#843 – Sleeping Gods [Mini]

Base price: $85.
1 – 4 players.
Play time: At least an hour per session. Probably 20+ hours per campaign.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 4? We played through a full campaign over a few sessions. Hard to really measure what counts as a “play” with a game like this. 

Full disclosure: A review copy of Sleeping Gods was provided by Red Raven Games.

So I’ve been trying to write this review for almost a year, which has been exciting. Just … a lot to get through, and a lengthy campaign game is no easy task for me. But we did it! We’ve arrived. We’re here now. It’s no secret that I’ve been looking forward to this game for forever; Red Raven frequently produces games that are both narratively and artistically spectacular, so I’m excited to see where this measures up compared to some of the others I’ve played in the past, like Near & Far or Above & Below. Lots to get through and not a lot of time to do it, so let’s dive right in!

In Sleeping Gods, you’ll take on the role of Captain Sofi Odessa and the crew of the Manticore, stranded in a strange new world ruled over by the eponymous deities. To rouse them from their slumber, you’ll need to set sail over a massive illustrated atlas, discovering what secrets the islands (and the people living on them) hide. You’re pursued by those who seek to stop you waking the gods, fearing their retribution (or worse). This narrative game has players manage their boat and explore new lands, completing skill-based challenges along the way to drive the plot forward. As you do, you’ll have to avoid danger from events and handle a variety of combat scenarios if you want to live to see the gods wake up. Items, Passengers, Quests, and Adventure Cards will help you along the way, should you be able to pick them up, but in order to truly complete your journey, you’ll need to collect eight Totems, magical artifacts of great power. Will you be able to complete your tasks and convince the gods to return you home?

Contents

Player Count Differences

So the biggest thing that sticks out to me is that with higher player counts, the game is naturally much harder to get coordinated. It’s a big investment, and, especially these days, it’s hard to find a dedicated group who will consistently put in that kind of time. Thankfully, my housemate agreed to shoulder the weight and we played a full campaign at two players. My take on two players is that the game is a lot easier to manage from a communication standpoint, but it is a lot harder to set up and play from a turn-to-turn standpoint. Having four players means that each of us only has to manage two characters, rather than four, and we have an extra set of hands for teardown and putting away the game. Plus, given the expansiveness of the game, more players gives you extra heads to put together for solving puzzles, tracking different game mechanics, and updating the map. I … didn’t do a very good job updating the map, so we have an entire couple areas with no indication that we’ve been to them. This caused us some problems once or twice. I think the game is difficult to play, just because of the sheer amount of management required, so I’d honestly recommend having three to four players handy for this one. If you’re super experienced with this type of game or you don’t have the same struggles with management as we did, then two is probably fine. We didn’t have any major issues; just having extra hands to help with setup would have been nice.

Strategy

  • Just make sure you keep in mind that you may end up with more challenging exploration challenges if you’re headed to places that quests have indicated. We made this mistake early in our game and were getting ruined by combat encounters that we were in no way prepared for. I’m surprised there wasn’t a bit more scaffolding, but it is mentioned in the rulebook, so leave the first zone at your own peril, I suppose.
  • This is also to say that you may want to take some time early in the campaign to explore a bit and gather materials, food, and money before you attempt the main campaign. Stay in the initial map for a little while as you build up Crew Abilities, Adventure Cards, money, and other various items. You can get to a point where everyone has a bit to offer before you jet; it’ll help you in the tougher combats and the more intense challenges that are sure to follow. The quests give you endpoints; if you explore them, you can usually find something valuable, but there might be a big fight to boot.
  • Don’t let fatigue pile up! It might be easier to just heal the health than it is to get rid of fatigue. Fatigue makes it harder to complete combat and do challenges, which will progressively ensure you take more and more damage. If you’re worried about a challenge, it might be worth just taking the damage and healing at a port. It only costs a coin, anyways; fatigue is substantially harder to remove until you get decent recipes.
  • Similarly, get rid of status conditions as soon as possible. You really don’t want to be stuck with status conditions on your way into a big combat event. Player Board effects can handle a bunch of them, so just make sure you have enough Command for them.
  • For food, it may be worth using the Deck action. Worst case, you can repair in certain locations. It doesn’t seem like much, but there are a variety of ways to get additional, higher-quality recipes. Even if you’re taking one ship damage every few turns, you can repair that pretty quickly with money or materials. Having some food on-hand to spend on a recipe can be invaluable, especially if that clears out large amounts of Fatigue at once. It’s often substantially cheaper than an Inn.
  • Even if you don’t like the abilities, it’s sometimes worth equipping Ability Cards to your crew just for the bonuses it gives them on Challenges. You can always discard them later for more attack. Honestly, it’s sometimes a good idea to just buckle one character down with a lot of Ability Cards of the same type, so that they can become a very specific counter to some of the challenges you’ll face That said, if you overpower one character on Strength, there are a lot of Strength Challenges, so … keep some recipes handy.
  • Hit the Market occasionally; you may be able to get some useful upgrades and more efficient recipes. Honestly, as soon as I get 10 coins, I go to a Market. There’s always something you can buy that will help you out. When you start the game, I’d recommend leafing through the Market Deck just so you’re aware of how much things cost and what’s worth buying. Generally, recipes are relatively inexpensive and weapons cost a lot of money, so if you’re ever in the neighborhood of 20 coins, I’d definitely recommend going to a Market; you can get a Weapon and a handful of other useful stuff. I particularly like the Cookbook that drops a recipe from the requirements for cooking; that plus my one-vegetable recipe that I bought earlier means I can spend a Command to heal a Fatigue for free.
  • Try not to burn all of your Command on a turn, just in case you need to help your co-player. It’s good to keep one or two Command around. Similarly, remember that Adventure Cards need to be cleared every now and then so that you can reclaim lost Command; you don’t want to just keep holding on to it indefinitely. You’ll eventually run out of the ability to get more Command, and then you’ll be really stuck! So make sure you hit the Bridge and the Quarters every now and then to return spent Command to the supply.
  • Write stuff down on your map! That will help you know where to go when you get certain keywords. Write down as much as you feel comfortable doing! A lot of locations have a lot of keywords and requirements to them, so going back when you’ve got a variety of quests can be pretty useful! Just keep in mind that several locations ask about keywords because you gain that keyword after exhausting the location, so you can’t come back and get the same enchanted axe a few times.
  • Combat is as much a puzzle to solve as it is an actual altercation; use your abilities and talk with your coplayers to try and minimize damage while still defeating enemies. There’s an art to combat, especially if you’re trying to minimize lethal damage. Here, it’s not just about knocking out your opponent; it’s about which squares you can cover with an attack to both minimize the enemy’s health and also lessen the problematic amount of damage you’ll take. Synergy Tokens are key, since you can gain one by covering diamond locations on Enemy Cards, and then you can pass that bonus onto other players, giving them extra attack, hit chance, or even health, sometimes. I appreciate that combat is more of a puzzle than anything else, but make sure you’re communicating with your coplayers so that you can solve that puzzle most efficiently. I also recommend getting the Captain’s ability card that grants you 2 Command when combat starts sooner rather than later; that’s a very good one.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • Just, an absolutely beautiful game. I’m impressed not just by the quality of the artwork but also the quantity of it. There are a ton of components here, each with fairly distinct art styles, and I like them all a ton! Naturally, I didn’t see everything during my campaign, but what I did see was very impressive, even if it included a bunch of skeletons. They’re well-designed skeletons, and isn’t that what art is? On a more serious note, I’ve remarked elsewhere about my affinity for Laukat’s color work, especially with greens and blues, and Sleeping Gods is probably the closest I’ve seen since Islebound to really just give a fantastic color scheme experience. I liked Near and Far quite a bit, but, it was very brown, at times.
  • I think this is a good continuation of the storybuilding mechanics that we saw in Near and Far, but now with some of the ship / port theming that Islebound had. Perhaps the game overindexes a bit on the narrative elements, but this is, for better or for worse, a much more narrative-heavy game than even Near and Far. Now, most of the game is getting to narrative elements, managing the fallout of those elements, and sailing around. It’s reminiscent of Islebound, but I think that might largely be because you’re also on a boat for that game and my smooth brain just naturally conflates the two.
  • It’s good that you can save your game, for sure. I would love to see a more thorough game state saving element, but I do appreciate that I don’t have to find a place where I can set out a 20+ hour campaign game for the eight months that it took us to get through all of it.
  • There’s so much content that you’ll be hard-pressed to do everything, even over several campaigns. There were at least two or three entire two-page zones that we never got to in our campaign, and we were exploring fairly heavily. Naturally, some part of me wants to go to those spots in my next one, but I do like the idea of trying to delve deeper into the story elements we missed after our first campaign. There’s a lot to do in every game along the way, so, if this game resonates with you, you’ll still have a lot left over once the game itself is done.
  • I like the structure / spatial reasoning elements of combat. I’m not really big on combat as a gameplay element in pretty much any game I play; it’s one of the reasons I’m not as enthusiastic about certain types and styles of games. Here, combat focuses more on the structure and style of your attacks, as you’re not just chipping away at an endless health bar, but trying to attack specific spots on your enemy’s card to knock out their HP that way. It adds a spatial management element to combat that I really like, because now the strategy isn’t just “do as much damage as possible”, it’s “how do we deal the right amount of damage to the right parts of our enemy so that we can knock them out without them destroying us on a counterattack?”. It’s a particularly clever design.
  • I really like the diverse array of characters. Lots going on, and I appreciate that the game takes time to give them each unique traits and personality quirks. I’d love to have gotten to spend more time with them (even if they had personal quests or goals of some kind that I could dig into), but the vignettes of their personalities that I caught on our various adventures were enjoyable.
  • I also like the setting, both in terms of location and also time! It’s kind of an interesting period of time in terms of technology and events, and I haven’t gotten a lot of chances to play games set during this period. I don’t have a ton of early-1900s games, and I especially don’t have much in the early 20th century fantasy realm, gameplay-wise. It’s a fun time for technology, for sure, and I like that the technology can still blend into a fantasy world (or, in one case, it really helped us out of a jam).
  • I appreciate how seamlessly the atlas system works. Having some kind of visual boundary (maybe a different color for the spine of the book) between the halves to indicate that it counts as a travel action to move between halves would be nice, but beyond that it all makes sense and plays very seamlessly, even with hazards and other risky endeavors. I like it a lot, especially when paired with the Map on the back of the Journey Log so that I can keep track of basically everything location-specific while we play.
  • Similarly, I like that you can (and should) take notes on the Map as you travel places. Those may be helpful later! I generally write down everything from items we need to keywords we should return with to outcomes of interactions there. I’ve also started marking locations we get a totem from with a T, just in case, you know, I want to return back to that location in another campaign.

Mehs

  • Organization inside the box is kind of a mess. I appreciate the guide to putting things away, but inserts over boxes would have made that considerably easier. Plus, this just means that when I open the box (and subsequent boxes), I’m just dumping everything out again, anyways. The saved game status only goes so far when your saving is bags and boxes.
  • The difficulty of your first campaign can be pretty high. If you’re looking for a more mellow experience, it may be worth starting with Easy Mode. I think that this is partially because there’s so much to do that you’re tempted to just, jet from the starting map as quickly as possible. If you do, you’ll probably get thrashed a few times on your way back to the starting locale. I still found the game quite challenging, so we pivoted to Easy Mode and had a nice time. We weren’t as worried about winning or losing combat, we had a pretty strong crew, and we were able to complete various challenges with much higher frequency.
  • My frequent cooperative game partner has mostly bounced off this title. It’s extremely high complexity and takes a lot to play, so you’d best hope your players are enthusiastic about it if you’re going to play it. I think it takes a lot of steam to get through the entire campaign. Easy Mode saved us, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this game for folks with a passing interest; you need to really have a group that is excited about powering through the whole thing.
  • It remains difficult to avoid partially reading things on pages in the Storybook that aren’t relevant. It’s kind of the issue with having a book for these things instead of an app or something, but yeah, you can occasionally see other outcomes in the book since they’re all so proximal to each other. It’s probably easier to organize than putting everything in random spots all over the book (and less annoying; that’s a lot to flip through), but there’s some slight immersion broken, this way.
  • It would be kind of nice if the Storybook had entry number ranges in the corners rather than explicit page numbers. We almost never need the explicit page number for the entry, since we’re never given it; instead, having a range of possible entries in lieu of the page number would make it much easier to quickly scan for the thing you’re looking for. Right now, you need to essentially choose a page number and then scan the page and kind-of-binary-search your way to the entry you want to find. I get that having pages not be numbered by page number is odd (and doesn’t necessarily work for the F-numbered items), but I think it would greatly enhance the Storybook as a utility device.

Cons

  • I think the Event Cards are a missed opportunity to make each turn feel a bit more immersive. It takes a lot of work to make them, granted, but having some way for the Event Cards to hook into held Adventure Cards or locations can help ratchet up the tension of the game as players progress through it, rather than each Event Card just feeling like a skill check you need to do in order to take your actual turn.
  • The problem with large, expansive rulebooks always tends to be that it’s difficult to find minutiae or it’s not directly mentioned. There are a variety of things that come up, so you just end up having to refer to the rulebook and flip through it very quickly, but … given that there’s a lot to flip through, it can be difficult to figure out where what you’re looking for can be found in the rulebook. A quick reference would probably help a bit, but there’s so much to reference.
  • Setup takes a long enough time that it discourages us playing the game. There’s just a lot going on and a lot of cards and tokens and boards that need aligned everywhere. Given how long setup takes for two people, it kind of pushes us to play for at least two or three hours, which is a big time commitment, so we often end up playing something a bit simpler or easier to set up.
  • With this kind of sweeping, expansive game, it’s likely that not every group is going to own a copy. With that in mind, it would be nice if there were some structural way to have multiple different campaigns running from the box at the same time. It’s mostly just that it’s hard to get other people engaged in the game given that I have an ongoing campaign that’s not done with a housemate and can’t just … fold another person in. My game group has experienced a lot of churn in the last year or so, as well, so … having a way to potentially start a few branching campaigns might be helpful. Or a smaller, starter game that I could play to see if someone wants to try the larger game? These are all problems I have.
  • It would also be nice if there were just a narrative “Discover Mode” of some kind where you could just experience the story on its own. I think that this conflicts a bit with the setup requirements of the game, but as someone who hates combat in its various forms, I would love a non-combat version of this game.

Overall: 8 / 10

Overall, I think I end up in the same place every time I play Sleeping Gods, which is that it’s a fantastic game with some flaws. I think that this is one of the more ambitious board games I’ve seen, and certainly the most ambitious title coming out of Red Raven. Narrative complexity is high, the gameplay complexity is high, and the interwoven mechanics of everything mean that you’re looking at a game that’s physically heavy, a challenge to play, and takes up the space that it’s due. That’s brilliant and all, but it’s also tough. Especially during a pandemic. It’s hard to get players to commit to a 20-hour campaign (or longer); it’s tough to find the mental headspace that’s required to really give this game the attention it deserves; and, frankly, the game is hard. There’s a lot to manage and a lot of places where you can choose poorly and end up with a nearly-wiped-out crew. Sleeping Gods isn’t here to mess around, and while it both demands (and deserves) a level of player reverence that I haven’t seen in my games, this is also probably a dangerous level of complexity from a design standpoint. Cracks are showing, a bit, from the rulebook to the setup complexity to just … the management of it all. I think the major issue with this is the setup. Since the game takes so long to set up, the game sits, unplayed, for months at a time. When we finally muster the nerve, we have to re-learn the game, effectively, to play it again. This causes a negative feedback loop that’s costing us hours. This is, unfortunately, a consequence of normal, busy, adult life, but in the same way that I’m increasingly finding 100-hour video games exhausting, I’m feeling that same pressure from Sleeping Gods. This does mean that the game is almost certainly easier on subsequent campaigns, but that’s a lot to ask from any player. Having more of the bookkeeping relegated to an app (like Forgotten Waters) would be a huge relief, for instance, but my housemate’s repeated refrains of “why isn’t this just a video game?” aren’t necessarily wrong, either. Sleeping Gods manages to be both interesting and complicated like that, though. The setup is rough, but after we get immersed into the game itself, I think it’s worth paying that cost every time we get into it. If you’re looking for a very exciting campaign game or, frankly, you have a room where you can just leave the game set up until you finish the campaign, Sleeping Gods has been worth playing, for me. It might be for you, as well! I’d recommend it.


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