Card games: they’re so hot right now. If you’re a designer and you’re not offering card-based rewards to choose from after a dungeon, or creating perks in an FPS in the form of cardboard, well, can you really call yourself a designer? Forget games-as-a-service, auto-chess and battle royales: 2021 is all about deck-building, darling.
So we come to Signs of the Sojourner, which is at the sharp end of deck-building innovation. Sure, it’s absolutely a card game, with you owning a deck and then optimising it by taking the duffers out and filling it with good ones. But that’s about as close as it comes to convention.
Signs of the Sojourner isn’t interested in using cards to represent combat or violence, for one. The setting is far more sombre. You and your brother, Elias, are still mourning the death of your mother, and you realise that you’re going to have to keep the family business (a general store) running if you want to survive. You’re in a backwater village in a remote part of Signs of the Sojourner’s world, but what that world actually is, is hard to pinpoint. It’s somewhere between post-apocalyptic and ‘winding down’, with villages quietly succumbing to poverty and ruination. It’s an imagined world, but one that draws on Mediterranean Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
You are running low on stock and, worse, the trade caravan that runs from town-to-town is prevaricating over whether to stop coming to your village altogether. If you want to keep your home on the map, you’re going to need stock, and that means hopping on the caravan and travelling a world that you’ve never encountered before, which was previously the province of your mother. To make things worse, the leader of the caravan, Nadine, has given you a timeline – you have five ‘trips’ to turn things around – before you’re effectively scratched from the map altogether.
So, you hop on the caravan and view a zoomed-out map of the region. As you have no knowledge of the area, it’s effectively bare, so you’re staying on the caravan, hopping off at towns, talking to locals and getting information about other destinations and the routes to them, as well as stocking up on trade goods for the shop back home. The caravan has a set route, appearing in certain regions on certain days, while events happen on specific days of the calendar, too. Where you go, and on what day, is a large part of the strategy.
You can keep hopping from town to town, but that uses up your calendar, and it also tucks Fatigue cards into your deck (we’ll get to that). Eventually, you will have to make the decision to hot-tail it back home, drop off the stock and see whether you’ve brought back enough. Then it’s back on the caravan for the next trip, with a map that has persisted from the previous trip: you can travel to the areas that you previously unlocked, talk again to characters you have built a relationship with, and generally become a dab hand at the whole nomadic trader lark.
The setting, the scaffolding for the card game in Signs of the Sojourner, is bordering on the sublime. There’s so much to call out that works, and works fantastically. The concept of following in the footsteps of your late mother is both touching and hugely effective, as so many people knew your mother and can reveal more about her. The arc that the characters move through, of being burdened by your mother’s death, then empathising with her, before finally surpassing her, was as astonishing as it was unexpected.
Then there’s the world. Coming out of Monster Train, Slay the Spire and various other deck-builders, they can feel like you’re on rails, and playing a spreadsheet more than a game. Roll a dice, see what confrontation you get. But Signs of the Sojourner wants you to explore wherever your curiosity takes you. If you have an urge to uncover a corner of the map, follow a specific character to the end of their personal story, or hunt for elusive trade goods, then you can do them all. Signs of the Sojourner wants you to, and has anticipated it with emotional, character-driven stories throughout. You will soon find that five trips to cover the world is nowhere near enough, and you’ll want to play through Signs of the Sojourner again and again, to exhaust the achievements and the storylines they refer to.
It’s all so beautifully wrought, too. Signs of the Sojourner is simple but effectively illustrated, akin to a graphic novel or more independent animations like The Breadwinner and Song of the Sea. The music is drawn from across the globe and is hugely atmospheric and seeped in adventure. The game’s presentation, from the buttons to the menus, is all painstakingly hand-crafted and a bit lovely. Echodog Games clearly know how to sculpt something beautiful.
But, alas, we come to the card game at the heart of Signs of the Sojourner, which we’ve postponed approaching because the world and storytelling absolutely deserves to be celebrated. They’re exceptional enough to rip them out and stick them at the top. However, the gameplay cannot match the artistry elsewhere.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s certainly not broken or without its charms. The theme in particular is novel. You are playing out a conversation with another character, and the cards are intended to represent a connection between the talker and the listener. Special cards have names like ‘Clarify’, ‘Reconsider’ and ‘Chatter’, to underline this, and a successful game leads to a successful interaction.
To understand the card game in Signs of the Sojourner is simple: it’s basically dominoes, but with shapes rather than numbers. Your opponent plays a card with a square on the right, so you have to match it with a square on the left of a card; the card you placed might have a circle on the right, so your opponent has to match it with a circle, and so on. Get to the end of a row without any breaks in the sequence, and you’ll notch a ‘win’. Get enough wins (some people require one, others as many as three), and you’ll succeed; trigger enough losses, and you’ll offend your opponent and they’ll likely turn away with a harrumph.
This wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to hang a game on, so there are curveballs. You can have one effect on each card, and these range from being able to see your opponent’s hand (“ah, they don’t have any triangles, so let’s not end on a triangle”), being able to force your opponent to play two cards in a row, or simply copying the card that came before. Each region of the map specialises in different symbols, with the north-east requiring squares and crosses, neither of which appear in your starting deck. Travelling around causes Fatigue, which are blank cards that get added to your deck. And after each conversation, you are forced to swap a card out of your deck for one that’s given to you by your opponent.
Ultimately, nope, it’s not enough. The card conversations in Signs of the Sojourner are too simplistic. If you have a deck of dominoes that’s tuned to the opponent, then the game becomes benign and too simple. If your deck isn’t tuned to the opponent, then the wheels will come off immediately and you will lose. If you try to build something that can accommodate multiple opponents, well – you’ll likely fall between stools and lose to everyone. So it’s your choice: waltz through the game, or fail.
Moment to moment, there’s not much strategy in the cards you play, either. They might have played a square, so you also have to play a square, and that reduces your options by at least half. You also can’t see your opponent’s cards (unless you have a specific power-up), so you’re pissing in the wind, with the opponent as likely to fail the encounter as you are. If you create a chain of four symbols in a row, you gain a safety net that protects you from one mismatch, so there’s also an optimal play – always aim for the chains. While it’s nice to have this effect, it robs you of any decision making, and you’re too often making that obvious choice.
That stretches to the deck-building too. The decks are locked to twelve cards, plus Fatigue cards, so you’re optimising a very small number of slots. There are no real synergies or combos here either: some cards are simply better than others, with more symbols or effects on them. You’re just incrementally making the deck better, or perhaps varied, without any real choice in the matter.
Most surprising is how Signs of the Sojourner approaches replay. Its world positively demands to be explored multiple times, searching out its many endings. But replaying is a chore: you are forced through the tutorial over and over, and there is no progression or persistence from previous playthroughs. We hoped that we could start with a deck focused on different symbols, or have some of the map retained, but no: you follow the same route, with the same decks, and the same slow creation of a workable deck. It’s enough to put you off that third or fourth playthrough.
We wanted to love Signs of Sojourner on Xbox, we dearly did. It’s a wonderful thing: beautifully crafted, aching to be explored and replayed, and with a story that is as heartfelt as it is effective. But the game it’s supporting can be as flimsy as cardboard. A game of card-based dominoes needs more than some fancy power-ups and lightweight deck-building for it to be stimulating, and too often we went through the motions, which got in the way of feeling all the emotions. Sign of the Sojourner really is worth picking up for the surrounding exploration and setting stuff – it’s that good – but you might want to zone out for the card-gaming.