The Witches is the second foray into Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld setting by Treefrog Games following the excellent Ankh Morpork released in 2011, and is designed once more by Martin Wallace, the founder of the studio and probably Britain’s most famous designer.
Martin Wallace was once a name associated with brow-furrowingly serious financial simulations themed around the industrial revolution (Brass, Age of Industry) or the golden age of railways (Railway Tycoon), or deep strategy games (A Few Acres of Snow), and not light, quirky games licensed from comic fantasy. Imagine everyone’s surprise when Ankh Morpork turned out to be rather good; not just an easy cash in but a clever game of manoeuvring, back stabbing and bluffing. Most importantly it wasn’t dry in the slightest. Wallace no doubt hoped to achieve the same goal with The Witches but frustratingly falls short.
But the most frustrating thing here is that the subtle strategy of Ankh Morpork’s area control, driven by a simple yet elegant card system, is replaced here with the pure luck fest of dice rolling.
The Witches sees you taking on the role of one of four witches in training, such as Tiffany Aching and Petulia Gristle, scurrying around the land of Lancre helping the townsfolk out with magic, drinking cups of tea and generally being salt of the earth. Over the course of the game a set amount of problems (dictated by the number of players) will be scattered liberally across the land. These are divided into easy problems (healing a sick pig, mending a broken limb) and hard problems (keeping the elves at bay, defeating the Wintersmith), with the latter placed secretly facedown. Cards in this game are multi-purpose and one of their functions is to dictate where each new problem is placed at the start of each player’s turn in a kind of light version of Pandemic’s infection mechanic, though without any of the depth.
On your turn you can take two movement actions and if you land on a problem you must attempt to solve it via the game’s core mechanic of push your luck dice rolling. First of all you roll two dice and choose whether to continue or flee, next you can pump the dice by playing cards with magic or headology symbols, and then you roll the final two dice to determine the outcome. Each two hard problems you solve gives you a plus one modifier and each two easy problems grants you an increase to your hand limit of useful cards.
Whereas in Ankh Morpork the hidden asymmetric victory conditions of each player led to some great tension, forcing players to balance pursuing their own victory with guessing what their opponents might be, there’s very little player interaction here. The custom dice display a witches head instead of a one and for each one you roll you have to take a cackle counter, either from the supply or from the player with the most, indicating that you are going a little mad (well, madder). If you already have the most you take a Black Allis token worth -1 victory point. This basic mechanic acts as a bit of a back and forth between players, but it’s hardly a substitute for real player interaction and sometimes feels like the unluckiest player is being kicked when he’s down.
It’s possible to lose from problems piling up too much, but given the speed at which you start hoovering them up, this is hardly an issue and in the last turns they are uncomfortably thin on the ground. The game also includes a cooperative variant but this was so laughably easy that it’s hardly recommended. The best cooperative games, like the fore-mentioned Pandemic and Ghost Stories, make you feel like you are always on the verge of losing (because you are) making that hard won victory oh so satisfying, but here there’s so little tension and collective decision making that you may as well be on autopilot.
Whilst Ankh Morpork played things fairly loose with its theme, it feels like Wallace is trying to address this here. The board, illustrated by Peter Dennis, is also incredible and is reminiscent of those old Usborne children’s storybooks with their incredible waterpainted aesthetics (although there is a cheeky penis constructed out of hills near the location called ‘The Long Man’). My favourite thematic touch is that you can force other witches to have tea with you, allowing you to clear out cackle tokens. There’s an aspect of board positioning here, for instance blocking the path of another player so they have to land on you, but given that you can play a card with a broomstick on it at any point to go anywhere on the board, this element of the game is underused.
But the most frustrating thing here is that the subtle strategy of Ankh Morpork’s area control, driven by a simple yet elegant card system, is replaced here with the pure luck fest of dice rolling. While I appreciate that Wallace wanted to come up with something different for the follow up game, it seems incredible that this is by the same designer. Ankh Morpork managed to feel light whilst containing a surprising amount of depth, but The Witches just feels paper thin. There are much better push your luck games out there (Ninjato for instance) and whilst Ankh Morpork managed to appeal to casual and serious gamers alike, there’s very little to recommend this out to anyone beyond fans of the books or children. A disappointment.
A good light game for kids, especially those who like Pratchett’s novels
Beautiful artwork brings the theme to life
Having cups of tea
Heavily luck based
No interesting decisions or strategy
Nowhere near as good as Ankh Morpork (buy that instead)
Designer: Martin Wallace
Publisher: Treefrog Games
Mechanic: Push your luck dice rolling, hand management
Number of Players: 1-4 (Best with 4)
Length of Game: 60-90mins
Complexity: Very light