by Bob Richardson
Most board games start players off with approximately the same setup, and gameplay ensues in a linear fashion from there with everyone having equal opportunity for success or failure based on turn order, randomly revealed cards, or any other of several board game mechanics prevalent today. Not so with Vast. In Vast, players each begin with different characters, all with unique abilities, goals, rules, and strategies. The five playable characters in Vast are the knight, dragon, thief, goblin clan, and cave. Yes, I said cave.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. What exactly is going on here? First, let's talk about the goals of each character. The knight wants to slay the dragon, the goblins want to kill the knight, the dragon wants to wake up and escape the cave, the thief wants to steal a bunch of treasure, and the cave wants to collapse and kill everyone in a glorious, rocky, and unique take on seppuku. This asynchrony is what makes Vast fantastic. No other game to my knowledge achieves this level of asynchrony, and certainly no modern popular game.
The goals merely motivate and move gameplay. How exactly do these sentient beings accomplish said feats? The knight has to explore, level up, gain equipment, and eventually slay the dragon by piercing his armor. By moving around on darkened tiles across the board, the knight not only earns experience, but must face potential peril based on what tile the cave player put down. These range from treasure to cave-selected events or goblin ambushes. Experience points eventually result in additional cubes that can be allocated each turn on different stats or equipment.
Dozing happily until the knight showed up, the dragon must meet certain goals on his board to add cubes to his armor and mana. These goals include: eating and digesting goblins, capturing treasure, placing dragon gems, and discovering event tiles. In order to do this, the dragon draws limited cards that have claw, wing, or fire symbols. A huge sheet of abilities tells the dragon what different combinations of cards do. Of course, gaining more cards by adding cubes to armor is pivotal to the dragon's success.
"For those looking for a unique gaming experience who have the time and desire to learn five games in one, Vast will titillate."
Hiding initially, the goblin player controls three tribes that have unique abilities. Each turn, the goblin player turns up one or more cards based on their rage stat that determines how much the tribes swell. At first, the goblins can only place themselves on various darkened tiles on the board, but on the following turn, they can move in to injure the knight. Sometimes sheer numbers and strength are enough to take down the knight, but as the knight gets stronger, the goblins have to rely on tricks, such as secret cards and monster friends to brutally murder the knight. Goblins can die repeatedly and are never out of the game, but if they don't act fast, the knight can easily overpower even the strongest foe.
Probably the least necessary character, the thief's only aim is to pilfer from the cave and take stacks back to the entrance. After the thief stashes enough loot, he wins. He steals by finding treasure the cave places on the board, excavating vaults, and lightening the pockets of other players. Unfortunately, the thief is easily dismissed with one blow from any other character, so he must rely on tricks and stealth to take what's rightfully not his. The good (bad?) news is that the thief is cursed with immortality, and dying only sends him back to the entrance, albeit with empty pockets.
The most unusual and perhaps fascinating character is the cave player. Acting as a sort of referee, the cave is in charge of the flow of the game. In order to collapse and kill everyone in suffocated glory, all tiles must be placed. Once all tiles are placed, the cave player has to remove tiles from the outside moving in. The key to collapsing is by removing five of nine crystal tiles. Of course, this takes time, so the cave has no interest in letting anyone get too strong or move quickly toward victory. As such, the cave can give the knight helpful or harmful events, place tiles in such a way to make the goblins or knight's life more difficult, use accumulated resources gained through risky treasure placement to weaken any player (including the slumbering dragon), and so on. Without an actual player token, the cave almost feels like a dungeon master that wants to keep everyone just shy enough from victory that she can buy time to collapse.
Phew! If you think that was a lot to read, you should try learning AND teaching this game! Learning Vast is like learning five different games at once and then learning how each of those games interact. On top of that, you need to find four other dedicated players who want to learn those five games. Sure, a player only needs to technically know how their own character plays, but they're at a serious strategic disadvantage if they don't understand how their hunter or prey operate. This is both the draw and repellent of Vast. In order to get the best possible game, five players should be present. A game can be played with any number of players, but the balance and rules get a little awkward at this point. Three players should be the absolute minimum, and in this event, the thief and cave should probably be taken out. Four or five players can be an absolute blast, but everyone should know what's going on and be all-in. That is the true challenge.
To exacerbate matters, the rule book is a nightmare to not only read and understand, but minor contingencies continuously occur, and finding the answer in the rule book can delay the game and pull players out of the experience. Vast has so many moving parts, and the characters are so different from one another, that when they interact the result can be confusing. I don't mean to say this in order to scare would-be players away, but the exhausting learning curve must be noted.
The fact is that when all players understand the game — after the significant time investment by all — Vast is a deeply satisfying and hilarious game to play with friends. Because players aren't shipping cargo, earning inane victory points, or drafting endless cards that have shallow themes tacked onto numbers, Vast can be an intimate and highly social game. My friends and I carry on in Vast in a way we don't with most other games. While heavy euro games can be extraordinarily rewarding, not everyone wants to sit quietly in a room staring at and analyzing a complicated board scattered with cubes, cards, and other resources. For those looking for a unique gaming experience who have the time and desire to learn five games in one, Vast will titillate.