At some point I may backtrack to our Fourth of July Game Night, in which we played the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game for the first time, but as yesterday is fresher in my memory, and will give me a chance to bash two games for a change—one that I generally like but has become monotonous, and another that I have always disliked despite my general appreciation of its theme mash-ups—I’m jumping on that game night first.
This was our first long game night in a few weeks, and we were able to get in a good game selection that included Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. We hosted for a change, and made a huge pot of potato soup with vegan cheese sauce to drizzle on top, as well as homemade rolls, and our friends brought their recent crop of homemade cider and a vegan cake. Our house isn’t as cool, so to complete the backdrop, you have to imagine the constant sound of two wall air conditioners and all of our celing fans.
First we played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which we have found enchanting since we started playing it late last year. Now that we’ve played it about eight times, the spell is starting to wear off on me, and while I still enjoy it, I’m beginning to find the placing of black tiles unrelenting, the haunt too easy to defeat, and, most importantly, it’s a co op game that doesn’t inspire co op play until the Haunt forces it. That it’s a co-op game which doesn’t inspire co-op play should be obvious to anyone else that has left a fellow player writhing in webs in order to open a different door and hopefully find an item. This happens every time the Webs Event Card is drawn in our gaming group. Many of the RPG games that Betrayal at House on the Hill is based upon (e.g. D&D and Call of Cthulhu) get criticism online for creating a style of game play humorously referred to as “murder hobo,” the definition of which you can find by clicking the preceding hyperlink, and Betrayal at House on the Hill seems to have found a more alienating formula of co op play, as even “murder hobos” work together as a group to kill the monster and grab the loot, while Betrayal encourages the group not only to split up, but to ignore the needs of the others. Betrayal at House on the Hill may have been a better game if it kept what was excised from its RPG simulation: a game master, to encourage the cohesion of the group. This may be why every time we play this game, I think of playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.
There’s also been an unpleasant sense of deja vu that I have played something like it before, and I realized yesterday that Betrayal is just a more intelligent version of the Dungeon boardgame. Dungeon also destroyed the strongest aspect of RPGs like D&D by removing the game master from the game and requiring a style of play in which everyone is out for themselves. While in Betrayal acting independently isn’t required, but only strongly encouraged by the game dynamics, in both Dungeon and Betrayal I see a strong parallel, in that the effects of removing the game master from a RPG are similar in both. Do I find it slightly existential that in removing the authority from a RPG, there is no reason for players to be good or to act as a group? Yes, I do, but I’ll save that for another essay on the intersections of what I call Amoral RPGs (RPGs without a GM) and Existentialism.
All this said, in the face of my growing consciousness of the repetition of black tiles and the unsatisfying co op element, I did enjoy this game, and it did surprise me for once by having the Haunt (#42) win for the first time. An unlucky Haunt roll no doubt contributed to this win, as we were only 45 minutes into the game before a player rolled a 5 on eight Betrayal dice when the Haunt score was at 6. As the Haunt was revealed early in the game, we had few items and almost no useful Omens to battle the traitor, who found us easy pickings. This was gratifying to me, because after an unbroken seven-game winning record against the Haunt, I was beginning to wonder if the game was weighted too much in favor of the players.
Generally, our gaming group is pretty agreeable, and we play things that we all like, which may give you the impression that I am too nice in my Game Night summaries. The truth is, however, that I am like everybody else in the fact that I have negative opinions about some things, including a few games that we have played. This can be awkward when the game is a gift from our game-playing friends, and my wife thinks it is wonderful, so my ongoing strategy to conceal my shameful loathing of this generous gift has been to make suggestions to play better games. In fact, the best implied criticism of this game that I can make is that there are SO MANY better games that this has been successful for about seven months. Yesterday the eventual train wreck finally happened, and I found myself staring at the most underwhelming theme mash-up in recent tabletop history, Munchkin Panic. It was on my table like a vile, poisonous, beast, and as I didn’t feel Panic, but Dread at the amount of my life that it would suck away, I suggest renaming it the more apt Munchkin Dread. And, in the spirit of critical honesty, I’m going to call it Munchkin Dread not only for the rest of this review but for the rest of my life.
Why the contempt for Munchkin Dread? Basically, I consider it a crime to underwhelm, and I can’t find enough of the splendidly over-the-top hilarity of Munchkin in Munchkin Dread. Where’s the Munchkin in Munchkin Dread? I can’t find it. There’s Munchkin art crammed onto the cards, but as the card text is dull and humorless, they’re not anything like Munchkin cards. A mash-up should be a natural fusion of two games’ themes, and not a superficial dressing up of crammed content.
Additionally, I am a big fan of co-op games, the best of which create a sense of drama by making the game board mutable and untrustworthy (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island), or by having cascading events (Pandemic). Compared to these great co op games, there is no drama and lots of tedium in the sliding of 39 monsters, and a half-dozen curses, towards your castle walls, and the presence of a Huge Rock in the bag of baddies makes me think of the myth of Sisyphus and wonder when the game will end.
These are pretty acidic criticisms, and just to be clear that Steve Jackson Games have given me some happiness in my life, from Car Wars as a teen to Gurps in college to Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and Adventure Time Munchkin in recent years. But Steve Jackson himself could not sell me on Munchkin Dread. Which is not to say that I won’t play it again, as it has three fans in our gaming group.
While in our first game, it was obvious that the honeymoon was over, and the second game was one for which I have never had any illusions at all, our third game of the night, Catan: Explorers and Pirates, already my favorite way to play Catan—-the game I love to hate and hate for loving it—was such a refreshing change of pace that I felt a wave of relief. Even as I felt the wave of relief, I knew it for the cliche that it was, but that did not stop the cleanness and purity of the feeling that I was happy to be playing a seventeen point game of Catan.
Yes, we picked the longest scenario in the box, so we were using the all three of the leader boards: Pirates, Fish, and Spices. Due to time constraints and wanting to play other games, we have only played this scenario one time before this. I forgot how much space it takes up on our table. The last scenario in E&P is so immense that I don’t think it would fit on our friends’ game table without us going without drinks and snacks, and we’d have to use an end table for the game resource bank.
I went gung-ho into this game with off-board play, which I’ve mentioned before at length. To reiterate, in every version of Catan you can score points both on the board in the forms of settlements and cities or harbor settlements, and off the board in the form of other scoring opportunities, which in basic Catan are Longest Road, Longest Army, and Victory Point cards, and in Catan: Explorers and Pirates are the one to three points you can get on the Pirate, Fish, and Spice leader boards, plus the one point bonuses you can get from the Best Fisher, Best Spice Merchant, and Greatest Pirate Scourge cards. Catan: Explorers and Pirates makes it even easier to focus on off-board scoring, because you don’t have to worry so much about creating more resource-producing settlements due to the fact that when your numbers aren’t rolled you get gold.
Given an opportunity of three sidebars to focus upon, I focused on Spices, as each Spice obtained comes with an in-game bonus, and then I focused secondarily on Fish. I entered one Pirate battle just to get 1 VP off of that leader board, although from watching the other players go at them I realized just how much faster a player can climb up that board than the other leader boards. It takes six spices or six fish to get to the top of the Spice or Fish leader boards, but if you’re lucky or a good planner, you can get to the top of the Pirate board with only three battles. I may implement more Pirate raids in another game, but I will have a hard time prying myself away from the more immediate advantages of the Spices.
The most important Spice hexes to reach are the ones that give you +1 Move, as when you have both of these hexes locked down, you have a 6 Move instead of a 4, which then makes it easier for your ships to get other Spices, more Fish, and drop off crew to battle Pirates. Some players might not see that there’s much of a difference between a 4 and a 6 move, but over time it adds up so that it’s the difference between moving your ships 36 hexes over six turns instead of only 24. After those two, it’s good to have at least one of the hexes that allow you to trade a resource for a gold once a turn. As I only used three bricks in the entire game (one road, one settlement, and one settler), I used that throughout the game for the alchemical trick of changing brick into gold.
Fish require some careful planning to capitalize upon, as you have to keep an empty ship somewhere equidistant from as many Fish-producing hexes as possible in order to do well on that leader board. As two of the players rarely sent out empty ships, that meant there were only two players on the Fish board for most of the game, although another player managed to get one in on their last turn.
I won the 17 point Catan: Explorers & Pirates scenario with 9 points on the board and 8 points off the board: three harbor settlements, three settlements, three points on the Spice board, two points on the Fish board, the Best Fisher card, and the Best Spice Merchant card. For most of the game, I had only five points on the board, two harbor settlements and one settlement, as I wanted to ensure that I was getting as much gold as possible. So my weak production funneled into my strategy. Gold is more versatile and can’t be taken by the robber/pirate ship, and if I needed a resource, I simply bought one.
Overall, it was an enjoyable game night. While I had the most fun playing Catan: Explorers and Pirates, playing the other two games added to my understanding. For instance, my avoidance of Munchkin Dread had become something like a superstition in that I no longer remembered why I didn’t want to play it, and playing it yesterday made me a lot more conscious of the good reasons why I dreaded it. Additionally, heckling something distasteful can be a way of enjoying it and redeeming the wasted time. In a way, I found the game I hate a more profitable experience than the one that I love, which is no doubt a common feeling among critics. My usual tendency is to write about things that I like, but as the format of my Game Night recaps forces me to talk about all the games that we play, even the ones that I don’t like, I’m finding that I enjoy just as much writing about the bad games as the good ones. That said, I’m still a game player, not just a game reviewer, and I look forward to playing more games that I like.
Catan: Explorers & Pirates Expansion 5th Edition
Betrayal At House On The Hill – 2nd Edition