Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: Claustrophobia

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. Also, I do enjoy Space Hulk and have often wondered what that game would be like in a setting where people can hear you scream.

The Overview:

The box cover art. The box size is a little longer, but not quite as deep as the Space Hulk box. 

Contents of the box. 

Claustrophobiais an adventure game using miniatures and built on a modular board set in a fantasy world where humans are battling back a growing army of demons coming up from the underground. Each game is set up and played according to a short scenario. The scenarios tell an overall story of the growing horrors that roam beneath the city of New Jerusalem.

The game is for two players and plays in about 45 minutes. Games can run a little shorter or longer depending on experience of the players as well as the scenario chosen, but 45 minutes seems to be the base time to figure this out. One player controls the human forces, controlling usually four human characters. The other player controls the demon forces, who have a finite number of figures, but can bring in slain units again, giving them a finite number of units on the board at any time, but ultimately infinite numbers. The victory conditions of each scenario do differ, however, most of the victory conditions for the human player involved keeping their figures alive long enough to complete a task.

The character card and die well that determines their current stats. 

The human characters each have their own statistics and abilities. The characters are set up in an interesting and innovative way, with each one set in a stand, similar to that found in Formula D. In each stand is a die well that fits a six-sided die. Depending on what the facing of the die is, determines the stats for that character that turn. For example, the Condemned Blade For Hire has a Movement of 1, Combat of 3 and Defense of 3 if the die is on the 1-facing, but on a 4-facing, his Movement is 2, Combat is 1 and Defense is 3, and on a 6-facing, his Movement is 1, Combat is 1, but his Defense is 5. So, as you see, the number on the die placed in the character's die well determines his stats and abilities for that turn. Furthermore, if a character is injured, the player chooses a damage token to place on one of the six rows of stats. If he places it on the "1" row, then the character cannot use the stats on that row. Once all six rows have a damage token on them, the character is killed. If a character is forced to place the die on a row that is damaged, then he is exhausted and has a 0 Movement, 0 Combat and 3 Defense rating and is pretty much a sitting duck. Each character also has his own set of talents that give them their own special abilities .

The Demon player's main forces are Troglodytes, which have set statistics and 1 Health each. They are not particularly powerful in combat, but when you get a number of them attacking and swarming him, you are much more effective. Depending on the scenario, the Demon player also controls a Demon. The scenario dictates which demon he has access to and its statistics for that scenario.

The game begins with the scenario set-up. Most scenarios involve building the modular board as you go, but there may be some set up for how to prepare the stack of tiles to draw from. Each scenario may list any extras a player may have, including bonus start cards and special rules. And each also outlines the win conditions for each player.

Each turn has four Phases to it.

The Initiative Phase is where the human player rolls a number of dice equal to the number of active characters he has. He then assigns one die to each character, putting it in his die well and setting their stats for that turn. As characters get more wounded, the human player may find it more difficult to set out and perform the actions he wanted by virtue of some of the lines being blocked from damage and having to assign dice among characters to see that none of his warriors are exhausted instead of what is possibly the most tactical setting for an individual character. Because of this, it makes damage very important and its effects are felt throughout the game by its limitations it has on the whole of the human's characters.

The Human Player's Action Phase is next. Here the player chooses his characters one at a time and can take actions with his characters. He can attack and move. Attacking and combat is simple; a character rolls the number of 6-sided dice equal to his Combat Rating. For every roll that is equal to or higher than the target's defense, scores a hit and causes a damage. Troglodytes only have one health each, so two hits will kill two Troglodytes on the same tile as the warrior.

A character can also move as many tiles as his current Movement Rating. This can be moving from one explored tile to the next explored tile. Or, if a passage continues, but has not been explored, the character can spend a movement point to take the next tile on the stack. The Demon player orients the tile to his liking, but the character moves onto that tile and it is explored. If there is an icon on the tile, there may be special effects that need to be resolved. Further, there are a few movement restrictions to take into account, however. A Tunnel cannot contain more than 3 warriors from either side on it (3 human characters and 3 Troglodytes or 2 Troglodytes and 1 Demon). There is also a Blocking rule, where you cannot leave a tile that has enemy figures on it unless you have at least as many figures from your side on the tile. This creates some strategic blocking on both sides.

Next is the Threat Phase, where the Demon player rolls 3 6-sided dice and lays them on the Board of Destiny. Depending on the rolls, the player can break down what actions or bonuses he wishes to take. For example, you can spend a die with a facing of 3 or more to draw an event card. You can place as many dice as you want to gain 2 Threat Points (TP) per die to bring in more creatures, but you can only place either all odd or all even numbered dice on it. There are a number of options for the Demon player and a lot of ways to break up the dice, but you are not guaranteed to get the most useful options on any round.

The Demon Player then brings his figures onto the board. Troglodytes are brought in at 1 TP each and a Demon can be brought in for 5 P. The Demon Player's figures can only be brought in on tiles that have at least one unexplored opening and is empty of Human figures. This often means that the Human Player will want to spread out his figures to try to "block" all unexplored passage openings to limit the places the Demon can place his figures. However, spread out warriors are in a lot more danger than those who stay together, so there is a strategic trade-off regardless of which way you choose.

Finally, the Demon Player's Action Phase is next. The Demon Player can move and attack with all of his figures exactly as the Human Player could in his Action Phase. However, Demons cannot explore new tiles and are limited to traveling and moving only on the tiles already flipped.

Play continues like this each round until the scenario's win conditions are met by one side.

The Theme:

Claustrophobia is a highly thematic game. The components are beautiful and well produced and help to bring you into the theme. There seems to be an interesting world described in the rulebook and scenarios that is only barely touched on for the depth and back story that seems to really be behind it. The scenarios outline an ongoing storyline as well, and playing them as a campaign helps to tell the full story. Truly this is a large world that is only touched on by the events in the game and it does a wonderful job of telling a small part of this tale.

However, there are a few decisions that were made in the design and presentation that stand out in how much they seem to take you out of the story and theme whereas so much else was built to bring you into it.

First of all, the human characters are not named. Really, even Space Hulk for its hoard of Space Marines all equipped exactly the same still have individual names. There are only a total of 5 characters in Claustrophobia. There is the Redeemer, 2 Condemned Brutes and 2 Condemned Blades for Hire. The fact that they are not named is further complicated and more baffling in that you may have a scenario where you have 2 Blades for Hire and one of them begins with a Blunderbuss. This makes it a little awkward to remember who has what. The two miniatures have small variations, such as one is blond and one is brunette. So we usually resort to just giving the gun to "Blondie". You have the same problem with the two Brutes (which also has one blond). So in scenarios where you have both Brutes and both Blades for Hire, you have to even differentiate when you are referring to "Blondie" and have to say "Blondie Brute" or "Blondie Blade".

Honestly, this game is crying for names and back story to these characters. The fact that these characters are just given generic titles instead of attempting to personify them is perhaps the largest disservice to the game and it does stick out like a sore thumb to every other way that the theme pulls you into the story of the scenario and game.

Learning the Game:

This is not a difficult game to learn or understand. The rulebook is only 24 pages long and 8 of the pages are the scenarios and the first 6 pages are back story flavor text and a listing of components. After one play, you will probably not need to refer to the rulebook other than to look at the tile icons. The rules are well-written and there are a lot of examples throughout the book, however, there are a couple of small problems I have with the rules that hinder learning the game.

First of all, there are a few errors in this printing of the rules. That's understandable, but there is at least one error that is very significant and changes game play entirely. The rulebook states that abilities on the Board of Destiny printed in red can only be used once per game. However, in the errata, it is actually supposed to read that the abilities are only usable once per TURN. That is a huge difference.

Secondly, the book may be too illustrated with examples and pictures. While it does make for a beautiful book, they way it is broken down actually makes it difficult to look up the actual rules, as you may have a page that only has 2 paragraphs of text rules, but they are hidden among the large diagrams and examples spread over and under them. Also, there is a small (third-page) Glossary on the back cover. However, it isn't in alphabetical order for some reason. Its small enough that you can still find everything with ease, but it is still just odd and a little inconvenient.

But the rules are simple enough that these are really just small quibbles in the large picture. With a print out of the 1 page Errata and FAQ sheet and the intuitive play making it unlikely you'll need to look up rules, these problems really end up being small and merely inconvenient.

The Components:

The Condemned Brute miniature. These are beautiful minis and come pre-painted. 

The Demon mini. 

A sampling of the artwork that is on some of the cards. 

A game in progress. You can see the tiles laid out as the underground tunnels are explored. 

The miniatures are beautiful out of the box. Some painting fanatics may feel a little cheated that they cannot paint their own, but honestly, I think that they are of fair enough quality that there is little need to worry about repainting them. The artwork is beautiful and consistent throughout the cards and character cards and the character cards and the well system works so very well and is truly a great idea and an innovative design.

The tiles are well designed on thick enough cardboard and also are beautiful and work to bring you into the feel of being in underground tunnels worrying about the onset of a demon hoard. If I have a problem with the components, it would only be that the tiles do not need to be as large as they are. Depending on how the tunnels build out, the game becomes a huge table hog. Our table is big enough for Arkham Horror and a big box expansion or two, but I still find myself sometimes either exploring tunnels as the Human or placing tiles as the Demon not based on the best strategic positioning, but rather just so that they do not wander off the table. Again, it is a minor inconvenience on beautiful and functional components, but be warned that this game often becomes a beast to fit on the table.

Playing the Game:

Gameplay really is fluid and intuitive. Usually movement range and combat options are rather limited for the Human Player, so there isn't too much long-term thinking to be made. Positioning your figures and blocking the enemy are important to consider, but I don't find it quite as intensive or frantic as playing the Space Marines in Space Hulk. However, playing the Demons gives you a range of options with the Board of Destiny as well as the options presented by drawing and playing cards, that I find the Demons to be a much richer and more strategic and deeper game than playing the Genestealers in Space Hulk.

The game is really easy to learn and play, and there is a lot of replayability due to the randomized modular set up of the exploration process. This is good, since there are only six scenarios presented in the book. The good news is, however, that more scenarios have been designed and released on the Claustrophobia website and also posted on BGG.

There are also rules for experienced players to go through the scenarios to auction down the number of points to build their Human teams as. This adds variety as well as giving extra challenge to the players.


It is not scalable. It is a two player game. However, there are sufficient rules and the build-system mentioned above that lets you scale the difficulty for an experienced player playing with a new player.

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. We are also constantly looking for short two-player games that aren't too heavy to play together after work since we don't watch much teevee. Also, she and I are both long-time Dungeons and Dragons players and the setting and theme fit really well. While this isn't her favorite game, the easy of play and quick time frame keeps it on our radar when we are looking to play something. Also, while we both played our fair share of Space Hulk my wife much prefers the fantasy setting of this game to the sci-fi/space theme of the other.

While in a very similar vein to Space Hulk, I personally feel that they have their own merits and weaknesses. While I miss the tenseness of the Space Marines while playing the Humans in this game, I am much happier playing the versatile and variable Demons in this game than the sometimes dull and repetitive Genestealers in the other. My wife does not care for the tension of the Marines, but will happily play the Humans in this game. She enjoys the Genestealers in the Hulk, but was intimidated by the options for the Demons in this game, but after finally playing them, she learned it wasn't that taxing, but did give a lot of options. Ultimately, however, for her the game comes down to setting. She much prefers the theme and setting of Claustrophobia. I can see that and I do prefer the fantasy theme as well, but I think the two give just enough of a different feel to whet, but not fully satisfy a desire to play the other.

The Pros:

*Beautiful game components with complete and pre-painted, free-standing miniatures that do not require a sacrifice dollars for paint or in blood to cut out of their sprues.
*Innovative Character health system with die-wells really makes interesting decisions and shows how damage effects not just the character, but the entire group as you may need to weaken one character to ensure your wounded character can move.
*Easy, intuitive rules that are a quick learn.
*Modular tile exploration mechanism allows more replayability of the scenarios.
*Immersive game world and lots of theme.
*Short play time of each scenario is well timed for the depth of play.
*Great support as far as new scenarios being released on the web.
*One of the few games that has a good out-of-the-box bid and build system for experienced players.

The Cons:

*A table hog, which could have been limited a bit with smaller tiles.
*A few rulebooks complaints as printed.
*Not scalable past two-players.
*Huge missed opportunity to build more theme by leaving characters with generic titles and no names.
*Some Space Hulk die-hards may see the randomness of the board by tile draws to be a negative.


Claustrophobia seems to be a direct descendant of Space Hulk, but has enough differences to still make it feel like its own game. It is a truly thematic and interesting world that is only flawed by a few missed opportunities to bring it even deeper and fuller of an experience. There are some interesting innovations in the game and it does build some tension through the systems built. Both sides have variety and decisions to be made, which separates it from his predecessor. For those who enjoy a Space Hulk type game, but wants to explore different settings, this is an obvious choice. It is also a choice for those who want to whet their appetites with a game that has the feel of D&D, but only have a couple players and limited time. If you want a good fantasy adventure combat game that isn't going to take a long time, this is an obvious choice. And despite the obvious comparisons to Space Hulk, Claustrophobia stands on its own as its own game and a good, fun choice.


1 comment:

  1. I wish more authors of this type of content would take the time you did to research and write so well. I am very impressed with your vision and insight.