Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 15-30 Minutes
What do we need out of an abstract game to feel satisfied?
Admitting, of course, that the answer will vary between gamers, I’d contend that there will be certain commonalities to responses to the question.
For one, by its very nature, you’re throwing theme and narrative out the window. Classic abstracts like Shogi, Go and Chess boast untold depths, springing from a deterministic and digestible set of rules. So is that it? For many, probably, or at least some variation on that idea. “Simple to learn, hard to master” is a bit of a cliche in games, but we often get the idea from games like Chess that are the ideal models of the phrase.
I’m actually going to challenge a couple of the statements in the paragraph above, but I include them as a baseline for what abstract games tend to deliver.
Swords & Strongholds – The Premise
In Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds, there are two sets of four mice on a gridded board. You can set up your pieces in a variety of ways at the start, and play is relatively simple.
On your turn, you move one of your mice then, optionally, play a card from your hand (you’ll always have three) which corresponds to one of three abilities that gets applied to the mouse you moved. These abilities have sort of a rock/papers/scissors dynamic going on in how they interact.
The game ends when a mouse from one team makes its way to one of the opposite back corners and constructs a stronghold (one of the card abilities). Alternatively, the game can end when one team’s mice are all eliminated by being pushed off the side of the board.
Mouse Guard was a comic book that got turned into a tabletop RPG. If you’re familiar with the Redwall series, the vibe is not dissimilar. The Mouse Guard are more or less Anglo-Saxon mice who are doggedly heroic and ever-so-resourceful. They have turn-of-the-millenium English and Welsh names to compliment the quaint pseudo-medieval world around them, which has been made more naturalistic due to the fact that denizens of this world live in fields and near riverbeds and in forests.
The world that is fleshed out around them is vibrant and diverse and eminently entertaining. I enjoy spending time in it whenever possible.
Swords & Strongholds started—no joke—as a fictional game that two mice were playing at a tavern in one of the issues of the comic book.
So already, that’s a bit of a delight, right? And it places the game in a very specific idiom, one that we’re often unaccustomed to in our abstract games. White pieces vs. Black Pieces is far more austere than “campfire game played by guard mice that they keep in their packs and play idly while sipping tea during a winter’s night.”
Granted, someone unfamiliar with the comic or RPG likely won’t feel this same kinship to the game. But games aren’t always meant for everyone (I know; shocking). They’re intended to be played by a particular person or group at a particular time.
So from a very abstract board and relatively abstract pieces/cards, I do actually think something thematically magical can happen in this game. It won’t be thematic for everyone, but I’d argue that it’s not intended to be for everyone. A game that sprang from a throwaway panel in a comic book is intended for a specific audience, even if its mechanics are universal. And that’s ok.
Depth and Randomness
While there are only three ability types, your card draws are random. So it’s possible to have three cards of the same type, which then limits you strategically. This can be mitigated with longer-term strategic planning, but the random draws are still present.
Having all of one type is rare, in fairness, but I use it as an example to say that this game embraces randomness a bit more than most abstracts, which are usually deterministic exercises.
This limits the depth of the game relative to its heftier peers. Chess, this is not. But again, if we look at what the game clearly intends itself to be, that’s not necessarily a knock.
The game lasts approximately 15-20 minutes. Less if you’re not teaching. It really is one you could easily throw into a backpack and play idly for 15 minutes while engaged in conversation over a mug of tea. In fact, this is how I recommend you play it.
It possesses strategy, but it’s never demanding in the way that titans like Chess and Go are. It will never reach the heights of the best abstract strategy games. But conversely, those games will never feel as quaint and cozy as this one.
Warmth and Simplicity
I can extend that comparison to a lot of hobby games. Most are demanding of us in one or more ways. Socially. Cognitively. Strategically. Or there are demands on our time, effort, table space and wallets.
Swords & Strongholds is the least demanding game I own. It’s also the one that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I play it. No, it doesn’t reach the heights of my favorites games, or even come near them. But it serves a role that those games can’t.
It occupies the same space in my mind as some card games that I grew up playing, ones where conversation and company were the primary focus. The game was secondary, but enhanced the feeling of camaraderie.
Trade a group of people for a two-player game, and I get the same feeling from Swords & Strongholds. The fact that I rarely play 2P games these days means that it’s not the wonderful fit that it used to be in my collection. But I haven’t sold it because I enjoy those rare occasions when I can unwind with it for 15 minutes.
If you want a lot of heft from your games, in any of the ways mentioned earlier, look elsewhere. Mouse Guard: S&S won’t be your speed. But, at least on occasion, it’s mine, and I’m grateful for that.
If you read through this and liked parts of it, but still need more strategic meat on the bones of the game without needing to study it like Chess or Go, I recommend 1992’s The Rose King.
This somewhat forgotten gem shares some mechanical similarities to Swords & Strongholds, in that it’s an entirely abstract experience with some card-drawing randomness thrown in. But it’s a bit less random and a bit more tactical, with 2-4 move bursts being somewhat more deducible.
It may scratch the same itch for you, but in a slightly different way, and I include it as a game I also enjoy and hope more people discover.