The Tuonela line of card games

One of the highlights of the boardgame conference in February was that the local game publisher Jussi Autio invited us to check out his game store. Tuonela has this sweet run-down business locale within walking distance of downtown Oulu; it’s small and grunge, including the stock of boardgames, which veers towards the eccentric, local and rare – Finnish games have the pride of place. It’s more like a specialty boutique than the more typical gaming superstore, reminding me of a small record store that insists on quality over quantity. The sort of place that I’d love to have carry my stuff, really.

Anyway, one of the things I did was that I grabbed the chance and purchased a few copies of the new Tuonela card games for sale in our own webstore – we sell roleplaying games, usually, but Finnish games are also a tradition, and I for one don’t really care about the divide, so might as well try it. I haven’t yet gotten around to adding the titles to the webstore, but I have played the games themselves. This is surprisingly good stuff!

The premise here is that Tuonela is publishing games that use a double deck of custom cards (around a hundred or so per game), a few playing pieces or markers and a two-part box; I understand that the idea is to gain savings in producing the games by having each use very similar components and packaging. As the games also share a Finnish designer, same price-point and an unified shelf image, I’d say that Tuonela is well on its way in developing a small-box card game brand here, too; I for one would be inclined to get more of these games after sampling one of them, assuming I liked the game’s quality. The impression is only strengthened by the fact that Tuonela published all three of these in quick succession last year (or even simultaneously – I seem to remember some delay, but can’t pinpoint where I got the idea).

I haven’t had much time for games this winter, board or roleplaying, but I did manage a couple of nights for checking out these titles. I’m pretty involved in the Finnish game design culture myself, albeit mostly on the roleplaying side of things, so I was curious about seeing how these games would stack up against the international competition. Finnish roleplaying has generally not been up to snuff outside the larp scene, really, so having a bunch of productized boardgames already being sold in game stores to compare with is a nice change of pace – considering that these guys live right next door, if there’s anything to be learned here, it’s no big deal at all to go ask them for pointers on any game projects I might be considering myself.

Modern Society

This game is by Jussi Autio himself, the driving man behind the Tuonela thing. Jussi is in my experience a pretty dry and analytical designer; I can’t say that I’m too fond of The Club, his boardgame from two years back, for instance. Modern Society shares many of the play traits exhibited by The Club, including tactical emphasis over the strategic, attention to detail over derivation from first principles and grinding over small victories instead of dramatic reversals. It’s mathematical game design, something I tend to indulge in, as well.

Nevertheless, based on my evaluation Modern Society is head and shoulders above Jussi’s previous game, rising handily to a gamer’s level of quality – I wouldn’t hesitate to draw it out at a gamers’ gathering as a light midweight title in between or while waiting for the night’s main treat; the game works likewise well as a part of a selection (perhaps this very selection) of light midweight titles that fill a whole night, especially as new players are likely to want revanches after learning to play during the first game.

As a practical introduction I’d characterize Modern Society as a relatively chaotic hand management game with strong combination-seeking over a special deck of cards with specific card powers. The cards of the game represent cultural trends of modern society such as “Youth Culture” or “Neo-Nazism”, which each influence the outlook of the society and net the players different colours of influence points. The cards have a selection of special powers that mostly rely on combinations with other cards (gay bashing is more efficient if gay culture was played before it, that sort of thing) and give the player even more influence points. Players play their cards simultaneously, which might bring a little bit of psychology into it, but not much; for the most part your concern is to play the strongest cards you have in the best combinations available, which by itself is pretty simple.

Where the game really shines is the strategic arc, something that Jussi tends to disregard in my experience. Players collect influence points by playing those cards, but the influence points themselves are not victory points: rather, your goal is to collect a given number of points in one color to have enough to purchase a law card which then provides both victory points and a somewhat dry, mid-efficiency permanent special power. (Those special powers are pretty dull, like turning one type of points into another type of points – they’re efficient enough to care about at times, though.) The hook of the game is that you have to buy each color’s law cards in order of expense, starting with the 5 point card and continuing 15-20-25; you cannot skip any of the cards, and there aren’t enough laws for everybody in every color, which means that players can be closed out of a given color of victory points altogether! That’s not crippling, as players can turn their attention to the other colors (and victory points are only a single color, even if their sources have separate currencies – unlike Eufrat & Tigris in that regard), but it’s definitely an exciting detail as the players race to 15 points in a given color, knowing that the last one to the mark is going to lose his investment in that color altogether.

The strategic arc ties in a nice ouija-board style to the tactical card-play in that the societal trends influence the amount of influence points you can gain per color rather heavily. These societal trends in turn are caused by the players playing cards that support the trends – and of course those are also the cards that give you influence points in the same color. The aggregate outcome is a self-reinforcing loop that encourages players to hit the same color again and again; this is something you try to resist at your peril as a player, so most likely everybody is going to go along with it, resulting in a very lop-sided society that values a certain color of influence heavily while disregarding another. This is the real strategy of the game: you have to see when the group’s aggregate card play is going to lead in a run-away trend soon enough to profit from it yourself, at least enough to prevent yourself from being closed out of the color that’s going to be the strongest in the game. It’s an interesting challenge once you discover it through a couple of games.

I can also say that I like the photographic illustrations of the cards, as well as the chosen topics, which give the game a nice flair of modern political issues. The combination is stylish and overall professional despite some clumsiness in the rules language and mistakes in the card printing; nothing that would bother myself overmuch as an end-user, but something that can be corrected once Tuonela hits the stride in the material production cycle. The game overall is not the most amazing in its niche internationally (I’d compare it unfavourably to solid classics like Mykerinos, which hits a similar social footprint), but it’s definitely among the best Finnish showings I’ve seen, published or not.

Soul Hunters

Ville Hankipohja is an entry-level designer with a solid background in both board and roleplaying games. I’m not particularly familiar with him personally, but after playing the game, I sure wouldn’t mind sitting down with him for a bit to chat about game design. The game of Soul Hunters is clearly the slowest of this lot – surprisingly heavy, in fact, even shockingly so to the casual gamer at the table. The first game for slow thinkers is likely to take 3-4 hours, which is a lot against the one hour running times of the other two games in the series; probably this is faster with faster players who know the cards like the back of their hand, but what isn’t?

Getting over the length issue, though, the game itself is a majesthetic Ameritrash hybrid replete with unbalanced event cards and counter cards to protect yourself from such. I say “hybrid” here because the game also has a finite, albeit long, arc of play and an interesting bidding strategy challenge at its core; it doesn’t change the fact that most of the game time is spent in a progressive build-up to fuck the mid-game leader sideways, but at least it’s cleanly executed. Obviously the players have to all be on board for this sort of game to really sing, as nothing is more annoying than spending three hours in playing a game only to see your neighbour throw the victory to the third guy because he’s too stupid or disinterested to take stock and choose the targets for his aggressive plays with care.

The core idea of Soul Hunters is an original bidding scheme: the players collect influence points through a number of turns of play, after which the player with the highest influence score gains a victory point card and loses all of his influence. Then another victory point card comes up for bid. This is repeated fifteen times before the points are counted. What makes the play tricky is that the victory point cards are split into sets of five and arranged by value within a set: the lowest valued cards come up to bid first, which means that you don’t actually want to so much win the first bid as to have somebody else lose their influence in it so you can win the second one – or better yet, the third one. Of course, you don’t want to let the first bid go for too cheap, either, as that player has a good chance of managing to collect the superior influence on the fourth or perhaps fifth (the most valuable of the first set) bid. To increase the chaos, the number of turns between the bids decreases per set, so that you’ll get to play five turns before the smallest victory point card, four before the next one, and so on until the last two cards in the set only have one turn of play in between them. So it’s rather complex, depending on how efficient the players are in collecting influence, the number of players and other factors.

Influence-collection is handled by a modern card game resource management system that involves limited card draws, hand limits, play limits, activation limits and permanent card endurances. Basically you play a card on the table and then activate a card on the table for one of its functions; all cards have an influence-gathering function that gives you 1+ points of influence, and most have other activation options as well. Rather uniquely the activated card loses one “activation”, of which each card has a limited number, after which the card is removed from play. These card activations are a major resource that is manipulated in clever ways by the various cards. Your goal is not so much to collect massive amounts of influence (anything over the amount you need to win the current bid is lost anyway), but to create an efficient machine that allows you to gather influence quickly, defend against offensive moves, strike efficiently to dismantle other players’ machinery and ideally also keep the key cards in play despite limited activations. This overarching strategic goal is limited by the zero-sum aggression multiplayer play that requires the leader to take on all comers, as well as the fact that the game includes event cards that can clear the table entirely or screw one player totally – only concerted deck management and storing event counter cards will give some safety against these dangers.

As the above might sound, the game is a lot like your average collectible card game. This is not a bad thing, especially as the strategic level that concerns the timing of bids is considerably more complex than what you’d get in a collectible game. The color elements of the game are evocative – I like the factions and their thematics, the graphics are also nicely understated; the game world is not particularly original, but the juxtaposition of such factions as “Government”, “Heaven”, “Aliens” and “Monarchy” makes for an unique, abstractly symbolic feel to the backstory concerning cosmic conflict over soul power. I also consider it positive that the game includes clearly game-changing card powers – the sort we know and love from exception-based card game design. My favorite is “God”: he gets influence equal to the number of Heaven-associated cards in play over the whole table when he’s activated, which is a clear game-changer if you can collect a heavenly host, get him out and keep him alive in the middle game.

I’ll have to play the game several times to make up my mind (only played once so far), but what I’ve seen pleases me – I like both bidding games and Ameritrash when it’s gracefully executed, so this should be right up my alley. I know that the comparison is ludicrous in light of common opinion within the boardgaming field, but the super-popular Dominion, which basically shares the niche with Soul Hunters, did not interest me this much due to the less intuitive core set-up. It remains to be seen whether the game continues to please me, and it’s a fact that I might have trouble finding willing partners for play – that 3-4 hour playtime is a killer when the game basically repeats the same cycle three times throughout, with progress mostly happening in subtle hand management, trailing the leader and such nuances.

Inquisitio

Jani Rönkkönen is in my own opinion one of the most promising Finnish boardgame designers. Inquisitio is his first published game, but I’ve met him several times and encountered some of his other designs, and I have to say that he has a remarkable grasp on what he’s doing with his designs – with many beginning game designers I do mostly Socratic analysis of what they really want to achieve with their game, but Jani already knows all that; he’d be a pleasure to work with at some point, should the occasion arise – and I definitely hope that we’ll see more designs from him in the future.

(The above is not to be understood as me saying that I’m some guru of game design, fit to lead others; rather, it’s related to this outreach program we’ve been doing in the Finnish game design hobby through the last five years; not only do we designers try to meet each other and learn from each other, but we also do our best to help folks along with their design. Due to game design competitions and such I’ve done my share of studio critique for designers at all stages of experience.)

Inquisitio is a game flow management game with bidding and hand management elements. The basic idea is that the players each pay a bid to pass a bunch of penalty points to the next player in line, with the skill element being in knowing when to fold. Evaluating the deal is complex because the two currencies, gold coins and suspicion points, are in a complex interrelationship: the penalty value of accepting interrogation depends on past choices of every player, future choices, as well as your own hand of cards. This is further complicated by clear break-points in the secondary currencies of physical and mental sanity: you lose the game if you run out, suspicion points or no suspicion points. You can’t afford to pass the buck all the time, so the key to victory is to accept the least amount of penalty (remembering that the penalty values are different for different players) per gold coin. The game offers a basically quick play-through, akin to Modern Society above, but the strategy and tactics are fascinatingly challenging: I’ve played three games so far, and I still don’t really have a clear picture of what makes or breaks the victory in this game.

The virtues of challenging strategy and tactics, quick and compact play and strict multi-layered loss conditions (that can even cause everybody to lose!) make this a very enjoyable game experience on the visceral level. The game’s surface structure complements this in its simplicity: the players never do anything but choose whether to pass the buck (and whether to confess if they’re investigated; a minor secondary complication). The game’s lurid art and topic (witch-burning inquisition, as the reader might have guessed) complement this well, and I find that I am entertained by laughing at the cards, strategizing, and seeing my plans careen out of control due to the chaos inherent in the game. This is a fine example of how a game can be both highly chaotic and highly analytic at the same time, making for good entertainment in mixed company of casual and hardcore gamers; I compare this favourably to the popular and proven Bang!, a game of a  similar niche but less strategic gameplay.

Conclusions

All of these games are made to production values that satisfy me. Modern Society seems to have at least one pretty annoying typo in a law card that needs to be written over to ensure clarity, but otherwise the games are playable and have components I’d expect from a modern retail publisher. I’m not entirely happy with the language used in the rules materials and such – the English, specifically, has some crude spots of Finnic influence. Nothing to prevent the games from being as intelligible as the average, however, so who cares.

Considering that the production values are acceptable and the transparency of game design is commendable, I have to find this game line of Tuonela’s most satisfying – I’m no expert on boardgames nor knowledgeable of exhaustive Finnish oeuvres, but to me this seems the highest quality of gamer’s game design published in Finland ever, fully fit to be displayed at Essen Spiel alongside continental competition (which is in fact what they do). The part I find most gratifying is that Tuonela is clearly a gamer’s company (a fact that is not evident from the aforementioned Club, their publication in 2008): this game selection reflects the concerns of the participating game designers, displays a wide range of experiences and does not shirk from either controversial topics (the theme of Inquisitio is torture, in case you missed it) or challenging gameplay (Soul Hunters would never be published to the casual market, frankly). Insofar as I’ve heard from the participating designers, they seem fully pleased by their publishing arrangements with Tuonela; I don’t know about the particulars, though.

In fact, after playing these games I’m almost tempted to drag a bunch of card games out of my own desk drawer to see if any of them might fit Tuonela’s publishing program – everything I’ve seen leaves me more than pleased by the quality of their work, so it might be worthwhile to see if they’d like to shore up their line further. After all, all sorts of games can be made out of cards when you put your mind to it.

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3 Responses to “The Tuonela line of card games”

  1. Jasper Flick Says:

    An interesting read! Card games have a lot of potential.
    Beyond that, I haven’t much to add, really…

  2. Sami Koponen Says:

    As a casual board gamer, my experience is that these games sure have quality, but they are a bit hard to learn. I was drowning into the cards in Modern Society and the harsh subject matter in Inquisitio drew my attention away from the tactics. Soul Hunters was easiest in my opinion, but its marathon lenght was somewhat of a killer.

    What I’m sayin’ is that these are good games, but not an ideal pick for an easy-going casual gaming evening.

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Sami and his fiance played these games with me, to clarify.

    You did take your time in thinking of your next move at times in Modern Society, Sami. It’s the sort of game that gets easier quick, though – I’d expect that you could play it without much thinking after a couple of games. With Inquisitio we probably got uncommonly carried away by the imagery – you know, what with torture and theology being our favourite pastimes anyway.

    I do agree with you on the basic point: these are not casual games of the sort you’d play with non-gamers; they’re light gamer games. I consider this a virtue in comparison with Tuonela’s Club, which I mentioned up in the first post; casual is a difficult genre, doubly so if you want to make a game that a gamer will want to play, too.


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