Scrolls of a Northern City
- Designer: Chu-Lan Kao
- Publisher: Antler Studio
- Players: 1-5
- Age: 12+
- Time: 30-40 minutes
- Played with review copy provided by Taiwan Boardgame Design (who distributes for Antler)
Each autumn, I eagerly await shipments from Taiwan Boardgame Design – the area is one of the booming new regions for game design, and the growing presence in Essen is proof that the rest of the world is taking notice as well. Some of the games come with a bit of buzz about them, while others are complete surprises. Scrolls of a Northern City would fall in the latter category. Though it has a release date of 2019 on BGG, I had heard nothing about the game until it showed up on my doorstep. Antler Studio is new to me – BGG only has two games listed for them, and both arrived in the same parcel just this month!
The publisher’s blurb is as follows: “1935, Taipei City – a wondrous place that is as beautiful as a dream. Even in a dream, it sparkles and glimmers like no others. In the corner of this dream-like city stood a small coffee shop named Bai-Hua-Tang (translated as “A Hall of a Hundred Paintings”). One day, the owner of the shop disappeared without a trace. As the loyal customers of the shop, you must search every spot in Taipei City for clues and bring the owner back for the worried maids. With your brilliant detective skills, can you find the whereabouts of the wandering owner?”
In this game, players compete with each other to discover the identity of 3 hidden clue cards- one of each color. There is a deck of 38 Clue cards with an uneven distribution of colors (8 red, 11 purple and 19 yellow). At the start of the game, one card of each color is randomly drawn and placed in the cardholder. The unchosen Clue cards and the 5 Ability cards are shuffled together and then split into 5 roughly equal stacks.
The board is a stylized map of Taipei. There are five spots highlighted on the map, numbered 1-5. At the start of the game, a Maid standee is placed on space #1. Each player gets a player screen and an answer sheet to hide behind it as well as a rickshaw of matching color. Rickshaws are placed on different spaces to start, and the owner draws a Clue Card from the corresponding deck. The different types of cards all have different backs, so everyone will always know which colors you hold in your hand, but not the specific identity of said card. The answer sheet (and the cards themselves) have a helpful reminder of the full distribution of the different numbers in the suits.
Play goes clockwise around the board. On a turn, the active player can either Pursue or Solve. If you choose to Pursue, you first choose to move your rickshaw one space adjacent or keep it in the same location. Then, you gather information. If there is not a Character in your space, you “Yell Out Loud” – draw the top 2 cards from the matching deck and place them face up next to the board. All players will have this information to use. If there is a Character in your location, you “Ask For Help” and you get to use the special ability of that character. The character then moves two spaces clockwise. Each of the three Characters has a specific unique ability.
If you draw an Ability card during your turn, you immediately take the ability seen on it. These cards allow you to gain information from other players or perhaps take a card at random from another player. Once the ability is used, it goes on the bottom of the deck that it came from.
Alternatively, if you think you can solve the puzzle, you write your final answer on your sheet, announce the answer and then check the envelope. Be sure of your answer as you only can try to solve the puzzle once! If you are right, you win the game. If you are wrong, you are out of the game. You take the Sand Timer marker and place it in front of any other player. When that player takes their next turn, they must first Pursue then they are forced to immediately take a Solve action.
If someone guesses all three cards correctly, they win immediately. Otherwise, the game ends when all players have used their one guess, scores are tallied based on:
3VP – Getting the Yellow card correct
2VP – Getting the Red card correct
1VP – Getting the purple number correct
1VP – Being the first to try to solve
The highest score wins.
My thoughts on the game
Scrolls of a Northern City provides a take on the deduction game genre – because I think that there is a bit of math and probability that come into play here as well. Unlike most deduction games (think Clue/Cluedo as the archetype), you do not need to have an exactly right answer here to win the game. The goal is actually to have the most points, not to have the fully correct answer.
So… as you are going through the paces here, trying to keep an eye out for what you know and what you think the opponents know. This leads to a possibly weird degenerate strategy – the first player could choose to try to solve and simply guess the numbers right. Each other player would then possibly only get one turn in the game, and the 1VP bonus might be enough to win. Sure, it’s completely degenerate; but it exists. The game obviously accelerates to the end once someone guesses once as the sand timer forces a new Solve attempt at least each time around the board. At its most extreme, the game could be completely short circuited if the very first player just guesses and forces the sand timer to the next player triggering a cascade of first turn guesses… and the first player might possibly win 1-0-0-0.
Once you get rid of this broken but possible situation, the special character actions and Ability cards give you some interesting decisions on how to gain information. The thing that I can’t wrap my head around is the Ability that causes everyone to pass their hand to the left. Once this ability is found, all the information is essentially liable to be shared with everyone. And, as such, there is no way to really have information that only you know. I mean, sure you can put some cards back from your hand to a deck but then someone else will be able to pick up that card. The only thing in your favor is that cards have multiple copies, and maybe your opponent won’t be 100% sure if he is seeing the card from your hand or a duplicate of the card.
Thus far, none of my games have ended with a player knowing all three hidden cards. Due to the scoring system, thus far I am willing to make a guess if I know at least one number for sure – definitely if it is the yellow number – because the 1VP bonus in addition to the scoring for the correct cards seems like it’s enough to make it worth it to push for the end. The rule of the sand timer icon passage is a bit weird – because once the cascade has started, it is probably in the best interest of the guessing player to force the next player to guess – otherwise, any skipped players would end up getting extra turns to gather information – and since this makes no sense, I can’t see this ever happening in a different way.
Like the other Antler game that we have recently played (Apocalypse of Darkness Warfare), the artwork is completely gorgeous. There is a old-time feel to the graphics, with some anime features on the characters. In some ways, it reminds me of the graphics from a video game cut-scene video. The different cards all have unique line art illustrations that are also very appealing. This company is definitely one to watch out for due to their graphic design!
Until your next appointment
The Gaming Doctor