Villagesong RPG Review

The first of the Littlebox RPGs and it really is in a little box.

Villagesong by By Vee Hendro & Storybrewers

Santi and Arjun watched the river, not looking at each other. There was enough peace between then that they could meet and talk about what to do since the bridges between their villages broke, but that was it.

Merchants sailed across the rapids in flimsy boats. Small glass offerings spilled into the water and Santi quietly hoped the people of Rayap would see that as a sign rather than a slight.

“I just…” Arjun started.

“Cousin, we should consider your plans for rebuilding the bridge.”

“Of course,” out of the two, Arjun was the smart one. He’d been fostered out to the people of Rayap and grew in their ranks until he was in charge of the holy order of things, near the volcano. The river separated the pair of villages, and like the friendship between Santi and Arjun, it was under threat.

It had started when the foreigners arrived. They wanted weapons to be crafted. Without thought, Arjun waved them off, sent them down to Ombak. After all, they have master craftsmen. His favourite smith had left Rayap to marry his sweetheart there. Ombak had his big, stupid statue. They would deal with the foreigners. It was pragmatic.

Of course, it didn’t feel that way to Santi. It was the angriest he’d ever been. A man of peace and a village of artists, he threw out the foreigners and cursed at how little his cousin must have thought of him.

My setup from the game that inspired this introduction.

The Game

Villagesong is a game about the leaders of different villages, all linked together on an island. You will be met with challenges and either take them on or strain your relationships by passing them to someone else.

Once the game is finished, your character, community and events will create the ‘song’ of your village, using the flavour text at the base of each one, as a nice little wrap up to your story.

The game is a tiny rulebook and a deck of cards. You have:

  • Leaders – Who you’re playing. You make the decisions for your community.
  • Villages – Where you live and what they do
  • Bonds – The geographical connection between two players’ villages and the personal connection between their leaders
  • Reference Cards – I love when a game adds these
  • Change cards – the bulk of the game comes from these, I’ll discuss them below
An example bond, leader and village.

Villagesong starts with players taking a leader and a village. I love that you can mix and match these, as the personal style of a leader will change a village and allows for more replay. My Santu was different to other peoples’ and my Ombak was a different place than the other versions I’ve seen.

You establish bonds between yourself and your neighbours. In a two player game that was just one of these cards, stating that a river tied us together and we were cousins. In games of more than two, you have one of these to your left and one to your right.

You pick a scenario and build a change deck according to the listed selection. As an example, “The Island” uses “The Volcano”, “Vision and Artistry” and “Between Villages”. There are three other combinations in the book, and it suggests you might experiment with other combinations. This deck has an introduction card and a final card. 

The play of the game is simple enough. The active player draws a change card, reads out the top of the card which offers up a decision. They look at the card and decide whether to accept the change or resist at great personal cost. If they accept it, they read out the lower part of the card next and add it to their village’s story. If you want, you can pass the change on to another village where you’ve not got an unbroken bond and let them deal with it. They can now decide whether to accept it, resist at great personal cost or to resist it without great cost, but to fracture their bond with you.

When a bond breaks, the path between your communities and your relationship fractures. You can frame scenes to fix or break them further. If you choose to resist a card at great personal cost, you exile it facedown under your leader, but need to narrate what that cost is. I admit in the plays I’ve had of this, the group have been way too accommodating and generally took on a change or passed it on to someone else who would.

Eventually the game will end when we reach the Feast card, the finale. You resolve this card and read out the villagesongs to close the story out. These are the songs that go through time, they lack the nuance of the moments you’ve been through, but they mythologise them.

How does it play?

If Villagesong asks for a comparison, it is to The Quiet Year or For The Queen, but it easily stands alongside them as an amazing tarot-style story game. You don’t have the maps of The Quiet Year, but the geography built in the narrative and through the bonds feels very natural, very established. The people are a bit more pre-defined than For the Queen, but that helps add to your decision-making. Would Santi turn away the foreigners? In my game, he would! He was a pacifist and his people made beautiful art from sea glass. At the same time, he was a bit of an egomaniac, so flattery would help people get things past him. He had his limits, and we saw that in play. Arjun’s player positioned Rayap really near the volcano, given its place as somewhere worship was done. They were more strict at first glance, but even that could bend, depending on Arjun’s mood and foibles.

A starting card and change card.

I’ve played this game with two and three players, both of which work really well. The game ran slightly short with two, and the passing of change cards felt more personal, more like avoiding problems rather than finding people more suited for them. We weren’t vindictive with them, but there were few other places to put them. The three player game had a bit more fun in choosing who should take a change card, but also lost a little focus which had been gained with the two player version. I don’t think I’d take one over the other, and it’d be interesting to see a four player game where each player has one community they don’t directly engage with mechanically (although they still can in the fiction).

I love having ‘go kits’ for games. For Quiet Year and Classic Fiasco I have boxes built by myself and my old GM, respectively. Some games like Lasers & Feelings and Cheat Your Own Adventure just need a sheet. The format of Villagesong makes it perfect as a short story game to pick up and play with no prior knowledge of how it runs, and it looks beautiful right out of the box.

About fakedtales

I'm a writer, a podcaster, a reviewer of games. Here's where I share my own fiction and my encounters with other people's.
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