The Lone Optimist – A Posthuman Saga Review

The post-apocalyptic genre is perhaps my favorite of genres. Among my top films are Fury Road and Children of Men, and among my top novels are The Road and Blood Meridian. My point is that Posthuman Saga is exactly the type of game I stand up for. It’s the type of thing that should directly appeal and have my heart in knots.

But Posthuman Saga doesn’t do this.

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This is the sequel to Mighty Boards’ 2015 release Posthuman, which is a game I know nothing about. This is a very interesting one on its own merits though. Unfortunately it’s one that operates in a category with lots of baggage and it doesn’t care about our preconceived notions or expectations; it does things its own way.

A critical element for my enjoyment of this genre is narrative. I want some kind of arc and a glut of drama. Posthuman Saga’s narrative is mostly provided in bits of scripted paragraphs read at the beginning of rounds. Characters are presented with branching choices and alternate story resolutions that provide a resource bonus or penalty which filters back to the main game.

The paragraph booklet feels disjointed from the primary system, tacked on and attempting to satisfy that requirement of story. This is completely opposite of a recent 2019 release that’s won me over called Dark Venture. That game is all about procedurally generated narrative and stitching together gonzo storylines. What we have here is less concerned with the bizarre and more with thought.

So if Posthuman Saga is not focused on unpredictable story what is it concerned with? Strategy. Yes, it’s a surprising twist – although perhaps less so if you’re familiar with designer Gordon Calleja – but this is a Euro-style adventure game that actually takes a foreign road for post-apocalyptic designs by wrapping the decision space around control.

And it’s entirely about that control. As you’re moving around a personal board attempting to accomplish objectives you’re given a large amount of authorial sway. You bid for and then draft tiles which are placed in your surroundings, injecting this weird yet satisfying sub-game. Players can’t mess with what you’re doing directly as all of the interaction is drafting or selection based, with a dose of racing to complete your goals and earn bonus victory points.

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There’s a lot going on here and it all hangs together within the scope of those design goals. Your character persists as a sort of engine, performing actions each round as you push out your map and gather resources. You can’t progress unless you have food to persist, so your action selection is a mix of slower maintenance and rushed sprinting towards the finish line.

You will gain in power and stats as play unfolds. There’s an RPG element to managing your particular avatar. There’s neat equipment to be found and a really stellar mutation system that provides the strongest narrative spark. There’s a definite momentum to your character’s evolution as a warped and gnarled sack of cells and I delight in observing it escalate.

Unfortunately there is a pretty excessive amount of fiddliness. You have tokens stacked upon tokens, pegs moving about your board, stacks of tiles, multiple bags to draw from, many different types of cards, and about another half-dozen things to position and tinker with. It’s as busy physically as it is mentally, for better or for worse.

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But let’s get back to that sense of control. It really oozes out of each aspect of play. Even combating enemies happens solely at your dispensation. By choosing the encounter action you will engage a randomly drawn adversary and move to a little zoomed in Final Fantasy style combat. This is where things get a touch spicy.

The conflict system is card based as you select one option from your deck and receive a second draw at random. Your combat deck contains a mix of results as cards dictates your success at both ranged and melee phases. Since ranged occurs before close combat there is a visual sense of what’s happening as you build up the scene in your mind. This synergizes surprisingly well with the puzzly aspect of spending resources for extra oomph from your weapons. Like the rest of Posthuman Saga, you have a great deal of control here limited mostly by your personal economy and what equipment you’ve scrounged. You can mitigate poor luck by pushing yourself or with strong preparation.

And the payout of previous decisions also occurs in this system as you can purchase new cards to upgrade your deck. This shift in deck composition allows you to push the odds in your favor and tackle the more difficult level two encounters late in the game. It’s wonderful to run into a giant mutated glutton and slap down your freshly acquired card to headshot the poor bastard.

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There’s a message tucked away in this design that I can’t help but appreciate. While the world may have gone to hell and society has degraded, as humans we are still empowered. We still have a say in our personal story and we will fight tooth and nail to enact our will. There’s a degree of hope baked into the DNA that’s alien to the type of stories this genre tells. That’s a refreshing take, particularly in our modern culture where cynicism is elevated.

So it’s no surprise that the feel of this game is extraordinarily unique due to this focus on strategy and control. This is a very thoughtful game with many facets and a number of vectors that integrate with skilled play. It’s a design that strays far from resolution centered on the whims of fate, refocusing everything on the player and their mastery of its depths.

I found this personally startling and incongruent with my own desires for this style of game. The good news is that there’s definitely an audience and it may be you. I’ve seen players dive headlong into the terrain tile auction and really glob on to the action card system. There are multiple aspects of the game you can focus on and victors in my plays have not pursued the exact same systems or processes.

I was also pleased with the inclusion of a solitaire mode. This functions similarly to regular play, however, it provides a more overt sense of tension due to a pretty aggressive timer. You can work to extend the length of play and avoid defeat, but this requires careful calculation and pushing yourself and your resources at the appropriate time. Since the main mode of play is solitary in some sense, I found the game didn’t lose much and gained a nice edge which proved entertaining.

This is a mechanically rich game for sure, and it’s given an even greater jolt with the Resistance expansion. Everything is sort of beefed up, including a new third level of enemies that are full of nasty surprises. I found the new followers and mutation die particularly exciting among all of the inclusions. The base game certainly contains enough content to satisfy, but those wanting the maximum amount of scope to explore will likely want to include these new elements right away.

Overall my relationship with Posthuman Saga is a weird one. While I adore Calleja’s previous design, Vengeance, this one didn’t quite give me what I wanted. However, what it did provide was a very deep and strategic landscape that differs from anything I’ve played before. There’s no denying it’s a more intellectual than dramatic affair. This mix will likely draw a dedicated fan-base and establish this design as a boundary shifting release. Those desiring a really varied mechanistic post-apocalyptic title may have finally found their love.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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