Back in 2014, Ignacy Trzewiczek, famed designer of ‘Stronghold’, ‘Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island’ and ‘Imperial Settlers’, underwent the trial of the grasses and brought us ‘The Witcher Adventure Game’.
In ‘The Witcher…’ you take on the role of one of the main characters from the books – the stoic dwarf, Yarpen Zigren, everyones favourite Sorceress, Triss, the silver tongued bard, Dandelion, and of course, the Butcher of Blaviken himself, Geralt of Rivia. The goal of the game is to complete a set number of quests before your opponents and come out on top with the most points. In order to complete quests you’ll travel to locations across the Northern Realms gathering different types of ‘leads’ – either combat, diplomacy or magic – until you’ve amassed enough to convert them into ‘proof’ in support of your main quest. Characters discover different types of proof at different rates. For example, Geralt is proficient at combat, so he’ll be able to cut down the ‘Oakbeast of Kaer Morhen’ and be home in time for second breakfast, while Dandelion practically leaks charisma, and is able to easily find diplomatic resolutions for quests.
On your turn you’ll take up to 2 different actions – moving, resting, investigating, developing or performing a unique character action. As you quest across the board, you’ll build your character up with new abilities from their own personal development deck, and use your characters unique action to power these abilities. Geralt has access to signs but also needs to take time to brew potions; Triss learns powerful spells that she must first prepare; Dandelion pays an army of associates from his busking ability; and Yarpen has a trove of weapons, items and armour that he divvies out to his troupe of dwarven dragon-slayers.
But of course what would the Witcher be without monsters hey? Combat is done by rolling your characters ‘hero dice’ and checking if you landed enough hits to defeat a monster, while at the same time, rolling enough defense to avoid damage or any ill effects. Just like the video games, you’ll battle your way through everything from bears and bandits to Striga and Leshen, but each character has slightly different methods in doing so. Geralt, being the bane of all monsters, pirouettes his way through most creatures like a Catherine wheel of death, while Dandelion adopts a more defensive strategy by hiding behind members of his retinue. Triss works well in bursts and can disintegrate enemies with ease but only if she spent the time prepping her spells, while the plucky little Yarpen can swing both ways as a murder hobo or as an eloquent diplomat and avoid danger all together.
When you aren’t knee deep in Alghoul guts, you’ll also need to contest with ‘foul fate’. As the gears of war grind the Northern Realms to dust, unfortunate events will plague its towns and cities. If you happen to end your turn in a location that is dealing with a problem, it becomes your problem. By travelling to Wyzima, you might find yourself in the middle of an angry mob or maybe a group of spies thinks you’re snooping around. On rare occasions, you might get lucky and ‘nothing happens’. Such is the nature of the winds of war.
Players travel across the beautifully lush board, questing and slaying monsters like you might in many other adventure games, but a key reason you might have been interested in ‘the Witcher…’ is to experience a rewarding and epic fantasy story. Any adventure RPG board game based on an IP like the Witcher (which can have quite confusing lore at times) is bound to run into accessibility issues for non-fans, and in my experience, the best story heavy games are those that don’t over complicate things with complex narratives. ‘The Witcher…’ does an excellent job of giving players a glimpse of it’s dark gothic fantasy, albeit in Nekker sized chunks, and never leaves you feeling totally bewildered. That being said, ‘The Witcher…’ does share a familiar issue with many other games of its ilk. There is no mechanism that threads any of events together, so the narrative can feel more random than a jumble sale at a church fete. One minute you could be have food poisoning, next you’re fighting off a flock of harpies, then suddenly a blizzard sweeps over the land. Given the pedigree of Trzewiczek’s other more mechanically meticulous work, this might feel a little unexpectedly loose. I’m less bothered by those technical details since the best aspects of the Witcher lie in the grim atmosphere and not in point by point plotlines.
In fact the narrative isn’t really the focus of this game. Despite being story ‘heavy’, ‘The Witcher…’ is not a story ‘driven’ game. It’s there for you to immerse yourself in the world of the Witcher, but the game is much more akin to a race. Maybe not a sprint, but definitely more of a cross country hike. Sure, you’ll be zipping from town to town collecting leads like a medieval Colombo and the floor is made of lava, but the strategy is to find the path of least resistance. Often you’ll need to clog up your own actions with foul fate tokens, which makes the next time you want to use that particular action far less desirable. You’re constantly reassessing your plan and part of the skill is making contingencies for the best moment to rid yourself of any negative effects so you can glide on to the next location.
Another major decision point in the game is choosing quests. When you start the game or finish a quest, you always gets a limited choice of what quest to do next. Whatever you choose, you’ll need to gauge if it will: A. let you finish first, and B. net you the most points. The more difficult the quest, the longer it takes but the more points you earn, and vice versa. This is somewhat reminiscent of ‘tickets’ in ‘Ticket to Ride’, but instead of defining the route you take for the whole game, it just lets you know where you need to end up and how much proof you’ll need. How you spend your time getting to that point is up to you. If the story and actions of the game do a great job at conveying the bleak futility of the Witcher, this freedom of movement gives it a sense of calm. You build your character at your own pace, quietly working towards your goal, while savouring the grim atmosphere along the way.
‘The Witcher Adventure Game’ may be a bit of a black sheep in Ignacy Trzewiczek’s portfolio. Some players found it too solitary for their tastes, and those who were expecting a slick Euro-fantasy in the vain of ‘Lords of Waterdeep’ were also let down. The real strength of the Witcher, be it the video games, books or TV series, is the different stance it takes on well established ideas, and ‘the Witcher Adventure Game’ captures that ethos perfectly. The game is an absolute delight to look at and serves as a fantastic entry point for those unfamiliar with the White Wolf, while players who relish in the lore and absorb it like autumn sunshine, will be satisfied beyond expectations. At the very least, it’s worth a try as it’s available on digital formats for a couple pennies.