Thursday, October 20, 2011

Molly vs. the 1%


Last weekend I took Molly to see the Occupy Wall Street protests. Now, regardless of what you think of the protest's politics, I thought it was important for Molly to see what a protest was, and understand what making a stand was and what it looked it, and the (hopeful) effectiveness of collective voices to be heard. Before we went down, I tried my hardest not to give her any input on my politics. I wanted her to see things and try to understand things for herself.

I told her that the reason why we were going was because "people were upset about something" and that we were going to "ask them what was upsetting them so that we can understand and see if it is something that we agree with or not".  So, I really didn't want to influence her too much with my politics, but I also am not so naive that I do not realize that by going and talking to them, she is being influenced already. So my plan was to see if we could also find counter-protestors and ask them the same things.

One of the things that I struggle with as a parent is raising Molly to be her own person. Sure, values need to be taught to a child entering society. But I want her to develop her own values. I want her to see and experience as much as she can and understand things on that level, instead of just inheriting her parents' beliefs.  That isn't to say that I want to keep my beliefs from her, but rather, try to instill an open mind in her. I'd be perfectly content if she grew up being a right-wing, conservative, gun-loving cheerleader for an American football team, as long as she was willing to listen to the other side before knee-jerking to a decision.

So, anyway, the trip to New York was an easy drive. Jessica was working that day, so it was just the two of us. We managed to park on the street (for free) six or seven blocks from the protest and made our way down there.

My first impression of the protest was that Zuccotti Park was that it was much smaller than I imagined. It was rather dense with people, but the park and protest area is a much smaller area than I expected. Anyhow, we walked around through the park and I told Molly to look around for a little while and that she should eventually pick someone there to ask questions to. While we walked around, I felt content. I haven't felt that content in a long while. But there was something about the serenity of the place that was just inviting to me.

We walked past the impromptu cafeteria serving free food (there were pizzas and various dishes of vegetables to take), a "people's library" whose books were rather left-leaning, a medical tent which Jesse Jackson would two evenings later stand to defend, and a number of little sub-communities within the park. I prompted Molly to find someone to talk to and she eventually found a group of 20-somethings sitting on a collection of sleeping bags. Two women and two men. I told them that my daughter had something to ask them, but then Molly suddenly became shy and didn't want to talk directly to them. She wanted to whisper her questions in my ear and I would repeat them to the group. Her first question was, "Why are you upset?"

The answers were a little over her head for the most part, but Molly did get the understanding that they were upset that people were being greedy. Molly then asked through me, "What can I do to help so you won't be upset anymore?"

The answers, again, were a little over her head. But what Molly took out of it was that she should try not to be greedy.

Molly didn't have anything else to ask, but I chatted with the group for a little while and eventually I decided to move on. We passed by a man making buttons on the spot for free and Molly wanted one of the buttons. She didn't care about the message on it, but was most enthused about the fact that it was hot pink.

We wandered around a little more and an older woman saw Molly's button and smiled at her. She asked Molly, "Do you know what that says?" Molly responded with, "I can't read." So she read it to Molly and then asked her if she knew what it meant. Molly's pin read, "The rich get bailed out. The poor get sold out." Molly said that it meant that people wanted to help the rich people instead of poor people because that way, maybe they would give them some of their money. The woman was surprised at Molly's explanation of her pin (though Molly did cheat; I explained to her what her pin meant when she picked it out). Molly then asked the woman what the woman's pin said, and she read it to Molly. I stepped back and watched the two of them. Molly talked with her for about ten minutes. Molly wasn't shy anymore and asked her why she was upset and what she could do to help her. It was probably my favorite moment of being in New York. The two of them talked and exchanged ideas for a little while and then eventually she had to go.

Molly and I wandered around a little longer and I told Molly that we should probably talk to at least one more person. I told her that since there are so many people here, we should try to hear more voices to understand why different people are here. Molly picked a couple of cute hippie-chicks in a circle with a guy playing guitar. She came over to talk to them, but sat back from the circle for a little bit, a little shy.

She asked them why they were there and what was upsetting them and as she listened to them talk, Molly scooted closer and joined the circle. One of the girls had markers to make protest signs and she and Molly drew on the piece of cardboard she was sitting on while they talked. I chatted to the girls and listened to the guitar and sat in on the circle. I realized that if I didn't have my daughter with me, I probably would have decided to stay right there through the night.

However, I did have my little girl, so we eventually decided to move on.

Now, as a dad wandering around with his five-year old and getting her to ask questions, I got a ton of comments of, "You're such a great dad!" and "Wow, you're a wonderful father." Ego-stroke aside, it made me realize the paradox of being a father and taking your kid to things like this. Having Molly there made me look a lot more appealing than I would have looked on my own. However, having Molly there meant that I could not capitalize on the adoration and fool around with some fun hippie chicks. I could leave Molly at home, but then I won't attract the adoration of the hippie chicks nearly as easily. So it's a no-win situation. Unless, of course, I bring my wife next time and ask her to watch Molly while I fool around with the cute hippie chicks. But, I suppose, that brings about its own problems.

But anyway, the protest has drawn a collection of odd-balls, as every protest does. It's a shame because they are the ones that the cameras are drawn to, just as the cameras at a Tea Party protest are drawn to the guy dressed like a minute man with tea bags hanging from his hat sitting in a lawn chair. However, beyond those people, it was a very interesting collection of people of different backgrounds.

I don't think that the protests really suffer from a lack of message, but just a lack of endgame strategy. Hopefully the Democrats will not be able to co-opt the protest movement and turn it into a brand like the Republicans did with the Tea Party. I would like to see them remain independent. However, I also understand that would make any endgame strategy even harder to obtain.

I think in recent weeks, we've seen the popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement grow and  a number of conservative pundits are no longer bashing or dismissing the movement as a whole, but rather are saying that they should be protesting the White House and not Wall Street. That's actually a huge step toward acceptance. There is also some legitimacy in that as well. I don't care that he has a "D" in front of his name on the teevee and that Fox News hates his every step, but President Obama is anything but liberal when it comes to policy. Still, the frustration isn't at Washington alone, but also at the way people are viewed by these corporations. I don't know what the endgame will be, but at least they are being noticed. Like their politics or not, they are brave to be out there.

Anyhow, Molly and I found a small collection of counter-protestors and I wanted her to talk to them to understand their view. There were six or so people in a group. One of them was dressed like Uncle Sam and another was holding a sign that said, "I am the 53% and I am paying for you to be here." So we went to talk to them. Molly was shy again, so I asked through her, "What are you upset about?" The one man began to answer, but a woman interrupted and began to rant about our buttons and mentioned the "nigger" president. It was at this point that I decided that we should leave.

I was really disappointed about that on a number of levels.

It is hard to counter the Occupy Wall Street protests. And, honestly, counter-protests tend to draw more of the fringe than a regular protest. But what would a counter protest stand for? More CEO luxuries? More government subsidies?

Regardless, it was an opportunity lost for them. And one lost for Molly to hear both sides of the argument. And again, it is a counter-protest and you get the fringe element in that. I really hate the fact that my experience with them has probably reinforced some people's beliefs on how "the other side" is.

There was also a group of Hassidic Jews, each holding a palm leaf in one hand and a lemon in the other hand. They were asking everyone who passed by in the crowd, "Are you a Jew? Are you a Jew?" I decided not to bother letting Molly ask them what they were about. Though I was and still am very curious.

Our day in New York then ended with lunch and a bus ride through Downtown Manhattan, followed by a subway ride from Times Square to Wall Street. Molly was great the entire time, like she usually is, and I had a blast with her. The drive home, we listened to music and she would ask me questions about the protest and what people said and we would discuss it more.

I know that if I were to ask her now what the protest was about, she probably wouldn't remember much of it. That's what being a five-year old is like. But hopefully, in fifteen years, she'll remember to ask people about what they think and believe and listen to everyone before she makes up her mind.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Yggdrasil

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 also a huge fan of Norse mythology and I knew of Thor and Odin long before Zeus and Apollo and D&D. I'm fairly well versed in the mythology and every week in elementary school I would check out D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths from the library. However, I didn't care for Marvel's take on Thor, nor the movie that was released earlier this year.



My childhood introduction to Norse mythology. 


The Overview:


The box cover. The box measures 12.5" x 9". The illustration shows Thor's battle with Jörmungand, the Migard Serpent. Thor is destined to die by the serpent's poison during Ragnarök . 




What's inside the box. 



Yggdrasil is a cooperative game set within the Norse mythology, where each of the players controls one of the Norse gods as they battle the enemies of Asgard and try to battle back their approach. The battles represented in the game are representing a rather abstract view of the gods' battle of Ragnarök, wherein their survival is at stake.

The game is for 1-6 players and plays in about 90 minutes. More players does not increase the playtime any, except for the table debate that may come from the actions to be taken. So a solo game will probably play quicker, even if the player is controlling multiple gods. Each player controls a God, each of which has a special ability or power that alter or bypass the standard rules of the game.

The game is actually very simple as far as mechanics go and each player's turn is also very simple, only added in complexity by the sometimes tough decisions that need to be made for the best route for survival.

Each player's turn consists of two things:

1. Drawing an Enemy Card and resolving its effects.
2. Taking three different actions from the available actions on the board.

The players win if they make it through the entire deck of enemy cards. The players lose if the enemies advance too far along their track.

That's it. However, to really understand the game, one needs to understand the set-up and what is available as far as actions are concerned.

To understand the effects of the Enemy Card draw, the Enemies' Track of Asgard needs to be understood. There are 6 different enemy tokens that are placed on the start of the track. Beyond the start space, there are 7 spaces that the enemy tokens can move along. If 5 or more Enemies advance past the wall of Asgard (into the third space), the players lose. If 3 or more Enemies advance past the door of Valhalla (into the fifth space), the players lose. If 1 or more Enemies advance into Odin's residence (the seventh space) the players lose. The loss isn't immediate, however, as the active player can still try to knock back the advanced Enemy (or Enemies) with their actions by the end of their turn.

When an Enemy card is drawn, it shows one of the six Enemies and that Enemy Token is moves one space forward along the track. Players can later take actions to try to "knock back" the Enemies of Asgard with their action step. Each Enemy Card, however, also triggers that Enemy's special effect which is then resolved. For most Enemies, the further along the track they are, the more powerful their negative effect is. This creates situations where players may decide that it is better to knock back certain Enemies whose powers would be more baneful if they advanced too far, rather than necessarily the Enemy who has advanced the farthest.

After the Enemy Card is resolved, the active player take three actions. Each of these actions, however, must be different. Each action is represented by one of the worlds of the World Tree. The different actions are as follows:

1. Asgard: This action allows the players to directly combat one of the Enemies along the Asgard track in hopes of pushing back its advance. Depending on how far along the Enemy is on the track, their difficultly becomes increasingly higher and more difficult to succeed. Players roll a die and need to get a number equal to or higher than that Enemy's difficulty. Depending on where they are on the track it specifies what the difficulty number is to succeed. However, the highest facing on the die is a 3 and the lowest difficulty for combat is a 5. So players will need to modify their die roll to succeed. Players can spend Vikings (which are gained from other actions) before their die roll to add to their total. Each Viking spend and discarded adds 1 to their die roll. Players also may possess a weapon that is useful against one particular Enemy (these weapons can be gained with a different action). If the player possesses the appropriate weapon, the weapons bonus (from +1 to +3) the bonus is added to the roll as well. Finally, after the die roll and modifiers are applied, the player can spend any Elves that they possess to increase the result by 1 per Elf. Where Vikings are spent blindly before the die roll, Elves are spent afterward if needed, making them a very useful resource. If the player's result equals or exceeds the Enemy's target difficulty, that Enemy Token is moved back one space.

2. Midgard: This action is how the players get their Viking resources to use with the Asgard action to knock back the Enemies. There are four different colored islands on the Midgard track, as well as a Rainbow Bridge starting space for the Valkyries. A player using this action may move the Valkyries marker one space forward or back on the track, then draws three tokens from the bag matching the colored island that the Valkyries marker is on. Any Viking tokens drawn from the bag are kept by the player and any Fire Giant tokens drawn are returned to the bag. Now, the starting ratio of Vikings to Fire Giants differ per bag, and the bags furthest from the Valkyries start favor the players more (thus taking more actions to get to). The ratio of Fire Giant and Viking tokens in these bags can be manipulated by other actions that the players can take. Managing the ratios of these bags is paramount for success for the players. Also adding to the difficulty of the bag management, however, is that one of the islands will always be inaccessible by the Valkyries at any given time. And when a Jörmungand Enemy Card is drawn, the Valkyries move back to their start space and the die is rolled and potentially a new inaccessible island is determined from the roll.

3. Dwarven Forge: This action allows a player to draw or upgrade a weapon that is effective against a single Enemy. If it is available, a player can take a Weapon that gives a +1 bonus against one specific Enemy. If they already possess a weapon against an Enemy, they can upgrade it to the next level, so a +1 Weapon is replaced with a +2 Weapon and a +2 Weapon could be replaced with a +3 Weapon against that same Enemy. These Weapons are permanent bonuses against the single Enemy that the Weapon provides a bonus for when combating the Enemy with the Asgard action. Weapons are not discarded after their use.

4. World of the Elves: The player can take one Elf with this action. Elves are spent after the die roll when combating Enemies with the Asgard action.

5. World of the Dead: This action is one of the ways of managing Viking and Giant ratio in the various bags. With this action, a player can take up to 5 discarded Vikings from this space and add them to any one bag of his choice.

6. Kingdom of Fire: This action is another means of managing bag ratio. It allows a player to choose any one bag and draw five Tokens from it. Any Fire Giants drawn are discarded and removed from the bag. Any Vikings drawn are returned to the bag. This decreases the chances of drawing Fire Giants with the Midgard action later.

7.World of Darkness: This action allows a player to create an emo Vampire who constantly sobs about their lost humanity... Wait, that's not right. This action let's a player give or take any Elves and/or Vikings tokens to one other player.

8. Ice Fortress: As the Enemy Loki moves, his negative power brings out Giants. He causes the top Giant (or Giants if he is further along the track) to be flipped over from the Giants' Deck. Each Giant remains in play until he or she is defeated and each has a global negative effect. The effects can range from increasing the difficulty to combat an Enemy by one, to preventing the players from undertaking certain actions or not allowing the Gods to roll the die in combat. When taking this action, a player needs to combat the giants in the same manner as combat in Asgard, but the base difficulty is always 3 against the Giants. Once a Giant is defeated, it is discarded. However, each Giant has a portion of a Rune on his card. If all four matching Runes are discarded (by defeating Giants), then the Rune's effect is immediately resolved. These are strong effects that help the Gods. A player can also attack and defeat a face-down Giant card as well to try to match Rune pieces.

9. Sacred Land: The Sacred Land track has a start space and five spaces that the Vanir marker can advance along. Taking this action allows a player to either move the Vanir marker one space along the track or to reset the Vanir marker back at the start and immediately apply and one effect that the Vanir marker had advanced to or past. Generally the actions further along the track are more powerful and useful for the Gods, but take more actions to move to. However, just about any of the actions can be situationally useful, but at the cost of requiring a lot of actions to set up and use.

Each of these actions can be used only once per player on their turn, as every player has to take three different actions.


The Theme:

Here's where my biases come in. Honestly, when I look at the game and the available actions, I see the mechanics behind them. When playing the game and applying all of the modifiers, I see the mechanics behind them. The game can be fairly mathy in determining the ratio of the bags or the chances of drawing a certain enemy or determining the probabilities of rolling above a certain number and calculating the risk on using an action to try it. I do not feel like a mighty Norse god as I compare the seeded ratio of the Blue bag compared to the Green bag to determine which yields a better probability of drawing more +1 tokens (Vikings).

However, my familiarity with Norse mythology lets me see why each mechanic is associated with a specific aspect of the myths. For example, the Enemy Hel's negative ability forces you to remove Vikings from a bag and discard them. When we calculate which Enemy Cards are left or when we draw a Hel Enemy Card, I only see the mechanic and how it will affect our current game and position. However, my knowledge of Norse lore makes me appreciate and realize that tying that ability to Hel is genius. Just the same, the effects of the Vanaheim (the Sacred Land) are befitting of the abilities of the Vanir and Tyr of having the best chance to satisfy Fenrir are perfect.

There is so much that ties in so beautifully with the mythology that I am amazed. However, even as someone who knows the mythology very well, it does not conceal the mechanics. You will think, feel and see the mechanics of the game while playing it. You do not feel like you've waded into battle against the Midgard Serpent with the never-missing spear Gungnir, aided by a legion of Viking warriors that you've called up the Valkyries to draw for you from the fiercest warriors of the lands with the aid of the elusive Elves. Instead it feels like you've calculated the best bag to draw from and applied your +1 bonus chits effectively enough to end with a sufficient risk to used resource ratio based on the Enemy token's positioning.

That doesn't mean it isn't a good game. But the theme doesn't mask the mechanics of gameplay. However, the association of mythology to them is still, nevertheless, geniusly fitting.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are very simple and easy. Really the explanation that I gave above is really rather wordy for the action's effects, but, for the most part, even they are rather easily remembered. The game uses a lot of symbols to help jog the memory of the various effects, but regardless, the rules will be required to look up certain Rune effects from the Giants. But for the most part, within a couple of games, most players will have little problem with 95% of the icons. Just the less used ones (such as the Giant runes) will require a bit of refreshing in gameplay.


The Components:


The beautiful, but very cluttered, board. 



The god cards. This is Odin. Perhaps a little more "buff" than I'd like to see him represented, but still excellent artwork.


 
The weapons available from the Dwarven Forge; each is useful against only one Enemy, but they are not discarded. 




The Enemies of Asgard cards. 




 Tokens used in the game. 



The components of good quality and I happen to love the artwork on just about everything. Most of the components consist of cardboard tokens and cards. Both are of an adequate stock. Basically, everything is functional and pretty and I only really have two notable complaints:

First, the board, while pretty, is a cluttered mess. The reality of it is that it is completely functional, but it really makes things rather ominous for the first couple of plays. The use of icons is helpful in the learning process, but the use of Runes to denote certain actions (or worlds) is a little jarring as you draw a Giant that denies an action (world) and you have to scour the cluttered board to find the matching Rune.

Second, the bags are a little annoying. They are not drawstring bags, but rather still, shallow bags that have their opening on the wide end, resulting in easy spillage if players are not careful. Since the ratio of the bag contents is so important, accidentally spilling two bags contents onto one enough effectively ruins the game unless players know the exact contents of each bag. This could have been easily rectified with deeper, drawstring backs of a less thick material. Actually, any one of those would be a solution: deeper bags, drawstrings or less stiff material. I haven't had any in-game spills yet, but any handling of the bags makes me a little concerned because it just feels like it is such a possibility.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is easy to learn. The mechanics of the game really are rather simple and even though some of the actions seem intimidating on paper, the reality is that the core of the game is simple enough that it is easy to learn, but the complexity comes from trying to maximize one's actions against the ever advancing threat.

Really that is what the game is about, learning to maximize your actions while minimizing your expenses to beat back the pursuing threats. From that, you learn that certain gods are better at certain things than others, so often games end up with characters supporting one other's actions to win.

I like this mathy, calculated approach. Perhaps it is my familiarity with the source material, but it doesn't feel too dry for me despite the theme not masking the feel of the game's mechanics.

However, where the game has some problems for me is the endgame. Since it is such a calculated game in so many ways, there are games where you realize that you are either going to win or going to lose before the last card is drawn. This can make the endgame anti-climatic as you just go through the last cards knowing what the end result will be.

This also makes the game suffer in another way. The game has 7 cards for each of the enemies so once each of the 7 is drawn, you know that they will not advance any further (unless they are far back on the track, since Nidhögg's ability moves the Enemy furthest back forward one space). This means that you might have Loki one step away from Odin's Door, but you know that you've already drawn the last Loki card, so there is no further reason to worry about him. It just feels a little awkward leaving someone that far along the track knowing that you don't have to worry about him at all.

Really, what the game needs is a randomizer aspect to the Enemy advance. There are six Enemies, and a simple six-sided die with one facing for each Enemy on it could be included. Some element (such as Nidhögg's ability or one of the Giants when active) could be used to trigger the die to be rolled to see which god moves forward. This little addition would make the endgame so much more interesting because the predictability of it would be gone.

The game does have another means of scaling the challenge. There are cards that can replace the existing cards for some of the Enemies. These cards, when drawn, move the Enemy two spaces. There are also other cards that move multiple Enemies. They can be added or removed as desired. However, the problem with this is that it is still predictable. Once the "bad" card or cards are drawn, you can factor them out of your equations.


Scalability:

The game plays from 1 to 6 players and it is fully playable with no changes no matter how many players you have. Solo games could be played with one player playing multiple gods, each taking their turn.

I've heard a lot of people say that the game plays better as a solo game than a multi-player cooperative game, but I disagree. Part of this is that I hate playing games alone, so I'm not a big solo game fan. Boardgames are social experiences for me. I played a learning game solo and I've found that I've enjoyed the games I've played with my wife and friends much more.

The game can suffer from any number of problems that can plague cooperative games: groupthink, alpha players, arguments and so on. However, most of these are issues with specific group dynamics and not a result of the game being played.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she doesn't know much about Norse mythology, but loves the Marvel comics Thor as well as the movie. When it comes to Norse mythology, she is the anti-me. However, she enjoys this game a lot. She likes cooperative games and also enjoys the challenge of figuring out the puzzles of which actions would yield the best result. The game has been quite fun for the two of us to play in the evenings together and we've enjoyed experimenting with the combinations of god's powers.

To date, the combination that we've played that she likes the most is Frey and Freyja. Frey has 4 actions, which is quite strong, and he works as an excellent support character to Freyja, who can take the same action twice. So Freyja can double up her weapons quickly when she has the chance, but otherwise she can make two attacks on the advancing Enemies per turn, while Frey uses three of his actions to get Vikings and Elves and uses his fourth action to trade them all of Freyja so she doesn't have to.

Really, there are so many different strategies, but part of what we've enjoyed about the game is finding out the different ways you can handle the combinations.


The Pros:

*An entertaining game that comes in around the 90-minute mark.
*Even though it doesn't mask the mechanics, the theme is one that I really enjoy.
*Lots of combinations for differing play experiences, and also has enough randomness to ensure differing play despite the sometimes mathy aspects of it (the math is calculating probabilities and risk assessment rather than "solving" anything).
*Excellent artwork and solid components.
*Game is easy to learn to play with the curve at becoming an efficient player.
*Loki is not wearing shiny green armor with absolutely comically ridiculously large horns.


The Cons:

*Cluttered artwork on the play board and a little too much reliance on icons and Runes.
*The endgame drifts off into a precalculated ending due to the strict number of Enemy Cards and therefore calculated movements for each.
*The game is about its mechanics and its theme, while applied very appropriately, is really nothing more than a draping cloth over the frame of the game's mechanics.
*Poor quality of token bags is a game-halting spill waiting to happen.
*Thor's player is prone to take his actions by boisterously exclaiming, "Methinks I will go and draw some Vikings from yonder Green Bag."


Overall:

Yggdrasil's Norse mythology theme put it on my radar when it was first announced and I'm glad that I got a copy of it. The cooperative play has made it an excellent game to play during the evenings with my wife and, while it has a similar feeling as Ghost Stories in the sense that you are using limited actions to push back ever encroaching enemies, the game still feels a lot lighter and I don't have a fried brain after playing it. The mechanics are very visible through the game's theme, so the theme isn't applied well in the sense to evoke the feeling of the game, but they are applied well-enough that those familiar with the lore can see the intelligent application to the mechanics. This has turned out to be a surprisingly fun two-player game for our evenings together. It has and will make it to the table with more players from time to time, but really it seems to be better suited for more of an intimate affair with just a couple of players.


7.5/10

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Letters from White Chapel

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 am also not squeamish on theme, despite being rather pacifist in real-life. I am also a big fan of the Victorian era and have run a number of roleplaying systems set in the era, so I am somewhat versed in Jack the Ripper history and mythology from that research. And, for the record, I think that there are many more interesting things to do with prostitutes other than killing them.


The Overview:


The box cover artwork which is very consistent with the game materials: very thematic and evocative while being subtle in its presentation. 


Letters from Whitechapel is a semi-cooperative deduction game in which one player plays Jack the Ripper and commits a total of 5 murders over 4 nights. The other players control the Police Inspectors and Whitechapel Vigilance Committee members who try to track down and capture and arrest Jack's player who moves along the board secretly. Each night, after choosing a victim, Jack tries to return to his secret hide out location. The Inspector players try to find his trail and arrest him before he can successfully do so. If Jack succeeds in returning to his hideout uncaught for each of the four nights, he wins. The Investigators win if they catch Jack on any of the nights.

The game is for 2-6 players and it takes about 2 hours to play. There are always 5 Investigator pawns in play and they are divided up among the number of Inspector players. If there is only one Inspector player, he controls all of the pawns. This also will usually shorten the gameplay (sometimes hitting the 90 minute mark) since there is no need to discuss plans. However, with more Inspector players, the need for discussion increases as does the game length. A full table of six players could see the game go as long as three hours (though that is on the highest end of the spectrum).

The game is set up and Jack's player chooses a location for his hideout and writes it down on his tracking sheet. This will be the location that he has to get to after each murder. The Investigators distribute the five inspectors between them so that all five are controlled. The five "Boss" tiles are shuffled and placed face down. They will be used later in the turn to determine the which Inspector player will be the Head of the Investigation that turn and the inspector turn order.

Once that is finished, each of the four nights is broken into two Phases. The first is "Hell". This is where Jack and the Inspectors set up and Jack eventually chooses a murder victim. Once the victim is slain, it moves into the "Hunt" Phase. Each night has the same Phases and each Phase has the same steps in them.

Now one thing should be understood before trying to understand the specifics of the play. The board is intersected with crisscrossing paths and roads that the pawns will move on. However, it is important to note that there are two distinct types. The round numbered locations are the only locations that Jack and the Wretched (his victims) can ever end their move on. When they move to an adjacent location, they move across the square crossing spots and ignore them completely. They can never end their movement on a crossing square. The Inspector Pawns, however, are placed on the square crossing locations. While moving they completely ignore the round numbered locations when determining which adjacent crossing to move to. So the Inspector Pawns will never be in the same location as Jack, but rather may be directly adjacent to it. The yellow-bordered crossing squares are simply the start locations for the Inspectors and the red round number locations are the start spaces for the Wretched.



So, despite having to pass over three black square crossing spaces, location 99 is adjacent to location 86 for Jack's movement options. And when searching adjacent areas, the black crossing south of location 84 is only considered to be adjacent to location 84, since to reach any other location, it would have to pass through other black crossing locations. 


The Hell Phase is mostly setting up for the murder and each of the steps is generally completed very quickly. The Hell Phase consists of the following Steps:

Hell 1. Preparing the Scene: This is a simply set up step, where Jack draws a number of Coach tokens and Alley tokens based on which night it is. These are special movement options that Jack may employ during the Hunt and will be described there. However, each night, Jack receives fewer special movement tokens, making his escape potentially more difficult as the game progresses.

Hell 2. Targets are Identified: Jack starts with a number of Woman Tokens based on what night it is. Each night, he will possess three "bluff" tokens, which the Inspectors will not be able to initially distinguish from the real potential targets. Jack's player then sets out the Women Tokens, including the bluff tokens, face down on the board on any of the red starting spaces for the women. Jack alone knows which will be real women and which are the bluffs.

Hell 3. Patrolling the Streets: The Inspectors then reveal the top Boss Token. This will indicate which Inspector player will be the Head of the Investigation for this turn. The Head of the Investigation player will then take the seven Police Patrol Tokens and place them how he chooses on the board. Five of the seven tokens correspond to the five different Policeman Pawns. Two of the seven tokens are blank bluff tokens. If it is the first night, he must place all seven in the Crossing Locations marked with a Yellow Border. However, the Head of the Investigation alone knows which locations will have real Inspectors in them and which will contain the bluff tokens. If it is the second or later night, then five of the tokens must be placed on the positions that were occupied by the Policeman Pawns at the end of the previous night and the other two must be placed on Crossings with Yellow Borders. This means that Jack will not necessarily know which spaces contain real Inspectors and which contain bluffs.

Hell 4. The Victims are Chosen: At this point, after the Head of Investigations has chosen the locations of the Policemen, the Women Tokens are all turned over. Any bluff tokens are removed from the board. The remaining tokens are replaced with white Wretched Pawns, which will represent Jack's potential victims. They are revealed after the Police Patrol Tokens were placed, so they may not have Police Pawns near to where the real potential victims might be. However, Jack still does not know which of the Police Patrol Tokens are bluffs and which are real yet.

Hell 5. Blood on the Streets: With the Wretched Pawns exposed, Jack now decides if he wants to kill a victim or wait a little bit and try to ferret out some information from the Inspectors. If he decides to kill a victim, he immediately replaces one Wretched Pawn with a Crime Scene token. The remaining Wretched Pawns are removed from the board. If this is the third night, then Jack replaces two of the Wretched Pawns with Crime Scene tokens, as he makes two murders that night. If Jack kills a victim, then the night continues Step 8 of the Hell Phase (this Phase). If Jack chooses to wait, play continues with Step 6 of this Phase.

Hell 6. Suspense Grows: The Time of the Crime token begins on the first space and if Jack has delayed his murder, it is moved over one space. There are only five spaces for the Time of the Crime token to advance and if it has advanced to the last space, then Jack must take a victim and cannot choose to wait again. The Head of the Investigation then moves each of the Wretched Pawns on the board to an adjacent numbered location. The Wretched Pawn's movement cannot pass over a Police Patrol token or end adjacent to one. Since the Head of Investigations is moving the Wretched Pawns, he will most likely move them closer to the Police Patrols to ensure that the Inspectors will be closer to any potential victims.

Hell 7. Ready to Kill: Jack then gets to take his advantage for delaying the murder. He chooses a Police Patrol token and reveals it, discarding it if it is one of the two bluff tokens. In this way, Jack can ferret out where the Police Patrols really are and may be able to discover that a Wretched Pawn is less guarded than it might seem. Play then returns to Step 5 of the Hell Phase again. Remember, if the Time of the Crime token is on the fifth space, then Jack must choose a victim when he returns to that Step.

Hell 8. Corpse on the Pavement: Jack now records the location number of the Scene of the Crime where he took out the Wretched Pawn. It is recorded on Jack's tracking sheet and Jack is physically at this location at this time and will begin his escape to his Hide Out starting in the Hunt Phase. If it was the third night, Jack has committed two murders and he records them in the order that he wishes to have executed them. He will be at the location of the second murder that he committed. Jack then sets a timer pawn onto the board on the first space, indicating that he is on the first of his fifteen turns to escape.

Hell 9. Alarm Whistles: The Inspectors then reveal all of the Police Patrol tokens and remove any bluff tokens from the board. Each of the remaining tokens is then replaced by the corresponding Policeman Pawn. This will be the starting location for each Policeman for the Hunt Phase as they try to track down Jack. Any Wretched Pawns still on the board are also removed at this time.

The next Hunt Phase now begins. This Phase has the meat of the game to it and Jack will be moving towards his Hide Out clandestinely, while the Inspectors will be trying to find his trail and ultimately arrest him before he reaches his Hide Out. This Phase is more in depth and takes a bit longer to play out. The Steps of this Phase are as follows:

Hunt 1. Escape in the Night: Jack makes a move from his current numbered location to an adjacent numbered location. He records this move on his tracking sheet which is hidden from the Inspectors. Once his movement is recorded on his sheet, he moves his timer pawn one space on the track on the board. If it reaches 15 and Jack has not yet made it to his Hideout, then Jack loses. If Jack has reached his Hideout, then he declares that he has reached his Hideout the night ends. Any discovered clue chips are removed from the board and the night indicator is advanced one space and play starts again in Hell Step 1. If it is the fourth night and Jack has reached his Hideout, he has won the game.

There are a few extra movement rules to be aware of. First of all, Jack cannot cross over a Policeman Pawn on his movement. If he cannot make a legal move, then he is trapped by the Inspectors and he loses the game.

Jack also has a limited number of Special Movement tokens given to him at the start of the Hell Phase. Jack can employ these during his movement and then places the appropriate token on the tracking space on the board to signify to the Inspectors that he has taken a special move. The first is a Coach movement, which allows Jack to take a double move. He may move two spaces, but each is recorded on his tracking sheet and the timer pawn is moved over two spaces. With a Coach special move, Jack may cross over a Policeman Pawn. The other type of special move is an Alley. The Alley lets Jack move from his current numbered location to any numbered location on his current city block. A city block is considered any block of houses on the board that is completely surrounded, but not interrupted by, the dotted line paths that the players can move along. It sounds a lot trickier than it really is.

Jack cannot use one of his Special Movements to get into his Hideout. His last move must be a normal movement into his Hideout.

Hunt 2. Hunting the Monster: Starting with the Head of the Investigation, each Inspector player moves his Policeman Pawns on the board. Each Policeman Pawn can move up to two crossings per move. While Policemen Pawns can cross over one another while moving, they must end on different crossings.

Hunt 3. Clues and Suspicion: Again starting with the Head of Investigation, each Inspector player may have each Policeman Pawn that he controls either Look For Clues or Execute an Arrest on an adjacent numbered location (or locations) to his crossing.

Looking for Clues: If the Inspector looks for clues, then the Inspector names a number of an adjacent numbered location. If it is on Jack's tracking sheet (even if it is his current location), Jack places a turn token onto the numbered location and that Inspector's turn ends. If the announced number is not on Jack's sheet, then Jack informs him that there is no clue. The Inspector may then announce another adjacent numbered location. This continues until either the Inspector finds a location which is on Jack's tracking sheet or there are no more adjacent numbered location to announce.

Executing an Arrest: If the Inspector wishes to execute an arrest, he names one number of an adjacent numbered location. If that is Jack's current location (the last one recorded on his tracking sheet), then Jack is arrested and the Inspectors immediately win. If that is not Jack's current location, Jack informs him that he is not there and that Inspector's turn ends. Jack does not reveal if the location is on an earlier position on his sheet or not. The Inspector receives no additional information about it.

If Jack has not yet reached his Hideout or has not been arrested, play continues with Hunt Phase 1 again.


The Theme:

The theme is a dark one and playing a real-life murderer may make some people squeamish. However, the game's theme is brought out through subtle, yet very evocative means. The pawns are simple, but still induce a good sense of what they represent. This game would have actually been disserviced by making more detailed components. Much more of the theme is aroused from the real-life ties that are brought into the game. The Inspector Pawns are, for game purposes, exactly the same and only differentiated by color. However, when the Boss token is flipped over to determine that turn's Head of the Investigation, it ties the color to one of the real-life members of the investigation. Even the title of the tokens, "The Boss", is strongly evocative to the theme since this is the term used by Jack in a number of the taunting letters that he sent out to the Central News Agency, George Lusk and Thomas Openshaw.

However, these elements bring together the setting of the game, but the gameplay itself is the most evocative of the theme: tension. As Jack's player, there is a strong tension in the gameplay as you try to escape the Inspectors as they draw closer. However, you cannot show yourself sweating, since the Inspector players may gauge they are nearing you if you show any signs. For the Inspectors, the hunt is challenging and each night the trail is narrowed. There is a sense of accomplishment in discovering the clues that you have, but the frustration of having to wait for another murder before you can reign in closer to capture the criminal.

Another thing that really makes the theme stand out is the simplicity of the game. There is no combat. There are not cards. There are no detailed rules that offer exceptions and game changes to provoke the feel of engaging storyline. Instead, there is simply the game. And it does it well to make a tense play.


Learning the Game:

While, of course, strategy comes from experience, but it really doesn't take much to learn the game. I love Ameritrash and I do not shy away from thick manuals that list exception after exception and require several plays before you get to understanding the basics. However, this game has made me appreciate the beauty of simple, elegant gameplay. In some ways, it reminds me of Dune. The mechanics are surprisingly simple. However, the enjoyment comes from the fact that the mechanics fall away and you are simply pitted player against player.

That being said, I think that the evocative nature of the theme still pushes this away from being a family game or a gateway game despite the simplicity and ease of understanding of the rules. But that is fine. This is a gamer's game.


The Components:


The board in progress. Jack's pawn is just used to show that it is the second night. You can see the red chip indicates the Scene of the Crime, while the clear disks show the discovered clues that night (Locations 159, 160 and 145). The clear disks could be improved with a slight color tint to make Jack's trail stand out a little more for the Inspectors. 



Jack's Pawns and some of the Inspector Pawns. Jack's Pawns are never on the board except as time markers, but you'll not how the simple design is still very representative.




More Inspector Pawns and some of the Wretched Pawns. This is what Jack is murdering in the game: the white pawns. However, it is the theme and the atmosphere that makes it resonate more than a simple piece of wood.




The Boss Tokens give just a hint of insight to who the Inspector players are really controlling as they try to track down Jack.




Jack's screen and tracking sheet in progress. The number in the circle at the top (122) is Jack's Hideout for this game. Not that the inside of the screen has a small replication of the map.



As I mentioned before, the components are great because it is a combination of subtly and attention to detail that really captures the theme and mood of the game. The board is wonderfully designed and everything has a period feel to it. Real people, real locations and snippets of Jack's (supposedly) real letters are used throughout the game.

Jack's Movement Tracking Sheet is keep in a screen. The screen blocks the view of the Inspector players, but also has a smaller version of the map printed on the inside. This is a great thing to have, so that Jack's player can minimize how often he has to lean over to look directly at the board.

I only really have two complaints as far as the components go. First, the Clue chips are clear plastic circles. They are a little difficult to spot on the board. I think using a light coloring to them would help bring them out and help the Inspectors visualize the trail as it is uncovered better. It isn't a big complaint, but just a minor improvement that I could see that could be made.

Second, there are only 30 of Jack's Movement Tracking Sheets included in the game. This is depressingly few, especially because at least at the time of this review, there are no PDF sheets available on the web. I really would have preferred a pad of 60, or at least files to be more promptly made available on the web.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is easy to learn and each player has a turn summary that they can use. I cannot stress enough how much I love it when games make enough player references for each player. What is even better is that each is personalized for the player, matching their Inspector Pawn color or for Jack himself.

As I mentioned, the game really builds tension and just the right level of frustration. Jack really is playing against the other players and not against convoluted game mechanics. The Inspectors really are playing against Jack directly and it is Jack's player's stealth and skill that they are up against, not random event cards that interrupt their work. This is a true deduction game.

There are also optional rules and components included to help either Jack's player or the Inspector players. This will help balance games with different skill or experience levels. I cannot comment on them because I have not played them. But this is simply because I do not think that they are needed. However, I am very impressed that they are included.


Scalability:

The game scales from 2-6. It is a great two-player game. It plays quickest that way, and there is no conflict among Inspector players. It is a chess match between two players.

That isn't to say that the game doesn't work with more players. However, since all five Policeman Pawns are used in every game, it is difficult to break them up evenly unless you either have 1 or 5 Inspector players. Any other combination will result in some players controlling different amounts of Inspectors from one another. It isn't a huge issue, but it does sort of tend to give a psychological effect that some players think that they are more or less important to the case.

Playing with a full 5 Inspector players also means that there will also be a chance that one (or more) Inspector players will simply be in a bad position during a night and not be able to contribute much to that night's investigation. This can, unfortunately, occur to the same Inspector on multiple nights, resulting in a less fun experience than those players who are hot on Jack's trail. This can be minimized by a good Head of Investigations player ensuring that Inspectors who were out of the action the last night are placed on more likely "hot spots" the next night. However, even with a conscientious Head of Investigations, Jack is wily and even with the best intentions, Jack may surprise everyone and take a victim on the other side of the board.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she is a big fan of deduction games. She loves Fury of Dracula because of the hunting aspect. She prefers to play the Hunters over Dracula, just as she prefers to play the Inspectors over Jack in this game. We set up our first game and she was quickly enamored with it and wanted to play it again a second time that same evening. She loves the game very much and I hope that it is just because she thinks that the game is great and not because of the psychological factor of her relating to and enjoying the aspect of catching me doing something wrong. But the game really did quickly win her over.

(And for the record, this isn't me putting Fury of Dracula down. I still love that game, but it is a different beast completely as random card draws help to alter the flow of deduction and there are elements of combat included which do not exist in this game.)


The Pros:

*Beautifully subtle and evocative components and design.
*Tense gameplay that creates the correct levels of tension and frustration.
*The play is between two players and not disturbed by events, random factors or card play. It is a true deduction and hunt game.
*Simple game mechanics that bring out the elegance of the design without bogging down the play.
*A great 2-player game, and still an excellent game for 3 or more players.
*The game is as balanced as the players, and with that in mind, they introduced optional rules to help weaker Jack players or weaker Inspector players.


The Cons:

*The theme is evocative, but too dark for some players since it is based on real-life events. Dark fantasy is different than dark history.
*The number of included Jack's Movement Tracking Sheets seems too few with (currently) no PDF support for extra ones.
*Some Inspectors may end up out of position to be effective during a night.
*Inspector break down is uneven except with 2 or 6 players.
*I have, on a few occasions, misspoke the name as "Letters from White Castle", which makes people think that I want to play a game about writing complaint letters concerning horrible gastrointestinal issues.


Overall:

Letters from Whitechapel is a fantastically evocative game of true deduction and pursuit. The mechanics of the game are minimal and simple, which leave for a true player vs. player feel. The absence of random draws and event cards allows for the players to feel that they are playing one another and not having the challenge artificially "enhanced" by the game itself. It's dark themes are not overstated in the components, but the mood set by the play still may draw them out too much for some players, making this game an uneasy fit for most families or many new gamers. However, if you are not put off by the theme, this truly is a masterpiece.


9.5/10

Friday, March 4, 2011

Review: Mansions of Madness

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 also a huge fan of the Cthulhu mythos and am able to look past many of Lovecraft's open flaws to really enjoy the stories he tells. I'm also a big fan of Arkham Horror because, despite the bloat and clunkiness of that behemoth, the game manages to tell a good story, even if arguably not Lovecraftian in its telling.


The Overview:


The box cover artwork. Creeping tentacles have sort of become the creepy flagship standard on FFG's Cthulhu artwork interpretations.


Mansions of Madness is a cooperative/team game where one player takes on the role of the Keeper and sets the game's story and encounters based on a predetermined scenario that has numerous variables within it. The other players take on the role of the Investigators, who are the individual characters which are entering the area to investigate the mystery. Win conditions vary depending upon the scenario and choices made in seeding it and it is revealed to the Investigators as the game progresses.

The game is for 2-5 players and plays in about two hours, although number of players may increase or decrease that amount. There is some potential variation in playtime based on the scenario chosen as well. For example, Scenario 1 plays the quickest, while the latter scenarios are much closer in length.

The board is modular and it is built in a specific manner depending on the scenario chosen. The Keeper then chooses between 3-6 plot choices in the story. Based on these decisions the game board is seeded in a very specific manner with cards dictated by the scenario set-up. These cards are seeded onto specific rooms face-down, so that the Investigators do not know where key items are located. The Keeper also gets specific actions that are available to him based on the scenario chosen. This set-up will eventually come down to about 20 minutes, but may be almost twice that time in the Keeper's first game or two.

Each other player, meanwhile, chooses the Investigator character that they will play in the scenario. Each Investigator has 2 Strength Trait cards and 2 Intellect Trait cards and the player must choose one of each for their character in the scenario. The trait cards affect their stats in the game as well as what starting equipment they receive. The stats vary from card to card and determine what is needed to pass a Skill Check. For example, if an Investigator has a Strength of 5, they must roll a 5 or less on a 10-sided die to pass the Skill Check.



Jenny Barnes' character options. The top two are the Strength Trait cards and the bottom two are the Intellect Trait cards. As you can see, the choices vary stats, abilities and equipment and offer variation in character builds. 


The Investigators each begin on the location designated as the Start space for the scenario and play begins. Each turn is broken into the Investigators' turn followed by the Keeper's turn and each has specific steps within it.

INVESTIGATOR TURN: Each Investigator's turn consists of two Movement Steps and one Action Step. They can be taken in any order.

Movement Step: This step simply allows the player to move his investigator to an adjacent space. Some of the rooms will be "Locked" as determined in the set up. If an Investigator attempts to move into a locked room, he must flip over and reveal the Lock Card. The Lock Card may call for a Skill Check to open it (for example, a Strength Check to open a jammed door), it may adjust the setting of the room (such as instructing you to place a Darkness token on the room), it may require a specific item to open (generally requiring the Investigators to find a specific key) or it may have a Puzzle lock on it, which requires the Investigator to immediately start a puzzle mini-game in order to open the lock.

Puzzles are set according to the card and the Investigator has a number of actions that they can use to move the pieces to "solve" it based off of their Investigator's Intellect rating. The mini-games are not exceptionally difficult, but may be time-consuming for Investigators with lower Intellect stats who do not have enough actions to solve it. If a puzzle lock is unsolved, it remains in place and an Investigator may return to it later to try to complete it.

Action Step: The Investigator may perform a single action step during his turn. It may consist of any one of the following:

• Run Action: This action simply lets the Investigator take an additional Movement Step. It is specifically useful when fleeing from monsters, since most of them have a movement of 2.
• Card Ability Action: Certain cards, including items and spells, may be used as actions. The Investigator merely resolves the action listed on the card.
• Drop Action: This action allows the Investigator to drop cards in his room (face-up). Another Investigator can later pick up the items if in the room they were left in.
• Attack Action: An Investigator can use their action to attack a monster in the same space that they are in, or within their weapon's range if they have a ranged weapon and are in line-of-sight. I'll get into combat later.
• Explore Action: The Investigator can use this action to turn over and collect any of the seeded Exploration Cards in the room. If the top card is an Obstacle Card, then it must be resolved in a similar manner as the Lock Cards before the cards under it may be claimed. Exploration Cards are usually Equipment, Weapons, Tomes (which can be used to learn spells), scenario Clues or Items. There are also a number of "You Find Nothing of Interest" Cards as well, which are used to mask which locations have the more important items in them.
• Use a Room Feature Action: Though not listed under available actions for an Investigator, it is still an option for them. If an Investigator is in a room with a Feature Marker, they can use it with their action. Barrier Features represent furniture or other items which can be used to barricade a door. This potentially stops a Keeper's Monster from entering through the doorway. Hiding Space Features are places where an Investigator may try to hide from pursuing Keeper Monsters and avoid attack. Ladder Features mark special movement areas and movement between two spaces containing a ladder marker are considered adjacent.

After each Investigator takes 2 Movement Steps and 1 Action step, it is then the Keeper's Turn.

KEEPER'S TURN: The Keeper performs the following steps in order:

Investigator Trading Step: Here any Investigators in the same space as another Investigator may freely trade items to one another. Any Investigator who is stunned may now discard one of his Stun markers.

Gain Threat Step: During this step the Keeper gains a number of Threat Tokens equal to the number of Investigator players. These tokens are spent to perform Keeper Actions in the next step.

Keeper Action Step: Each scenario dictates which Keeper Action Cards the Keeper has access to. Each of the Actions has a specific "Threat Cost". If the Keeper has enough Threat Tokens to play for the cost, he may take the action on the card. These actions are usually very scenario specific, but usually contain general actions such as being able to move Minions or Monsters on the board, spawning new monsters or drawing Mythos and Trauma Cards to later play against the Investigators (more on them later). A Keeper does not have to spend all of his Threat Tokens and may stockpile them to pay for higher costing actions or to plan larger moves later.

Monster Attack Step: During this step, the Keeper may have each of his monsters attack one Investigator in its space. Combat will be described later. If the Monster has a Stun Token on it, it cannot attack or move and instead can only remove the token this turn.

Event Step: The Keeper then places one Time Token on top of the specific Event Deck for the chosen scenario. Each scenario has 5 events which are played out in order. Each Event Card has a specific number of Time Tokens that may be placed on it before it is flipped over and resolved. Event Cards usually take 3-6 Time Tokens before they are resolved. Once enough tokens have been placed on the card, it is flipped over and read and resolved and it will press the story forward. If it is the last card in the Event Deck, the scenario is ended if the win conditions have not already been met by one side or another.

After this is performed, the Investigators start their turn once again and play proceeds.

There are a few subjects which should be looked at in more detail as they pertain to the gameplay.

Skill Points: Each Investigator begins with a number of Skill Points as instructed by their character card. A Skill Point can be spent before making a Skill Check and the Investigator adds their Luck score to the Attribute they are making the check for, giving an increased chance to make a check. Alternatively, a Skill Point can be spent to add a number of puzzle actions equal to their Luck score to an Investigator's puzzle turn.

Combat: When either an Investigator attacks a Monster or a Monster attacks an Investigator, a Combat Card is drawn matching the Keeper's creature type (either Beast, Eldrich or Humanoid). Each card is broken down to incorporate the Investigator attack and the Monster attack and the proper portion of the card is read. If the Investigator is attacking, the cards are drawn and discarded until a card matching the attack type that the Investigator is using is drawn. If a Keeper's Monster is attempting to get through a barricade or find an Investigator in a Hiding Space, the cards are discarded and drawn until a matching Monster resolution is found. The card generally dictates what Skill Check is resolved. Now, monster attacks do not make the Keeper resolve a Skill Check for the monster to see if its attack is successful or not, but rather their attack forces a "defensive" Skill Check on the part of the Investigator to avoid or minimize the attack.

Each of the Keeper's monster's health and special attacks are different. This includes for monsters and minions of a specific type. So each of the Keeper's Cultists may have a different attack effect and a different health than the last one. This is actually very good for creating levels of uncertainty for the Investigators.



Combat Card example. 


Horror Test and Evade Test: Each Keeper Monster has a Horror Rating listed on it. Whenever an Investigator enters a room with a Monster in it or whenever a Monster enters a room with an Investigator, they must make a Horror Test, which is a Willpower Skill Check modified by the Monster's Horror Rating. If it is failed, the Investigator gains a Horror Token. Each Horror Token gained lowers the Investigator's Sanity Rating by 1.

Each Monster also has an Awareness Rating as well, and any Investigator in the same space as a Monster must make an Evade Test (Dexterity Skill Check modified by the Awareness Rating) in order to move out of the space or to take any non-attack action. If the Investigator fails the Evade Test, they can still take their action, but the Keeper may allow the monster to do its base damage to the Investigator.

Mythos and Trauma Cards: Mythos and Trauma Cards are gained by the Keeper through actions on his turn and he may play them on an Investigator on the Investigator's Turn. Mythos Cards usually cost a Threat Token amount to play and also have specific conditions that also need to be met to play. For example, a Mythos card might require the Investigator to be in a room affected by Darkness, or in a Basement location or so on.



Example Mythos Card. The icon and number in the upper left corner means that it costs 0 Threat Tokens for the Keeper to play.


Trauma Cards are broken into either mental or physical trauma and can be played on an Investigator when either their Sanity or Health levels are lowered to meet the requirement of the card to be played. They represent lasting effects to hinder and stymie the Investigators. Effects are usually lasting as long as the card remains before the Investigator, though they may only have one of each type affecting them at a time.



Example of a Trauma Card. The 4 in the brain means that an Investigator must have 4 or less Sanity for this to be played on them. 


The Theme:

This is a story-telling thematic game which brings the "global" threat of Arkham Horror's universe closer to the more intimate horror stories of Lovecraft's Cthulhu universe. Since much of the board is seeded with specific items and clues before play begins, the game is very tight in presenting a narrative between these cards and the timed Events occurring. Because of this planned and direct set-up, you are much less likely to encounter certain oddities that occur in Arkham Horror, such as having Sister Mary racing around on a Motorcycle with a Tommy Gun.

The narrative is set very well and the story unfolds naturally with specific things occurring because of the set story. However, it is really only the Keeper who fully understands what and why things are occurring. This isn't necessarily bad, as in playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG, the Investigators rarely have the full story. However, at the end of most every game, the Investigators will, even if they thoroughly enjoyed the game and experience, will ask, "So what was happening?"

This is, at least, until the scenarios are played a few times each and then the actions become more clear through experience rather than necessarily observation and deduction of in game clues. That isn't to say that the scenarios are not replayable, since there are plot points that can be changed up. But even when the clues are found by the Investigators, they rarely piece the entire story together unless they are familiar with the elements from previous plays.

However, for a story-telling game that brings in more of an intimate Cthulhu feel, Mansions of Madness is probably the most thematic experience that you will find short of playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are not very complex. However, in typical FFG rulebook format, they have taken efforts to make things seem more complex than they really are. A number of rules are not in the most intuitive location to reference (for example, it takes an Investigator action to use a Feature Marker, but this is not listed under actions that an Investigator may take).

Scenario set-up is also rather daunting for a first time Keeper as the game may be broken and not play out correctly if things are seeded incorrectly, plus the Keeper book does not do well in informing the Keeper of things that will unfold in the scenario (for example, Scenario 2 instructs only one ladder segment to be placed on the board with no indication that the other half of it will be revealed later in the scenario based on the Investigator's discoveries. Nor does it indicate how to treat the one ladder half in the interim).

However, once understood, the game flows incredibly smoothly. After a game or two, there is little reason to stop to reference the rules because there is a smoothness in play that is not well illustrated with the clunkiness of the rules.

There is one reference sheet on the back page of the Keeper's Guide. I would normally say that more should be included for each player, but really the game flows well enough after a single play that they really are not necessary.


The Components:


Game board set up for the first scenario with a game in progress. 



Sister Mary hiding from a Maniac.




Jenny vs. the Shoggoth. 




The monster figures are beautifully sculpted. 




This lock puzzle is brightened by the flash. However, without it, the runes are dark and are kind of hard to see, which is important since you need to solve the puzzle by matching runes. I would not suggest opening locks by candlelight no matter how thematic it may seem.  


Fantasy Flight is known for their high quality components and Mansions of Madness is no exception. The sculpted miniatures are amazingly detailed and really do add to the immersion factor of the game. The sculpts for the Investigators are unpainted versions of the prepainted Arkham Horror figures that were released previously, so, while beautiful, it does fit into FFG's motif of reusing art within their Cthulhu products.

The modular tiles used to make up the mansion board are really beautiful and set a great scene for the game to unfold onto. While you have to prearrange the board set-up, I really think that the work on these tiles helps to set theme and mood much better rather than the much more generic Castle Ravenloft tiles. You really can see where artwork can evoke more theme and feeling when comparing the two. I do have a complaint with the tiles, however: since punching them most of them have warped. Now, they haven't warped to the extent of the 2nd edition of Betrayal at House on the Hill and are fully playable, but it is annoying, especially since the tiles need to be laid out so specifically for set-up. Most of the cards from the game have also started to warp a bit as well since opening them. Again, they are playable, but it is annoying and I don't know how prevalent it may be during this print run.



While not as bad at Betrayal at House on the Hill's second printing, the warping of the tiles is a bit annoying. 


Another problem that I have with the components comes from a general sense that the game was most likely intentionally parsed for future expansions. This comes into focus with the limited number of Investigators available in the game (8, as opposed to 16 in the AH base set) and the fact that the combat decks are rather thin considering how often you need to dig through them to find a card matching the Investigator's attack type. But then again, the base AH set only had 7 cards for each Location.

Finally, the number of scenarios in the base game is light. True, elements of them can be changed during set up to keep the Investigator's guessing which set up it is. However, despite all of the variables, there is only one variable that really changes the Objective and win/lose conditions in each scenario. Each scenario has 3 different objectives that can be set. Even if the Investigators figure out what the objective is early, it doesn't necessarily mean that they will have an easy time of the game. However, since every review of mention of the game has been so very careful not to reveal any story spoilers, it kind of shows how much everyone really thinks that the surprise or unknown elements of the scenarios really adds to the story being told. Repeating them will tarnish that a bit. Now, this wouldn't even be quite so bad if FFG was the type of company that would publish free web scenarios to use in the games to offer continual support. But we all know that they are not that kind of company. Instead, any scenario ideas will be slowly distributed among future $60 expansions.


Playing the Game:

Game play is relatively easy to learn. Again, the it will probably just be the first game that is broken up with referencing the rules. After that, it will flow much more smoothly.

The story being told is really only fully known by the Keeper, but as I mentioned before, I don't necessarily see that as a problem. I think that the narrative set up in this game is very strong for the players and seems much more closer to Lovecraft's Cthulhu world (or at least the CoC RPG world, as Lovecraft's stories were generally much more personal) than the often random chaos of the battle heavy Arkham Horrow's Cthulhu world. Actions make sense and a story is being told.

What I enjoy about it is that the Keeper has a role and his actions tell part of the story as well. There may be times where he wants to drive someone insane rather than just rip them to shreds with that Shoggoth in the other room.


Scalability:

The game is supposed to scale from 2-5 players and, technically, it does. The Keeper gets more Threat Tokens depending on how many Investigators are in the game, which gives him more options and potential ways to hinder the Investigators.

However, with only one Investigator player, they are much more limited in the scope of what they can cover in the house before time runs out. Their character choice is also a little trickier, since those who are high Intellect characters (very useful for puzzle locks) are generally poor at combat (very useful for not dying). The inverse is also true of the combat characters. So a range of characters is better and this can be done easily by having the Investigator player play two Investigator characters. This works much better, but as anyone who has every played an RPG knows, it is so much easier to invest and care about your character's life and sanity if there is only one sheet in front of you. So a bit is lost that way.

Also, one of the five scenarios requires at least 2 Investigator players (not characters) and suggests at least 3 Investigator players due to the story elements in it. So that limits the playable scenarios to just 4 for 2-players.

The other problem that the game has in scalability is that 5 players would mean that there are 4 Investigators. This gives the Investigators too many options in exploring the house quickly to resolve the story and win. Really, the last scenario is the only one that really works best with 5 players. Every other one has a sweet spot that hovers between 3 or 4 players (with Scenarios 1 & 2 working best with 2 Investigator players, and Scenarios 3 & 4 working best with 3 Investigator players).


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she's a huge fan of Arkham Horror, she's one of the players in my Call of Cthulhu RPG and she's a big fan of the Cthulhu Live LARPs that we go to DEXCON specifically to participate in. Our first game of MoM was a bit clunky, as I usually better familiarize myself with rules before bringing a game before her. It was broken up by numerous rules references and there was minimal sense of continuity of story in it. She was disappointed. However, our next game only required one abstract rule to be referenced during the game and she enjoyed it much, much more. It may be a little early to tell, but I think that this will replace Arkham Horror for her favorite mythos related board game, provided that replayability doesn't become a huge issue. So (perhaps too) much is random in AH that we can play it again and again in a weekend and have so many different results. In MoM so much is preset and specifically seeded that we will probably have to space out our plays or risk learning too much about them.


The Pros:

*Great theme and a really unique story-telling experience that also a great game.
*Brings in an intimate feel to the Arkham Horror universe, as the other game feels much more global.
*Interesting stories which really are designed to feel personal to the Investigators involved.
*Excellent thematic writing in each of the cards as they are resolved.
*Variables throughout the game means no one can ever take anything for granted. For example, each spell has 5 different cards for it, each resolving a different unique effect if the spell passes or fails that cannot be looked at until it is cast, making sure that Investigators cannot take even their own grasp of magic for granted.
*Intuitive play that requires minimal rules references during the game.
*Good play time length for what it presents.
*Stories unfold well with the timed Event Cards.
*Great miniatures and great artwork throughout.
*Sister Mary is actually not a terrible character this time around.
*If you have a significant other who plays board games with you, but draws the line at RPGs, you can use this to blur the line and move it a little further back.


The Cons:

*Some production warping issues, though I do not know how widespread this will be.
*Minimal supplied scenarios with the foreknowledge that none will be forthcoming for "free" making replayability an issue.
*Specific pre-seeding the board is daunting in set up and a misplaced card could make the game broken.
*Some elements were too darkly printed for theme rather than practicality.
*Scaling is not fluid and certain numbers work better for certain scenarios making some games too easy or too hard based on number of players. This also hurts replayability as, for example, 2 player groups can only play 4 out of the 5 scenarios.
*Certain elements seem limited to be saved for inevitable expansions. Expansions are not bad at all, but when a game is released and feels light in some areas because things are intentionally held back for expansions, then it is a problem.
*Great miniatures and great artwork, which looked beautiful when I saw them the first time in Arkham Horror and the second time in the Call of Cthulhu LCG.
*I've waited through how many AH expansion to find out what "Ashcan" Pete does with that guitar over his shoulder only to find out that he hits people with it.
*I have to wait for a Strange Eons-type program before I can make custom characters from our Call of Cthulhu RPG to play in this game.


Overall:

Mansions of Madness was going to be an easy favorite in my collection. I love theme and story-telling games and this one is set in an intimate level in the Lovecraft universe. Corey Konieczka is an excellent designer and you can see his love of the genre and game built into this game. I love this game and am really impressed with everything in the box. However, I cannot feel disappointed by what is not in the box: more characters, more scenarios, more varied Combat Cards, more items and more ability to randomize some of the scenarios to further add to replayability. As such, I have to address Mansions of Madness for what it is: a truly wonderful base game for what will be an exciting game line. However, like Arkham Horror before this, it will be loads of fun, but not truly shine until certain parts of it are filled out more, which will ultimately result in bloating of other parts. Still, for a great, thematic story-telling horror game, you will not find anything better out there at the moment.


8/10


Edit: March 8, 2011: I just wanted to add a quick update. The warping in the tiles mentioned above continued for several days throughout. I rested about 10-15 pounds of flat weight onto the tiles and left them that way through several days. Perhaps it was the weight, or perhaps the cardboard adjusted to the cold and humidity of my location, but the warping has mostly subsided. There is just a minor warp in some of the tiles and had they been like that from the beginning, it would not have warranted a mention. Anyhow, here is the updated tile picture to judge for yourselves: