Ace of Hearts Review (Ian Warner)

We’ll get the disclaimer out of the way first. My only involvement in this project was quick email from Grim saying “do you mind me doing this? It kind of clashes with your Courtesans game.” I politely responded that the Ladies of the Demi Monde would be a little insulted to be associated with the base strumpets of the Wild West.

That was it! I have no other contribution and get no money out of sales of this product.

Right now that’s out of the way, let’s start the review proper. Ace of Hearts is one of James “Grim” Desborough’s quickie productions. That is he gets a cool idea, commits it to paper and releases a small cheap and cheerful one shot game for public consumption.

That was the plan with Tough Justice; by the way, I think I got carried away…

Anyway even by the definitions of the sort of people RPG Pundit calls “Swine” and indeed the author himself this is not a Roleplaying Game.

He calls it a Story Game and indeed it is a game where you tell a story but personally I’d say it’s more like one of Postmortem’s Card Games than something like Dogs in the Vineyard or whatever else has annoyed Pundy this week!

I’ll give you my overview but really you should check it out for yourself before jumping to any conclusions.

It is a very strange little product but a very entertaining one. It may not be a Roleplaying Game but consider this my second look at a game with all female Characters.

Jezebel is your archetypal gold rush town in the American West. It has a Saloon, a General Store and yes a Cathouse. Rose’s is pretty middle of the range with regard to class though with big ambitions.

One problem: Old Rose is dying of consumption and she has no heir. You are cast one of Rose’s girls with a chance of proving yourself worthy of taking on the house once that old bat finally kicks the bucket.

Now some of you may have reservations about playing a prostitute and Grim is a lot fairer than me in that he gives you the option of being some sort of admin staff member but really the game works a lot better if you’re all whores. Sorry!

The town is described in passing detail that while extensive enough to get you in the mood it is rather sketchy as you’d expect from a side project. Later expansions may be coming in Autopsy magazine or on the blog.

The background characters are all very well drawn for what is supposed to be a silly game.

Some are a leaning towards the cardboard cut out with the no-nonsense barkeep, the pious but greedy old store clerk Mrs Armitage and the bipolar pastor who swings between your worst enemy and best customer depending what state he’s in. However considering they are supposed to be funny and that not much space is given to explaining them they are very believable.

A bit of Grim’s hostility to religion is evident but, although as a dirty liberal CofE chap, I’m not the one to ask for advice about offence, if this is a sensitive issue for you, you may want to do a bit of airbrushing.

Overall the background while brief is very evocative, in keeping with genre clichés and surprisingly believable as a historic setting.

Background: 8/10

As I said it’s called a Story Game and indeed it does involve playing through a story of a group of backstabbing Wild West hookers but it is more like a card or a board game than a story game despite its reliance on a little narrative creativity.

There is a very simple Character Creation process whereby you have 3 “Devils” or flaws that you write on a provided card and display and 3 “Angels” which you write on a provided card which you conceal.

If you’re stuck for ideas you can randomise these traits with card draws but I personally think its more fun to choose.

Do make sure that two girls don’t have the same trait though. That can get boring fast.

Actual game play itself involves drawing an “event” from a pack of playing cards. The girl whose round comes up with a way she can resolve the action and thus gain points. If she involves specific locations she can take points from them if any are available. She can also attack the other girls by playing to their Devils. However if she does this the target gets a chance to react in a typically bitchy fashion.

You keep track of these points with counters or beads.

At the time of your choosing you can reveal your Angel and gain +2 bonus points. However the risk is that once your Angel is revealed your opponents all know what you are good at and thus how to avoid you using them.

It is a sound enough system but I have my problems with it.

Firstly though it has narrative elements I’d say it’s an unusual kind of board/card game with Storytelling elements. It isn’t a Story Game as both supporters and critics of that form of game would describe such a thing.

However by equal measure Tough Justice isn’t quite a Roleplaying Game or a Story Game as most people would understand it and I’m not sure Courtesans is either for that matter.

Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to categorise things and just take each product as it comes? May be messy but there is a lot of middle ground. The other issue I have is to do with Devils. Everyone knowing all your dirty secrets at the start is both unrealistic and boring. However a lot of the game relies on you being able to play on each other’s Devils.

How do I suggest resolving this? Well here’s my house rule. It makes things a bit more complicated but it’s quite a lot of fun.

All Angels and Devils start concealed. Devils can be used aggressively for 1 extra point. For example let’s say we have a Character named Daisy with the Devils Prefers the Ladies, Foul Mouthed and French Pox. Now if some varmint is trying to get a freebie she can reveal French Pox for an extra point as she infects the bastard, if someone needs to be driven off she can reveal Foul Mouthed as she drives him off with expletives finally if Mrs Armitage starts causing trouble… actually let’s not go there.

Anyway once the Devils are revealed they can be attacked as normal.

I’ll have to play a few more games before I find out how well this works. Maybe I’ll have one random Devil revealed at the start for good measure.

Anyway the mechanics are sound and reasonably well explained though with my spatial awareness I did struggle a bit.

Mechanics: 7/10

Mildly black humour focused on hypocrisy around prostitution, genre archetypes and of course the general atmosphere of bitchiness you get with such a group of ambitious eccentrics crammed into one setting in which they are trapped. These will be themes in Courtesans too only I think I blow them out of proportion whereas Grim keeps them real. Well almost.

As I said there is some stuff that could be interpreted as God bashing but seriously folks relax. People have been taking the piss out of Christianity for years, even Christians themselves. If we can’t take a joke then we’re just as bad as those in other faiths we condemn for their over protectiveness and blind Zealotry. Besides from my Bible studies I have discovered that Jesus himself had a somewhat quirky sense of humour!

Atmosphere: 9/10

Once again the old cliché about indie game art being poor is blown out of the water.

The cover by Rowena Aitken (the designer of the Tough Justice cover) is fantastic. Easily on a par with the more “photo realistic” stuff you get in nWoD. Aitken is a rare talent and I’d recommend her wholeheartedly to other authors and publishers.

It seems however the cover took up most of the art budget as interior art is limited to what appears to be Cosplay stock photos. An odd choice for a game without LARP elements but there you go.

Overall I think the Art is very fitting to the tone of the book and really sells the game for what it is.

Cover: 10/10
Interior Photos: 7/10
Overall Art: 8/10

This is a fun little board/card game with an element of Storytelling and Roleplay that is great for a quick, relaxing and cathartic experience.

Having now read the thing I can see where Courtesans and Ace of Hearts touch the same nerves but they are very different games with a whole different tactical outlook and unlike Courtesans Ace of Hearts has a relatively happy endgame rather than just die or marry an idiot. A bit naive and optimistic for some but I quite like it personally.

Style: 10/10 with no hesitation
Substance: Could do with some tweaking so 7/10
Overall: A respectable 8/10

(NB, we normally review 1-5, but you can divide by two, can’t you? 😉 )

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