Sam Brown’s Lyssan is yet another board game fresh off the Kickstarter bandwagon. Like most of its crowdfunded peers- at least the ones I’ve played- it’s another compelling design that stops short of greatness. Like Empires of the Void, it feels like it’s a couple of development rounds short of being potentially a great game. It lacks that final coat of polish that you really need a professional publisher and pro-level post-design development for, but with that said it’s definitely a very good and really quite original title that offers some novel concepts and some terrifically nasty gameplay.
At face value, the setting and theme are definitely reminiscent of A Game of Thrones so expect lots of politicking, manipulation, and outright treachery. The board depicts the Empire of Lyssan, currently in the throes of a two century-old dynastic struggle. In order to seize the throne, players must marshal units representing nobles, knights, priests, and spies to do their dirty work on the map while also currying favor with neutral courtiers and vassals to persuade them that theirs is the rightful imperial claim. The outcome is decided in favor of the player that has managed to achieve a set number of Triumphs, variable goal cards that require players to have the most of a game element or perform a specific action.
Turns are measured in seasons, with a Spring phase dedicated to rewarding or revealing Triumphs. Summer and Autumn are spent issuing commands, ranging from hiring agents, constructing castles to bolster defenses, paying off any debts, or most importantly using onboard agents to perform actions. Players have a very limited number of agent tokens and must get vassals and courtiers onboard to get more. And they’re expensive, requiring money and conscripts earned from territorial control to field.
Knights can move into a province and kill another Knight or Noble. Nobles can move, kill another noble (but not a knight), or ready an exhausted Priest. Both can spend their entire activation without moving to sack a castle. Spies are used to kill Priests and other Spies but more perniciously they can lure courtiers and vassals away from their lords. Priests are even more potentially treacherous. If they’re in an enemy province, they can act as a diplomat. The Priest’s player gives the province owner Influence cards (which are vassals, courtiers, special commands, and action cards) and draws another card. But Priests can also denounce the province’s owner, incurring Shame.
Shame is one of my favorite elements of the game and it’s one of the things that sets the game apart from the competition. When agents are slain, their handler is given Shame markers. Additionally, certain card effects might cause players to accrue Shame. At the beginning of the Summer and Autumn campaign seasons, players must mitigate the effects of rival Priests spreading discontent, failed military adventures, and other credibility-damaging events. This is done by discarding Influence cards from hand or by releasing courtiers. There is an option to take on debt in order to immediately re-field defeated agents without having to pay for them again. The problem is that debt is the tie-breaker for determining a winner and when Winter comes, they count against the player in determining who goes first as the order changes.
There’s some really neat stuff going on in this game. Because agents can =co-exist in regions, there is huge potential for negotiation, saber-rattling, threats, and out-of-nowhere backstabs between previously allied players. It’s a brilliant idea to pair the diplomatic function of the Priest with their ability to sow discord and dole out Shame markers. The Spies create almost a sub-game espionage level since only Spies can kill other Spies, and their effect of luring away followers can be devastating.
Despite the combat and area control elements, Lyssan really isn’t really a Dudes on a Map game at all. It’s more about political maneuver, positioning, and coordinating. The Triumph cards guide the potential strategies, and the available cards very much influence the flow and tempo of the game. It’s fluid, with territories changing hands every turn and “cold war” like situations developing, brewing and steaming until somebody makes their move. And there are never enough agents to do everything you need to, so the economic budgeting and coordination of money, conscripts, and influence is tight and sometimes quite compelling.
It’s also a pretty easy game to grasp, although I don’t think the pornstar-festooned rulebook is quite where it needs to be and there are a few rough edges including some potentially imbalanced Influence cards. There are two and three player options, but the two player game in particular feels artificial, requiring this odd “Master and Puppet” business of playing two factions that’s best left alone. It’s written to be a four player game but I would really like to see it support five or six. I think you could still finish it up in under four hours with a half dozen pretenders to the throne.
As it stands, this is a great alternative to lengthier, more complicated games like Warrior Knights and Runewars, even if it doesn’t feel as refined as either of those titles. I’m all for the DIY thing, but I can’t help but think that a little longer in the oven might have made Lyssan a must-play. Maybe an expansion or a second edition would get this game across the line and closer to an unqualified recommendation.