|Meeple Like Us
|Inka Brand and Markus Brand
There’s something very sinister going in the village of Little Meepleton-on-the-Hex. There’s a darkness that infests everything. Nothing is as it seems – from a distance it looks like a picture of bucolic meditation. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find much to alarm you. Welcome to a local Village for local meeple.
It doesn’t look like it, I know. Check out that box art – it’s like a John Constable painting in board-game form, right? Look at that happy couple. Look at that studious monk. Look at the old man lecturing the children about a wheel. That’s your first hint. Look at the children – look how rapt they are. He’s talking about a wheel, they can’t be rapt! It’s all an act! They just want you to get deep enough into this pit of sorrow that you can’t climb out again. Go! Escape before they realise you’re not from around these parts. I’ll stall them, for God’s sake just save yourself!
It’s too late, they’ve seen you. Just act cool, just act cool until we can work out how to escape with our lives intact. Don’t make a scene, just pretend you’re happy to be here. Let’s talk a walk around the village and see what it’s like. It is quite nice, really – there are many villages that don’t have this much to recommend them. It’s just you can’t spend much time here without losing some essential part of your soul. Swings and roundabouts, eh?
Let’s sample the environs.
That there is the council chamber. The business of the village is conducted in there. Great matters of agriculture and civic planning are discussed every single day. It’s a hive of activity, of enterprise, and of village pride. Don’t look too closely at it though because it is transparently run by the Mafia. You know what they say – snitches get stitches.
Isn’t that nice? There’s a wedding going in the village square. Not much of a crowd though, right? Yeah – there’s a reason for that. Keep walking. Just keep walking.
Ah, there’s the church. A fine old building – a solid guardian that stands between Satan and the soul of this village. Whether it’s gatekeeper or gateway though is a matter for debate.
Them? Oh, they’re ‘the monks’. They don’t speak. Don’t make eye contact if you don’t want to end up being dragged off into a black bag from which you might never escape unless you pay the ransom. When people around here refer to ‘the seminary’, they’re being ironic.
This is the craft quarter – here you can make anything from plows (by banging red and pink cubes together) to wagons (by banging red and pink cubes together) or horses (by banging, presumably, two other horses together). If you can’t pay the price, you can always become one of the master crafters. All it will take is your unending, unswerving obedience to the job. You will live, and die, in the forge you occupy. Occasionally a gentleman THAT TALKS LIKE THIS will come by to get his horse shod. Don’t ever look at him. Just shoe the horse. Do the job in front of you.
Look, there’s the gate that leads out to the rest of the country. There is a way to escape Little Meepleton-on-the-Hex, and it’s through those gates. You leave, and you keep travelling. You never come back. Nobody ever comes back. You’ll die somewhere in some forgotten field and the wolves will take you. It’s perhaps the kindest of the fates the village has in store for you.
And this is the marketplace. During market day, customers line up here to sample the goods produced in the village. The family from which these unwitting fools transact will invite them to the farm to collect their oxen, or their plows, or their grain. They’re never seen nor heard from again, unless you count the plaintive wails that resonate over the moors in the cold of some anonymous chilly night.
Sorry, what’s that? Oh right, yeah.
That’s the graveyard. It’s one of the busiest places in Little Meepleton. It’s where the anonymous, unappreciated, and unloved members of the community are sent when they die. They throw them in an unmarked grave. Sometimes they even remember to actually bury them. Don’t worry about them, they’re nothing. Less than nothing. They are the proverbial shit on the metaphorical shoe of this place. If you want to know who matters in the village, you need to look at the book of remembrance.
Here, all the details of the great luminaries of the village are kept. It’s the record of accomplishment that defines which families in the village have contributed the most to this lovely place. It fills up as people die – we record our founders in here.
Wait, did I say ‘we’? I mean, ‘they’, sorry. Ha ha. This place is just a bit creepy, I’m getting a little rattled. Don’t mind me.
Yes, there are only a few spaces in the book – we can’t just record everyone in here, it would be meaningless. We record only a few people, and only a certain number of each profession. Once all the founders have been recorded, anyone else that dies goes in the graveyard. It’s their own fault really. They should have died quicker. We’re always happy to help in that respect. It might be you that makes your way into the book. We would love to see your contributions to the village recognised.
Oh my, there’s that ‘we’ again. I suppose there’s no point maintaining the charade. Let’s be honest, you knew when you visited that you wouldn’t ever be leaving. Everyone knows. You can feel it in your bones.
Let’s go have a look at the surrounding farmsteads. You’d best get familiar with them, that’s where you’ll be spending your time while you’re our guest. No, don’t scream. Everyone here knows that a screamer is just a friend we haven’t met yet.
Welcome to Little Meepleton. Stay a while. Stay forever
Look, I’m not projecting here. Village is one of the most sinister games I’ve ever played. Wall to wall, every single game system has horrible implications that suggest a deeply dysfunctional, borderline dystopian vision for rural life. It’s like the grittiest, grimmest imaginable reboot of the Archers. It’s like Night Vale and Mayberry had a baby. It’s Lancre Town if the Discworld series had been written by Stephen King. Everything is horrible here, and the drab, washed out artwork only serves to undermine the sense of futility that comes with existence.
Let’s briefly talk about how it works – see the cubes strewn around the village? They represent opportunities. In turns, players pick up a cube and then have a chance to trigger the action associated with the area. Grab a cube from the craft area and you can do a craft action – you can spend some of your cubes to gain an object, or throw one of your meeple into the appropriate location to become an indentured servant. It takes time to train them, and time to make the item, but until they die they’ll produce goods for you on the cheap. Until they die. UNTIL THEY DIE.
What’s the most important resource on a farm? No, it’s not the tractor – look at this place, they don’t have tractors. No, it’s not the animals. It’s not sheep. It’s not pigs. Look, stop guessing. No, it’s not chickens, stop guessing. You’re bad at this.
The most important resource on a farm is the scythe. More specifically, it’s the scythe the Grim Reaper uses to mow down your family members. While they live, they’re useful. When they’re dead, they’re priceless – at least, if they die quickly enough, and in a convenient order. The best of your dearly departed will be recorded in the book of greatness that dictates end of game scoring. There are only so many spaces in the book of remembrance, and you want to make sure your family dominates. You want people out, working, and then dead. At least, until the book begins to fill up and death becomes an enemy, rather than a tool of strategic benefit.
When the book is filled, the game ends. Or, when the unmarked graves in the churchyard are full, the game ends. You need to balance the short-term benefits of familial murder against the longer term needs of gaining sufficient victory points to win. Many actions take time, and when your time marker makes a full revolution of your farm it’s funeral o’clock. That funeral is going to be for someone of the oldest generation. Nobody dies prematurely in this village – every death is a premeditated murder.
You begin with four ‘one’ meeple, and by taking an action at the altar in the village you can bring in new meeple of the next generation, one by one. When one of your family dies, you need to pick which one it’s going to be – that’s a decision that’s going to be based on spaces in the book, long term utility of the placed workers, and ease of replacement. You swing the scythe, and driven by your own necessity your generations will thin out. Time is a currency and it must be spent wisely. The wisdom of expenditure will ebb and flow in line with your needs and the village before you. It’s a really nice mechanic that offers a lot of interesting choice within a morally dubious framework of cheerfully utilitarian assassination.
This brutal system of time management feeds to into a game where the mechanics actually work together to tell a story about the village itself. Seeded through the various action spots are black ‘plague’ cubes that have no benefit and cost two time when you pick them up – you take them because you want to perform the action, and sometimes that’s the only way to do it. It leads to unforced storytelling where you mentally create the context in which these are not literal plagues, but narrative abstractions. You pick up a plague cube at a wedding and it’s difficult to see that as something other than an STD. You pick up a plague cube to advance in the council, and your grandfather dies at his forge. Political retaliation in Little Meepleton is pretty direct. By taking a cube, you block off a rival from taking advantage of an opportunity (sort of), and so each time you pick one up you’re creating a story of intrigues and competition and frustrations. It all leans into an interesting, vibrant soap opera of farming politics. Many of the mechanics work like this.
If you gain high enough authority in the council, you can use your lofty position to gain a resource. You can just grab an ox, or a horse, or a wagon, or a plow. It doesn’t cost you anything other than the action. You just sit at your desk in the council offices and say to two big lads with shovels ‘go get me a horse from the horesmonger’, and off they go. It has such delicious overtones of organised crime and corruption that the whole political institution seems irredeemably broken.
Speaking of which, another route to power in the village is through the church – and the mechanics there tell a dark story. You take one of your family members, and cast them into a black bag that is full of sinister, faceless black monks. It’s so reminiscent of a movie-style abduction that it’s striking – the black bag is a hood that is roughly thrown over someone’s head to keep them quiet.
At the end of the turn, before the village is reseeded with actions, you can pay a gold coin to get them back and advance them up the church as part of the religious ceremony of the Mass. If you don’t pay, you draw four random pieces out of the bag – it’s entirely possible that they’ll all be the black monks that serve some hidden, secret master. It’s entirely possible they’ll all be monks every single time. Basically unless you ransom your family member back, you might never see them again. And more than that, while they’re in the bag they can’t die. They never age. If you see them again, they might be blinking in the light of a future surrounded by grandchildren older than they are. And then, when time’s vicious scythe swings around again they drop dead instantly because they are simultaneously the youngest person and the last representative of the oldest generation.
What the hell is happening in that church?
And then, if you want to advance up the church track you need to pay grain – the product of back-breaking farm labour – to progressively climb the greasy pole. All a family member in the church gets you is some victory points if they survive to the end of the game. The church takes, and takes, and takes and gives nothing back to the family, or the village. All you get from high rank in the church is prestige that is bought through the productive efforts of others in the family. It’s viciously satirical, like most of the game mechanics.
The story of the village too is well expressed. The village itself is an abattoir – meeple go in, are ground down by the system, and rendered into delicious victory points. The end result is a melancholy story arc where the populous bustle gives way to a kind of grim ghost-town. The oldest generation has four members. The youngest generation has two. All families in Village are in constant decline – families can only ever get smaller. Customers, when they are dealt with in the marketplace, are never reshuffled back into play – when the stack runs out, a bustling commercial district becomes a derelict, abandoned high street. As travelers visit cities outside the village, opportunities dry up. Horizons, once visited, remain visited. The village is on a constant, endless decline and you’re watching it move from a pre to post apocalypse wasteland in which the only growth industry is grave-digging.
At the end of play, score is based on familial accomplishment. High ranking members of the clergy earn you points. The dead in the book earn you points. Councillors earn you points. You also earn points for how many cities outside the village you visited, and how many customers you captured and imprisoned on your farm. This totting up of achievements is best done to the accompaniment of Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’ because that’s what you’ve got now – a grim, hopeless wasteland that demands escape.
Village really is a beautifully designed game – normally when I pick up a manual and it’s twelve pages long I groan because it implies a constant need for checking and cross-referencing fiddly rules. Village though doesn’t have that – for all its variety of options, it’s surprisingly smooth to play. The whole thing is elegantly structured in a way that creates both visual and cognitive affordances. Once you understand the underling mechanisms, you rarely need to consult the manual except for processes you haven’t yet fully internalised. That’s a hell of an accomplishment. It’s almost enough to make up for the absolute arse ache of the first game setup. You need to take all of those meeple and attach two stickers to each. TWO STICKERS. Two tiny, awkward stickers you need to attach in a particular place on opposite sides of each one. Gnh.
So, it’s a game of grim implication and constantly frustrated ambitions, tightly designed to create a whole pile of interesting risk versus reward propositions. In all of this I’ve been tap-dancing here around the basic question, ‘is it any good?’
And yes, it absolutely is. It’s deep, engaging, and satisfying with all kinds of neat elements and ludic flourishes. It tells fun stories tinged with enough real darkness to make them genuinely interesting. The extra element of strategic murder is very cool, and adds a temporality and weight to worker placement that’s often missing. The nature of limited uses of each building means sometimes you’re forced to injure yourself to block off an opponent, which makes even self-harm an important consideration of play. Mortality can hurt you if you’re not carefully planning it. You might take a plague cube to kill someone off to progress your masterplan and find out that a key craftsperson is the oldest person, not the traveller you thought.
Structurally though there are some significant problems. It is in the end a game where systems don’t meaningfully cohere other than through the medium of accumulated resource cubes. All the different village roles feel like disconnected subsystems that don’t really feed into each other. Other than the fact all meeple die and fill the same book, you wouldn’t notice much if you completely decoupled them from each other. That’s a shame. I would have liked to have seen more interplay between the city roles because while it’s nice to accumulate victory points and resource cubes it’s all a little sanitised and abstracted. As a result it’s fundamentally not a very exciting game, although there are often opportunities for little pockets of vindictive schadenfreude as you steal an especially juicy opportunity away from one of your fellow players. There are few really outstanding moments in play which I always find leads to a somewhat subdued experience.
This abstraction too undermines what are some genuinely excellent story-telling chops, because while you can layer these stories onto the village the game itself is constantly getting in the way of your mental narration. All the mechanics are out there and exposed, and no effort is made to hide them. The lack of systemic inter-relationships means that these stories end up being fundamentally variations on a theme, like episodes of Emmerdale. Dad might have gone off to travel only to be stranded in a foreign land because the wagon-maker died of plague. But that story loses some of its sheen when in the next game dad went off to travel only to be stranded in a foreign land because the family couldn’t provide the right cubes for the next journey. It’s like a game of Scattergories with a very limited vocabulary. That sameness is reflected in the experience itself – it doesn’t change much from game to game because while there is a lot to do, aside from accumulating points there isn’t a lot of reason to do it. You move your pieces up the church track because they’re young enough that they’ll likely survive for it to be scored. You advance up the council so you can use the ‘free goods’ action because it costs you less time than training a craftsperson up, or because you can’t afford the necessary cubes.
You can see a little flavour of what I’d like to see more properly marinated throughout in the harvest system – you can gain two bags of grain from a harvest, but three with a plow and horse and four with a plow and ox. You can use that grain to advance up the church track, or convert it into money (a wild resource), or sell it to customers, or use it to make horses and oxen. There’s a reason to get grain that isn’t just ‘this gets me x points at the end’. It’s a system that has its own interesting ecology within the confines of the game system. The game would benefit from more of this kind of thing – if through travelling you could find blueprints for craft patterns, or if through the church you could hear confessions that conferred potential political advantage. If you could leverage political power to offer spiritual preferment, or customer loyalty to improve market yields. Those systems are obviously far more difficult to design and balance, but they’d enrich what is an otherwise sometimes sterile and arithmetic experience.
Village is a good game then – not a must have, not in its base box manifestation, but a box out of which you’ll certainly get a lot of enjoyment. At least until the end, at which point the scarred and derelict environment offers only one sensible action – escape. I hear you’ve got a fast car – is it fast enough that we can fly away? We’ve got to make a decision – leave tonight, or live and die this way.