Review – Harrow County: The Game of Gothic Conflict

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Designer Jay Cormier, Shad Miller

Artist Tyler Crook

Publisher Off the Page Games

Category Asymmetric conflict

Length 45-90 minutes

Release Date 2024

Player Count 1-3

Based on the gripping comic series from Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, Harrow County is a game of gothic conflict. In 2021, Off the Page Games burst onto the scene with the blockbuster Mind MGMT… do they have another hit on their hands?

Content Guide

Just like its source material, Harrow County deals with witches, haints, and other ghoulish creatures. Its visuals include unsettling sights like the Skinless Boy character, flaming skeletons, and snakes being put into figures’ ears. Given its complexity, this game is not aimed at kids anyway, but parents should use discretion if they do decide to introduce it to a younger gamer.

Review

Off the Page Games’ sophomore title is an asymmetric game in which players try to save—or perhaps destroy—the sleepy region of Harrow County. Much like their first release, Mind MGMT, Harrow County is structured to ease players into the game by introducing new rules over a series of playthroughs. The introductory game pits Emmy and the Protectors against Levi and the Family in a race to 7 points.

The core mechanism of the game is action selection. Every round, players take 3 turns each and then resolve a scoring phase. Actions are represented by mason jar tokens; when a player takes an action, they flip that action’s token to its broken side.

The available actions are:

ABILITIES: Activate 1 ability from the following:

  • ADVANCE: Move 1 or more units from 1 hex to an adjacent hex
  • SPAWN: Add a haint to the player’s home hex, or to the space where their main character stands
  • STRENGTHEN: Add cubes to the Battleground, which will improve the player’s chances in combat (more on this later)

When the Abilities action is taken, the player does the chosen ability up to the number of times indicated on their tableau. This number will change throughout the game. Additionally, the way this action is activated is different for both players.

WILD: Gain a wild token from the supply and use an ability for each wild token collected up to that point. This action gets better the more tokens a player collects, and unlike the Abilities action, which lets the player use 1 ability repeatedly, this action allows them to mix and match.

LEGEND: Use the main character’s special ability and unique power. This action is different for each player:

  • Emmy can place and move path tokens, which improve movement efficiency, and she can seed the board with extra combat cubes.
  • Levi can place storms about the board, and he can move his haints around based on the color of space he stands on.

ATTACK: Perform a free Advance, Spawn, or Strengthen action and launch an attack from a hex with a friendly unit to a nearby hex. Combat is resolved using a cube tower that is built into the box (a cool feature, to be sure). Players gather all cubes in the Battleground tray and drop them into the tower. Some cubes will fall out, but typically not all of them. Only the cubes that fall out are counted in the battle, and the rest remain in the tower, hopefully to fall out in a future combat. The attacker wins if they have more cubes than the defender, and a sufficient number of cubes to complete the action (usually 2). If successful, the attacker earns a point and removes an enemy haint.

6 cubes go in, and 5 come out.

After a player completes their turn, they can collect any ability tokens from spaces where they have units. Doing so will upgrade their powers going forward. Players can also attempt to complete their game objectives. The Protectors’ goal is to rescue the townsfolk by guiding them to their home hex along path tokens. (Rescuing a townsfolk piece earns the Protectors 2 points.) The Family’s objective is to destroy Harrow County with storms. At the end of each Family turn, Levi can place a storm marker on his space if there isn’t one already there. If the Family can trace a continuous path of storms from a building to their home hex, that building is destroyed and the Family earns 2 points.

Lastly, at the end of the round, after each player has taken 3 turns, a point is awarded if a player controls the brambles space. Then, if someone is at 7 points, the game ends and that player wins. Otherwise, players reset their mason jars, pass the first player marker, and play another round.

What I’ve just described is Chapter 1 (the introductory game), but there are 4 other chapters, which add in additional rules and mechanisms. Chapter 2 plays largely the same as Chapter 1, but adds in faction cards and allows players to choose legends besides Emmy and Levi. Chapter 3 changes how points are awarded from killing haints—the first haint a player kills grants them 1 point, but in order to earn another point, the player needs to kill 2 haints, and then 3. It also introduces bonus tiles, which add an extra perk to each mason jar for the first player to take that action. Chapter 4 adds Kammi as a playable faction; she can go up against either a Protector or Family opponent, as she has her own aims and objectives. Finally, Chapter 5 makes the game 3-player, adding Hester herself as a playable character, also with her own unique play style.


Harrow County is an incredibly ambitious game. With 4 asymmetric factions atop a heavy core system, it’s clear that this game is the product of a great deal of work and refinement. Personally, I can’t even imagine trying to design something like this. This game is complex, thematic, tactical, and strategic, all at the same time. Given that it is primarily 2-player, it has a strong back-and-forth feel as players try to harness their unique play style to outthink their opponent.

This game leverages its theme in both form and function. The visuals obviously echo the comic series, and I am constantly reminded of scenes from the story. Mechanically, the factions feel quite different, both in how they play and what the characters are trying to accomplish. Kammi, for instance, controls goblin minions, so she gets to have 2 legends in play (Kammi herself and a goblin). Her narrative objective is also different—rather than trying to save or destroy Harrow County, she searches the board for a doll token containing her life essence. Hester, likewise, plays very asymmetrically, spreading the roots of the Killing Tree, infecting opponents’ haints, and starting bonfires.

Like other highly asymmetric games, this variety can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives players significantly more “game” to explore, and it’s interesting to see how the dynamics change with different character combinations. On the other hand, it makes teaching and learning the game a much heavier lift. Since it’s important for players to understand how their opponents work, they need to learn multiple rulesets, or, at least, multiple variations of a single, core ruleset.

Thankfully, the 5-chapter breakdown helps to alleviate this by introducing concepts incrementally, but make no mistake, Harrow County is a HEAVY game. Indeed, it’s one of the heaviest I have ever played. This is not a critique by any means—I don’t mind complex games, and I do enjoy this one—but this is certainly not a game for everyone. As with a game like Root, players need to understand what they’re getting into, and they need to be willing to put in the effort to learn and grasp Harrow County.

The production of this game looks great. The star of the show is the dice tower built into the box. Just as the Killing Tree is ever-present in the story, casting a sense of dread in the reader, here it looms large over the game board. It is a little gimmicky, sure, but the gimmick actually plays up the theme, and I love that. The other components look great as well, with a mix of materials. The haints come in different sculpts for the Family, the Protectors, and Kammi, and the player tableaus are well laid out. (Side note: I am reviewing the retail edition, but nicer, deluxe editions are also available.) Given how lengthy the rulebook is and how many little things there are to remember, I do wish that there had been an index, glossary, or rules supplement, but that’s my only real complaint.

Bottom line, Harrow County is a feat of game design. It feels quite thematic to its source material, in large part due to the strong asymmetry of its character factions. Given this game’s complexity, I recommend it almost exclusively to experienced gamers, specifically those who are not intimidated by a steep learning curve. (And all the more so if those folks have read the Harrow County comic series!) My advice is to treat this game like a campaign, in which the same 2-3 people play each scenario. If this sounds like your type of game, check it out!

A review copy was provided by Off the Page Games.

The Bottom Line

Harrow County is a feat of game design. Given its complexity, I don't recommend it to everyone, but experienced gamers—particularly those familiar with the source material—should definitely check it out.

 

7.5

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.