Updated: Oct 24
Despite only playing it a handful of times in four years, I really, really like The Ravens of Thri Sahashri (Japon/Osprey). Designed by Kuro, it's a clever and gorgeous silent co-operative game that manages to evoke male and female roles like no other I have played. But, it is a pig to teach and a greased pig to learn from scratch. Ravens is sabotaged by its rule book, which intermingles instruction and narrative over 28 unnecessarily verbose pages and, because of that barrier, teaching and playing the game - remember, it's meant to be silent - is nigh on impossible without experience and, as good as the game is, I never found a regular partner. Hence, as I look at Embers of Memory, which is a re-themed Ravens - a theme unknown to me, so apologies for not being able to advise on the quality of the Throne of Glass IP usage - I wonder whether the same game has the same problems under a different name. Let's see...
Osprey remain at the helm but, akin to their excellent work on Peer Sylvester's König von Siam which became The King is Dead (my favourite game design, by the way), Embers of Memory comes in a book-fold box containing a confident rule book and two decks of cards. One paragraph of flavour text - and an advisory that spoilers for the novels lie ahead - leads into a page of... understandable, coherent bullet-pointed rules! Excellent! What follows are sensible step-by-step guides which teach a two-part Prologue to the main game: this works to instil the basics, though anyone on the fence might waver before getting to the 'real' content in Chapter One.
At this point Embers becomes the 'normal' game of Ravens, albeit with some refined rules. However, there is plenty more to delve into down the line: Ravens had three secret cards that added twists to the rules when you won at a previous 'setting'; here, there are seven full chapters to play through, some with several rules to add at a time. So, it looks like Embers of Memory is going to take more dedication, which itself will reward the learning process. Still interested? Let me explain - too briefly, no doubt - what goes on in the main game.
Each player assumes a role: the female or passive role is the captive Aelin, whose fragmented Mind (the central play area) needs to be made whole; the male or active role is Fenrys, her faithful canine companion, who attempts to relive Aelin's Memories and be guided by her into fulfilling her Resolve before Demons become too numerous. Each role plays differently, but both aim to make card sets of value 7. Fenrys does this by overlapping cards with fragments of Memory in the Mind; if a colour set equals exactly 7, the Memory is relived, a Demon potentially banished, and a card in Aelin's Resolve possibly revealed. Aelin, for her part, takes a card from the Mind to add to her Resolve, trying to make the current row total 7; if all four rows equal 7 before cards run out or Demons overwhelm her, a day is won. Succeed three consecutive days to win, then read the next Chapter.
That likely sounds confusing if you've not played Ravens; heck, it's confusing even if you have because there are subtle differences in both keyword terminology and game play. However, believe me, it is a lot less confusing than it used to be and easier to demonstrate physically. I always felt the game was worth the effort before Osprey's laudable job of reducing the time needed to get into it. What was once a game that demanded perseverance just to learn now helps rather than hinders you in that process, but it requests commitment in another way: an extended story line.
Each new chapter is unlocked after successfully completing the previous one: there are no contrived conditions to be met nor 'legacy' style elements, just a deck that adds new cards and new rules for either or both players. The chapters are well written and none were confusing, though the implications of how the new rules affect play might only become clear during the next game. There is flavour text on most of the instructional cards and I engaged with the narrative progression and felt a sense of closure at the end. Speaking of which, the end isn't as final as it could be: after winning in Chapter 7 and finishing the story, Challenges are unlocked to make things more difficult in both setup and game play; Embers certainly keeps on glowing after the lights go out.
An issue that should be mentioned is one that many campaign and legacy-style games are prone to: if you take a break from playing and return a while later, it can be hard to pick up where you left off in terms of both rules knowledge and skill level. Repeated play is often rewarded with greater knowledge of the subtleties within a game; those hard-earned skills can atrophy over time and cause frustration upon return.
If you know and like the Throne of Glass novels by Sarah J Maas and the idea of a silent two-player asymmetric cooperative game appeals to you, then I can heartily recommend Embers of Memory. My caveat would be that if the latter condition is not met 100%, you might find a really good game sitting on your shelf for far too long without being played: since learning it, that has been my problem with The Ravens of Thri Sahashri; it's a pity, but it's the truth. Let's hope Embers of Memory continues to burn bright rather than being similarly forgotten.
(Review by David Fox)