Reviewed by Joe Huber
Scratch House (Manifest Destiny, 3 to 4 players [solitaire rules provided], ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; 4000¥ [about $35])
One of the most appealing aspects of the Japanese school of game design is the wide variety of themes encountered. From mapping the coastline of Japan to picking out Cinderella to collecting ostrich eggs, along with various fantasy themes and more traditional historical themes, the number of settings encountered seems to be more varied than in European or American games, even with fewer total releases.
But even given that variety, I was thrilled to discover a new Japanese game, designed by Kuro, themed around the Winchester Mystery House. The house, located in San Jose, California, was built by the widow of William Wert Winchester, of Winchester Rifle fame, who was told by a medium that she had to continuously construct a house for herself and the spirits of those killed by the rifles. After visiting the house, I was inspired to try my hand at a game themed around the house, but it was too much of a brain burner to go anywhere. Scratch House, while inspired by the Winchester Mystery House, actually uses more of a Japanese setting, with the focus being on making a house in which spirits can wander.
Each player starts with a single bedroom, and five spirits. Each turn then consists of five steps. In reverse order based upon the number of victory points, players choose one of four groups of rooms, with 1, 2, 2, or 3 rooms, and a spell dealt next to that group of rooms. Each spell breaks the rules of the game in minor ways. Rooms have between 0 and 4 exit doors, and must be built such that they can be entered from an existing, completed room. Each room has a base construction cost, in time, with an additional cost based upon the distance from a bedroom and a further cost when building a second or third room in the same turn.
After all players have built the rooms they wish, each player gets to remove time markers from all of their rooms under construction; the more rooms received, the fewer time markers removed. Then each player gets to have spirits explore their house – always starting in a direction required by the game, and known a turn in advance. Players get points for each room visiting, can get points for visiting rooms of a single color, and can even escape from rooms with no exits by triggering effects in other rooms or through the use of spells. Each new bedroom visited provides additional spirits, increasing scoring opportunities.
Finally, each turn ends by clearing off any rooms and spells not taken, determining the initial direction of travel for the turn after next, and setting the new turn order. If any player reaches 60 points, or if the direction cards run out, the game is over and the player with the most points wins. The game is typically for 3 or 4 players, but a solitaire variant is including using additional information on the direction cards
The most important aspect to my reaction to Scratch House was my delight at how well the game captures the feel of building an unusual house, with one-way doors and the need to visit various bedrooms (corresponding to the Winchester widow’s practice of sleeping in a different bedroom every night). The setting isn’t San Jose but the feel of the game captures the inspiration incredibly well. The odd rooms, the one-way passages, even the need to start in a particular direction, all help the game to feel like the Winchester Mystery House.
In addition, Scratch House is a clever game; there’s enough control to provide interesting choices, particularly when combining the room features with the spells. There’s a puzzle aspect to the game that, while not appealing for everyone, adds a depth to the proceedings to bring gamers back to play the game.
There are a number of limitations to the game, however. First, for many, is the limit to the interaction – only the selection of rooms and spells offers any non-solitaire elements. And, of course, the leading player has no choice in a four player game and thus no opportunity to impact the other players. This leads to another concern I’ve heard expressed: the rules make the ordering of actions clear, allowing the lead player to limit their scoring if they feel it’s important. However, the natural inclination is to do scoring simultaneously.
The production of the game, while nice and typical for Japanese games, also leaves something to be. The scoring markers aren’t quite in the player colors, making it difficult to keep score accurately. And while the inclusion of elements for solitaire play might be appreciated by those who enjoy such activities, they tend to confuse the multiplayer game as there are elements present but unused. The choice to make the time markers double-sided, with 1 on one side and 3 on the other, works well but makes it easy to accidentally disturb the game state.
Of course, as with most Japanese games, it’s currently difficult to obtain in the United States, and expensive if you can get a copy. It does benefit from a typically small box, though this also makes it more challenging to put away than a typical German or American game. English rules are readily available, and reasonably simple to understand, though an assumption or two needs to be made on some fine points.
When I heard about Scratch House, I knew I needed to try the game. Personally, I’m very happy with the game; I’ve quickly built up five plays, and am looking forward to more. However, I’m nearly the ideal audience for the game as I’m fond of many low-interaction games, generally a fan of Japanese game designs and, most importantly, really interested in the Winchester Mystery House. So while I love the game, I would be very hesitant to recommend that others pick it up unless, at a minimum, they are already interested by the idea of a Winchester Mystery House game. The game still has enough interesting features that I’d suggest trying it if one has the opportunity unless put off by the lack of direct interaction; I just suspect the audience for the game is smaller than for many recent Japanese releases. – – – – – – – – Joe Huber
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