Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Le Fantôme de l'Opéra

My biases first: I am a big fan of narrative in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the narrative and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I know who Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman are by voice and I am also aware that Robert Guillaume played the Phantom.


The Overview:


For a game with such lovely artwork, I think the cover is the weakest part. 


Le Fantôme de l'Opéra is a two-player deduction game based off of the Mr. Jack game system where one player plays the role of the Phantom, trying to move and manipulate suspects to conceal his identity and the other player plays the investigator, trying to deduce which of the eight suspects is actually the Phantom.

The game is for 2 players and plays in about 20-30 minutes. The game has a random set up, which makes the opening different with each play, and also has a sliding difficulty level which can balance the game to make it easier for either a less experienced Phantom or Investigator player.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

One player chooses to be the Phantom, while the other plays the role of the Investigator. The eight suspect character pawns are placed randomly along the outer eight rooms of the opera house (leaving the inner two rooms empty). Each of the suspect characters also has an "Alibi Card". These cards are shuffled together in a deck and one is drawn by the Phantom player. The character card drawn will represent which character is pretending to be the Phantom and it will be the role of the Phantom player to conceal this character's identity, while it will be the role of the Investigator to deduce who this character is.

La Carlotta is placed on the track on the board. Her position on her track can be adjusted to handicap a stronger player. Essentially, she is the game's timer and victory condition. The Phantom will try to keep his or her identity concealed until she moves all the way to the right and flees to Milan. Meanwhile, the Investigator will try to deduce who the Phantom is before La Carlotta flees and the performance is canceled.

Play then begins and each round has three basic steps, which are repeated twice in each round.

1. Selection and Activation of Characters: Character cards for each of the eight characters are shuffled and the first four are drawn and placed face up next to the board. Each character has a special, unique ability that is associated with them (more on those later). The Investigator chooses one character and has to move them. A chosen character MUST move and moves a number of rooms up to the number of characters in the room they are currently in. So, if a character is alone, there is only one character in that room (themselves), so they can only move one room. But if there are three characters in their room, they may move 1, 2 or 3 rooms. The character also then activates their special ability, unless it is optional. The Phantom player then does the same thing, but activates and moves two of the three remaining characters. Finally, the Investigator player activates and moves the last remaining character, so that all four characters will be moved and activated.

The movements and special abilities will be used for the Phantom to try to conceal their identity, while it will be used by the Investigator to try to isolate who the Phantom is.

2. Manifestation of the Phantom: After the four character movements, the Phantom player must declare if the Phantom can appear or not.



Five characters here could appear as the Phantom, while three could not. 


The Phantom CAN appear if:
*They are alone in one of the rooms of the Opera House.
*They room they are in is darkened by the Blackout Token, regardless of how many others are in the room with them.

The Phantom CANNOT appear if:
*They are in a lit room with at least one other character.

Depending on the declaration if the Phantom can or cannot appear, the Investigator can then declare certain characters innocent.

For example, if the Phantom appeared, and three characters are together in one lit room, then the Investigator knows that none of these characters could be the Phantom and flips over each of their character pawns to their "Innocent" side as a visual reminder of who the Investigator has cleared.

However, if the Phantom cannot appear, then the Investigator could flip the three characters together alone in their rooms (since if they were the Phantom, they could have appeared) and the two characters together in the darkened room with the Blackout Token (again, because legally they could have appeared as the Phantom).

If only one suspect remains, the Investigator immediately wins. Otherwise, play continues.

La Carlotta is then moved along her track. If the Phantom appeared, she automatically moves forward one step as the Phantom's mischief frightened her. Afterward, she moves one step further for each suspect that still remains. So if there are 5 unflipped character tokens, she moves forward 5 steps.

3. End of the Round: If La Carlotta has reached the end of her track, she flees to Milan and the Phantom player wins. Otherwise, play continues.

The remaining four character cards are then laid out face up. Play repeats in the same manner, but this time, the Phantom chooses one character first, then the Investigator chooses two to activate and move, and the Phantom then activates and moves the last remaining character.

If play continues, the eight character cards are shuffled and it starts over again. This is repeated until either the Investigator only has one suspect remaining or the Phantom has succeeded in moving La Carlotta all the way along her track and she flees the Milan.

The characters of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra each have a special ability. If you are familiar with the Mr. Jack games, you will see that some of them are familiar. However, each of these abilities ties in very well with the character that they represent.

Christine Daaé is the charismatic young soprano who rivals La Carlotta. However, she is adored and supported. She moves and then MAY attract all the characters in adjacent rooms into her room with her.

Raoul De Chagny is Christine's suitor and has the most motivation to either help Christine's career or to reveal who really is the Phantom. He moves then uses his special power, which is to draw the top Alibi Card. If the Investigator activated Raoul, then he reveals the Alibi Card and immediately flips the character pawn matching the card to their Innocent side (remember, the Phantom's identity was drawn from that deck, so their card is not in that deck). If the Phantom activated Raoul, then he keeps the alibi card secret. It means that the Investigator will never draw that card. There are also three Phantom cards mixed into the deck. If drawn by the Investigator, the Phantom card causes La Carlotta to move one step back. If drawn by the Phantom, La Carlotta moves one step forward on her track.

Armand Moncharmin is a co-director of the Opera House and is gruff and prone to violent rage. After his movement he MAY call all the characters in his room to flee to adjacent rooms.

Firmin Richard is a co-direction of the Opera House. Instead of moving normally he MAY instead swap positions with another character pawn.

Madame Giry is the concierge of the Opera House and is responsible for opening the rooms of the theater. She moves and then must move the Lock Token, which is laid to block and bar passage between any two rooms.

Meg Giry moves normally or may use her special power. She is a young ballet dancer who knows the Opera House well, knowing it's secret paths and may instead move along the pink "secret passages" that trace through the board.

Joseph Buquet is in charge of the lighting of the Opera House. He moves and then must move the Blackout Token to another room. That room is darkened and anyone in it can appear as the Phantom, regardless of how many other people are in the room with them.

The Persian is a trusted friend of Raoul, and is in the book rather than the musical. When he moves he MAY bring another pawn in his room along with him, either his full movement or dropping it off along the way.



The Persian. That's right, Mr. Cathala and Mr. Maublanc. I know who he is. I read the book. 


The Theme:

Le Fantôme de l'Opéra drips with theme as each of the characters' special abilities ties in perfectly with their character's motivations and actions. However, the game does not really create a true narrative in any sense. The characters are moved by both sides and the Investigator might be the one moving the Phantom character around on the board.

However, that is not really the point of the game. It is a deduction game and a chess game. Both sides are moving the pieces on the board and trying to manipulate their special moves to create the most advantageous situation or circumstance for themselves. You may lack to cohesive narrative, but instead it is a head to head chess match of trying to outwit the other player by taking advantage of the board with the Phantom player taking false moves and bluffs to try to outwit the Investigator player.

That being said, while the game itself is the bluff and deduction, without the theme attached to it, I would likely get bored quickly with it. I happen to like the story of the Phantom of the Opera and, as such, the movements I take make some sense to me beyond simply trying to bluff the other player.


Learning the Game:

If you are familiar with the Mr. Jack games, this will take you no time at all to pick up on both the game and the inherent strategies of it. However, if you aren't familiar with the Mr. Jack games it will take you only slightly longer to pick up how to play.

The game itself is deceptively simple in mechanics. However, the game tends to be deeper in determining the strategy of how to play. After a game or two, most players will have a good enough idea of the general strategy, even if certain uses of characters isn't fully apparent until more plays.

This is why La Carlotta starting further or nearer on her track works really well. It allows a veteran player to teach the game to a novice and handicap themselves. The game also plays in under 30 minutes barring any fantastic analysis paralysis, and so multiple games are easily played back to back to help foster that learning curve.


The Components:


The Character cards are beautiful, with relatively intuitive icons.



An Alibi Card. Of course Meg is innocent. Who could suspect sweet, innocent Meg?




Character Tokens: Suspect side vs. Innocent Side. 



The components are thick, sturdy and completely effective. The board is wonderful and there is no real confusion about it. The artwork of the game is absolutely gorgeous.

If you are used to the Mr. Jack games, you will find that the components are of similar quality.

The cards are thick cardboard, so there is no need to sleeve them (and with their thickness, it would be a difficult endeavor). The character cards have icon references to each of the character's special abilities which works well enough after a game or two to be a fair reminder without the need to look up characters. The icons are not complex or confusing.

Honestly, the game's components are beautiful, thematic, efficient and effective. I don't really have any complaints about them or a single idea that might improve them. The closest that I have is that the scripted font used on the character cards isn't the easiest to read the names, but their names aren't important. And I still find it preferable to the all capitals, heavy serif font from Mr. Jack and Mr. Jack in New York which they heavy serifs made it look like there were kerning issues with the text. See? That's the worst stab I can take and it really is more of a weak stab at this game's predecessors.


Playing the Game:


Game in progress.



Even though each side activates the same lot of characters and each side uses their special abilities the same way, there is still a slightly asymmetric play to the game in what you are using the characters to do. The Phantom player will be trying to either hide the Phantom in large crowds or to isolate as many people as possible so that as many people as possible remain suspects. The Investigator will be trying to foil these attempts and pursue the opposite goal.

However, what makes the gameplay slightly asymmetric is the fact that the Phantom player can (and hopefully will) bluff. A devious Phantom player might try make it appear as if he is working to protect a single character, seeming to focus or move him or her at any opportunity, but all the while using it as a distraction as they keep the real Phantom safe. This means that the Investigator player might try to focus on separating that single character a little more than simply trying to work on everyone in a systematic manner.

Two player head-to-head deduction games are meant for moments like that. That being said, the Investigator ultimately does not guess; they must have proof. So bluffing is nice, but a strong investigator can still try to weed people out regardless of suspicion, but it is only when La Carlotta is nearly fleeing will a strong investigator be forced to isolate that single character to try to try for a last minute win.


Scalability:

Nope.

It plays two.

It doesn't scale.

However, like previous Mr. Jack games, it does scale for skill level to give an advantage to either the Investigator or the Phantom player.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. That being said, the first musical I took her to see on Broadway was "Phantom of the Opera", but she ultimately preferred "Les Misérables" as a better show.

This is a deduction game. My wife is absolutely phenomenal at deduction games. She is logical and can piece out what she needs with both the clues she has received and, even more so, what she hasn't received. This is her strength. This is what she brings to our gameplay and our marriage: Logic, deduction and straight-forward rationale and thinking. My mind works more abstractly. I am stronger at bluffing and hidden role games where I can look another player in the eye and lie to them and try to manipulate them to do what I want, either by bluffing or bluffing that I'm bluffing. This is what I bring to our gameplay and our marriage: The ability to look my wife in the eye and lie to her and get her to do what I want.

Wait. That didn't come out right. Hopefully she won't read this.

Anyhow, because of her knack for deduction, she is drawn to the Investigator role. This is good, because I falter a bit at it. She enjoys the puzzle aspect of solving something and, truth be told, she is much better at it than me. I only stand a chance when I play against her and can try to manipulate and bluff with the set up.

So, we are perfectly matched to play specific roles in the game and she enjoys it. Because the bluffing is a little more abstract, she can rely more on the puzzle of moving the characters how she wants. While not her favorite deduction game, its short playtime and lack of complex or contrived mechanics makes it an enjoyable experience for her.


Comparisons:

P.I. is a straight deduction game with no real player interaction. Because of the lack of player interaction, logic (and a bit of initial luck) wins at this game 95% of the time. Le Fantôme de l'Opéra offers player interaction and playing against one another. Because of this and the ability to bluff a bit, I prefer Fantôme to this.

Letters from Whitechapel is a true chess game of bluffs and manipulation. You can play it with multiple Investigators, but you can also play it head-to-head for a completely different experience. This game sets out more of a narrative and ultimately, the pure bluff and deduction makes both my wife and I prefer this game. However, play time is much longer and Le Fantôme de l'Opéra allows for a couple of quick games to be had before dinner or while we are waiting for something. Whitechapel becomes an evening's activity.

Mr. Jack and its sister games all fit the same mold of this game. They play very similarly. However, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra is much more elegant and captures the theme better in my opinion. It is definitely the strongest of the series, in my opinion.


The Pros:

*Gorgeous games with beautiful components that are also very effective and useful.
*Easy to teach, with an ability to elegantly handicap stronger players until play ability to even.
*Quick gameplay with a fairly predictable game length cap.
*Great character themes with their specific abilities.
*More elegant than the others in the Mr. Jack series of games, as there is no fiddling with street lamps, sewer grates, new buildings or many other extra tokens.
*There is enough player interaction to allow the players to feel like they are playing against one another with the asymmetric roles.
*This game was not released with a controversy involving the American Actor's Equity Association, which resulted in the stratospheric propulsion of a mediocre-good soprano to international fame and limelight.


The Cons:

*Great theme, but no real narrative in the gameplay.
*Ultimately not too entirely different or innovative from the other three Mr. Jack games.
*Not as in depth or strategic as other deduction games that play longer.
*Our interest in the game has sparked us to listen to the soundtrack to the Broadway musical again and my wife now wants to watch the rather dull and dry Joel Schumacher directed movie adaptation of the musical with me.


Overall:

Le Fantôme de l'Opéra is a lighter two-player deduction game that allows a bit of interaction and bluffing as you play head-to-head with another player. While the mechanics of the game are simple and easy to learn, the strategy of how to most effectively employ the characters' special abilities takes a bit more time. However, balancing mechanisms are available for players of mismatched skill levels. While quicker and a little lighter in strategy than most deduction style games than I prefer, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra has still struck a balance of elegance, short play length, and thematic representation of the material that will see it hit our table often. Fans of the Mr. Jack series will definitely appreciate this game. It isn't such a grand departure from the system to warrant owning it because of its uniqueness, however, it is definitely the best of the series in theme and scalability of difficulty to match player skill.


8/10