Artisans Of Splendent Vale Review
Dungeon crawler games have an image problem.
When you read the words ‘dungeon crawler’ in the previous sentence, did you conjure an image in your head? Did you see brooding warriors in armour alongside scantily-clad women only wearing enough armour to protect their most intimate areas, flanked by wizards in robes? Did you envisage skeleton warriors, orcs, goblins, and magic? Was it dark, gloomy, and grimy? If you did, this might not strike you as a problem, because it’s probably what you’re looking for in a dungeon crawler.
What if you’re looking for something else? What if dull greys, greens, and browns aren’t your thing? What then? Up until now, your options have been very limited. As soon as you step outside of the generic, gritty fantasy theme you’re either looking at generic, gritty sci-fi or ‘family/kids’ games. Artisans of Splendent Vale redresses the balance by giving us a watercolour world full of diverse, non-stereotyped, pastel protagonists, breathing fresh life into tired tropes.
By the book?
Artisans of Splendent Vale takes a leaf out of the books (pun very much intended) of games like Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion which use a book of maps to play on. I’ll touch on overworld exploration later, but once you visit a place where some kind of skirmish takes place, you’ll be instructed to turn to a particular page in the Action Scene Book and told where to put the different characters before getting down to some fisticuffs.
Skirmishes – Action Scenes in the game’s parlance – in Artisans are great fun. There’s an initiative track to keep track of who gets to act in what order, which is more intuitive for newcomers than something like Gloomhaven’s per-turn initiative setting. I had an initial worry that the action scenes might feel a little hollow, with so much attention being lavished on the narrative and world-building. I needn’t have worried, the action scenes are solid. What I really like is the way they’re not always just a straight-up fight. I’m not going to spoil things for you here, but let’s just say that at times you’ll be testing how fast you can get out of trouble, instead of getting elbow-deep in it.
The design choices for the skirmishes have been carefully thought out too. Gone are plastic minis, and in their place instead we’ve got screen-printed meeples with round edges. The screen-printing is friendly too, just giving the impression of clothes and characteristics. Why am I telling you this? Because the sort of person who might want to try a game like Artisans of Splendent Vale might also be the same sort of person who’s looking for a friendlier experience. The sort of person who wants to feel like they’re being led by the hand into something welcoming and fun, without having something sharp and pointy stuck between their ribs and left for dead.
During its Kickstarter campaign, a lot was made of the diversity represented in Artisans of Splendent Vale. It’s true, there’s a ton of diversity in the game, and it’s a good thing. It doesn’t take very long before you realise how embedded it is in the game. To begin the game each player chooses one of the four characters in the game and takes the corresponding (200+ page!) book, and what you’ll notice right away is that each book lists the character’s pronouns. If you choose Farah, you’re going to be referred to as ze/zir for the rest of the game. What’s the last game you played where that happened? This doesn’t just happen for pronouns. All four characters are QTPOC, which is another first for me in a board game.
Does all of this matter? Yes, absolutely, it matters. It’s not just about ticking boxes. It’s not just a case of saying “Look at us, we’re being so diverse, right?!”. I play games as a part of that huge demographic group of heterosexual, cis, white males. I don’t have to worry about what I see in games. I know I’m going to find something familiar in whatever I play. What about the huge number of people who don’t fall into that intersection of those Venn diagrams? What about people from marginalised communities? What’s going to make them feel comfortable and at home when they take their first steps into this hobby? Artisans of Splendent Vale might not cover everything, but it does a damn fine job of doing better than most.
The sad truth is that there are people out there who will actively avoid the game because of the diversity and representation. I’ve seen it in online groups. I’ve seen people who believe it’s some kind of agenda, and it’s ridiculous. If you’re really worried that a game with a good representation of diverse characters is in any way negative, I’d ask you to stop reading now and close your browser. We should celebrate the fact that games like this exist. In Artisans’ case, this celebration should be amplified, because it’s not just a token gesture of a game, it’s an excellent game in its own right.
Artisans of Splendent Vale is a campaign game. Your choices dictate where you go in the world, what you do when you get there, and how your character changes after the action scenes. I love that each of the characters has a different mechanism for tracking their advances. Harinya’s method for brewing potions is completely different from Javi’s artificing, where he fills in nodes around tracks. It reinforces how different each character is from one another.
These differences are apparent in each character’s book too. Most of the books’ contents are the same, but there are subtle differences in some parts. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there might be occasions when your group is exploring a room, and each of you is looking at a picture of it in your books. One character with a certain ability might be able to see something in their picture that the others cannot. If you see a number in something like that, you’re free to look up that location in the book and see what you find there. This is one of those bittersweet features of a game like this because it means that your experience could be very difficult from somebody else. Your chosen characters (if you’re playing with less than four characters) might not see things that other people did. That’s just something you have to live with in any campaign or legacy game – you won’t see and do everything in one playthrough.
Something about the game makes your character feel uniquely yours. I’m not sure whether it’s using pencils to add things to your to-do lists, or using the overworld map to decide between you what happens next, but I can tell you that the moment you apply your first scar sticker to your character, you’re going to feel a real investment in their fate.
In an ideal world, I’d be able to write a review of Artisans of Splendent Vale and tell you why it’s so good. It’s a great campaign game with tons of dungeon-crawling skirmish action, character development, and fantastic writing throughout. Seriously, the story of Artisans is great, and it’s abundantly clear how much time and effort has been put into the world-building. The graphic design and illustrations throughout are beautiful. Truly beautiful. This isn’t an ideal world, however, so I have to pay attention to what this game does for inclusivity and diversity and applaud it for that. To have these things not just paid lip service to, but woven into the very fabric of such a story-rich game is special.
In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, I’ve got to tell you that I haven’t finished the game yet. I’m playing a two-player campaign and getting the time together with my player two to get through it all is tricky. What I can tell you, however, is that I desperately want to know what happens in the end. The story is so good, which is a good thing because there’s an awful lot of reading between fights. If you’re not a fan of the written word and look for your games to be action, action, action, this probably isn’t the one for you. If and when you do complete it, if you want to explore all of the ‘what might have been’ options you can buy a reset pack to play it all through again.
Artisans comes in a big box so make sure you have space on your shelves for it. Along with the rulebook and action scene book, you’ve got four full paperbacks along with the various meeples, pencils, and the gorgeous card box. The card box works like an old card index, and even the design and artwork on it evoke the sort of feeling the game is going for. If you’re looking for a big-box campaign but are tired of the same old themes being re-hashed, and if you have the money for it (it’s north of £100 at the time of writing), Artisans of Splendent Vale is going to give you and your friends an adventure you won’t soon forget.
Review copy kindly provided by Renegade Games Studios. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Artisans of Splendent Vale (2022)
Design: Nikki Valens
Publisher: Renegade Games Studios
Art: MK Castaneda, Lil Chan, Cleonique Hilsaca, Lisa Pearce, Christina Pittre
Playing time: 45-90 mins per session