Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Saddle up, heroes, there is adventure to be had.
enlarge / Saddle up, heroes, there is adventure to be had.

Owen Duffy

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend take on table games! Check out our full coverage of board games at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

When I was five years old, I discovered The Legend of Zelda on my cousin’s state-of-the-art Nintendo Entertainment System. It was unlike anything I had played before. Where other games provided unambiguous missions and linear levels, this one gave me a sword and a handful of hit points, then asked, “So what are you going to do?”

Since then, I’ve appreciated that feeling of freedom in the sandbox in games, and it’s something that Near and far, a campaign-driven board game from designer Ryan Laukat, aspires to emulate. A sequel to its 2015 release Above and below, Near and far cast players as heroes who embark on perilous quests through a series of fantasy realms. While that may sound like the premise for at least a million other adventure games on the table, Near and far comes with a level of style, imagination and originality that elevates it above the generic orc-stamping titles on the market.

The first thing you notice when you open Near and far‘s box is the quality of the presentation. As with previous releases such as Rich for eight minutes and island boundLaukat is not only the designer of the game, he is also the illustrator and publisher. He works here has injected Near and Far with real charm and personality. The artwork is playful, adventurous and just the right side of cute. The characters are full…well…character, with a wide variety of genders and ethnicities represented – and not a chainmail bikini in sight. The world is depicted in beautiful cartography that looks like something out of an animated film.

Once you’ve spent a moment appreciating the sheer beauty of it all, you’ll want to see how it works. Near and far‘s action takes place on several fronts. There’s an individual player board that represents your character, where you keep track of things like your health, equipment, and any non-player allies you’ve recruited during your quest. Then there’s an atlas, a book of maps showing the different environments you’ll pass through on your adventures. And a town sign shows locations like stables and saloons that you can visit if you’re not doing any other heroic deeds. Finally, the storybook contains Choose your own adventure-style snippets of narration detailing the encounters and characters you will encounter during your journey.

These pieces all work together. In town, stock up on food at the farm, dig for treasure at the local mine, and meet adventurous companions in (where else?) the tavern. However, only one player can visit a building at a time, which means you have to set your priorities and pursue them with determination. That’s especially important when it comes to assembling your group of adventurers, each of which increases your abilities in different ways, making you faster, stronger and more stealthy once you start exploring the wider world.

That exploration takes place within the pages of the game atlas, which serves as a secondary board of maps representing regions you will explore over the course of your campaign. You spend health points to move from one place to another and automatically return to the city when you’ve used them all. Your first excursions will be fairly timid and you won’t venture far beyond your starting point. As you play, you can set up camps, allowing you – and your opponents – to pass parts of the board for free. So the map opens up over time, not just to you but to everyone else, and a big part of the game lies in seizing opportunities created by your opponents, letting them blaze a path before you rush in. to fight bandits, set up trade routes, and otherwise suck up victory points.

This is the meat and potato gameplay of Near and far, but the real draw is the game’s story-driven hot sauce. Visit certain points on the map and you will be prompted to refer to a particular passage in the storybook. Each is a short piece of plot followed by a dilemma. Do you find and recover the stolen goods of the traveler or do you keep them for yourself? Do you give a few coins to the old beggar or ignore his pleas? Will you open the door marked with mysterious runes or will you just leave it alone? Your choices can have positive or negative outcomes, and they branch out over multiple play sessions, with the ramifications of past decisions coming back later to bite (or help) you.

It all feels like playing an oldie Fight fantasy game book, and Near and far does well to maintain interest in the campaign from one game to another. But it also highlights what for me was the game’s biggest flaw. While the unfolding story is a lot of fun, it doesn’t quite fit comfortably with the route-building, stat-boosting, more mechanical aspects that make up most of the game. Actual character plot decisions are the highlights of each session, but the opportunities to enjoy them are scarce. Everything else feels a bit muffled by comparison, such as having to finish your homework before being allowed to play video games.

like you to be in the market for brutally opportunistic route building game there are better options available. Via Nevel and Yamata both cover the same territory in interesting ways and, while they have nothing close, Near and far‘s narrative appeal, both are fantastic games in their own right.

Near and far has undeniable charms, but it’s hard to tell who the intended audience is. If you’re looking for a sleek, strategic experience, one of the games mentioned above is a better bet. If you’re looking for a story-driven, open-ended adventure, you’ll enjoy more Sherlock Holmes: Consult a Detective or a role play like Dungeons and Dragons. Near and far seems to be somewhere in the middle; by trying to be two things at once, it doesn’t quite manage to excel at either one.

The game’s open-world premise is enticing, and it’s not hard to find something to like in its stylish and whimsical presentation. But Near and far never fully reconciles its mechanical yin with its narrative yang, and the disjointed result means it only manages to be good, not really great.

By akfire1

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