Vagrantsong ★ | Review

Modern designers try not to include poor mechanics in their games. Losing a turn, for example, used to be absolutely commonplace, until they realized that not being able to play wasn’t much fun. However, designers are not always successful at avoiding their use. Sometimes, they make their way in, unintentionally. This is the case of Vagrantsong, whose 1920s cartoon extravagance is contrasted by its dated mechanical design.

SOUL TRAIN

Vagrantsong is a dungeon crawler. It may not feature much crawling or an actual dungeon, but it is very much the same type of game as Heroquest or Gloomhaven. In fact, it’s a fairly traditional entry in the genre, just with an unusual coat of paint: A party of vagrants, move, punch and heal their way through a series of ghosts aboard a supernatural train.

Each turn, players have three actions to their disposal. We can spend them to move, attack, heal or use a special ability card. Most of the time, these abilities are stronger versions of these basic actions though a few have more unusual effects. The Cursebearer is pretty much all about damage, sure, but the Runaway owns a dog that can take actions of its own.

There are, however, two key differences. The most noticeable is the lack of supporting cast. Every ghost faces the vagrants by itself. There are no minions or cannon fodder, all scenarios of the campaign are boss battles. Each features a different gimmick, normally centered around picking up items from the floor and triggering events in order to deal more damage.

The second is the map, which, like Heroquest, remains mostly identical between scenarios. It’s composed of three rectangles, joined together by a couple squares. While seemingly devoid of challenge, it’s a significant point of interest. It does away with the need to set up the map. Rather, it shoulders the responsibility of driving movement on the boss and scenario design.

These features piqued my interest. Despite my well-known reservations about dungeon crawlers, I still crave a good one. Focusing on bosses and unique scenarios seemed a good bet. And yet, no matter how many interesting turns Vagrantsong took; it disappointed me at the end of every one of them.

ROLLING IN THEIR GRAVE

In Vagrantsong we have three actions per turn. Most of them, with the notable exception of movement, require a dice roll in order to succeed. This genre mainstay, while a bit dated, may not raise suspicion at first. And yet, it’s the worst part of Vagrantsong. It can easily create turns in which you achieve little of significance.

If the ghost is more than three or four squares away, we need to spend most of, if not all, our actions getting closer. Then, and only then, can we roll to attack. And at a 50% chance to deal a single point of damage, the odds are not in our favour. We might not be able to do anything at all before the ghost moves. Worse of all, their life bars are so massive they can soak from 50 to 70 points of damage.

Even players have too much life. Each item or ability can be sacrificed to return us to full health, meaning we ourselves have more than 50 points of life ourselves. Even then, death isn’t final. You just turn into a ghost and keep fighting until brought back from the dead. Every scenario can be won with such safety that I can’t imagine how it’s possible to lose.

It’s not for a lack of boss abilities. Each enemy has an attack roulette with five actions in them. They are decided by pulling chits from a bag and, when you pull too many of them, they trigger a special ability. Furthermore, ghosts “haunt” you when they walk over you, resulting in a myriad of negative effects. Halfway through, their roulette changes to a different one, which is similar but more damaging.

None of it matters. The results aren’t predictable enough to play around them. And since most are instances of ranged damage or status effects it’s not like they can be avoided. It’s sad because Vagrantsong tries. Some gimmicks, like the ghost that creates holes in the ground, could have turned out great. But as long as the only way to interact with them is through damage, damage will be all that matters.

I truly wish Vagrantsong had focused on those gimmicks. The idea of solving a little puzzle of hand-written events to defeat ghosts has potential. It’s the dated, almost mandatory tradition of move and roll dungeon crawling that doesn’t. It might have turned out undercooked anyways, but still better.

THE BETTER ART

There’s no denying that Vagrantong is pretty. It has great illustrations, like the crying statue with a willow crown and the dashing dancing devil. Each enemy, attack and even status effect has a unique name in a false, old-timey style. The transparent plastic standees are great even, better than miniatures would be. In other words, Vagrantsong‘s looks were a priority in ways the mechanics were not.

But there’s no actual story in Vagrantsong. The hobos are welcomed into the ghost train by the force of the plot, which is never questioned nor explored. Bosses are loose archetypes, with no thematic connection between them. No matter how many scenarios are beaten, neither the narrative nor the characters change.

It’s as much of a matter of beating up the bad dudes as it gets. Vagrantsong‘s habit of finishin’ their whippin’ sentences with a good ol’ dollop of yakety-yak ain’t all that’s cracked up to be, either. In the end, this is a game, not a novel. Large, repetitive text boxes slow down play and do not truly add depth to the experience. Saying a character is “Westbound” instead of dead is worth a chuckle exactly once.

It’s not hard to imagine a better Vagrantsong defined by care and polish. A Vagrantsong with an overarching narrative, better combat and lean instead of overwrought boss designs. One that did not feel like a Kickstarter title, down to the poor balance. There’s very little excuse for all those actions that require a roll of 5 or more, as a 66% chance of doing nothing is too high to justify the cost of an action.

Having played Vagrantsong over the course of many weeks, my lasting impression is one of disappointment. There is potential underneath the dated mechanics, despite the excuse plot and empty characters. Looking back, I truly wish it had been better. Deep down, even the promise of cartoon ghosts still holds some sway on me. But I could only be let down by Vagrantsong so many times before being forced to accept it’s not a good game.

VAGRANTSONG (2022)
DESIGNKyle Rowan (Lead)
Matt Carter
Justin Gibbs
ARTNguyen Mai Diem
PUBLISHER
Wyrd Games
LENGTH90-120 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
1-4 (Best with any number)SCORE

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