10/10 A perfect blend of theme and strategy
You are a scumbag thrown overboard by your shipmates. After washing ashore on a strange island, you must explore and regain your honor.
Vindication has been on my radar since the first Kickstarter campaign, but I’ve never had money while it was going. My friend acquired a second-hand copy that included the first expansion, so I had been dying to try it out since. I’ve played 1, 2, and 3-player.
Vindication is a resource management and tableau-building game. Your resources come in two types; Attributes and Power. Power has three stages, two of which act as a resource for using cards and abilities or turned into attributes. Attributes are your currency for acquiring a variety of cards.
You’ll explore the island, visit locations on the map, acquire companions, relics, and traits, defeat monsters, and progress your secret quest. You gain Honor (victory points) along the way, and end-game triggers are added to the game by reaching Honor milestones. Once one of these trigger conditions has been met, the end-game has been triggered. After final scoring, the player with the most Honor wins.
Thematically, it’s an adventure game where you control a low-life of some sort. No one really knows what you did, but this is your chance to redeem yourself (or vindicate yourself, according to the game). I suppose the game is implying that you were actually never a scumbag and you’re proving your innocence by showing how honorable you are? Or they confused “vindicate” with “redeem.” And the setting isn’t your standard fantasy fare. It feels like a Final Fantasy setting crossed with The Witcher’s tone and style. Companions all have flavorful titles and the monsters are unique and strange creatures. For a resource management Euro, it’s packed with theme.
Resource management is one of the key parts of the game. Power is a resource on your player board that has a life cycle of three stages (you begin with some of each). Attributes come in basic types, Strength, Inspiration, and Knowledge, which can be upgraded together in different combinations to produce Courage, Wisdom, and Vision. On the surface, you wouldn’t be wrong to call Vindication a cube-pusher. But for me, the mechanics are so smooth and easy to grasp that I never feel like I’m focused entirely on where to place or move my cubes; I can still enjoy the theme without needing paragraphs of flavor text. And I find the exercise of building up resources and converting them to be especially satisfying in Vindication, again, because the process is so straightforward and doesn’t require several turns of painstaking grinding to get what you need. In general, the pacing is very snappy and satisfying.
On your turn, you have three main actions and a variety of free actions. Only one action is mandatory, Move, which is based on your mount tile. Another main action is Activate, and you can activate a companion or your character, acquiring attributes. You can also visit an adjacent location or rest. Free actions include vindicating yourself (upgrading your hero), taking control of a location, converting basic attributes into advanced versions, buying a proficiency tile (for end-game), and recovering influence. There’s a lot to do in the base game, and each module you add increases the options. And almost everything is worth points (is Vindication secretly a point-salad?), giving you the freedom to choose your own path to victory.
During setup, two end-game trigger cards are revealed, and as players reach Honor milestones, more triggers are added. Just one trigger needs to be met to start the end-game. You still finish the round and play a final round, so you’ve got time to nab a few extra points or finish that thing you were close to finishing. The only problem is that some of the end-game triggers are very easy to meet while others would require quite a bit more intent to work towards. It’s possible that you reveal a trigger and it’s already been met, giving players no opportunity to prolong the game by avoiding the trigger. And this could mean a short game. We’ve already been discussing house rules to avoid sudden endings for short games. Adding in more modules does alleviate this to some degree because the end-game triggers are only for base game content, so the more stuff to do in the game, the less likely you are to trigger one of these conditions.
This is, unfortunately, another over-produced Kickstarter, which includes several oversized and useless miniatures. Seriously, most of them are huge, only “used” in one module, and literally do nothing. Orange Nebula (who makes the game) at least came up with an optional rule in the first expansion that gives these minis a purpose, but they’re still WAY bigger than they needed to be. The first player marker is also an oversized mini. For reasons. These should have at least been split into a separate optional product.
They also decided that metal medallions for player markers were better than small minis or standees. Absolutely baffling. At least the first expansion (once again) fixes this mistake by providing standees for each character (and includes one for your starting scumbag state and one for after vindicating yourself).
Most of the production is good. The insert could have been better, though. Due to the placement of the cards, you don’t want to stand this game upright, you’ll want it to lay flat. The scoring track is also weird; it goes up to 90, not 100, so your scores over 100 get a little funky to calculate. And the bag included in the base game is hilariously too small for the map tiles, and once again, the first expansion includes a replacement bag that’s much larger and fits the tiles with room for a hand and shuffling inside the bag.
Rules Clarity and Balance
The rulebook is actually pretty good except for a couple of strange errors. One is an important rule that used to be in the book (regarding what happens to spent Conviction) that was at some point mistakenly removed. The expansion rulebook also has an error telling you to ignore the Journey card (which is an important element of setup) without then telling you to complete the other, very important, parts of setup that were on the Journey card. Some of the cards also have some confusing wording, and at least one forced us to look online for an answer because the card and rules weren’t clear enough. But for the most part, Vindication plays pretty smoothly, and nothing has so far struck us as poorly balanced.
I love adventure games, but sometimes the Euro-style games sacrifice too much theme. Vindication somehow manages to strike a perfect balance without relying on flavor text. The art and mechanics all just work for me. We’ve dabbled in some modules and look forward to exploring them and expansions further. That said, if I only got to play with the base game, I’d probably dock a full point for the terrible production decisions. The first expansion is, in my opinion, absolutely mandatory in order to fix several problems (and it also introduces the solo mode).