One of my fondest childhood memories was a night during a family holiday in Somerset when our parents, aunties and uncles all went out for dinner and our teenage cousin kept my brother and I entertained by constructing a make shift bar, serving us pretend cocktails all night. In the impressionable minds of an 8 and 10 year old - it was literally the best thing ever.
It was with this embedded memory of childhood excitement that I eagerly poured over the details of The Opulent by Black Locust Games, a game that offers players the experience of running their own speakeasy establishment in 1920s Atlantic City. It plays 1-4 and you each take on a distinct role within the fictional American night spot.
For many years board gaming has been an adversarial experience, but the rise in popularity of co-operative games like Pandemic, Flashpoint, and Police Precinct have admirably extolled values of working together. The Opulent takes this notion of joint enterprise and moves it into new territory, a barely chartered frontier of gaming known mysteriously as 'Asymmetry'. Compared to the recognisable universe of gaming, asymmetry is like the trippy bit at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey - it's far out and times you're not really sure how it all fits together. Each player will be experiencing a game that is unique and individual to them - different mechanics, pieces, goals and strategy. In The Opulent you all work together for the greater good of the establishment but everyone's experiences will greatly differ.
The heart of The Opulent are its patrons, a vibrant cross section of roaring twenties society, in an average shift at the club you'll be serving politicians, mobsters, aristocrats and celebrities. The aim of the game is to move the paying public around the establishment whilst keeping them happy, entertained and most importantly, relieving them of their hard earned dollars. Despite the peculiarities of asymmetry it's this sense of working towards a common cause and the spotlight 'doing your bit' with distinction that makes the game shine as a co-operative experience.
The first thing to greet any visiter to The Opulent is the Doorman. The Doorman's role is to manage the line of people patiently (and sometimes impatiently) waiting to get into the club and it's a delicate balancing act. The Doorman player's mini game involves rolling dice and matching the colours to the colour code of the clientele. You can only admit the punters whose colours you have rolled, and just like in real life, people hate a queue jumper.
Next to the Doorman sits the Band leader - there's a lot going on here, with four mini decks of cards representing four different instruments, the challenge being to use as many cards as you can to match the tempo and key of the song that's being played, the higher the score the more the crowd love it. Stumble out of tempo or start hitting bum notes and people will start booing you.
Next around the table sits the Bar, this is a straight up game of supply and demand, as you need to manage your stock of ice, liquor, fruit, beer etc whilst making sure that customers don't wait too long, or get fed up and wander off. The final role in The Opulent is the Manager, here we have a true jack of all trades, able to roll sleeves up and help out at any of the other stations, whist looking after high maintenance VIPs and of course, counting the cash.
Add to all this thematic extras like troublesome customers, club upgrades, random historical events, a fully functioning campaign mode and the ever present threat of getting closed down by Prohibition Agents, it would seem that The Opulent has all the raw ingredients to make the perfect gaming experience.
The thing is, it's alright but that's just about it. Our little gaming group are used to heavier games (COIN Series, Terra Mystica etc) and I found that people were drifting away a little when they were waiting for their turn to come back around. This sense of drift is I feel is compounded by the fact that each of the mini games, whilst unique and clever, are just a bit too basic to fully reel people in.
Asymmetry is all well and good, but at the end of the day everyone just ends up playing their own little game and as a result, a night with The Opulent feels like 4 people having 4 different conversations at a single pub table.
The issue with the doorman role is that the it's just too basic, matching the colours to the card types is novel at first but quickly becomes as simplistic as playing the 'spot a green car' game out of the window on a family road trip. The band station is far more nuanced but only seems to make sense to the person playing it, watching them sit there and nervously study various cards makes the person manning this station look like someone who can't find their bank card. Playing the manager makes me feel like my mum with visitors at the house, constantly asking people if they need a 'top up' or if they need anything. The bar is by far the best role, allowing you to fulfil your lifelong ambition of being Tom Cruise in Cocktail, but if you take a moment to look up from flipping your drinks shaker in front of your adoring customers you'll notice the rest of the The Opulent staff eyeing you with resentment because you bagged the coolest role.
In closing, The Opulent should be commended for its unique approach, I love the concept, implementation and components, but it is its simplicity and downtime that cause participants to 'check out' and start thinking about getting their coat and having a night cap at home instead.