[In this issue, we welcome first time contributor Ted Cheatham, a well known and well respected member of the gaming community. Ted is an avid gamer who helped start two game conventions, Gulf Games and Charcon. You can still see or listen to some of his older audio and video reviews on Boardgamegeek and Boardgamenews or even check out some of his convention coverage for Origins and GenCon. In addition to regular gaming, Ted also has a few games in print as a designer such as Captain Clueless, Carpe Astra, Gumball Rally and Silk Road. Here he turns his attention to a cooperative game of horror: Witch of Salem.]
Reviewed by Ted Cheatham
(Mayfair Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; $49.99)
I actually own the German edition of Witch of Salem and liked it enough to paste it up in English. The real question is, why? When I first heard of the game, it was touted as Arkham Horror in about an hour. Top that off with a great designer, Michael Reineck and I was sold. The fact that the artwork is by Franz Vohwinkel was an added feature.
Like many cooperative games, there are many ways to loose that add tension and a feeling of time dread and only one way to win….banish the old one and seal off all the portals. And, the game is driven by card decks and random portal set up so, the game is different every time. I can understand why some people don’t like this one as I have played many times and only won once. The game can be a little dry and abstract at its heart but, as players work together as the evil starts to move it can be a nice challenge.
Let me give a brief over view of the game. I will leave you to head out online to read the rules. The game is for two to four players and scales nicely by bringing on more monsters every round with more players. The board has really nice artwork and the cards provide the theme of evil things wanting to take over the quaint town of Arkham. There are seven locations on the board. Six of the areas have various items you can collect to assist you in your goal of sealing portals and killing monsters. These items get costly as you take them. You could be forced to loose sanity, bring out a monster, take a random event, or move the evil Necron toward the dimensional rift. The game forces you to incur these perils in taking items because the site will not refill until all three items at a location are removed. Since each item has a particular need and it gets expended when used for its special purpose, players must keep cycling items on the board.
Additionally, the six areas have a random portal either open or closed. Four closed portals and four open portals are mixed hidden and placed face down on the sites the remaining two are out of the game unseen. This unknown portal mix can be darn frustrating. The game would be much easier if you know at the outset how many portals you need to close. Also, although you can get items to look at the portals and then get artifacts to seal them up, you cannot share that information with your fellow players.
Add to this six great evil ones that can come into play. When activated, their power affects the game in a negative way until they are banished. Things like doubling losses, no good effects happen, no restocking items, or advance the Necron every turn….you get the idea.
Every turn more monsters come to inhabit the six locations (based on the number of players). These monsters raise your risk of visiting a location since you must roll a die and suffer the consequences of loosing an item, sanity, or advancing the Necron. If you are unlucky enough to draw a monster from the deck that has a duplicate on the board, a nasty thing will happen to you that could be a major set back. You must loose items or move the Necron and in some cases shuffle the non closed portals (this is pure evil if you know where open portals are and have not been able to seal them. Now you must find them again and waste valuable time).
Now that you have a feel for the peril of the game you know you will lose if:
The Necron moves to far without revealing the last great old one.
The Necron advances to the dimensional rift even if you revealed the last great old one in time.
You don’t close all of the portals.
You close an empty portal by accident.
You go insane….you need two people to win the game and if you are insane you are out of the game.
You must have one player with enough sanity to hold off the last great old one while another person goes to Miskatonic University and closes the last portal before any thing above kills you first.
If you think you are ready for the challenge, Mr. Rieneck has added another twist. You have a hand of movement cards. One for each location and a “teleport” card, which costs you a sanity to use. You must move somewhere every turn and once you use a movement card, you can only get it back by going to the University. So, you have to take at least three turns to look at a portal, leave, and come back to seal it.
What about the witch? It is called Witch of Salem. The theme is about the witch trying to stop the horror and you are there to help him. The witch moves with event cards that are drawn at the end of each round. There are good events and there are bad events (more terror to slow you down). The witch will add benefits to you if you are in the space with him. You can kill monsters with a knife and you don’t have to roll the die if there is a monster there.
The game from here is movement management, monster management, and item management. Movement management is about timing to kill monsters, collect items and use the special items. Monster management is used to cull the herd and keep a second monster of the same type from being drawn where you do not want to suffer the consequences. Also, you may need to kill a great old one to stop his power that affects the game. Killing monsters is very straight forward. If you move to a location and possess the correct items listed on the monster card, you kill them. This occurs only after you have rolled the die and I cannot tell you how many times the stinking die forced us to loose a key item we needed and were unable to kill the monster or take the action we move there to take. Item management is to collect items; glasses to look at the face down portals, knives to kill monsters, books to reveal the great old ones, potions to heal your sanity, and artifacts to seal portals.
All this said, I played the best game ever at Great Lakes Games. I am positive this is how the game was meant to be played. We got out way ahead of the game. And, I do think that the way the cards and events are revealed makes a huge swing in the game.
With one portal closed, two witches came out one after the other which shuffles everything and really messed us over. But, as I said, we were ahead of the game. I aptly pointed out that since this witch had come out, we did not have to worry about her again since there were only two in the deck. Mr. I understand these things. So, we moved on. Well, Craven came out, we reshuffled the deck and, Mr. I understand these things forgot the bad witch was still on the table and out she comes again. So, we have two portal reshuffles with some angry players.
I must explain that I suggested “house rules” when explaining the rules. Here they are. If you look at a portal, it is yours. Don’t take an artifact unless you need it. All of these things give hints to other players. So, we have one portal closed (there is a minimum of two and max of 4) and the evil Necron is headed up the track. If we don’t expose the ultimate evil dude, the last great old one, we are going to loose. Only one person has the item to expose him and on his turn does that. The next event would have killed us if he had not have done it. The tension is mounting.
Later, the minion is two steps from the dimensional rift and we are to die. Based on the house rules I explained earlier, and watching other players, I realized we were about to die. I suggested, I close a portal and we move on. Remember we only had one closed portal. Much discussion ensued as whether there were two or three portals. We all agreed there was not four. But, I had seen none. Since we were going to die shortly every one decided we should just go for it and take our chances. I had what I need to stop the great old one. Then, a monster comes out to cost everyone two sanity. This gives me one turn to stop the great old one while Trish, with one sanity, heads to the university to close the portal for the win. One die roll. She has one sanity. Only one in six chances to loose that sanity and us not to win the game as she closes the portal. And…..she goes insane and dies. What a close game and a nail biter all the way through. And, there were only two portals, we guessed correctly.
May all of your cooperative games work like this!
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