Everything Epic’s maiden release, Secret of the Lost Tombs, is a hybrid of the dungeoncrawl and narrative-oriented adventure genres, a combination that isn’t as common as you might think given how overpopulated both types of games are these days. It features a setting in which it totally makes sense that Teddy Roosevelt would lead an expedition into a subterranean Masonic lodge to decipher a code left by Ben Franklin that can be used to awaken and control a giant monster that helped the Colonies to win the Revolutionary War- one that is spoiling for a rematch with the giant monster that fought on Britain’s side. Oh, and you might meet Dracula and Blackbeard along the way. In a Mongolian tomb.
It’s all gonzo pulp, all the time, that wears its influences on its sleeves. And on the back of its jacket. And its pants. All over its socks and shoes as well. References to Indiana Jones and Alan Quatermain are checked off, and the merchant from Resident Evil 4 makes a guest appearance (the “whaddaya buyin’?” dude). The monster-busting secret society/tomb raiding organization that the characters belong to is an lot like the BPRD from Hellboy. But more specifically, this game borrows liberally and almost uncomfortably from Fantasy Flight’s line of Lovecraftian horror games as well as Betrayal at the House on the Hill.
If you’ve played Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, and/or Mansions of Madness you have played at least 90% of this game’s design, even though it refocuses the gameplay to a dungeoncrawl format- which is actually pretty cool despite the uncomfortable similarities. Fives and sixes are successes, you roll X dice where X is the stat being checked. There are condition cards that often have knock-on effects later in the game. Monster-fighting involves both actual combat and a psychological element. You get companions/allies. Adventure and Misadventure cards play out almost exactly as they do in the above games and are written in a very similar style. There’s a doom tracker. As for its resemblance to Betrayal at the House on the Hill, the way the dungeon is laid out with multiple floors is almost identical, with some rooms only occurring at certain levels. There’s even the “underground lake” weirdness that players of Betrayal’s first edition will recognize where some features shouldn’t logically be on some floors, like watchtower one floor below the first. And there are also certain conditions and story effects that cause players to switch sides, which was that game’s hallmark.
I have no doubt that designer Chris Batarlis has played and loves all of these games, and I can’t fault the guy for trying to come up with his own, spirited version of these kinds of designs- and with a fairly unique high level concept to boot. There are some qualities about it that it does exceptionally well. I really like how there is no levelling up, instead your character unlocks abilities or actually loses them based on their Courage. It’s a neat way to do the psychological element and tie it to a character’s abilities. There are lots of fun traps and it definitely generates a sense of exploration. The scenario design is quite good and steers well clear of the usual repetitive monster-bashing of many dungeoncrawlers. The included scenario book includes some very novel situations like aforementioned bit with Ben Franklin and some challenging, detailed adventures with several fun surprises.
But this game- which comes packed in a ten pound box packed to the gills with tokens (eight punchboards’ worth), cards and novelty components like these awful stat trackers that are lain over the characters cards- sorely, desperately needs a sense of focus. It’s a sprawling mess. Mechanically, it’s mostly sound and it all works despite some truly WTF design level decisions like using double-faced D12s instead of D6s and a couple of needlessly bothersome elements like this terrible searching thing where you have to turn this token every time you search because it “gets more dangerous” or something. The mess comes in mostly in the content, and specifically the content tied to the setting and storylines.
This means that elements in these scenarios come across as a jumble sale of locations, mythologies and notable characters with random HP Lovecraft stuff thrown in to boot. What could have- and I think should have- been a game more in line with Indiana Jones, Alan Quatermain or Lara Croft turns into this weird mish-mash of moving from battling mummies in one room to fighting Olmecs in another. In Davy Jones’ locker. Where you might encounter a Mi-Go. I guess the secret of these tombs is that they connect all of these disparate things into one distasteful slurry of pulp adventure and historical references that doesn’t hang together at all.
Playing the game, I keep thinking that I would like the game so much more if Mr. Batarlis had picked a time period, a mythology, a location or some other unifier to give the written and visual content consistency. Like if this release, for example, where all about Egyptian sites and stories about how they connect to the larger story he’s trying to tell. And then maybe the next set in product line has all the pirate stuff and the scenarios build on to the larger story. But instead, it feels like everything Japanese, Greek, South American and, uh, pirate got dumped in together. It undermines the otherwise strong sense of story. It’s a kitchen sink approach.
There are other issues with the content as well. Characters are wildly imbalanced, equipment and artifacts become redundant over the course of the game. The stack of room tiles is huge- over 50- which means if you need to find a certain room that isn’t laid out specifically at the outset, it can have a variable effect on the game’s length, which has an effect on its difficulty over time. The one-a-round event cards have just a title and then some plain instructions for monster spawns and so forth, but offer no reason for why they have titles- again, undermining the narrative.
I’m also completely not in any kind of love with the combat. It’s one of those games where you roll a ton of dice and compare successes to various numbers on a monster card. It’s boring and tedious, made even more boring and tedious by those completely unnecessary D12s, of which you need about three times as many as are included. Toss them out into your “random dice” Crown Royal bag and replace them with some regular D6s. There are PVP options that are actually required if someone turns bad due to a condition or story event, and they are just as boring and tedious.
What it comes down to is that the game is simply trying to do too much. It stretches itself thin, and when it could be showing its strengths it instead shows either its influences or its seams far too much. Do we really need the “Soul Merchant” (the RE4 guy) in there? Or is that just a distraction in what should be a game about surviving an expedition into an ancient trap and monster laden tomb? Do we really need all of the companion cards, when what is really essential is that these characters are interesting and fun to play? The game just loses its way and even though it has moments where you can see what Mr. Batarlis was getting close to what I believe he wanted us to experience, too often it collapses in scattershot directions.
I also get that Everything Epic wanted this to be a big, stunning production like the Fantasy Flight games of ten years past. I appreciate that, but here again you can feel the game straining. Material quality is fine, but it is an amateurishly produced game rife with typographical errors, misspellings, outright misprints (including a rulebook misprinted with the wrong cover) and plain old bad grammar. I’m a professional writer and I understand that any large volume of text is going to have errors, but there is no excuse for a finished, gone-to-press consumer product to be so poorly proofread or copyedited. It also doesn’t help that the visual execution is crude at best- it looks like something that fell out of a 1995 Angelfire Web site. The fonts are almost hilariously inconsistent (there are like six different typefaces on the box top alone), character portraits look terrible and the overall graphic design is poor. I don’t expect an indie production to be on par with Games Workshop, but I do expect that a lack of budget is made up for with style or visual panache.
Writing this review has been tough because I do not like to do bad reviews. I don’t think there’s much joy in dismantling something that someone has labored long and hard over and put a lot of love into. Secret of the Lost Tombs is one that I can tell has been labored over and loved, but it also feels inexperienced and naïve. There’s something almost charming about it that has kept me coming back to it more than I expected after the first couple of outings with it, something almost like seeing an unexpectedly good and enthusiastic covers band at a bar. I can’t tell you that I haven’t had some fun with the game and I can’t tell you that I haven’t waffled back and forth over just how much I do or do not like it, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t come clean with the fact that this is one of those games that is lacking in a number of important areas. It’s not one that most groups would reach for over its more polished, focused and refined antecedents.