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Sleeping Gods review – the perfect high seas adventure

Very soon, a game we backed in 2019 will be coming out on retail: the exploration-oriented solo/cooperative campaign board game Sleeping Gods from Red Raven Games, designed by Ryan Laukat. We received our Kickstarter copy two weeks ago and have been playing it a lot since then! In this Sleeping Gods review, we’ll go through a brief summary of the game mechanics, components, and our separate points of view on the game.

Getting ready to continue our second campaign in the middle of this Sleeping Gods review
Getting ready to continue our second campaign in the middle of this Sleeping Gods review

In Sleeping Gods, you can travel the Wandering Sea as Captain Sofi Odessa, on board the steamship Manticore. You and up to three friends battle monsters, find treasure, and look for a way to get back home to 1920s New York. Traveling through an atlas of the world and going through the rich stories in a storybook, it’s a narrative exploration game, with lots of replayability and richness.

We are big fans of Ryan Laukat, and have really enjoyed discovering his different games over the years and seeing how his art and his game design have developed and matured over time.

Such big fans, that even though we were in a Kickstarter fatigue phase at the time, we backed Sleeping Gods almost immediately. Almost, because we needed to bring up the budget for it ;)

Sleeping Gods play through summary

One of the good things included in the Sleeping Gods base game is a great Quick Start guide and walkthrough, which eases you into the game and mechanics through a storyline you read through and play alongside with.

The Quick Start booklet is a fun, interesting way to ease into the game as a new player
The Quick Start booklet is a fun, interesting way to ease into the game as a new player. Reminds us of old-school walkthroughs for video RPGs!

But in a nutshell, each player’s turn is split into three parts:

Part 1: Ship Action

Like a worker placement game, the active player gets to choose a room in the Manticore to work in: are they going to fish for resources on the Deck, get healed up in the Sick Bay, rest up in the Galley, etc.

Think about it as the necessary “admin work” of running a ship.

The Sleeping Gods ship board lets you choose a ship action at the start of your turn
The Sleeping Gods ship board lets you choose a ship action at the start of your turn. But if a ship room is fully damaged (with two damage tokens, as in the Bridge above), you can’t use that room!

Through the ship action, players can get two important commodities (among other things): command tokens and ability cards. Command tokens lets you order your crew about, and ability cards helps you do better at tasks.

Part 2: Event

The active player then takes the topmost card from an event deck, which results in something that happens to the ship and the crew that you need to address. Events can be mild (annoying to beneficial events), perilous, and deadly (oh no!), but the game starts you out with mild events first (thankfully).

Most of the time, you can resolve these events with some tests from you and your crew. In a test, you simply pick up a card from the ability deck, which also serves as a kind of randomizer or dice roll for success. Each card has a “fate number” on the top left; if you get a total higher than what the test requires, you win.

Sleeping Gods ability cards: each card has a "fate number", a skill type connected to it, and possibly extra bonuses when equipped
Sleeping Gods ability cards: each card has a “fate number” (4, 1, and 3), a skill type connected to it (i.e. Savvy, above), and possibly extra bonuses when equipped, such as Triage, Bandage, and Inspire.

While you can do a straight up test, singling out one or more of your crew to participate in a test raises your chance of succeeding. Some of your crew are great at Strength tests, while some can be more Cunning or Perceptive, so assigning them to focus on a test can add to the “fate” number you have received.

PERCEPTION 5 test example in Sleeping Gods
For a “PERCEPTION 5” test, the active player must reach a total of 5 fate to succeed.

For example, in the above photo, if the active player drew a 3 on the ability deck and didn’t have any crew participate, they would have failed. However, if Mac is participating, and she has a PERCEPTION skill as well as a PERCEPTION ability card equipped, that would bring their total to 5. Audrey, only having one PERCEPTION skill, wouldn’t have made the cut–and she’s exhausted as well, so she can’t participate.

Unfortunately, such focused activity results in your participating crew to be Fatigued (hence needing to rest in the Galley, for example).

Part 3: Player Actions

These player actions flesh out your actual exploration of this world. Players can choose to do two of the following actions (repeats allowed):

  1. using the Manticore to travel to another region in the Wandering Sea;
  2. exploring a nearby point of interest, such as a town, a volcano, a glimmering thing under the ocean;
  3. head into a port, if there is one nearby, to rest, heal up, repair, and do other things;
  4. go to market, if there is one nearby; and
  5. just build up camaraderie and command by taking an extra command token.

That’s it! Pretty simple, isn’t it?

Combat!

Just like in all fantasy worlds, there are monsters to vanquish in the high seas. While exploring, you might come across some not-very-nice denizens of the Wandering Sea. They need a little forceful negotiation, one would say.

Combat can be among any number of monsters coming from a numbered monster deck, as instructed by the storybook.

Defeating monsters is not just about whether you can hit them or if your damage is enough, but also making sure that you’re hitting the right part of the monster. If you hit all the critical parts on him, he is defeated. You’ll need to work cooperatively with the rest of your party to maximize your turns and synergy.

Can you defeat the Mythan Brute in Sleeping Gods?
Can you defeat the Mythan Brute in Sleeping Gods?

The Mythan Brute above has three critical points: the head, body, and legs, symbolized by a heart. Hit every part with a heart, and you defeat them.

But what if you can’t bring him down in one hit? Do you stick to the hearts because it brings you closer to defeating him, or do you play it safe and hack away at his arm, so that he won’t damage you as much when he inevitably counterattacks?

The Narrative

When you explore the settlements and different places in the Wandering Sea, you’ll be reading out of a storybook. Similar to Above & Below or Near & Far, two other Ryan Laukat games, you’ll come across tests, combat, riddles, and decision points that you’ll have to choose from between advancing further in the story.

Will you help a poor old man? What about the village, will you save them or defeat the monsters instead? Will you chastise your disgruntled crew member or leave them be?

Through these choices, and whether you succeed or fail, you can collect Quest cards and Adventure cards. The former can tell you where to go next; the latter can help you along the journey.

Quest and adventure cards in Sleeping Gods can show you the way and help you too.
Quest and adventure cards in Sleeping Gods can show you the way and help you too.

Whatever choice you make, many of them have far-reaching consequences. A man you help here might double-cross you later, a throwaway tip there might actually mean a lot more than you thought a few turns down the line.

Scoring

Of course it’s not just if you reach the end, but how rich your live has been getting there ;) Your final score depends on how many quests you’ve been on, the adventures you’ve had, and how much your crew and cargo has grown while under your command.

Our first major haul in Sleeping Gods!
Our first major haul in Sleeping Gods!

It also matters if you’ve been defeated in battle, or if you’re running Brutal mode (when you are defeated, it’s game over; normally, you can just carry on though with a game time penalty). It matters if you reach the end of your journey, wherever that has taken you.

Sleeping Gods components

What we received as part of our Kickstarter pledge is close to what the retail version will be. The only difference, as far as I am aware, are:

  • the plastic Manticore miniature ship is pre-painted in the Kickstarter version;
  • we received a set of metal coins for free (sold separately during retail);
  • the custom wooden resource tokens are an addon (also sold separately)

The rest should stay the same.

There were many extras during the Kickstarter campaign that we were not able to back, namely:

  • a soundtrack by Malorie Laukat
  • Mac’s Journal, a beautiful lore book (which she does carry around in-game!)
  • a neoprene battle mat
  • a metal Manticore mini

We may pick them up at a later date, if our budget allows. ;) but you won’t need them to enjoy the game. (Dan picked some ambiance music from Youtube instead.)

As for the rest of the Sleeping Gods components for this review, we’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Captain Sofi Odessa and her trusty steamship The Manticore. (Painted mini only available in the Kickstarter edition; retail will not be pre-painted.)
Captain Sofi Odessa and her trusty steamship The Manticore.
The good doctor Gregory Little hails from Los Angeles.
The good doctor Gregory Little hails from Los Angeles.
The Manticore journeys around the Wandering Sea, searching for a way home.
The Manticore journeys around the Wandering Sea, searching for a way home.
Our own personal journal to log our travels. The included journey log sheets are great, but of course I needed to make a notebook out of ours ;) Included maps are from great folks over at BoardGameGeek
Our own personal journal to log our travels. The included journey log sheets are great, but of course I needed to make a notebook out of ours ;) Included maps are from great folks over at BoardGameGeek (source).
A few resources cluttering our cargo hold. We need more food.
A few resources cluttering our cargo hold. We need more food.
Component boxes/organizers made by yours truly as well. With a lot of trial and error.
Component boxes/organizers made by yours truly as well. With a lot of trial and error.
These monsters came out of nowhere and beat up poor Rafael.
These monsters came out of nowhere and beat up poor Rafael.

What we could have wished for

If there is anything we could have wished for in terms of components, it’s to get more durable options, such as magnetic boxes for everything (not just the Quest/Adventure box), and even a campaign notebook instead of a pad of journey logs.

That said, having more premium components and storage would surely bring the price of this game up higher. While we think it would be worth the expense for this game, we also totally understand the need to keep it at a more affordable level. The components we received and expect from the retail version is already of great quality as-is.

Our personal journey log replaces our journey log sheet, and contains map notes for multiple campaigns, space for notes per game, a history of our scores, and a save game sheet we write in with a pencil.

And after all, upgrading your own game after purchasing is always possible, like the campaign notebook we made ourselves, and organizers are easy to DIY (or I’m pretty sure there will be some available commercially at some point).

Her POV

I am unabashedly a Ryan Laukat fan. I already had fairly high expectations from the game, and I was worried at the start if it would be as good as I hoped. Well… Sleeping Gods blew away my expectations. From the moment we’ve received the game, every session has been riveting for the both of us. The hours fly by, we forget to eat, we forget to sleep.

You know those whimsical and punch-you-in-the-gut moments when you’re playing an RPG video game or reading a book? They’re here. I cried at the first ending we encountered, while Dan was reading the ending. I cried at the second ending, this time with me reading it to him. I’m pretty sure I won’t cry at every ending, but it could be close.

You’re given a great glimpse of your crew’s backstory (very important!), and you build them up as the game progresses. But the beauty of the whole storyline is in the stories you make along the way. How your crew bonded together. Our shameful laughter over having that one scapegoat and receiver of all the bad luck (our Gary/Jerry/Larry, if you will) in the crew. How amazing nail-biting moments happen, how agonizing decisions must be made. While necessary, packing up the game was difficult: we wanted to play some more!

Saving our game in our DIY journey log notebook
Saving our game in our DIY journey log notebook

The mechanics are solid, and at first it was so cool trying to pinpoint which Ryan Laukat game the mechanic first surfaced. But sooner rather than later, the mechanic became so well integrated in the game that we never really thought of them anymore. We just played.

His POV

Just to get it out of the way: TL;DR I FREAKING LOVE THIS GAME! (cough) If you’re still interested in reading this biased Sleeping Gods review (which I will spend just gushing about this game), then strap in.

First off, just like most of Ryan Laukat’s games, the world is its main selling point. The way the mechanics work to accommodate the setting; the art (which is always gorgeous) that represents the world; and the well crafted narrative that helps build the world; they all combine into a living, breathing world.

I am more a fan of tabletop roleplaying games in general. But I often forgot that we were playing a board game at times. The board games I normally play may have a solid theme, but at the end of the day, I am in it for the game mechanics. But Sleeping Gods is so immersive that the mechanics almost take a back seat. They’re no pushover, but it’s just so perfectly balanced.

The mechanics are spot-on: resources can be scarce, and you'll try to hoard them when you can
The mechanics are spot-on: resources can be scarce, and you’ll try to hoard them when you can

Another thing that comes to mind when playing this game: it feels like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books that I used to consume when I was a kid. Develop it a little more, and you’ll have this game. This time, you are actually more involved in the story and not just simply reading through it.

I think this is the best game in Ryan Laukat’s portfolio. It feels like all the best things in his other games are perfectly distilled in this gem. Sleeping Gods is the perfect spiritual successor for the style of storytelling from Near and Far/Above and Below. It evokes the same curiosity that I had with the setting for The Ancient World.

Sleeping Gods review verdict

We were swept up into the stories in this world from the very first session we played. The mechanics were fluid and, once we had them down pat, didn’t get in the way of the narrative. The difficult choices we had to make were less about “winning” but about what the story compelled us to do.

Given all this, we feel that this is one of the best narrative board games out right now. It’s a beautiful blend of guided story-building and puzzle-crunching.

If you’re a board game and TRPG player like us, this is a must have. It blends the best parts of both mediums. If you’re more camp TRPG or camp board game, this game is still a great introduction to the other side of the spectrum of tabletop games.

There’s something here for everyone. You won’t regret your purchase if you do pick it up when it comes out on retail soon!

Also check out

If you liked Sleeping Gods, also check out the following games:

  • Arkham Horror: The Card Game, for a deck-building narrative game
  • T.I.M.E. Stories, for more storytelling adventures
  • Mansions of Madness, for a rich narrative campaign game

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