Tabletop Tuesday: ‘A Study in Emerald’

It’s been 700 years since Cthulhu and the Old Ones crossed the dimensional portal to Earth and took control of the world. The Elder Gods have become royalty, each ruling a major nation through fear and madness. For most people this is their world, and they go about their lives knowing that even if they did object to their other-wordly ruling class, they couldn’t possibly stand up to them. Until now. The invention of dynamite has given people a chance and the Restorationists, lead by Sherlock Holmes, seek to inspire people to rise up by assassinating members of the royal families. Standing in their way are the Loyalists, crazed cultists and powerful figures, such as Moriarty, who want to maintain the social order they benefit from.


This barmy and brilliant set-up comes from the mind of Neil Gaiman, the best author working today (according to me) in his short story of the same name. Martin Wallace designed this game set in the world Gaiman envisioned, and it was successfully Kickstarted in 2013. Since then it’s been largely off the market, but in high demand. To start out gaming in 2016 we’ve been lucky to get our hands on the 2nd edition, a streamlined version of the game with new artwork.

Gameplay is built on the mechanics of deck building, hand management and area control. The board is split into nine cities around the world, each city containing a random deck of cards that includes a Royal family member. Players have a deck of cards that determine the actions they available to them, influence cubes and agents. By playing particular cards you can place influence cubes on cities, where if you have the most units you can claim a new card for your deck and possible place more agents. Having more agents in an area gives you the option of performing an assassination either on a royal (if their card has been exposed) or a rival agent.

Each player will secretly be assigned to either the Loyalists or the Restorationists, which will determine what actions they will take to score points for their team. There are scoring tracks for each team and one for individual players. The game comes to an close when any one of the scoring tracks reaches the end (or a Restorationist is exposed), whereby the players on the team with highest score will have that score added to their individual total, and the player with the lowest score receives a penalty for everyone on their team. In addition the greater the difference between the scores of the two teams shortens the individual score track, potentially bring the game to an early close.

study in emerald cards

This complicated scoring system takes a bit of time to get your head around, and we made a slight adjustment as to how they are represented on the physical board to reduce the amount of mucking around during the game. Aside from that hurdle the game is complex without being difficult to get the hang of. The mish-mash of styles works well and allows the players to work through their strategy with enough subterfuge to hide their agenda. Having a decently sized deck with random selection added to each game means that you usually can’t play the same way twice.

With so many ways to end the game, and more ways to score points for the team tracks than the individual track, it’s often the case that the game finishes after only 2 or 3 major plays, such as a assassinations of Royals. This can be frustrating for players setting up a long play who don’t get the chance to implement it. Overall the game feels like it ends abruptly, usually just when people are starting to get a good deck going. In future games we may be using the individual track as the end game indicator to stretch the game out.

The new art work is certainly very nice. Heaps of detail has been included in the design and the portraits of the characters look very cool. The monsters themselves are nicely visualised, given the vague descriptions in Lovecraft’s original works, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who enjoys the mythology.

In spite of some mix-ups with scoring and wanting to stretch out the game, this has been plenty of fun and we’ll be playing it more in the future. The unusual strategies needed to succeed make it feel unique. The mishmash of Lovecraft and Doyle’s works is certainly a lot of fun, combining two very popularly board game source materials to good effect.