Friday, February 5, 2010
Board Game Review - Witch of Salem
Open Letter to Mayfair Games:
Dear Guys Who Make Settlers of Catan,
It is my sad duty to inform you that you are not Fantasy Flight Games. I apologize for the rude awakening, but I felt it important that you realize as soon as possible that you should not make Ameritrash games. You make some of the finest Euro games on the market, and you do it very successfully. I have personally enjoyed a great number of your European-style games.
However, I do believe you are not very well suited to creating games with heavy themes and lots of creepy monsters. Lovecraft games are best left to companies who specialize in hundreds of little pieces of plastic and too many cards, and who hire artists who get kicked out of LucasArts for being too nerdy. Rules for these games are supposed to be long, but generally somewhat intuitive, not short and confusing as hell.
I am referring, of course, to Witch of Salem. This absolutely stunning game seems to be an attempt to breed Arkham Horror with Pandemic, and winds up more like a watered-down version of Ghost Stories. It is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, but sadly, the game itself ends up with a bad case of identity crisis, and can't decide if it wants to be an underwear model or a librarian, and just sort of ends up like a boring Kathy Griffin.
I will give you credit for having made a set of rules with the potential to be interesting. Witch of Salem has players traveling the board using location cards that can't be retrieved until you've gone back to Miskatonic University, so right off the bat, it feels like a dry European game. But then monsters pop up every round, and this evil Necron guy advances to the point where he will unleash a Great Old One on the city of Arkham, so you've got a theme that should guarantee brilliance.
The monsters can be killed if you show up with the right magic items, but of course, we never seemed to have the right items when we needed them. And if two of the same monsters come out, something real bad happens, like you lose magic stuff or all go a little more crazy. The titular character (if there's a word in the language funnier than titular, I don't want to know about it), Robert Craven, will help when he can, but that creepy Necron character keeps trying to pee in your Wheaties and accelerate the coming apocalypse. If you can follow the witch dude around, he can help keep the monsters from pestering you, but he can't be everywhere at once, and he pretty much wanders at random, so it can be a little hard to track him down.
And all the while, Necron is advancing, and the Great Old Ones keep popping up at Miskatonic University to irritate you, and you have to reveal all of them while you're sealing magic portals and killing monsters and trying not to go completely wackadoo until you wind up wearing a straight jacket and giggling at the male nurses. It sure does seem like time is against you - until you figure out how easy it is to win the game.
And this, dear Mayfair Games, is where you dropped the ball. By attempting to make a European game with an American feel, you have missed the most important element of a cooperative game - tension. Every time I have played this game, we beat the slick green snot right out of whatever bad guys were threatening the city of Arkham. More characters made this even easier - it's supposed to scale by bringing out more monsters, but we just ignored the gathering monsters, since the penalty for having a bunch of them out is weak and unintimidating (and might not happen at all), and they were completely unimpressive. There's no fighting mechanic, just a die that tells us if we lose a magic knife down a sewer grate that leads to Hell, and killing monsters is supremely anticlimactic - you just point to the stuff that matches the monster's stuff, and the monster goes to the discard pile. So even if you do bother to kill monsters (which you almost don't need to do), smoke-testing a boogeyman is not the achievement it feels like it should be.
The real problem here, Really Impressive Publishers Who Dropped The Ball On This One, is that you didn't really understand what makes Ghost Stories or Pandemic as much fun as they are. When a completely novice group can sit down and whip the piss out of this game without even breaking a sweat, you did something wrong. Ghost Stories is intense and exciting and fun - and hard. I've never even won Pandemic, though we came close twice. But Witch of Salem just kind of feels like an exercise in planning out some rather dry moves, and any theme that might have made its way to the game by way of monsters and sanity points is lost in the thoroughly unthematic rules.
I don’t want to give the impression that I completely hate Witch of Salem. It was enjoyable the second time I played. It wasn’t a complete waste of time, unlike many games I’ve played since I told people I would review anything they sent me. However, even if we did have fun, the entire time I kept thinking, ‘man, Ghost Stories is SO much better than this.’ When I would rather play a remarkably similar game with far superior execution, there’s just not much point to playing this one.
Please don't feel bad, People Who Make Bang! You have some really fun games. There is no reason to feel bad, aside from the fact that you made a mediocre cooperative game that is easily outshined by half a dozen games that are out there. We still love you. You still bring us some pretty bitchin' titles, from time to time, and so it would be a shame if you hid your head and cried. I don't want that. I just don't want you to make crappy Euro games that think they're Ameritrash games and then end up sucking on both counts. And the game really is incredibly pretty - prettier than both Ghost Stories and Battlestar Galactica. However, both of those are incredible examples of cooperative games that rock my face off, and Witch of Salem is an example of a gender-confused game that doesn't know if it's a man or a woman (or Euro or American).
Very Euro-style cooperative game
A few interesting elements
Never really gets to the point that all the parts come together
Theme gets lost in nonsensical rules
Way too easy
Not bad, but not as good as a lot of other cooperative games
If you're a Cthulhu fan and like cooperative games, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Witch of Salem. And if you like this site, and read it with any regularity, you know what I'm going to ask you to do - buy from Dogstar Games. Without them, this review simply would never have happened, and so the best support you can give Drake's Flames is to buy from Dogstar Games.
Posted by Matt Drake at 10:50 PM