Back in 2009, when I first started writing for GeekDad, I reviewed a game called The Isle of Doctor Necreaux. It’s a cooperative game about exploring Doctor Necreaux’s trap-filled volcano lair, finding the world’s top scientists (who were kidnapped to work on a doomsday device), and then finding the escape shuttle before a bomb explodes and destroys the island. Well, designer Jonathan Leistiko is back with a second edition of the game, now on Kickstarter. Are you ready to save the scientists—again?
At a glance: The Island of Doctor Necreaux is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, and takes 30–90 minutes to play (depending on number of players, difficulty level, and so on). It is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge of $40 for a copy of the game, or $15 for access to the Print and Play version. Since it is a cooperative game, I would say that you could play with younger kids, though they may need your help with the rules. There’s a ’50s pulp sci-fi flavor to it, so there are monsters and traps, so you may want to preview the cards if you have squeamish kids.
- Game board
- Speed marker
- Draw marker
- Countdown marker
- 50 Charge tokens
- 12 Hit tokens
- 12 Experience Point (XP) tokens
- 3 Unstoppable tokens
- 76 Adventure cards
- 2 Special cards (Scientists and Escape Shuttle)
- 4 Secret Cache cards
- 26 Skill cards
- 11 six-sided dice
Note: since my review is based on a pre-production prototype, art and component quality was not final. There is some finished artwork, but you’ll also see a lot of placeholder logos. See the Kickstarter page for the most updated information. I know the gameboard itself is getting a design overhaul, so that will look quite different, and the game won’t be using generic plastic pawns as seen in the photos here.
The cards are a bit text-heavy—skills tell you how to use them, and each one functions a little differently. It does mean a good deal of reading throughout the game, especially when everything is new to you; I know some players who don’t like that style of game, but I did feel that for the most part the text was clear. Many of the monsters have keywords in bold—there’s a reference for all of the keywords on the back of the instructions so you can easily look them up.
The completed artwork that I’ve seen is fun, with that ’50s sci-fi feel to it. I really liked the style of the illustrations in the first edition, but there was only artwork for the Skill cards and monsters—the traps, rooms, and items had generic illustrations. This edition has full-color artwork, and nearly all the cards are unique. I did appreciate the ethnic and gender diversity I saw in the new version, though, at least in the cards with completed artwork.
The cards are also numbered: Leistiko has plans to release pre-generated scenarios that will use the numbers for setup purposes. I do hope the numbers end up a little bit larger in the final version, though, because they’re pretty tiny.
The original game (published by AEG) came in a pretty small, narrow box. It looks like this one will be a bit larger, though I don’t have the exact dimensions. I’m hoping it’s not too big.
How to Play
You can download the rules here.
The goal of the game is to find the scientists and get away in the escape shuttle before the countdown clock reaches zero.
Each player starts with three Skill cards that include attributes like “Heroic,” “Tech,” and “Psychic,” and various abilities. Some abilities are automatic, like “+1 on all combat die rolls,” while others require you to spend charges to activate them. For your first game, there are recommended starting sets for each player. The cards will indicate whether they start with any charges on them.
Your Skill cards also serve as your health: each card is worth two hit points—the first time you use a card for damage, it flips face-down, disabling it and making it inactive. The second time, you discard the card entirely, losing the skill for good. Run out of cards, and you’re eliminated from the game—your special cards (Scientists and Escape Shuttle) get transferred to other players on your team, but everything else is discarded.
There are ways to get more cards, though—you earn XP (usually through failure), which can be spent to purchase new Skill cards: the cost is 2 XP for each Skill card you currently have, so it gets more expensive if you’re healthy and cheaper if you’re dying.
The Adventure Deck is shuffled, and then the Scientists card is shuffled into the middle third, and the Escape Shuttle is shuffled into the bottom third. For your first game, you also add a Secret Cache card face-up in between each of the thirds. The Secret Caches make the game a little easier, and in later games there are different setups to increase the difficulty. For your first game, you’ll also group the deck into thirds based on the card numbers, but for future games the entire deck will be shuffled. The countdown marker start depends on the number of players.
As a team, you decide each turn whether to move or rest. Resting allows you a chance to heal, recharge a card (flipping it face-up if it had been turned face-down) or add a charge to a face-up card, and take a peek at the top Adventure 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. Set the Speed marker to indicate your chosen speed, and then use the Draw marker to keep track of how many cards you’ve drawn. The turn will usually last until you’ve drawn as many cards as your current speed.
As you play, you will encounter all sorts of things, most of them nasty: Traps, Monsters, Events, Rooms, and Items. For Traps, somebody on your team will need to make a speed check, rolling two dice and comparing it to your current speed. There are traps that trigger if you’re going too fast, or going too slow, and there are even some that make each individual player test their speed. If the team takes damage, you usually get to decide as a team how to split up that damage—but keep in mind that flipping cards over for damage means you lose access to those abilities. If you trigger the red text on a trap, suffer the consequences—but at least you do add 1 XP to the pool.
Event cards usually give you a choice: one player must make a particular test, or everyone takes damage. The tests will refer to a particular trait, such as “Psychic.” The chosen player rolls two dice and then adds the number of times that trait appears on their active Skill cards. If the total is 10 or higher, they pass: flip all your cards face-up and then draw a new Skill from the deck. Otherwise, you take damage equal to one of the dice you rolled, and then add 1 XP to the pool.
Doctor Necreaux’s island is full of very cool items that can be extremely useful. But he’s not going to just let you walk in and take them. They go into the “Monster Loot” pile when drawn, and you’ll have to successfully defeat monsters to get them. Like the skills, some items have ongoing effects, and some are one-time use cards that will be discarded after you use them.
Monsters always have a number of hit points equal to the number of players on the team (though there are effects that remove you from a team temporarily, so that you don’t count). To hit a monster, though, you must roll higher than its Combat Value (CV) on your two dice. Every player on the team will roll their dice, and for each roll that’s higher, you do 1 point of damage. For each roll that’s lower, the monster damages the team. There are a lot of different monster effects and abilities, too. Parasites attach themselves to you and cause terrible effects. Relentless monsters go back into the deck after you defeat them. Durable monsters have extra hit points.
You keep fighting until the monster is dead, or until you decide to run away. If you kill a monster, you get to take cards from the monster loot equal to its loot value. If there isn’t any, the team earns 1 XP instead. If you run away, every agent takes 1 point of damage, you discard the monster and all cards in the Monster Loot pile, and the team gains 1 XP. Oh, and your turn ends immediately regardless of your speed. Like I said, nasty things here.
At the end of your turn, whether you explored or rested, you move the countdown marker one space closer to 0. If it hits the last space before you find the Scientists and the Escape Shuttle, the island blows up and you lose.
The rulebook has instructions for scaling play to make it easier or harder—where to put the Secret Cache cards (which are helpful) or whether to use any at all, drafting Skill cards at the start of the game, reducing the countdown timer, and so on. There’s also the “Uncertain Countdown” variant, where you start with 3 fewer steps, but then when the countdown is at zero, you roll a die at the end of each turn—if it’s a 6, the island blows up and it’s Game Over, but otherwise you get another turn. You can also make the game shorter with fewer cards, and you can play with up to 5 agents, though it’s not recommended for inexperienced players because the game will go fairly long.
Before I really jump into the review, I have to say that I was pretty amused reading my review of the first edition, because the world of tabletop games (and my experience with them) has certainly changed since then. I remarked that there weren’t very many fully cooperative games (Pandemic was about a year old at the time). Kickstarter had just been founded that year, and the tabletop industry had not flocked to it yet. Jonathan Leistiko published free print-and-play games on his website, Invisible City, and in 2010 launched the very first Kickstarter project I ever backed, for a game called Inevitable. (It was one of the first tabletop game projects on Kickstarter, and was a totally different funding model than what we see now.) So when Leistiko got in touch with me and said he was Kickstarting a new edition of Doctor Necreaux, I was all ears.
I really liked the game the first time around: my verdict was that the rules were a little confusing and there was a lot of luck, but I really liked the theme and the challenging cooperative play. There was a lot of variety in the various skills, monsters, traps, and so on. I wondered: how would I like it now, 8 years later? Have my tastes changed?
One big difference is that this time around my kids are old enough to play with me. My 10-year-old has played a couple of games, and even my toddler has joined our team—after all, it’s fully cooperative, so we can help make decisions and she gets to roll dice (or decide to run away from monsters when she’s “Stealthy”). They’ve both been enjoying it, though they need me to explain how to resolve the cards, particularly the monsters.
And the game itself has changed a bit from its original incarnation, too. Aside from the new artwork and better (and more) components, there’s an intro scenario to and clearer ways to increase the difficulty for experienced players. Also, most of the tests and challenges use two dice now, whereas the first edition used single dice. That gives a different probability curve, and changes the decision process a bit when you come up against a monster. Facing a 3 CV monster with a single die isn’t exactly equivalent to facing a 6 CV monster with two dice. The XP system is also new: it’s like a consolation prize when you fail at something, because at least you’re learning from your mistakes. Learn enough (by making enough mistakes) and you could acquire new skills.
Playing the game, I did feel that it had the same familiar vibe—we ran into things that we were scared of, we waffled on how quickly we should move, we struggle with how soon to spend our precious charges. I had to pull out the old version to really see what the differences were because it had been a while since I’d played, but I think the new version has a nice balance to it. It’s still hard, for sure, but it does feel like you have a little more control over your fate. While there is still a lot of luck involved, there are many cards that help you manipulate your die rolls.
I said in my review of the original that the game isn’t for everyone—I mean, what games are, really?—but in this case you have to be okay with rules-heavy cards. The variety that comes from every Skill being able to do different things means that each card has to have the explanation on it. To keep the monsters from feeling like they’re all the same other than CV, there’s a slew of different traits they might have, so you have to refer to the guide for those. Some people may not have the patience for all of that—those are the sort of people who wouldn’t survive very long on Doctor Necreaux’s island.
The theme is a lot of fun. There are all sorts of tropes thrown in, like sharks with lasers on their heads, giant wasps, sliding walls, rolling boulders, zombies, and more. It’s pretty much everything you’d want to find on an evil doctor’s volcano lair, but you should be prepared to die a lot. The game isn’t designed to be easy, and if you keep winning … check the rules because maybe you missed something.
If you like cooperative games and you don’t mind the text-heavy cards, buy a ticket to The Island of Doctor Necreaux and see how well you fare. The world is counting on you!
For more information, visit the Island of Doctor Necreaux Kickstarter page.
Disclosure: I received a prototype of this game for review.