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Cracked LCD- Claustrophobia in Retro-View (including Furor Sanguinis!)


Over the past decade of writing regular columns and reviews about board games, there are a few games that in retrospect I likely over-rated, games that in time have lost luster or simply receded from my attention. But there are even fewer games that I’ve felt that I under-rated at release and have come to appreciate more over time. Claustrophobia, a dungeon-crawler from the French designer Croc, was released way back in 2009 and it is quite possibly the single game that I have most dramatically missed the mark on as a critic. And with a rather unexpected new expansion, Furor Sanguinus, out from Asmodee it’s a great time to revisit this stunning, singular title while also taking a look at the new addition.

It’s not that I didn’t like Claustrophobia when it came out. I gave it a good review, praising in particular its rules economy and setting, and of course I lauded its awesome production values that included some of the best pre-painted miniatures I’ve ever seen. But I didn’t quite like it as much as some of the folks who were making “better than Space Hulk” comments. No doubt, the game was doing some very different things with the dungeon crawl genre and it certainly didn’t play anything like the standard derivations of Heroquest, Warhammer Quest and Doom that are even more common today than they were just five years ago. But something about the game just didn’t quite stick with me and it felt limited by only having two enemy types and none of the usual sense of looting, upgrading and skirmish level tactics common to these kinds of games.

I actually sold my first copy of the game sometime in 2010, but after hearing about the then-upcoming De Profundis expansion, I traded my way into another. And after running through each of the game’s included scenarios with a gaming buddy, I realized even then that I should have given this game full marks and quite possibly the 2009 Cracked LCD Game of the Year award.

Claustrophobia is a masterpiece, even without either of its two expansions. The setup is baroque, dark and simple, based on a gaming world called Hell Dorado. One player takes on the role of the crusading humans- including a paladin-like Redeemer, massive Brutes and mercenary Blades for Hire. These damned heroes sojourn into a very 17th century, subterranean Hell beneath the ficitional city of New Jerusalem to root out evil in a wide range of scenarios. One player controls the forces of the Abyss, represented by Troglodytes and usually one or more Demons.

Both sides use a dice activation system but in an asymmetrical fashion. The human player has consoles for each of his figures that displays six action lines indicating differing values for movement and combat dice. A die is assigned to each, which then determines their stats for the round. But if a character takes a wound, a peg is slotted into the display that makes that action line unavailable. The Demon player also rolls dice but assigns them to a large board to activate various abilities and advantages while also expending Threat to play event cards or spawn Troglodytes.

Tough choices abound on both sides before a single figure is moved. The map tiles are very large and all movement is from tile to tile- there’s no grid or other metric of distance. Only three figures from each side may be on a tile, and if a figure is outnumbered by the enemy then they are pinned and can’t move. Many of the tiles have a single environmental effect or hazard that may create tactical opportunities or hassles for either player.

Combat is simple enough- roll however many D6s as your current combat stat, anything over the target’s current defense is a hit. It may seem like the humans are overpowered compared to the lowly Troglodytes, but in packs- and with buffs like a Frenzy ability- they’re absolutely lethal. The humans have a few blessings, boons and pieces of equipment but unlike other dungeoncrawlers this kind of stuff isn’t the goal and there’s not that much of it. This is an economically designed game with a surprising lack of clutter given its competitors.

Claustrophobia really hearkens back more to the dungeon crawl genre’s earliest days than its more recently popular examples. Even though modern touches like the dice activation mechanic (tres chic in 2009) provide a more dimensional game in terms of rules, its simplicity and directness reminds me quite a lot of the seminal games Sorcerer’s Cave and Mystic Wood. These games weren’t about the foot-by-foot movement, special ability minutiae and fussy rules that Descent, for example, trucks in.

What blows me away about Claustrophobia is how it does away with so much clutter to get to some really core, fundamental qualities of the dungeoncrawl genre. Move, fight, and explore with just enough embellishment to give it flavor and character. It’s hugely atmospheric- great scenario design helps, as does a unique setting and high quality illustration work. It’s fast- almost brutally so- with most games playing out in 45 minutes to an hour.

Any issues I had with complexity or variety have turned out to be some of this game’s strongest assets. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if there are only Troglodytes when how the Demon player uses them in conjunction with the tactical situation, advantages and abilities is what provides the variety. It doesn’t matter that there is only one Demon figure, defined per scenario by cards, when the most important aspect is that it is abstractly a stronger monster. This is a lean, editorial design that rather bravely bucks the trend toward bloat.


So expanding something so lean should have been risky. But the first expansion, De Profundis, was a must-have immediately upon its release in 2011. In addition to new room tiles, events, items and other materials, it also gave the human player two great new female warriors called the Sicaria and the demon player the fearsome Hellhounds. If that wasn’t enough content already, De Profundis shipped with twice the number of scenarios that the original game came with, although there really wasn’t any kind of provision to ret-con the new figures into the old ones. The new material pushed the game a little further along the complexity paradigm, but in return the depth of both the gameplay and the setting was increased. It felt like a good trade-off, and for the past three years I think most Claustrophobia fans assumed that De Profundis was the end of the line.

So out of nowhere, it seems, Asmodee is now promoting a new expansion and it’s- as expected- awesome. Furor Sanguinus does something completely different that adds a whole new angle to the game. Instead of adding more units to each side or expanding what was already there, it brings a sort of third party, mutual antagonist into the game. There’s only one new figure- Kartikeya. According to the Hell Dorado lore, he’s something called a squamata. Visually, he’s kind of a hulked-out crossed between a Tyrannosaurus and Wolverine. The five included scenarios have it fighting the humans, the demons or even both.


Kartikeya is freaking great. Conceptually, he is something like Steve Jackson’s Ogre- a one-against-them killing machine with various “systems” that can be damaged and/or disabled. In most scenarios, Kartikeya is the only unit one player will use- although there is one (my favorite of the bunch) where the beast has a human slave (represented by Blades for Hire figures) chained to each of his arms. He’s a total bad ass, more than a match for most units in the game but definitely not out of balance or overpowered.

The mechanics are mostly the same- the old dice-driven activation- but the Kartikeya player assigns dice to different parts of his body. Arms for fighting, legs for mobility and so forth. Damage- and he takes a lot of it- is assigned to different areas, which can disable certain options. And he can regenerate, a pretty crucial ability for keeping him alive what with him usually being a sole target for all the other blades, blunderbusses and claws in a given scenario.

Furor Sanguinis feels a little on the expensive side, retailing for $35 and shipping in a too-big box with only one figure, some counters, some dice and a couple of new room tiles. With that said, this is a really awesome add-on that I completely endorse for fans of Claustrophobia. It’s the ideal expansion- it judiciously expands the game world while not only refreshing an already great game, but also applying an entirely new concept to its system. As a bonus, it is also possible to run three player games. I’ve tried it- one human player, one demon player, and one person controlling Kartikeya in a battle royale. It’s really fun.

Like De Profundis, Furor Sanguinis does have something of an issue with backwards compatibility. The content sort of acts like De Profundis never existed, and there unfortunately isn’t any guidance as to how to retroactively incorporate the new materials into the older scenarios. It’s definitely a minor issue though, because the system itself is toolbox-y and pliable enough that most players with a will to do so can work out how to balance out the Hellhounds and Sicaria with that rampaging squamata.

So here we are, three releases in the Claustrophobia line over the past five years. I’ve learned my lesson about trading the game away in the past, and now it rests on my Forever Shelf alongside among timeless classics and personal favorites. At this stage, I’m prepared to declare that Croc’s magnificent design may very well be the best dungeon crawl game on the market today. Furor Sanguinis seals the deal in blood.


Cracked LCD- Deus in Review


Let’s get the ugly part of this review out of the way up front. Deus, the new game from Troyes designer Sebastien DuJardin, is the least attractive game I have seen in quite some time- at least since the original edition of Glory to Rome insulted aesthetic sensibilities and assaulted good taste some years ago. The game, coming to the US courtesy Asmodee, is packaged in a box mostly the color of tapioca pudding with badly chosen fonts (dropshadows and lensflare, really?) and drab, muted artwork of stern figures from mythology, who really don’t have much to do with the game. Nothing about it says “fun”. Especially not the title, which isn’t very descriptive of the action at all.

Once you’ve gotten it open, you find these awful-looking blobby terrain tiles with irregular spaces. Which would be fine, but someone thought that putting red, blue and yellow terrain on them was a good idea. Beyond that clash of colors, there are inconsistencies in the color scheme throughout. Wood is produced by green tiles and is indicated by a green icon but the tokens for the resource are brown. Speaking of brown, you’ll find references to brown buildings throughout the rules and cards, but there aren’t any. They’re orange. Even the coins are mis-colored, coming in denominations of gold, silver and…green. The victory point chips look like wrestling belts with a crappy, plain black system font slapped on them. Other than the badly executed custom bits, this title is stocked with stock pieces- you’ve seen all of these bits before in other games. It almost looks like a prototype someone put together with generic bits, apart from the cards and tiles.

The good news, despite a failure in the visuals department, is that Deus is actually a very good game.


Deus is another entry in the already well-trod “civ lite” genre but it has a couple of maneuvers that set it apart from the pack. It is essentially a tableau-builder game not unlike Race to the Galaxy or Glory to Rome, but the cardplay has a cool progression and development angle and there is on-the-map play. You’ve got a five card hand to start with and nothing on the modular tiles, each divided up into seven territories inclusive of four resource-producing land types, barbarian villages, and water. On your turn you either play a card along with the required resource and gold payment and place a building into a territory or you “make an offering” to one of the barely-present gods, meaning that you discard a card of a color corresponding to a god and receive a benefit for each other card you discard.

Making buildings is the core action of the game and there are some cool quirks to contend with. There are five categories of developments, each color-coded and keyed to one of the gods. There’s blue trade, green production, yellow science, brown (well, orange) civics and red military. When you make a building, you play the card for it from your hand into its categorical column on a player display and put a building into a territory adjacent to one you own or into one of yours that does not already have a building of that type. So you can spread out or consolidate for larger cities.

Now here’s the interesting part. When you play that building card, you activate every other building card that you have played in that column from the first built to the most recent. This creates lots of opportunities to discover card synergies, combinations and other advantages not only from building selection but also the build order. Over the course of the game, a true sense of development and progress emerges.

The building effects are varied, ranging from producing resources to generating income to providing additional card draws or refreshing your supply of buildings. The military category is where the PVP comes into play, as military units can often steal VPs or money from players with adjacent territories. Put a card that lets an army move before one that lets you steal and you’ve got a mobile attack set up every time you build a new military unit. There are also neutral barbarian villages affected by military and VPs to be earned when one is completely surrounded- the player with the most buildings around it takes the prize.

There is also a temple category down on the end of your player display. These are the “bonus buildings” that provide an end-of-game VP boost for various categorical achievements. You have to have at least one building of each color to build your first temple, then two of each to build the second and so on. There’s a nice variety of temple effects speaking to a number of longview strategies. You might get points for having territories with many buildings or for having lots of territories with few buildings. There are bonuses for having the most of a resource at game’s end or for having the most temples. Each player count offers a set number of temples before the game ends and you count ‘em up.

But let’s say you don’t have anything in your hand that you don’t want to play, somebody nicked that green (?) coin you needed to make your build or you’re out of Science buildings and you’re trying to buy a school. The discard/refresh option is the offering, and each civilization category provides a different benefit for discards. Discard a blue card, and you get money for each other card you dump. Likewise, green does the same for resources. Tossing out a yellow gives you an extra card draw for each that you discard with it- sort of thematically representing scientific research, get it? All of these options turn into critical decisions over the course of the game, and the luck of the draw is quite effectively mitigated by a constant turnover of cards in hand.

I’ve found it very interesting how this design approaches the concepts of progression and development by simply creating these queues of card effects that trigger when you expand a category. The sense that your civilization is getting better or more efficient is palpable, and the addition of a geographic element uncommon to the tableau building genre gives a nice, abstracted sense of territorial competition and possession. The map also creates some compelling decision points centered on placement, resource scarcity and proximity to other players. I really like the choice between building into a territory you already control for potential benefit and expanding into adjacent territories.

This might come across as odd, but it’s almost refreshing to play a game like this that feels more like a late 1990s Settlers clone than a post-Puerto Rico (or more appropriately San Juan) Eurogamer. It isn’t hard to detect the influence of Settlers in the design and its unexpected rules simplicity makes it feel like a throwback to that era of German game design. Of course, this has been something of a trend in games lately, and I’m happy to see that Deus is in that general movement. It’s a simpler game than Race for the Galaxy or Glory to Rome, but I think fans of either would do well to investigate this title.

Deus plays briskly. With two players, it’s a very tightly wound, challenging game that takes 30-40 minutes. With three or four, there is obviously more friction on the board and more competition for resources (the supply for each player count is finite). I’ve found that I actually like the game best with two if only because the deeper strategies of building are easier to reach without interference or having to deal with a diluted card pool distributed between more players.

I have to admit that when I got Deus from Asmodee, I had a moment of “reviewer’s dread”. I felt like I had gotten something that I probably should have declined. But when I started playing it and getting into the development flow and simple yet deep cardplay, I found that I was enjoying Deus a lot more than I expected. I just wish that it looked better. With some nicer components and better illustrations, I think this game could have been a smash. But it looks ugly, esoteric and not very much fun at all. Here’s hoping for a visually upgraded second edition at some point down the road.

Cracked LCD- Kemet in Review


The first thing you’re going to want to do with Kemet is to compare it Cyclades, the brilliant hybrid Dudes on a Map (DoaM) game from a couple of years ago that impressed many gamers including myself with its stunningly economical yet baroque and flavorful design. Like its predecessor, Kemet is a big box Matagot/Asmodee release and it’s of French origin. Both games are well-illustrated and packed with great-looking miniatures and ultra-tight rules that play fast and loose with DoaM conventions of geography, resource management, and process. Both games are completely reasonable in terms of playtime, even with full tables. But whereas Cyclades was about the men, gods, and monsters of the ancient Mediterranean, Kemet goes south and presents us with a surprisingly unique mythic Egyptian setting.

To cut right to what matters most, this is a game where dudes riding scorpions fight dudes riding snakes. You might see your city’s pyramids captured by an army led by a mummy that teleported into your neighborhood and charged straight through your walls. It has a sort of Warrior Knights-derived combat system whereby you can win a battle but lose all of your soldiers trying to wipe out the other side. It’s a tremendously aggressive, fast-paced game where you’re never safe and every turn from the first one on to the dramatic finish will see the sands stained with blood. Sometimes mummy blood. I’ll just stop here for a moment and let you finish that online order that you should be placing right now.

Hopefully, you did actually go and buy this game because it is sensational, one of the best games of the year released to date and one of the most compellingly intricate yet simply executed designs on the market today. Although the Cyclades comparison has a certain utility, Kemet isn’t really quite like anything else out there although it falls into that sort of middleweight class of DoaM games that Nexus Ops pioneered. It’s intensely focused on conflict, but the strategic and development components of the design impart a fascinating but very accessible depth.

You’re an Egyptian god, and in order to exercise your dominion over the Nile delta area you’ve got to send your worshippers out to do your bidding. This usually means claiming temples, a chief source of victory points. Controlling one gives you a temporary VP that can be lost if someone else marches (or beams) in. Controlling two at the end of a turn gives you permanent VP. There are also a couple of special temples that let you sacrifice troops stationed there for permanent VPs or prayer points, the game’s currency used to buy soldiers, abilities, or to upgrade your city’s three pyramids. By the way- yes, I did mean to imply that this game features human sacrifice.

In Kemet’s parlance, pyramids are huge D4s in three different colors. Increasing the value of a pyramid gives you access to purchase the “technologies” of that level and color. So there’s a simple tech tree mechanic that provides a strong sense of Civilization-like advantage development. Deciding which economic, offensive, or defensive advantages you want is a major strategic element, usually resulting in an arms race between players. Since there’s no turtling possible and proximities are close, the drive to outperform your opponents is intense.

The game’s geography is almost negligible. Groups of soldiers can pay two prayer points to teleport from a home base pyramid to an obelisk, strategically placed within two space of each city and there’s one on each temple. No need to marshal soldiers and march them around the map, especially when you have special abilities or units that increase the basic one-territory movement limitation. Taking control of rival gods’ pyramids gives you victory points, as does increasing them to level 4. There’s also an incentive to attack cities because a pyramid seized by another player no longer provides its benefits to the original owner.

kemet 2

Combat is also intensely incentivized because winning a battle gives you permanent victory points. Units are cheap and expendable in the game, and it should be played as such. In battle, each player plays one of a fixed, common set of combat cards that provide a battle value, casualties, and a shield value. Totals include the battle value, number of units, and any bonuses from cards or abilities. Highest wins the fight, but then casualties are inflicted by comparing that number against shields. So the Pyrrhic victory is possible, as are strategic fights where the goal is simple to force a losing army to retreat out of a temple space without necessarily wiping them out. The combat cards are smartly balanced and offer a number of tactical outcomes in any given conflict. Don’t bemoan the lack of dice- this system is really cool.

Also really cool is the action selection mechanic. Each player’s card has a triangular diagram of available actions arranged in three tiers. At the end of the turn, you’ve got to have placed one of your five action selection markers in every tier. Moving, recruiting buying upgrades, praying for more prayer points, and upgrades are the choices and you only get to do one thing per activation. This keeps the game moving at a sometimes breakneck pace, with players sometimes making dramatic all-or-nothing plays to squeeze out three or four victory points (out of the eight required) in a single late-game turn to shut it down in their favor.

Every single turn is an all-out scrap to earn points with limited objectives but multiple ways to earn them. There is literally no point in waiting to attack. There are no strategic chokepoints, advantageous terrain, or really any value in not playing aggressively. The designers were very smart in creating systems and incentives that support this kind of play, and as a result the game feels tense and dramatic throughout its duration whether you’re playing a two player game or a five player one. The game scales exceptionally well and plays great with the entire range of configurations.

Vicious, beautiful, accessible, and compelling, Kemet is a grand slam. It’s a brilliant design that carries on the French tradition of out-Ameritrashing many beloved Ameritrash titles, cutting through the bullshit and offering a crowd-pleasing dose of thematic excitement and very direct conflict. It feels like both an instant classic and a completely out-of-nowhere design with more great ideas than anyone might have anticipated.


City of Horror Review

City of Horror art

Zombie board games tend to focus, like the films they emulate, on the players surviving by putting up barricades and beating the undead to death with whatever they can find. But if you’ve seen enough horror movies you’ll know there’s a second string, a darker theme where cooperative groups mercilessly pick the weakest member to sacrifice to the shambling hordes so that the others might survive. That’s the grim base on which City of Horror rests.

And grim is the word. There are few games more callous than this. It’s not a game to play with relative strangers. It’s not even a game to play with friends that you can’t rely on not to hold grudges. Players control a variety of characters, spread around a zombie-infested city. Each turn there is a vote in each board area that’s accumulated sufficient zombies. Each character in that area gets to vote for who dies, and the character with the most gets eaten. Gone. No second chances, no dice, nothing. Eliminated.

There’s something refreshing about the brutal purity with which the game approaches death. But it also creates an instant rich get richer problem. Once a character dies, the owning player has less characters on the board, and so less votes, which makes it slightly harder for them to keep their other characters alive. You can always play the sympathy card to try and avoid being tossed to the ghouls but the mechanics encourage picking on the weakest. It’s been my experience that players tend to lose all their characters, or hardly any.

So the answer is to try other approaches to negotiation and trading. This is where the meat of the game is to be found. There’s a lot you can trade: promises, which may be kept or broken of course, but also material. Food is worth bonus points. Zombie plague antidotes are required to score points for any surviving characters, their precise value being dependent on whether they’ve used their special ability or not. And every player has a hand of action cards.

City of horror zombies

These action cards and, to a lesser extent, the abilities of the characters, are the primary way players exercise control over the whims of fate in the game. Many kill zombies, or allow you to move them to other locations, some at a cost of making areas of the board unstable to the point of eventual demolition, resulting in further carnage. Others allow you to sidestep the gruesome result of the voting process and other, more minor effects. They can be discarded in certain locations in exchange for beneficial effects.

They’re incredibly useful, and the urge to play them is constant. You only have five, used over four rounds each of which will see several votes. New ones appear on locations occasionally, along with other resources, which are distributed amongst characters there based on another vote, but they’re pretty rare. This sets up a situation in which the choice of whether to play an action card or keep it should create delicious tension.

Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just plain frustrating. The cards are basically your most precious resource and are wonderful negotiating tools. But there’s no way of knowing whether it’s sensible to save them. play them or trade them. The game just doesn’t give you enough information to plan a meaningful strategy with the cards. And once they’re exhausted, the otherwise compelling negotiation loses some of its spice.

You may have noticed by now that although voting to distribute resources seems fairly realistic, voting to see who gets eaten isn’t. In practice the strong and the fast would have a considerable upper hand. So the mechanical link with the theme falls apart. There’s plenty of quality zombie art to compensate but sadly the card it’s printed on is rather lower quality, warping and splitting with worrying ease. There’s a lot of it too since the game uses cardboard standee figures rather than miniatures.

City of horror in play

And without the theme you begin to see that underneath all that gory art, City of Horror is just another twist on the classic cut-throat negotiation game, exemplified by Lifeboats, Intrigue and I’m the Boss. None of those games does much better at presenting a theme than City of Horror does, but they don’t particularly pretend to do otherwise. They’re also a lot simpler and more direct than their undead relative. And, crucially, it’s debatable how much extra game the added baggage in the newer title creates.

We’ve already seen how the voting mechanic leads to a rich get richer problem, and how the use of cards as both currency in deals and board effects backfires. The value of the food and location effects varies tremendously from game to game. The ability you have to move one character each turn from one location to another is unthematic and, since selections are made in secret, basically random. What’s left is the character powers, the fact that using them reduces their score, and the need to collect antidote to score your survivors. That does add a fair amount of interest, but it just ends up compensating for the dead-weight rules.

Not that the game is overly complex. As is often the case with European games iconography has been used heavily to keep things language independent and as is often the case with iconography it’s largely confusing and impenetrable. But that’s a fairly minor annoyance. The game is also fast playing, taking sixty to ninety minutes to complete and that’s a poweful saving grace. You don’t mind too much if your characters start ending up as zombie chow and your game slowly falls apart when you know there’s an end and a re-rack within sight.

City of Horror is not, on the whole, a bad game. I’ve had more fun with it than the tone of this review may suggest. Its collection of mechanical niggles and rather blunderbuss approach to adding new and mostly ineffectual twists and theme to a classic genre are counterbalanced by its sheer, overwhelming nastiness. It’s not often that a game allows you to be quite so delightfully mean to the other players, and that’s something to be savoured. But ultimately while it’s likely to provide considerable amusement for a few games, it has issues enough to ensure either a limited shelf-life or only occasional table time. And in a crowded marketplace and a well-worn genre, that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.