We were a little pressed for time. One of our group of four had to go to work in about an hour and a half. We'd just finished up a game of Puerto Rico, with our soon-to-be-out-the-door man (Steve) having won the game. I suggested that we break out Martin Wallace's new game, The Witches, and there was a general sort of outcry that it being a Martin Wallace game, there wasn't any way that it could be taught and played in the amount of time we had left. I assured them that in spite of Mr. Wallace's penchant for elegant complexity in games that can often take two or three hours to play, this one was not like that; that without breaking a sweat, it could be taught, comprehended and played in plenty of time for Steve to get to work on time.
We made it with time to spare.
"I don't think the game will hold much appeal to experienced gamers," said Wallace in an interview with Kris Hall of The Opinionated Gamers, this past May. "It's a simple (role-playing) board game, where each player takes the role of a trainee witch and has to solve problems. You feed up on the simple problems before you take on the hard ones.
"What I can say," he added, "is that I think it is the only game in existence where players have to meet up for tea."
Our gang of four, experienced gamers all, had a good time with it, although all acknowledged that it didn't really have a lot of meat on its bones. Didn't seem to matter. Steve's impending exit was assisted by the fact that the game is something of a race against time, anyway, and its bare-bones mechanics are extremely simple to explain - Draw a card to determine where on the board a problem is about to arise, move your playing piece (by walking to adjacent spots or flying, via broomstick) to a location of your choosing (not necessarily the place where the new problem arose at the start of your turn) and see if you can solve a problem.
The problems are numbers written on tiles; easier ones in the 7-12 range, harder ones in the 16-23 range. Each of the tiles on which these numbers can be found is identified with a less abstract issue, like "sick sheep," for which the number is 9, or "fever," for which the number is 7, or "death," which bears the number 12. "Broken limb" is apparently just a little less difficult than "death" to fix, because its number is 11. The harder problems are generally nefarious characters, drawn from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett (more on these a little later), which inspired this Wallace design; Lankin the Elf is a "19" problem. The Cunning Man is a "19" problem, too. There are four types of Elven tiles, which, in addition to their problem solving number (16 for each of four Elves, 19 for Lankin the elf, 20 for the King of the Elves, and 22 for the Queen of the Elves) create a bit of a mutual problem for all players involved. If three of the four types are on the board, face up, at the end of someone's turn, everybody loses.
The solution to these problems are dice; four of them. On your turn, you roll two to see if your chances of solving the problem are good or bad, at which point, you can retreat, gracefully, or press on. If you press on, you roll the other two dice. If the total of the dice equals or exceeds the problem number on the tile, you get the tile and put it on your Trainee Witch Display. Failure has varied consequences, depending on the situation. In addition to the problem number, each of these tiles has a victory point number, with, as might be expected, more victory points associated with solving harder problems like the Queen of the Elves, who'd get you six victory points. Curing the sick sheep, by contrast, will only earn you a single victory point. Fixing death is apparently worth less than messing with the Queen of the Elves, because it will only earn you three victory points. Player with the most victory points at the end of the game wins.
There are some added mechanics, like a hand of cards, three at the start, which can be used on your turn to do things like boost your dice rolls, or solve problems without using dice, or sneak through sites on the board (an invisibility option) without having to confront the problems there (normally mandatory). Every time you have solved two, easy problems, you get to increase your hand size, up to seven maximum, which can be helpful when you start tackling the harder problems, with their higher dice total requirements. Every time you collect two hard problems, you can add +1 to your dice roll, up to a maximum of four. If you've successfully solved four hard problems, you've probably won the game. In our little foursome, each of us had only one hard problem solved by game's end, which, by the way, can happen when the active player places the last of the problem tiles onto the board; at the start, in a four-player game, there are 10 hard tiles, and 18 easy tiles to be placed, along with nine easy tiles and five hard tiles which are on the board when the game actually begins.
The "tea" experience noted by Wallace is related to the fact that when you enter a space occupied by one of your fellow witch trainees, you are required to stop for tea; "just etiquette," say the rules. Stopping for tea allows you to get rid of three "cackle" tokens, which are picked up when on your dice roll, one (or more) of the dice shows a "cackle" symbol (equal to "0" for calculating dice totals). These "cackle" tiles can accumulate to the point where you might have to pick up a Black Alis tile, which will deduct one victory point from your total for each of these you have at the end of the game.
It is a family game, albeit one in which the idea that 'pregnancy' is something that can be fixed by a witch trainee, might require some parental guidance. To 'solve' the pregnancy requires a dice roll of 10, with a reward of two victory points, making it a little less difficult than death with one less reward.
We liked it, the four of us, and based on the 'race against time' feel to it, we'd likely pick it up again, even without the meat on its bones. The artwork by Peter Dennis is top-notch, as is the quality of its components, with the possible exception of the unremarkable player tokens, rendered in primary-colors plastic, which resemble witch's hats. A Collector's version is available which replaces these with pewter figurines.
Having just been released, The Witches has picked up only 42 ratings, to date, on BoardGameGeek, with an average rating of 6.31. It is apparently, based on some accompanying comments, more popular with fans of Pratchett's books, some of whom could care less about its playability, and are fans of the game because of its link to the much-loved Discworld novels.
The Witches is the second of three planned designs by Wallace, relating to Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, which began in 1983 with the publication of The Colour of Magic. The fictional Discworld is a flat disc, balanced on the back of four elephants, which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle. As of a couple of years ago, more than 70 million copies of 39 Discworld novels have sold in 37 languages. Until J.K. Rowling came along and introduced Harry Potter to the world, Pratchett was the UK's best-selling author through the 1990s. Two years ago, Wallace designed and released the first of these novel-inspired games - Discworld: Ankh Morpork. I was sent a copy of this game by Mayfair at the time, but for reasons that escape me at the moment, I wasn't able to get it out onto a table for play, prior to a review. I can tell you, having resurrected it from my shelves for a look and sometime soon, will get it out onto a table for actual play, that it's a little more complicated than The Witches, though not by a lot. It's an area control game with a few Martin Wallace-like complications added to the process, which would never have hit the table successfully on that night when Steve had to get to work. The explanation is simple enough, but the task of actually accomplishing the game's objectives are much more difficult. Stay tuned for a report on Discworld: Ankh Morpork.
The Witches, designed by Martin Wallace, with artwork by Peter Dennis, is published by Mayfair Games, who provided me with a copy for review. It can be played by 2-4 people, and does come with both solo and co-operative variants. The time frame is an hour, maybe a little more or less, depending on the expertise of the gathered. The lower end of the age spectrum is set at 6-8. Hard to imagine a six-year-old playing it, but as I've noted about other games that dip that low into the age barrel, it depends on the six-year-old. It bears an MSRP of $50, and can be found at assorted outlets for less. Copies on the BoardGameGeek Marketplace have been seen for under $35.