Friday, November 8, 2013

Hidden Movement Games: So You Want to be a Sneak?

Hidden movement games are an under-appreciated genre of game. When done right, the games are amazingly fun and tense for both parties. However, when done wrong, there is a disconnect between the hiding and the seekers and no real evocative feeling of tension, which diminishes the theme. However, when done right, they are also among my favorite games.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard is one of the first real hidden movement games and it was a mass-produced game, so there is some childhood nostalgia that comes with it for many gamers. However, I hadn't played it until after playing games like Fury of Dracula, so it seemed rather weak in comparison to the modern improvements in games.

In the game one player takes the role of Mr. X and the other players try to track down where he is. The type of movement that Mr. X takes (bus, underground, taxi) is public to the detectives tracking him down. There are several rounds where Mr. X must publicly declare where he is and place his pawn on the board. While this mechanic could be defined as Mr. X being spotted by passer-bys and reporting it to the detectives, I don't really like the mechanic. Most of the hidden movement hunt games have mechanics for players to pick up pieces of the hider's trail, but this one just has random pop ups.

I respect the innovations of the game, but ultimately there are more modern games that do it better.

Garibaldi: The Escape

Garibaldi is one of this historical figures that tends to be glossed over, if mentioned at all, by Americans. But the game recreates General Giuseppe Garibaldi's escape and hiding from Austrian forces hunting him down. The events drawn in the game represent real circumstances and boons and hindrances encountered during Garibaldi's flight for his freedom.

Garibaldi's player have to navigate through a long, thin map to escape his pursuers. Garibaldi's movements are handled by his player playing his movement card openly, showing if he moved by foot, by horseback or by boat. After his movement, Garibaldi's player can play an event card which can aid or benefit his escape.

The Austrian forces follow after, each either playing a moment card or playing an event card to try to hinder Garibaldi's escape. After their movements, if any of the Austrian forces are on any of the spaces that Garibaldi has been in over the last four turns, they find a trace of his trail and it is marked on the board. If the Austrian forces end on Garibaldi's space, they capture him and win. If Garibaldi reaches any of the escape spaces, he wins.

Strategies for the Austrians can vary between a mix of pure pursuit to blocking exits to try to drive Garibaldi along certain routes.

This is a very decent game, but ultimately I find that the tension is very one-sided. As Garibaldi, the game is tense and tactical and you will find yourself sweating an awful lot at the escape board narrows at certain points and terrible events hinder you. However, the tension is rather one-sided as there is less of a feeling of threat for the Austrian forces. They simply play a strategic play and wait. I find that both Fury of Dracula and Letters from Whitechapel do a better job of bringing tension to both sides of the table.

Fury of Dracula:

I haven't played the original Fury of Dracula, but I've logged in many games of the Fantasy Flight rereleased edition. From what I understand, the original game is more of the pure hunt and chase, while Fantasy Flight has (surprise!) added a lot of mechanics, bits and rules bloat. That isn't to say that it is bad, but it is definitely fiddly.

One player takes the role of Dracula, while the other players take the roles of the four hunters. Dracula's movement is hidden and takes the form of playing location cards from his deck. Cards are added to his trail, but after 6 are laid, they oldest ones start to come back into his hand again. This introduces an interesting circumstance where Dracula cannot backtrack along his own trail. However, Dracula can also lay encounters along his trail, so as the Hunters move to a card along Dracula's trail, they reveal where he has been, but also have to contend with the traps left in his wake.

When a hunter finds Dracula, the game does not end. Instead, the hunter battles Dracula. If they found him during the day, Dracula is weaker and the Hunter has a stronger chance of beating him back. If it is during the night, however, Dracula has a lot more powers available to him and it really makes battling him a dangerous game unless the hunter is fully armed and prepared.

A single battle is not enough to defeat Dracula, as he will be able to escape a couple of times worse for the wear when defeated. For Dracula, he needs to wait out the clock. However, the clock is advanced in his favor if he laid new vampire spawns on location cards that were never found and fall off the map and by his victory in battle over the hunters.

Fury of Dracula is an incredible game and it doles out the tension equally. Hunters may be close on Dracula's trail and ready for battle, but are racing against the setting sun, knowing that once night arrives, their battles will be that much harder. They will also see portions of his trail and as a card with an encounter is about to fall off of his trail, they need to decide if they want to provoke the encounter just in case it is vampire spawns. Dracula meanwhile will be sweating as more cards in his trail are uncovered and will find himself licking his wounds, trying desperately to survive through the day to make it to the night.

The problems with the game are the fiddliness and a few random event cards that are simply unbalanced. There is one card, when drawn, allows Dracula to instantly teleport to any location on the map. This is infuriating to the Hunters who may have worked hard to corner his and run through his trail up to this point. The game also can run a little long if there are little confrontations and no vampire spawns drop.

But overall, it is an excellent game that deserves to be on the shelf.

Clue: The Great Museum Caper:

This is another classic mass produced game that actually had clever mechanics. I've only played this recently, so I don't have the nostalgia that many gamers have with it. That being said, I still think this game holds up.

One player plays a thief who moves with secret movement tracked on a map. His object is to steal at least three pieces of art and then escape. There are cameras and motion sensors which can give away his location if they are rolled on a die, but these can also be disabled, though this gives away information on the thief's trail.

The detectives move openly, searching for the thief's movement and hunting his trail, working together to try to cut off his movements.

While a good, fun game, mechanically there is a little too much randomness in the game. The detectives move via a die roll, so even if the thief is plainly visible and within reach, rolling a 1 instead of a 6 on the die really makes a huge difference. Cameras or motion sensors are also determined by a random die roll indicating which one gives information for that turn.

It is a good game, but the randomness cuts into the strategy that comes with most hidden movement games. It is also worth mentioning that it has a beautiful 3-D map, though I'm sure those production costs would pretty much prohibit a reprint of it.

Nuns on the Run:

I did a full review of Nuns on the Run here.

Nuns on the Run flips the role of the hidden movement game. Usually these games are about one player with secret movement as the others hunt him down. However, this game has the majority of the players taking the hidden movements with one player as the hunter.

The theme of the game could easily be changed to that of trying to escape a WWII prison camp, but instead it is themed around novice nuns stealing pieces of cake in the middle of the night.

I like the game, but it is odd that there is really no teamwork. Most hidden movement games have teams, but here the novice nuns hiding don't even know where one another are. It makes the game ultimately feel a little odd.  

There is also a disconnect from tension, as being unaware of where anyone else is, there is never a sense that someone is about to win so you need to hurry.

It's definitely not a bad game, but everyone's actions end up being so private that it creates a disconnect between everyone else. The determining of line-of-sight is also a little clunky, but I still enjoy this one with large groups.

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space:

This is a small game that brings a lot of tension with it. The game works best with more players than few and it combines hidden roles with hidden movement. This also is different than most hidden movement games because EVERYONE's movement is hidden.

Half the players are humans trying to escape a ship in pitch black, while half the players are aliens trying to hunt down the humans.

There is a chance with each step that you make that you make a noise and have to reveal which hex you are in on the map. However, you could also draw a card that allows you to bluff and lie where the noise came from.

So as a player states that there is a noise in hex M05 and you are in M06, you have to think. Are they bluffing? Are they also a human? Or are they an alien? If you move and take a step, you might make noise and give yourself away. If it is an alien near you, he could move to you and eat you.

The thing about it is that when an alien moves onto a space and declares an attack, he kills whatever is in that space (if anything), including another alien. So there are also questions as to what to do as an alien. Do you declare that you are an alien so that you can get the other aliens to help you? But in doing that, any noise that you make will send the human players scurrying away. Do you feign being human? Perhaps you will not cause others to flee your noises, but you may be pounced upon by your own team.

Adding to the tension is that there are a few items that humans can find and use (alien players can find them to pose as human, but never use them). Among these items are weapons, where they can attack a space just like the alien and potentially kill an alien pursuing them (or unknowingly, it might be a human following them).

Once they make it to an escape pod, the human player declares where they are and draws a card... Not all of the escape pods work. If this one malfunctions, then they must hurry to another, but they have given away where they are. And even if it does work and they escape, there is no longer an escape pod there, so the human who might have been two steps behind now finds that he must turn around and go somewhere else to escape.

This game is the epitome of tension in hidden movement and hidden roles, but it works best with lots of players. There is player elimination, but the games are not too long and it is still work watching what happens at the end.

Letters From Whitechapel:

For me, this is the pinnacle of hidden movement games. It simply is a masterpiece. I did a full review of it here.

While Fury of Dracula builds tension on both sides with combat and bloated mechanics, Letter from Whitechapel does it with minimalism. The two player game of Whitechapel is a chess match of player against player. One player plays Jack the Ripper, as the others control the Investigators trying to hunt him down after each kill before he can reach his hideout, which remains the same each night.

There is a lot of tension as Jack when someone finds your trail, but there is also a lot of tension as the Investigators. For some reason, removing a white prostitute pawn and replacing her with a red crime scene counter feels tense. The simple removal of a pawn starting each night creates a sense of loss for the Investigators. More and more clues are discovered as the nights pass and there is a great tension as Investigators decide if they want to look for clues or make an arrest in a space. And nothing in any game I've ever played comes close to the immediate sense of tension during the third night as Jack in Whitechapel where you must make two kills in one night and you cannot move away before the Investigators move.

This is the best of the hidden movement games and it deserves to be in every collection.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your reviews and comments, even subscribed for the news feed.

    "an excellent game that deserves to be on the shelf", slightly ambiguous praise... :)