Given my usual abhorrence of co-operative games I’m not entirely sure why it was that Witch of Salem from Mayfair games originally crept on to my radar. Perhaps it was the theme, and the recurring description of “Arkham Horror lite”. Perhaps it was the art. Perhaps it was some personal comment or other that I’d read somewhere about the original German edition “Der Hexer Von Salem” (perhaps the only instance I’ve come across where the German name of a game is actually better than the English translation). Whatever the reason, Mayfair kindly agreed to provide me with a review copy so I could check out whether or not this would be a rare co-op title that would get a positive reaction from me and my gaming group.
The game is set is some re-imagined version of the Cthulhu mythos. The players take the part of investigators who must help the (actually benevolent) Witch of Salem defeat the evil sorcerer Necron and the weird, bubbly, squid-like things from another dimension that he wants to let into this one. It’s a pretty simple game to learn and play and you should have no problem running through the rules and getting pretty much everything correct on your first play through. There is a game board with six “active” locations plus two special ones. Each active location has a space for three items you can collect, with the higher spaces incurring a penalty of some sort, a face-down portal tile and a space to house a monster. Each turn starts with a monster being drawn: if there’s a copy of the monster already on the board bad things happen: otherwise the monster goes and lurks at an empty location. Each player is then forced to move by playing a card from the location deck, meaning they can’t re-visit a location until they pop back to Miskatonic University (one the special locations) to get all their cards back. Once at a location the player has to face any monster there by rolling a die, which may result in a negative effect, and can then banish the monster if they’re carrying two items which match those on the monster card. Then they can use a single item they’re carrying (discarding it), and pick one up from their current location if they so wish. The turn ends with an event card which can be good or bad, and we start all over again.
The object of the game is to find out which of the Great Old Ones Necron is trying to summon and banish it (by having the right combination of three items) before he manages to finish the spell. Necrons’ progress is marked by a track around the game board and his counter is advanced by some events, some monster die roll results and nearly all monster duplicate effects. There are six Great Old Ones in the game and five start face down - the players must turn each face-up by using a “Necronomicon” icon in turn until they reach the final one before they can win. These Great Old Ones can also cast baleful effects onto the game board through certain event cards. To win the players must also find open portals - by using another of the in-game items that allows a player to look at a portal - and seal it with a different item: get any of these wrong by sealing a non-portal space or not sealing a real portal and it’s bye-bye game. Players can also loose by taking too much sanity damage. The final piece of the jigsaw is the Witch himself who moves randomly around the game board and offers benefits to players at the same location: he protects from monster damage and makes item use more powerful.
What I’m hoping you’ll have picked up from that brief rundown of the rules is that although there are a relatively few rules to the game, there are a lot of different situational aspects of the game to manage. And it’s a good job too: when I first looked at the game with it’s paltry 12 event cards and 26 monsters I thought this was going to fall seriously short on variation, one of the keys to making a successful co-op game. But as it turns out I was wrong: the simple mechanics interact with each other to produce a great deal of variability in the game situation, more than enough to keep the game going over repeat plays. There’s just so many balls to keep in the air that a single, identifiable “correct” course of action is rarely obvious. The phases of the round fall in such a way, for example, that you banish monsters before you pick up items: so, if you go to a location in the hope of picking up an item to banish a monster next turn you’re almost certainly loosing the opportunity to pick up something that might be useful now such as a set of magic glasses to check the portal at your current location. It’s kind of hard to describe to be honest, but there’s a lot of these sorts of interactions going on. This is probably the cleverest feature of the design, and badly needed too because too often the stripped-down approach to mechanics that Euro designs favour leave co-op games in this paradigm looking more like logic puzzles with solutions than a game which requires a continually evolving strategy to cope with a changing situation. In co-ops, that sort of mechanical stagnation is an absolute killer to replayability as well as encouraging the ever-present alpha-dog “bossy player” problem that ruins so many of these sorts of games.
Witch of Salem has another trick up its sleeve to aim at alpha-dog players though. When a player looks at a portal tile, he’s not supposed to communicate the information about what’s underneath to his fellow players. If not everyone is in possession of the full information regarding the game state then no-one can find a “correct” play, right? It’s a clever idea but unfortunately in reality the mechanic plays out in a very clunky manner. In practice players can’t help but to give big clues as to what they found under tiles by their very actions, or by unintentionally dropping hints as part of the normal group discussions that are the bread and butter of co-op play. We found ourselves continually stopping to wonder what, exactly, we were allowed to say to each other regard the hidden portals and what we weren’t.
I’ve seen a lot of comments on this game regarding the level of inherent chaos. In addition to random card draws from two decks, there’s a capricious dice that can really screw you if you’re very unlucky by depriving you of a item you need to banish a certain monster. Personally I think this sort of chaos is entirely necessary in a co-op game to stop it descending into the aforementioned logic puzzle, and besides which I think the level of randomness in this game is largely controllable through skilled play. Card counting on the monster deck will leave you able to focus on the critters whose duplicate has not yet appeared, and sensible item collection mitigates the effects of the dice. What can make a huge difference are the “shadows” of great old ones that can go and haunt the University location. These are extremely baleful and their appearance is controlled by the event deck: if you’re unlucky enough to get an early shadow, or get a new one right after banishing an existing shadow then it can pretty much cripple the game. But these sorts of issues aren’t massively common and the game is pretty short anyway: most games will end within 60 minutes, so the odd game thrown to the rabid dogs of randomness doesn’t really rankle very much. The game plays from 2-4 and scales pretty well: if you play the game as written, it’s actually quite a bit harder with just two because there’s three different kinds of artefacts and each player can only carry one. But this is easily solved in a 2-player session by having each player play two characters. I also found you can make a pleasing solo game by controlling two characters and leaving aside the rule disallowing communication of portal status: the two-artifact thing makes an excellent compensation in terms of keeping the difficulty stable.
And by all accounts, the game is difficult to beat. Some people seem to have found it rather too difficult and viewed this as a problem because the learning curve is so steep they are discouraged from further plays rather than inspired to the challenge. Personally I haven’t found it to be quite so impossible - I’ve beaten it a couple of times, and I’m pretty sure we weren’t playing any rules wrong (there aren’t that many to get wrong). It seemed to me to be pitched at a satisfying difficulty level for the genre, and indeed the presence in the rulebook of some suggestions for making the game harder would indicate that good players should be able to keep up a sensible sort of win rate and might want an extra challenge.
So far, so good. Where the game starts to fall down somewhat is the theme. It’s not badly done, certainly and some of it works very well. The artwork is very good and adds greatly to the atmosphere and the game traces an overall narrative arc that you can follow if you so wish. But the devil here is in the detail. Why, for example, can you character not revisit a location until they’ve popped back to the University? Why, for that matter, do they have to move every turn? Why can’t a character with portal knowledge communicate the information to his fellows? The theme isn’t helped by the slightly silly and generic items in the game: in particular I found I couldn’t deal with a pair of “magic glasses” without mentally imagining Joseph Smith and the golden plates of Mormonism, which totally ruined whatever tension the game was generating at the time.
However what’s worse is what I can only describe as an overall blandness about the game experience. I find myself pleasingly immersed in the game while playing, and as I said the events of the game could certainly translate into a passable story, but there’s simply very little memorable that comes out of it, or indeed anything uniquely compelling about the mechanics or the play experience. It’s fun enough, but there are no great moments that will make your group collectively panic horribly and inspire some awesome creative solution, or some seat-of-the-pants risk-taking decision that everyone will be talking about for weeks to come. This criticism may be unfair of me: it may come from a semi-inevitable subconscious comparison to Arkham Horror in generates those sorts of moments by the dozen. But I kind of feel it’s important in a co-op game to make up for the lack of red-blooded completion.
This brings us nicely on to a paragraph about comparisons with other games. I keep hearing people suggesting, hoping perhaps, that this game is Arkham Horror “light”. It isn’t, and even if the whole concept of ”Arkham Horror light” wasn’t a contradiction in terms (which it is) the two games are wholly different and share only a loose theme and a co-operative approach. Arkham is a pseudo-RPG on a board, while this is simply a Lovecraft-themed mechanical Euro. A better comparison, and one which I’ve also heard a lot, is with Ghost Stories. Both are short, simple, Euro-esque co-operative games with a relatively high chaos factor and a horror theme. At first glance you might think that Ghost Stories has the edge here with it’s greater variability of set-up and tighter thematic integration. But I actually prefer Witch of Salem. I found that Ghost Stories was ultimately torpedoed by a definite threat gradient of the different ghosts in the game which encouraged rote, “correct strategy” responses and let the alpha-dog out of his box again. I was also annoyed by the fact that you could effectively win or loose the game before you’d even moved a pawn, depending on what incarnation was waiting for you at the bottom of the ghost deck. Neither is a problem in Witch of Salem, making it a more attractive game to play from my point of view.
I quite like Witch of Salem. It seems as though the designer and I shared some common criticisms of the co-op genre and for the most part I’m pleased with the solutions that he implemented and the game very much seems to pander to my prejudices regarding the co-up genre. But part of what I value in this game is most certainly the fact that it fills a niche in my gaming life that was hitherto void: it’s the first quick-playing co-op I’ve found that I haven’t grown bored of after more than a couple of plays. Those of you who enjoy the whole co-op thing more than I do, or who aren’t as worried about games being spoiled by bossy players may find that you already have a game or two around that will fill this role for you, in which case I’m not sure there’s anything particularly noteworthy about Witch of Salem that should make you rush out and buy it. For everyone else - particularly for anyone that’s ever agreed with one of my articles about the evils of co-operative gaming - you may find sharing a board with the Witch of Salem a more attractive experience than you might imagine.