This post continues my review-essay on the four-issue game A Divorce of Druids and the Division of Their Domain (designed and written by Jason Kotzur, illustrated by Kier Spilsbury, and published by Long Tail Games). For context, please see parts 1 (Spring) and 2 (Summer).
A Divorce of Druids’ instructional text consistently emphasizes respect for oneself and your partner; the game is about getting what you need while also allowing your beloved to do the same—unless, of course, you’re playing the more competitive Neutral Evil alignment. That is the alignment Autumn thematically cleaves to.
Autumn’s tone breaks radically from its predecessors and swerves into bitterness and aggression in its narrative introduction. Familiar statements that were previously wistfully nostalgic and wryly affectionate suddenly assume a more vindictive tone. The term “dramatic” particularly takes on a new meaning; instead of flashiness, it implies tension and conflict.
The narrative’s natural imagery likewise shifts. Previously, the druids met in open, verdant places; now, they conduct their divorce ritual in a dark, enclosed cave. Animals previously played supporting roles, but they now become prominent and symbolic of competition and savageness, placed in a predator-prey relationship that reflects the focal druid’s attitude toward their beloved.
Spring and Summer saw a predominant visual transition from warm yellow-green to cooler blue-green. Autumn returns to a warmer visual tone with reds that contrast internally with the colder climatic imagery and emotional narrative tone, but the color aligns with the more antagonistic aspect and predatory imagery.
The changes in the cover illustrations’ dominant colors are prefigured in the dyads depicted on each issue. (You can see Spring and Summer in previous posts.) On Spring, the druids wear yellow and blue on white. For Summer, it’s blue on white with purple on blue. Autumn sees shades of purple on one druid and grades of blue on the other, suggesting blue (rather than blue-green) will dominate Winter.
Likewise, the starting druids are again visually different from Summer’s, just as Summer’s differ from Spring’s. Autumn’s avatars share some cosmetic similarities with Spring’s, but they’re rearranged and mixed with new visual elements. This reflects a similar situation with the game’s formal elements.
You Can’t Perform the Same Divorce Twice
The change in tone doesn’t alter the game’s fundamental mechanics. Autumn does, however, have subtle but telling differences from previous seasons.
Like Summer, Autumn retains certain gameplay elements from its predecessor but also introduces new ones. Autumn’s druids share two traits with Summer’s, but all differ from Spring’s—the additions of Righteous and Cunning in the new narrative context speak volumes in contrast to previous traits—and two new artefacts—entirely absent in Spring—are introduced in place of old ones.
The issues have only one single law in common even though Autumn has more laws (and shared laws) than Summer, which had more laws than Spring. The two desires introduced in Summer carry over to Autumn, and two new ones are added, making the full set entirely distinct from Spring’s. So too are only a couple of the land’s inhabitants retained from previous issues, but their illustrations now differ.
The most significant additions are the forged and connected characteristics. Forged inhabitants don’t occur naturally; they must be created by using a trait or artifact to add characteristics to inhabitants. Inhabitants gain the connected characteristic when they are placed contiguously in the druid’s new domain. Individuals never occur together; their tracts must first be cut before they can be connected to one another.
Both characteristics emphasize the fundamental contrast between the game’s manifest content and the act of play. Although the druids pursue harmony in the natural world, they and the players pursue it artificially by arbitrarily dividing and arranging tracts of land—strategic acts made in competition, but also in connection, with one another.
Autumn’s pervasive differences compared to Spring emphasize A Divorce of Druids’ ongoing motif of change over time. The addition of connected inhabitants provides a strong ironic contrast in a season defined by difference and a narrative that emphasizes emotional distance, a lack of the community that the connected mechanic implements.
Spring and Autumn’s elements sharply distinguish them from one another. But they’re still united by the underlying continuity between them, just as the druids are simultaneously separated but intrinsically connected.
The Virtue of Selfishness
In Autumn, as in Summer, the elder druid is chosen quantitatively (instead of using qualitative criteria as in Spring). Whereas in Summer the primary criteria was Spring’s outcome, Autumn’s selection is based on alignment, and total desirability rank (rather than harmony points) is now the primary metric for True Neutral and Neutral Evil. Neutral Good still uses harmony points.
The quantitative emphasis on Neutral Evil and True Neutral for selecting the elder druid reinforces Autumn’s shift in narrative tone.
Neutral Evil druids seek the greatest harmony in their own land at the expense of harmony in the other’s; True Neutral focuses on maximizing the spread without necessarily penalizing the competitor. Neutral Good encourages maximal benefit for both parties.
In Autumn, Neutral Evil and True Neutral are linked through the use of desirability ranking to determine the starting player. This excludes Neutral Good and, by associating it with harmony points, designates the supportive, constructive dynamic as a thing of the past.
If players lost their records or didn’t play Spring and Summer, the elder druid is the player who last trimmed their hair or toenails last. This echoes Spring’s complex, qualitative method for determining the first player while also quietly mocking it by eliminating its complexity and reinforcing the act of cutting and dividing—physically fundamental to the game—with the implication of separating and discarding—a significant affective motif in Autumn.
The outcome narratives repeat the introduction’s cold seasonal imagery, and they recapitulate various other images that appeared in previous seasons’ outcomes. Unfavorable outcomes featuring barren and unharmonious lands were possible in Spring and Summer, and they return in Autumn, but they take on a new gravity in the context of Autumn’s distinct tone.
Some are ugly and painful; others strive to be uplifting while still succumbing to Autumn’s pessimism and chilliness. Even the more positive endings’ affection and nostalgia carries the weight of loss and absence instead of looking forward to opportunities and new beginnings.
In A Divorce of Druids, an ending is an ending. No matter the outcome, the divorce ritual is complete. The players’ final act is to contemplate.
Previously, Spring and Summer asked each player to tell the other something they would miss if they never saw each other again. Autumn, however, asks them to reflect on ways their beloved has changed in the time they’ve known one another.
A Divorce of Druids itself is undergoing a similar transformation. The druids are no longer the same characters they were in Spring. The natural world retains traces of its starting point, but the druids themselves have now completely changed.
Autumn shifts from previous seasons’ overtones of harmony and balance to Tennyson’s characterization of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Red—the color of passion, of blood, of hope for prosperity (in certain Eastern cultures), and (in optics) of increasing distance—all of which characterize Autumn.
Love and hate are opposing affects but nonetheless intense emotions that have more in common with one another than the more neutral indifference. Their apparent opposition depends on their underlying similarity just like the successive difference in A Divorce of Druids’ seasons emerge from a foundation of contiguity. Change requires both.
A Divorce of Druids’ first two issues have an undertone of antagonism and occasionally bleak imagery in a few of its outcomes, but these were consistently overwritten by quiet optimism, potential, and hope. The latter have receded and the former come to the forefront as the season declines toward winter and the game’s cycle nears its conclusion.
A Divorce of Druids and the Division of Their Domain: Autumn is available in digital and print formats from Long Tail Games via itch.io and the publisher’s website. Players can also purchase subscription that will include all four seasons.