A Review of Artisans of Splendent Vale … a story in progress…

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Artisans of Splendant Vale was on Kickstarter back in October 2021, and just delivered last week Dec 31 2022. It had originally promised delivery in August 2022, so it was about 5 months late.

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I think we’ll still count this is a 2023 release even though it got here Dec 31 2022.

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Artisans of Splendent Vale is a cooperative adventure legacy game for 2-4 players. I was very interested in this game, because it was by designer Nikki Valens who had done The Initiative, one of my favorite games of 2021! The Initiative made the #2 spot on the Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021see review here, so I was very interested in seeing what this game was.

The Elephant in the Room

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Before you get any further, there are a few things you should know. If you have trouble with non-binary characters, non-traditional pronouns, gay, lesbian, or transgender characters, you probably should probably stop reading now. This game embraces those worlds fully: the four main characters are very steeped in their gender/sexuality: one character is gay, one is transgender and so on. The theme is not just pasted on: as the stories in the game progress, events further these characters in those areas.

It’s probably best to stop reading now and avoid Artsians of Splendent Dale if you have issues with any of that. This game embraces the stories and lifestyles of these characters.

Unboxing and Components

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This box is surprisingly large!

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But the art is very nice … it almost reminds me of a kid’s storybook.

To be clear: this is a campaign legacy game! You will put stickers on forms, write forever notes on characters, and generally mark up sheets. My version came with one recharge pack (with new sets of sheets to reset the game): see above.

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The rulebook is very fanciful. We’ll discuss its contents below.

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The game comes with an folded map: this is the land we will explore! See above and below.

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The front of the map is the lands you will explore. On the back side of the map is the ledger of your adventure (this is one of the legacy components that will be marked up: see below).

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As you explore, this map is marked up further and further, on both the front and the back.

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There’s a bunch of punchouts: most of them are status/condition tokens (sick, slowed, etc) and some dials for health.

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Next come the character sheets: these will be written on and change as you play through the campaign.

There are exactly four characters in the game, and they are all very different! They have different level-up/tech trees, different backstories and the like. So, the character sheets are all distinct and very different from each other.

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Up next is the Action Scene Book (called storybook in other games). It’s really nice! See above and below.

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The Action Scene Book is essentially a map of where you fight bad guys (like the storybook from Jaws of the Lion: see our review here). We’ll take a closer look at the map later.

Under all those components are the main character books and tuck boxes.

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These character books are fantastic! I feel like I just went to the book store and got a new collection of books! There look like a series like Chronicles of Narnia or something!

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These books are really nice: see below.

The rest of the tokens are in the box:

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Most of these tokens in the box are the monsters meeples you’ll be fighting: see above.

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The four main characters in the story (see above) have markers that almost feel like erasers … I made the joke that they were erasers because we might lose a limb! I realized that after I said it, because this is a legacy game, I might be right! Oops, I hope that’s not a spoiler.

As the story progresses, a lot of items and stickers (like I said, this is a legacy game) come from the card repository: see above. 

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As a legacy/campaign game, you will have to save state between games, so there are little tuck boxes to store your cards and such.

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In the end, this is a beautiful, colorful production with great components. See above.

Rulebook

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I didn’t love this rulebook. I felt like it should have had a better vector into getting us into our first game (a First Play book like Tainted Grail would have been nice). The rules were all there, but a little scattered throughout.

As we played, I was the one who had to look up the rules, and many times I kind of struggled to find stuff. I generally found everything, but I didn’t love the organization.

It seemed almost like there was too much white space? I’d rather related things be clumped closer?

In the end, we were able to play the game using the rulebook, but it just seemed like the rulebook could have been better: maybe a First Play, less white space/better layout, slightly different organization?

We learned the game from the rulebook. I guess it did its job.

Solo Play

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This game does NOT follow Saunders’ Law: there are no solo rules for this game! This game is strictly 2-4 players.

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After opening everything up, I thought “I can just play two characters and alternate between them.” Nope! Each character has to operate their own book, backstory, relationships with other characters, … and I think it just looked like too much work to try to play multiple characters at once for the solo mode.

Is there a way to play a single character? Maybe you could read through the storybook as a single character, but when you get to combat, that won’t work: the combat part of the game has been balanced for 2-4 characters, so you need at least 2 characters there.

I think if this were my favorite game of all time, or I were on a desert island with the game, I think I could handle playing multiple positions.

In the end, however, this is a social game: the characters tell the story together, they work together, and they read their books together. The lack of a solo mode is disappointing (I couldn’t learn this for my group), but it is understandable. This is a complex game that is quite social and cooperative.

What is This Game?

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This game surprised me because I was expecting a simple storybook game, but I got a pretty complex beast! it seems to be an amalgam of three major games:

  1. Crusoe Crew or Sherlock Holmes: Baker Street Irregulars 
  2. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion 
  3. Forgotten Waters

What do we mean by that?

Shared Script Game: Like Crusoe Crew and Sherlock Holmes: Baker Street Irregulars

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Crusoe Crew was a collaborative storybook or script book game from a few years ago (see our review here and here): players together read from their books at the same time (see above). These books are like scripts from a movie … everyone is following along with their own copy. These books are Choose Your Own Adventure type scripts: players would read along together and occasionally come to a decision point. At the decision point, players decide as a group where to go next! What’s interesting is that occasionally the books will slightly diverge for one character! For example, one character may be very tall, so he’ll read a slightly different entry because he can see something up on the shelf!! But the stories always converge back to the main plot. Players read cooperatively from their books. Both Crusoe Crew and Sherlock Holmes: Baker Street Irregulars (see review here and here) were fantastic experiences in this shared script game.

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Artisans of Splendent Dale absolutely follows this model! Players read out out of their books together, with occasional diverging text (that always converges back), with special entries for each character.

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You can see what a book looks like above: entries are labelled with numbers so you know where to go.

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These storybooks are mostly text, with a few pictures (as opposed to more cartoons and maps), but it serves a shared script that everyone is reading. I love this format, and this was the main reason I got this game! See above as Andrew and Sara read together from the shared books. I loved both Crusoe Crew and Sherlock Holmes: Baker Street Irregulars, with the latter making the #1 spot on our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2020! So, I loved the shared scripts (character books) here!

But this game is much more than just a shared script game.

Fighting Game: Like Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

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This game flits between “reading the shared script together” and “fighting stuff”.

When you fight stuff, Artisans of Splendent Dale feels like a simplified Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.  When you are ready to fight, you open up the storybook and fight some bad guys! 

The storybook in Jaws of the Lion was the major advancement in Gloomhaven system: it was so easy to get set-up! Just open the book (instead of hunting for tons of cardboard in the original Gloomhaven).  See our review here.  See the Jaws of the Lion storybook below.

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The storybook is the play area! Set-up is easy! Just turn to that page! Artisans uses this same model, but they call it in the Action Scene Book rather than the storybook.

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The fighting  for Artisans, though, is simplified in many ways: the bad guys are just little wooden meeples (see above)  [instead of tons of punchouts], and the initiative order is already set-up (below) [instead of being determined by lowest card]  …

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In general, the set-up is very quick: just open the book and set-up some meeples!

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This system worked well!

I was surprised how much combat there was in the game: I had expected more of the shared script game. About a half of the game is combat, and the other half is reading and advancing your characters.

Advancement: Like Forgotten Waters

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I expected this to be a game with character advancement … it is a legacy campaign game after all! What surprised me is how much that advancement lifts from Forgotten Waters it was! See our review here.

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In Forgotten Waters, you fill in little dots in a “constellation” as you advance.  When you get to major points on your grid (the ! above), stuff happens. This is the only game I’ve seen this with  this “constellation system”.

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… until I got to Artisans of Splendent Dale! As you get more more experience points, you fill in the dots in your “constellations” and fill in towards certain items/abilities you want … very much like Forgotten Waters. Except every character is very very different. Maybe that’s why they chose the “constellation” system: it works well for disparate characters.

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Dice For Actions

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Artisans of Splendent Dale uses the “roll dice to get actions” mechanism. One your turn, you roll a number of dice, and add them to the pool. On the storybook pages, you get two actions per turn, using the dice for attack, movement, boosting, “wild”, and defending (depending on what’s showing). Once you use a dice for its action, it leaves the pool.

Generally, I don’t like this mechanism: we discussed this heavily in our Batman: Shadow of the Bat review as well as our King of Monster Island review. It always feel like you have do what the dice tell you to do, not what you want to do.

This mechanism didn’t seem too bad when we played Artisans: it seemed like we were generally able to do what we needed. I still don’t love this mechanism: Batman: Shadow of the Bat should have been in my Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2022, but it didn’t make the list solely because of this mechanism.

Overall, Artisans of Splendent Dale worked okay with the “roll dice to get actions” mechanism. I still just don’t love that mechanism.

Cooperative Play

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The cooperative play worked well in this game! The game suggests you have “one reader”, but we chose to rotate the reader (from the script books) so that everyone had a chance to read frequently. I would have probably made that the default rule: “rotate the reader every turn”: this promotes more involvement from everyone.

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Also, even though I didn’t love the dice combat (“role for your actions”) with the shared pool, the shared pool did seem to elicit more cooperation: “You need to leave me an attack symbol so I can take out that guy!” Just having the shared pool seemed to encourage a little more togetherness.

Generally, the game did elicit a lot of cooperation: it really worked well on that front.

What I Didn’t Like

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I didn’t like the “roll dice for actions” mechanism, but it wasn’t terrible. It worked.

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One thing that I really didn’t like was the enemy actions weren’t well specified. The rulebook (see page 19 above) literally says “Instead, just go with the most obvious best choices you can see”. We spent an entire blog entry talking about how we didn’t like this in the Resolving Ambiguity in Cooperative Games. We made it work, it wasn’t a big deal to the group, but it did rub me the wrong way. If we compare the enemy actions rule to something like Gloomhaven, where they are incredible well-specified, Artisans looks very poor. However, that specificity in Gloomhaven has a cost: much more complex rules. I know why Artisans of Splendent Vale chose to let the characters run the bad guys in a more free-form way: in a word, simplicity. But it still rubs me the wrong way: it always feel like a cop out.

But the game worked: my group as a whole didn’t have a problem with the free-form enemy rules.

What I Liked

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The components are pretty darn amazing.

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The script books are fantastic: easy to read, well-written, and nicely laid-out. They work well.

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The combat story book (Action Scene books) works well.

The Characters

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The game can be played with fewer than 4 characters, but to get the most of out of the story, you should probably play with the full character count: each character seems to have an interesting story that unfolds and helps reveal plot points.  We saw early on that we would have missed certain entries in the character books if we didn’t have all the characters.

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Also, the characters in the story are well-defined: they seem to all have very strong personalities which will influence how you play them!  When you play Javi, you will tend to be more stoic.  When you play Ramani, you will need to be very inquisitive and ask lots of questions, almost to the point of annoying (if you believe Soraya’s POV).  You will have to play that character’s personality to get the most out of the game.  If you were hoping to just lightly engage, the characters don’t really allow that: that that for what you will.

Conclusion: The Story Progresses

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There is a lot here! The script books are pretty huge, and the overall story looks like a fairly long campaign. And the components are phenomenal.

My group really liked this game: they want to keep playing! The general feeling was that Artisans of Splendent Vale feels a lot like a simplified Gloomhaven with a cuter theme, but with a much better story (as guided by the script books like Crusoe Crew).

But be careful: that theme is a little misleading: it is still very cute, but the game still has mature elements. One of the things that came up was “my sex life”: it wasn’t explicit or anything, but apparently we will see discussions of our sex lives in the game? That makes me think some people might have problems with the 14+ age range? I guess it depends on what you think is an appropriate age to discuss your sex life (of your character). Be aware if it might be an issue for you or your group?

Interestingly, none of my game group is transgender, gay, or lesbian, so we weren’t necessarily the target audience (or arguably, we were). We just enjoyed this for the game it was: it was a good game. I suspect the theme will be what entices many people to the game, but luckily the game is good. Just be aware that this game is much more complex than it looks: this isn’t a game for newer players without much experience in the world of modern games. (Seriously, it felt a lot like Gloomhaven is lots of ways).

Overall, my group liked this game better than I did: they have entreated me to keep playing! My problem is mostly I don’t love the “roll dice for actions” mechanism, but I do love the script books, streamlined combat, and the quality components. I think my group would give this a 7.5/10.0 and I’d probably give it a 7/10. I suspect some people will adore this game and give it an 8 or better! Hopefully this review will help you decide if you would like this game.

Appendix

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The joke was that I didn’t like the game as much as the group because I was the one who had to handle the condition tokens! Our second combat had so many conditions to keep track of! Oof! This is another way that Artisans is like Gloomhaven: there are lots of conditions in the game that change up combat. Tip: Maybe consider sharing the responsibility of the conditions when you play so one person doesn’t get stuck with all the tiny condition tokens …

One thought on “A Review of Artisans of Splendent Vale … a story in progress…

  1. Thanks for the great review!

    I have a suggestion on future players regarding the open ended combat for the baddies.

    Of course, this would only work with a group that is comfortable with role-playing games, and the creative nature of helping to construct the narrative. That said, it could be an opportunity for even more cooperative play in the form of creating the cinematic scene, if you will. Just a thought.

    In any case, I’d be very interested in this one, Despite the fact I’ve sworn off legacy and campaign games until I finish Frosthaven, in like five years. LOL!

    Like

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