TABLE GAMES REVIEW: The Witches: A Discworld Game

As we get ever closer to International Tabletop Day on April 5th we carry on with our 7 reviews in seven days and this time on GS Table Games we dive in with The Witches: A Discworld Game.

The Witches is set in the magically charged land of Lancre. Players take on the role of trainee witches, such as Tiffany Aching and Petulia Gristle, learning their craft and dealing with all the problems that life on Discworld can throw at them. A subtle blend of headology, magic and, of course, the all-important cup of tea will see our heroines tackle everything from a sick pig to a full-blown invasion of elves.

Fantasy fans will be more than familiar with the Witches from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, but on the off chance that you’re not a big reader (or simply haven’t gotten around to them yet) I’ll fill you in on the basics. Pratchett’s witches may look like your stereotypical black clad hags, but they’re far more likely to be settling local feuds or acting as midwives than trafficking with evil powers. They may occasionally save the world, but their primary function is solving problems. Magic is on the menu but there are always consequences, so they tend to use it as a last resort; relying more on common sense and ‘headology’ to see them through. In recent years Terry Pratchett has added a Young Adult series of books to his Witches canon, starring the determinedly sensible Tiffany Aching. It is Tiffany and her friends who take centre stage in this collaborative board game, learning their trade and keeping the kingdom of Lancre safe from magical threats.

TheWitches board Let’s have a look in the box before we get on with the gameplay. The board is a work of art, laid out as a glorious full colour map of Lancre and its surrounding villages. (NB the image here is just a small part of it.) There’s enough detail shown that it could almost be a birds-eye view of the countryside, but not so much that it gets in the way of play. Placed on the board are square cardboard tiles which embody the Problems that the players must tackle. The game pieces are simple wooden hats, and there are four witches dice to help decide 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 that are used to modify the threat level of the problems or indicate the toll taken on the witches in their struggle to manage the ever-erupting crises. Finally, we find a fully illustrated rule book and a quick reference card.

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 the problems. A typical turn looks like this:

  1. Reveal cards until the next problem can be placed on a free location.
  2. Move your witch up to two spaces by walking, or use a broomstick card to travel anywhere.
  3. 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 solve the problem.
  4. Place completed problems on your display board or retreat from the problem as applicable.
  5. Draw cards back into your hand up to your maximum limit.

TheWitches countersThere are two types of problem: the easy ones (like curing a sick pig) and the difficult ones (like repelling a full scale invasion of elves.) Solving problems increases the player’s victory points, and also strengthens the witch – in terms of either adding to your maximum number of cards or adding a modifier to your dice rolls. Every problem can become deadly serious though, if left too long, and the meat of the game lies in juggling what quickly become a series of crises all over the board.

If a location is revealed in the first phase where a problem already exists, this becomes a Crisis. The crises tokens is how the game designers find their balance between competitive play and collaborative efforts. It’s a bit of a stroke of genius, actually, perfectly capturing the spirit of Pratchett’s witches. In the books, every one of them believes themselves to be the best, and tries to prove it in subtle ways. However, when the chips are down every one of them will pull together to work as a team. Thus, in the game, players will race each other to solve the most and the hardest problems on their own, hoping to gain the highest number victory points. However, they must all keep an eye on how many crises are building up on the board. If all of the crisis tokens are in play and a further one is required, the game ends immediately and Nobody wins. In this way it 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.

TheWitches cackles A further wrinkle is added to the psychology of the game with the strain that using magic (or suffering defeat) has on the witches. Building on the notion that magic has consequences, every use in the game will cause the player to receive a ‘cackle’ counter. Role-players will be familiar with the concept of losing sanity points, and this is very much the idea here. Cackles will count against your victory points in the final tally, should the group of players succeed in solving all of the Problems. There are ways to rid yourselves of them, through use of certain cards or by ‘taking tea’ with your fellow players. 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 all of the cackle counters are used up and yet more are required, the characters will start to go properly mad (or Back Alice, as the game styles it.) The Black Alice tokens cannot be gotten rid of, and count for more points against your final tally.

TheWitches cards The designers have done a good job using all the parts of the metaphorical buffalo to enable a broad spectrum of play with a limited number of pieces and a very simple set of mechanics: I was particularly impressed by the way that the playing cards are used in three entirely different ways. If I have to name a few grumbles I guess I’d first have to pick out the fact that there are too many different ‘consequences of failure’ relating to the hard Problems which have to be looked up. While this does help give definition and character to your antagonists, this is not the kind of game where narrative really matters. The other point to note is that so far we have only had need to use a couple of Black Alice tokens over four games. I don’t know if this means we’re not quite doing something right, or if this is a vestigial part of the game development that doesn’t really belong any more. Regardless, neither of these grumbles should dissuade you from picking this game up, particularly if you have children to entertain, or a personal penchant for all things Pratchett. We enjoyed play-testing this game at my local games club over the last couple of weeks. The difficulty level can be adjusted with some very simple rule tweaks (listed in the rule book) to make things more or less challenging as appropriate to your group, which meant that I could have a tough game with friends my own age on one occasion and a muck around with my seven year old daughter and her friends another time. There’s not that many games out that that can claim as much.

GS Rating: 4/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
SOURCE: The Witches

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