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30Aug/160

Vast is Fun But Oh That Learning Curve

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Vast: the Crystal Caverns is one of those high-concept games that you really want to see work. It takes a hoary old theme -- dungeon crawls! -- and reinvigorates it with clever gameplay and visual designs. The question is: is Vast too clever for its own good?

What makes Vast so unusual is its commitment to asymmetric play. There are five roles in the game, most of which fit the traditional dungeon crawl tropes. There's a Knight, and she's hunting a Dragon. The Dragon wants to get away from the Knight. There are also Goblins who want to kill the Knight, and a Thief who wants to steal treasure. Finally, there is the Cave, which wants to collapse and kill everyone else in the game.

(The novelty of the Cave is a big selling point for Vast, and usually triggers a reaction of "OMG I have to try this" in adventurous players.)

The differing goals are the first sign that the game is going to be a little offbeat, but it's the rules that send Vast into strange lands. Each character plays its own game, using its own components and its own sheet of rules. The Knight is exploring to build up her Grit (experience points) and level up to stronger abilities. The Goblins are managing slowly growing resources and position so they can launch devastating surprise attacks. The dragon is managing a hand of cards to trigger a choice of special abilities. The thief is allocating a fixed set of numbers of maximum efficiency. Meanwhile, the Cave is playing a tile-laying game to set up traps for the other players.

Vast

The Knight's player board, with Cave tiles lurking in the box.

Each player gets a unique experience, and the roles interlock well. Some roles directly attack each other, while others compete for resources. The Cave can help or harm the other players, slowing them down to keep the game going long enough to win. On the other end of the scale, the Dragon benefits from accelerating the game so it can escape before the Knight is strong enough to kill it -- but accelerating the game helps the Cave. Some roles benefit from temporary truces or alliances, but there are no shared victories and no way to directly assist another player.

Vast: the Crystal Caverns is a rich, thoughtful game, and I haven't even scratched the surface of its variants and solo play. There's just one fly in the ointment.

How in hell do you teach this game?

Five Vast-ly Different Games At Once

Five experienced gamers who know the rules should be able to have a blast with this game. The turns are quick, with little downtime. There's a lot of interaction. Each character has a lot of different toys to play with, so there's plenty of variety.

The trouble is, groups like ours never have "five experienced gamers who know the rules" all sitting down in one game. Most of the games we play have at least two or three new players, often a player or two who have no experience in the genre. We also like to play together, so our games have a tendency to fill up to the maximum number of players. (When we played Vast in our August meetup, we had four players -- one experienced, three new. We were going to leave out the Thief, but a new player joined in just as we started. He was a great kid and a lot of fun, but increased the teaching load by 33% and was totally new to strategy games to boot.)

Puzzling over Vast at our last meetup

Puzzling over Vast at our last meetup

Our group's gaming habits are usually a plus. We're easy-going and we all like to learn new games. A lot of our games are "teaching games" rather than serious competition, but there's nothing wrong with that. The games run a little slower, but not much since new players can take cues from the experienced players' turns.

Vast breaks this. There are basic concepts common to all five roles, but you learn almost nothing about what to do from the previous player's turn. Explaining the rules before the game is a tedious process. The individual rules are "only" two pages, but many in our group have trouble learning from written rules.

As a result, our first few games have moved at a crawl as people tried to figure out what they were doing as well as how and why to do it. We have limited time to play at our meetups, and have had to call games for time just as they were speeding up and getting fun. As the game's owner and teacher, it's a frustrating experience.

I'm not sure there's anything more Vast could have done to make teaching it easier. The rules are clear. There's a master rulebook to go with the handouts for each player. There are teaching intro videos for groups that like to prepare their gaming in advance.  And in the long run, maybe our group will have enough old hands to easily teach one or two new players when Vast hits the table. I'm just not sure the group will be willing to climb the learning curve enough times to reach that point.

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Posted by Chris Aylott

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