Computers are crazy powerful tools for game designers. They allow you to automate complex calculations, play with vast numbers of people at the same time, enhance storytelling through audio and video, and of course shoot people in the head without getting your hands dirty. Computers let you do so many things that you can’t do in a card or board game. Then why would you make a digital game that leverages none of these things, and basically remakes the original board game it’s based on? Because The Witcher Adventure Game, Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s latest installment of their successful Witcher series, does just that: it removes much of the charm of playing the original board game, but makes use of none of the affordances offered by digital technology.
To be fair, The Witcher Adventure Game (henceforth WAG) isn’t just a video game based on a board game. No, it’s a video game based on a board game, based on a video game, based on a book. And there’s a graphic novel series, and a TV show to boot. Now I’ve played about a dozen hours of the first computer game, and I remember it being rather good. Setting aside the debates over the game’s sexist representations, I might even go as far as to say that it was excellent. One wonders, however, how much one can milk the franchise before it starts drying up, because WAG already seems to have been wrung out of a pretty parched teat (Though I’ve heard that the forthcoming Witcher 3: Wild Hunt promises to finish the story of the Witcher, and also offer impressive gameplay).
As a board game, WAG has its ups and downs. You play as one of four characters from the series: Geralt, the eponymous Witcher (or monster-hunter), the sorceress Triss, the roguish bard Dandelion, or the dwarven leader Yarpen. In the fiction, these four characters tend to be allies, so it’s never really explained why the game isn’t cooperative, and why they’re competing against each other… but no matter. The aim of the game is to travel around the map and collect “lead” and “proof” tokens (you can gain tokens simply by landing in certain areas), which you then turn in to complete quests, which then grant victory points and other rewards. Some quests may involve visiting specific locations, or fighting special monsters, but other than that, completing quests gets pretty monotonous after a while, and the wall of writing on each quest card really doesn’t encourage you to read the flavor text. In fact, the first time I was faced with the text-and-symbol-overload that was my first quest card, I just skipped reading it and jumped into the game. With disastrous consequences, of course.
The fun comes in the various decisions and surprises that await. Characters each have different abilities they can use, quests they can complete and even encounters they can chance upon. And while quests are rather similar (the only main difference being that different characters will want different colored tokens), abilities and encounters are pretty unique. Geralt, for example is all about monster-slaying bad-assery: his encounters (“investigation cards”) usually involve fighting, while his abilities tend to be potions that help when rolling battle-dice. Dandelion on the other hand, uses sneaky tricks like stealing victory points from others, drawing extra cards, and opportunistically scoring when in the same locations as other characters. I will say, though, that these two were probably the most interesting example of the varied character roles. While playing Dandelion made me really feel like I was bribing contacts and being sneaky, when I played as Triss, I felt more like I was removing tokens from cards, rather than summoning otherworldly forces to incinerate my enemies… part of the reason is that WAG insists on trying to visually model a board game, with actual tokens being chucked around. Anyone who has played a fair number of tabletop games knows that the heft of the dice in your hand, the sweeping away of the tokens, and all the little physical actions you take are all part of the gameplay experience. Computers have different ways of providing fun feedback: subtle lighting cues, interesting motion graphics, satisfying sounds… WAG really tries to make you feel like you’re playing a board game, but the feedback and interaction elements just don’t seem to work well with the digital version (which is why board games are still so popular: screens only allow a limited range of physical actions. Read Brett Victor’s excellent rant for more on that topic).
This theme of badly converted analogue-to-digital elements runs throughout the game. While the art is pretty (the 3D and weather effects on the board are quite captivating), and the music is great (epic at times, bittersweet at others, and to my untrained ear, authentically medieval and European), the user interaction leaves much to be desired. If you’re not playing hot-seat with a friend, the computer’s turn is frustratingly long, since you have to watch every dice-roll and ever card drawn. Unlike in a tabletop game, it’s difficult to quickly get an overview of what other players have collected and drawn, and the game makes you tediously click on each opponent if you want to look at their stuff. While rolling dice and holding your breath for the desired outcome is fun, the game does this annoying thing where you have to drag and drop dice into the appropriate locations before you can move on, even if you can clearly see that you have a botched roll. Finally, WHAT KIND OF DIGITAL ADVENTURE GAME DOESN’T LET YOU SAVE YOUR GAME? I mean really? A medium game takes “40-70m min”, and you have to play it all in one go? Is it so hard to save the game state of an offline session?
What does translate well to the digital format, however, is the excellent core gameplay mechanic: the action economy. Each hero has six possible actions: “travel”, “fast travel”, “investigate”, “develop”, “rest”, and your hero’s special action (which is usually about adding charges to your spells and abilities). You can only use two actions each turn, forcing you to be increasingly thoughtful about what you need to do and when. Travelling is essential, as it’s the surest way to collect leads, and many quests need you to be in specific locations. But travelling means you have to forego “developing” or drawing powerful abilities, or “investigating” and drawing special encounters. On the other hand, each region of the board is either terrorized by monsters (from lowly bronze critters, to the truly dreadful gold monstrosities) or plagued with “foul fortune”, which forces you to draw insidious curses and harmful effects. So staying put might mean you have to fight that horrific “Nidhogg” that just appeared on the board, but moving away might take you further away from your quest goals. To add to that, your actions themselves can be cursed with foul fate (making you draw a foul fate card when you take the action), or rendered inactive through wounds (an ingenious mechanic: damage can’t kill you, but it can cripple your actions and force you to “rest” and heal so that you can take the actions you want), adding another layer of complexity to the action economy. This makes the game feel like a series of highly calculated tactical maneuvers, and few moves are taken lightly.
Ultimately, The Witcher Adventure Game has some excellent game mechanics, which, especially if played with friends, hot-seat style, lead to a compelling experience with loads of complex decision making. Unfortunately, the developers failed to actually leverage the power of the microprocessor, and lazily translated the physical game as is, leading to various frustrating user-experience choices.
Is it Hardcore?
Good game mechanics, bad implementation.