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Witches of the Revolution – an ununusal combination

What is this Revolution of Witch you speak?

In Europe, the 17th Century was a period of religious turmoil. The struggle between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church escalated. Religious factions vied for men’s hearts, minds and souls, and no less for power. Minorities prayed and pleaded for freedom of worship and relief from persecution; until they in turn came into the ascendancy, when they instead turned the tables and themselves became the oppressors.

This was the world from which the Pilgrim Fathers fled. Braving the uncertain perils of the Atlantic Ocean, they boarded frail wooden ships and voyaged into the unknown, seeking a New World.

The emigrants formed the first American colonies that hugged the continent’s eastern coast. The colonies grew and thrived, and as the colonists began to think themselves less as Englishmen and more as Americans. So, inevitably, the split with Great Britain came. Revolution. Independence.

I think we all know this story. If you need a refresher course, nab yourself some tickets for the current run of Hamilton.

Witches of the Revolution box

It’s the story that also forms the backdrop to Witches of the Revolution from Atlas Games. The conceit here is that it wasn’t just non-Conformists and radical Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock but covens too of witches who were also fleeing English persecution. This premise conveniently ignores Massachusetts’ infamous Salem witch trials: it maintains a myth of American liberty and tolerance and allocates solely to King George III and his tyrannical empire the role of oppressor of witches: Blame it on the Brits.

A co-operative deck builder! What witchcraft is this?

Witches of the Revolution pits the players as covens of witches working to help win the struggle for American Independence. While General George Washington is leading his ragtag militia against the seemingly inexorable might of the British Empire, the witches must battle the occult forces that are also conspiring to frustrate the cause of liberty.

Witches of the Revolution is a fully co-operative game where players are working collectively to achieve the four randomly selected objectives and to deal with a succession of events that throw up crises and catastrophes, likely to worsen the longer they remain unresolved. Dilemmas mount and the game’s liberty track acts as a timer against which the witches are racing. Meanwhile a separate moon track acts as a second timer, moving on every time a witch’s discards are shuffled and making things harder for the witches the further it advances. This aspect of the game is bound to remind you of Pandemic and a dozen other co-operative games.

WoR board

Witches of the Revolution does introduce a novel feature, however. It couples the commonly seen elements of a co-operative game with a challenging deck builder mechanic. The deck building element means that play involves adding recruits to your deck, along with relics and blessings. In most deck building games, players are eager to refine and sharpen their decks not just by acquiring improved cards but also by disposing of the weaker cards they started off with. In Witches of the Revolution, cards can be ‘banished’ (removed from play) but you won’t in this game be seeking to fillet the weaker cards out of your deck because you will feel the need to avoid cycling through your deck and triggering an advance along the moon track. As you play Witches of the Revolution, you’ll always be wary of demands that call for you to spend or banish cards because these will be thinning your deck and making it cycle through more quickly.

We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately

Thanks to the imagery on the cards, Witches of the Revolution all feels thematically sound in relation to the supernatural theme, though you may still find you need to suspend disbelief to relate it convincingly to the American War of Independence. This would have come through more strongly had the cards included more flavour text that helped to better locate the witches in the 1776 Revolution. The greater complaint in play is not the theme nor the mechanics but the fact that players’ choices are often dictated by the cards that are out on the board. Though you may theoretically have a range of options open to you over the actions to take, the pressure of the events that have urgently to be dealt with will very often limit your options and force you to follow a particular course; in effect, denying you any actual choice. Witches of the Revolution is not unique in this respect: even in the widely respected game Pandemic, players can find their options limited by the immediate demands of fire-fighting to avoid imminent defeat. Somehow, in Witches of the Revolution, this limiting of options feels all the more acute. So much so, you may find that there are times when you feel that the game is playing you rather than the other way around. Maybe that’s the effect of occult magic…

Witches of the Revolution moon track

The ratcheting up of difficulty as the moon and liberty tracks advance contributes to the requisite tension in this game. That’s important not just for keeping players engrossed but also to distract you from noticing that you are mostly doing more of the same all through this game: Witches of the Revolution isn’t a game where you are going to be developing an engine or an overarching strategy. That’s not necessarily a damning criticism; just be aware that this is a game where you will doing essentially similar things from start to finish.

Aside from the shared collective objective, the co-operative element comes in through players contributing cards to each other’s attempts to tackle events. Like most fully co-operative games, Witches of the Revolution can also be played solo. Obviously, a solo player cannot call on other witches to assist them by contributing cards so, to make up for this, the solitaire version is played with a larger default hand size. When playing with two to four players, the rules leave it open for you to decide whether to play with your hands of cards face up or face down. It makes it more of a game to play with cards kept face down. You’ll also find this helps to discourage an alpha player from quarterbacking the entire game by telling everyone else what they should do on their turn.

Witches of the Revolution liberty track

How hard can it be?

To the designer’s credit, Witches of the Revolution comes with other ways of varying the difficulty of the game. Some event cards are marked (with what is suggested to be a ‘blood splatter’) to indicate that they are harder. The rules invite players to use only ‘easy’ cards, only ‘hard’ cards or a deliberate or random mix of the two. It is only the ‘hard’ events that trigger, for example, a move on the liberty track as the event card remains unresolved. If you find that the British and their Prussian mercenaries continue to ride roughshod over the colonial rebels, the rules offer still further suggestions for making the game easier.

Witches of the Revolution is probably not a game that’s going to be on everyone’s ‘must have’ list. It isn’t a game you’re going to want to play time and time again. Nevertheless, it’s one to consider if you find the supernatural or historical themes appealing, and for its unusual twist on the more commonly seen tropes of the deck-builder mechanic. As a co-operative game, it has the advantage of being relatively easy to teach and so can be used to introduce new players. Taking account of its novelty value, I rate Witches of the Revolution 6/10. If you buy it, though, you ought to consider sleeving the cards before play: despite your best endeavours to avoid advancing the moon track, the cards will get shuffled multiple times during the game and they are all going to be moved and manipulated.

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Selwyn Ward

Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.