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Skoventyr - Solo Review

Designer: Morten Monrad Pedersen
Artist: Vincent Dutrait
Publisher: inPatience
Player Count: 1 to 4 Players
Play Time: 20 to 45 Minutes

The spirit of the forest will need to move quickly and call to action its closest allies if it is to escape the pursuit of the devil, Gamle Erik. In this review of Skoventyr I overview how to play the excellent solitaire and cooperative card game and laud its tension building and highly thematic gameplay.

Game box with a tree in the center and Skoventyr printed on the title on top of a messy assortment of cards tokens and pawns
Skoventyr box cover and components

Vogter, Gamle Erik, and the Hunt

Skoventyr is a game rooted in Danish folklore and tells the story of the devil Gamle Erik in pursuit of Vogter, the spirit of the forest, manifested as a large badger. Gamle Erik has rallied his minions who must be defeated if Vogter is to escape Erik’s hunt and protect the forest from devastation. Fortunately Vogter has allies too—Trolds, Huldres, Ellefolk and more—fallen angels who players will strategically deploy in the forest over the course of the game.

The rulebook elaborates a bit on the folklore introduced in Skoventyr, offering a thematic backdrop to the gameplay. Sometimes lengthy expositions in games can be distracting from the rules, but Skoventyr’s plot is closely tied to its game mechanics so the aureate descriptions of the narrative and the characters should help to aid players in this forest fairytale. A Lore and Pronunciation Guide even helps to steep players in the world of Gamle Erik and his hunt of Vogter.

tree game cards arranged in a circle with pawns on top and reference cards around the edge.
Solo gameplay setup

Allies and Adversaries: A Forest Shuffle

Primarily a card management game, in Skoventyr players draft, play, and discard cards to use their abilities and take actions. The results of these actions and abilities play out in the forest—the game “board” composed of six oversized tree cards arranged in a circle. Throughout the game, players move the devilishly red, tall Gamle Erik pawn and the badger Vogter pawn around the trees in the forest, representing the relative distance between the two characters. If Gamle Erik ever catches up to Vogter, the game is over and the player has lost. However, the player is victorious if they are able to eliminate all six of Gamle Erik’s minions.

Red and black wooden meeple pawn and six cards with a figure in a red jacket and devil horns.
Gamle Erik pawn and adversary cards

The main deck of cards is comprised of allies (those loyal to Vogter) and adversaries (those loyal to Gamle Erik) and these are manipulated between several zones:

  • The Deck contains 25 allies of 5 different types and 13 adversaries and is reshuffled after a minion has been eliminated.

  • The Future is made up of three face-up cards from which the player drafts cards into their hand. There must always be three cards in the Future and it is replenished from the top of the deck.

  • The Player’s Hand may hold a maximum of five cards. Allies in hand can be discarded for their unique ability or played to the forest.

  • Allies can also be played to the Forest, where they will be used to eliminate Gamle Erik’s minions.

  • Allies that have served their purpose (used for their ability or used to eliminate a minion) are moved to the Discard Pile.

  • Some card abilities and actions will instruct the player to move cards to the Bottom of the Deck.

Tree cards with text cards on top and a black and white badger pawn
Vogter pawn and action reference cards (including two from the optional micro expansions)

On their turn, players can take one of the following actions and resolve it completely before the next player can take an action.

  • Vogter’s Call - the player drafts one of the three faceup cards in the Future into their hand. Every card, even Allies, have some kind of penalty, or cost for taking the card. Players can alternatively ignore the cost and take a risk draw, revealing the next card from the top of the deck; if it’s an ally, they are safe, but if it’s an adversary, Gamle Erik moves closer. Outright drafting an adversary card also advances Gamle Erik.

  • Vogter’s Gambit - the player can refresh the Future, placing any of the three faceup cards on the bottom of the deck and replenishing it with three cards from the deck. However, this action damages a tree in the forest. Damage too many trees and the forest will shrink, resulting in fewer spaces for Vogter to evade Gamle Erik.

  • Vogter’s Command - the player adds one of the allies in their hand to an open space in the forest or discards an ally from hand to activate their ability. Each ally type has a different ability. For instance, a Trold allows the player to move Gamle Erik back three spaces in the forest.

  • Vogter’s Wrath - the player can eliminate one of Gamle Erik’s minions with a value matching the number of allies in the forest. The Allies are then discarded and the player gets a small bonus, moving Vogter forward, repairing a damaged tree, or discarding an adversary from the Future.

Two micro-expansions are included in the game and can be added to introduce more depth and complexity to gameplay. The Lygtemand’s Meddling expansion makes it more challenging to eliminate minions, but allows the player to occasionally reorganize the top of the deck in their favor. The Rescue expansion module restricts allies from being played to the forest until they are freed, but makes it possible to regenerate a tree that was discarded.

Three sets of two cards with numbers 2, 3, or 4 printed in the corners and unique monsters
The six minions of Gamle Erik

Six sets of cards. The top card in each set is a small man with a hat holding a lamp looking devious
Lygtemand cards from the Lygtemand's Meddling expansion cover the minions

Thoughts: A Balanced Puzzle with Escalating Tensions

Skoventyr is a game about give and take, pros and cons. For every positive action that a card allows the player to take, there is usually a negative consequence as well. The game is largely about efficiently managing the negative effects of the actions that lead the player towards eliminating Gamle Erik’s six minions, thus winning the game. In this way, Skoventyr is a balanced puzzle of complicated card interactions.

In sequence, the player is drafting allies into hand, playing them into the forest, and then discarding them to eliminate a minion. But what sounds like a very straightforward order of operations is complicated by the downside cost to take almost any action. Drafting some allies requires an outright negative reaction. For instance, the player must damage a tree to pick up a Huldre from the Future. Other actions’ costs are situational, limiting how and when the player can take that action. For example, drafting a Trold requires the player to reveal (make vulnerable to Gamle Erik) two allies that are already in the forest.

Six green tree cards with a red and black and white and black pawn on top
The forest with six trees

Over the course of the game, the player can really feel the tension grow. Not only is Gamle Erik getting ever closer to Vogter, but the resources available to the player are dwindling; the more trees that are damaged to pay action costs, the smaller the forest gets, and the more allies that are discarded for their abilities and to eliminate minions, the greater the ratio of adversaries to allies remaining in the deck. Risk Draws become much riskier later in the game, and in the last few turns when the entire deck is stacked with adversaries, the options remaining for the player are few.

In this way, I have found that most games come down to the final minion or two. But the outcome of a game of Skoventyr isn’t decided in the final few turns. Defeating all six minions before Gamle Erik snags Vogter requires thriftily sequencing card actions and abilities throughout the game in a way that preserves as many allies in the deck and trees in the forest as possible. This is a very replayable game. And each time a player opens the box, they are bound to identify another clever card combination or strategy that can help them towards victory.

Rows of like cards each representing a different figure used in the game
Tree, adversary, ally, minion, and Lygtemand cards

Skoventyr’s Smart Solo Design

The second page of the rulebook describes Skoventyr as “a solo and co-operative game” and this solo-forward perspective on the design shines through in the spectacular solitaire gameplay. The team of Morten Monrad Pedersen supported by David J. Studley and Lines J. Hutter are the brains behind Automa Factory who design the solo variants for Stonemaier Games, so it is no surprise that Skoventyr was conceived with solo gameplay as the origin point.

Like Torben Ratzlaff pointed out when I interviewed him for this blog late last year, the typical MO for game designers is developing interactive multiplayer gameplay and then retrofitting solo play into that framework. Pedersen and team instead began with a 1-player-friendly experience in mind and built Skoventyr up from there. The result is a core game engine that feels so organic for the solo player. That there is an enjoyable, multiplayer cooperative option—which is actually more challenging—on top of this is just added play value.

Specifically the transition from turn-to-turn feels instinctive. Smooth solo gameplay is uninterrupted with turn phases that would otherwise pause the game or signal the beginning of the next player’s turn. Instead, the straightforward turn sequence and relatively few number of board status checks and stoppages promises that solitaire play is seamless and that the pace of play is based on the inclination of the player rather than clunky, arbitrary steps. This prioritization of 1-player trip has resulted in one of the most coherent and well-refined solo gameplay experiences I have enjoyed in some time.

Stacks of game cards faceup and facedown with different characters printed on them
Example Future, discard pile, and draw deck

A Note On Adjusting the Difficulty

I have lost decidedly more games of Skoventyr than I have won. And whether or not I was playing with the included mini expansions does not markedly change those statistics. This of course prompted the age-old reflection: “am I doing something wrong, or am I just bad at this game?” After a close reread of the rules, I realized it must be the latter. But I’m no stranger to hard games and do really appreciate solo challenges that are expected to be failed more times than they are won. Tony Boydell’s Aleph Null comes to mind as a comparable solo experience where victory is a rare feat and repeat plays are a means of gradually grasping the game’s complex card interactions. So why do I feel weird about losing Skoventyr as often as I do?

The rulebook states that “at standard difficulty, a win rate of roughly 3 out of 4 plays can be achieved playing solo,” though it may take some practice to get to that point. But every gamer enters a gameplay experience with a different skill level that may not be based on how many plays of a game they have. Though the suggestion that X in Y games should be won can be motivating for some players, it is understandable that other gamers could be frustrated or disappointed with their play experience if they continue to fall short of the expected win rate.

For this reason, I am generally opposed to the inclusion of these kinds of claims in game rule books, especially since they may be based on the assessment of designers and playtesters who necessarily have more experience not only with that game, but with games generally. The 15 minute suggested gameplay time on the box also indicates to me perhaps a skewed perception of how tough Skoventyr really is. Most of my solo games were in the 20-30 minute range and the few multiplayer games I played were closer to 30-45 minutes.

Fortunately, several elements make modifying the challenge level of Skoventyr straightforward. Increasing or reducing the number of trees in the forest, or beginning the game with some of them flipped to their withered side results in measurable, incremental adjustments to gameplay difficulty. The included micro-expansions also add layers to the puzzle in the form of more complex challenges the player must overcome, but also additional abilities and actions the player can take. I appreciate how these adjustments result in noticeable changes to the difficulty of play, rather than arbitrarily moving the goalpost for victory and loss conditions. In other words, the game actually feels more challenging, rather than it just being harder to win.

A red and black figure on top of tree game cards
Gamle Erik

Final Thoughts

This has quickly become one of my favorite solo games. The card management puzzle is tight, with a well-refined balance; every action is important. Luck of the draw does factor into the procedure of the game, but there are so many variables that can be manipulated to reduce randomness in the deck and mitigate the negative consequences of a bad draw that it never really feels like it decides the outcome of the game.

Skoventyr breaks a curious, unfortunate phenomenon in tabletop gaming. Sometimes the deeper designers go on the narrative, the more shallow the mechanics feel. Rare are games where gameplay is so informed by the theme. Admittedly, when I started reading the rulebook that began with an expose on Danish folklore I was half expecting a base fairytale motif painted on to an assemblage of gameplay mechanics with no real connection between the two.

But I am more than pleasantly surprised with Skoventyr. Its design—from concept to gameplay development—is a coherent, seriously enjoyable experience. Immersion does not quite describe it; rather the player is invested in the story of Gamle Erik and Vogter and it should make them want to bring it off the shelf time and again.

I know I will.

Skoventyr game box cover on a shelf in a forest
Skoventyr box cover

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