The great war is over, and the good guys won. Specifically: the computerized good guys won. Humans lost. In Emergence, players team up to play as the computers, routing out the last few evil humans lurking in the ruins. Thing is, one or two of you are actually dirty humans, pretending to be honest, upstanding computers. Shocking.
Hidden traitor games are pretty popular right now, and Emergence is a decent entry in the field, being deeper than something like Spyfall, but faster and more straightforward than a Dark Moon. Gameplay is almost too easy, in fact, and relies on the social dynamic to keep the game interesting.
Emergence has players simultaneously programming their moves for the round, declaring which action they want to use with an action marker, and, interestingly, which color they want to be this round, depending on which side of their action marker they place face up. Then players execute their actions in turn order, starting with a first player that rotates one seat each round. When your turn comes up, you must move at least one space on the hex-tiled board (which is reconfigurable, so if you really dig the game you can try different layouts than just the suggested one). Then you may execute the action you planned, if you want, and if it still has value.
There are basic actions (interacting with the tile you are on, moving an extra space, restocking a data cube on the tile you are on) and advanced actions (doing a minor attack that steals cubes from another player, spying on their affiliation, or executing a major attack that steals cubes and knowledge and sends your victim back to the start space). Interacting with tiles will be your most common action. You use it when standing on one of four different colored tiles to take a corresponding cube from that tile (each such tile has one cube at the start of the game), on a white tile to turn cubes in knowledge tokens, and on a grey tile to call for players to spend their knowledge like votes to pick the winning team. If your team gets 10 of these “votes” for each member of your team, you win. The humans, as the persecuted minority, can also win by clearing the board of all cubes, erasing any evidence of their continued existence (one reason why you might want to spend your action, as a computer player, to restock a cube on a tile).
Programmed move games can be frustrating to play. You planned on spending your turn to do X, but the player before you took that move and now you’re out in the cold. Emergence actually deals with this fairly gracefully: because you need not declare where your mandatory move for the turn is going to take you until it is time to scoot, you can often adapt to unforeseen enemy action by going somewhere else. Additionally, if you program one of the advanced moves (which, incidentally, eat up your valuable knowledge tokens), and you no longer want to execute it, you can optionally spend one knowledge to bump down to a basic action of your choice.
Balancing this egalitarian treatment of your programmed moves is the limiting color choice system. When you program your move, you pick either blue (electromechanical) or green (biomechanical) as your “augment” for the turn. What this means in game terms is that a blue player can’t interact with a green tile, and vice versa. Additionally, you can’t move onto the same space as a player of the opposite color, nor can you execute the spying action on them. On the other hand, you must be the opposite color of a player that you want to hit with either the minor or major attack. This leads to some fun situations where you are trying to divine what color the players near you are likely to choose, and where they’re going to move.
The most important part of a hidden traitor-type game is, of course, divining who the traitor is. Other than just watching behavior, there are two main routes for this in Emergence. One is the brute force spying action. This lets you just look at a player’s affiliation, at a modest cost in knowledge tokens. However, you risk spending your time and resources getting marginally-valuable information that someone is, in fact, on your team. And while you can share information that you’ve discovered, calling Andrew a human is just the kind of thing a HUMAN would do, Becky, ohmygod!
The other way players typically divine alignment is during the voting process, which any player can call by activating one of the two grey tiles. Starting with that player, everyone must place one (if they have it) or more knowledge tokens into a little two-chambered box with piggy bank slits on the top. After everyone has had a go, the activating player opens the box and counts out the votes for each team. This is cool, because you can do some deductions based on how many tokens everyone owned going in, and how many they have left now.
The only complaints we had about Emergence were minor. The rulebook could use a little cleaning up, especially when describing setup. When describing which cubes go where, it is fine to spell out all four positions, rather than just giving two examples and allowing the reader to extrapolate. Further, there’s a lot of flavor sprinkled in with the actual rules, and sometimes it isn’t clear when one has ended and the other has begun until after a couple of baffled passes. There’s also a bit more “walk around, pick up cubes” than would be ideal, but at least those turns are super fast so you can quickly get back to more interesting parts of the game.
These objections aside, Emergence is a nice little game. While it would be great if the mechanics better reflected the theme, players will more than likely make up for this by getting into arguments over which of them is, in fact, a smelly sack of mostly water, and which is a beautiful, chrome toaster.
If you enjoy the game, the reconfigurable board and the fun of maybe being on a different team from the previous play should extend the life of the game for you. It’ll be interesting to see if people share their custom map configurations online.
For a prototype review copy, the game already looks great, with solid art and great colors.
In the category of secret traitor games, Emergence is a solid, workmanlike entry. In the category of programmed move games, it’s actually one of the more interesting offerings seen in a long while. It looks great on the table, which counts for something, and leads to fun experiences for players, which counts for a lot.
((A prototype copy was received for the purposes of this review, although that did not affect the outcome of the review. Prototype components are shown and are subject to change before final production.