The Wondering Sea: SLEEPING GODS Review

Thirteen hours in, and in the final moments of a week-long journey into the game, for some reason the strumming, fiddling and squeeze box sounds from Cherry Bomb, my favorite cut off of John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee album bounced around the edge of my brain.

Was it inspiration? Was it me processing my experiences?

Or maybe I shouldn’t play games until 1:15 a.m.?

Sleeping Gods, from Red Raven Games, is a shot across the bow from designer Ryan Laukat and krewe, taking dead aim at gamers’ fascination with open world video games. Love Skyrim, do you? Have a taste of exploring The Wandering Seas.

In Sleeping Gods, Laukat has painstakingly created a giant sandbox for cardboard critters to play inside. Today, we’ll talk about what happens to those players who choose to play inside that sandbox, but right off the bat, the fact that I was playing this after midnight solo at home should tell you all you need to know.

Does it?

First, the basics. Sleeping Gods is a campaign game for one to four players, who each take turns piloting the Manticore and its krewe. The Manticore sailed into the game board straight from the late 1920s, making a voyage from Hong Kong to New York City when Suddenly Something Went Horribly Wrong, and Complications Ensued.

Welcome to a strange new world where….hmmm…I’m not spoiling anything further, because the above information comes straight from the game box and the opening prologue walkthrough that is required to play the game. I aim to make the rest of this piece spoiler-free.

PRODUCTION and GAMEPLAY:

Red Raven Games sent us a review copy of the retail edition, although it also contains two extras that may not be in store copies: (a) metal coins to replace the cardboard tokens (in the signature Red Raven style) and (b) the Tides of Ruin expansion.

Even though this is “just” a retail edition, it is absofreakinglutely gorgeous. I cannot fathom how Laukat was able to hand paint so much gorgeous art, which you’ll find on cards, player boards, and everywhere else. The box comes with a smaller-than-normal book of maps (think Near & Far, but more connected and more wide open at the same time), a gargantuan book of “stories” (think Above & Below, but with longer and more integrated experiences) and a treasure box of people, places, things and stuff. No, it is does not appear to be part of the Arzium trilogy, but Laukat’s signature art is instantly recognizable, especially for fans of those games.

The single best card in board gaming ever? We think so, and we’re unbiased.

Yes, I’m being intentionally vague about the components for a reason. This is a campaign game, and you’ll need to discover those things for yourself. But I will tell you that our version had beautiful wooden components for the health and command points (think action points), as well as thick sturdy cardboard player boards representing the nine characters you will play with in the game and some of their special abilities.

That’s right, I said nine, because this fully co-operative game allows all players to control not only Captain Odessa (wink wink to Homer) but also additional characters. For instance, if there are two players, each one will have four of the krewe in front of them to “control.”

Off to the side is also a game board representing the Manticore, and you will be very familiar with that board by the end of the game, which contains some of the ways to get cards and action points. This is a good time to give a brief overview of how it all works. In a full campaign, players will take an average of 54-60 turns by first taking one of those ship actions, which will help you to get command points, cards, goods, and/or health).

Next, players will draw and resolve an event card. These act as the timer in the game, and over the course of the three “games” (really, campaign run-throughs of about 1/3 length), players will flip over 18 cards with stair-stepping difficulty. These event cards are short, but can have very devastating consequences. Perhaps you will encounter a tough monster stalking the ship, or maybe you’ll be presented with an opportunity to buy more magic equipment. Just survive, and advance, my friend.

Finally, players move to the main part of the turn which consists generally of two actions out of a choice of five: rest (and get more command points) or travel, explore, market and port. Each of those works exactly as they sound, with a note that the “market” action generates a random list of cards that players will use to buy and equip their sailor.

I guess we should talk about the system itself for a bit (although I find that the narrative story pulled me in so much more, and frankly, I’m itching to talk more about it). Laukat’s combat system is unique yet familiar, and after just a few battles, I had already figured out what I needed from my krewe and from the lucky gods to get past most of the monsters. Sure, after more than a few of the battles, the krewe was bloodied and tired, but resting up in a quiet bay on a corner of the map usually got us healthy and wise again in short order.

Set up is a breeze, and the walk through at the start is not only necessary but very well done.

The leveling up mechanic was also a favorite trick. Cards will enhance your characters, and they come from random draws, or from people and places, or even from choices you make that give you experience enough to permanently enhance one of your characters. It is a system that feels rewarding and fresh at the same time, and there’s a lot more under the hood there than what appears on the surface.

Finally, the end of the campaign sessions ranged from “what the?!” to “wowza” moments, and without spoiling anything, I can honestly say that the storyline at least in the full campaign I went through, is amazingly well tied together. The only incongruous bit about the end, in my opinion, is that it kind of jolts you back into the real world of card board. By the time you get to that point, it is likely that you will be so engrossed in the story that it might be a bit disorienting to remind yourself that you are, indeed, playing a game.

Not everything was *ahem* smooth sailing, of course. I never could get rid of that handy-dandy rulebook guide as to the icons, because I kept forgetting which one was which. That player reference sheet for all the rules is awesome, but it shows you that the five minute set up time and breezy rule book are mirages after a fashion and belie a game that has a lot of picayune rule changes between events that seem similar.

That’s pretty obtuse, I realize, but again, it’s tough to describe some of my complaints other than to use the tried and true and trite “fiddly” phrase, because some of what I would say would result in spoiling your experience. Let’s just put it this way — the way that players will use the cards in their hand versus the cards and boards on the table, and the way that the command points interact with those decisions, isn’t always intuitive.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

So I said that John Mellencamp was dancing around in my head as I was wrapping up the campaign this week. Of all of his deep catalogue, why Cherry Bomb? Well, because it’s my favorite cut off the album, of course. But after re-reading a Rolling Stones review of the album, I think I see some deeper reasons that the song bubbled back up to the surface so many years later.

The Lonesome Jubilee album came at a time when Mellencamp was wading through his thirties. Lyrics like

17 has turned 35

I’m surprised that we’re still living

affected me in 1987 when I was about the age of the protagonist, and then touched me a little differently in 2004 when I was the age of the storyteller, and finally, it had even more effect on me this week as I reached the age that Mellencamp daydreamed he would reach, someday.

Time passes in Sleeping Gods, too, just like it did for Mellencamp. Time passes in a way that Mellencamp, the lyricist, would have predicted, but I had never seen in any other game.

Things happen, and then they come back to find you later. Or you search them out to wrestle them to the ground, desperately trying to wring out their secrets. Or maybe, nothing ever happens, and you wonder if it was just a dream.

Original? Hardly, Robinson Crusoe and Friday and games like that showcase events that pop back up later, too. Even Laukat has used this successfully, like in Near & Far, to a degree.

But this time, Laukat pulled off a magic trick unlike any other. He turned a digital perspective into cardboard. You will be scarred but smarter after every turn of the atlas, just like you would exploring a 3D landscape with your controller, just like you are when you think about how you got from awkward teen to assured adult (and in some cases, back again).

Sleeping Gods lets you experience those Eureka! moments when events you could not predict but subconsciously knew would happen, actually do happen. That’s how life works, right? The friends we made in high school are barely recognizable at high school reunions, only to let you in on secret stories you never know happened all around you.

These time passages in Sleeping Gods are brilliantly if not unoriginally done, and present outcomes that in their effect on your game will range from the so-so to the sublime. The sheer volume of the work is impressive, but even more impressive are the emotional reactions you will feel. It’s just cardboard, right?

And yes, while the passage of time from youthful exuberance to wistfulness is represented in the game, as the story progresses and your krewe interacts with the milieu as well as each other, there’s more in Sleeping Gods that recalls Mellencamp’s thesis than I first realized. The dichotomy of melancholy reminiscing juxtaposed against middle aged optimism found in The Lonesome Jubilee is also present in Sleeping Gods, too.

Naturally, that dichotomy in Sleeping Gods led me to some questions.

Is Laukat seeing himself in this game? Is he feeling his own mortality? Did that anxiety come out in trying one more time to create as big and as wide of a world as he could make? Sure, there are barriers on the map that one cannot cross, but what’s funny is that it never seems that way in the game. I honestly felt during the campaign that no such limits existed. If there were any questions in his mind, Laukat should feel reassured that he still has plenty of magic left in the tank.

In a recent podcast with Dan Thurot that I listened to on a long recent drive, I heard Laukat take a deep sigh when asked what was next after this tour de force. Did he see himself returning to a sandbox type of game? I was intrigued by his answer. To paraphrase, Laukat said that this game almost killed him with just the sheer expanse of it all.

That made me laugh. When you create your own universe, where exactly are the edges?

But then, Laukat said that he could see returning to a game system like this in a smaller package, and I almost slammed on the brakes, giddy with excitement. A bite sized version of this masterpiece? Tonnerre mes chiens!

Because that’s really want I want to talk to you about. Trust me, you can watch videos, you can read BGG forum posts, you can scan through every single critical analysis of the game, but none of those will answer a simple question.

What do you really want in a game?

Sure, you can pick up a copy of Sleeping Gods at your friendly local game store, plop it onto your game table one night, and enjoy two or three hours of card flippin’, baddie dispatchin’, map explorin’, gold and artifact collectin’ goodness. And never play it again. You can, and many will. But why turn to Sleeping Gods for that?

Sleeping Gods requires an investment to appreciate, like Oath does, although I would argue that unlike Oath, you can love Sleeping Gods in the first thirty minutes of playing even if you don’t have a feel yet for the scope of the world.

I want you to feel what I did the first time I breezed through an attack by two midweight baddies. I was loaded for bear with weapons and command points and my krewe was happy and healthy (would it last? I’ll never tell.) I dispatched them handily, collecting my reward with a hearty pump of the fist to no one’s acclaim.

But I was two hours into the game at that time.

I want you to feel the disappointment I felt when I did something I don’t want to spoil, and didn’t get the thing I had been looking for over the previous three turns. I made A Choice, but it wasn’t The Right Choice, and I knew it was wrong right away. The knot in my stomach tightened a bit, but so did my resolve next time I was faced with tough choices.

But I was about five hours in at that time.

I want you to feel what I did when it suddenly dawned on me that an island far from me had a secret I had been carrying around in a quest FOR FOUR DAYS, and I was able to use an artifact to get there in one turn’s time instead of three. The joy of completing quests sometimes defies description.

But, yep, that was hour number eight at the time.

I packed away the game (after the fourth night in a row of playing) at 1:30 am, way way way past when I usually retire from The Gumbo Pot. I trudged down the stairs, quietly slipping into bed. But I knew what was coming next, even as tired as I was. I knew that I would be in for some quiet moments, staring at the ceiling, processing what just happened.

Because I had done the same thing each night during the previous three nights.

You know, dear reader, how much I love elegant ninety minute euros. A scan of my top games each year confirms. I love tight games with definite starts and stops, with levers that are easy to see and fun to pull.

If that’s what you are looking for, a game that you can plop on the table and laugh it up with your friends for 120 minutes, one so smoothly developed that the box barely makes a sound as it slips off your shelf and onto the center of the table with ease, then I am not so sure that Sleeping Gods will be right for you. It just doesn’t stay wrapped up nice and neat with a bow like that.

No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied…

But maybe that’s not you.

Maybe like me, you are intrigued by the notion that cardboard has no starter gun or finish line, other than the end of a campaign. Maybe like me, you love the idea of doing as much or as little to advance the story as far as you want. Maybe like me, you can even overlook the occasional rule book issues that seem to crop up in games like this.

And maybe like me, you will hear a heartland rock song lyric from the late ‘80s whispering to you as you open up Sleeping Gods:

I guess it don’t matter how old you are

Or how old one lives to be

I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives

And how we deal with our own destinies

  • John Mellencamp, The Real Life

My time with Sleeping Gods was a remarkable experience, one of the best weeks of gaming I’ve had in a long time. Simply put, Sleeping Gods is Ryan Laukat’s masterpiece.

What will you do with your gaming life?

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

The publisher sent us a free review copy of this game.

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