I would call myself a veteran of board games. I created my BoardGameGeek profile in 2005 (and according to my Canadian education, that is 15 years ago) and I have been playing the painted cardboard hobby far before I created this account. Let’s just say I have seen many things in this hobby that erect all sorts of feelings like excitement and confusion. Sometimes these games make me question the sanity of the game designer.
Vindication is perhaps one of the more interesting games to come out in a long time. This was a bit of a surprise because publishers born out of the Kickstarter craze tend to follow the latest trend and slap as many miniatures as they can.
This is Orange Nebula’s first Kickstarter and it shows. You have typos in the rule book, even in the second printing, and most of the pieces are more focused on being decorative than functionality. Your character is represented by a standee that is made out of an earth-tone metal piece that blends wonderfully with the earth-tone board. Great. That means you will be paying attention to the brightly colored base instead of the entire standee. You paid extra for this.
To add more pain, there are also miniatures that don’t serve any purpose. One of them is the first player marker, which is acceptable, but then you have these monuments for an expansion that doesn’t even use allow you to place the monuments on the board. You have a giant monster thing that is also a miniature for yet another expansion and since I can’t even recall the name of the monster should tell how many times I have used it. All it does is stays in the middle of the board. It doesn’t move at all. This could’ve been a simple cardboard tile. Again, you paid extra for this.
I spent the last two paragraphs talking about this mess. This game could’ve been much cheaper if someone dumped the Kickstarter kool-aid into the sink before Orange Nebula got a taste of it. It frustrates the hell out of me because underneath all this production nightmare is a damn good game.
The premise of the game is straightforward: You are a scumbag thrown overboard and ended up on an uncharted island. A good Samaritan wakes you up and without warning, a wave of enlightenment washes through your mind. Self-realization blooms into full effect and you have acknowledged your past sins. With this newfound enlightenment, your course becomes clear and you have decided to become a better person. Your journey is a long one but it will start on this island.
A euro with a theme. Alright, you got my attention. I’m guessing your victory points are named something else for the theme, right? Honor? Okay, we’ll roll with that.
To keep it simple, your character will start at the edge of the board and will discover new regions as you navigate the island. That good Samaritan who woke you up? They are your first companion and are associated with one of three basic attributes: Strength, Inspiration, and Knowledge. Your starting basic attributes are one of each and this is proudly signified with a cube placed in the attribute space on the board. There are also three Heroic Attributes which are Vision, Wisdom, and Courage. These heroic attributes will give you access to more powerful cards and are your main source of scoring big points.
Each turn, you will do several actions in any order. Move around the region to slowly discover the island piece by piece. Activate your new companion by spending Influence on them to use their ability. That temple region you visited to score you some sweet, sweet Knowledge? Spend your Conviction to take it over.
Conviction? Influence? Besides the map navigation and route planning, you also have to deal with your power board and over a dozen cubes. The power board is separated into three spaces: Potential, Influence, and Conviction. Cubes in your Potential space do nothing, Influence cubes are used for the most common actions, and Conviction cubes are used for more powerful effects like taking over regions or saving your companions from hostile creatures who want more than a hug. Throughout the game, you will need to manage these cubes by ‘promoting’ them from one level to the next, giving your opportunities to do more with your companions and your surroundings.
Outside the map navigation and cube management, you also need to deal with your cards. There are six decks with three of them being the three companion types as mentioned previously. The other three are your Traits, Monsters, and Relics. Traits are your everyday passive abilities that kick into effect when a particular event happens, Relics are so overpowered that they only have limited charges, and Monsters will give you nice end game bonuses but might kill off one of your companions. These three decks are all associated with the three Heroic Attributes: Wisdom, Vision, and Courage. As you would expect, these cards have abilities that will break the basic rules of the game much like any other engine builder.
It Keeps Going
We’re not done yet because we need to talk about sets. One of the many end game bonuses is having the majority of a single color. Six decks, six colors. Besides acquiring cards by visiting particular regions on the map, you can also acquire a Proficiency tile. These Proficiency tiles are in limited supply and cost three cubes of that attribute to grab. They don’t have an in-game effect, but they do provide you with “two cards” of that color when you do the end game bonuses. Considering that each card also gives you points as soon as you acquire it, this is a nice method to make the set collection an interesting challenge in Vindication and promotes “hate buying” against other players. As a nice added bonus, you can get a partial refund by returning these tiles to the game box in case you come across an unwinnable Set situation.
As you can tell, Vindication tries to cover many areas. We are looking at route planning, area control, engine building, set collection, cube pushing, and resource management all bundled into a weird but workable package. Usually, I would detest these types of games because of the lack of focus and heavy rules overhead become an absolute nightmare as demonstrated in games like Black Angel. Whereas the heavier games seem to be a vanity demonstration of the game designer, Vindication understands that you can’t have half a dozen mini-games firing all at once. The game is more focused on being lean with its rules instead of overbearing.
What Vindication boils down to is efficiency but on numerous fronts. You need to find a productive path on the randomized map. Your starting companion and what cards you can get will play a major role in your engine building and set collection. The cubes on your power board will greatly influence how far you can go on your turns. Regions you control will score you big points at the end of the game and you can profit off other people’s routes. All these elements force the players to constantly be on their toes and work with their internal issues as well as keeping an eye on other players.
Even the small bits of randomization in here are carefully taken care of. When you acquire a card, you can either take one from the top of the deck, the face-up card, or do an empowered draw. You need to spend a Conviction cube for an empowered draw which gives you a choice out of four cards. In the worst-case scenario that you still don’t get a card that helps you, you still get points for acquiring the card and it allows you to compete in the colored sets. It’s a clever way to mitigate the randomness of the game.
There are also dice involved when fighting monsters. When you fight a monster, you “win” immediately by acquiring the orange Monster card but you roll the dice to see what happens to the companion you sent to slay the creature. You might need to put more Influence cubes on your companion (thus draining more resources), nothing happens, or your companion dies. You can prevent death by spending a Conviction cube, thus giving you another interesting decision.
Finally, there is also the End Game triggers. Unlike many other euros, there is a deck of End Game trigger cards that tell you how the game can end. It could be anything from “When these many Trait cards are acquired” to when everyone has fully upgraded their mount. As you go along the scoring track, more end game triggers are revealed from the deck. This is yet another element you must consider in your strategy because you want to end the game when you have the advantage or when you know another player will destroy you in the long run.
Lots of Content, Lots of Plays
Before writing this review, I have played around 20 games of Vindication with a good portion of them being two and three players. Four players are still solid and five players are not worth the downtime. Vindication manages to implement so many familiar euro elements but executed in a way that I have yet to see from any other game while maintaining the theme about a personal redemption journey on a mysterious magical island.
However, appearances are somewhat deceiving. While the game loves to put on the sandbox cloak, Vindication is all about the opportunity spotting and exploiting it. You and your group are going to focus on the available routes on the map while eyeing the numerous possibilities on the face-up cards from the six decks. This isn’t about “do whatever you want and win” as opposed to “this is what is available this game, deal with it”
The only major complaint about the game mechanisms is how linear many of the strategies can be. During the game, you are going to have some short term objectives. Let’s say you want to upgrade your mount, so what do you do? Activate your Strength Companion, visit a Fort, then go to the Command Post to spend your strength to upgrade your mount. Rinse, repeat. There are no alternative ways to do these short-term strategies and I wish the base game gave more options.
Now you’ll notice I wrote the words “base game”. Oddly enough, the retail game does have a set of mini-expansions that can be used in the game plus a separately purchased expansion called Leaders & Alliances. I have L&A, but I haven’t played it yet.
The way the expansions are implemented is module-based, so you get to pick and choose how you want to modify the game. In short, you are given a shovel and it’s up to you to decide how deep you want to dig.
I’m not going to go through every expansion because I have already spent way too much time writing about the base game itself, but I will say this: It’s nice to see a game able to scale depending on the skill level of players, but I can tell that some of these expansions were shoved in because of Kickstarter nonsense.
There are several mini-expansions and two major expansions in the base set. The mini expansions range from a Pet Menagerie that gives the option for the players to buy pets to attach to their companions to Buildings Site which allows players to draft regions from a pool onto the board. These are genuinely nice ways to spice up the game from time to time.
More Kickstarter Nonsense
The two big expansions are Myth & Wonders and Guilds & Monuments. Myth & Wonders is about an evil creature residing in the middle of the island and the players will be able to trigger an event to defeat it collectively as a group. This will likely result in many deaths of your companions but there are some nice rewards for defeating the monster which will include, but not limited to, attribute bonuses and loot. It’s an interesting idea that isn’t executed all that well and has a tedious procedure to go through.
Guilds & Monuments is my favorite expansion out of the bunch. You are given a Guild Token that you will be able to place on a component such as your companion cards or power board and where you place it determines one of your 8 new actions. These actions might involve you blockading a space on the board, fortifying a region, moving a cube up one level, or rerolling your dice when fighting a monster. This will increase the downtime, so I would suggest this expansion for lower player counts, but it does introduce alternative ways to navigate the game’s labyrinth of mechanisms instead of the limited linear path like the base game.
What’s frustrating about all these expansions is none of them have any sort of player aid. The base game has a two-sided player aid that shows all the possible actions on one side and all the regions on the other side. Apparently, Orange Nebula had enough Kickstarter money to shove as many gray plastic miniatures that don’t serve any purpose whatsoever, but printing two-sided player aids to explain the complicated rule sets behind their two biggest expansions is asking too much. Wonderful.
While I did spend a good portion of the review complaining about the production, I still love this game even with the hefty price tag on it. It’s like your teenage kid who blows their McDonald’s paycheques to buy the latest Gucci shoes; you love your kid, you just wish they made better financial decisions. That’s how I feel about Vindication. From a game design perspective, I was shocked by how well everything was executed and flows smoothly without a complicated ruleset. Every strategy in the game has some way of countering it and despite the numerous cards, I never felt a single card was overpowered or underpowered. As I said, I played about 20 games of this and I look forward to my next game. I would recommend trying this game out for anyone hungry for an engine builder with a unique theme and play style.