Artisans of Splendent Vale
- Designer: Nikki Valens
- Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 14+
- Time: up to 50 hrs or more (maybe two to three hours per session though)
The publisher blurb: “Long ago, a splendid streak of crimson fell from the sky and carved the valley from the earth. The foliage that the light touched grew wild and fierce, and the wildlife grew larger and more fearsome. Life prospered in the vale. From distant lands, members of many cultures converged, drawn by the mystery and allure of the red star and the verdant realm it created. They settled there, distancing themselves at first. The soil was hearty, perfect for crops; the rock was rich with mineral deposits begging to be mined, and the very land itself seemed eager to be shaped. On warm summer nights, the velvet sky became streaked with the scarlet light of meteor showers. The settlers found that, under these lights, their crafting projects finished more quickly and with greater results! Before long, the people began to co-operate, sharing their wares and knowledge with one another.
Together under an evening meteor shower, they founded a shared township — one that valued knowledge and craft. The township was named Splendence after the valley that brought them all together. In the centuries that followed, a red substance the people named material could be found after meteor showers. Artisans learned to craft using the substance, which lent magical qualities to their works. These works, called Artifice, were established which would catapult the township into an industrial revolution.
The Artisans of Splendent Vale is a cooperative adventure game set in a magical and unique land. As a troupe of artisans, you will explore the beauty of the Splendent Vale while honing your individual crafts. Overcome challenges during tactical action scenes played out on specialized grid maps, then experience individual interludes to build your story, separately from the group’s tale. Teamwork and careful strategy will be crucial during these encounters.”
I’ll admit that it’s taken me awhile to get this game reviewed, in part due to the vast scope and length of the game, as well as some scheduling issues. But with GenCon coming up, I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper for others to read in case they were wanting to learn more about the game!
Artisans of Splendent Vale is a wonderfully detailed story/adventure played out over multiple episodes – each lasting a reasonable amount of time (45-90 minutes). There are four characters in the group, and each has their own skills, habits, personality, etc. Also, each comes with their own storybook which details the story from their particular perspective. Players should note that they will play the same character for the entire campaign, so choose wisely – and also be sure to choose humans that will be able to consistently make game night!
Interestingly, as scenes happen in the books, conversation from other characters are often replaced with an ellipsis – so that the particular text can only be found in that particular character’s book. There might be information or a specific choice that can only be read by one character – so if that character isn’t in the current game, your group can’t even get to make that choice! Perhaps due to certain characteristics of your character, you’ll see something different (i.e. maybe only the tallest character can see something hiding on the top of a bookcase or the character with the best vision sees something off in the distance that no one else sees.) In these cases, only that particular storybook will have a numbered entry to read for the thing that they alone see.
All of the entries are numbered, so that you can easily find your place when redirected. You can think of this as a choose-your-own adventure with a shared dialogue stream. This also means that if you are playing with less than the full number of players, your group might actually miss out on something simply because no one was reading the book which had that particular information in it!
As you play, you will develop your characters using a really neat system. Your character abilities are scattered amongst a web of paths, and you get experience points that allow you to fill in dots on the grid, moving you towards new attributes (which you get when you can fill the path in to that space). The paths diverge and converge in multiple places, so you do get a fun experience of mapping out the direction you want to go in. Each character has their own sheet with individualized skills and paths.
In addition to the individual storybooks, there is also an Action Scene book which serves as the gameboard for fights and other scenes. You’ll be instructed to open to a particular page and the instructions for that fight are right there as well as the map and the initiative track. There is a shared dice pool used in the Action Scenes. Each die has icon(s) on them showing the possible actions to be taken. Each character has a stat sheet that tells you what happens for each icon; and since this is a legacy game, those possible actions *might* be mutable?! Your group will have to discuss and cooperate to make sure that each character gets the actions that they need. There is a nice ebb and flow as new dice are added in most turns and then some are used for actions.
The last major component is the huge map, which when unfolded shows you all the places you have to explore in the realm. You also have an Adventure Log on the reverse where you will write stuff down over the course of the game. This is essentially a trigger sheet as the story might fork in a different direction if you had written a specific phrase down on the Adventure Log earlier in your game…
Over the course of the game, your attention will go from the books – where you read about the events, learn more about your characters and their story, etc – and then to the Action Scenes where you beat stuff up. I haven’t actually timed it, but it does feel evenly split between the reading and the fighting. Then, at the end of the day, you will have an Interlude (you actually will have a deck of cards for this) where you get some choices and you make some decisions that could possibly affect the course of the game. You might also use this time to do some crafting where you make new things to use in further adventures. You also can spend the experience gained that day to work on possible skill advancements on your Advancement map.
My thoughts on the game
To start – I should say that I haven’t finished the campaign, but I’ve already postponed this review for so long, I thought I should start writing about it. FWIW, I don’t think completion of the campaign will change what I think about it – it’s been a fun adventure to explore, and I’ve very much enjoyed my time spent reading my character book. My current campaign is stalled due to multiple (and likely persistent) schedule/geography conflicts – so I’m not even sure when/if I’ll be able to resume playing! But, i’m still super interested in learning where the story goes – so if this current campaign can’t be restarted, i’m definitely interested in either starting again or at least reading through the books to see what happens. (Yeah yeah, i know that just reading the books is not in the spirit of the game… but i’m honestly not sure if i’ll ever get a stable enough group to play though and finish the whole thing!) Alternatively, I might just take on the role of all 3 characters in my campaign and just alternate reading the appropriate passages in the books. I didn’t think it would be possible to convert to a solo game, but after reading some comments online, it appears that others have done this – or played a 2p game with each reading from 2 books – without issue.
The way the game is set up – with characters that grow in strength and skills (and an enlarging inventory) – it’s hard to add someone in mid-stream without somehow mocking up the requisite skills and things to their character. So, once you get started, you’ll pretty much locked into the group makeup. I haven’t read many complaints about balance online, so it looks like the game will work with any combination of 2 or more of the 4 possible characters that are chosen for the game. Though, I suppose if you started with some humans playing multiple characters, you could then give someone control of one of the other books at any point. Also, if you aren’t playing with a particular character, they will still show up as an NPC so you’ll still get some of the benefits of having them on your team, even if they aren’t really on your team.
Also, I think it is best to mention that the game has LGBTQIA+ characters and themes running throughout the whole campaign. In our game, one character was gay and another was transgender. If that’s going to be an issue for you, this is not the game for you. I know that one of my personal shortcomings (as a cis gender male) is that I often do not pay enough attention to people that use different pronouns. In this game, all of the characters have their pronouns clearly listed, and I made a point to try to remember to use the correct pronoun for each character – and I feel like this was a great thing for my personal growth, and I hope that it helps me pay more attention IRL as well as being more comfortable remembering/using them.
The rules come in a thick book, and while it feels like everything is there – we had plenty of questions as we got started and it felt like we had a lot of flipping through the rulebook to find the answers to our questions. The format is weirdly reminiscent of old-timey wargames with numbered and sub-numbered/sub-lettered paragraphs. With the rules coming in small blocks (sometimes just a single sentence), it felt super choppy to read. I would have preferred a more typical prose format to the rules, but in the end, I think everything is included in the book so it probably doesn’t matter.
After a few rules questions, we just decided to make a group decision about how things should go and stop worrying too much about playing 100% right. For me, in this sort of game, I’m happy to just experience the game/story and not worry too much about the procedure.
As an example. when you are in fights, the group is tasked with making the decisions for the enemy. Here is a quote on the paragraph from the rules: “How a mob performs their actions follows a set of rudimentary guidelines. Simply put, they attempt to get the most out of their actions. All of their actions are considered together when determining how they move and who they target with attacks and other effects. In general, don’t spend too much time worrying about every possible way a mob could act. Instead just go with the most obvious best choices you can see. “ After reading that, it makes me think that the designers also just want you to go with the flow and experience the game as easily as you can. So that’s what we did in all cases, not just with the mob actions. Just do what seems right/obvious, and don’t make a fuss about it.
The components are well done, and I really like the way that the Action Book simplifies setup for the fight scenes. Just turn to the right page… and all the things you need are right there in the book. The artwork is really great and everything is organized nicely so that you can find the things you need without too much fuss. I would definitely keep your bifocals and reading light handy though – as there will be some things which require eagle-eye vision. Think of the issue with the original Unlock games – that holds true here. Your path may be made easier if you’re able to see small numbers that are in a very slightly different shade as the background color it’s found on. Sigh. Just as an FYI, if you feel like you’re stuck, there is a spoiler list online of these numbers that have been found.
The box is a huge cube, and I’ve now set aside the top of one of my bookcases to hold these giant boxes (also Suburbia collector’s Ed, CMKL collector’s edition, My Father’s Work, etc.) Everything is nicely organized within the box, and due to the shape and size, I don’t have to worry about my usual issue with storing games on their side. Be sure that you have saved some room in your game storage system for this one!
Like many legacy games, you will be permanently altering maps, character sheets, and other stuff. The box that I received comes with a recharge pack to set things back up good as new. Given the way that individual characters get unique story choices, etc – even though the full campaign is long – you could easily play again and see lots of new things with another character; especially if you take different paths at major forks in the story.
The game is listed for 14+ and while I realize that is a number mostly based on the sort of safety testing done; it might also be appropriate in this case due to the story. At least one of the characters is pretty flirty/horny, and non-explicit talk about their sex life comes up in a number of stories/interludes. If you’re thinking about playing this with kids, at least be prepared to have to discuss some of the topics as they are brought up. It might not be an issue, but something that I thought merits mentioning.
As I mentioned earlier, I have really enjoyed discovering the story here. In a way, this could really be viewed as an Interactive Fiction activity. There is definitely a narrative here, but your decisions made along the way will change the path that the story takes. Unlike many other cooperative story games, I haven’t yet found a way to “lose” the game – the story always continues regardless of the outcome of your choices or your combat. Once I realized this, my worries about not playing by the correct rules went out the window, and I just went with the flow because for me, this game isn’t really about winning or losing – but rather experiencing the story unfold.
If you’re looking for that sort of experience (and you have friends that can be available for 40-50+ hours), this is certainly worth a try!
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Lorna- like Dale, I have not finished the campaign yet. I have a sad record with Legacy Games/Continuous Adventure Games because, well, non-game life events and of course anything shiny. That said, I have enjoyed what I have played of Artisans of Splendent Vale. We are in a 2 player game with each of us using 2 characters. The story books are really impressive. It’s a very minor hassle to switch books but I like getting the whole adventure. I really like that the characters are inclusive. The story part is great, if the story is what is important to you then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game. The battles are ok but get a little “samey” and that is usually my least favorite part of these types of games anyway. We play that part of the game a little fast and loose and I don’t think it’s a big deal to just move the story along sometimes. Anyway, I plan on returning to the game and finishing the campaign when I have a bit more time.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y, Lorna
- Not for me…