It may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers, but the best part of reviewing games is not the free games. Of course, that's pretty awesome, even if it is sometimes a little tough to get people to send me review copies after I compare their last game to skin disease. But it's not the best part.
The best part is all the friends I've made because of it. I have more friends now then I have in my entire life, and I can point it all back to writing about games. For instance, at GenCon, one of my closest friends called me while I was in my booth and told me I needed to haul ass over to Ovation Productions to get a look at what he said was the best game he had played at GenCon. He had been chatting me up to the people in the booth, and he scored me a review copy. Now that's a friend - paving the way for me to score a free copy of his favorite GenCon game.
Apparently, my friend did not play many games at GenCon this year.
The Tower of Mystery is a... well, OK, hold on. It's not a kids' game, exactly. It's not really a heavy theme game, unless your theme is what the world would look like on psychedelic mushrooms. It's also not an abstract, because you're supposed to be exploring this tower and picking up all the wacky treasure, which includes mostly Tower Bucks and cards that spell 'TOWER' (I swear I did not make that up).
I guess The Tower of Mystery is really a bizarre Chutes & Ladders clone that mostly resembles an acid hallucination. There are seven towers, all round, with spaces to land where stuff happens. There are four turrets, and you have to get to those turrets to collect turret tokens, and you also have to get the cards that spell the magic word (which in this case is TOWER. Yeah, watch out Houdini). Then you sit in a turret and declare that you have everything you need, put it in front of you, and shag ass for the door.
Now, so far, this is just kind of a wacky Ravensburger-style game. But it gets super-crazy when you see what happens on all the spaces. Like the hot air balloon that sends you to another room in the tower (that happens a lot in real life - you're just walking around some medieval ruin, and the next thing you know, BAM, hot air balloon). Or you can pick up Tower Bucks, or Mystery Cards, or maybe you can lose them. Maybe you look at all of another players cards. Maybe you draw one of the incredibly random and flailingly bizarre Turret Cards, which probably doesn't affect you since you're not in a turret when you land on it, unless you actually are in a turret - and if that confuses you, then welcome to the party.
Moving around the board is also pretty darn random. You roll two dice, and they have numbers and colors, and you might move some spaces by the numbers, and you might just skip to another spot, or you might just roll a 'park your ass' result and not go anywhere, in which case you have to do whatever you did last turn. All the towers are round, so you have to start off by saying which direction you want to go, then roll, then find out you should have gone the other way. There's an optional rule that says you can roll first, then pick your space, and I would totally do that if you play this game. In fact, when I was playing Tower of Mystery with my friends that night, I wish we had used that pick-your-space rule, because man, this game can get long if nobody musters up a win.
There's so much totally random crap on this game board that you may wonder what kind of people would play it. The game sells itself as being a hundred dimensions of fun, and I confess to wondering what those dimensions would be. It's not that I didn't have fun - I did, which is freaking amazing, given the plethora of mistakes made by the game's designer. It's just that I don't even begin to understand how you have 100 dimensions of anything. Do they just mean that there are 100 different spaces where random crap can happen to you without you having any control over them? That can't be it, because there are only like 30 different effects (which is about 25 too many). I can't figure out the tagline at all. Maybe I need to smoke more peyote.
The real problem with The Tower of Mystery is not that it's a bad idea, because it's not. It's got a ton of potential. The problem is that it's about as focused as a cloud of fruit flies on a rotten canteloupe. It just meanders all over the place and never gets anywhere. There's a lovely amount of player interaction, but good luck controlling it. There are a few interesting decisions (mostly timing and direction of movement), but they get snowballed by the stupid crazy crap that can throw you into complete maddening frustration.
While we're discussing the way this game wanders around like a drunk teenager in Ensenada, let me run past the graphics for this sucker (I'm running because I don't want to go slow enough to get any on me). These guys most certainly should have hired an illustrator and a graphic designer, unless they did hire an illustrator and a designer, in which case they should have those people shot. The board looks like it was built in SketchUp and finished off with crap the designer found on ClipArt.com. It's so busy it will hurt your eyes. None of the icons look like they go with the other icons. Basically, the graphics work was a monstrous failure that somehow ended up looking confusingly charming.
Possibly the worst part of The Tower of Mystery is how poorly it was tested. The guy in the booth assured me that it had been play-tested extensively, but I have my doubts. It seems like it might have been played hundreds of times - but just by one guy who was smoking a blunt and listening to Pink Floyd while he watched Wizard of Oz. There are rules completely missing, scenarios that contradict each other, and no balance to the cards - you might get a couple you can use to win the game, or you might have 25 cards and nothing you can use. The game needs a maximum hand size, some consistent icons, reworded text on the cards, and a lot more fixin' besides.
Now, after doling out a beating on The Tower of Mystery, allow me to make this one qualification - we did have fun. That surprised me, because I can't emphasize enough what a disaster this game is. We had to house-rule a couple scenarios that got left out of the rulebook, but we actually got a kick out of seeing what horribly stupid thing would happen next. Some Mystery Cards were ridiculously overpowered, and some were worthless, but they were all fun. We didn't really care who won or lost, since we had virtually no control over the process, but it was a blast continually undermining each other with cards that would completely ruin our flimsy, half-baked plans. We even had one case where I got hit with a screw-you card that blew my plans, but somehow accidentally gave me all of my buddy's money. Maybe we were just punchy from being up late, but this was a stupid bunch of mindless fun that we all enjoyed. I don't know how many times I was laughing until my eyes watered, holding my sides and saying, 'so stupid!!'
So it's really great to have made friends who would get me free games, even if those games do totally suck. I would be a liar if I said The Tower of Mystery was a good game, but it is fun, and it will probably be a big hit with kids, especially if they have head injuries that impair their judgment.
Random, silly game with lots of chances for dopey fun
Fun - half in spite of being so stupid, and have because it's so stupid
All that chaos means you're not likely to see the same game twice
Undeniable charm, like a retarded kid who smiles a lot
Meandering and unfocused
Feels untested and sloppy
Really poor visual appeal
If you want to play a wacky game that gives your kids a chance to stab ol' Dad right in the kidney, you can get a copy of The Tower of Mystery right here: