Crime pays – specifically, it pays three gold to hire an Urchin in Antihero.
This always happens: you’re teaching someone how to play a cool board game that you love, selling them on the unique theme, the clever, meticulously crafted rules, what each of the sweet little wooden tokens do. Then they ask, “How do you win?” And the answer you have to give them, through gritted teeth, is, “By scoring the most victory points.” Then suddenly that cool game you love sounds boring.
So please stick with me while I describe Antihero, a turn-based strategy game about crime in the Victorian era. Two thieves guilds compete over the gas-lit streets where the fog of war is literal fog. As guild leader you burgle buildings for cash or infiltrate them for long-term gain. The names of each inn or estate or orphanage are perfect. Chosen randomly from a pool, they sound like old medical conditions: Chiseler’s Foot, Salty Navel, Old Custard.
Big-headed woodcut criminals compete for control of those buildings and streets. Gangs scuffle in the gutters; Urchins commit blackmail; Saboteurs lay traps. An estate might be guarded but it contains valuable loot, a strangefellow club gives bonuses to Thugs and Gangs once taken over. And then, yeah, one player scores the right number of victory points and wins.
It’s more fun than it sounds. Victory points are earned by killing assassination targets, blackmailing churches, or buying bribes. However, bribes cost lanterns, which you also need to buy upgrades across three skill trees: skullduggery, sneakery, and stabbery. Skulduggery perks, like Fine Ale, increase the health of thugs, the sneakery perk Art Critic lets you steal paintings, and stabbery is, of course, mostly about damage. It’s a tough choice because each bribe costs more than the last, and the price goes up no matter who buys them. Do you strengthen your hand with upgrades or grab victory points on the cheap?
There’s a little randomness in Antihero, but it doesn’t bother me.
Invisible dice control the placement of assassination targets, and neutral Thugs who block streets. Business placement and burglary rewards are also random, though you’re guaranteed a trading house within one move of the starting point. Occasionally you rob a house and get a lantern instead of the gold you needed to buy an Assassin that turn, but it’s a minor inconvenience.
Each map has something unique about it, usually an extra path to victory points: a masquerade ball that can be looted if you steal an invite, or a ship at the docks that has to be held for a turn to get the cargo. These maps are arranged into an 11-chapter campaign with comic strip cutscenes telling the story of a thieves’ guild taking down its competitors. It takes six or seven hours to finish.
From then on it’s all about multiplayer. Antihero can only be played one on one at the moment, but there’s both a hotseat mode with robust options for house rules and online multiplayer. Online, it can be played live with time limits, or asynchronously over a few days. The game emails you when it’s your turn.
The downside to going online is that, like many board games, after enough plays it becomes a solved problem. Everyone decides on the most efficient playstyle and sticks to it. In Antihero that means racing to level up a Gang, adding Thugs to increase its health and then killing the opponent’s Gang so you dominate the map. The counter to Gangs are Assassins, so if you lose the Gang race the only option is to rush through the sneakery tree to unlock them. I’ve only played one match that hasn’t gone the same way. Objectives introduce only the slightest variation.
Unusually, you get more variety playing against the AI. In skirmish mode the computer plays with more diversity than people do. If there was a way to link skirmishes together into a campaign, a kind of Dickensian LongWar, I’d play the hell out of that. As it is, there’s no progression between matches and so instead I’ll go back and replay the campaign on Hard. I’d definitely play an add-on that was basically BroodWar but with orphans. What I’m saying is, “Please, sir, I want some more”.
Everyone decides on the most efficient playstyle and sticks to it