Ryan Laukat has made a career pairing Euro-style adventure mechanisms with threaded narrative content. This is most directly seen in Near & Far, but it’s also present in Above & Below and Empires of the Void II. Unfortunately none of those games have felt perfectly comfortable or expertly integrated between their various elements. Iteration, however, leads to innovation. Sleeping Gods is Red Raven’s chef-d’œuvre.
This design represents a philosophical shift. Instead of attempting to service a worker placement and storytelling game equally, the focus has been placed on developing a sprawling narrative endeavor. There is still resource management – almost too much – and of course systems for conflict and skill tests, but those are clearly in service to the fireside whispers of The Manticore’s journey through a far away land full of wonder.
The Manticore is of course your ship. A 1920s steamboat crewed by nine characters, characters you will control and divvy up among the players equally. Taking a page out of Ravenloft, the steamer disappears in a blanket of fog and ends up in a foreign sea. It’s a tale of bewilderment, discovery, and moral plight.
This is good stuff.
This game is inseparably linked to recent standouts 7th Continent and Tainted Grail. It offers an open world for players to explore while demanding you precisely manage health and fatigue – across both your crew members and The Manticore – in order to earn the right to keep going.
The narrative here is fundamentally between the two approaches offered in those predecessors. 7th Continent required you attempt to lift a curse by following a couple of vague clues. Like a pigeon scooping up errant breadcrumbs scattered in the Bakeoff Tent, there are many distractions and interesting features pulling at your feathers. The main storyline almost felt like an aside to exploring the continent. This worked to its detriment as the central loop of resource gathering gave way to such repetition that I found myself wishing Ben Linus would turn the damn wheel already and make the whole continent disappear.
Tainted Grail on the other hand was sharply focused. If you don’t engage the intricate main plotline of a post-apocalyptic King Arthur seeking his legacy, well then you’re condemned to a life of repeatedly gathering supplies to light oversized monolithic statues. This game only succeeds because the central story is so well written.
Sleeping Gods has none of this nonsense. While you do have to spend time resting and attending to your people’s bruises, it’s ultimately much less focused on the grind. Instead, it’s all about visiting locations on the map and engaging locals in discourse or exploring wondrous locations. This is funneled through a main storyline that is structurally wispy: you’re trying to gather totems which will raise the slumbering gods in exchange for your freedom. It’s a proposition, but one which you have really no choice to accept when you open that box.
What’s quite remarkable is how focused this game is despite basically being an enormous collection of side-quests. Each little task you engage is an isolated job – head to an island to the west and retrieve a lost blade, or visit the large forest to the south and find my son – but the overarching spirit of the game feels incredibly directed and centered.
This is reflected in The Manticore itself. Since players take on the role of several crew members, each with emergent personality and their own special abilities, you are all tethered to the ship. Unlike those previous two touchstone games you can’t wander off on your own.
That’s an important distinction. For one, it means this game is consistent across any range of players. Every single crew member is utilized regardless of the number of participants. This makes for a sturdy solitaire game as well as an incredible multiplayer co-operative one.
More importantly though it keeps the action focused. When you engage in the relatively uncommon combat, everyone participates. When you head to the storybook to read a passage, everyone should be perked up and invested. There are still turns where leadership alternates between players, but group collaboration is always paramount.
There’s a certain warm satisfaction in all of these disparate quests knotting together around the focal point of that little steamboat miniature. It’s one of the central themes that you’re sailing through this cryptic realm but it’s actually sailing through you. Everything of note is occurring by your hand and your decision. Sleeping Gods may not be your dwelling, but its fate is uniquely yours.
One of the quirks of Red Raven’s style is that the worlds they build are whimsical. This results in Sleeping Gods feeling more like Young Adult fiction as opposed to a serious dramatic work. Whereas Tainted Grail was grimdark, this is more playful and eccentric. There are moments where it grows a bit gloomy and monstrous, but overall it’s a relatively family friendly affair. This is an asset from one perspective, but it’s also restrictive in that the impact can’t quite amount to the deeper and contemplative aspects of a classic literary work. Still, the writing is handled well overall and captures its desired tone so strongly that it astutely succeeds with the core concepts.
Much of the credit must go to the key system. This would have felt more innovative if it wasn’t already utilized similarly in both Near & Far as well as Tainted Grail, but this is still a rather clever implementation that is instrumental in building this game’s foundation.
What happens is that you acquire those various quests by meeting people or exploring locations. These tasks are fed to you from an enormous deck of cards. After awhile you will have a huge tableau of these Glengarry Leads. Players will intermittently pick them up trying to remember why they were intent on delivering the statue of a one-eyed monkey to an old woman on the other side of the world; taking notes is encouraged.
Each card has a key word at the bottom. When visiting a location it may ask if you possess a specific key. Depending on which quests you possess certain options may be available. This is how it resolves branching story. Some of these triggers even carry to the finale and affect your particular ending.
Instead of forcing you through a distinct plotline, it allows you to navigate through a dynamic world as if flipping pages in a gazetteer. Each quest fills out another niche of the greater story as the smaller threads intersect and shed light on macro aspects. Experiencing Sleeping Gods is as if you’re slowly ingesting a painting, stroke by stroke, with it all coming together and crystallizing into a greater artifact at the moment of conclusion.
One area where that sharp focus does become wobbly is in the game’s difficulty. Overall it has felt appropriate, slightly challenging but not altogether murderous. However, this is subject to great variability. If you choose story options or blunder into quests you may encounter more combat or resource draining narrative outcomes. There is a bit of a snowball effect as falling behind the curve can make further tests more difficult resulting in additional pain. At the opposite end, unearthing a powerful totem can drastically enhance the combat abilities or utility of your crew members. Discover a few immense weapons and the next scuffle with a group of minotaur will feel like child’s play.
Dying is not overly punitive as it merely shortens the timer of the game by discarding event cards. This can ratchet up the pressure, but you get to experience a coherent ending to the story that is interesting regardless of your level of achievement. Interestingly enough, if you’ve had great success in this game you may hope for a touch of struggle so you get a glimpse of a more strained ending.
The save system is also one of the more rickety systems at play. There’s no way around it, putting this away and pulling it back out is a burden. You need to bag individual crew members and status tokens, manage save sheets, and you can’t play this game as a one-off session or step outside your main campaign once it has started. This all fades completely if you can leave it permanently setup, but not everyone can meet that demand.
A final point of contention is that the map you utilize for note-taking and navigation includes the Tides of Ruin expansion. Certain areas will be unavailable without the extension, but the game doesn’t hold this back or shield you from the missing content. This does act as a positive in that the complete experience feels well integrated and honed, but it comes at the cost of a nervous prick to the ol’ acquisition lobe. I suppose I won’t help the matter by stating that the expansion content is top notch and not at all an afterthought, even if it’s not a necessity to experience this game.
Regardless of the few struggles, this game is a vision to behold.
There is quite a bit of state management as you fatigue crew members to increase the odds of succeeding at a test. Characters also grow in abilities over time as you purchase skill cards for them and they gain new treasure and equipment. The tablespace can look downright messy.
But it manages to remain structurally sound as each individual system is so light and digestible. The turn structure also supports this as concise and isolated with little cleanup. You perform a global shared action on the ship board, draw an event card which acts as the game’s timer, and then take two actions. The next player does the same and so on. You can stop in between turns with no issue and the flow is never really interrupted.
This buys tremendous ease of play. It is exactly the type of game that you get lost in, taking turn after turn as the hours march away behind you. “Just one more”, you’ll say.
Minimizing combat to a degree, keeping the challenge system simple, and not forcing the players to perform busy-work really allows for the game to breathe, offering a light burden-less adventure that’s such a joy to play. 7th Continent was like menial labor, ultimately repetitive as the magic wore off. Tainted Grail felt suffocating at times but I pushed through it because the story was so gripping. Sleeping Gods may not hit those highs, but it provides an elevated atmosphere that is consistent quality play. It doesn’t jerk you around or shove the best bits behind an endless hallway of obstacles.
I also have to credit the spiral-bound map book. This is such a stronger system than the card based approach of its predecessors. It means setting up a new area is a flip of the page and literally nothing else. Both 7C and TG do wield their particular systems for more dynamic and responsive story-based effects – for instance, a city in Tainted Grail may be overrun and fall, replacing the initial location card with a new one – but damn does that come at such a high cost.
Sleeping Gods holds up very well throughout the entirety of its journey. The sheer quantity of content is staggering as you will only see about a fourth of the quests in any given play and experience only one of 13 different endings, demanding you return to the isles again. There are indeed moments where it risks losing engagement, particularly if you don’t stumble upon the largest story threads, but it manages to present new and quirky plotlines which typically snap you from the malaise. With whimsy and purpose, the game knows how to pull you along and not overstep. It’s really something.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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That was fascinating. I must get my hands on a copy of this! I’m really excited to explore the integration point between the euro-adventure mechanisms (as you put it) and narrative thread from a design perspective. If they’ve nailed it here in a family-friendly pacakge, that is indeed a hell of an achievement!
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I think you’d find this one particularly interesting, James. Hopefully you get to try it.
Ok – you have my attention.
I need to get my copy on the table now and play it with my daughters!
I think (hope?) you’d really like this one Ian.
I’m awaiting my translated version because it’ll be the first narrative exploration game I’ll be able to play with my ten-year-old son. Judging by your review we’re in for a treat. I have played both 7th continent and Tainted Grail and agree with your reservations towards them, so this only bodes well for the future. Thank you for the write-up.