October 22, 2009

Witch of Salem review

by Susan Rozmiarek

Witch of Salem is a cooperative game for 2 - 4 players that is based on stories by Wolfgang Hohlbein set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft's mythos. The designer is Michael Rieneck and it is published in an English edition by Mayfair Games. Players are helping Robert Craven, the powerful Witch of Salem, close the portals located around the city of Arkham and to banish the Great Old One imprisoned in the underwater city of R'lyeh. Opposing them are the evil magician Necron and hordes of evil creatures.

The Goal

The players win the game if they manage to close all the portals and banish the Great Old One before the Necron marker gets to the end of the track. There is only one way to win, but like other cooperative games, plenty of ways to lose. Besides the Necron marker getting to the end of the track, the players lose if the marker gets to a certain point and the all the Great Old Ones cards have not been revealed or if there is only one sane player left. The final way to lose is if a wall, not a portal is mistakenly closed.

The Stuff

The game board is gorgeous and does a great job evoking the atmosphere of a spooky town. It shows seven numbered locations in Arkham. Six of the locations have an artifact symbol showing the artifact needed to close a portal there, a spot to put a single creature card, and three spots for items that are randomly drawn from the bag. Some item spots also show a cost above them. Portal tiles, which might either be a wall or an actual portal, are randomly placed facedown, one in each of these six locations. The seventh location, Miskatonic University, just has a spot for a single Great Old One card. The board also has a track for Necron's progress. There is one additional location, R'lyeh. Five Great Old One cards are placed facedown it and one is placed in R'lyeh. This will be the Great Old One that the players will have to banish to win the game.

Players each get a wooden figure and a matching player board. The player board has places to hold three items and one artifact as well as a track for sanity. Each player also gets a set of movement cards. All the players, as well as the Witch, start at Miskatonic University. The starting player is given the creature card deck and the player to his right is given the event deck.

The components are all of great quality although the cards do not have the linen finish that I prefer. The art is fantastic. The playing figures are wooden, Victorian "meeples" painted in the player colors. The Witch figure is rather odd as he is white and resembles a snowman to me. The color rulebook is only four pages long with numerous illustrations and is easy to understand.

The Game Play

Each round begins with the starting player, who remains the same throughout the game, flipping one or two creature cards, depending on the number of players. The number of creature cards flipped is the way that the game is adjusted for different numbers of players. Each player will then take their turn in order and the round will end with the last player flipping an event card.

On a player's turn, he does the following actions IN ORDER (this has a huge effect in the game):

1. Play a location card and move figure to that location on the board. The players each have a single card for each location plus a secret passage card that can be used for any location but at the cost of one sanity point. To get used cards back in their hands, players must go to Miskatonic University.
2. Trade with another player at that location if desired. Artifacts can not be traded but all other items can.
3. Encounter a creature if one is there. (explained below)
4. Use one item. Glasses allow you to look at the portal tile, elixirs give you one sanity back, Necronomicons reveal a Great Old One, Daggers kill creatures if the Witch is present, and artifacts close portals. Items are discarded after use.
5. Pick up and pay for an item at that location if desired. Some items are free, but others cost sanity, move the Necron marker, or cause an event or creature card to be drawn immediately. Whenever the last item is taken from a location, new items are drawn from the bag to refill the spots.

An event card is drawn after the last player finishes his turn. The Witch is moved clockwise the number of locations indicated on the card and an event occurs that could be either good or bad. After the event is resolved, a new round begins with the starting player flipping a creature card(s).

Players spend the game moving from location to location, defeating monsters and collecting various items that they need. Each location shows which artifact is needed to close the portal there if the facedown portal tile is indeed a portal and not a wall. To peek at the tile to see what it is, you must use glasses. However, if it turns out to be a portal, you can't close it this turn because you've already used an item. (See how the action order is important!?) Since you must move each turn, you have to move away and come back later. You can't immediately return unless you have your secret passage card as you must go to Miskatonic University first to get back that location card. Since you cannot tell other players whether or not you found a portal, another player cannot just come right in after you and close it themselves without going through the same process of looking at it. So, closing portals is not as easy as it sounds and cannot be done quickly. Oh, and remember that the players lose if a wall tile gets accidentally closed. You can't just use an artifact without checking to see if it is a portal unless you are willing to take that risk.

Meanwhile, the players have a relentless stream of monsters to dispatch. Each location can hold a single monster. If they are all full, the drawn monster is simply discarded. This is a nice, lucky break, but if all those spots are full, players are in deep trouble anyway. There are two of each type of monster in the deck and if the second one comes out, there is a severe penalty, listed at the bottom of the card, that may include moving the Necron marker, losing items collectively amongst the players, or losing sanity. It's crucial to keep down the number of monsters by going to locations and defeating them. To defeat the creature, you simply have to have the items in your inventory that are listed on the creature card. If you have them, the monster is discarded and you even get to keep your items. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly. You first have to roll the loss die when you encounter a creature and take the penalty shown which may be losing the item pictured, losing sanity, or moving the Necron marker. So, you might lose one of those needed items before you get to use it. Once again, action order is crucial. In this case, the monster stays and you now have to get the lost item again and return which will take at least two turns. The same frustrating situation can happen if you lose your glasses from the loss roll and can't peek at the portal tile which may have been the reason for coming to the location in the first place. The very random loss die rolls were the most frustrating thing for me with this game. A few bad rolls seemed to completely doom the players, at least in the games that I've played.

Another thing players need to worry about is revealing the Great Old Ones around R'lyeh by using copies of the Necronomicon, an item. Otherwise, they'll lose when the Necron marker advances to a certain space on the track. Events will bring a revealed Great Old One to Miskatonic University and players will have to deal with it just as any other creature. Even worse, though, is that the text on the Great Old One's card then goes into effect and it is usually a devastating hindrance to the players until that Great Old One is defeated.

I have yet to even come close to winning this game, although I've only played a few times. The following things appear to be key:

Using the Witch's advantages as much as possible. If he is at your location you do not have to roll the loss die. You also have an alternative way to defeat the monster by using the dagger. Also, you can regain two sanity with an elixir instead of just one. However, since his movement is hard to predict as it is determined randomly by event cards, getting his help isn't always possible or convenient.

Careful management of your location cards. Going back to Miskatonic University to get them back into your hand is otherwise a wasted trip. There are no items to get there and you can't close the portal there until all others have been close. You may however, want to try and defeat a Great Old One, if present. So, using as many of your location cards to do useful things before returning to MU seems to be the optimal plan. Unfortunately, as stated before, the loss die can totally screw up your careful planning.

The game is an uphill battle with lots of tension and frustration. If you lose all your sanity, you are out of the game. If too many players go insane, you all lose. If the Necron marker advances too far, you all lose. And as you can see from my description above, there are all kinds of way to lose sanity and advance the marker. So, how do you win? Well, not having come close myself, I haven't gotten to see the final endgame bit. But, according to the rules, once all the other portals are closed and the Great Old Ones revealed, one player uses his secret passage card to travel to R'lyeh and hold off the Old One there by having the required items in his pack. Meanwhile, another player travels to Miskatonic University and closes the final portal there. He must accomplish this in a speedy fashion because the player in R'lyeh loses a sanity point per round. If he goes insane, he is out of the game and somebody else will have to go to R'lyeh to attempt the banishment.

The Verdict: Good, but not great

Initially, I thought this was going to be a lighter and shorter version of Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games. This had me excited as Arkham Horror is one of my very favorite games but doesn't get to the table much due to its length and complexity. It turns out that the similarities are very superficial and Witch is more in the class of cooperative games like Pandemic and Ghost Stories. It doesn't have nearly the immersion and roleplaying feel of Arkham Horror. Despite that, Witch of Salem invokes the atmosphere of its theme fairly well for a streamlined Euro-style game. I enjoyed it, but at times it felt a little too frustrating. I'm hoping that more plays will reveal clever ways to overcome some of the randomness of that hateful loss die. I'm doubtful about that, though. Like most cooperative games I've tried, I've become obsessed with playing it until I win. I'm a little worried that it may be a while before that happens as we haven't even come close. Putting a positive spin on that, I guess that means it has a lot of replayability for me. If you like shorter (hour-ish), family-style cooperative games, I can easily recommend Witch of Salem with the caveat that the difficulty caused by random factors may frustrate some players. But surely you didn't expect defeating a Great Old One to be easy, did you!?

Note: My copy of the game is a free review copy.

Posted by susanroz at 10:43 AM | Comments (1)

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