Vast – The Crystal Caverns Review

Theme and What is It?

In a sprawling cave network where magic crystals influence the landscape, numerous paths will cross.  A dragon stirs beneath the ground trying to awaken while a chaotic goblin horde roams in the dark hoping to secure the cave for themselves.  An undying thief searches for a way to break his curse while a brave young knight seeks out adventure and glory.  All must be wary of the cave itself which seeks to destroy them.  NB. The rulebook for Vast capitalizes all roles and specific gameplay terminology, a practice which I have copied for this review.

Gameplay Mechanics

Vast – The Crystal Caverns is an asymmetrical game for one to five players.  Each role has a different and unique objective which will guide their interactions with each other and the cave itself.  There is some overlap in terms of game concepts, but mechanically, each role is unique. So I will begin with some general rules before venturing into specific roles.  The flow of a game of Vast sees a slowly growing cave as new tiles are revealed through player actions, until all the reserve of tiles is exhausted triggering the collapse.  Some can trigger different things based on the context in which they are revealed.  There are vault tiles, treasure room tiles, event tiles, ambush tiles, and crystal tiles.  Whenever a player reveals a tile, they orient the tile into the cavern, and then the open edges are filled with new dark tiles, either by the cave player or from the tile stack if there is no cave player.

Once the collapse is triggered, no new tiles are added to the cave and existing tiles will be removed, either during the cave player’s turn or at the end of each player’s turn.  Tiles are removed according to a simple algorithm, insuring that the cave collapses in a balanced manner.  If five crystal tiles are removed, this triggers a victory for a cave player and a loss for all other players in games without a cave player.  Sometimes a collapse may cause relocation of player pieces or items and there are clear rules for how this is remedied.  If collapse ever causes a break in the map, the rules indicate how to condense the map back together.  Various game effects require a roll on the Dragon die to determine the area of effect.  The faces of the die feature 3×3 grids with the center representing the roller’s current space.  Any tile corresponding to a white mark on the Dragon die is affected by the triggered effect.  Armed with these few general rules, we can now understand how the various roles operate toward their own ends.

In discussing the roles, I am going to limit myself to a brief overview including victory conditions and general mechanisms employed and I will discuss them according to their turn order when playing with all five roles.  The full rules are available as a pdf on the Leder Games website HERE, and explain additionally how each role can specifically interact with each of the other roles.  The first role is the Knight who wants to kill the Dragon, or smash five crystal tokens if there is no Dragon, and then escape the cave.  The Knight’s action economy is fueled by placing Hero Cubes into various statistics and abilities.  Movement determines how far the Knight can travel, Perception dictates the numbers of encounters the Knight can have and affects interactions with the Thief, and Strength governs making and defending against attacks.  The cubes are allotted fresh each turn and can be allocated as your turn progresses.  The Knight begins with only two hero cubes whilst the rest are locked behind Grit, a form of experience.  Various things cause the Knight to gain and lose Grit.  As Grit is gained, hero cubes are unlocked, but can be lost again if the Knight loses Grit.  The Knight may also gain Treasures and Equipment, also powered by the Hero Cubes, as well as complete Sidequests during their turn.

 Next we come to the Goblins, who want to Kill the Knight, or if there is no Knight, the Dragon.  If there is neither a Knight or a Dragon, they want to smash five crystal tokens.  The goblins operate from the shadows.  On their turn, the Goblins will draw a war card dictating which of their three tribes grows in strength and whether they get to draw a Monster or Secret card.  Goblins gain their Strength from their Population, but if the tribes grow too large, they scatter.  Goblins can move infinitely through connected dark tiles, while losing population from too much travel in the light.  The Goblins also track their current level of Rage.  Rage decreases when the Goblins successfully attack another player and can also be spent to limit population growth.

Thirdly is the Dragon.  In order to win, the Dragon must awaken, surface, and escape the cave.  While asleep, the Dragon has numerous cubes in three different Sloth tracks of Greed, Hunger, and Pride.  Meeting certain requirements during your turn can allow you to remove up to one cube from each of the three tracks and place them into your wakefulness track.  During your turn, your actions are fueled by power cards, a number of which are drawn at the end of each of your turns and governed by your Spirit, ever increasing as you become more wakeful.  These cards come in three suits and their combinations are what trigger your special abilities.  Placing out Dragon Gems tokens, one for each suit, can provide one free use of their matching suit, but Dragon Gems can be also be useful to the Knight, Goblins, and Thief players so one must be cautious in where they are placed.  When asleep, the Dragon has more freedom of movement as they are technically beneath the cave and thus are not restricted by walls and dark tiles.  Once the Dragon has enough cubes moved into their Wakefulness track, they must move to a crystal tile and surface, after which their movement rules change slightly and they are an easier target for the Knight.  After surfacing, the Dragon must reach the cave entrance to escape.

The fourth role is the Cave itself, hoping to exhaust their supply of tiles, triggering the collapse, and then destroying tiles until five crystal tiles have collapsed.  The Cave is in charge of placing tiles onto the board as needed and placing any crystal tiles in their hand first.  Beyond placing the tiles to shape the growth of the playing area, the Cave will also add treasure tokens to dark tiles.  At the beginning of their turn, the Cave will earn Omen tokens based on the current number of treasure and crystal tokens on the board.  These Omen tokens will in turn grant the player access to special powers and abilities such as the rockslide, which can impede other player’s movement.  The Cave player also has a role in choosing which Treasure and Event cards the Knight encounters during their turn.

Finally, we have the Thief who, after acquiring and stashing six Treasure or Dragon Gem tokens, breaks their undying curse and escapes the cave.  The Thief begins their turn by assigning stat tokens to boost one of their three stats.  Movement governs how far the Thief can move, Stealth determines how well the Thief can avoid the attacks of other players, and Thievery equals how many Action cubes they receive each turn.  As the Thief acquires Treasures and Dragon Gems, they can stash them by returning to the cave entrance.  For every treasure stashed, the Thief gains an upgrade from their player board.  Stashing loot also raises the Thief’s Loot Level, which determines the rewards for a Knight, Goblins, or Dragon player who kills the Thief.  When killed, the Thief returns to the entrance tile as they are cursed to be undying until their curse is lifted.  Beyond the five roles, there are also a number of variants included in the rulebook for adding special terrain tiles, playing with any specific permutation of the five roles in a smaller game, and for adjusting the difficulty for specific roles.

Initial Impressions

Vast was high on my radar dating back to its launch on Kickstarter.  The art looked compelling and the fully asymmetrical gameplay was a bold initiative that was fascinating.  I was really excited to get some table time with Vast and see its many parts in action.

Quality of Components and Insert

Vast comes with a number of components which I will again describe in role order.  Each player role comes with both a meeple and a standee as an option.  The Knight has a player board, three bomb tokens, seven Hero cubes, 10 Sidequest cards, Knight player piece, and two cubes to track Health and Grit.  The Goblins have a player board, 12 wooden Goblin Discs, four wooden Strength discs, 10 War cards, 10 Monster cards, 10 Secrets cards, three Goblin Tribe pieces, and a Rage token.  The Dragon has a player board, one Shriek token, one Flamewall token, the Dragon Die, 18 Power cards, two Dragon pieces (slumbering and awakened), 14 Sloth cubes, one cube for the Eaten Goblins track, one cube to track Health, and three Dragon Gem tokens.  The Cave has a player board, 52 cave tiles, 36 Omen tokens and a Draw Bag, nine Crystal tokens, 12 Treasure tokens, three Rockslide tokens, 10 event tokens, 15 Event cards, seven Treasure cards, and one cave reference card.  The Thief has a player board, three Stat tokens, one Action die, six Vault tokens, five Action cubes, a Thief piece, and a Loot Drop token.  Lastly, there are eight Terrain tiles, two monster tokens, five Role Variant cards, and 25 Difficulty Variant cards.

All of the tokens, tiles, and player boards are thick cardboard with a sturdy feel.  The meeples and cubes are on par with what one expects to see in current games.  The cards are a medium thickness and have not seen issue through repeated play.  There is not a lot of shuffling in Vast, and the decks are small enough that side shuffling is effective to reduce strain.  There really isn’t much of an insert to speak of as it is a simple insert to aid shipping more than for storage.

Artistic Direction

The art in Vast is wonderful.  It has a distinct style and everything works together to build an immersive feel.  There is a familiarity to the archetypes, but clearly with its own unique take and there is a lot of character to the different roles.  I particularly like the weary look of the Thief and that the Knight is a brave young woman in proper armor.

Fun Factor

Vast can be a lot of fun at the table.  Because all of the roles have different objectives, gameplay can have an unpredictable feel as players weigh their goals while trying to avoid helping any other players.  This also creates an interesting tension as players’ fortunes can swing due to these competing motives.

Difficulty and Age Range Suggestion

The game box gives an age range of 10+ and I think that for most of the roles in the game this is an accurate mark.  There is a steep learning curve to the game as a whole, since each role comes with its own set of rules and mechanisms.  However, the difficulty in Vast comes from learning the interplay between the various roles and understanding how to manage their competing objectives.  Individually, none of the roles is particularly complex.  Most have their own internal engine which functions in a unique manner, and learning how to get that going can take some time, but I find them relatively straightforward as independent rule sets.  

I think Vast is significantly more difficult to teach to a group than it is to play, because each person has to be taught their role in turn as there is little to no overlap.  The rules are easily available online as a PDF and there are helpful single rule sheets to hand out to each player for their role which should alleviate this, but if you intend to teach Vast to your group, do your homework with the rules.

Conclusions

I love Vast – The Crystal Caverns.  It is rare that I come across a game that truly employs asymmetric gameplay and pulls it off as well as Vast.  All of the roles are unique and it takes multiple plays to wrap your head around maximizing the efficiency of a given role, how its particular engine works, and how to play off the other roles at the table.  For this reason, I recommend most players stick with one role for a few games.  The unfortunate side effect of this strength, is that Vast can be difficult to sit down and teach to a new group, as each role must be taught in turn.  There are a lot of rules, mechanisms, and concepts as illustrated in the Gameplay Mechanics section above.  However, as I mentioned in the Difficulty section of this review, there are some easy fixes and I do not think that any of the roles are particularly complex, they are just very different from each other.

Players who take the time to learn Vast will be rewarded by a game with almost limitless replayability given the permutations of the roles and it can even be played with solo variants.  There is a lot of game here and I think it is certainly something everyone should try to experience, if not add a copy to their library.  At the time of writing, Leder Games next game, ROOT, has already successfully funded on Kickstarter and once again promises whimsical artwork and asymmetric gameplay.

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Originally posted 2018-01-30 19:05:21.