I Was Excited But…
Before I start, this is a sponsored post. The creator of the game, Peter Eijk contacted me asking if I would be interested in covering the game and after taking a quick look I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” as I tend to enjoy this kind of game. I don’t let the fact the game was given to me for this review get in the way of actual critique, but be sure to keep it in mind regardless.
What immediately stood out to me with A Visit to San Sibilia, henceforth just referred to as San Sibilia, was its artistic style. The game truly looks great, and since Peter’s goal is to get funding for a physical copy, at the very least I can confidently say this will look absolutely stunning on any gaming shelf or otherwise. Though the game is only a mere 14 pages, each of the pages that include art (most of them), do a great job of invoking a sense of the setting. So let’s take a journey together as we visit San Sibilia!
According to the rulebook,
“A visit to San Sibilia is a solo journaling game in which you roleplay a character chronicling their visit to the city of San Sibilia. It is a city not found on any maps—San Sibilia is both part of and distinct from our world. The city manifests itself differently to every visitor.”
All you need to play is a deck of cards, about an hour or two of free time, and a recording method of choice as this is a journal game after all. Optionally, you can use a six-sided die for some choices, but you don’t need it. Some safety stuff has been included should you decide certain themes or ideas are too much for you, it’s not something I found necessary for this game but is something that certainly doesn’t hurt to include.
Before I dive into the actual play of the game followed by my overall thoughts, I would like to give some initial impressions prior to playing which I noted. Firstly, the fact that the game’s book is short is a big positive, it’s easy to read and understand. Unfortunately, it’s layout isn’t always the most logical, often requiring the reader to jump around on an initial reading just to understand the flow of the game. Should this get it’s stated goal for a print copy, I would love to see some minor revision in how everything is presented from a game flow perspective. One other minor thing that’s missing is bookmarks on the PDF, but honestly at 14 pages this isn’t a big deal. Finally, it was easy to feel inspired just by reading through the book, which gives me the impression that this will be a great writing tool or place of inspiration, but I am somewhat skeptical as to how this will fair as a game. Of course, these are just blind impressions at this point, so let’s get on with the actual play.
The game first asks that I create a character for my visit. You can do this on your own or use the deck to help guide you. For the sake of this review, I decided to generate my character by drawing the two cards as suggested. Meet Peter Markov, an incredulous alchemist from Russia who has long lost faith in God and human connection.
I made my 4 boxes to check off along the way as instructed, and began by answering the various questions set before me. Then, I drew two cards and followed along with the prompts for each subsequent day, rolling a die to see how much time passed between notable events.
Have you ever found yourself sitting on a train, looking out of its foggy window at the station as you await its departure right before you feel that sense of momentum as the train begins to finally move only to discover that it was not you who was actually moving, but the train beside you all along? No? Well today, this happened to me. In many ways, this has been an allegory for my life.
I have always been caught up in other people’s affairs, some would even say to the point of self-neglect. It may seem hypocritical, then, that I have also come to loath my interactions with others. I have seen too much, the true face of humanity, and as a result, become disillusioned with such concepts of faith and brotherhood. Still, my skills as an alchemist are all I know, and one must eat his daily bread.
This is how I, Peter Markov, found myself on a train departing my homeland to a place I had previously never heard of, San Sibilia. The only thing to guide me was a short letter requesting my skills, payment enclosed along with a train ticket. Asking around, no one seemed to be able to tell me much about my destination, some seemed to think it was a place that simply did not exist. However, I am not so quick to betray my reputation and decided to prepare for my journey even so.
Upon departure, I succumbed to a drowsiness and did not awake until my destination. Still in haze, I made my way from the station to a nearby hotel. At the time, I didn’t pay much mind to the fact I was the only one to exit the train, nor the fact that seemingly no one else was about. Instead, I was transfixed by the sheer luxury of the building that stood before me.
A grand hotel, a facade of vibrant blues and cream seemed to smile through the fog that clung to the cobblestones below. Inside, an even grander site, decorated wall-to-wall with fine furniture, rugs, and paintings. Though seemingly done with little rhyme or reason, it managed to form an aesthetically pleasing view. Much like the exterior, there was a sense of invitation and warmth here within.
It was at this time I came, somewhat, to my senses. Surely, such a well-to-do place such as this would be beyond my means. It would certainly be better to stay with the family noted in the letter so that my work could be completed with greater ease. Though, a problem presented itself in that I had very little idea of where to find this household.
It was then that a bellhop appeared before me, as if sensing my apprehension. Unsurprisingly, this gangling boy’s uniform was of only the highest quality. Silk puffed tie, velvet vest, and all sporting bright inviting color to match the sunny spirit of the person wearing what would, in any other place, seem a costume found only in stage plays for the exorbitantly wealthy.
As if in a whirlwind, the following events occurred much too fast for me to even process. My bags were snatched from my now lax hands, words about my arrival being eagerly awaited, a signature here, details about my stay, how the job would proceed, all of it a blur. Before I knew it, I found myself sat on a bed fit for royalty, told to wait a few days and enjoy my stay. It seems I am an esteemed guest. What exactly have I gotten myself into?
I grew tired of simply waiting.
The past few days were spent lazily lounging about the spacious room as I preparing for the job I was hired for. After that, I sought to explore the hotel itself between extravagant meals fit for a king. It was relaxing, but also unnerving. I was here for work, not pleasure, and so I could take this waiting no longer.
After inquiring at the front desk, it was suggested to me that I take the opportunity to visit a local museum. My employer was still not ready to see me, but had suggested this day trip all the same. Everything was, of course, taken care of for me well in advance. With some protest, I did finally agree to go.
From the outside, it was nothing special. A shell of a building with faded varnish, and a sign that had lost its legibility many years ago. Cobwebs seemed to cling to every corner. Compared to the hotel, this place was more than destitute. Still, with smiles and warm encouragement, I was carefully guided inside.
The lights sprang to life with a low hum. It was clear to me, this was some sort of museum of medicine. Various tools and charts which were familiar to me as my time working as an alchemist suggested my employer thought I would take interest in such antiquities. Many in my position would be eager to explore and pour over the various records held within these walls, but not I. Instead, I callously perused the walls of, to put it nicely, this “shack” of a building. I would nod, and feign interest here-and-there.
It was not until I had been there about a half-hour that I slowly began to realize that nothing here was new to me. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the objects herein pertained specifically to me. My expertise, things I had used in my youth to learn, a coincidence? Perhaps, but it was unsettling all the same. I kept this to myself but returned to my room as soon as I was able.
Many questions flooded my mind, but for now, I return to waiting…
Today I was to meet with my employer at an open air cafe. It was my first time ever experiencing such an establishment. Strong coffee is only second to even stronger booze, so I was looking forward to this. If anything, it allowed me to largely forget about yesterday’s events.
I waited at the specified time, which was left for me in a letter much like the one I received prior. It was waiting for me upon my waking at the front desk. It seemed I was either early or my employer was running late. A young woman came to take my order of two black coffees, one for me, and one for my employer. Then I waited.
An hour passed.
Then two… and three…
It seemed, he would not be coming. I enjoyed my coffee slowly, savoring its taste, but a bitterness washed over me. I knew he would not come. What a waste of time.
I’m writing this the next day, as I am still unsure of what transpired the night before. The looming bell tower struck midnight as it always had each night before, but this time I awoke and found myself wandering the darkness to the bathroom. It was then that I saw it. An unknown creature, claws sharp, and fangs bare stood before me. It snarled and growled as it sat haunched on its hind legs. An almost human shape, mixed with some foul beast. After seeing such a sight I turned, fleeing without ever looking back. Was this my imagination? Or perhaps…
Nearly a week passed without incident. I had stayed holed up in my room, somewhat out of fear, but also for lack of much to do. It seems my employer was content to have me spend my days in luxury here. At the very least, I was comfortable, or as comfortable as one could be given the situation.
A telegram came to me from a friend whom I had not heard from in many years. Truthfully, I had forgotten him entirely until this very moment. I was flooded with joyous memories of our time together, we were friends as children, though poor as we were, we always managed to have a great deal of fun whenever we were together. How could I have forgotten such a friend and these warm times? I was overcome with emotion and allowed the tears to fall from my face, none were here to see, so what would be the harm? The contents of the actual telegram were of little consequence, he simply wished to reach out.
I thought a long time about that and if I should respond.
I began to work on various medicines. Better to keep one’s self busy than sat idle day in and out. Nearly two weeks have already gone by, and nothing was going to happen without action. I noticed that the bellhop from my first day was always coughing, though usually out of view of others. Had I not been lurking about, it likely would have gone unnoticed for some time.
A simple fix. I created a concoction that would cure him, and presented it a few hours later. It was clear that this was met with an immense sense of gratitude from the young man. To me, it was of little consequence.
Only a few hours later I was met with requests for more. Apparently, this cough has been a plague on the town for some time. Was this what I as sent for? Perhaps this was some twisted test? In any case, finally some work to do.
I awoke suddenly to the cacophony of instruments and marching bodies in the streets below. This was the most lively the town had been by far since my arrival. A celebration of sorts.
I inquired to the occasion but whatever meaning there was in this event was lost on me. The people clung to religious symbols and draped themselves in garb you would find at temples. I observed for a short while before returning to my work.
Here is where I stopped playing San Sibilia. I checked the condition to bringing the game to a close, and discovered my character was going to spend a total of 77 days, or 11 weeks in this place (an additional 20 turns!). However, along the way he would have several monotonous encounters. In short, the game started to outstay its welcome and I simply wanted to end the experience. I don’t know where I was taking the above story, but it lacked a sense of cohesion and direction that was unhelped by the limited fusing of prompts found in the rulebook.
Some of the shortcomings of San Sibilia are on me. I clearly tried to create a story that had too much direction that the game simply could not handle, had I kept things more vague, I may have been able to have a better time with this title. However, even if that were the case, the game simply has the potential to drag on for far too long. In my play, it would have taken another 20 journal entries to reach the end of the game. That’s simply just too many!
Now of course, I am one to write a fair deal and try and turn this sort of game into a short story that can be enjoyed by my readers, but even had I not been doing that, this many entries is just too much. Especially when many end up being identical, if not very similar. I can only have so many “inspired walks in the park”. Of course, due to the nature of how events are drawn: You check the value and suit color; means that repetition is limited, but it doesn’t stop things from feeling overly repetitious since the game can go on, in theory, for potentiality forever.
Of course, this is astronomically unlikely but for the sake of giving the game a fair shot, I simulated a few more games (no real journal keeping, but still checking the charts and whatnot each turn). Here are the results for a total of 10 games:
- Game 2 – Eleven turns required, with the bigger events happening much earlier on. This would have been a more reasonable game length and far more interesting experience.
- Game 3 – Only nine turns taken, but the big events happened on the first few turns, with only the game ending event occurring on turn nine. There was a complete lack of direction in this game since the big events happened too early.
- Game 4 – Another eleven turns. This was a more balanced encounter and seems to be about where the game’s sweet spot is if I had to guess. Though, having not played it in full beyond simulation, I can’t say with certainty.
- Game 5 – This was a terrible game. It ended in five turns, with only the 4thturn being a “normal” turn where nothing major happened. Had this been my introduction to the game, I think this would have almost been worse than my initial game which was far too long.
- Game 6 – Ten turns, one big event immediately, but otherwise fairly balanced. The things between the major events were very repetitive though. It’s a theme I’m sensing…
- Game 7 – Nine turns but a really boring game in terms of the events that got rolled up. Most of the big events were identical each time. I don’t see how I would have made this a good story for myself had I been playing seriously.
- Game 8 – Two big events right out the gate, identical. No direction again. Hard to formulate a tale for myself because, while I do have my character, I don’t really understand enough of the world to give these events direction. “A change of heart”, twice out the gate, but he has met no one, and has done nothing. Totaled 10 turns, in case you were wondering, the last two events were toward the end and both were “A new wind blowing”.
- Game 9 – Six turns, it was awful. I know I’m not playing these games in full, but just looking at how the game “should” be played, I can’t help but feel this would have been a poor experience. I feel bad, but the game looks like it has some serious issues here.
- Game 10 – Twelve turns, aside from a rocky start with an immediate big event, this game felt fine. More games need to feel like this one based on my limited sample.
As you should be able to see from my above simulations, the game has a serious pacing and variability issue. On average, the game takes about 11 turns and only occasionally feels like a properly paced experience. Obviously my initial actual play is a huge outlier so I won’t hold it too much against the game.
Some additional comments on ways I could have made the game better. First off, the game really wants you to invent new characters, something I didn’t really do. I also made him a bit too antisocial. These things are completely on me, and in future games I would keep this in mind.
As for positives, I do think the game is super easy to learn and play. It does a good job, when RNG doesn’t screw things up, providing some direction for the player. It gives you things to think about, and exploring the city/town can be fun provided you plan a bit in advance. Which, I kind of think defeats the purpose in some ways, but without a little care taken in advance from the player you are going to get a jumbled mess like my play example.
However, all said, I have to say that I’m not inclined to try again. After having written this up and simulated several games, looking up each chart result every time, and imagining how a game might feel, I have to say that I don’t think this is one for me. Unfortunately, by extension, it means that I ultimately recommend against it in its current state.
The main reasons for this are in the game’s structure. I don’t think there’s enough variety here, and the pacing can vary so drastically that you can have a truly dreadful experience potentiality several times before having one good one. Since the game wants to have this more relaxed, character driven tone, slowing down can work for the game, but at the same time, after already giving it several hours of my time I felt like I was working too hard to force things together as opposed to having them naturally slide into place.
In other words, the themes of contemplation, loneliness, and thought-provoking subject matter San Sibilia seems to be going for end up translating more towards frustration, boredom, and repetition. I genuinely feel bad for writing that, but without some reworks in the design I can’t see myself returning to this game.
Normally I would offer advice on how to fix this, but I really don’t know off the top of my head. The randomness of how/when bigger events occur is what really kills the game for me along with the game’s length. I’d almost suggest completely reworking that, but at that point you have a fundamentally different game that loses out on this game’s simplicity. In any case, that’s the issue, and it should be addressed.
I appreciate the author reaching out to me and would be happy to revisit the title at a later date. But, as always, I advocate looking into things for yourself. You can purchase A Visit to San Sibilia on itch.io here for $4.99 US or try the game completely free provided community copies are still remaining. At the time of writing they had 84 available freebies that anyone can claim.
Thanks for joining me for A Visit to San Sibilia, I wish I could have been more positive but I’d love to hear your experience with the game if you’ve played or decide to check it out yourself. Remember to give Peter a comment and review as well if you do! If you enjoyed my look at this game, please consider a donation via the provided buttons below. Until next time, keep cool and see you then!