The Tale of Elston Gunn, Boo Wilbury, and Blind Boy Grunt – A Vagrantsong Review

At the onset of Vagrantsong you are dizzily ushered into a ramshackle train car. All you remember is running from trouble and being pulled into the “Silver Ferryman” by a white gloved hand. A fiddle plays in the distance, beckoning you deeper into the locomotive. It begins.

The first scenario is the most direct and restrained. Still, it doesn’t hold back from showing identity. You’re confronted by a considerable being, an apparition more potent and unrestrained than your own capabilities. As you pull tokens from the cleverly titled bindle, your foe activates and begins to reveal their multitudinal personality. The players, each embodying a characterful vagrant adrift on a journey as personal as it is foreign, must work together to overcome something greater.

Structurally, it’s of the genre birthed by the inimitable Kingdom Death: Monster. In an unsettling dreamlike narrative, wanderlust nobodies come together to overcome single monstrous adversaries capable of great wrath. It’s a boss battler, in simplest terms. This particular hallucination has an old timey sepia-soaked presentation that helps to establish its preternaturalness.

My mind’s wandered a great distance with this game. As far as the vagrant’s trundling through countless boxcars on a campaign that is unfortunately too long. Despite that lack of editorial acumen, the overall impact of this title has moved me.

The first scenario I mentioned earlier is titled “Shelter From the Storm.” Almost immediately I married this game intellectually to Bob Dylan and the identically titled song from his 15th studio album, Blood on the Tracks.

The linkage to Dylan’s Shelter stuck with me. Every time I’d encounter another Haint – the curious designation for the bosses you confront – my mind would circle back around to the song. It was unavoidable.

Thematically, there is a surprising amount of correlation between both artistic works. So much so, that it’s come to define the identity of the game for me.

The song opens:

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

It’s generally understood that the storm in Dylan’s song is a metaphor for the struggle he was going through in divorcing his first wife, Sara Lownds. This initial verse hearkens to his old self, struggling with unrelenting popularity and a lack of purpose. When no one else could help, she centered him and formed a bulwark against the immense chaos in his orbit.

Dylan’s sense of disarray is mimicked in Vagrantsong by the Haints. They’ve been swept up in volatility and twisted out of shape, mere specters of their true selves. Playing the role of Sara are the vagrants, our protagonists acting altruistically to bring a sense of peace.

This is the most interesting flourish in Vagrantsong. Instead of damaging opponents you’re restoring their humanity. That may seem a surface-level designation as you’re stealing numerical attrition to a life-bar, but it has implications in how abilities function at their most base level. Restoring humanity can often be used to either bring a Haint closer to defeat, or alternatively to heal your troupe of wanderers. This simple notion is integral to the design’s motif. There’s a duality here of pain and hope.

One possible criticism is that you have the option to simply clobber a Haint, punching their consciousness back to a centered state. But this action is perfunctory, often a last resort at best due to its obviously inferior effectiveness. However, it’s just as easy to interpret this as an element of intentionality, commenting on the ineffectual outcome of violence.

What’s more interesting is that the characters – and by extension their players – are not simply Sara as depicted in the song. While they are explicitly making the lost souls they encounter whole and shielding them from suffering, this relationship is reciprocal. As signaled by the deliberate setup, over the course of this lengthy adventure the character’s themselves find healing. This is a key difference in perspectives between the two media, and another quality which further furnished my appreciation of the design’s nuanced thematic element.

One passage in the third verse of the song sticks out:

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many posit that “a place where it’s always safe and arm”, is referring to a womb.

This allusion exists in Vagrantsong as well. The train car is a rather isolated and constricting environment. The map never grows or recedes, instead sheltering the inhabitants from the bizarre ethereal nightmare streaming by outside, only opening to the world when Haints are emancipated from their prison and given a sense of self once again. The womb here is corrupted and broken by the nature of its occupants, healed by the vagrants once they’ve completed their hero’s journey at the end of the line.

In addition to the compelling imagery wrought, this is another key aspect of the underlying theme of the protagonists (or Sara) mending as a result of their acts of humanism.

As I listen to Shelter From the Storm I’m always enthralled by its structure. Nine verses, each linked thematically by the same final line. There’s no chorus, which lends a more poetic impression.

Each Haint in Vagrantsong similarly drives forth as its own verse, offering a new mechanical stanza to understand. Instead of exploring the space of a dungeon, you’re exploring the facets of a being and how they function, their behavior often erratic and confusing. Strategy is perhaps restrained undesirably since you’re not able to plan amid this chaos and must instead react, but the thematic consequence boasts tremendous impact.

And after each fight you have a small interlude where your characters heal and gain new skills as they prepare for the next leg of the journey. This is where they find their sanctuary from the elements.

This in-between is the most overt indication of the design’s focal point. Similar to Shelter From the Storm’s concentration on Dylan’s experience, this game is far more concerned mechanically with the Haint’s existence.

Character growth is team focused, as it’s less concerned with vagrant identity. You purchase skills, but many are interchangeable between characters and not truly owned. New vagrants can hop in mid-campaign and almost nothing is lost. Even the text-based narrative is more concerned with those you oppose.

Vagrantsong is all about the Haints. They are the conduit for variety and tactical evolution. They anchor the game’s themes and are the heart of the design. They’re what the story is focused on.

They also remind me of the fantastic 2007 film, I’m Not There. This bizarre biography features a wild cast of actors each portraying Bob Dylan at different points in his career. Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, even an impressive Cate Blanchette all turn in captivating performances.

Just as each actor captures a specific aspect of Dylan’s identity, each Haint seems to be a hazy embodiment of a greater persona, building towards the game’s eventual conclusion.

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

One other more nebulous notion that I keep returning to, is that this oddly enough is positioned culturally in the board game hobby similarly to Blood on the Tracks in Dylan’s discography.

Blood on the Tracks faced steep scrutiny. Dylan hadn’t seen success since ’66, many regarding his following work as too idyllic and pastoral. This album saw a resurgence in his pre-electric folk roots, while maintaining an emotional edge that was riveting. It subverted expectations and reinvigorated listeners.

Vagrantsong is equivalently progressive in its ambivalence towards miniatures. Its combination of antique aesthetic with acrylic standees offers this strange combination of classic and cutting edge. It feels fresh while maintaining this reverence of the past.

This aesthetic vision is a large part of what has drawn people to this title. To see such a strong identity carried from presentation to inner workings is rather powerful.

There is a lot more I want to talk about. Things that occur over the course of Vagrantsong’s campaign that are marvelous, centrally the ending. The game can occasionally drag with a bit of a grind, often occurring if you get caught focusing on gearing up or self-healing at the expense of progress, but for the most part, it overcomes these scenes with tremendous moments of story and drama. Moments where I smiled or shook my head, moments that caused me to think about ideas greater than the game I was playing.

This material features many words scattered throughout its pages and triggered by events, actions, and consequence. The story is fainter than some would expect, offered in terse passages as opposed to grand epic. Yet it’s often satisfying and evocative.

When the last words escape Dylan’s lips, the emotion lingers. I felt the same way when Vagrantsong concluded.

One line in the denouement burns.

“If you’re not careful, the people you love become the people you hurt.”


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  2 comments for “The Tale of Elston Gunn, Boo Wilbury, and Blind Boy Grunt – A Vagrantsong Review

  1. Drew
    July 5, 2022 at 10:07 am

    “Prigressive in its stance towards miniatures” as in, it does not use them?

    Actually find this a minor disappointment given Wyrd is generally very good with miniatures.


    • July 5, 2022 at 10:12 am

      Yes, no minis. The game uses clear acrylic standees which are phenomenal.

      I’m a big minis guy, but I’d greatly appreciate more games going this route.


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