Books and stories are made into films and tv-series. Sometimes even both. Books are hardly ever turned into… a board game. Yet, this is what happened to Neil Gaiman’s short story A Study in Emerald. And it’s the ideal setting for fans of Arkham Horror, Betrayal at House on the Hill or Mansions of Madness. There’s a bit of Cthulhu, a bit of horror, some supernatural and characters like Sherlock Holmes. What more could you wish for?
The short story
A Study in Emerald is a mix between the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes. Neil Gaiman originally wrote this for the anthology Shadows over Baker Street. You can find it in Gaiman’s own anthology Fragile Things. That’s where I first read this story, years before playing the board game. The story won the 2004 Hugo Award for best short story. Gaiman’s introduction on his story, from Fragile Things, reads:
I agreed to write a story but suspected there was something deeply uncompromising about the set-up: the world of Sherlock Holmes is so utterly rational, after all, celebrating solutions, while Lovecraft’s fictional creations were deeply utterly irrational, and mysteries were vital to keep humanity sane. If I was going to tell a story that combined both elements there had to be an interesting way to do it that played fair with both Lovecraft and with the creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The ingredients of the story I had in the back of my head combined in ways that were better than I had hoped when I began. (Writing’s a lot like cooking. Sometimes the cake won’t rise, no matter what you do, and every now and again the cake tastes better than you could have dreamed it would.)
If you are a fan of Lovecraft, Holmes, or both, this is obviously a short story you should read. If you’re a Gaiman fan, this book/story probably already has a home on your bookshelves. And if you love either or both of these, you just have to try the Study in Emerald board game.
A story as a board game, does it work?
Short story even shorter: yes. Although obviously, the central plot for the game is only based on the short story. It would be impossible to follow the plot exactly. But all the characters are here and it’s a pretty decent mix between the best of both worlds of Cthulhu and Holmes. Here’s what the back of the box says:
It is 1882 and the Old Ones are already here. They arrived seven hundred years ago and have been ruling the planet ever since. The majority of the people just get on with their lives, accepting their monstrous rulers. However, there is a growing band of revolutionaries who wish to free mankind from their slavery. These freedom fighters call themselves the Restorationists. A secret war has already broken out between the Restorationists and forces loyal to the Old Ones. The invention of dynamite has changed the balance of power and a lone assassin now has the capacity to destroy an Old One. In this shadow world of assassins, informers, police agents and anarchists nobody is quite sure who is who and which side they fight for.
You play A Study in Emerald in two teams: the Loyalists vs. the Restorationists. At the beginning of the game, each player receives their role card face down. You can see your own card, but don’t know the roles of the others.
The Loyalists want the Old Ones, or the Royalty as they are called in the game, to stay. They want to kill the Restorationists, while this team wants Cthulhu & Co gone and will travel the world to assassinate the gods. While playing the game, you never reveal your role card but clever players can deduct who belongs in what team, so who they can trust and who they should eliminate. Ofcourse, it’s clear that you should probably trust nobody and you should just assassinate the opposition. Only then can you win.
Deck building board game
You start the game with ten character cards (see above) with the name of a weekday as your codename. Each player starts with the same ten cards. You then travel the world, consisting of nine major cities like London, Paris, Vienna, Cairo and Rome.
Each city has it’s own Royalty but also it’s own (random each game) cards. You can collect these cards through actions during your turn. Each card is added to your deck to build a larger and larger and larger deck of cards. Obviously, each card has it’s own possibilities.
There are pretty standard cards like bombs, assassins and minions. But there are also cards with specific characters who can come to your aide. Like Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson, Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty or even Sigmund Freud. Each special character has a special action/attribute to help you along the way.
It seems like a pretty complicated board game, and the first time playing it will take some time due to all the different kind of actions your character can take and the many possible cards there are. But when you get the hang of it, it’s actually a pretty fast paced game; not like Arkham Horror which can take hours. The playing time on the box for A Study in Emerald says one hour and I reckon that’s about right. But double the time for the first time playing. The game scores a pretty nice 7.2 on BoardGameGeek.
A Study in Emerald: best of both worlds
This is such a fun and different game, yet with all the familiar elements you love from other board games, like deck building. I love that this game has such a high pace (once you learn the rules, that is), unlike other monster games out there. Finally something in a setting like this that you can play in about an hour.
The best bits are obviously the two worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle combined. You won’t find Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu together in a different setting quite soon. If you like either authors and/or their stories, this is the best board game for you. As a Gaiman fan, you can also give this a go, although the gameplay itself has nothing to do with his story. I for one hope to play this game a lot more, as it could become one of my favorites.
Oh, and if you ever happen to come by the old version of the game: buy it. It’s worth a small fortune to collectors.