In film there’s a bizarrely frequent occurrence where two movies with remarkably similar premises or inspirations will release at roughly the same time. Like, remember when we got two mediocre movies about the White House blowing up? Or that same year, two biopics about Steve Jobs? In 2009 we got Observe and Report AND Paul Blart: Mall Cop, two films about bumbling mall security. 2006 gave us two films about flight 93 and two about the Zodiac killer. Even so far back as 1964 audiences got the sublime Dr. Strangelove, based on the book Red Alert, and the movie Fail-Safe, based on the book of the same title that was so similar to Red Alert the author was sued.
In some cases it’s pretty easy to see how this kind of thing can happen. I’m sure there were cynical screenwriters slapping together flight 93 treatments on 9/12/01, and marketers decided that 2006 would be enough time to not get into too much trouble about profiting on their depiction of the tragedy. Two Cold War nuclear bomb films in 1964 isn’t so much of a stretch. Sometimes studios probably reject a particular script, then change their mind later and have someone write up something similar. Or maybe it’s all confirmation bias, and the cinematic churn is bound to create these kinds of coincidences on occasion.
Regardless, I noticed a similar trend in the world of board gaming, and I have no clue why this happened. 2018 featured at least 5 games about cute animals in perilous situations. Stuffed Fables takes on a kind of child nightmare aesthetic. The Grimm Forest borrows liberally from western fairy tales. Everdell looks so much like these games that for quite a while this year I didn’t realize it and The Grimm Forest were different games. Root delights in its violent but cute critters.
Finally, the subject of this review, SPQF, uses an art style somewhere between the original Winnie the Pooh illustrations and Disney’s Robin Hood, but more effusive and mysterious than either. There’s something both familiar and unsettling about it. It’s like something you’d find as a kid digging through your grandparents’ children’s books they kept from when your mom was young, back when such books had a dark tinge.
Unfortunately, the aesthetic of SPQF doesn’t quite reach beyond simply being an aesthetic. I get the latin pun in the title, but I wish the game evoked more of an actual world behind its art. Still, what’s up with these creepy lynx-bears?! Nightmare fuel. I love looking at SPQF’s cards, but I don’t feel like I’m actually playing out part of a world. It’s like the art is too good, suggesting a background narrative I can’t quite parse.
The rest of the presentation dutifully depicts SPQF as a clear labor of love. You’re going to have a hard time getting your hands on this game for the moment, because designer and creator Grant Rodiek ran this as a one-time Kickstarter with no post-campaign retail presence. When I asked him about it a while back, he said that he’s not going to pursue that, but would be open to a publisher picking up SPQF for another printing like a couple of his other games.
Anyways, Grant likes wooden components, and SPQF is chock-full of them. Victory points are tracked with acorn-shaped pieces and each player uses a tidy wooden board to keep track of information. Everything except the resource cubes are natural-wood and look beautiful. Frankly it’s a bit much, but when you buy in to a project where the creator says he wants to include a bunch of laser-etched wooden components simply because that’s how he wants his game to look like, you don’t ask questions. Indie passion projects aren’t about being reasonable.
This stubbornness applies to the gameplay, which is often as dense as the thickest of forests. More than anything I’ve played this year, SPQF is a game designed for people who play games. Its interactions are complicated and subtle, and it wants you to do the work to understand its complexities before you begin to experience what it’s actually about.
On its face, SPQF is a fairly straightforward deckbuilding/role following hybrid, extremely reminiscent of Eminent Domain. Each turn you’re simply going to pick one card from your hand of and play it. You can boost that action by revealing other cards of the same “suit”. After that, others can play cards of the same suit to follow part or all of that action. Basic stuff. Where SPQF gets a bit odd is after the main phase, where you must gain a card (no currency or saving up for cards–just pick one you like from a display), and where all of the cards you didn’t use go into a display others can take from.
Your deck takes on a transient feel, then, as the winds of fate might saddle you with two of your most significant cards in hand at the same time. You’ve got to choose one, and put the other up for anyone to steal. It’s sometimes a difficult choice, and it doesn’t feel great, but you get the opportunity to reciprocate the theft nearly every turn.
Perhaps more significant is the rule that you must take a card each turn. Usually a deckbuilding game will leave that as an option–buy as many cards (or none at all) as you can afford. The tricky part there is balancing the ability to acquire more valuable and expensive cards over directly advancing one’s victory condition. SPQF foregoes all of that and says, “here, take a card whether you like it or not, and you’d better figure out what to do with it.” You’re constantly battling this creeping deck expansion as you try to maintain a lean and mean VP-generating machine.
The solution might be to hone in your deck to one particular suit–that way you get super efficient turns every time and reduce variability. The problem there is twofold: first, each suit has its own different emphasis, and typically one suit by itself isn’t going to do everything you want it to do. Second, if you’re only in one suit, you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities to follow other actions played by your opponents.
That tradeoff is an interesting one, as in theory if you’re missing out on that opportunity you should make up for it with a more efficient action on your turn. It’s not quite that simple. The economy of SPQF has two different resources, and you’re going to transform those resources into points through either miscellaneous card effects or by advancing your civilization level. Specialization is great, except that you only have room for 4 of each resource type, and you need to get a specific kind of card to store more resources, or advance your civ level, or convert cubes to points another way. You want to specialize for efficiency’s sake, but you want to diversify in order to actually do important things like score or acquire both resource types.
The entire game rests on these edge-of-knife decisions between competing tensions. You want to be able to do everything at once, but you can’t. You want to do everything efficiently and hone in an elegant deck, but the constant card churn messes that up. By your second or third game you’re going to be checking your discard pile and counting action types and considering what your opponents might want to steal.
It’s all very tense and crunchy and difficult in the best ways, and you’d think that it’d be a game I love. But…I don’t. I appreciate the design of SPQF and I have enjoyed my plays, but I can’t rate it as highly as it might deserve.
This is a tough conundrum for me, and as I write this I’m imaging the kind of person who argues about “objective” reviews salivating as they read, waiting to strike in the comments. I simply don’t find the process of playing SPQF particularly exciting. Compare this to a game like Scythe, which can, and has been, rightly criticized for a number of flaws. I see those flaws, and I agree with them, but if you read my review you’ll notice that I love so much the flow of the game, and the exciting things that it allows me to do, that the flaws don’t feel so bad.
SPQF doesn’t have any glaring flaws, other than some graphic design quibbles (until you get used to it, some very important information is hidden in what might be seen as artistic flourishes). It’s meticulously constructed and I could see a group playing it over and over and over again until a robust and evolving metagame forms. I’m not even entirely sure I’ve seen anyone form a particularly good strategy yet (I get the sense that I’ve missed an angle that would blow the game wide open).
But when I think back to my plays, as much as I appreciate the game, I remember the grind. I remember trying to unpack its layers, not lose the cards that were important to my strategy, remembering what other people have in their decks, and trying to decipher some of the more complicated symbology. At no point in those memories do I recall feeling clever or excited or outwitted. We all seemed to be locked in a simultaneous struggle against each other, yes, but more so against the inscrutability of this design.
Maybe I’m giving SPQF too much credit. Maybe it’s supposed to be a tactical game with a healthy dash of randomness and a fairly robust point floor. Perhaps card counting and meticulous deck management are an exercise in futility as the luck involved in what cards you have in hand at any given point in time smooth out the rough edges of any particular strategy.
Regardless, I have to admit that while writing this review I’m itching to try a couple more games of SPQF. It’s a bit of an enigma for me, but right now I have that small prickle in the back of my mind that says, “maybe it’ll click for you next time and you’ll see it for the masterpiece it is”. That voice is rarely correct, but its mere existence says something about the game.
SPQF is designed to entice gamers like me: people who want to be able to find new and interesting things in a game each time they play. It values depth over first play accessibility–maybe too much given that it must compete for time against other games that are both deep and narratively engrossing. If you’re someone who is searching for a game that might become your next obsession rather than simply your next possession, you may want to consider hunting down a copy of SPQF.
+Very interesting take on deckbuilding
+Potential for a lot of depth and subtle interaction
-Nothing in the game is particularly exciting
-Feels like there’s a fairly hefty point floor
Length: 30 Minutes
Learning Curve: 3/5
Brain Burn: 3/5