And the award for best thematic board game goes to…

In university, I took Marketing 101 as an elective. I enjoyed the subject, but I enjoyed the girls more. Which sounds incredibly chauvinistic. And is. But after four years into my IT degree, it was like an oasis in an otherwise barren landscape.

One of the first things we learnt in the course was cars. And the difference between how they’re valued. You have your mass market cars: cheap to make, cheap to buy, and the idea is that they sell as many as possible with a small margin. Then you have your exclusive cars: they’re more expensive to make, and the margin is a lot higher. Meaning you don’t have to create or sell as many. Because of this you’re no longer buying a car but an experience of exclusivity; a status symbol.

Ridiculous right? What vapid person would buy something based purely on exclusivity?

Name: Claustrophobia 1643

Players: 2

Publisher: Monolith

Designers: Croc, Laurent Pouchain

Artists: David Demaret, Gautier Giroud, Martin Lavat, Stéphane Nguyen, Milan Nikolic, Pascal Quidault, Stéphane Simon

Stop!

The first thing you need to do when you get this game is read the two-page introduction about New Jerusalem and the Underworld. Your enjoyment of this game depends heavily on your interest in the theme and lore. Leaving anything unread will make it a worse experience.

Claustrophobia is a scenario driven asymmetric two player dungeon crawler taking place in New Jerusalem. Well, underneath New Jerusalem. Demons and monsters have overtaken the caves and catacombs below. And each loosely connected scenario comes with new and creative reasons as to why the humans continue to explore the darkness below the city.

Don’t look back!

While a lot of dungeon crawlers devolve into two team throwing dice at one another. Claustrophobia has a level of strategy. As while there’s still a lot of dice rolling and combat, the game focuses more on movement, spawning monsters and the blocking of both. It creates choices around where and when to move your warriors beyond genre conventions.

For instance, the infernal player can’t spawn monsters on any space with humans on it. Meaning whenever you find a new entrance you have a choice. Leave someone behind stalling the spawns, or keep your team together to have a better chance of fighting?

The wrong decision could get your people killed, or seriously maimed. Which is worse.

Why’s this worse? Well, while you think Claustrophobia refers to tight tunnels that you and your team are squeezing through. I think it more aptly refers to the damage system.

To give a bit of background. On the human player’s turn they begin by rolling as many 6-sided die as warriors they have alive. They then assign these die to one of the 6 numbered action slots on each warrior’s board. So, a rolled 1 goes into the first slot, etc. This then determines the character’s stats for the round.

When a warrior is injured, one of these action slots is blocked. When a dice is assigned to that blocked spot, the warrior is exhausted. And for that round they get no movement, no attack, and only 3 defence.

This isn’t good.

He’s right behind me isn’t he..

You can see how this affects the pace of the game. The humans start strong, sprinting towards their objective, rolling die and doing as they please. However, as the infernal player puts troglodytes in their shoes, they begin to slow. The amount of actions the human player can perform becomes more and more limited. It’s suffocating. As though the cavern walls are closing in around them.

While it brings out the theme and leads to close games. It also means the human player will often reach fail states early, and then must play on until their characters are dead. Which is kind of a downer.

On this point, taking damage is done by dice rolling. Making this a game that can be won or lost based on luck. While I’m usually put off by this, there is sort of an expectation for this to happen in dungeon crawlers. And let’s face it you’re here for the theme – and it’s damn good.

As the infernal player, the pace of the game is a little different. For your turns are like the waves of the ocean. You can go turns without spawning anything, and then turns where you wash ashore a Christmas carol of demonic underlings.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Three troglodytes

Two hellhounds

And a demon who’s going to kill me.

As the game goes on, you’re able to put more monsters on the board. Making you more powerful. Bringing you closer to your aim of crushing the humans in a tsunami of demonic hell spawn.

Gameplay aside, the components are gorgeous, and I hope my pictures do them justice. However, I do have some pretty large issues. For instance, if I – an 85kg, 6-foot male – laid down on my table, with an all you could eat sushi buffet scattered around me. There would still be more table room left than what Claustrophobia provides.

It is actually insane. This board game takes up so much space it becomes a liability to the gameplay. We had to stop frequently to move different pieces out of the way of the dungeon. And the direction of the human’s exploration was limited by table space.

Note the moved player mats, and lack of table space!

Another component issue is that they went the multi-lingual route. Using iconography over text on key components. Which isn’t bad in smaller games, but here there are 29 different icons for you to remember. Or forget. Meaning that unless you’re playing this game repeatedly. You’re spending more time staring in the rulebook than at your opponent’s ugly mug.

Though maybe it’s a good thing.

Compounding this problem is the lack of player information and helper cards. And key information that’s only found in the rulebook – like how much it costs to summon each type of monster.

So where does this leave me?

I love, LOVE the theme and the exclusiveness of owning 1 of the 10,000 copies worldwide. Monolith took a risk, and the customer experience of that risk has been fantastic. Going from Kickstarter to my hands in two months is awesome. However, it’s not the perfect experience. It has some basic design issues that eat into my enjoyment. Otherwise it’s a great game that fills an untapped niche.

Still no Dawn of the Peacemakers review… It’s coming! It’s so difficult to organize four grown men, two bags of pretzels, and a 10 pack of pepsi max.

I hope you’re having more luck than me. And shout out to my wife for being awesome and playing this bad boy with me. And to my son for sleeping through all those die rolls.

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