There is a complex logos at work in Triton Noir’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice. The elaboration is not found in the fairly lean ruleset, an evolution of the stealth mechanisms found in the sublime V-Sabotage (formerly V-Commandos), rather, it’s embedded in the larger arrangement of expansive content and its tenuous relationship with physical capacity.
This game’s soul is certainly shaped by its intellectual property. It captures the tone of the Assassin’s Creed video game series rigorously, and it carries this success through to its co-operative gameplay. The V-Sabotage stealth mechanisms feel a perfect fit. You’re sneaking around patrols, carefully picking off guards and managing rising tension until the alarm is sounded and the dance of blades begins. There’s a new sense of verticality with rooftop climbing and tower diving. There are even neat gadgets like hidden blades and flying machines. The system feels conceived wholly for Assassin’s Creed as opposed to one extricated from a predecessor.
All of this makes for a very interesting game that’s easy to manage and agile in form. But the core systems are overshadowed by its scope.
The identity of Brotherhood of Venice lies in its impressive presence. This is a big damn game. It’s larger than Gloomhaven and would function best as the centerpiece of a collection. Inside you will find layers of trays containing miniatures, cards, cubes, sealed boxes, a whole filing cabinet of envelopes, and much more. It’s whatever you would call the opposite of condensed soup or an MRE. It’s excessive.
This quality is interlaced with two fundamental challenges. The first I’m entitling The Crowdfunding Paradox.
These are lifestyle games, ones whose main audience is instead participating in the more meta lifestyle game of acquisition. The very people repeatedly drawn to these purchases are ones who don’t have the time to thoroughly enjoy them as intended, because that time is in heavy competition with the half-dozen other centerpiece games weighing down the shelves and a half-dozen more coming in the future.
Now, there are people purchasing and playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice who absolutely are dedicated and who will finish the campaign. A significant portion of these people will be fans of the intellectual property which provides the necessary incentive to fully commit.
And this game is high enough quality – in both gameplay and content – to deserve that commitment. It’s an excellent contribution to the hobby, presenting a stealth system that is gratifying and dynamic. I’m a fan of V-Sabotage for a reason, and Assassin’s Creed adds depth and rich narrative to this already burgeoning success.
This is the type of thing that certain people will not only consume, but they will devour. It has the capacity to be a favorite as it absolutely executes on its vision in a compelling way.
It also is clever in how it addresses the challenges of this paradox. For one, it’s a relatively short time commitment. Just like its predecessor, you can play through a chapter of the story in roughly an hour. Sometimes less. It works particularly well at lower player counts and handles downtime superbly by threading player actions in a free-form structure. Similar to the Conan board game, a player can spend any number of their action points before bouncing to another in the group, and then back to finish up as they wish. This is such a lovely approach as it fosters discussion while keeping everyone engaged with the tactical nuances of the situation.
The pacing of the game can unfortunately be uneven. The stealth mechanism is contrasted with an alarm system where once the guards are alerted, the tone and tactical approach completely reverses. At this point it’s very difficult to sneak by guards – although still possible – and you’re left picking your spots and trying to avoid the bulk of foes. The action does open substantially and, if you’re feeling courageous, it can be quite fulfilling to leap into the fray and tear a group of crossbowmen apart with a mace or sword. But it also moves farther away from the best bits of the game, those stealth considerations.
This open state of all-out war does fill roughly half of the playtime. If you don’t find this phase of play compelling then the whole experience is a dismal proposition. Fortunately, I appreciate this portion of Brotherhood of Venice and find it to be a necessary contrast to the stealth-oriented procedures. This adds weight and consequence to the risks. However, I do find myself occasionally wishing there were more tools to reverse the alarm state and flip play back to its earlier format. This isn’t an issue in most scenarios due to their modest length, but occasionally you will simply get unlucky and botch an easy stealth roll early in the game. That can leave you somewhat wanting, but thankfully it’s uncommon enough in frequency.
Setup time is handled surprisingly well for such a monstrosity. This is because the maps don’t require specific numbered tiles. Instead, you have a stack of rooftops, a stack of open streets, and a stack of rooms. There are some additional tile types such as water and larger locales, but mostly it’s a subset of areas that have specific rules implications.
But it doesn’t matter which specific tile you grab. As long as you position the borders correctly, you can pluck any room from the stack and throw it down. The artwork is unique on each, so you’re given variety and freedom, but it’s all so quick and effortless to assemble. I adore this and it’s a strong execution on a concept I first saw in the Resident Evil: 2 board game – although there was a large failure to execute in that instance due to issues with artwork and also a carelessness with environmental visual consistency.
This game is an awful one to setup fresh though. There is a system to pack up all of your equipment cards and characters, but once you get deeper into the campaign and unlock additions such your headquarters board, it begins to get overly difficult.
Of course, this ties back into the paradox at the heart of these games. It really wants a group able to setup the thing and leave it available on the table indefinitely. Some can do this, many cannot.
The second challenge it faces is interwoven with the first. Just as the series struggles to escape the towering shadow of master assassin Ezio, this board game struggles under the weight of the series scope. The reason the product is so large and full of pieces and boxes and more pieces, is that it’s trying with all of its will to capture the duration and integrity of narrative that a video game can deliver.
And it does, it really does.
The story here isn’t Shakespearian, but it’s well developed and measured. There’s enough context to the individual scenarios and the designers have a strong grasp on how to keep the campaign gripping over time. It never allows you to lose interest or for that all-too-common familiarity to drift in. The additional content arises at a very precise pace, and you’re rewarded with a continual string of dopamine hits of new enemies and content.
But it’s difficult to ignore that all of this stuff is a direct consequence of board game’s not organically supporting this style of design. It runs counter to the strength of a tabletop game, which are consolidated social systems with well-defined boundaries. Brotherhood of Venice, for better and for worse, doesn’t have boundaries. It has to weigh 20 pounds because a board game cannot deliver the scope of an Assassin’s Creed narrative without embracing obesity and exorbitance.
Despite this philosophical dilemma, it must be recognized how exceptional everything is here. As I’ve illustrated above, its core systems are emphatically strong, its unveiled content is superb, and the campaign itself is gripping. There are so many flourishes and nuances which really elevate the experience. Things such as adding just a few cards to a maintained and growing event deck each scenario, or the AI which is mostly predictable, fostering a feel of clustered patrols where you must identify the breaks in their line and slip through. It’s a bit of a puzzle with working out your best approach and then attempting to execute on that plan. I thoroughly enjoy all of this and have nearly lost myself in its depths.
But I’m a critic, and I’m someone who plays such a wide variety of games that I suffer from my own paradox of sorts. This is an interesting title but it’s not one suited for reviewers, creating a challenge in its own right.
I keep coming back to this in my thoughts: a game of any consequence needs to orient itself. It’s an artifact of a creator’s philosophy, culture, and ideals. What I’m trying to do as a critic is identify those qualities and examine them. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice is self-evident in purpose and it doesn’t require a sage to puzzle it out.
This thing is big and enormous and entirely designed for the dedicated. It offers something compelling and substantial. If you are an Assassin’s Creed fan it’s everything you could have hoped for, as long as you have the time, money, and physical space to support that dream.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.