Designed by Ryan Laukat | Published by Red Raven Games
1-4 Players | 60-1200 Minutes
“Are the stars unfamiliar here?” she asked, and the sky grew suddenly dark, the star’s patterns alien and exotic. “This is the Wandering Sea. The gods have brought you here, and you must wake them if you wish to return home.”
And so starts your epic journey into the world of Sleeping Gods. Set in 1929, Sleeping Gods is a 1-4 player co-operative open-world campaign game in which you take on the role of Captain Sofi Odessa to help her and her eight crew members navigate and explore the strange waters of the Wandering Sea in which they have become lost on board their steamship, the Manticore. Tasked by the gods to seek out and recover totems hidden throughout this strange land in order to wake them from their slumber is your only chance of returning home. To do this, you will need to utilize the strengths of your crew to overcome numerous challenges, explore the vast map while meeting new characters and gaining quests, and of course fighting monsters of all shapes and sizes along the way. Are you ready for an adventure?
If you’re familiar with designer Ryan Laukat’s previous story book driven games Above and Below and Near and Far, then you will have a general idea of how the two main concepts of this game work. Above and Below introduced the idea of taking an action to go on an “adventure” where you would read a story snippet from a large book of stories that would usually present you with a choice and/or a challenge that you would have to overcome and then get rewarded or punished based on the outcome. Near and Far added the concept of an atlas on top of the story book. The atlas was a book of maps with each game taking place on one single map. By exploring the map you could reach spaces that would give you the story encounters like in Above and Below, but this time the stories were connected and provided an over-arching narrative campaign. Over the course of this campaign you would eventually play on all of the maps of the atlas.
Sleeping Gods takes this another step further by opening up the atlas completely for the players to explore how ever they see fit. The atlas is really just one giant map condensed down into a bunch of smaller maps in book form. If you reach the edge of a page and want to keep exploring you just flip to the indicated page in the atlas and continue forward.
I enjoyed my plays of Above and Below, but over time found that the most fun part of the game was the story encounters, causing myself and others I played with to more often than not focus on taking that action even though most times it wasn’t the best action to take on any given turn. It felt somewhat disconnected from the “game” itself, leaving you to decide whether or not you cared more about winning, or having fun. Near and Far improved on this problem by making you actually seek out specific spots on the map in order to take part in these story adventures while at the same time making the narrative more specific and cohesive to the individual players and overall gameplay. Sleeping Gods proves this formula could be improved upon even further by bringing the story encounters front and center while still offering interesting auxiliary mechanics that support the stories instead of the other way around. You guys. I think Mr. Laukat finally nailed it.
A campaign of Sleeping Gods begins with a short tutorial that quickly introduces you to the main structures of the game and the world it’s set in, and then just like that….it sets you free. Literally. As you sit there staring at your little steamship miniature floating in the open water of the beautifully illustrated opening map, you realize, I can go anywhere. There are no rails here. The world is your oyster as they say. And that my friends, is an exciting concept for a board game. The rulebook suggests that you spend some time exploring the locations of the opening map pages to bolster your crew before heading out too far, but look at you, you’re an adventurer! Go adventure! Okay, maybe we shouldn’t be too overzealous, but you get the point.
A turn of Sleeping Gods consists of three steps. In step one, you will take a quick worker placement action aboard your ship that will help you maintain your crew and resources. Throughout your journey, your ship may take damage locking out action spots on the ship board until you have had a chance to repair them so all choices may not always be available to you.
In step two, you will draw a card from the event deck that acts as the timer for the game, as once you go through the deck three times the campaign comes to an end. The event deck is stacked so that the events start off mild, sometimes even giving you a boon, but gradually get more and more difficult as the campaign progresses. This difficulty comes in the way of increasingly more difficult choices and challenges that require you to commit a number of your nine crew members to participate in the challenge by contributing one of their respective stats (strength, perception, cunning, etc..), drawing a card from the game’s fate deck, and then adding those numbers together to see if it is able to beat the indicated challenge number. It is here that the game first lets you know that even if you fail, you’re going to fail forward. Meaning, you will always get the outcome of the choice you choose, but you may get a little banged up along the way if you fail, and even then gives you opportunities to mitigate those failures. Each crew member that participates in a challenge will take a fatigue token that will exhaust them once they have two, thus disallowing them to participate in further challenges until they are able to remove one or more on future turns. Characters with two fatigue tokens are also less effective in combat. Striking that balance of when to over-commit to a challenge to insure complete success, or when to just allow the negative impacts to occur so that you will have crew members available for later is a constant decision you will be making on your adventures that keeps the interesting choices coming quickly in every facet of the game.
The first two steps of a turn resolve very quickly bringing you to the final step where the meat of the turn takes place. In this final step you will perform two actions from a choice of four: Move, Port, Market, and Explore. The maps are littered with hundreds of locations to explore as well as icons denoting markets and ports, so taking a move action is all about getting to one of these locations on the map and interacting with it using one of your other available actions. The distance your ship is able to move on any given turn is again determined by committing a number of crew to the move action and adding that number to a draw from the fate deck (more on that later) forcing you to once again make a decision on how far you want to go, and just how much you are willing to commit. Ports are literal life savers as they allow you to get your crew rested up after particularly difficult encounters and challenges, and markets allow you to peruse the local wares, spending your hard-earned coin to buy powerful new weapons, recipes, and gear that are vital on your adventure. But all of this of course is in service to the Explore action where you choose any location adjacent to your ship, and then read an encounter from the story book. These encounters will present you with even more difficult choices to make, challenges to overcome, towns and villages to explore, puzzles to solve, quests to obtain, and enemies to defeat.
Speaking of enemies, the combat in Sleeping Gods happens to be one of the most unique and interesting aspects of the game. Upon coming across a combat encounter you will be instructed to pull a number of specific enemies from a large deck of enemy cards, shuffle them, and then lay them out side by side. These enemy cards each contain a grid with various icons scattered across the spaces of the grid. These icons indicate things such as enemy health, enemy attack damage and special abilities, and even special attack bonuses that you can pass on to other crew members when they attack if you are able to cover up that space of the grid with damage. To do this, you will choose one of your crew members to perform an attack, taking note of their attack number, and then draw a fate card to add to that number. If that number defeats the enemy’s defense number, then you inflict damage. For each point of damage you inflict you get to cover up one of the enemy’s grid spaces all in an effort to cover up every space that contains its’ health to ultimately defeat it. But that’s where the tricky decisions come into play. If you are not able to outright kill the enemy on any given attack, which is usually the case, then it gets to perform a counter attack. If you’ve left spaces uncovered on the grid that add to the enemy’s attack damage number, then you may be in for a world of hurt when they start punching back. One good strategy that the game allows is to choose to attack the weaker enemies first, and then use your damage points to inflict splash damage on adjacent enemies that are much tougher to hit. These little combat puzzle decisions are crucial to your success, as making the wrong choices will have you licking your wounds at the nearest port if you’re not careful.
Hidden away in all of these quests, challenges, and combat encounters are of course great rewards that will help you take down more difficult challenges further along the horizon, but most importantly you will find totems. Totems are your key to returning home and will greatly increase your overall final score, so getting as many of these as possible is your ultimate goal. The game even provides you with a pad of large campaign tracking sheets that have a map of the entire world on the back so that you can keep notes of where you’ve been and where you need to go in order to track down these elusive artifacts.
Some other important aspects of gameplay include the aforementioned fate deck and adventure cards. The fate deck replaces dice, in that you will draw the top card from this deck anytime you are attempting to overcome any type of challenge such as skill checks or combat. After drawing, you will refer to the number in the top left corner of the card adding it to the skills and attributes of the crew committed to the challenge. These cards have dual purposes though. Not only are they used as a draw deck, but you are also able to hold a number of these in your hand, paying money to equip them to your crew giving them additional skill attributes and special abilities, or you can also discard them in a pinch if it has a particular skill icon you need in order to overcome a challenge. This simple mechanic gives the players even more choice and luck mitigation opportunities, as you can purposely withhold low numbered cards from the draw deck in order to tilt fate in your favor. However, the higher numbered cards usually contain the best abilities, so equipping them to your crew may be the best way to go, but at the cost of removing a 5 or 6 from the draw deck. Tough choices indeed.
Adventure cards give players even more options, and there are a TON of them! These cards are generally given as rewards and are unique special items such as new recipes to recover your crew on the fly, or characters you’ve met that wish to assist you in your endeavors. You start the game with four basic adventure cards shared amongst all players, and over the course of the campaign as you discover more, they will gradually accumulate giving you a wealth of back-up options when things get rough. That is, if you are able to pay the cost of activating the card by way of one of the most important resources of the game, command tokens. These command tokens can also be used to activate the abilities of the captain and crew, or to jump in and assist on another player’s turn, so it’s always wise to keep a few command tokens on hand when and where possible.
Wow. Sleeping Gods is one incredible board game. I am in awe of just how much love and care was put into creating this fully realized world and its’ inhabitants. Once I learned the rules of the game and put it on the table, I just couldn’t stop playing. I went through my first campaign run in four sessions that took roughly 12-14 hours, and when I was done, I wanted to do it again. That’s saying something. Notice how I said first campaign. That’s because running through the campaign only once barley scratches the surface of what this game has to fully offer. There are around 75 totems to track down and find, and on my first campaign I found seven. There are also 13 different endings based on your performance and choices! Remember how I said the game gives you a world map to take notes on earlier? Yeah, you’ll want to make sure you do that, as all of your knowledge carries forward to your next run. I do wish I was able to carry forward a few physical assets from my first campaign outside of just knowledge, but based on your final score you’ll also unlock additional cards that will have a direct impact on all future campaign runs, so maybe as those cards begin to stack across multiple runs it won’t be as big of an issue for me. All told, you’re sure to get hours upon hours of gameplay out of this single box.
It is worth mentioning that I played my first campaign run purely solo, and have started a second run two player. The game says it plays up to four, but I don’t think that would be ideal. All crew members are always in play regardless of player count, so all you are really doing is divvying up the crew among players. Because of this it’s absolutely seamless for players to drop in and out. All you have to do is flip the ship action board to the proper side based on player count, and either take back control or split up crew members again evenly, and go. I was initially worried at the prospect of managing eight different crew members, but since each crew member isn’t taking its’ own individual turn, but rather the player is just deciding which crew members to commit to certain challenges or combat attacks at any given time, then it’s really not hard to manage as you are essentially just quickly looking at their respective icons, and maybe one or two equipped abilities. Honestly, I wouldn’t really want to play this with more than two players as I think it would slow the game down a bit too much due to the possibility of a lot more discussion on what to do and where to go to next, who has what ability, etc.., whereas when you are playing by yourself you can quickly scan everything in front of you to make a decision and go with it.
This game gave me the closest feeling yet to playing an epic open world video game. In fact, it most closely reminded me of one of my favorite video games of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker in which you spend a large portion of the game sailing the open seas, stopping off at islands, receiving and completing quests from numerous and quirky characters, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters. Sound familiar? But, I have to say while the gameplay is fun and engaging, the real star of the show here is the writing. It’s just so well done and such a delight to read! The world and characters jump off the page, and as you get deeper and deeper into the game you will start to recognize location names, characters and races you’ve spotted or come across previously in your travels.
The encounters and quests themselves can vary wildly, always keeping things fun and exciting. Some encounters may ask you to fetch a specific item or go find and kill an enemy, others will present you with tough choices without knowing what the outcome will be, while still others will present small puzzles to solve. I always found the encounters engaging, and was excited to find out what my next interaction would bring. All of this of course is supported by the always beautiful art of the amazingly talented Ryan Laukat. Every map, character, and item card is unique and lovingly illustrated bringing his oceanic world to life, and it’s a world I look forward to exploring to its’ fullest in the weeks and months ahead.
If you are looking for an adventure style game that will whisk you away with its charm while still providing tough decisions, management of resources, and challenging adversaries, then you really can’t go wrong with Sleeping Gods. Ryan Laukat and Red Raven Games have really outdone themselves this time, and I can’t wait to see what worlds they take us to next!
THIS GAME IS FOR YOU IF:
THIS GAME MAY NOT BE FOR YOU IF:
- You enjoy well written narrative in your games
- You’re a sucker for beautifully illustrated brightly colored art
- You like unique and challenging combat systems
- You love exploration and a sense of discovery
- You like the idea of a campaign where you can seamlessly add/drop players in and out within seconds
- You like the concept of failing forward and games with lots of opportunity for luck mitigation
- Challenging combat frustrates you
- You don’t like the idea of not being able to carry everything forward from one campaign to the next
- You get overwhelmed being in charge of multiple characters (trust me, it’s very minor here, but still, something to take note of)