Set a Watch: Burning Questions Around the Campfire

  • Designers: Mike Gnade and Todd Walsh
  • Artists: Andreas Rocha and Robert P. Schneider
  • Publisher: Rock Manor Games
  • Release Date: September 2019

Phil: … So wait, this isn’t a game about setting your wristwatch?

Luke: *laughs* No.

Phil: Thank god.

Luke: I think this game is right up your alley, to be honest, being a big DnD player.

Phil: Well sure, the theme is certainly piquing my interest. A band of adventurers trying to survive night after night of baddies, strategically sitting out of fights to rest? Sign me up. But that’s not to say anything of the gameplay.

What awaits our perilous heroes in the darkness of night?

Luke: Well, Set a Watch is, fittingly, a cooperative game where you and your compatriots control 4 different heroes; if you can survive 9 nights of terrors, all culminating in the dreadful Hoard, you win!

Phil: Doesn’t this game support solo mode as well?

Luke: It does, but having to control 4 characters can be exhausting by yourself. It is doable, don’t get me wrong, but I think the 2-player iteration (for the purposes of what we review) is where it’s at.

Phil: Yeah, I’ve always been a little hesitant of games in which you’re always controlling 4 characters like Fury of Dracula, as it can leave little variability and can, as you said, feel overwhelming.

Luke: Fear not, my good man, for the tavern is filled to bursting with 6 of the realms finest warriors, 8 if you have the deluxe edition, meaning you’ll have a varied assortment of fighters each game regardless.

The gang’s all here.

Phil: Truly, this land is blessed by warriors most valiant.

Luke: What distinguishes them are whether or not they roll d6’s or d8’s and an assortment of 5 distinct ability cards, 3 of which will start in play each game.

Each round, players will reveal a new location card, which will inform players of whether or not their campfire will dim (more on that later), the number of enemies they will be facing, and any special rules this area has. Then, players will roll their dice, determining afterward who will be resting for the night.

As the adventurers of this world have been unionized, each character is alotted 2 rests apiece for the journey, meaning you have to be smart and selective when choosing who takes a nap this night.

Phil: Unions? So this really is a fantasy-themed game.

Wait… where’s the “make smores” option?

Luke: A character who rests heals 1 of their 3 abilities for free, acting as hit points for that hero. Then, they may use their 3 dice as they see fit to take a few different actions:

  • Chop Firewood: Increase your fire’s intensity by 2, protecting you from the encroaching darkness.
  • Scout Ahead: Look at the top 2 creatures in the monster deck and choose to put them on top or the bottom of the deck in any order.
  • Check the Map: Look at the top card of the location deck and unused location deck; choose which one the adventurers will face next.
  • Equip: Swap one of your ability cards for 1 of your 2 leftovers.
  • Heal: Flip one of your abilities to its active side.
  • Runes: Spend multiple dice of the same value to allow players to reroll dice, remove cards from the game, and/or returned Unhallowed back to the dark pit they came from.

Some of these are easier to accomplish while others require specific dice values (Scout Ahead requires a 4+, while Heal requires a 6 exactly).

Phil: But while one of your heroes rest, the enemies come marching in, right? Because you know what they say-

Luke: Don’t you do it-

Phil: There’s no rest for the wicked.

Luke: *sigh* After all camp actions are taken, the enemies line themselves up in a nice, orderly fashion, waiting their turn to get pummeled. Players will be able to fend off only the enemies they can see, depending on how strong your fire is. The brighter it burns, the more you can see, revealing up to 3 enemies at a time.

Phil: What happens if your campfire ever goes out?

Luke: If it would reach 0, one of the characters in the fight would exhaust an ability, ie take a damage, instead. If there’s ever a situation where all heroes are incapacitated, ie they have no health left, everyone loses.

Phil: Now that you mention it, how do abilities work?

Wizard needs dice, badly.

Luke: Players may use their dice in 2 ways. Direct attacks deal the value of the die as damage. Melee characters can attack enemies at the front of the line, whereas ranged characters can either attack characters in 1st or 2nd position.

If you only roll low values, though, fear not! For dice can also be used to activate your abilities, either dealing large amounts of damage to possibly unreachable foes, buffing the other heroes in the fight, or moving monsters around the battlefield, making them easier to face. Passive abilities can be used once per battle without spending a die.

Phil: So each ability can only be used once per fight?

Luke: Not necessarily; the other way you can activate an ability is by exhausting it, essentially wounding yourself and making it inaccessible during future turns until it’s been healed. While you could do this instead of spending a die, you could also activate an ability twice in this way, once with a die and once by exhausting it.

Phil: I like it; that provides a lot of interesting choices that can keep the game fresh.

Luke: And let’s not forget the enemies, each with their own ruthless abilities. Depending on how they’re lined up, you could face any combination of baddies in a given night.

On top of this, a certain number of Summon cards are shuffled into the deck, acting like Epidemic cards from Pandemic: when one appears, a hero takes a damage and an Unhallowed creature appears, with brutal effects that can get wildly out of control if left unattended.

The dead have never looked so good.

Phil: There must be some nights where not all of the enemies are defeated; what happens then?

Luke: When players have done as much as they are able and there are still monsters out, each will march to the front of the line, applying any abilities that trigger, and then deal a certain amount of damage to the party before retiring to the Hoard.

The Hoard will build up over the course of the game with undefeated enemies until, in the final round, they’ll all come out at the end of the line, waiting to punish you for your past failures.

Phil: Yikes, sounds harsh.

Luke: It can be, but the difficulty curve here feels good for a cooperative game, giving you victories you fight for and can feel proud of.

Phil: Now let me guess; the game ends in victory if at least one of the party members still has health at the end of the final night.

Luke: You’ve got it.

Phil: Makes sense, considering the grand scope and epic nature of the final night.

Luke: All heroes participate in the final fight too, making the players feel stronger with 3 extra actions to fend off the seemingly endless waves.

Some locales are far less murderous than others.

Phil: You know, the way you talk about this one makes me think you might actually like it.

Luke: Honestly? This is probably one of my favorite co-op games.

Phil: … Of the year?

Luke: No, like… in general. “Of all time” you might say.

Phil: High praise from a picky man such as yourself.

Luke: It’s certainly earned it; there’s a lot to love about the tough choices, the interesting action system, the variety of characters and encounters, and the great melding of theme and mechanics that warrants the fantasy theme for a change.

If there’s one criticism I would have, it’s that the writing in the game is pretty rough. Cards are poorly written and make it slightly obtuse what certain monsters do, the rulebook is a bit of a mess, making this game particularly hard to learn, and the only real way to get around this is using BGG, which is a great resource but not one that everyone is aware of or would think to check. For what it’s worth, this game could have used an editor.

Phil: … Are you just saying that because you’re an editor?

Luke: Perhaps that’s why it bothers me as much as it does, but for a game that’s such a complete package, it’s a shame to have this one niggling complaint that clearly affects how players experience the game and could have had an easy fix. I just hope they hire someone for their stand-alone expansion when it hits Kickstarter this fall.

Disclaimer: Players could get burned by bad luck.

Verdict: Set a Watch provides a unique, tense, and wholly satisfying co-op experience, win or lose. Every choice is a burning question that you and your team will have to consider, making educated decisions and risky, often exciting plays to resolve. Some characters may feel better than others, but we’d say that’s more due to ease of play than balance. This is a game everyone should try at least once; if you’re a fan of cooperative experiences or enjoy more involved solo experiences, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

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