Full disclosure: A review copy of Daemon Trilogy: Subrosa was provided by IDW Games.
Continuing on from Purrrlock, I’m taking a look at the first game in the Daemon Trilogy, Subrosa, from IDW Games. This is apparently part of a larger, 60-90 minute game trilogy that can be played individually or back-to-back-to-back. As you might imagine, this intrigued me, so here we are.
In Subrosa, you play as feuding nobles hiring mercenaries to complete contracts that are definitely, unequivocally, 100% above-board and are for-sure not murders. Never murders. Along the way, you’ll have to sway factions to join your side and take down your opponents with your superior numbers. Can you trick your friends into conflict? Or will your next subversion be your last?
So, what you’ll probably notice first is that there are a bunch of cards. There are two types — one is Crew Members:
The other is Contracts:
Setup is a bit complicated, as you use preset decks of crew members for certain player counts. In order to save yourself some time, it’s probably easiest if you organize all the cards by color (and name) and then sort them according to this recommended setup:
- 2 – 3 Players: Use these sets, but remove one card from each set for 2 players:
- Alchemists: Madam Clout, Nisha, Rasa Old Tongue
- Courtiers: Serenity Lotus, Valerie Blanche, Vyrn
- Knights: Sahar, Sea Lowkey, Seth Highword
- Pilots: Allie Morrison, Anabuki Aoiko, Travis Quin
- Spies: David Verum, Oldeye, Skia
- 4 Players: Use these sets:
- Alchemists: Dorian Sanquin, Madam Clout, Nisha, Rasa Old Tongue
- Courtiers: Monty Prim, Serenity Lotus, Valerie Blanche, Vyrn
- Knights: Edward Drakon, Sahar, Sea Lowkey, Seth Highword
- Pilots: Fernand Pharaon, Allie Morrison, Anabuki Aoiko, Travis Quin
- Spies: Amara Okar, David Verum, Oldeye, Skia
- 5 Players: Use all cards.
You can also just make your own sets, if you want. I’m a review, not a cop.
For the contracts, just shuffle them and deal each player 3. Each player must keep at least one, but may discard more. Once you’ve done that, deal all the Crew Member cards equally to each player, and choose a player randomly to go first, giving them the Initiative Token:
Once you’ve done that, you should be all ready to start!
Gameplay is fairly straightforward. Subrosa is played over a series of rounds, with each round having a few phases. I’ll outline those parts as follows:
During the Recruit Step, you’ll pick two cards from your hand and add them to your Crew, which is a row of face-down (sometimes face-up, if revealed via a card effect) cards in front of you. Your Crew is what enables you to complete Contracts, but more on that later. When you do, you may choose one of the following actions:
- Designate a Crew Member to act. Push that Crew Member (face-up or face-down) slightly forward to indicate that that is the one you’re using.
- Draw Contracts. You may announce that you’re taking Contracts and draw two Contracts. Then, take one of your Contracts (including the two you just drew) and discard one of them.
Once everyone has chosen an action, reveal all face-down Crew Members.
Starting with the player with the Initiative Token, resolve all Crew Member effects in turn order. Some Crew Members may wound a Crew Member of yours or another player’s; if they do, move the wounded Crew Member to a pile in the center. If that was your active Crew Member (the one you chose to do its action this round), you may still resolve the Crew Member’s action. It just means you don’t currently have the ability to use it anymore.
There are 5 Factions, each with their own general set of abilities:
Knights: This Faction is mostly about wounds. They deal wounds to other players (and sometimes you), and they’re generally not nice. Great if you enjoy a more heavy take-that approach to games.
Pilots: They are kind of the “movement” Faction. They let you move things around (passing Crew Members between players, recruiting extra Crew from your hand), but also can occasionally do weird stuff, like shuffling players’ hands together and re-dealing or reversing the passing direction.
Alchemists: They say the best offense is a good defense, and the Alchemists agree. They’re all about protecting your Crew from being wounded or revealed. Some are so good at what they do that they can even get wounded characters back. That’s always helpful.
Spies: The Spies know what’s hidden in the shadows, and they seek to bring secrets into the light. Most of the Spies concern themselves with revealing your opponents’ Crew Members, or limiting their Recruiting ability. Aggressive, but not quite in the same manner as the Knights.
Courtiers: The Courtiers are all about trading, but most importantly, unfair trades. If you play Courtiers you’ll often find yourself able to force opponents to swap Contracts, or if you’re feeling enterprising, you can steal Contracts or Crew Members from opponents. It’s easy to get a good deal if you’re not making fair trades.
Either way, once you’ve resolved all the Crew Member effects, you may hide the character that just acted (turning them face-down, even if they were revealed already).
So, now that you’ve seen some Contracts, you can send your Crew Members out to complete them. Each Contract dictates a specific number and type of Crew Members needed to complete it. If you have that type and number of Crew Members in your Crew (face-up or face-down, doesn’t matter), you may reveal them now to score a Contract. Put the Contract and the Crew Members used into a scoring pile. Note that incomplete contracts are worth negative (half) points at the end of the game. That means an incomplete 800-point contract is now worth -400. Be mindful of that. Also, once cards have made it into your score pile, they cannot be messed with, returned, or removed. So that’s nice, at least.
Now, pass your cards (and the Initiative Token, if you have it) to the player on your left, unless the passing direction has been reversed. Continue to the next round.
At the end of a round, if any player has 1 or 0 cards left in their hand, the game ends immediately.
Any Contracts that are incomplete are worth negative half of their original value. (300 = -150, 400 = -200, etc.) Tally up your score and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The different player counts change up the game a bit, depending on what kinds of game you’re looking to play. At lower player counts, it can feel less chaotic (as you have fewer people injecting their own special form of entropy), but it’s definitely much more personal, as there’s only so many people you can attack (especially at two).
At higher player counts, you risk being a victim of randomness, or worse — if you take the lead prematurely, you might be the target of everyone’s rage, meaning they’ll pile on you and completely wreck you.
The fighting element is a lot for me, so I probably prefer this at two or three players. If you like high chaos elements, though, you should check it out at five.
- Go for high-value Contracts, if you can. You really won’t have much more time than completing 2 – 3 Contracts, so, don’t spend time getting the 100s when you can get 800s, provided you can complete them.
- Don’t only recruit high-value Crew Members. I hate to break it to you, but there’s no way that you’ll be able to make it through a game without getting wounded or getting Crew Members stolen. To that end, if you only recruit Crew Members you need, you’re going to end up losing high-value Crew. Sure, you want to get those people into your Crew to fulfill Contracts, but occasionally grab some less-useful Crew, if you can, or try to make them appear useful so that opponents wound or steal those ones.
- Make sure to disrupt your opponents. Obviously, you would much rather your opponent take -400 than 800 points, so try to make sure they can’t complete their Contracts. Wound their Characters, reveal their Crew, and try to mess them up or disrupt them by any means.
- Try to make some friends. The strategy I always used in Catan was to appear to be in third place and then team up with the fourth-place person and let them elevate you to victory. That’s not a terrible strategy here, either. If you have a friend, they may not wound you and may let you get away with high-value Contracts so long as you’re working in a way that’s mutually beneficial. I wouldn’t expect that to last the whole game, but it might get you a lucrative Contract one time.
- It’s not a bad idea to keep some vague track of what cards you’ve seen. Some Contracts might be impossible later in the game, between wounded Crew Members and fulfilled Contracts, so if you have an idea of what’s still around, it might better inform what Contracts you get.
- Do not take Contracts on your last turn. That’s just negative points. The only reason why it might be a good idea is if you have an 800 that you can’t fulfill and you manage to draw two 100s, one of which you can fulfill. That turns a -400 into a +50, which is a pretty solid swing.
- Feel free to gift your opponents your most valuable garbage, especially when they cannot use it. Giving someone an unfulfillable 800-point Contract very late in the game is the gift that keeps on giving. Sure, they’ll be upset, but … you’re not here to make friends.
- Swindle is a pretty good action. One Courtier lets you take two Crew Members from an opponent and give them one back, which is a great way to gradually accrue more Crew. Since they are usually hidden, it’s also hard for any player to tell which ones you want or don’t want, as your Contracts are normally private. I generally think this is a solid way to go, unless multiple players are teaming up on you to wound you.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art style is super cool. The box has that Gatsby-esque art deco style going for it, which is super sleek, and the cards are really well-done, too, if you’re into the whole sort of magitek fantasy steampunk sorta thing. It’s also good and colorful! I appreciate that.
- Teaches decently fast. The actual mechanics of the game aren’t terribly difficult to understand. It’s more that there are a bunch of cards to read and understand, so the game is a bit opaque on your first few plays, strategically.
- The idea of a game trilogy is pretty cool. I’ll be interested to see if they deliver on it.
- Highly configurable. Once you get comfortable with the basic mechanics, you can mix up the decks or, if you’re really looking to get crazy, you can randomly discard the right number of cards for your player count and just absolutely mess with any ability to track the game state. Good luck with that one. It amuses me, but some players might find that … less fun.
- The app-enhanced gameplay sounds interesting. I didn’t have time to get to it, but it’s an interesting concept. I’ll see if I have time later on.
- No insert / divider / whatever means the cards just kind of slosh around in the box. It’s just a meh.
- I have no idea what the like, fold-y divider-y thing is for. I typically use it to mark off the center of the play area (for the wounded), but … maybe it’s just there? Literally no idea. (EDIT: Apparently it’s for holding the Contracts!)
- Something something weird box shapes. Not to shill too hard for Dice Hate Me Games, but standardize box sizes.
- I haven’t seen players make much use of the Spies (orange faction). Different strokes for different folks, I suppose, but still worth noting as odd.
- Hoo boy there are a lot of cards to read. The sheer space of, say, 15 different kinds of cards and having 15 cards in your hand is a lot for new players. If they’re not hooked on the concept, you’re going to have a tough time getting them through reading all the cards. Some people have proposed potentially starting with smaller hands and then drawing cards later to reduce the load, but, I mean, live your truth.
- Lots of direct attacking / player-to-player conflict. It’s not my preferred style of interaction, and it’s definitely not for everyone. You’ll see people get their Crew Members wounded or swapped around or hidden / revealed or such, which is on the more attack-y side of the interaction spectrum, in my opinion. This flavor of interaction is somewhat mitigated by having the score pile be untouchable, which I appreciate. It means at high player counts, though, it’s hard to count on anything sticking around. You never know if people are going to gang up on you, which is one of my least favorite game mechanics. That said, this is still leaps and bounds preferable to playing, say, Munchkin.
- It’s possible to get really good or really bad Contract draws. It’d be interesting to try drafting Contracts to make sure that you don’t get all 100s or 800s, but I had one game where I started with three 200s and my opponent had an 800 and a 500. Unless I took a turn off or attacked more aggressively (I guess), I had no chance of outpacing them on Contracts. It feels a bit random to me, but your mileage may vary for that.
Overall: 6.5 / 10
Overall, Daemon Trilogy: Subrosa is a fine game! Mechanically, it’s pretty solid and works well in what it’s presented to do. I think that the game is just not my particular cup of tea. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that I hate it, just that there are other games I kind of like better, especially at this time length. My major complaints are the sheer number of cards to read being kind of irritating for new players / making the first game kind of difficult to figure out and the type of player interaction, as I more prefer games where players compete for a shared resource (like the food in Evolution: Climate, for instance), both of which are more my personal opinion. If someone at a game night really wanted me to play this with them, I happily would, I think, is my assessment of it. That said, I’m still very much intrigued by the game trilogy and would like to see how the games link together, so I’ll hopefully have an opportunity to look into that in the future. If this sort of game appeals to you, though, it’s a solid production, so I’d recommend checking it out.