Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: The Isle of Doctor Necreaux

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm a fan of the "reality-based" spy based movies, though I do still have a soft-spot in my heart for any henchman who collapses from one Judo chop to the shoulder and any arch-villain who can stand the heat and humidity to have a base inside an active volcano.


The Overview:


A small box, though it does not make Dr. Necreaux any less deadly. 



Box contents: Cards, dice and a few cardboard markers.



The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is a cooperative game in which you and the other players are part of an elite search-and-rescue team saddled with the responsibility to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists and escape with them before the volcanic isle where they are held is destroyed. However, they were kidnapped by the nefarious Dr. Necreaux, who has forced them to create a doomsday device and he has them hidden deep in the belly of his lair, which is guarded by traps, security devices and horrible monstrous creations. Oh, and of course, there is a countdown until the isle is destroyed, which will destroy the doomsday device, but will destroy your team and the scientists if you have not found them and escaped before the timer goes off.

The game is for 1-5 players and it is a fully cooperative game and is playable in 30-45 minutes. Each player takes the role of a team member whose ability and role is determined by a card draw of three Character Cards. These traits include things such as being an Empath, being Tough as Nails, being a Gadgeteer and being a Ninja. Since your character's traits are a sum of three cards, you may find yourself being something as a Lucky Robust Pyrokineticist. Each of the abilities has different effects and makes each player's role unique.

Once the team is assembled they need to enter Dr. Necreaux's lair. The lair is created by taking the Adventure Cards and splitting them into thirds. The Scientists Card is shuffled into the middle third of the cards and the Escape Shuttle is shuffled into the bottom third of the cards, then they are placed on top of one another to create a single deck. Depending on the number of players, the countdown clock is set to a specific number of turns. From here, the actual gameplay is incredibly easy and intuitive.

As a team, the group decides if they will rest or move on their turn. Resting heals some of the character's wounds and recharges some of their abilities. However, then the turn ends and the countdown moves down on click. If the group decides to move through the lair, they determine their teams speed (the number of cards they will resolve before stopping and moving the countdown clock down one step). If they move at a speed of 5, they will draw and resolve 5 Adventure Cards in order.

Adventure Cards can be traps, events, rooms, monsters or items. Item cards are put to the side as "Pending Items" and can be gained after later Monster encounters. All other cards are resolved as they are listed on the card. Monsters must be defeated with combat and have a Combat Value listed on them. Monsters need a number of hits equal to the number of players to kill. If a player's roll is higher than the Combat Value (modified by their character card abilities) they hit. If it is less than that number, the team takes damage. If it equals that number, it is a push. After every team member has rolled, the group determines how to distribute their damage, if any. The person who rolled poorly does not have to take it, but anyone else in the team can. If you take one damage, you flip over one of your character cards and can no longer use its power. They can be flipped back over by healing or resting. If you have character cards already flipped over in front of you and take damage, you can discard one of your character cards to resolve the damage. However, that means you won't get it back by healing or any other means. Your other option is to retreat from Monsters, but then everyone takes one damage. Traps and Events are usually direct die rolls against a skill check modified by the abilities or the speed of the players.

Finally, after the players have moved through all of their cards based on their speed, the countdown moves down one step and the players start a new turn deciding if they need to rest or move. There is always a pressure to keep moving and move quick though, which means potentially taking a lot of damage along the way before having the option to heal. There are 77 Adventure Cards in the deck (including the Scientists and the Escape Shuttle). A three-player team only has 10 turns to rescue the scientists and escape. This means, they would need to average 7.7 cards drawn each turn to ensure that they find both the scientists and shuttle. And that average is only accurate if they do not take one or more turns to heal. So there is pressure to rush through and risk damage to make it, but some traps are harder to avoid if you have a high speed, but others are difficult if you go too slow.


The Theme:

The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is built from top to bottom with theme. The Character Cards are diverse and unique and give a great "super team" feel to them. Some of the Character Cards are a little more low-end super hero in ability, but most of them seem to fit a good, pulp feel for ability and personality. The Adventure Cards are very fitting as well for an evil mastermind who has a lair on a volcanic isle that houses his doomsday device. I would have personally preferred more generic henchmen types to encounter, but then again, pulp heroes easily dispatch them, where would the challenge be? But they do have a Cyber-Shark Pit with laser beam mounts on them, so all is forgiven.

The theme really just comes from Character Cards with abilities on them and Adventure Cards with encounters on it. A bad group of players can just look at them and turn it into stats, but really, why would you be playing with these people? It's much more fun to play with someone who has the Mentalist ability and presses his fingers to his temples and goes "woo-ooh, woo-ooh, woo-ooh" before using the ability and flipping over the top three Adventure Cards to see what they are and telling the rest of the group before deciding what to do at the beginning of a turn. The game shines when you have a player puff out his chest and outstretch an arm to hold back another character as they say, "Stand back, I'll take that damage... I'm Robust."


Learning the Game:

The rules are incredibly easy to grasp and very intuitive. The Reference Sheet on the back page of the rules lists everything you need to know once you've given the rules a read through. The only tricky part of the rules that was easy to miss was in combat. Rolling below the Combat Value of a Monster damages your team and rolling over the value means you damage the monster. However, tying the Combat Value is a push. The monster does not take a damage and neither does your team.

A couple of the cards are a little confusing on when it comes to charging and when to charge them (such as if a card says it is charged at the beginning of a combat, can you also charge it when you rest). However, they are minor and all of them really are just easy and intuitive to figure out. Marking the teams Speed was also a little tricky at first because all you have is a little counter that says "Speed" on it, but after a couple of plays, our groups figured an intuitive way of marking our teams speed on any turn. But these are such minor things in an easy to learn, very intuitive game.


The Components:

The game is essentially cards with only a few cardboard tokens to track charges and the Countdown Clock. The cards are of a good stock and seem to hold up well. Any thicker and they would be difficult to shuffle.





There is a pulp style to the artwork for the cards. 


The artwork on the cards is excellent. Very thematic and very fitting for the theme. It reminds me of the old school Flash Gordon pulp comics, even down to the look of the Escape Shuttle. It is always great when the artwork and finish of a game like this note only matches the feel and style of the game, but shows that they cared about it.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is intuitive and easy to learn and pick up on. This is a cooperative game, however, and one that relies on consensus more than a lot of cooperative games. At the beginning of the turn, the team as a whole decides if they want to rest or move. If they move, then the team as a whole decides what their Speed is and how many cards they therefore draw. If the team takes damage, the group decides who takes it. With the wrong person or people in a group, these can each be 20 minute arguments. Fortunately, our group doesn't have those players in it, but I know they are out there and I can see it ruining the experience. Personally, I don't know why people play with players like that in any game, but if you have one, be warned about this game. It is full teamwork and consensus.

Most of the fun for me comes from the Character Cards and taking on the role placed in front of me. When I have the Leader card, I love to put on a swarmy smile and tell the other players on my team who rolled poorly, not to worry and just follow my example and they can add one to their roll.

There are only 75 different Adventure Cards (excluding the Scientists and Escape Shuttle), so with multiple plays, you start to have an idea of what is in the deck. It doesn't matter too much, though, since the combination of Character Cards makes for each outing to have such variety, that you rarely have teams that are similar. But the limited Adventure Cards may put off some people who are looking for dozens of replays in a short amount of time.



Even Luke and Laura from "General Hospital" have battled an arch villain bent on controlling the world with his doomsday device from his hidden island lair. Yeah. Seriously.


This is also a light, fun game and is easy to introduce to non-gamers. The cooperative nature of it makes it less intimidating for someone afraid that they will do the wrong thing and you are not hurting anyone by helping them with their decisions. And the theme is of a genre that most everyone knows. Anyone whose seen an old James Bond movie knows the genre. Anyone who has seen Austin Powers knows the genre. Anyone who has read a comic book knows the genre. Anyone who has ever seen anything that had a villain holding the world ransom from his remote island base knows this genre... That includes people who watched "General Hospital" in the 80's and saw Luke and Laura stop the evil Mikkos Cassadine who tried to throw the world into a new ice age with his doomsday device unless all of the nations submitted to his rule from his island lair. Yeah. This genre is THAT accessible. And, uh, sadly, I knew about that General Hospital storyline...


Scalability:

The game scales well with combat dependent upon the number of players. If there are two members in a team, the monsters need two hits to kill. If there are five members, monsters take five hits. There are more abilities (and potential damage to be absorbed) by more members in a team, but the timer starts with less time for each member in the team. The only issue I have with scalability is when it comes to solo play. Monsters scale fine, though you could end up with a bad combat draw of Character Cards and have to retreat more than most teams would. However, not all of the traps scale well. Their damage remains constant. Taking five points of damage, for example, hurts any team, but the damage can be broken up between players. However, in a solo run, a player would flip all of his cards and then discard two of them , leaving him with only one flipped card left. Sure, there are Character Cards designed to absorb damage, but chances of having one in the team are much less since there is only one player. Still the jump from playability from one player to two player is huge. With two players it is a fun, feasible game. I would simply suggest that this game should be played with 2-5 players instead of 1-5.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. Despite its accessibility, my wife is not a huge fan of this genre. So, yes, it was actually me who knew about Luke and Laura fighting an arch villain on his remote island base, not her. Still, she enjoys cooperative games and will play this with me. She's a little less daring and often resists the faster movements in the lair, but she will usually go along with our decision if for no other reason than to say "I told you so".

Still, she does not hate this game, but is not enthused about it. I think it is because the genre doesn't do much for her. But everyone else that I have shown the game to who does enjoy a bit of the theme has really liked it. So, going by her, I would say that the genre and theme matter a lot in the enjoyment of this game. She loves cooperative games, but is only luke warm on this one. So keep that in mind when making your choice.


The Pros:

*Great theme and artwork that has a perfect pulp feel to a quick-placed game.
*Cooperative gameplay requires teams to make decisions as a whole and work together.
*Fun and light and is an excellent filler game.
*Good introduction game that is accessible and easy for non-gamers.
*Very intuitive play with a very well outlined Reference Sheet.
*Character Cards are diverse and unique, making each team member useful in specific roles and situations.
*Good scalability from 2-5 players.
*There are sharks with laser beams.


The Cons:

*Does not scale well as a solo game.
*Cooperative play requires team work and alpha players can run the game for everyone or two alphas can make every decision a drawn out argument.
*May be too light for some players.
*The Adventure Cards may seem a bit repetitive and predictable after a bunch of plays.
*You may end up revealing the dirty little secret that you used to watch "General Hospital" in the 80's.


Overall:

The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is a quick-paced, light adventure game that is an excellent filler game or a game to play while waiting for other players to show up. If you are a fan of the pulp genre and have ever seen anything where a villain has had a secret base on a volcanic isle, you know this genre. The game is easy and accessible for most gamers and non-gamers alike. While not deep, it is fun and fast and has a frantic pace and feel. It may suffer from too many repeated plays over a short time, but the character abilities will at least give a lot of diversity to the different ways of HOW the team deals with Adventure Cards that become more familiar. If you are a fan of pulp adventures or old-school spy movies and want a light, fun filler for your group, grab this one immediately. You may not be blown away by the depth of it, but you will have a lot of fun if you get into the pulp spirit of the game.


7/10

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