Forked-tongue-wagging in the Sorcerer’s Sewing Circle

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Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” ~Genesis 3: 1-4

I discovered a game at GenCon this year that took hold of me instantly. It struck me with the nostalgia of the first time I picked up a copy of Mage: The Ascension, and was drawn in by the genre of modern mystics in role-playing games. This kind of game is right up my alley, and I can’t believe I completely missed out on the Kickstarter for it. I only found out about it on the last day of GenCon when I happened by the booth for it. Christopher Gabrielsson, the lead designer, was giving a demo, but I didn’t have time to stay for it. All I could do was snap a picture of their banner, and check it out when I got home. Serpent’s Tongue, the game in question, was seemingly designed especially for guys like me.

Serpent’s Tongue is a spellcasting card game for 1 to 8 players by UnBound Games. This card game, however, is unlike any other.

Games such as Magic: The Gathering simply have you tapping resources, playing cards, and resolving effects, The Serpent’s Tongue takes this a few steps further. First of all, selection of spells to play is not random. Each player has a physical grimoire of spells that they can select from, eliminating many of the most frustrating random elements of game play, and gearing the experience more towards strategy.
Second, this is being touted by it’s creators as a card game, a role-playing game, and a board game, all in one. That’s a pretty tall order, but let’s break it down one aspect at a time (paraphrased from the website):

“Serpent’s Tongue is a Spell Casting Card Game”
“The game is an immersive magick simulation that minimizes the random elements present in many card games. It was designed for 1 to 8 players, and to use the same resources for cooperative and competitive play…each player is a Magi in possession of a spellbook (called your Codex) containing up to 27 spells (which are never shuffled and never random), 1 Specialization, which can be leveled up to gain powerful abilities and 1 Artifact.
You command the honed personal energies of a Magi: Essence, Focus & Will,  as well as two universal energies: Resonance, and Harmony. These energies are collected and combined to cast spells and activate abilities.
Players use their magick in strategic battles of wit and mastery to achieve a victory condition with the aid of their team. (There are variable victory conditions depending on what mode you are playing or what rituals a player casts.)  The battles are different than other magic-themed card games, they are close and personal, relying on direct spells, shields, buffs and curses rather than summoning a vast army. You can play against other players, cooperatively  against a Challenge, or part of an epic story in GM-less campaigns.”

Nice. Very nice. You had me at your tagline “become magi.” It sounds pretty similar to quite a few dueling card games, but to simplify it to something like “creatureless Mage Wars” would be an injustice to the game itself. Solo play, on the other hand, is new to me. It’s interesting that you can play this as a kind of “Sorcerous Solitaire,” but in my opinion, it’s more fun with friends! This game is also one of very few TCGs games that allows a game as massive as eight players.

I’m not sure how I feel about the “rather than summoning a vast army” part. While it may not be a core mechanic of the game, I think the complete nixing of creature summoning is a missed opportunity. Perhaps we’ll see future spells to summon allies? I don’t need an army of undead soldiers, but a summoning of an otherworldly critter or two will do!

“Serpent’s Tongue is a Solo & Group Experience.
When we say that Serpent’s Tongue is a game for 1 to 8 players, we mean it. The solo experience is not something we’ve tacked on; the Encounter pages are designed for a solo Magi to have a trying and rewarding experience. We’ve created them in such a way that they also scale to many more players, so inviting friends over to “help” is an option as well. (The core set contains two Codices and over 100 cards for a reason.) Additionally, higher-level spells will require familiarity with the language and the cards in your Codex, and spending time with them really heightens the feeling of accruing magickal knowledge.”

"Is your third eye opened?" Detective Lassiter asks if you're psychic. Well? Are you, Spencer?

“Is your third eye opened?”
Detective Lassiter asks if you’re psychic. Well? Are you, Spencer?

“Serpent’s Tongue is a Language of Magick.
As part of your turn, you must speak the words or letters inscribed on your cards. These words are all part of a language built for the game; the language of Sehimu Thinara.  Dont worry, each spell has a glyph which, when matched up to the Serpent’s Key in your Spell Codex, will allow you to cast lower level spells on the fly without study. Higher level spells, WILL require some magickal training however.
This, if you wish, is as far as you ever need to delve into the language. However, there is much more available to those who wish to drink deeply of the language of creation. We have over 1,500 translated words and a full grammar designed to allow full communication in the language of Magi.”

This game has it’s own fakey, made-up language that you actually have to speak, and hand gestures you have to perform to cast spells! If you don’t realize how awesome this is, you were probably one of the poor saps who didn’t know how cool it was a couple of decades ago to combine Sulphurous Ash, a Black Pearl, and shout “VAS FLAM” to cast a Fireball! (A shout out to all my fellow Avatars in Britannia!)

This game’s system of speak-and-gesture spellcasting is both its greatest strength, and its biggest weakness.  This represents one of the two fears I have about this game.

You have a game in which the player’s actual skill in speech and memorization dictates skill in casting spells, rather than their ability to buy some mega-expensive game winning spell for his or her deck, allowing the card to do all of the work. This is an awesome game concept, but incredibly risky. It’s a sad fact that there are many lazy gamers out there, who do not wish to be bothered with learning funny words or hand gestures. They want to tip some cards on their sides, and say “I cast X, you take 10 damage.” Under this formula, the player across the table may have that Tactical Nuclear Strike spell, but doesn’t have the luxury of just tapping it and telling you it does damage to you. Now, that person has to memorize a tongue-twister in a made up language, and wave his hand around performing a weird gesture to get any use out of that card. You’ve moved the skill of using a card from familiarity of its mechanics to rote memory, an ability to decode a chart, and a touch of manual dexterity. This may cause some to immediately shut down this game. In fact, I’ve already seen some accusations of the game being “stupid” for this very reason. I don’t agree with this “astute critique” in the slightest, but it is very much out there.

Related to the above, this game will push many outside their comfort zone. Players don’t want to feel silly, and I’m not even going to get into the stigma that LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) has attached to it. This game flirts with the “dreaded” LARP like a drunken frat boy hoping to to score with the moody chick sitting by herself at the end of the bar, and it can only end up messy. While I’m loathe to condemn it for this, as I’m not opposed to a LARP set being made for this game, I’m certain some folks would treat this game like it was covered in Anthrax.

"Say 'Kotukh' again! Say 'Kotukh' again! I dare ya! I DOUBLE-DARE ya, mutha-f@3!er! Say 'Kotukh' ONE MORE GOD-DAMNED TIME!!!"

“Say ‘Kotukh’ again! Say ‘Kotukh’ again! I dare ya! I DOUBLE-DARE ya, mutha-f@3!er! Say ‘Kotukh’ ONE MORE GOD-DAMNED TIME!!!”

“Serpent’s Tongue can also be a Board Game.
Included in our initial launch is a project we’ve called the Sacred Sites Expansion. This is a set of Codex pages which can be removed from your spellbook and used as a physical game board. In addition to the normal rules, these locations add area control, range and tactical movement to the game.”

Out of the core game set, they designed the incorporation of board game elements if you wish to play it as such. I remember thinking it was a huge innovation in TCGs when Magic released it’s Planechase game variant. Serpent’s Tongue has it designed into it’s initial release. It’s my hope that UnBound will have more in store for us than just “variants of Sacred Sites.” I’d really like to see every board game portion of the game to reflect a new experience. Perhaps we’ll see a classic dungeon-crawl board variant? The possibilities are many!

“Serpent’s Tongue is an Augmented Reality Game (ARG).
Our goal is to provide “An experience that will blur the lines of reality and give you a glimpse of true power.” If you choose, you can pursue the story we’ve integrated with reality. We’ve hidden story elements throughout nearly every facet of the game, and many facets outside of the game. People who enjoy puzzles, conspiracy, or scavenger hunts will find fun and rewards in these elements. Every puzzle you solve has the chance of providing you more insight to the world of Serpent’s Tongue in addition to Avak’Shar points.”

This sounds awfully similar to The Merlin Mystery; a children’s puzzle book from the late 90’s. They offered a sizeable cash reward for anyone who could solve the mystery and unravel the spell secreted in it’s pages. Not one (of 30,000+) of the entries won the prize.

I wonder how this will work? Is this limited to one (or a set number of) lucky winner(s), or is it free for all? If it’s free for all, will it be policed at all? What’s to stop folks from posting spoilers? I’m not certain how I feel about this thus far. On the one hand, it seems like so many people would have to be the FIRST to get the new stuff and spend time in a race to figure things out in order to beat every other person playing Serpent’s Tongue. On the other hand, I’m sure some spoil-sport malefactor would have a website devoted to giving out the answers to each puzzle, taking any and all challenge out of the whole thing. I don’t think I care for either one.
We’ll see how it all plays out. It’s still an interesting concept, nonetheless. I like the feeling of taking that journey to learn secret lore and discover new spells.

The codices actually look like an authentic wizard's grimoire. Each page is unique and holds a spell card of its own. If you were to tell me that this ISN'T completely awesome, I would call you a liar.

The codices actually look like an authentic wizard’s grimoire. Each page is unique and holds a spell card of its own. If you were to tell me that this ISN’T completely awesome, I would call you a liar.

“Serpent’s Tongue is a Role Playing Game (RPG).
We stated from the beginning, “Our goal is to create one of the most memorable gaming experiences of your life.” For many of us, this means sitting with our friends telling a story, making lasting decisions, and BEING a powerful figure. Starting with our Out of Eden campaign, we will be providing socially-driven, interactive story modules that require no GM. You (and a bunch of friends if you want) will fight battles, work with story elements, and–ultimately–decide the fate of the world in which all other Magi live. How? Through the Magi Nexus we’ll gather all participants decisions and use those choices to charter the path through each module component.”

A ROLE-PLAYING GAME as well? This is indeed a very ambitious game! It sounds like Serpent’s Tongue is using a more nebulous definition for a role-playing game, however. It really depends on how these GM-less games run. I wonder if these “GM-less games” run similar to the old choose your own adventure books, like the Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quest books, or the adventures of Lone Wolf or Grey Star the Wizard?

Well, according to the website, the Out From Eden campaign has decision trees, plot points, and an actual story arc.  It has a Karma tracking system that has the game react to you based on the decisions you make in the game. Collectively, the entire Serpent’s Tongue community essentially “votes” on story decisions through this Karma tracking, as well. While it’s not the first time that a game to do something like this, it’s possibly the most intuitive and proactive one to date.

The game claims to be an evolving, sandbox world in which players are bound by time. Some tasks and opportunities will close as time runs out on them, as magi have much to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. How far-reaching these missed opportunities are remains to be seen. Will this bar some from certain new cards? Will some acquisitions be available that aren’t to others? Are these just story decisions? There are so many mysteries to unfold when this game launches!

“Serpent’s Tongue is a Stand Alone game and an Adapative TCG.
The Magi’s Chest has enough content in it to provide you and another player hundreds of hours of spell casting in multiple modes. The Magi’s Chest is also designed to include very powerful, competitive & efficient spells. Your collection is expandable however through an Adaptive TCG model, which has been designed from the ground up to be non-exploitative, and avoid ‘power-creep’ or pay to win elements.  HOW? Each Inscription Pack, Mystery Path Goal, and substantial social interaction carries with it Avak’Shar points. These Avak’Shar points can be redeemed online for any specific card or item of your choice. Thus every Inscription pack includes a ‘wild’ card. No more vain (and expensive) searching for that one card! Also Rare cards tend to be higher level spells, and your codex will only hold a few Magi & Master level spells. Thus a massive collection will provide you OPTIONS, but not necessarily more power.”

All of these things offered by Serpent’s Tongue, while awesome on paper, bring me to my second fear about this game: Delivering on those promises.

Unbound Games is promising that this game is going to be an immersive, augmented-reality card game that can also be played as a board game, a GM-less role-playing game that makes you feel like a real mage, uncovering secrets and unearthing new spells through real-world puzzle solving, interaction with game-related conspiracies and plots, and changing a living campaign setting through interaction and decision-making through play. That is an epic undertaking. As far as games go, this is setting a very high bar from which Serpent’s Tongue will either lift itself up to touch the stars, or make themselves a rope to hang themselves from.

My hope is that this game lives up to its hype. The game will have to be searching for new ways to keep itself fresh. The board game expansions after Sacred Sites will have to feel different from their predecessors. Certainly, you can reuse a concept, but a stream of re-skinned Sacred Sites boards with the same gameplay is lame. Each RPG campaign after Out From Eden should feel unique, and be so much more than the sum of its parts (i.e.: a book of renamed encounters to blow through). People can’t look at an expansion and think: “I already bought this. This just has new art and labels.”

The game will need new spells and ways of performing magic, or new spell types, or summons, or rituals, or environmental changes, or any matter of new things you could add to the game. I urge Unbound Games to not let this game stagnate after release. Don’t rest on your laurels!

Granted, this game isn’t even out yet and I’m doom-saying, but don’t mistake that for hating. I’ve been waiting for a game like everything this thing promises to be for a very long time. I hope it’s wildly successful!

I just fear that it might just flop and be buried in the dreaded crypt of failed and unappreciated games. Serpent’s Tongue, I believe, deserves better than this.

There IS something that sticks in my craw about this game, however. It’s the use of “Magi” as singular AND plural, because that’s totally fallacious. The singular of Magi is Magus (or Maga, if you’re a lady). Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty minor, but for someone who has had ten semesters of Classical Latin, this is like hearing someone say “a geese,” “a mice,” or “a women.”

What’s really weird about all of this is that this isn’t some sort of linguistic obscura, like knowing what a split-infinitive is, or what the pluperfect tense is… and it doesn’t even require a Latin dictionary to figure out. You can look this word up in an ENGLISH dictionary and see the definition; “Plural of Magus.”

What’s even weirder is how vehemently this term is defended. My question is this: “In a game where it’s a rule to be precise about grammar, pronunciation, and word usage in a FICTIONAL language, why are we so lackadaisical with a NON-FICTIONAL (albeit dead) language?”

I got all of the B.S. hand-waving and nerd ridicule about it already.

"OooOOOoohhhh...how frustrated thou must be, novice, that thy knowledge of the tongues of mutes offers thee no help!" Yeah, yeah, yeah... kiss my ass, Mandrake.

“OooOOOoohhhh…how frustrated thou must be, novice, that thy knowledge of the tongues of mutes offers thee no help!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah… kiss my ass, Mandrake.

This whole grammar-flub, while annoying, was not a game-breaker for me. In fact, I had even made the concession of “it’s the game creator’s prerogative. It’s weird, but I’ll get used to it.”

This, of course, leads me to the the thing that WAS almost a game-breaker for me. I broke my cardinal rule about new games…again.

I visited the forums.

There are a few games I don’t care for playing because I have bad experiences attached to them. They may be great games, but the one sour experience makes me reluctant to play any of them. For example, I don’t like playing Twilight Imperium because my fiancee and I first played it with a socially-stunted basement-dweller who thinks he’s the only person in the room with a college education. I finally threatened to send him home from the game store with missing teeth after repeated requests to stop addressing my fiancee like she’s bimbo with an IQ in the single-digits. Does this make Twilight Imperium a bad game? Of course not. I don’t like playing it because when I do I’m reminded of how much I wanted to tear that ugly red neck-beard off of the fat, pimple-faced jackhole who continuously insulted a sweet gamer girl who has never done anything bad to anyone.

I don’t know why I keep breaking my rule. I almost ruined both Mage Wars and Shadowrun for myself by visiting forums. Repeatedly doing the same task with the expectation that the outcome may eventually change is arguably the definition of stupidity, and that’s on me. However, there are a few things that pissed me off to the point of reconsidering this game.

I got into possibly the most retarded argument over a single word, and you can probably guess what it was.

Was I a bit annoyed by my dismissal within my first couple posts? Certainly.

Was I upset when someone had a puerile temper tantrum filled with heavy-handed opinion passed off as fact? Was I upset at the complete dismissal of my entire field of study by making a straw man argument out of the English language, and then the rebuke for me “being hung up on ‘silly vibrations of the air?” Yes.

Could I have made a lengthy rebuttal? YES! I have an English degree hanging on the wall that isn’t just for show.

What did I actually do?

I did the hard thing.

I apologized for causing offense. It was never even my intention to start an argument. Some might see this as “being submissive.” I see it as walking away from the crap I thought I left behind in high school.

Certainly, this person went on to give a 6-post etymology lesson for everyone, to repair the perceived damage done to their ego. (so much for “not being hung up on vibrations of the air”) I’m certain that this person believes that they gave me a verbal smackdown, or “pwned” me, or whatever the term is now. If that makes this person sleep better at night, then he (or she) may have it. I’ve dealt with bigger tools, and more insufferable dick-weasels. I haven’t been back on the boards since, and I don’t intend to go back.

I had a problem, however. I was SUPER-stoked for this game. I couldn’t stop talking about it.
Then, I found myself reconsidering a purchase. I must have stared at the computer screen in silent debate for an hour, with my finger over my mouse button, ready to click “complete transaction” on my preorder of the Serpent’s Tongue Master’s Set. It really bothered me. I wanted to love this game, but the only experience I have of it before it’s even out is a sour forum experience. The fortunate thing, however, is that I completed my order, paid my $90, and now I’m in for the long-haul. After sleeping on it (and a lovely dinner at The Olive Garden with my fiancee), I feel better about it. I still love everything this game wants to be. I’m confident that this game will be everything it boasts….90 dollars confident.

I can’t wait to get my wizardly mitts on this game, to play the hell out of it, and to give it a proper review.
I urge everyone out there to, at the VERY least, try this game out. Better yet, preorder your copy today!

This is what I call a very sexy game. If I treat her nice, buy some drinks, and play my cards right (pun intended), maybe we can make some magic happen!

This is what I call a very sexy game. If I treat her nice, buy some drinks, and play my cards right (pun intended), maybe we can make some magic happen!

Buy your copy of Serpent’s Tongue HERE!

A bit of advice, however…stay away from the forums.

The spell is cast, and my time for now is done. I hope you leave enlightened. Perhaps I’ll see some of you in the Serpent’s Tongue circuit!

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Posted on November 3, 2013, in Board Games, Collectible Card Games, Role-Playing Games, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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