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Apocrypha: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger

Apocrypha-Card-Game-BoxApocrypha is a modern-day Horror Adventure Card Game from the people who brought you Pathfinder ACG. It’s a game that people have been waiting for, for a very long time, and it’s finally arrived. The question is, was it worth the wait?

Apocrypha: What’s in the box?

Apocrypha-Card-Game-ContentsThe first release for Apocrypha is “The World” – a base box, which contains the cards you need to get started playing, a mini-campaign that’s basically an extended tutorial, and The Book of the Skinwalkers, the first adventure proper.

2 expansions, “The Flesh” and “The Devil” are expected shortly, each offering 4 extra Books, which will greatly expand the re-play value of this initial box.

In terms of component quality, Apocrypha is solid. The card-stock is nice, as are the dice that come in the box. As a Pathfinder veteran and a dedicated card- sleever, I was really pleased that the box insert will hold sleeved cards, has room for expansions, and comes with dividers to make everything easy to find.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Art3 Apocrypha uses a lot of different artwork on the cards, much of it taking something mundane and giving it a subtle, yet unsettling twist, which contributes nicely to the overall feel of the game.

Getting going: The first step is the hardest

Taking your first steps in Apocrypha can be tricky. The rulebooks aren’t great, and the rules are very granular, which can make it hard to get a sweeping overview.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-StructuresEvery mission in Apocrypha is made up from a selection of cards: there’s a story-book that you read when setting up, and will tell you to draw some specific “Structure” cards from the box. A mission card provides a summary of the instructions.

There is a great deal of variability in the Structure cards, which will alter what players are trying to do, how they can move around, and how the game times out. The simplest missions will be familiar to Pathfinder Veterans – piles of cards representing Nexuses: draw the top card, try to acquire it if it’s a gift, or defeat it if it’s a threat: win once all the Nexuses have been sealed, or once you corner and defeat the Master. Others however, will feature completely different approaches, with direct duels between players and the main villain, complex movement patterns, and alternative timing structures.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Girls-Interrupted

miss the 1 line in the story book about trophies, and the default setting on outmanoeuvre makes this mission a miserable experience

I like the idea behind structures: supporting variety in mission design, without lots of one-off instructions. Sadly though, Apocrypha often still ends up doing exactly that – giving you new rules that override what the card in front of you says to do. You could have 4 cards out on the table that you need to reference, only to find that the key detail is hidden in the story book.

Overall, Apocrypha feels like someone has spent a lot of time crafting a very technical ruleset that will cover all of the possible eventualities that they might ever want it to. This is great for future-proofing, but the trade-off is in accessibility, an area where Apocrypha scores poorly. We had multiple games where we either couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing, or just did completely the wrong thing, because key information was hard to find.

So who am I? what do I do?

Apocrypha-Card-Game-SaintIn Apocrypha you control a Saint, a ‘normal’ person who can see the dark monsters that everyone else somehow misses. Your saint has 4 Virtues – Rage, Soul, Body and Mind, dictating how many dice you roll when testing that attribute, and how many cards of that type go in your deck. They also have skills, a hand-size, and a couple of abilities.

Most turns will see you confronting cards, generally revealed at random from your current Nexus. Each card will show the attributes you can use against it, and the target number you need to roll to succeed.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-ArtYou assemble a number of dice based on your Virtue, roll them all, and keep the best 3 – success generally means getting rid of the threat/keeping the gift, whilst failure means the opposite. Failure against a threat will also lead to discarding cards as damage, and if you ever need to draw a card from your deck and have run out, then you “fade” (die).

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Quick-RefHow you manipulate these tests is one of the key areas of playing Apocrypha. You can play cards from your hand to “Boost”(add dice), or use other powers which will hopefully aid you on your way.

Again, the powers on game cards feel like an aspect of Apocrypha that has been designed for maximum future scope, at the cost of a high barrier to entry. There is a system of symbols which determine which powers affect who, along with a heavily structured phase-of-turn system. Eventually, this will probably make it easier to do a quick check of which powers are relevant in which settings, but it’s heavy going to begin with.

Master Doom Before Hope Fades

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Omens An interesting mechanic in Apocrypha is that of Hope and Doom. Mostly, your turn will begin by drawing an Omen card from a countdown deck – Omens are divided into Hope (good) and Doom (bad). You generally need to play an Omen in order to investigate your Nexus, and the Hope Omens will give you potential bonuses, whilst the Doom ones will make life harder, as well as flipping your Nexus to its Doom side, which brings into play nasty effects, or make cards you interact with more unpleasant.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Skinwalker-Omens

Omens specific to book of the Skinwalkers

Whilst this part of Apocrypha can be quite random, I really liked the Hope/Doom mechanic, and will be interested to see how it is developed in the later Books.

Getting better? Just like everyone else!

For me, the big appeal of a campaign game like Apocrypha, is being able to take a character and develop them – improve skills, pick up weaknesses and learn how to compensate. And thus reach the end with someone that feels different.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-HaloAside from getting better cards, your Saint in Apocrypha will mostly change by acquiring memory fragments – cards which you “slot” into place in your “Halo,” (the 8 spaces around your character card) providing new abilities and challenges for future games.

The trouble is that these Fragments are all generic. Once you start playing, nothing that you acquire or unlock is specific to your Saint. When you win a mission one of you gets to flip the mission card and keep it as an Enduring Fragment, whilst the rest of your party draw a random Fleeting Fragment (return to the box to use its power).

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Full-ArtIt doesn’t matter whether I’m playing as the Cop or the Biker – completing the scenario “Girls Interrupted” allows me +1 Soul Card in my deck. This was a big disappointment for me, and makes me much less enthusiastic about replaying a given Book with a different Saint, compared with replaying a Pathfinder Adventure-Path with a new Hero who will be able to do completely different things with their card, skill, and power feats.

Where are you? It’s changing again!

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Assist

Dr Zeez can assist One on a Soul check, and anyone at his Nexus on a Mind check. If they are the only 2 Saints in the game, he can assist with Body too

Apocrypha cares about where you are. You personally. Some cards or abilities affect you, or a person at your nexus, others will only target the person to your left, or your right. Where you position cards in your Halo also determines who they can effect. In reality, this only has a meaningful impact once you get to 3 or more players, but it does add an extra element of decision-making.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Full-Art2As well as having a number for each of their Virtues, indicating how many dice they roll, and how many gifts they keep in their deck of that type, each Saint’s Virtues will be oriented on their card to point in a certain direction. If your Rage of 3 is on the right, then you can assist the person to your right with Rage checks, by allowing them to re-roll up to 3 dice.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-MutationsHowever, there’s a catch (there’s always a catch in Apocrypha) – every time someone assists, the check will mutate! Draw a mutation card from the box, and roll a dice – you might lose a dice, increase the difficulty, recharge a random card, or – my least favourite – have the card go away, and instead get beaten up by this mission’s minion.

Mutations were an interesting idea, but the balance felt bad – it’s too easy for a mutation to make a difficult check impossible, to the point where we ended up barely ever using it.

No direction? Tell me the story!

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Story-BookAside from the rulebook, Apocrypha also includes books designed to flesh out the over-arching narrative. Clearly the designers have imagined a rich, thought-out mythos for this dark take on our own world, and it’s a brilliant move to have included these stories.

Sadly, the great theme that has been developed for Apocrypha often feels disconnected from the mechanics. It’s not hard to understand what’s going on in “I play a short-sword to roll 2 dice against this Goblin” (to take a Pathfinder example), but “I play some lock picks to add to my body test against this werewolf” is more puzzling. Somehow Apocrypha manages to be strangely abstract despite such a rich setting.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Art2Apocrypha very deliberately takes a non-linear approach to things: you can play the missions of a given Book in any order, and (once we have The Flesh and The Devil in hand), play Books in any order. In doing this, Apocrypha has opened up a lot of design space, allowing you to pick and choose the way in which you approach things. However, it also undermines the drive to move from one to another. Where shall we start? Have we finished it? Do we need to do all 9 missions? Book of The Skinwalkers doesn’t offer any additional reward for completing the Book as a whole, and leaves things feeling vague and unresolved.

Looking for a Guide

Apocrypha-Card-Game-GuidedAside from playing as a card game, Apocrypha also supports “Guided Mode,” where one player acts as a GM and the game provides the framework for an RPG. In Guided mode players have decks as normal, but the GM takes control of the Nexuses and Threats, shaping the flow of the game to create an over-arching narrative. It’s an interesting idea, but one that requires your whole RPG group to be fairly comfortable with the standard mechanics of Apocrypha, so definitely not for everyone.

Apocrypha: Final Thoughts

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Saints-NexusesApocrypha is a game that’s been a long time in the making, and there are clearly some really good things here: the designers have created a really evocative setting, and some mechanics that are really solid for the future, once you get past the steep learning curve. There’s lots of little flavour details you miss at first, so I think your enjoyment will grow with time.

Sadly, there’s something about Apocrypha that doesn’t quite click at times – the theme and the mechanics feel disconnected, and the characters you control are disappointingly limited in their development.

I think Apocrypha will really benefit from having more Books available, so that we can really see the variations, and will await the expansions with interest. I’d love to see them fix the character-progression issue, perhaps with an investigator-specific fragment awarded at the end of each book.

If you enjoy Pathfinder, particularly if you’re a fan of scenarios that deviate from “Corner the Villain” then you’ll probably like Apocrypha. Personally though, a lot of the time I’d rather play something like Arkham Horror LCG, which does a brilliant job of blending theme and mechanic, as well as blurring the line between card game and RPG, and has largely pushed Pathfinder off of my gaming table.

Overall, I’d give this 7 out of 10. Solid, deep, but not quite as compelling as it could be.

 

5 (100%) 1 vote
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James Phillips

I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits in my new life as a dad. I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Dice Masters and Destiny) when I can make it out of the house.Competitively. When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.

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