Orgies, gods, and escape: card game Bacchanalia is bogged down by rules and oddly meaningless sex
PAX East was a cornucopia of surprises this year. Divekick became a viral sensation, Blizzard announced a card game of all things and, while walking through the tabletop area, I picked up a card game because I saw a half-naked woman and a satyr on the box.
“What is this about?” I asked the man behind the table. A card-based, short-form roleplaying game where you are a Roman citizen on the run from the law, trying to find your love so you can both escape. Slight complication: the gods are watching, and this is the time of the bacchanalia, a hedonistic celebration full of orgies, drunkenness, and revelry to honor Bacchus, the Wine God.
Bacchanalia plays very similar to Fiasco, in that players will take turns narrating short scenes in which their characters perform certain actions. Your actions are determined by the cards you draw, and the associated rules. Here's how it works:
The deck is split into two types of cards: Deus and Umbra. Deus cards represent characters and gods, while the Umbra are their associated symbols. For example, a Satyrus Deus card shows the satyr creature, while the Satyrus Umbra card shows his pan flute.
The game begins when players give each other cards set aside from the Deus deck and, once that has been completed, drawing Umbra cards until you have four. The Umbra cards are placed underneath their associated Deus card, and whichever has the most becomes the Ruling Deus. The Ruling Deus will affect what players do with their cards and their scenes.
Let's say my Ruling Deus ends up being the Accusator, the person who is accusing me of a crime against the Empire. I flip to the rules and see that first, I must draw a Miles Deus card, and place the Accusator Deus card in the middle of the table. The rules also dictate that, when I start my narration, the scene must change location. During my narration, I must either foreshadow the threat of guards and the accusator coming after me, or describe the accusator confronting me, depending on how many other cards have been drawn.
It's a system that takes some getting used to, partly because cards are so reliant on each other. Does your Ruling Deus do this or that? Well, how many Parcae cards have appeared?
What's a Parcae card do? That depends on if the Amans card has been drawn. You'll likely have to read the instructions over several times before you understand them, and even then, some practice rounds will be necessary.
It doesn't help that English is not the game's first language, so there are plenty of grammatical errors, and the organization of the rules can be hard to follow. The first time the game tells you how to draw cards is also the first time a discard pile and the concept of unclaimed Deus cards come up. The first step in how to play can't go a single sentence before telling you to reference step six, and step two likewise tells you to look at step seven.
This is a card game, not a 300-page rulebook, so condensing the rules probably needed to happen, but it's still frustrating to be introduced to concepts out of turn and be told to flip to another rule you don't understand so that you can understand the first rule.
Cool story, Bro-cchus
Once you get playing, the goal of the game is actually quite simple: escape the city with your lover, and there are several ways the game can come to a close. You can successfully escape, you can get caught by the guards and die, you can choose to sacrifice yourself so your lover can live, you can keep your life but never see your love again, or you can get so caught up in the debauchery and hedonism of the bacchanalia that you are stolen from the mortal world to forever serve in Bacchus' court.
Every scene my friends and I played out did so entertainingly, and this was partly fueled by the cards; since a card will sometimes force you to confront your accusator, change scenes, experience the bacchanalia, or even talk to a god, there was never any meandering about or moments of “I don't know what I do.” The problem is that many scenes can feel rather pointless.
Let's say my Ruling Deus card is the Satyrus. This card does not require any card actions, nor is it reliant on the Parcae card. The only guides it sets forth are that the scene must change location, and the player must describe sexual decadence. The game gives an example of a player's character moving through the streets until he sees a crowd of people watching a woman dance. One member of the crowd is visibly pleasuring himself.
Sure, that's great flavor for the setting, and that sort of behavior is probably historically accurate, but what purpose does it serve, other than to remind players of the sexual nature of the bacchanalia? I once had a D&D character who took a Feat that gave her +2 Wisdom, so long as she had sex within the past 24 hours. Both of these examples could feature gratuitous tales that venture into borderline pornographic territory, but the D&D character's sexual behavior had a point, and an impact.
Bacchanalia's scenes of debauchery don't go anywhere, like someone telling you they found a $100 bill on the street, and not telling you what they did with it. Cool story bro, but what does it matter? It takes some of the fun out of playing, because it feels less like a game, and more like a group of people being crass for crassness' sake. Yes that can be fun, but you don't need cards and a rulebook to do it.
What is this sorcery?
While my initial playthroughs of Bacchanalia were somewhat disappointing, there is one neat little trick the game pulls: if you have an iPad, iPhone, or Android device, you can download an app called Aurasma. Aurasma is an augmented reality service that companies can use to host AR compatible programs, and Narrattiva, the company behind Bacchanalia, boasts that is the first company to use the technology in a card game.
Once you've downloaded Aurasma, simply point your device so the camera frames one of the game's Deus cards. The booklet included with the card game and the Bacchanalia website both promise that the character will “come to life” and explain the rules. That sounds exciting, but the reality, while nifty, is very gimmicky.
The character won't “come to life” in any spectacular way, which is a shame considering how beautiful the art is. Instead, the card will simply open like a book to reveal the instructions you would find in the small booklet that comes packaged with the game.
As far as I could tell, there was no voice acting for either the native Italian or English versions of this AR feature, so you're really not getting anything out of the experience you couldn't get by looking in the book, which would take less time – and battery power – anyway.
I was very excited by Bacchanalia when I picked it up at PAX East, but the reality didn't live up to the expectations. The drunken debauchery and intensely sexual nature of the game aren't the issue, the issue is that they don't serve any game-oriented purpose.
Fiasco did a wonderful job of keeping players involved with one another while making each scene feel like progress towards an end goal.
Bacchanalia's scenes feel like detours of characters getting distracted by something shiny and going off on their own to describe said shiny thing. There's little interaction or sense of competition among players, but the greatest sin is that it just doesn't feel like much of a game.
For a game that so heavily features a god who plays with mortals, the irony is palpable.