Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness

Holy hell, how have I not reviewed this yet? Have I reviewed this? I feel like I must have, but I can’t find it anywhere on the blog.

Screw it, let’s go!

Mansions of Madness is a Fantasy Flight Cthulhu game, which means it’s going to take your character’s insides and throw them all over the floor. (Also, “Cthulhu” doesn’t trigger the blog spell-checker. Awesome.) This one does it a little differently than your Horrors, Arkham and Eldritch alike. Mansions of Madness puts you in a very specific location, for a very specific reason, and you need to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it before whatever’s lurking drags you into a shadow or attic or under the sea.

The concept isn’t substantially different from the original Mansions of Madness. The difference now is that there’s an app you can put on a tablet or laptop (or phone, but the screen’s too small) that guides you through the game. You’re responsible for tracking where the characters go and making sure you follow the core rules, but when something goes bump or you want to investigate that creaky dresser in the corner, the app tells you what comes next. It takes one of the worst parts of all these games—the administration—and puts most of it on the computer. All you’re responsible for, really, is not cheating.

And good lords, you will probably be tempted to cheat, because it sure seems like the game is. Even the first mission, at a mere two-Elder Sign difficulty, doesn’t offer much room for error. I’ve played it multiple times, taking a backseat in later games so the new players can make the choices, and it’s hard to see how a group can win without knowing what’s coming. Other players have made similar statements. It’s not that we’re against hard games—I mean, right now I’m playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and I haven’t quit even though I can’t go any farther until I beat one of four bosses blocking various paths—but we have difficulty envisioning a winning strategy for a mission nobody knows that doesn’t involve stumbling across the right clue or item.

Which sounds like a crap game, right? Except… gods, it’s fun. It’s really fun. You get your butts kicked and it’s usually fun. Your friend gets turned into an acolyte of the Black Goat and stabs you to death to win while everyone else loses, it’s ludicrous and fun. You win, you go out and buy a lottery ticket. And it’s fun. The app’s music and sound effects are simple but set the atmosphere well, waiting for the app to throw another challenge at you makes it feel like the bad guys are truly out of your control, and for as hard as they are, the scenarios are well-designed. You might say, at some point, “How the hell was I supposed to know that?” But the connections generally make sense once you know what they all are. It’s just tough when you’re desperately trying to survive and you’re missing the plus sign that makes two and two equal four.

The basic FF Cthulhu stuff is all here—the same characters, oodles of tokens, and cards beyond the counting capacity of most small children and some adolescents. You only have eight characters to choose from; it’s enough to play the game, but for those of us who have been able to pick just the right character rather than one of the two who are strong or smart or whatever, it feels a little light. If you have the first edition of the game, though, you can bring those characters over to this one. (Yeah, we choose characters. Screw random drawing, this game’s hard enough as it is.)

More unfortunate is that the base game only comes with four missions, and teases you with fifteen more available if you pick up various expansions. For a $100 game, that’s kind of garbage. I don’t begrudge the company their expansions, but at least start the players out with enough to make it feel like a full experience. Seven or eight would have been more reasonable—say, the ones that use the base game’s tile set but are sold on Steam for $4.99 a pop.

As for the difficulty, people house rule various things to make the game more playable. My suggestion is this, as a minimum variant: Allow anyone who takes a move action to move two spaces, even if they take another action in the middle. Only moving one space because the thing you need is next to you, even though you want to keep going (or move right back), is too common. You don’t know what you’re going to see when you enter a room, and without that flexibility, your action economy often tanks, leaving you needing more turns than you have to get the job done.

It’s weird to be able to spell out this many flaws this clearly and still deeply enjoy a game, but that’s the deal here. It’s so good. Between the price, the need for expansions, and the difficulty, it may not be for everyone, but this is pretty much what FF Cthulhu is, and they did a great job.

4.4 out of 5 stars (4.4 / 5)
The Quacks of Quedlinburg

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Quacks, historically, are pseudo-scientists often pretending to be medical professionals (some so thoroughly they even fool themselves). They sell snake oil treatments, false cures to any and every ailment in existence. This game fits that theme.

But I still wanted the “doctors” to be ducks.

Every good quack has a cauldron to brew their mixtures in, and this game is no different. You start with a pouch of ingredients and pick them out, one at a time, and throw them in. What could go wrong? Well, in Quedlinburg, there are so many of you friggin lunatics that it’s not enough to brew a potion and make a claim unrelated to its efficacy. It has to have bubbles, which means cherry bombs go in the mix as well. Too many cherry bombs, though, and your mixture explodes.

Each round, you pick ingredients one at a time and put pieces down farther up the points path in the cauldron equivalent to how many of the ingredient are on the token (ie. if you pick a 2 cherry bomb, it’s placed two spaces ahead of the last piece). If you get more than seven cherry bombs in the pot, it explodes, and you have to choose between the ability to buy more ingredients or take victory points. The highest number of cherry bombs on a token is three, so you’re safe until you have at least five cherry bombs in the cauldron. From there out, it’s a question of risk management—how much farther do you need to go to stay up with your opponents? How many more turns will you take, risking that you’ll pull the piece that ends your round early?

And thus, the problem.

If you get a bad set of ingredients in a round and quickly build up your cherry bombs, you’re generally incentivized to keep going. After all, most of the bombs are out of your bag, and you have a better chance of pulling normal ingredients. But if your luck stays poor, and you bomb out early, now your opponents are immediately pulling ahead. They’ll have the ability to buy more regular ingredients, which improves their odds of a successful run next round, meaning you’ll have to take a bigger risk to keep up. And if that doesn’t pan out, you fall further behind, and so on.

Basically, this is a game about risk management which is nonetheless substantially based on luck. If you fall behind, you have to play carefully and get lucky or hope your opponents screw up in order to catch them. You don’t really have a way to actively make up ground. The catch-up mechanic—moving you farther ahead in the cauldron if you’re far enough behind the leader—only makes it so you stay within range if your opponents screw up. And if you fall behind, it’s just not fun.

That’s the real killer. A game can be difficult, it can be a little unbalanced, it can be somewhat frustrating, and none of that is good, but it can remain entertaining as an experience. This does not. If you fall behind, none of your options are good, and all you can do is wish ill on your opponents (most likely your friends). The game’s fine when you’re winning, but it feels quite bad if you’re losing, and that means in most games someone is not having a good time.

Combined with the wonky theme—are these people really so stupid that they risk blowing up their concoctions for bubbles?—and even though it’s pretty popular on Board Game Geek, I can’t get on board.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
New Frontiers

New Frontiers

Seriously, the move from “Race” to “Roll” was aesthetically pleasing. Who cares if you don’t fight the other players directly? You drop space marines on rebels and aliens. That’s rumbling. It counts. “New Frontiers” my ass.

Rumble for the New Frontiers (that’s my name for it now) is another game about getting your feet on some planets, developing handy inventions, and turning that sweet, sweet cash into sweet, sweet VPs. Some aspects will seem more familiar to Race fans than others. You have a board representing your galaxy-traveling people, with a home planet on the front and slots for eight more around the board. You fill those by exploring planets (pulling them out of a bag) and then colonizing. The middle of your board has twelve slots for development upgrades, along with small marks for your money, colonists, and VPs.

A round consists of each player taking one of seven possible actions, each of which allows everyone to act but offers a bonus to the player who picked it.

  • Explore: Pull seven planets from the bag, pick one, pass them around. (Bonus: pick a second planet after everyone has made a selection.)
  • Settle: Use colonists to settle a planet, or take two colonists to use later. (Bonus: take a colonist first, which can be used to settle a planet.)
  • Develop: Buy a technology. (Bonus: costs $1 less.)
  • Produce: Planets without goods make a good. If it goes unused for a round, $1 is put on it, taken by the next person who chooses this action. (Bonus: Put stuff on a windfall planet without a good. Windfall planets make a good when colonized, but don’t normally during production.)
  • Trade/Consume: Sell a good. Also, use any Consume keywords you control. (Bonus: 1 VP.)
  • Take first spot in line and 1 VP.
  • Go into isolation; take $2

The entire game is about combining these actions with the abilities you gain from developed technologies and colonized planets. Making sure that as many actions as possible will have their maximum effect, no matter when they happen (ie. having the money/military and colonists to settle one of your planets when someone takes the Settle action) is the key to winning.

Of course, there’s no single way to win. Build a military and take over a bunch of military-required planets? Sure. Military’s relatively easy to build up and those planets tend to be worth a lot of points. Get a high-money economy rolling? Hey, those planets tend to have good abilities you can combine for points, and there’s even a tech that lets you buy military planets. There aren’t a lot of different combos—your only options for points are planets, techs, and things which give you VP chips, so you have to get those things one way or another—but the ability combinations are almost endless.

I’m not a huge Race fan, but I like this. Does that mean Race fans will adore it? Mmm… maybe. It has a Race feel, but it really depends on what you like about Race vs. what you’ll enjoy in this. It has complexity without feeling overwhelming; your second game will almost certainly go better than the first, but the first shouldn’t feel hopeless unless you’re in with a bunch of experts. It’s basically good and playable, in that vein of games with the quality to sell like mad in a less crowded market, but not quite on the level that it should be held aloft above all comers in this day and age.

3.9 out of 5 stars (3.9 / 5)

Euphoria

Euphoria

I just noticed the picture on the box front has plebes rolling walking-wheels around like little hamsters. Whether or not it’s an allusion to the dice you roll as your workers or not, I’m taking it as such. Well done.

Euphoria is a worker placement game where your dice are your workers and your soul is a liability. Workers are rolled and then placed with one of the factions (Euphorian, Subterran, Wastelander, or Icarite); if you roll doubles, those dice can be placed on the same turn. You start with two dice and can get up to four. That’s pretty normal for worker placement games. What’s less normal is the fact you can lose those workers, and especially how—if they get too smart, they might run away.

The basic breakdown is this: Euphorians make energy, Subterrans make water, Wastelanders make Food, and Icarites make all the drugs. The first three groups are stationed on the ground, and can construct buildings (contributing your workers and resources to these buildings let you earn points and avoid their negative effects immediately). The Icarites are in the sky and do things totally differently, because hey man, that’s what they do, and it’s cool man, it’s so cool, get blissed out man. You can take resources from the factions, and what you get depends on the total of the dice in that area (yours and others). If there are enough, you can get an extra of their main resource, but your workers get smarter.

With regards to worker smarts: When you pull dice off the board and roll them, if they total sixteen or more, you lose one. At the start of the game, that’s impossible. However, if you roll three or more dice, it becomes possible, and if the intelligence of your workers has risen too far, it’s possible to lose one even when you just roll two dice. Fortunately, when you remove workers, you choose how many to take off; unfortunately, those you leave on can often be bumped out of their spots by opposing workers. Since you always roll all available dice together, this can leave you rolling a risky number of dice (3+) even when your plan involved rolling a safe number (two or less).

It’s a neat tactic, a way to create strategic play against opponents without a mechanism of direct conflict (appropriate dystopian theme). In fact, much of the game involves playing “with” opponents while still trying to beat them. You nearly always team up with others to make buildings, construct tunnels, and push the power of each faction ahead so you earn more resources and get access to your backup recruit (assistant character). There’s almost never a reason to cut deals with people, but you have to be aware of what they’re doing and figure out how to turn it to your advantage, such as finding locations other people will need and getting a worker there first so they bump it off the board and you get to reroll it for free (rather than paying in food or morale to take it off the board).

However, this aspect also leads to the main downside. You largely have to go along to get along in this game. If you refuse to help make buildings, other players will, and you’ll be left with repercussions and no points. If you don’t work to improve the power of the faction your main recruit (and later the secondary) belongs to, other players eventually might, but there’s value in pumping it up sooner rather than later, especially if someone else is helping. Winning is a matter of working with people while finding edges before they do.

The issue is this: working together is necessary enough that people whose recruits don’t belong to the same faction as anyone else’s are at a disadvantage against multiple players whose recruits do faction-match. The game is relatively good at not letting anyone really snowball out of control, but being part of the group activities is so important that if you’re shut out by unfortunate turn order (e.g. buildings keep going from zero to built before you get a turn, or you get one turn but don’t have a worker/necessary resource), or you have to put all the work into raising up one faction while other players can split the effort, you end up falling behind for reasons you had little control over.

Once you play a few games, you start to see the time to go for buildings, which buildings might get people on board sooner, etc., which helps. The recruit faction issue is always potentially present, and while it should be less of an issue in larger games, if you find yourself the only representative of a faction despite having six players, it hurts even more.

Euphoria is pretty good, but it’s not good throughout the 2-6 player range. Board Game Geek suggests 4-5; I don’t know how it plays on the lower end of the spectrum, but I agree that six players seems to throw the game out of whack.

3.4 out of 5 stars (3.4 / 5)
Bruges

Bruges

The thing about games set in places like fifteenth-century Belgium is that they glorify these beacons of the medieval era without acknowledging all the f’d up places that people had to poop.

Bruges is a decently heavy strategy game based on two of the most random pieces of game design—dice and cards. At a glance, it’s like, “Hey, game! Why you do this? This no good!” But it works out.

Let me explain.

The thing to understand about Bruges is that its strategy is not nearly as much of the plan-ahead variety as it is of the react-to-circumstances variety. You start each round with five cards, drawing (usually) four and having one left over from the previous round. You don’t know what the cards are, but you do know their color from the back. There are five colors and five dice (one of each color). Each card has a person on it, but the people are frequently irrelevant. Not only is this OK, it’s actually quite a good thing—since most of the cards you draw will only be used for their color, you can wait until you find people you really need to fill the houses you build, which dramatically lessons how luck of the draw affects you.

Furthermore, a big chunk of the strategy is dependent on having sufficient cash, which itself depends on the dice. Although some cards earn you money (and if you can get a good money-making engine going, it’s often worth the effort), quite frequently you’ll discard a card for some coins. The money you receive depends on the number on the die. There’s more luck involved here—dice are rolled after cards are drawn, so you don’t know what will be worth the most—but even so, there are enough action options that you can generally wait until cards are worth the most (five or six coins each) before using them for cash. Get some workers, build some canals with the cash you already have, build some houses for the new folk… if you have to take one or two coins with a card, it’s rare that bad luck truly left you with no other option. It’s much more common for it to happen to someone who takes a risk that doesn’t pan out.

Mostly the complexity of Bruges revolves around how to get the points you need to win. Spend your money on reputation? If there are some cheap hits early, it’s a good plan, but you might price yourself into getting the higher levels of rep when you need the money for other things. Hire high-VP people? That’s straight cash, homie. Build canals? That’s a lot of cash too. Build majorities? Not so hard early if you focus it, since you only need to have the majority in people, canal sections built, or reputation points once during the game. But if you have to catch up, or if you’re trying to stay ahead to deny one or more opponents a chance at those points, it can get pricey. Given how clear most of the point options are to your opponents, it’s often finding synergy among the point bonuses some people hand out that can be the difference, which means getting those synergistic hires and then finding more people who work with them. There are a lot of options, but that goes further still towards reducing the luck factor.

Bruges is out of print right now, but if you get a chance to play it—or better yet, find it cheap at a garage or estate sale—go for it. Very much worth the time for the hour-long strategy game fan.

4.3 out of 5 stars (4.3 / 5)


Scroll Up