The full moon illuminates the black cobble streets, and leery citizens leave their lights on in fear of the mischievous miscreants that stalk the night. All manner of ne'er do wells and no-goodniks use London at night to fill their coffers and their enemy's coffins in a charming Dickensian setting. Antihero is a digital board game created by Tim Conkling and published by Versus Evil (Banner Saga series and Guild of Dungeoneering) where you ransack homes for gold and taking over businesses for resources. With an art style that can only be described as a colorful chibi Darkest Dungeon style and a charm that can be best summarized with this musical trailer, Antihero is a delightfully wicked heist game.
In the demo provided, there was no story to experience. However, Tim Conkling promises the full release will come with a story-driven campaign of around 10 levels. Based on the trailers and visuals that are available right now, it's safe to assume that whatever the story will be, it will likely be darkly humorous and wickedly whimsical. Hopefully each character the player can choose from in the versus modes will have some personality and part to play in the story, as they each have a unique and interesting look.
Players familiar with other board games, digital or otherwise, such as Settlers of Catan will quickly get comfortable with Antihero. However, where in Settlers of Catan you were encouraged to trade with other players to build longer roads and bigger settlements, Antihero requires you to steal and stab your friends in order to maintain more profitable banks and use churches to secure blackmail, all while making sure your opponent has less than you (or nothing at all, if you're a true-blooded thief).
The game is played by two players, each of whom start off with a thieves guild and nothing else but their cunning. The map is covered in a dense fog that you will need to uncover by scouting out streets and buildings to learn who is hiding in the dark and what goodies can be found in homes and businesses. You won't be alone in your quest for infamy, however. By upgrading your guild, you can unlock various criminals to aid you in your efforts. Street urchins are used to occupy buildings, generating various resources depending on the building itself. Gangs become your enforcers, taking out thugs, rival gangs, and assassination targets, as well as evicting urchins from your enemy's buildings. Urchins, gangs, and thugs will be your main stays on the streets of London, but more specialized members of your guild can be recruited as you upgrade your guild.
Upgrading your guild is vital to victory, and should be done every turn unless you need to save up for the next tier (in which case you should use that turn to steal from charity to help you reach that goal sooner). Upgrades are purchased via lanterns, which can only be gained by occupying trade houses, upgrading your guild to produce one lantern a turn, and sometimes from ransacking homes (though that's rare). Lanterns can also be used to purchase bribes, which go toward your victory points, but more on those later.
In addition to lanterns, a good thief will want to gather up as much gold as they can in a single turn and spend it wisely on recruiting more merry men of mischief and malice. Gold is gained primarily from burglary, but occupying a bank and church also produces gold each turn. In addition, taking out neutral and enemy thugs will help go toward funding your fiendish empire. Having two resources means you'll never have to decide between an upgrade or an urchin, so long as you have the lanterns and gold for both, and makes resource management a little less stressful.
Taking over businesses, carrying out assassinations, and gathering blackmail and bribes all go toward your end goal of gaining six victory points before your opponent, thus winning the game. Victory points can be gained in a variety of ways, suiting a variety of playstyles. If you prefer the strong arm approach, taking out assassination targets will net you their skull (I assume to drink wine out of and make a mess when it pours out the eye sockets). If you'd rather buy your way to victory, you can spend your lanterns on bribes. Most means of victory points are limited, however. There are only three bribes available in a game, and assassination targets become stronger and rarer as each one falls, so be prepared to diversify a bit if your opponent starts to catch up.
Currently there were four maps to choose from, three of which had a unique element that offered victory in a new and challenging way. In the "Masquerade" map, there are party invitations scattered throughout the city in random homes. Burgle these homes and send your urchins and thugs to the ball, masked and ready to steal from the snobby upper class. A castle themed map requires you to control two guard towers before you can sneak into the palace and steal the family treasure (an actual requirement for victory, rather than an option like in other maps). The variety of maps with their own features means you will have to change your strategy slightly on each one to take advantage of the unique victory points. More maps and features are promised for the full release.
Of course, your main obstacle in the game will be the other thief, be they player or AI. Your stations will never be safe for long, as an enemy player can send either a gang or a (very creepy) truant officer to eject the urchins from inside. Use thugs to block the enemy's path or set bombs in your buildings to stun any criminals that don't have your interests in mind. You can even set up a trap in the enemy's buildings to keep them from fully staffing it with three urchins. While things may be going swimmingly at first, most of the map covered and fog and your opponent never showing their face, if you're not careful you can lose everything in just a few turns. It's wise to explore near your opponent's side, so you can see what kind of resource generators they have, and plan on how best to take it from them.
While your crew of criminals all have very set tasks, the master thief's job is a bit more varied. Movement is only limited by the fog of areas you've yet to visit. It's up to the master thief to scout out these tiles in order to allow their minions to travel through. While you may be able to see a business, until the master thief scouts it out, it will be unavailable for urchin-occupation. With the right upgrade, the player's main character can use a dagger once a turn to get rid of thugs blocking the path, guarding mansions, or help out in taking down assassination targets. When there are no fog-covered tiles you want to scout, or backs you want to stab, on your turn, send your thief into homes to gain coins. This is an abundant, but limited, means of gold gathering, so take advantage but don't rely on it. All of these actions require the use of an action point, the number of which can be upgraded in your guild screen.
It might sound like a lot to keep track of, but the tutorial helps you to quickly understand the ins-and-outs of master thievery. From there, it's all about strategy and ruthlessness in order to win. At present, there are nine different thieves to choose from. The selection of your master thief will not grant you unique bonuses; the different thieves are purely cosmetic.
Antihero is presented in an incredibly charming art style that gives each of the criminals a personality all their own. Characters look gruff and untrustworthy, but also charming in their design. A primarily darker shade to the majority of the map, the different districts are colored to let you know, on sight, what they have to offer. Green districts have trade, yellow is populated by banks, orange is for bars, etc. A fully explored map changes the drab shade of the fog-covered streets and replaces it with an rainbow of thieving potential.
The game also excels in its sound. The music is a classic Victorian style, which plays in a soothing melody that ensures that even when you're losing, you won't get too agitated by the twist of fate (and twist of the knife). The sound of coins and lanterns leaping from buildings and into your pockets is deeply satisfying. Even the death gurgles of slain gangs and distinguished targets manage to put a smile on the player's face (you monster). The only addition I'd like to see is a variety in music, unique to each map. Some ambient noises, like seagulls at the docks or the clinking of wine glasses as the masquerade, would also help to liven up the overall experience and breathe life into the city.
Even in its unfinished state Antihero is worth the current discounted price of $11.99. When the game releases later this summer, it will come with a story mode, more maps, and more multiplayer features. The game is a more lively, and dark, version of games like Settlers of Catan, giving it its own "Oliver-twist," as the game description states.
There's a lot of fun to be had with Antihero already, but with more promised features for the full release, it's a title I'm looking forward to. I would like to see the player total get increased to about four, with of course an even bigger map to compensate. This could possibly throw off the game balance considerably, but it could also make for some great moments of forging alliances with another player in order to unseat another rival, only to have to betray one another when the time for victory arrives.