The market for board games is at an all-time high thanks, in large part, to the success of crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter. Those campaigns are largely funded by a devoted fanbase of the medium itself, collectors who are looking for the next hot title from their favorite designers. But the success of Dark Souls: The Board Game changed all that with a whopping $5.4 million earned in 2016.
Now video game publishers are taking note, licensing their franchises for crowdfunding campaigns and more traditional, retail-only tabletop products. The goal is to entice the devoted tabletop fans with the systems and the designers, while also bringing in the much larger community of video game fans.
One notable effort is the ongoing crowdfunding campaign for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice, a fully cooperative experience for one to four players with an estimated delivery date of June 2020. Developer and publisher Triton Noir is trying to bring the same kinds of systems at use in its already successful title called V-Commandos. The tricky bit is getting video game players up to speed in what can be a challenging hobby.
To test just that scenario, I asked our resident Assassin, Simone de Rochefort, to take a chance on an early prototype of Brotherhood of Venice. — Charlie Hall
As a long-time Assassin’s Creed fan, I always joke that I’m the target audience for anything Assassin-related. I thought that would extend to the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice board game. Unfortunately, as far as this stage of the game’s prototype is concerned, I’m not completely sold on its accessibility.
Brotherhood of Venice is a fully cooperative experience for up to four players. The prototype contains a campaign covering four missions, inspired by 2010’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. One of the early tutorial “memories” follows a group of Assassins charged with stealing Cesare Borgia’s pistol before his climactic fight with that game’s protagonist, Ezio Auditore, during the siege of Viana. Amusingly, the flavor text asks, “What if Ezio hadn’t acted alone? What if he was smart and prepared his fight?” It’s up to the players at the table to find out the answer to this, and more “what-if” scenarios that tie into the game’s plot.
Brotherhood of Venice is a campaign-style game that you’re meant to play over a few sessions with the same group of people. A first play-through of any game always involves semi-religious rulebook checking, even if you’ve read the thing cover to cover. Beginning with a tutorial that teaches game mechanics gradually makes a lot of sense to me, and my experience with Fog of Love showed me what it looks like when it’s done well.
The prototype of Brotherhood of Venice is just not as elegantly designed yet. Though, to be fair, it’s a lot more complex than Fog of Love. The rules left our group confused, and constantly shuffling back and forth between the rule book and campaign book. Like the This War of Mine board game, Brotherhood of Venice suffers from splitting everything into two separate books. In these early missions especially, where some rules are entirely discarded, we were left confused about how to play the game properly the next time around.
The world building and commitment to the Assassin’s Creed lore is excellent. Each memory takes place in a Venetian location, carefully rendered on modular cardboard tiles as dictated by the campaign book. Each one is peppered with guards and treasures, and the players must accomplish all of that scenario’s objectives before moving to the next one.
Each turn has four phases. It begins with an event phase, in which the players draw a card that applies an effect to the turn. The players make their moves, and then the non-player Guards have their phase. The last phase is simply checking that a new turn can begin.
The player phase provided the most enjoyable moments. In this phase, you can move your four Assassins in any order you like. Players are encouraged to strategize together before doing anything. Traditionally, Assassin’s Creed games are exclusively single-player experiences, so it was nice to be able to have a window into how my friends play the game on their own.
In motion, one player might use their actions to take out a guard, which could free a second player to pass through the same space unhindered and open a treasure chest. Figuring out the perfect cascade of actions felt strategic and fun.
In its current form, however, the game falls into the common trap where one player can easily become the quarterback telling everyone else what to do. Whether or not that’s fun for you rests entirely on your group dynamic. Because decisions are communal, playing tends to benefit those who are simply more familiar with the rules, and in order for those rules to be usable the ramp-up in complexity needs a lot of work.
Despite the fun of planning, in its current state, completing a mission never felt like a great victory. Early missions were short to play, though marked by the long confusion of our constant rule-checking. And finishing one memory simply sets off the lengthy set-up phase for the next one, with a new map to lay out, a new envelope of cards to open and shuffle out, and more rules to learn. Rather than building on what we already knew, it felt like starting over from scratch.
Where I can unequivocally say this game is a success is in the design of the pieces. Each level is built from tiles representing Venetian roofs and courtyards. The dice are pleasantly chunky, and the character cards are well-designed. The prototype doesn’t feel cheap at all — and it shouldn’t, since the Kickstarter campaign includes dozens of elaborate plastic miniatures and goes for $158.
I hope that the wrinkles in Brotherhood of Venice’s early game can be ironed out before its June 2020 release. Rather than wondering what would happen if Ezio had been smart, I was left wishing that my friends at the table and I were a lot smarter than we are. But a slow early game doesn’t necessarily preclude a fun, engaging middle — and certainly Brotherhood of Venice has a lot to teach its players over time. Because without a meaningful sense of progress, this game feels like a slog.