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.