Review: The Old Hellfire Club

Board games have taken us to all kinds of locales over the years–from fictional and fantastical lands, to the very depths and edges of the universe, to every conceivable period from human history. Some of these are unique, or are at least unique takes on their setting; some are tried and true, old favourites that we return to over and over again thanks to the richness they offer us as gamers, designers and players both, to explore.

But I don’t know that we’ve ever found ourselves in the dim, smoky underground of a gin palace in Victorian England, telling tall tales tinged with truth in exchange for just a few pennies more.

Caption: Gin is the drink of choice for game nights in our household, which makes Old Hellfire Club an ideal fit .
Photo credit: The Mortimer Arms

The Old Hellfire Club is a raucous, rollicking delight of a storytelling game, where the players transform themselves into the disgraced derelicts of a defunct secret society (one which actually did exist in the 1700s!). At its core, this card game is a game of strategic deduction, but thanks to the colourful theme, backed up by historical research and a generous dash of tongue-in-cheek humour, it becomes so much more than that around the table.

The Old Hellfire Club is, as of the time of posting, less than 48 hours from being funded on Kickstarter, and so we are here to tell you precisely why this game deserves your hard-earned pennies. If gin joints, secret societies, and derelict high-society snobs are your thing, though, please don’t hesitate to head over the KS link here and pledge. If you’re still on the fence, then by all means, continue reading.

Note: We were provided a preview copy of The Old Hellfire Club in exchange for an honest, comprehensive review of the game.

Overview

The Old Hellfire Club isn’t a heck of a lot to look at (unless you’re a lucky duck with a ton of disposable income and the desire to own a carved wooden, silk-lined box filled with all sorts of goodies, including actual 100 year old pennies). It is essentially a large deck of cards, divided into Boasts and Patrons, with the Boasts further divided into suits which essentially serve as your story-telling categories, like Weapons, Crimes, Places, and People. Each suit in the preview copy has cards valued anywhere from 1 through 10, with no more than one of each number. (The published edition will have 140 cards total; our copy had 49 boasts and 20 patrons.) Along with the cards are a handful of tokens–provided in the standard edition of the game, but they can truly be anything you have to hand (we used sanity tokens from Elder Sign–it seemed fitting).

Before the game begins, players determine, together, the story that they want to tell collectively. Everything goes in the Old Hellfire Club; there is no tale too far-fetched, too ludicrous, or too off-the-wall. This is a secret society, after all! The game also provides a selection of randomized choices for folks who don’t feel creative enough to come up with something on the fly–”Why we ended up in Newgate Prison with too much custard”, or “Why all but one of us was given a knighthood”, or “How we ended up in a fistfight with Charles Darwin” are some of the examples.

A cute extra touch–the randomizing story generator is credited to Ada Lovelace!

Once the story has been determined, it’s time to begin the telling. Players take turns playing Boast cards from their hands, working the elements on their cards into the story. The goal is to play as many high-value cards as possible in front of you, both to score points and to attract the benevolence of the patrons and benefactors in attendance at the gin palace. However, if you get too cocky, too overzealous with your drunken boasting, another player can interrupt your tale and bring you back down to earth by playing a lower-value card of the same suit. If that happens, you lose all cards played that turn, and play passes to the next individual around the table.

If, however, you aren’t challenged, you can choose to leave off your tale at that point for the next player to pick up. You then “pocket” all cards played that round and, if any of them are currently the highest of that suit on the table, you attract the attention of a patron, who will grant you extra pennies should you still have their attention at the end of the game.

At its core, the game essentially just asks you to keep careful track of the cards that have been played, relying on finesse techniques perfected by traditional card games over the decades in order to ensure each card in your hand is able to reach its full potential. It is, however, saved from that dry and dusty fate of “just another card game” thanks to the theme. Each card features something that must be worked into your story; and while the rules specifically state not to let narrative coherence stand in the way of gameplay, there is still something to be said for a game where you might let another player get away with an advantageous move because it just isn’t the right time to bring Rubber Ducks into the story.


There are also patron cards, which allow you to bend the rules of the game somewhat, or grant you bonuses based on the types of cards you play. Some are to be played on your own turn; others are reactions to the plays of the others around the table. These also add another layer of strategy to the simple gameplay, giving you a little more to work with than just your randomly drawn hand.

Once the deck of boasts is exhausted, the game ends. Points are tallied based on the number of benefactors you have sitting with you, plus any pennies you’ve amassed during the night by pocketing high value boast cards. The player with the most pennies is determined to be the winner.

First Impressions: 5/5

Sometimes it seems as though storytelling games are a dime a dozen, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect with The Old Hellfire Club. The game itself arrived at our home in velvet bag, which contained all the cards, some standees, some sample penny tokens, and the rules. It’s small and compact, something you could easily toss into a bag or a purse to have with you for a night out with friends. (That’s where our copy is going to be living; there’s a fabulous restaurant in Edmonton that has an extensive G&T menu, and this feels like the perfect game to play in that kind of a setting while you’re grabbing drinks and sampling a wide variety of gins.

I would love to know what came first–the artwork or the cards. It is an utter delight to me to imagine it either way–either the designers flipping through public domain artworks to find the exact right image to represent “Ennui”, or deciding, upon finding some delightful vignette in an old painting, that they needed to find some way to work “Out At Night With a Blackened Face” into their upcoming game. No matter which one it was–if not a little of both–the creativity and humour of the design is to be greatly appreciated. That humour extends from the absurdity of the card titles and their artworks to the two-to-three lines used to give a little more context on each card; and here is where the game really shines, in my opinion.

We love to get after games, and all of our fictional media, for that matter, for realism. More and more audiences are demanding well-researched, contextual content, and The OId Hellfire Club doesn’t shy away from that in the least. The people, places, and objects referenced on all of the Boast cards are all factual, real and true elements of Victorian England–to the point that some of it is, on occasion, incomprehensible to anyone that has only a passing understanding of British history.

However, instead of presenting the social mores and moral compass of the time period as “just how it was”, TOHC goes the extra mile into pointing out the absurdity of the times, calling out the idiotic ways that society viewed everything from Peril to People. It allows players to immerse themselves in another time and place, playing pretend in days gone by, but it doesn’t ask them to abandon their modern sensibilities. There is a distinct feeling of observation that the game bestows, a sense of “seeing behind the curtain” that heightens, rather than weakening, the mirth inherent to its theme. Cards like “The Munchi Abdul Karim” (Tutor and confidant to Her Majesty The Queen; Eradicated from history) and “The British Museum” (Full of wonders which have been…ahem…acquired from across the globe!) shine a great big light on things like British colonialism and the whitewashing of history with a tongue-in-cheek tone that had us laughing at the cards themselves nearly as much as the story we were telling. The Old Hellfire Club goes to greath lengths to show that you can enjoy the aesthetic of a period of history, like Victorian England, while still acknowledging all of the–pardon my French–shitty things that were done and thought in that time period.

Jamie Frew also went to great lengths to ensure representation in his game, a bold stance against the still prevalent idea that everyone in Victorian England–or anyone of note, at least–was white, straight, and male. 50% of the historical figures that appear on cards in this game are women, and 20% of them are people of colour. He also has plans to include a cast of LGBTQ+ figures in a future expansion, which we are very eager to get our hands on. This representation doesn’t just come in the form of “some of these paintings are of women instead of men”, either–many of them are actual figures from history, many largely forgotten, and the research and effort that went into making certain that the game is representative of diversity is apparent.

Mary Seacole

There were, in fact, many of those faces and names which were entirely unknown to any of us before playing. The Munchi Abdul Karim mentioned earlier is just one example of that; Mary Seacole is another, a woman who “paid her own way to Crimea”, “nursed wounded soldiers”, and was “unjustly largely forgotten”. While sometimes needing just a little more context to work those cards into the story caused us to stumble, we definitely appreciated the fact that diversity was prioritized over recognizability in the character choices. Plus, who doesn’t love a fun game where you can also learn stuff!

ARTWORK/COMPONENTS

(As this was a preview copy it is entirely possible that some things could change between now and the final product, so take this all with a grain of salt, as ever.)

The cards in this game are beautiful to look at. The paintings, to my knowledge, are all actual paintings and artworks that are now in the public domain, works that have been preserved through the centuries, and so how could they not be?! But beyond that, the choices made in colour, in design, and even in font and text make them a delight to look at.

The caption for “An Amazonian Blowpipe” was one of our favourite cards in the preview copy deck

The subtle design in the back of each card truly does a lot to tie in the Victorian aesthetic, and the cards are well-laid out and easy to look at. We had a few stumbles, given the closeness in shade between two of the different suits: “Places” and “Perils” are almost identical shades of green, and the similarity in their names meant that we had a couple instances of players mistakenly trying to interrupt a Boast by playing a card from the wrong suit. The italicized font is easy to read, and doesn’t detract from the period aesthetic of the game, and all of the game-relevant information is easy to parse from a quick glance (at least for our group, all of whom are ably sighted and don’t have any accessibility needs).

What’s truly wonderful about the design of this game, though, is the fact that Jamie has very obviously given consideration to accessibility as well. While the standard edition of the game definitely prioritizes aesthetics, the Kickstarter also has an equivalent edition folks can pledge for which puts accessibility first with larger type, starker colour differences, and less distracting design elements.

(Jamie is also making an Imperial Edition available through the Kickstarter, which takes the relatively barebones standard edition–a deck of cards and some tokens–and ratchets the production up to 11. If we had the coin for it, you had better believe we’d spring for a carved, silk-lined wooden box containing, among other things, 75 actual Victorian pennies! So if high-quality components are your thing, The Old Hellfire Club is able to deliver on that for you, too, to the tune of only 150 GBP.)

Gameplay: 3/5

I will come straight out and say it: this game is not going to be for everyone. It is in effect an exercise in improvisation, and so people who struggle with being off-the-cuff, thinking on the fly, and adapting quickly to a shifting narrative aren’t likely to see the joy in it. The cards themselves are often hilarious and absurd, but the joke comes from understanding the context rather than anything directly printed on the card, which means it takes a few more brain cells than your typical card-based party game, and not everyone is looking for that. It’s also a little harder to string together an impromptu tale of derring-do in Victorian England than, say, a typical fairy tale or fantasy story, which is what most of us are more accustomed to in our storytelling games, so that can be an adjustment as well; and because we’re dealing with “The Houses of Parliament,” “Amazonian Blowpipe”s, and “Scrumping” as story elements, identifying the thread of the plot gets a little trickier.

As much as we appreciated the rules’ instruction not to let the story get in the way of the game, and not be afraid to spout nonsense (we are, after all, playing as inebriated socialites), there was still some frustration to be heard around the table as we continuously lost the plot. Story elements came up, only to be overwritten shortly thereafter and then never heard from again. I’m still not quite sure how we ended up in Newgate Prison with all that custard, especially given that there was evidently a subplot about hiding rubber ducks in women’s corsets…? One of our players especially got frustrated with our lack of cohesion, and we all felt a little underwhelmed by the conclusion of our adventure, as there were an awful lot of plot threads left hanging.

All of that said, however? I haven’t laughed that hard playing a game in a very, very long time. While the writer, the creative, in me was railing against the fact that we couldn’t hold a plot together to save our lives, I was laughing so hard my sides ached at the absurdity of it all. We all adopted terrible, British-adjacent accents at some point in the night, loudly slurring our words and pointing fingers around the table as we wove our tale, and the unexpectedness of some of the pronouncements players were making completely caught the rest of us off guard. Our irritated interjections as we undermined one another’s Boasts, or cursed one another for ruining the story, were reminiscent of some of the best instances of role playing I’ve ever engaged with around the table.

The game doesn’t get in the way of itself. It is simple and straightforward enough that you can try to focus on the narrative you’re crafting, and the joy of The Old Hellfire Club comes not in scoring the most points and earning the most pennies, but in finding the right time to play the cards in your hand. It’s not about min/maxing your score, it isn’t about counting cards; it is about being a group of friends, or at least colleagues, falling all over one another to tell outlandish stories in a way that is as absurdist as the stories themselves. Because of that, the moment when you successfully manage to play a 10-point card without anyone undermining your Boast is even sweeter, because the ridiculousness of the cards is directly tied to their value. A loud pronouncement of “For Queen and Country!” while all your friends can only nod helplessly and go along with it is utterly satisfying.

The other great thing about it is that the game encourages you to get on board with the theme–that is, while you could certainly play it in the early afternoon with a few cups of tea and some scones, it shines best when everyone is just that little bit tipsy and willing to throw caution and reticence to the wind. At that point, it’s pure silly hilarity, punctuated here and there by moments of strategy, and it has the potential to draw you in completely.

Pros

  • Easy to learn–the rules can fit on two cards
  • A+ effort on representing diversity, offering criticism of the problematic elements of the time period, and promoting accessibility
  • Lends itself well to extreme hilarity

Cons

  • It could do with just a little more immersion, like offering “player characters”
  • Absurdity of the card elements makes it hard to tell a truly cohesive story
  • Really requires buy-in from everyone around the table

Final Score: 4/5

The Old Hellfire Club is a powerful first entry into the boardgaming world by a new designer. The content is meticulously researched, and the theme is something unique, which immediately captured our attention when we heard about it. It manages to strike a really unique and delicate balance between all of its parts; the simplicity of the gameplay and components, both the humour and accuracy of the content, and the two divergent mechanics that make up the experience. The game reflects its theme so well that you can almost forget about the fact that your story is entirely reliant on the cards you hold in your hand, and it strikes a jovial chord of camaraderie that could be perfect for any close group of friends.

The Kickstarter campaign for The Old Hellfire Club closes in just over 24 hours, on May 7, 2019; it’s been successfully funded but could absolutely use any extra support. Jamie Frew is doing good things with his design and we can’t wait to see where The Old Hellfire Club takes us next. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go cheat Death and still be back in time for tea!

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