Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Nuns on the Run

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. However, while I am not very religious, I do harbor one bias against nuns: Whenever there is a comedy with men dressing up as nuns, precious little hilarity will actually ensue.


The Overview:


The box is a bit deeper than it needs to be, but it is ultimately smaller than standard box sizes such as Agricola. 



Box contents. They may seem rather sparse, but considering everyone in the box has taken a vow of poverty, the contents are not too shabby. 



Nuns on the Run is a game of stealth and detection, played with two directly opposing sides, although other than the 2 Guards in an 8 player game, there are no real cooperative elements. The game really is just a nun's story wherein one player takes the roles of both Guards (the Abbess and the Prioress), except in 8 player games in which two players each take one. The rest of the player take on the role of one of the Novices. The Novices each have a "Secret Wish" card dealt to them and they have to try to sneak through the church grounds to get the key to their item, then collect their item and return back to their cell undetected. The Guards are trying to detect their hidden movement and find and stop the Novices who should be in their cells and not wandering around the church.

Because of the hidden movement mechanics of the Novices, the game is almost an inverse of Scotland Yard and Fury of Dracula, but with multiple stealthy characters avoiding detection. Still it falls very closely in the spirit of these games and probably falls somewhere in between the two games as far as depth. There are definitely more options and more to do in the game than Scotland Yard offers. But while both games may have crucifixes, there is significantly less mortal combat going on in this game than in Fury of Dracula.

The game is for 2-8 players and takes about 30-60 minutes to play, depending on the number of players and their familiarity with the game. Since the Novices take their turns simultaneously, their number doesn't necessarily add to the length, but invariably, it causes more opportunities for the Guards to overhear and may cause more opportunities for the Guard player to pause and consider their moves.

Each Novice is dealt a Secret Wish card at the start of the game. These wishes range from collecting a letter from your mother to stealing a bottle of brandy. Each of the Secret Wishes is locked away and the Novice will have to get the correct key before they can retrieve their item. Keys and Wishes are each on a preset location on the board.

The Novices do not move their character token on the map. Instead, they use a movement log sheet to record where they are on the map at any time. Each turn on their movement, a Novice may Stand Still (0 movement), Sneak (move 1 or 2 spaces), Walk (move 3 or 4 spaces) or Run (move up to 5 spaces). However, the faster they move, the noisier they are. At the end of their movement, the Novice rolls a six-sided die and modifies it by the type of movement they took (Stand Still -3, Sneak -2, Walk -1, Run -0). The resulting number is the distance that they can be heard. So if the Novice rolls a 3 and there is a Guard within 3 spaces of them, they must alert the Guard that they heard a noise by placing a Noise Token on the board. This allows the Guard to deviate from her predetermined route that turn and investigate the noise. This sometimes forces a slower play by the Sister. Act too quickly and you may end up getting caught.

Similarly, if a movement places the Novice within a Guard's line of sight, they must put their Novice token on the board to show where the Novice is. If they move out of the line of sight, they put a Vanished Token on their last seen location. On the Guards' turn, they can deviate from their path to investigate.

If a Novice is caught, she loses her Secret Wish if she has it (it returns to its original location instantly, apparently flying; none-the-wiser is the Guard who caught the Novice, as she does not get to discover which Secret Wish was returned), she keeps the keys if she has them, and she must take her next move to Walk back towards her cell. Once she is out of sight, however, she can decide to sneak off again.

If a Novice returns to her cell with her Secret Wish, she declares it at the end of her turn and she wins.

The Guards each choose a predetermined path card at the start of their movement, which is public knowledge for the Novices as well. They are then committed to following that path on their turn. Their movement options are a little more limited. They can either Walk (move 3 or 4 spaces) or Run (move 5 or 6 spaces). If the Abbess or Prioress has Walked that turn, they get to roll the six-sided die to try to listen in from their ending space. They roll the die and the Novices need to modify it based on their last movement played and let the Guards know if they are in range and overheard. If so, they place a Noise Token on the board.

As stated, the Abbess and Prioress follow a predetermined path. However, if either a Novice is overheard or one has crossed their Line of Sight (line of sight is anywhere from an 180 degree arc from the front of the Guard, up to six spaces forward, but blocked by walls and doors), they are allowed a change of habit and deviate from the path and move freely in an attempt to investigate and catch the Novice. After their movements, however, if the Novice is no longer seen or heard, the tokens are removed from the board and the Guard and on their next move, they will have to move back to their chosen path and continue on their way again. Once the Guard has reached the destination of their chosen path, they must then choose another path heading out from their new location.

Guards can catch the same Novice multiple times in the course of a game. Ultimately the Guards win if they catch a number of Novices equal to the total number of players (not just number of Novices) or 15 turns have passed and none of the Novices have claimed their Secret Wish and returned to their cell.

The last thing is each Novice and each of the Guards receives a Blessing card. Blessings cards can be used once per game and allow you to do anything from adding one to your movement, rerolling a die roll, modifying the noise roll by +1 or -1 (depending on if you are a Novice or a Guard) or placing a false Noise Token. The false Noise Tokens are very useful. If a Novice plays it, it can draw a Guard off of their path as they investigate something that isn't really there, giving you a chance to slip by them. If a Guard plays it, it counts as a Noise Token being on the board and gives that Guard a free turn to deviate from their path. So each blessing from an angel granted to a Novice may also be in the hands of a Guard. But I suppose that is the trouble with angels; in a game where both sides are playing spiritually devoted, they help out both sides equally.


The Theme:

Nuns on the Run is a stealth and tracking game that seems to have the odd setting of being placed in a church ground. However, it works. True, the theme of playing nuns might turn some people off, but it really does work in a cute way. My wife was hesitant at the game's theme at first, but after a play, it won her over.

Honestly, the church grounds/nun theme is kind of a pasted on. This game could just as easily be rethemed to appeal to a different audience and be a World War II stalag in "the Great Escape". However, the nun theme keeps the feeling light and fun and if you have that hard of a time getting into the theme, play some Gregorian chants in the background. I'm sure that the sound of music playing out in the room will help everyone focus on the setting.

Really, the theme comes down to how the game makes you feel in the roles in a more generic sense. And as the Novice, you really do feel the tension of trying to remain hidden. Your movements are recorded secretly and there will probably be a few times when you hold your breath as you roll the die, knowing that anything higher than a 3 will make enough noise to let the guard know that you are just beyond that door to their right. And as the Guard, you do feel the rigidness of your role as you patrol a set path, modifying your movements just enough to try to position yourself in the best place to either listen in down a corridor or be able to position yourself to see throughout the entire Chapel.

So in that sense, the theme works. You do feel like a Guard on the hunt, not trusting that any room or corridor you pass isn't actually occupied, or you feel like someone on the run, paranoid of making too much noise, but knowing that you have to take a risk and make a mad dash behind the Guards back. If the nuns theme bothers you too much, just replace the Abbess and Prioress markers with a couple of German infantry figures from Axis and Allies, rename Novice Celeste to "The Cooler King", and replace the Secret Wish of stealing a slice of the Abbess' birthday cake with cards for Wire Cutters, a Shovel or a Ham Radio.


Learning the Game:

The rules are rather easy to learn. There is an illustration in the rules that shows how to fill out the Novice's movement log sheet, and I would recommend that you leave the rulebook opened to that page as a reference to the Novice players on how to fill out their logs on their first game. However, after a couple of turns, it becomes pretty intuitive. Then, for any new Novice players in the future, just hold onto any of the old log sheets for them to refer to.

Really, this game is quite easy to pick up. It is probably a little complex for non-gamers, but interested causal gamers should have no problem picking up the rules of the game.


The Components:


The very effective and very pretty board for the game. 



The Guards. Pictured left from right are the Abbess and the Prioress. Though we've affectionately renamed the Abbess to "the Penguin" from the movie, the Blues Brothers (that reference was a free one). 




Here are the tokens representing the Novices. They are only kept in their cells and placed on the map when they are spotted. So, with a few lucky die rolls and stealthy moves, you might be able to get by without anyone overhearing the song of Bernadette as she sneaks through the chapel.  



The components are very good. There is nothing too elaborate, but considering the vow of poverty that the characters in the game have taken, you might lose the feel if you were playing with ornate figures. The board is beautiful and surprisingly very good at creating a field with a lot of dangerous open areas while still containing a number of corridor junctions and side rooms to let the Novices to hide in. The map is superbly crafted from a playability aspect and is also very beautiful from an artistic one. In fact, when looking over the fine details of the board, you can almost see the lilies of the field.

My only complaints with the components are with a single useless piece that was included and one obvious one that was missing:

First of all, the game comes with a "Line of Sight" straight edge. At first you might think that this is a good idea, especially since the Guards cannot see through walls and if you are standing at a corner, you might not actually be able to see the Novice around the corner and further down in the Chapel. A good idea, you say? I mean, determining if there really is line of sight is actually very important if you want to avoid being spotted. However, let us say that a Guard moves onto space 112 in the Chapel and your Novice is on space 61. You pull out the line of sight ruler and lay it down, on space 112 and run it directly to space 61. You see that the Guard's sight is blocked by the corner wall and you smile to the Guard player and tell them that they don't see anything. Well, that's fine. However, they saw you line up space 112 with space 61 and could easily deduce where you are despite the fact you just told her that she cannot see you. So it really is a pointless tool and its inclusion probably makes things a little worse than just referring to the line of sight chart at the back of the rules.

Secondly, the board is big and it is rather obvious when you are the Guard and you see where the players are looking at on it and counting their moves. You may not know exactly, but you can usually tell roughly. This is even more obvious after a Noise roll and the players have to look at the board and silently count out the spaces. As the Guard player, I try my damnedest to be looking away from the board during the Novices' movements, but even glancing over at it for a moment gives you the awareness of which quarter of the board they are looking at. Fury of Dracula, which has hidden movement for the Dracula player, includes a smaller version of the map that Dracula's player can look at to determine their move without obviously looking at the map and giving away his general location. Nuns on the Run would very much improve from having small reference cards with the map on them for each Novice player. Including cards like this would be great to ensure that the Guards still have reason to doubt.


Playing the Game:

Game play is easy and intuitive. Both the role of the Novice and the role of the Guard have very different feels to their play. However, the game mechanics rely on the Novice players both being fully aware of what is going on and adhering to the rules.

Since their movements are hidden and tracked only on their own Novice logs, it is up to the Novice player to know when she is in line of sight of one of the Guards and notify them. It is also up to the Novice player to track and modify all of the Noise rolls and determine if they are heard and where to place the Noise Token on the board. Without the full awareness of the player, either a Novice could accidentally go unnoticed when they should have been spotted or heard, or they might reveal themselves, only to backtrack as they realize that they weren't actually in line of sight, or they were looking at the wrong Guard when counting Noise rolls, effectively giving themselves away. The game is pretty easy to handle without threat of either of these situations, but they are there for the distracted player.

And because it is all hidden movements and it is up to the Novice player's honor to admit when she is heard or seen, the game mechanics are set that it could be intentionally abused. However, if you are playing with someone who would intentionally cheat while playing a nun, you have bigger problems on your hands than simple issues with game mechanics.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 8 players and it scales surprisingly well for each of the ranges. Eight players gets a little trickier with two people playing one each of the Guard roles. However, that really does not change any mechanic whatsoever.

Two-player games give the potential of a dull game for the Guard player. With more Novices running about in different directions, you are more likely to stumble onto one of them and take your chances of free movement off your path. However, in two-player games, there is only one Novice running about, and there is more of a chance of never succeeding on a Noise roll or spotting them and having the Guards spend much more, if not all of their time walking along their paths with no opportunities to run around freely investigating. However, I've played a handful of two-player games already and we have had less chances to move freely, but just enough to still make it interesting and challenging for both sides. But the potential is there.

I would say that the sweet spot for this game is probably around 4 or 5 players. It gives the Guards just enough opportunities to deviate from their paths more often while still giving the Novices enough of a chance to succeed with a few lucky catches by the Guards.


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. When I first got this game, the theme was a tough sell on her. She blinked when I suggested the game and said, "Nuns and running. Two things that I don't care for. And you expect me to enjoy this?" Fortunately, I was able to get her to play by pointing out that she would be making the nuns do something that she doesn't like by forcing them to run. With that, she gave it a try. And, despite the theme, she enjoyed our first two-player game to learn the mechanics (She's also enjoyed games with more players as well since then).

My wife usually is content with whatever role she first learns in a game. Trying out a new character or role would mean learning more rules or learning new strategy. Thus my wife has played the Bene Gesserit non-stop in our games of Dune until we had to finally force her to try a new faction in a four-player game where she reluctantly played the Harkonnens. Still to this day, she has never played a different faction in Dune beyond those two. But, that being said, my wife surprised me by asking me unsolicited to try the role of the Guards after playing her first games as a Novice. She also enjoyed it and appreciates both roles. You might not think that this is that big of a deal, but this is really such a huge thing for someone who is perfectly content never exploring a game beyond the Bene Gesserit, Kennedy, Mina Harker, the Defender, Obama, the Genestealers, Jenny LeClerc, the Elves, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Sam, Amanda the Prom Queen, Beravor, Runewitch Astarra, Caprice Nisei, Rita Young, the purple meeples and selling to Howard every turn.

So if it gets her to explore the game in different ways like that, I think it is a definite win for my wife.


The Pros:

*Roles very well designed and each feels like either a watchful hunter or a paranoid hider.
*Well designed board with plenty of risks and plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in.
*Fun, light and quick.
*Can be taught easily to causal gamers.
*Fairly scalable.
*Plays in an hour or less.
*It really does create some tense moments ( especially for the Novices), which are fun to laugh about after the game (though a prison camp retheming would change funny tense moments to tense tense moments).


The Cons:

*It is too obvious for the Novices to be looking at the board and determining their movement or counting spaces to see if they are heard.
*Line of Sight straight edge is probably worse for the game by including its usage.
*Any game that has pads of game specific log or scoring sheets disappoints me slightly because they are a usable finite resource in the game.
*Two-player games have a potential of leaving the Guard player with little option or mobility during the course of the game.
*Nun theme may turn off some gamers who are either stuck up about religious themes or only being able to play girls. It may also turn off some gamers who are religious and unhappy with the idea of Novices sneaking around and breaking the rules.
*"Nuns" and "Run" is technically a false-rhyme. However, considering the only alternative I could think of is "Nuns with the Runs", I think the false-rhyme theme may be a Pro.
*It was actually a bit harder than I thought it would be to hide the title of 12 nun related movies in this review.


Overall:

Nuns on the Run is a very fun and entertaining game that has enough charm to it to win over both casual gamers (who will not be bogged down with mechanics) and veteran gamers( who will see the fun in it, even if it isn't as complex as some of their other games). The nun theme itself is pasted on and the setting could be easily changed without altering game play. However, the real theme is how each role feels to play, and the game captures each mood perfectly. The two roles also play differently and have a very different feel to them. With a play time of an hour or less, this game could easily be a fun filler, but might even work itself into more of a main course with repeated plays.


8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment