Unlock!

Unlock!

Unlock! is back with a new trio of pseudo-puzzle rooms for you and your friends to solve. Why does this review only handle the first two of them? Two reasons.

1. The first two were readily available for play and review, whereas the third was not.

2. If the first two are any indication of the third’s quality, I want no part of it.

Spoilers, btw.

If you’re familiar with the Unlock! games, the basic gameplay needs no introduction. (If you’re not, there are numerous explanations online; all you need to know for now is that some of them are quite good, and this review is not indicative of the series as a whole.) The storylines of these two are pretty much what the box art suggests.

  • Night of the Boogeymen puts you in a position to help a young boy defeat the boogeymen around his room and finally get some sleep.
  • Scheherazade’s Last Tale shows the famed Scheherazade in need of one more tale, just when she’s run out. She needs you to find her artist friend and bring back the one story she needs to be free.

They start out fine. You have basic puzzles, hidden numbers, all the normal design elements of an Unlock! game. As has become common with these games, Boogeymen has another piece: a flat sheet of paper with some colored dots that look like gems, and teeth. (Scheherazade sticks with the old formula of cards with numbers and letters, and nothing else.) Most puzzles are pretty doable, some are tricky, a few are aggravating, but that’s not the problem; one person’s incomprehensible mess is another person’s easily-sorted problem, which is why you play with friends.

However, both of these suffer from a flaw so massive it signals either a change in designer, a severe drop-off in playtesting, or both: the ability to reach a point where you need a certain item or set of clues to proceed, and you simply… don’t.

Again: spoilers. As minimal as possible, but on some level spoilers.

In Boogeymen, the end-game scenario takes you away from the normal app and on to a new screen. It’s kind of cool; that part isn’t the problem. The problem is that in order to make sense of the final puzzle, you need another set of clues, and you can skip those clues by deciding to use the pieces that lead you to the final puzzle first. Once you’re on that last screen, you can’t go back to the app, so you can’t even look for hints on other cards you might have left. By all appearances, you have to go after the final puzzle with what you have, and you can very easily not have what you need.

Scheherazade, to my disappointment (because I like the tale), is worse. There’s a puzzle where you can go in a few different directions (ie. take a few different cards). The way the puzzle is set up, you have one correct answer; if you’ve ever played an Unlock! game before, you know that wrong answers are penalties. If you solve the puzzle, you have no reason to pursue the other answers.

However, you come across an obstacle for which you need a certain item. If you know anything about these stories, there’s an excellent chance you’ll figure out what type of item you need. However, you have to get that item from one of the “wrong” answers to that previous puzzle. It could be clever, if done well; setting forth a section where there appears to be only one thing you need, then hiding something else inside it, is nicely tricky and not a bad idea at all.

Scheherazade, though, asks the players to do a couple of things that don’t make sense. First, it makes them go “backwards” in the game timeline. You do the puzzle well before you come across the obstacle that requires this hidden item. The way the story progresses, it does not at all appear like you should be able to run away from the obstacle, get the item, then come back. Furthermore, people are risk-averse; giving them a situation that looks for all the world like a penalty, then making them figure out it isn’t, is a hard pull. There’s an excellent chance that if people figure it out, it’s only through hints, having literally no other options, or both.

On the other hand (speaking broadly, not about this puzzle specifically), if you put an obstacle down that the players can’t pass, then give them the puzzle with the item they need hidden within, there’s a much better chance they’ll make the connection. Maybe they felt that made the game too easy; it’s a 2 out of 3 in difficulty rating. But making people jump around incoherently through the storyline you’ve built doesn’t make for good puzzles. It’s just confusing.

Boogeymen isn’t bad, especially when you play with the paper. Scheherazade is a mess. Get someone else to buy both of them, if you can.
2.8 out of 5 stars (2.8 / 5)


Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror

Arkham attempts to not get transformed into Tentacle Ground Zero for the third… seventh… twelfth… however many times across however many games. Because, in the end, barring the greatest luck, no matter if you’re playing Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, or whatever other Cthulhu game is out there, Arkham, and the world, are destined to fall.

But cheer up! You usually find an interesting way to die. Just look at Old Man Henderson.

This is the third edition of Arkham Horror, and it marks a massive departure from the first two. Gone is the massive board displaying the glory of Arkham, the kind of board that (along with the many, many peripheral pieces) requires a legit gaming-friendly table to play. In this game, Arkham consists of five hexagonal tiles, each representing a neighborhood. Like the neighborhoods in the other versions, each one has three locations, with encounter cards for each neighborhood split into the three locations, so this edition manages to basically maintain the number of places you can go while containing it to a much smaller area.

However, the game’s functions are largely similar to previous Fantasy Flight Cthulhu games. You take two actions per turn, performing no action no more than once; movement is limited to two spaces, though there are ways to extend that; and monsters are a roadblock unless you manage to evade them. The game moves in phases, investigators first, and if your character dies, you pick up a new one and keep going.

The main changes (besides the style of the board) are with the characters and the storytelling. Every character still has a familiar set of stats, albeit familiar from Eldritch Horror, not the slider system of old Arkham Horror. However, improvements to stats are called focus, and boosting a stat through focus doesn’t require a special event or item; you just take the focus action and raise a stat. The limitation is that almost every character has a limit on how many focus tokens they can have, and almost every character can only have one focus boost in a given stat. Still, the ease of ramping up your character is nice. Furthermore, focus tokens can be discarded for rerolls, which adds to the strategy in their use.

The storytelling is… different. It’s better, mainly, since the old game didn’t really try to tell a story at all. In this version, there are story cards that see use depending on the scenario you’re playing. The scenario card tells you which cards to start with, but from there you have to dig into the deck to find whatever the initial cards say you need, which is generally dependent on game state. Did the investigators complete their goal? Take one card. Did too many doom tokens pile up before that? Take a different card. Some goals can both happen, and eventually you’ll get the cards from both sides of that equation. Each scenario has its own set story, so if you play one through, you’ll see the same one coming next time you run it. But it adds a nice flavor to the proceedings, especially on your first run through any given scenario.

Like all FF Cthulhu games, there are a TON of cards and tokens that you need to keep track of for potential use. If you didn’t mind it before, it’s no worse; if you hated it before, it’s no better. What does suck is that there is basically nothing to help you sort or organize all those pieces. There aren’t nearly enough baggies to keep you from dumping a bunch of stuff into the box loose, which makes finding everything the next time a huge pain in the ass. It’s a relatively small problem, at least in the sense that you can fix it with a handful of your own baggies, but it’s a dumb oversight.

The game itself is a definite improvement from the old Arkham Horrors. Mind you, that’s on the most objective level possible—the storyline aspect means it’s basically impossible to wind up in the six-hour slog that a big game of old Arkham Horror could become. The game runs like other Cthulhu games in style and pace; if you enjoyed those games on a basic level before, you’ll probably like how this one palys as well.

Minimizing the space taken up while not carving off any substantial part of the game is extremely impressive. I saw back of the box and immediately questioned what kind of nonsense they were pulling, but it works, and it definitely feels like Arkham Horror. That said, the smaller physical space taken does mean that a bigger (5-6 player) game can get cramped with stuff. The same concept with bigger hexes would have also taken up much less space, but with room to place everything you need in any size game, not just 2-4 players. It’s more a quality of life issue than anything with the game itself, but unlike the baggie problem, this isn’t anything you can change.

Basically, this is an updated Arkham Horror that makes some things better and nothing worse, unless you require an epic board to have fun. If that’s a need of yours, I can’t help you.

4.3 out of 5 stars (4.3 / 5)
Stuffed Fables

Stuffed Fables

Stuffed Fables is called an ‘AdventureBook Game’. This is the first of its type from Plaid Hat Games. When you open the box and see a big spiral book full of stories taking up more space than anything else, it might immediately bring to mind Above & Below or Near & Far. The box cover alone, however, makes it clear we’re dealing with kid-style stories, and likewise the game follows a simpler (read: more linear) path than either of those two.

The directions are easy: Read the book. Passages in italics are story for the current bookkeeper to read to the group. Regular text involves gameplay. Don’t move forward from the section you’re on until something in the game tells you to do so. As long as you know a few core rules, that’s all you need to run the whole thing.

Let’s split this between the gameplay and the storytelling.

—Gameplay. Every character has its own set of abilities, although each starts with the same amount of stuffing (health) and hearts to power their abilities. Characters usually have at least one ability that nudge them towards using certain types of items, though they can use anything they want.

You start a turn by drawing five dice from a bag. White dice potentially give you extra stuffing. Black dice are threat dice, which can trigger enemy minion turns or other negative effects. Other dice can be used for actions specific to that die’s color, or for a few general abilities not connected to a color (mainly movement or storing dice for a later turn). Non-boss enemies have one hit point; beat their defense with a roll and you KO them, earning a button that can serve various purposes later. Bosses have hit points equal to the number of players in the game, but you hit them the same way, by rolling higher than their defense. Other icons on the board can give you other stuffed animals to talk to, merchants to deal with, or push the story forward.

The gameplay is about as good as it needs to be for a game like this. The best mechanic is the ability to choose how many dice you roll to attempt specific tasks. In most cases you’ll want to roll as many dice as you can, or (if for some reason you have a pile of dice you can use) at least enough to just about guarantee success, but having the option not to do that and instead take multiple shots at a task with worse odds is good and I’m glad they offered it. Needing specific colors of dice for certain tasks, but having to pull dice from a bag each turn, is a recipe for annoyance, but the ability to save dice for later, or give friends dice to use on their turn, does a fair bit to alleviate issues created by randomness. Skill tests and group tasks can be failed, but you should usually have a much better than 50/50 chance to succeed.

Perhaps the highest praise for the gameplay is that it’s good enough while also not overshadowing the story that is the selling point. Speaking of which…

—The story. When we opened the book, the first thing that came up was, do we actually have to read this kiddie garbage to each other? Once the gameplay aspects came in, though, we got over that, and everyone read without feeling weird about it by the end. It’s also a little darker than someone might expect—not original Grimm Brothers level, but not shiny happy Disney stuff either, no matter how the first page of the story book might read. The first story revolves around the animals retrieving the blanket of ‘their’ child from little spider monsters with doll heads. If you look at the little spider monsters with doll heads and don’t buy into the creepiness that exists here, you’re probably not going to buy into the whole theme. And those are the lowest-level threats.

More generally, if you can buy into stuffed animals coming to life and running around (which is a relatively common idea), you can perceive the threats to their well-being. Yet stuffed animals don’t die; they can give stuffing to each other, including if one of them hits zero. Having all the animals flatten out (literally) is a loss; we didn’t get anywhere near that point, but the idea of it feels pretty sad.

It can feel odd to be an adult, reading these stories to other adults, but they’ve written and paced it all in a way that lets you get into it. It helps that the art and miniatures are really nice, so you know exactly what characters are running around the maps.

—The overall. Pretty good gameplay, solid story. Sounds like winner!

Eh….

Playing through a story is enjoyable. You go through the process, have a good time, and think, man, this is fun, I’d like to do this more. Then you get to the end and… nothing. There are different endings available depending on how the story plays out, one better than the other, but once you hit the ending, that’s it. There are eight stories available; like a legacy game, there’s not much point to playing them multiple times unless you’re trying to introduce someone new to it, but there’s no legacy aspect. Nothing moves from game to game. I mean, you could house rule it so your characters keep their items, but they’d become incredibly broken.

It feels a little odd to criticize the game for only having eight stories to play when Time Stories starts out with only the one, and that’s quite popular. The difference I would draw between them is that Time Stories is a mystery to be solved, so once that happens you naturally wouldn’t have a reason to play it again. Stuffed Fables is a game that makes you want to keep seeing new stories, just like you would want more work from an author you like, with sufficient gameplay but not enough to make you want to re-run anything. Some people may get through all eight and decide they got their money’s worth; others will think there should have been more. I have no good advice for how to decide which side of that line you’ll fall on. It helps if you enjoy crisp art and excellent miniatures. That’s all I’ve got.

Score: Six crawly doll heads out of eight.

Scroll Up