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).

Yours truly,

Matt Drake


Flat-out gorgeous
Very Euro-style cooperative game
Great theme
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.


Matt Drake said...

One more thing - Enrique, Dogstar Games is sending me Shadow Hunters.

Anonymous said...

How the hell did you win this game? Or better yet, what the hell did we do wrong to make us think this game is unwinnable?

Matt Drake said...

I don't know. Maybe one of us is doing it wrong. But I've never had the least bit of trouble winning this one. I tried it a few times to make sure I understood what I was doing, but it wasn't ever even close. Nobody died. Necron never even made it to the first corner. We had shadows twice, but we snuffed 'em easy when Craven went to Miskatonic and we just sent whoever had a knife. We made sure we killed the witches, so that we didn't lose track of the open breaches, but then we hardly ever saw repeat monsters anyway.

No idea what we did different, but I can tell you that this was the most boringly easy cooperative game I ever played. I'm going to see if I can trade it for something I actually want.

Urazoid said...

Hi there. To put the crap politiness aside - can you post a short review on games that you play in between the review sessions? I mean, games you play fot yourself (friends, family). From time to time you touch'em in your reviews, but i'm not that mad to readthru all of your stuff to find out, what you play for pleasure... )))

Will u spend half'n'hour to answer the man's question?

P.S. if my english suck, it's probably because i'm russian...

P.S.S. Why do i wonder in a first place? Well... I find your blog a place where criticism is damn close to idiotism. That makes a point for me, seemes you know good stuff when you see one.

P.S.S.S. No offence for P.S.S. ))

ninthdoc said...

A review read is multiple pennies saved! :)

Matt Drake said...

Urazoid, no offense taken... I think. I'm not entirely sure you didn't call me an idiot, but then, I'm also pretty sure that if you did, you didn't do it on purpose. At least that's what I'm telling myself.

I don't know that I'll spend an entire article on it, but here's a quick list of some of the games I play on a regular basis:

Dominion - this game is the cat's pajamas. We play the unholy bejeezus out of this one.

Blue Moon - my wife and I really like this little 2-play card game. I'll review it soon, probably this week.

Ghost Stories - man, this game is fun. Hard as hell, but fun.

Summoner Wars - if you like games at all, you should get this one.

Runebound - I take an unreasonable amount of flak for liking this game, but my whole family will play and I enjoy myself. Sue me.

Risk, any flavor - I'm a total Risk whore. I'll try any Risk game at least once, and I love the new Risk, 2210 and Star Wars. Balance of Power is also pretty darn cool - great for two players.

Warhammer Quest - This doesn't hit the table anywhere near as often as I would like, but we do enjoy the crap out of it.

D&D Adventure Game - Since my son got to cool to play games with us, we don't play this as much as we used to, but it's a hell of a fun game.

This list could get long. There's Nexus Ops, Cosmic Encounter, Warlord, Colosseum, Railways of the World, Heroes Inc, Pitch Car, Last Night on Earth, Dice Town, Claustrophobia, 10 Days in Europe (or Asia), and probably another dozen games that hit my table at least twice a year.

I'll be completely honest, though - I play new games more than anything else. Most times, I don't have time to play old stuff. I have to play review copies if I'm going to write about them. I could quit getting games tomorrow and have enough to enjoy for the rest of my life. But then this would turn into the most boring game review site EVER.

Urazoid said...

Thank's a lot, Drake. That's quite inuf (how the hell is it written?) for me. You helped. And besides - you're not an idiot. For sure :)

Enrique said...

Awesome! Glad to hear that.

Anonymous said...

well, i think you played salem wrong. we played this game multiple times and not even came close to winning. were two to four players, playing the german version. maybe sth went wrong in the translation?

Pete said...

Dude, Drake, I am moving back to Texas just to live near you. This is ridiculous.

Our list of favorite games is almost identical, and Runebound is my all-time favorite game. My wife and I play it at least twice a month, either as a standalone or with one of the expansions.

I may end up trying this bloody game just to see the art. I'd love to see you put some pics of the art or some board layouts in your blog, seeing as people send you free shit and so I don't have to wade through the fuktards at BGG like King Cocksucker Octavian in order to read more about the game and see pics, but I understand that some games do not deserve more than what you already provide.

Maybe trade this to me, bro!!??!?

Anonymous said...

i think i know the error: necron HAS to come to the first corner or you lose. or something like that. i will look it up, as soon as the guy who has the game is back from holiday.

Anonymous said...

No, that's not it, guy. If Necron DOES make it there, you're all screwed harder than a pig in Alabama.

I do agree that this is wierd, though, Matt. I acquired this game from a very dear friend who said it was easy, and we found it to be a bloody pariah.

I think I know what you MAYBE did wrong, if you did. The portals can't be closed on the same turn that you use the glasses to SEE them, and thus you have to play at least 3 turns per person to get a portal closed.

Here's the deal:
1. Start at M.U. and go to a portal.

2. View the Portal (using an item)

3. Go back to Miskatonic U, or another location if you plan to use your Secret Passage to get back to the Portal location.

4. Go back to original location and close it.

I'll bet you played that you can close the portal on the same turn you view it, as that would make it a ton easier. If not, you should look into a career at the NSA, decoding Russkie communques or've got to be a crypto genius like that kid from Mercury Rising..