Now, something completely different. I have to admit that I have always liked Space Hulk, but not because it is hyped GW product, and somewhat(?) overproduced, and overpriced. I have liked it because it has interesting asymmetric challenge, and albeit there are severe design errors in some of the scenarios, they were generally very, very tense and pressing, in a good way. Well – this one is not about Space Hulk.
It is about Claustrophobia – a game that shares something with Space Hulk, but not as much as some people think. Yes, it is dungeon crawl, where team of poor humans attempt to accomplish something before certain daemons come around their way and finish the task prematurely. Some time ago, I thought of having a game that would be fun, quick and variable enough that it would remain interesting for quite some time. Certainly more depth than in Small World would be desirable, and that it would not have rulebook similar to ASL, nor as poorly written as one in Mansions of Madness. If price tag would be on the lower end, I would not mind either.
So, accidentally, while browsing a bookshelf in local game store, I stumbled into Claustrophobia along with some other notorious dungeon crawls. Owning Space Hulk I thought for a moment that it would be nearly the same, but having fantasy-medieval folks fighting daemons instead of armored baroque exoskeletons fighting demonic monsters, but luckily I was to be proven wrong. Very wrong.
Claustrophobia has actually the best value for money components I have seen in any game that uses miniatures for any reason. In fact, for many games miniatures are only hindrance, and have no real function, and in Claustrophobia they only add visual appeal. Modular board bits are fantastic, miniatures are pre-painted, so they look quite fine out of the box, unlike in most games that feature minis. Cards that are used for various functions are good quality and each player character has a stand, which is very, very unique idea indeed.
Rulebook is very clear, and in fact, it is one of the best written rules I have seen as far as error count is concerned. Apparently it has been proofread, and the game has been tested before it has been released because there is little counterintuitive things. In fact, basic mechanics of the game are so simple that your mind starts to make up more complex interpretations.
There are two sides on the game, on one side there are the humans, warriors such as redeemer, condemned brutes and blades. On daemon side there are troglodytes and daemons. So it is asymmetric, both sides have specialities, and their operating methods are completely different. Where daemon has the numbers, humans do not have superior skill, or superior firepower – what they do have is co-operation and mutual support, and if & when they do co-operate and mutually support each other, then they might just have the superiority needed.
So, it starts in a room where the humans have ended up, corridors are leading into the darkness, but nobody knows where to go to find a way out of the labyrinth – it is build at the time of the teams exploration and advance – for that, there is mechanic called “the breath of fresh air”. One opening somewhere is different than others, and 10 sided die indicated where the fresh air is coming from, the group can explore any opening, but only the one with fresh air will take them closer to the exit.
Daemon player has number of dice to roll to perform actions – depending on the die combinations, various actions are available for the evil turn. Cards can be bought, threat can be obtained, troglodytes can be sent down to the party, or daemons can be summoned. each activity has prerequisite, and while there is some randomness, it is the best kind.
Each human has six hit points, (or lines of action). For human player to do anything, he or she needs to roll number of dice, and then decide which action line each warrior uses by using the die scores. Action lines may favor attack instead of defense, or speed over neither of those. When hit, action lines become cancelled, and less and less options are available.
Daemons, by attacking humans and canceling their available action lines slow down the progress, and may cause some of the human warriors to became sitting ducks and easy prey. Trouble is, besides of when to attack, is it better to chew the humans with cheap troglodytes or attack them with limited daemons? Timing the attack, and preparing the way when humans desperately scamper for safety is major part of the fun.
Claustrophobia is one of those games that are hopelessly off balance, but in a best possible way still perfectly doable without tremendous strike of luck. In more often than not, the winning act takes place just a tiny fraction before doom and the tension that is build up is great. Games usually do not last that long, half an hour to 45 minutes is quite a norm and setup time is just minutes.
Claustrophobia is not a game that starts from symmetric situation, at times one side or other is in near hopeless pit and has but one way out. That, however is the strength of it and it is obvious that it does not please everyone, however Claustrophobia is less luck dependent than Space Hulk, and while both games have many, many scenario possibilities, claustrophobia has inbuilt unknown to it, and the map layout is never exactly the same.
Additionally, game designer supplements the game actively with additional scenarios, and there are at least two expansions – which are somewhat unnecessary because the base game is very, very versatile. it does even flex from two to three player game and probably even more, given enough imagination. It is just one of the best dungeon crawls ever made with quite unique ideas and brilliantly eloquent system.