Crime pays – specif­i­cally, it pays three gold to hire an Urchin in An­ti­hero.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Jody Macgre­gor

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.

Nanty Nark­ing

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

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