The diabolical Doctor Necreaux is up to his old shenanigans: he captured the world’s top scientists and forced them to build a doomsday device on his secluded hideaway (a volcano, naturally). When he demanded that the world bow to him, however, a small team of specialists was sent in to plant a bomb deep in his island fortress. They planted the bomb and then were never heard from again.
That’s where you come in. You (and up to four others) are a crack team of specialists, sent to find the scientists and hop in the escape pod before everything blows up. Sound like your idea of fun? Then you should take a trip to The Isle of Doctor Necreaux.
I like cooperative board games, but there aren’t a whole lot of them. (Many games feature partial cooperation, either with two teams, or one large team against one person.) So when a friend of mine tipped me off about Doctor Necreaux, I went to BoardGameGeek and looked it up. It turns out that the game designer, Jonathan Leistiko, is an active member of BGG, and he was generous enough to send me a copy of the game to play. (Leistiko also has a website, Invisible City, which has a big collection of print-and-play board games.)
The theme, as you can see from the description above, is an homage to your 1950′s action fantasy flicks. Even the artwork on the cards has a sort of Buck Rogers feel to it, which is great. The game is for one to five players, and plays pretty quickly, roughly 40 minutes for a game but it can vary greatly depending on whether you die horribly. It’s recommended for ages 14 and up; I don’t think there’s too much that’s inappropriate for younger players, but the gameplay might be a bit tricky for most pre-teens.
The object of the game is to survive a trip through the deck of Adventure cards and find the Scientists and the Escape Pod before the countdown timer reaches zero. The Adventure deck consists of Monsters (bad), Traps (bad), Events (mostly bad), Rooms (good) and Items (good, but you have to fight monsters to collect them). The countdown timer, seen in the photo above, goes up to 23, but most games start at 12 or fewer turns to start with, which makes the game plenty challenging.
The game comes with 75 Adventure cards plus the Scientists and Escape Pod cards; 33 Character cards, three dice, a countdown board, and a pile of tokens used to track “charges.” It would have been nice to have a few more dice (if you’re playing with five people, you quite often need at least five) but I have plenty of them around anyway, and you can make do with three if need be. The cards are nice and hefty, with a glossy finish that makes them easy to shuffle. The cardboard tokens and countdown track are sturdy but nothing special. The artwork is wonderful, although I wish some of the traps and events (which have just a standard one-size-fits-all illustration) had more artwork. In fact, probably the only art I didn’t really care for is the cover of the box, with its glowering Doctor Necreaux—it makes it look like more of a horror theme and might be easily passed over. The box, by the way, is fairly small and just right for the components, and (a plus in my opinion) quite portable.
The rulebook is pretty small and easy to read. There’s just enough flavor text to spice it up, but not so much that it distracts from the actual rules of the game. And as a bonus, they’ve included several variants which tweak your character choices and difficulty of the game, and you can always make it easier or harder by shifting the countdown timer.
My one complaint was that there are a few aspects of the rules that are a little more confusing. In particular, one key aspect: each player is one “team member,” with various character attributes (represented by the Character cards). The first couple times I played, I thought each Character card was a “team member,” which makes a lot of the gameplay much harder than it actually should be.
One nice thing, however, is that since Leistiko is on the BGG forums, he does respond to player questions and can give clarifications on rules. If you’d like to take a look, the full rulebook is also available on BoardGameGeek.
Each player starts with three Character cards with attributes like “Heroic,” “Tech” and “Psychic,” and various abilities. (There’s even an Ninja! But no Pirate.) Some abilities are automatic, like “+1 on all combat die rolls,” while others require you to “discharge” from your limited number of tokens. With 33 Character cards, there’s a lot of variety, and some combinations of cards work better than others.
Depending on the number of players, you start with eight to twelve turns on the countdown timer. Then, as a team, you decide each turn whether to move or rest. Resting allows you a chance to heal, recharge a card, and take a peek at the top card (and, if you choose, move it to the bottom of the deck); however, it does cost a full turn on the countdown clock and those quickly become very valuable.
If you choose to move, you select a speed, which determines the number of cards you’ll need to flip before you can stop and regroup. As I said before, there are a lot of Very Bad Things that you’ll encounter. Traps can either cause you damage, end your turn, or require you to increase your speed; most traps come with a speed check, where you’ll need to roll either higher or lower than your speed depending on the trap. There are also a wide variety of Monsters with differing Combat Values (CV), and different abilities. (The Gargantuan Reanimated Cyborg Ape, pictured above, doesn’t have any special abilities, but with a CV of 6 it’s one of the nastiest of the bunch.) Combat is fairly simple and resolved with die rolls, but the combination of Character abilities and Monster abilities gives the encounters a lot of variation. Room cards are generally good, but your success with them often depends on what teammates you have. Events are a mix of good and bad (mostly bad), but again the severity of the consequences can change with different characters.
The goal is to find the Scientists card (shuffled into the middle third of the deck) and the Escape Pod (shuffled into the last third). The trick is finding a balance of resting and moving which allows you to get through enough cards per turn, but not so quickly that it kills you.
The game is pretty heavily luck-based, from the Character selection to card order to die rolls, but it still requires a deal of planning and teamwork. I’m sure for a hardcore RPG fan the d6-based decisions will seem very simplistic, but for a game of this type I felt that there was enough variety to keep me interested. (Interested enough, in fact, that I’ve played about ten solo games and six to eight multi-player games since I received it a month ago.) However, for gamers who dislike dice and luck, this might not be the best choice. Outcomes can vary significantly: There have been some games where we’ve moved too fast from the get-go, and wiped out our team by the second or third turn. And there’s been at least one game where we won with several turns to go.
But there’s no question that it’s a tough game. Leistiko has commented that when he designed it he wanted the win/loss ratio to be about 1:3. What he hoped was that if you win, usually it’s on the last move, and I’ve found that this has usually been the case for me. It really fits the narrative: nobody ever makes a movie where the heroes win with several hours to go, right?
I’ve really loved this game. As I said, I’ve played it more than a dozen times, and most of the others I’ve played it with are ready for another game as soon as it ends. I will admit that it’s not for everyone, but if you like the theme and you haven’t played any cooperative games before, you should give this a try. And at only $25 retail (I’ve spotted it for $20 in some places), it won’t break the bank.
Buy it from the publisher or from your Friendly Neighborhood Game Store (if you have one).
Wired: A great beat-the-clock, rescue the scientists from the evil supervillain theme; cool retro artwork; tremendous variety in the characters and monsters.
Tired: Heavily luck-based, rules a little confusing at first.