Fantasy fans will be more than familiar with the Witches from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, but on the off chance you’re not a big reader – or simply haven’t gotten around to them yet – let me fill you in on the relevant bits. Pratchett’s witches may look like your stereotypical black-clad hags, but Granny Weatherwax and the like spend more time settling local feuds or acting as midwives than making deals with the devil. Although they have saved the Discworld a number of times, their primary function is solving problems, and that is at the heart of this game. Magic is on the menu of course, but there are always consequences; they tend to use it only as a last resort, relying more on common sense and ‘headology’ to see them through. In his latter years, Pratchett added a Young Adult range of books to his series, starring the determinedly sensible school-age witch, Tiffany Aching, and it’s Tiffany and her friends who take centre stage in this collaborative board game. Take up the black hat, learn their trade and help The Witches keep the kingdom of Lancre safe.
What’s in the box?
Let’s have a look in the box before we talk game-play. The board is a literal work of art (by Peter Dennis), laid out as a glorious full colour map of Lancre and its surrounding villages. There’s enough detail shown that it could almost be a birds-eye view of the countryside, yet not so much that it distracts from the game. Placed on the board are a number of cardboard tiles which represent the ‘problems’ our players must tackle. The game pieces are *simple wooden hats, and there are four special dice which determine the outcome of the challenges they face. In addition, we find a deck of beautifully illustrated playing cards, four ‘trainee witch displays’ and a number of tokens which are used to modify the threat level of the problems/indicate the toll taken on the witches as they struggle to manage the ever-erupting crises. Finally, we find a fully illustrated rule book and a quick reference card for convenience.
How is it played?
In The Witches: A Discworld Game setting up is simple – though your first glance through the rule book might make you think otherwise. Once the characters are chosen and the ‘problem’ tiles are laid out, the players take turns in trying to solve them. A typical turn looks like this:
- Reveal cards until the next problem can be placed on a free location.
- Move your witch up to two spaces by walking, or else use a broomstick card to travel anywhere.
- When tackling a Problem, roll two dice. Use any card(s) in your hand to modify the result, then roll the last two dice to see if you manage to succeed.
- Place completed problems on your display board or retreat from the problem as applicable.
- Draw cards back into your hand up to your maximum limit.
There are two types of problem: the easy ones (like curing a sick pig) and the difficult ones (like repelling a full-scale Elven invasion.) Solving problems increases the player’s victory points, and it also strengthens the witch – in terms of either adding to their maximum number of cards or adding a modifier to their dice rolls. Every problem can become deadly serious though – no matter how small – if it’s left too long. The meat of the game lies in juggling problems to prevent them cascading across the board. Think Pandemic, but less horrifically pertinent to the 2020’s.
If a location is revealed in the first phase where a problem already exists, this becomes a ‘crisis’. The crisis tokens allow the game designers to create a balance between competitive and collaborative play. It’s a bit of a stroke of genius, actually, perfectly capturing the spirit of Pratchett’s witches. In the books, every single one of them believes themselves to be the best, and seeks to prove it in subtle ways. However, when the chips are down they all pull together as a team. Here players will be racing each other to solve the most (and the hardest) problems on their own, each hoping to gain the highest number victory points. However, they must collectively keep an eye on how the crises are building up. Should all the crisis tokens be in play and then a further one be required, the game will end immediately and **everybody loses.
A further wrinkle is added to the psychology of the game by virtue of the strain that using magic (and/or failing to solve a problem) has on our witches. Building on Pratchett’s notion that magic has ***consequences, every use in the game will cause the player to receive a ‘cackle’ token. Cackles have a negative impact on your victory points in the final tally. There are ways to rid yourselves of them, through use of certain cards or by ‘taking tea’ with your fellow players (an in-world plot device that helps to keep otherwise-isolated witches sane). Some people will see the cackles as more threatening than others—after all, if you win, what does it matter how batty you’ve become? However, be warned: if the cackle counters are all in play and then more are required, the characters will start to go properly mad, like the legendary ‘Black Alice’. These Black Alice tokens cannot be disposed of at all, and they count against your final tally even more!
The designers have done a fabulous job using all the parts of the (metaphorical) buffalo, giving us a broad spectrum of play with a limited number of pieces and an incredibly simple set of mechanics; I was particularly impressed by the way that the playing cards can be used in three entirely different ways.
If I had to voice a few grumbles I guess I’d start with the fact that there are too many different ‘consequences of failure’ that have to be looked up (relating to the ‘hard problems’). Whilst this does help give definition and character to the antagonists you’ll face, this is not really the kind of game where narrative actually matters. The Discworld is our setting, and the designer clearly knows his onions on that front, but we’re simulating a day in the life of a witch here, not an ongoing story.
The other point to note is that so far my gaming group only needed to use a couple of Black Alice tokens over four games. I don’t know if this means we weren’t doing something right, or if this corruption mechanic is a vestigial part of the game’s development that doesn’t really belong any more. Regardless, neither of these grumbles should dissuade you from picking this game up – if you can lay your hands on a copy. Whilst it was readily available when I first wrote this review, you may need to scour the second-hand scene or foreign websites to secure a copy now.
We very much enjoyed play-testing this game at my local games club, and my daughter fell in love with Pratchett’s take on witches after she slaughtered the lot of us in the game. (Little sod.) The difficulty level can be adjusted with some very simple tweaks – all listed in the rule book – to make things more (or less) challenging as requires. That meant that I could have a tough game with friends my own age one day, then a muck around with my (then) seven-year-old daughter and her friends on another. There aren’t many games out that that can claim as much.
Go seek this one out.
I originally wrote this review for Geek Syndicate. It has been tweaked and republished here with permission.
* These are a little disappointing. However, some beautiful resin sculpts of the playable witches were designed – with the game designer’s permission – by microartstudio.com (I’m struggling to find new copies online, but you may strike gold on eBay. I got my own copy in Krakow. Bit of a journey for most folks, I know. Ahem.
** In this way it also reminds me of the fabulous Forbidden Island, though The Witches is a much more forgiving game, well-suited to bringing a younger audience into this style of gameplay.
*** Call of Cthulhu role-players will be familiar with the concept of losing sanity points, and this is very much the idea here.
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