Apocrypha is Mike Selinker doing what he does best, bringing together amazing talent to provide gamers with adventures they can immerse themselves in. The successor to Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game (PACG), Apocrypha draws you into a story of world-ending horror while developing the deck building system that made PACG popular. You play as “Saints” who are have the gift to see the horrors that are working in secret to destroy the world. Unfortunately, they see you as well. You will collaborate to slowly uncover each wicked scheme and hopefully put a halt to the approaching apocalypse, much like a season a Buffy. Apocrypha plays between 1-6 using three different modes, across three boxes with 400+ cards in each box. I am looking at the base box titled The World, and am awaiting the two promised expansions The Flesh and the Devil.
Each game is made up of story structures with locations, called a Nexuses, to encounter. This is actually a clever part of the setup. Each chapter of the game has a title that uses key phrases that relate to Story Structure cards. These structures inform you how to build the story. So all you do is read the title of the story and you can pieces together the sort of adventure you have. It works like a scaled down version of 501 where you piece together two sort of game, set up, and rules of play.
The Nexuses are all locations that are relevant to the story and indicate the type of cards you will find at that location and what type of enemies you will likely uncover. But as each deck of cards encountered at the Nexus is shuffled and placed face down, there is no knowing when you will uncover what or who. Each location also has two sides, a Hope side and a Doom side. These different sides relate to the Omen cards that allow you to search a Nexus.
Each game must be won by the time the Doomsday Clock reaches zero. The Doomsday Clock is represented by a deck of 24 randomly selected Omen cards. As you start your turn you draw an Omen of Hope or Doom from the Doomsday Clock. To search a Nexus you play the Omen and flip the Nexus to the corresponding side. The Omen of Doom will provide an additional challenge to checks for your turn, and the Doom side of a Nexus will provide additional challenges, conversely, Hope will provide bonuses and benefits. The set up is not only clever but adds to the immersion of the game as a story being constructed by you and the players with the game. The feel that you are not a passive observer to game mechanics is significant for me. I love storytelling and the designers and the story creators have gone to great lengths to make you part of this. This immersive feel and player control are best represented by the three different story modes.
Story mode 1 is solo play. I can take my character and make my way through a campaign. I tried this to make sure it worked as a solo game and I was not disappointed. Playing through the game solo offered me the same experience of the game as the cooperative campaign. The challenge was real, the implications for my character were the same and I was as equally invested in the narrative. Mode 2 is a cooperative play which I will spend most of my time discussing as it is the primary mode of play. Mode 3 is an RPG mode where a player takes the role of GM and offers a narrative element to play. The rulebook provides a great structure for facilitating this and there are already stories on offer for players to run through if they decide they don’t want to write their own. The versatility of this game is impressive and proves it was more a work of love than anything else. For the most of my review, I want to focus on the cooperative element as it will be the primary experience for people who purchase a copy.
Each player will begin the game with a Saint’s avatar and a specific deck of cards that is built around her or his strengths and abilities. The deck of cards acts as both a list of weapons and abilities, as well as the character’s health. Run out of cards and your character dies. With only 16 cards in the deck, you need to be paying attention. In fact several times during our games I was shocked at how quickly I was facing death as I used cards to explore, investigate, and attack minions or horrors.
The interaction of cards and abilities are more thought through than PACG. There are distinct phases of play in Apocrypha that matter to how a card is played and what strategies are open to each Saint. But this was not the outstanding part of the updated mechanics. The outstanding element has to be how the physical setting of the game was part of the design. Together the Saints form a Choir. Each avatar has ability checks that inform you how many dice you can roll for your check. As a consequence, this indicates what you Saint’s strengths and weakness will be when entering a new Nexus. But where they are positioned on the card is important. Each Saint is capable of providing support for other saints depending one where they are seated in the Choir.
If my “Body Check”, for instance, is placed on the right-hand side of the card, I am able to offer support to the person on my right should their body check fails. The person on my right can re-roll up to the number of dice indicated on my Body Check.
Yet in classic Selinker style, nothing is quite that easy. If you do an assist you need to roll for a mutation. Mutations are an additional cost to do re-rolls. It may force you to trash the highest die roll you make or allow you to upgrade your lowest die. This can result in some very tense moments where a bad mutation may mean absolute doom or triumphant fist-pumping joy.
The final mechanic I want to comment on is the Halo. In good Lovecraftian style, your character is fighting for their sanity and trying to throw off the powers of darkness to corrupt and deceive you. Each Saint has nine card slots around them that allow for “Fragments” to be placed. As you progress through missions you will recover Fragments, these are lost memories, some fleeting and some permanent. These Fragments add to your Saints story while providing additional bonuses. Like the checks, how you slot these fragments into the Halo will impact how they are used. Upper row slots will mean you can share your Fragment bonuses with other Saints at your Nexus, bottom row means only you can use them and left or right allows you to share those bonus with Saints seated to your left and right. You must carefully consider your space in relation to other players at the table, as well as how best to support your Saint and others in the Choir. This is a clever way to level up your character in a way that directly ties your Saint into the overarching narrative. Yet failures will result in some of these slots being taken by death cards. Death cards permanently block off that slot in your Halo, and should you accumulate nine deaths your character is dead forever from the game; Nine lives, see I told you it was a little like Buffy.
One of my criticisms of PACG is the downtime and limited player interaction. Selinker and his team have not only addressed this issues through the Choir but have done so in a way that fully immerses the player into the story. This is indicative of the whole design. Everything is crafted to create an experience rather than just a game. Yet Selinker does not try to hand-hold or railroad player action. You have enough autonomy that you can be in control of crafting your character and shaping your interactions with others in the game. Because of this I almost feel like a co-creator in the story process. Selinker takes a huge risk by providing such autonomy for his players in shaping the final outcome of the story. Yet the overall impact is a rich player experience for those who are willing to make the investment. However, that is also the reason I would not use this games with neophytes or casual gamers. Learning to play Apocrypha will take some time to not only read the rules, but to work out the language (the rulebook comes with its own glossary), and how interactions occur. In a single interaction or check, I could be reading multiple cards and applying a variety of effects that will require a level of understanding that will come only with experience. That said, I don’t think the apocalypse has ever been so enticing.