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The Occult Chronicles Preview

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Haunted house type horror board games like Mansions of Madness and Betrayal at House on the Hill tend to suffer from one overriding problem which is that they’re pulled in all sorts of different directions by their requirements. How do you create a game that’s full of both mystery and well-informed decisions? How do you give it variety and replayability with limited tile stock and table space? How do you make it competitive and exciting without giving one player too much power?

The answer, obviously, is to make it into a computer game instead, and have the CPU handle all the fiddly bits for you. Enter upcoming game The Occult Chronicles, currently available to purchase as a playable beta-test. But in a twist worthy of the dark and disgusting gods that inspired the game, developer Cryptic Comet (also responsible for indie strategy titles Armageddon Empires and Solis Infernum) has seen fit to breed in elements of a Rogue-like as well.

In some respects the result is no more than what you might expect. After creating a character with a points-based system and choosing from a number of loose scenario templates, you’re unleashed into a large mansion populated which in turn unleashes eldritch horrors upon you. As you’d expect from a title inspired by Rogue and board games, it’s a turn based affair where you move from room to room on a geometric grid, trying to reach the bottom cellar of the house and defeat the ancient evil lurking therein.

That simple framework could have been a disaster. It could have been a re-run of the most laughable elements of ZAngband where your overpowered paladin squared up against Cthulhu, triumphed and looted gold pieces from his stinking cephalopod remains. It isn’t a disaster. It’s a game where you’ll gnaw frantically at tender fingernails as you wait to die horribly for merely trying to open a door.

A big part of what makes it work is the writing and presentation which are absolutely top-drawer. The game has a wonderfully self-aware line in dry parodies of Lovecraft and other popular horror tropes, and balances perfectly between the yawning pits of becoming ludicrous and becoming comedy. There’s a lot of text, and you’ll learn to read almost all of it, because it’s excellent.

The words are well supported with comic-strip style pictures which walk a similarly fine line between humour and horror. And the designer has crammed in not just every Lovecraft reference you can imagine, but sucked in everything from the realms of literary and televisual terror too. I spotted sly and often amusing homages to a number of popular horror memes, and I probably missed many more.

There are an astonishing number of different things to stumble over in the dark, which translates as an astonishing number of different ways to die. I’ve been killed by doors, ghostly ballerinas, zombies, rats, fire demons and talking pediments. But together with the random mansion layout and choice of scenarios, it helps ensure that no two games are the same.

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Mechanically, it’s currently a mixed bag although I suspect that’s more down to bad documentation and minor usability niggles than it is to actual problems with the system. Most challenges are resolved with a trick-taking game using, slightly predictably, tarot cards. The number of cards in your hand, the number of tricks you can attempt to take and the number you need to win are determined by your stats and what you’re trying to do.

You get choices. So, if some nightmare denizen of the outer planes comes slithering in to view you might be given a choice to fight it with sorcery or flee. Mentally capable characters will get more promising numbers for the former, while dexterous ones will have an easier time with the latter. But success is never guaranteed, and as the available tricks tick down without a win the sense of tension that builds up is palpable.

The problems start right afterwards. Following a challenge you pick a number of cards to find out how good or bad the results are, depending on if you won or lost. This seems a slightly pointless extravagance, eating up play time for no real benefit.

You can earn experience tokens when you win, and spend them on improving your character, but they’re not tracked on the central screen and it’s easy to forget about the ones you’ve collected. Likewise with the item and trait cards you character can start with or acquire: you need to frequently check your personnel file on a separate screen to properly track your character.

Various other tabs and screens hold other important pieces of information like traits, heroic feats and “bones” (dice). This is where the current documentation and the game interface get confusing. It’s not always clear when and how to use these things. Many of them require dice rolls, but you have to have the right kind of dice before you can roll. It’s all as mysterious as the plot of the average horror novel.

In that respect I guess it’s not that different to a lot of Roguelike games, but it seems a little basic by modern standards. You can’t even use the arrow keys to move: instead they scroll the map and you have to click around like a lumbering elephant.

This is, remember, a beta, so there’s plenty of time to sort some of this stuff out before the final product goes live. And I hope some of it does get smoothed over, because playing this you really get a sense of how a haunted house game really ought to be done, and why none of the current crop of board game contenders have never quite lived up to the billing.

For starters, it’s a Roguelike, and that means permanent death, which is far more terrifying in and of itself than any plastic miniature of a tentacled horror from outer space. The huge variety and random room tiles means each game is a true mystery and creates believable layouts without heavy-handed preparation. Your character can gain and track the progress of quests as you creep through the house, without shuffling new cards into decks or worrying about the right item being in the right place.

Speaking of quests, they’re mere sideshows to the main event, Banishing Elder Gods Back From Whence They Came. But as if the game wasn’t mean enough already, you can’t just build up your character and plunge down. Instead there’s a timer ticking down on each and every move. Every so often these trips a story event based on your choice of scenario which adds a nice sense of metagame to the proceedings. But tick off too many and time runs out, ending your game in ignominious defeat.

The Occult Chronicles suffers from some very rough edges at the moment, but it’s an inventive and addictive take on an old genre, which has the potential to please board and video gamers alike. If you’re interested, get in there now and starting sending feedback to help the developer sandpaper down the splintery bits

Elder Sign: Omens in Review

No High Scores

Arkham Horror, a Call of Cthulhu inspired game, tends to be one of those boardgames you either love or loath. I’m pretty firmly in the former category. Yes, despite being a pure co-op game, having a lot of players involved can leave you with a metric ton of downtime and if you don’t like pinning your fate to die rolls it’s probably not for you. I don’t mind all that. Even with a lot of die-rolling, it’s the good kind, where skillful play and use of items (not to mention a little help from your friends) gives you more opportunities to pass whatever magic criteria impedes your path. Not unlike poker, I consider it a fair marriage of strategy and chance. I also like how you have to adjust your play style for the type of investigator you’ve chosen and how you can play the game a dozen times and never use the same investigator twice. Above all, I just like the environment and the feeling it invokes of moving about a dangerously unstable town, populated with unspeakable horrors, as you try to stop an abomination from devouring the world. It sets a mood.

So it was, with this flavor firmly in mind, that I downloaded the Arkham inspired board game adaptation, Elder Sign: Omens for my iPad. Omens is available as a traditional board game (though it’s just called Elder Sign), but not unlike Ascension, this new iPad version takes a lot of board game ideals and successfully translates them to an experience you really could only have on a mobile device like the iPad. (I have not played the board game version. I have no idea how much is the same or different.)

In this game you are tasked with putting together a team of four investigators (whom Arkham Horror players will remember from that game) to stop the abomination, Azathoth, from devouring the world. This is very much Arkham. In this game, however, your investigative acumen isn’t put to the test exploring an entire town’s mysteries, but rather that of a single museum. There you’ll move, one investigator at a time, through its various rooms, seeking out adventures best-suited to that particular investigator and whatever handy gadgets, weapons, or spells she might have on hand. Fail too often and your investigator loses stamina and sanity, eventually resulting in their removal from the game (death or insanity) as a Doom counter moves inexorably forward towards Azathoth’s emergence and the end of the world. The only way to win is to discover enough Elder Signs (also done by completing adventures) to seal the breach between the realm of Cthulhu and our reality.

My kind of game…

No High Scores

At first, Elder Signs left me a bit put off, and not just because the game is entirely centered around a die-rolling mechanic. Enter The Archives room, for example, and you’ll find a certain number of tasks (usually between one and three) to which you have to match specific types of glyph tokens: Investigation (valued at 1-4), Terror, Peril, and Lore. Glyphs are also color-coded to green, yellow, and red, with green being the default type. You get six green glyph tokens at the start of every adventure. You can then use an item or ability to conjure a yellow token (can summon a 4-investigate glyph) or red token (can summon a wildcard glyph). Some items give you access to both. Don’t be stingy. Use these items. Worry about acquiring more of them later.

Each task has a requirement to “defeat” it. Say, two peril glyphs and a 2-value investigation glyph. If your conjure (roll) doesn’t produce the needed glyphs you have to sacrifice one of them to re-conjure new ones. You keep doing this until you can defeat each task or you run out of the needed glyphs and must suffer a defeat. Defeats usually rob your investigator of at least one of their two main stats (stamina and sanity), but can also result in other effects like an advancement of the Doom track. Success usually nets you items that can help you: Clue tokens (let you re-roll any number of your glyphs without losing one), trophies (think money for buying items or restoring stamina/sanity), or the all-important Elder Signs. You need 14 Elder Signs to win the game. It takes 14 moves forward on the Doom track to lose. (Or the death or insanity of all your investigators.)

I was initially put off because I had no concept of how glyphs were generated and how to maximize the use of my investigators. Understanding this game’s iconography is everything. If you don’t understand what all the symbols mean, and I mean all of them, you have absolutely zero chance of winning the game. There is no muddling through. My advice is to watch the tutorial videos first just to get an idea of how the game plays. Then play one game to complete and utter defeat. Then go back and read the Help pages. At that point you’ll begin to have an understanding of how to put together a coherent strategy for winning the game, which is difficult to do even when you’ve got five or six games under your belt (as I have).

Any such strategy for victory begins with assembling your team of investigators. Make no mistake, like Arkham Horror, each investigator has their own talents and you need to be smart about assembling a diverse team. Gloria Goldberg, whose specialty is psychic sensitivity, gets a free red and yellow glyph when tackling an Other World adventure type. That is, quite simply, awesome. Monterey Jack, the archaeologist, receives a bonus unique item whenever he gains a unique item (uniques generally conjure an extra red glyph). Carolyn Fern, the shrink, can restore 1 point of sanity to any investigator at the start of her turn. And so on and so forth. Each investigator also gets a different allotment of starting items and each has different starting sanity and stamina ratings.

No High Scores

Your ability to smartly match up the investigators you’ve selected to the adventures found in each room is key to winning this game. (Fortunately, you can leave an adventure, scott free, at any time before you summon your initial round of glyphs.) Knowing your investigator’s inventory is also paramount. Only smaller adventures can be dealt with using the base six glyphs and even then you should count yourself fortunate to have summoned the glyphs you needed for a particular task. The number of times I’ve entered a room and found myself one Terror glyph short of being able to do anything whatsoever, only to roll and re-roll my glyphs to no particular gain still drives me batshit insane sometimes. Expect to find yourself shouting “That’s Bullshit!” at semi-regular intervals.

You may have the sense at this point that despite all the cursing, I rather like this game. I do. It’s a fantastic iPad board game implementation. Some will despise the random nature of the glyph roles, but per my previous poker comparison, this is not a purely random game. It still requires a coherent strategy and a lot of risk management. If you rely on just the six green glyphs to complete an adventure that requires five successful glyph rolls, then you are counting on luck to win the day. You will lose more often than you win. Like poker, this game is about knowing when to gamble and when to play it safe. Even the hardest adventures are beatable if you go into them with a character well-equipped to handle its particular needs. Harvey Walters, he of the strong mind, can, once per conjure, change any Terror glyph to a Lore glyph. Sending him to beat an encounter in which you need four Peril glyphs, when the room next door requires a Lore emphasis, i
s just stupid. Don’t do that. Maybe there’s an adventure that rewards you with an Elder Sign, but do you really want to send studious Amanda Sharpe into an demanding encounter with no glyph-conjuring weapons and no items to help her overcome a bad roll? Or do you want to take a breath, play the odds on the Doom track, and use her turn to go to the Entrance and buy something that might help her significantly on the next turn? These are the decisions you have to make constantly in Elder Signs. Cause and effect. Risk versus reward.

There is much more to the game, of course. I haven’t even touched on monsters and monster generation. I haven’t talked about environment modifiers and midnight adventures. I haven’t talked about locked glyph scenarios. There’s a lot to this game. More than enough to warrant giving it a chance, so go check it out with my blessing. Just do yourself a favor: If you’re having a high-stress day and are thinking about loading this game up – don’t. Just don’t.