Some games you just have to take a step back and marvel at them. Whether it’s gorgeous components, sophisticated mechanisms, or pure ambition. Vast: The Crystal Caverns is chock full of ambition. This is a dungeon crawler that’s packed with hugely atypical notions and genius. Allowing players to control a thief or knight, even goblins, is relatively standard fare. What about the hulking dragon trying to awaken from slumber?
I see your ears perking up.
Now what If I told you someone controls the cave itself? Sinking into the role of an inanimate object is the gig you’ve been waiting for your entire life and it’s finally time.
Vast is all about asymmetry. Each of those five roles have distinct victory conditions in competition with each other that produce a tangled web of interaction and nuance. The knight wants to explore the cave and gain grit so he can muster enough strength to kill the dragon. The large serpent is drowsy and wants to awake from its lengthy siesta to escape its cavernous prison. Both want to kill goblins along the way, while the greedy little fiends are attempting to off the knight.
Just outside that super awkward love triangle is the thief who’s trying to sneak by its competition to pilfer treasure. Everyone hates the burglar and wants to see that little dolt ground into dust. Don’t worry, we’re PG in this subterranean combat arena and he re-spawns if he eats it.
The balance here is surprisingly strong. Each player is given tools to hurt and thwart specific opponents, and much of the design is self-correcting. You never feel like you’re on rails or the game is forcing your hand, rather it throws everyone into an enormous arena and rings the bell.
Each of the characters is interesting and entertaining in their own right. In addition to disparate goals, you’re given completely unique systems. The knight seeks to level up and gain more actions. The goblins gather strength to ambush and be generally tricksy mofos. The thief fiddles with his loot level and takes what he has no right to take. The dragon eats people while yawning quite a bit.
The cave is perhaps the most interesting. It’s an equalizer of sorts as you determine how the cavern is built–within structured guidelines–and must be careful to keep treasure and vaults away from the heroes. You have a direct role in shaping the adventure and can have enormous impact on keeping certain characters alive while subverting others. You ultimately achieve victory by filling out the entire dungeon and then collapsing it into oblivion offing the entire crew. As Big Daddy Kane said, “Dungeon crawlin’ ain’t easy.”
The complete embracing of asymmetry is both Vast’s huge achievement and equally huge deficiency. It’s exceptionally interesting to have five playable characters that all boast unique subsystems, but it’s another thing to actually teach this bear. Watching five experienced gamers fumble around trying to identify what components belong to their player board while poring over their rule aids with furrowed brows is discouraging. The rulebook itself isn’t horrific, but it’s also not particularly strong. At every turn, you end up looking for a hand out of the darkness, and the game doesn’t quite seem to meet you half-way.
Once you mostly understand what’s going on, you’ll dive into an experience punctuated with moments of triumph drowned between bouts of downtime. If other players are still learning their character abilities, they will stretch out an exceedingly simple turn for far too long. At the maximum player count, games will exceed the time on the box and the design more often than not will overstay its welcome. While going for that full complement of five is very tempting, I’d urge you to keep things simple. Playing a restrained two or three player learning game will still preserve some of those high points and keep the headaches and struggle to a minimum.
Unfortunately, even after a game or two, players will still not completely grok the system. Since you will spend most of your time learning your own capabilities, switching roles is no simple task. You’ll have to begin the learning experience all over again which can frustrate the less enthused. In 2016, we are blessed with an unrelenting wave of great games, and convincing someone to weather the storm and allow second chances may prove difficult.
Vast: The Crystal Caverns is as ingenious as it is frustrating. At its core, it’s a set of five relatively light games interwoven to produce a whole that is much heavier and more confounding. Yet when it manages to come together and fire on all cylinders, it can be enthralling. It’s a game of highs and lows. One minute you’re rifling through treasure and catapulting off a stalagmite to thrust your sword into Smaug’s beating heart. The next, you’re tripping over your untied boots and falling into a moldy hole.
Do you think Vast: The Crystal Caverns is worth the struggle? Tell us in the comments below!
Featured image credit: Leder Games
Images courtesy of Kyle W., Andrew Candy via Board Game Geek