a game to finish quickly if you’re short on time. Victory Points come in three varieties: Assassination Contracts, Bribes, and Blackmail. You earn each in different ways, but will probably need to mix up your methods, as each type gets more and more expensive whenever someone earns a point in that fashion. For example, the first Bribe of the game costs five lanterns, the second costs six, and so on. This goes for both players, so if you are the first to get a Bribe, it just became a little harder for your opponent to do so.
Assassination Contracts are completed by killing characters roaming around the board marked with a skull. As with the Bribes, each Contract target becomes a little harder than the last one to kill, so speed is of the essence. The last type of VP is Blackmail, and it’s the only type of VP that can be lost. You earn Blackmail by infiltrating a Church with three Urchins. If any of those Urchins are evicted, your VP goes away.
Each map also has a special way of earning Victory Points which mixes things up a bit. In the Masquerade map your Master Thief has to steal masks and then have Urchins or Thugs wear them and infiltrate a wealthy masquerade party, stealing loot (VP) as they do. Another map has ships coming to the wharf, and if you can control the ship for a full turn with two Urchins, you steal the cargo which is, you guessed it, VP.
Antihero mixes take-that, resource management/engine building, and strategic choices beautifully. Your Master Thief only has so many action points each turn, yet you need to use them for scouting, fighting, and burgling each turn. Which do you choose? Do you risk putting more Urchins into a Bank to get more gold each turn even though you’re unsure if your opponent has a Truant Officer about? You’ve hired a thug and could really use a section of town blocked off so you don’t need to worry about that Truant Officer, but your Gang could really use more hit points so it’s not a pushover. What do you do?
Unlike most engine builders, your engine in Antihero is constantly being threatened and one savvy turn by your opponent could leave you penniless. It’s a terrible feeling when you finally get that third Urchin into a key spot, only to have the Truant Officer boot them all out right away. Not only are you losing that location’s production, but you’re out the three Urchins, and all the gold you spent to recruit them, as well. Of course, doing the same to your opponent is enough to make even the most jaded thief giggle.
Even if your opponent doesn’t attack, any engine in Antihero is a weak one. You aren’t ever going to find yourself wondering what to do with all the excess gold and lanterns in your possession. Resources are tight, even in the best of times, making for tense, thoughtful struggles where every turn counts.
The game has a wonderful, if somewhat short, campaign that acts as a very lengthy tutorial, slowly revealing more and more of what Antihero has in store. There’s also a skirmish mode which has several different maps for you to choose from to challenge the AI or play hotseat with someone at the same PC. There is also a rather exceptional online mode that lets you choose real-time games with timers where both players need to remain online during the entire match, or casual games which are asynchronous with new turn notifications popping up in your email inbox. There’s an automatch system which automatically pits you against someone at your own skill level, or you can set up a game with someone on your friend list. I have to admit, I don’t know how to get someone on your friend list to play a friendly match, but that’s only because I haven’t looked into it very closely, not having a bevy of friends.
If Antihero has a problem, it’s with the lack of maps. I already mentioned that the campaign is short. It’s only 11 chapters long, and can be finished in one or two lengthy sessions. For skirmish or online games, there are only 4 maps to choose from. Each has it’s own special way to nab VP, but after playing through them all a few times each, I wish there were more options or, perhaps a way to randomize the map so the layouts weren’t always the same.
It’s not a huge issue. You can manipulate just about everything within the map, such as how much units cost, how long they last, what types of VP are obtainable, and more. There’s enough variation that you can really make each game feel different even if you’re on the same map. Perhaps a way to randomize the map variables? Whatever, even keeping them the same, you get more here than in just about any tabletop game you can find and the developer, I’m sure, will add new maps and content in the future.
I have to admit I was surprised by how much I enjoy Antihero. It really grabs you like a good tabletop game should, and I found myself playing way, way past my bedtime. I look forward to any new content, but I’m especially looking forward to the iOS release which should be later in 2017. The game is great fun on the laptop, but on iPad, I can see Antihero being a staple of Stately Play tournaments for years to come.