Review: The Witches

Witches - cover

The late Terry Pratchett was an English author who is best known for his Discworld series of novels set in an often outrageous fantasy world.  The series was–and still is–incredibly popular, selling in the neighborhood of 80 million copies worldwide.  Over the past few years, several boardgames designed by Martin Wallace have been released utilizing the Discworld theme and setting. The latest of these is Witches, which concentrates on the escapades of major characters in the Discworld series.

In the series—which I have not read—witches are more concerned with solving problems than casting magical spells.  Players assume the roles of young apprentices who must scurry about the land of Lancre and solve a wide variety of seemingly endless problems. Some of these are relatively pedestrian, such as a sick pig or broken leg, while others are far more difficult and dangerous.  Warding off a an elven invasion or thwarting the plans of the vile Lily Weatherwax can’t be easy!

Witches - boardThe large and somewhat muddled board depicts the land of Lancre with its dozens of locations and landmarks.  Many of these are humorously named, a trait that is common in Platchett’s books.  A few are a bit blue, so exercise sound judgment if younger folk are around.  For example, “The Long Man” location has a few hills that form the appearance of … well, you can probably surmise.  I found it rather amusing that my wife was the first to spot this!

Each of these locations receives a problem tile.  “Easy” problems are placed face-up, while “Hard” problems are placed face-down.  As one would surmise, these are more difficult to solve and usually require players to amass some special abilities before attempting to tackle them.  The remaining supply of problem tiles is divided into six stacks on the indicated track on the board, with the hard problems at the bottom of each stack.

Witches - trainee-cardPlayers each receive a Trainee Witch mat, which depicts their character, his/her special power, and provides spaces for the problem tiles the player has solved.  The tiles not only grant victory points, but every two easy problems increases the player’s hand size, while every two hard problems resolved gives a +1 bonus when attempting to solve future problems. Three cards are dealt to each player and the game begins.

First, however, an explanation of the cards is in order.  Each card depicts a character from the books and generally grants a special ability.  Each also names a location, and depicts one of three symbols:  magic, broomstick or “headology”.  These symbols are important when traveling around the land or attempting to resolve problems.

A player begins her turn by revealing a card and placing a new problem tile in the location listed. If that location already contains a problem tile, a “Crisis” counter is placed instead and a new card is drawn, with a problem tile being placed in the new location.  This continues until a new problem is actually placed.  If the number of problem tiles is ever depleted, the game ends in defeat for all players.

witches-cards-01The player may then move his witch either by walking or flying (broomstick). If walking, a player may move one or two spaces.  However, she may not move through a location containing a problem tile or another witch.  Flying, however, allows the player to hop on her broom and zoom to any location on the map. To do so, however, the player must discard a card depicting the broomstick symbol.  This can be quite handy.

After moving, a player must solve the problem present at the location, have tea if other witches are present on the location, or simply do nothing.

Solve a Problem.  Each problem tile is named (fever, broken limb, pregnancy, etc.) and has a difficulty rating, which must be exceeded with a dice roll in order to successfully resolve the problem.  Each Crisis counter present on the tile adds an additional +2 to the difficulty rating.

The player first rolls two Witch dice.  Each die depicts the normal pips, with the exception that the “ “ is replaced by a “Cackle” symbol, which has a value of zero and forces the player to take a Cackle counter.

The player now has a decision:  run away or continue attempting to resolve the problem.  Running away allows the player to move (walk or fly) to an adjacent location that does not contain another problem tile or witch.  Other than embarrassment, there is no consequence to fleeing.

Ahh, but the objective is to solve problems, so a dedicated witch will stay and continue the good fight.  Before rolling the remaining two Witch dice, the player may play cards depicting the magic or headology symbols. Each headology symbol adds +1 to the attempt, while each magic symbol adds +2, but with a cost:  the player must take a Cackle counter for each magic card played.

After playing any of these cards, the player rolls the remaining two dice.  The player may then play any cards for their effects (NOT for their symbols). The objective is to equal or exceed the difficulty level of the problem.  Success rewards the player with the tile (and related victory points), while failure forces the player to take a Cackle counter and flee as described above.

witches-countersHard problems are, of course, more difficult to resolve, and a failure usually has additional unsavory consequences.  These effects can force the witch into the dungeon, add a Crisis tile to the location, force the witch to take a “Black Alyss” tile, etc.  The bigger danger occurs if three or more Elven tiles appear, in which case all is lost.  The effects of these tiles are not listed on the tiles themselves, so the rules must be consulted whenever they appear.

Witches have an alternative to solving a problem, especially the hard ones. A handful of cards in the deck are powerful witches.  If a player manages to collect three different ones, they can be played at once to immediately resolve any problem.  Assembling three different witch cards is not an easy task, but doing so can prove invaluable in solving one of the more difficult problems.

A word about those pesky Cackle counters.  This is initially not a concern, but when the supply of Cackle counters depletes, counters are taken from the player who has the most.  When this occurs, the player possessing the most Cackle counters receives a Black Alyss counter, which costs the player a victory point at game’s end.  So, every time the Witch dice are rolled, there is a danger of being forced to take one or more Cackle counters, which could ultimately cost the player at game’s end.  Fortunately, there is a way to get rid of those pesky counters, and that is by having tea with your fellow witches.

Have Tea.  If in a location with one or more witches, the active player may discard three Cackle counters, while other witches in the area discard two apiece.  This can be helpful if you are in danger of being forced to take a Black Alyss counter.

At the conclusion of one’s turn, the player refills her hand to their limit, which is initially three, but increases as problems are solved.  Seven cards is the absolute limit.

Play continues in this fashion until three or more Elven tiles appear, or a new Crisis counter must be placed and none are available. In either of these cases, the Witches have failed and all is lost. Otherwise, the game can end on a more favorable note if all problem tiles are placed, in which case players tally the points earned from their solved problems and deduct 1 point for each Black Alyss tile they possess.  The witch possessing the most points wins the game and is appointed head of the Witch’s Academy.

Witches is certainly a family game, although there are a few questionable location names and graphics.  It is easy to learn and teach, and the theme is certainly appealing, even to those who are not familiar with Pratchett’s work.  The combination of dice rolling and card play is well integrated into the problem solving process, which usually results in moans of despair or shouts of glee as the luck of the dice rolls plays out.

The assortment of cards does help maintain some variety, especially since cards can be used for travel, problem solving or their special abilities.  This helps, as the game does have a strong “sameness” feel to it.  Each player turn feels the same as the previous, as there aren’t a variety of paths or options players can pursue.  The road here is straight with no divergences.  The objective is the same:  solve problems. This sameness can cause the game to grow stale, but fortunately it usually plays to completion in an hour or so.

The board is a bit muddled and it can be difficult to locate the various locations.  Further, for some reason the locations of Lancre Town and Lance Castle have multiple spaces, which creates some strange placement situations that aren’t adequately discussed in the rules.  It seems that this was an unnecessary addition that causes complications and confusion.

Witches is yet another game that shines in the family environment, but doesn’t perform as well with strategy game enthusiasts.  That is perfectly fine, as long as folks understand this and don’t expect the game to deliver more in terms of strategy or multiple paths to pursue.  Rather, it is light, fun romp through the magic world of Terry Platchett.

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