This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
Now that we are about to firmly plant our feet in this post-truth society, we’re reminded of the many tasks that will provide entirely new challenges to us. Like deducing the culprit of a crime. Luckily Gen-X Games have provided us with a clever little card game to help us in framing some poor sap and taking down an entire district in our play to become the power behind the throne. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
That game is called Covenant – El pacto. And if you want to be glib and reductive about it, it’s essentially memory cross-bred with a take-that game. But that’s selling a good game short. While El pacto does not have the fancy components or artstyle with which other publishers attempt to spruce up a merely decent game into a serious investment, Gen-X have managed to condense a reliable little fun generator into two deck of cards.
But if it’s just a slightly reworked game of memory why is it worth talking about? Does it still provide anything of interest to the sophisticated ludicate (ludicure? ludoist? Ludmilla?) Surprisingly – or less so if you’re familiar with cheap rhetorical tricks – it does. There is fun to be had screwing people out of their carefully assembled row of cards, while chasing after that one card that will score you an additional couple of VP.
So how does it all fit together? The two decks of cards portray the various unique inhabitants of the gothic dieselpunk city of Whatever-It-Is-Ville. One of whom will end up framed for murder, and take out the player who houses them – i.e. disqualify that player for the endgame. One deck is spread out face down on the table, the other is evenly distributed into the hands of the players. On their turn each player will play a card in front of them, executing its effect if there is one. They will look at one of the face-down cards, then reveal one of the face-down cards. Not necessarily the same one, mind you. If a revealed card matches one of the already played cards, this character has proven their innocence. They will not be framed and drag their player into ruin or the shameful darkness of “NO VP FOR YOU!”. This keeps going until all cards are played and/or three cards or less remain face-down on the table. Of those cards left, one is determined to be the murderer and whoever has that character in play in front of them is disqualified. Then it’s just adding up the VP that each played character provides, possibly increased by additionally fulfilling your secret objective. Said objective card deals out extra VP for either having specific characters or a certain set of character types in front of you.
Really, the VP mechanics are neither unique or mind-blowingly different. What they are is solid and reliable. What makes the game interesting – or a random waste of time depending on your ratio of stick-to-posterior – is the way that cards get routinely swapped, switched or flipped over, thus making it more or less likely for one player to end up with the murderer in their midst. But since nothing is final until the last card has been turned, there is always a chance of escaping the unforgiving sting of defeat.
Covenant is not a deeply strategic game. The important bits of information about the game state aren’t fixed until close to the end of the game. You may know the position of two of your “unsafe” cards in front of you, but any player may reveal one of them to save you, or reveal one of the others to unintentionally help somebody else. Over-the-table talk helps, but then there is fairly little to gain from helping another player, so there really isn’t much you can offer to get what you want.
The upside of this being that the game remains in a constant state of flux, with each turn narrowing down the number of ways it could end. It’s almost impossible to predict who will get disqualified until it actually happens. You are just continually removing and reducing the window of possible resolutions to the game.
While the game starts off as a memory variant, it morphs into hot potato by the end of it as players push and pull unsafe characters back and forth between one another. And that is fun and funny. There is back and forth, take that and laugh-out-loud moments when a card is turned over only to be something completely unexpected. The one criticism I would level at the game, is that its presentation is a tonal mismatch between what you experience and what you see. The art is moody, slightly creepy and dark. (The 5-player variant that includes a cow as a possible murderer notwithstanding). But gameplay is silly, surprising and dynamic. The iconography of the card effects even suggests a far more involved and tactical game than what you get. And if you pick up the box expecting a brain-burner or a game of advanced strategies you will be disappointed.
Covenant isn’t a dumb game, but it is sillier than its presentation suggests. A slightly better than decent filler, that is just obscure enough to garner curious looks from your gaming friends.
Entirely fake edit: the game’s backstory is actually quite a bit more po-faced and mystical, but playing a game of lying liars and the lies they tell seemed entirely appropriate. And kind of what the game morphed into when I sat down to play it 🙂