House of Spirits (Designed by Mark Thomas, published by Lock 'n Load Publishing) has arrived just in time for the holidays--a spooky, competitive romp through a haunted mansion where players try and solve the mystery of the titular House of Spirits.
Each player takes on the role of an investigator, each with a set of individual stats and a special ability that's usually but not always a once-per-game affair. Players make their way through the mansion via a "Room" deck, with all players being in the currently revealed room simulatenously. When each room is revealed, there is a chance that monsters will appear, based on the number of skulls on the bottom of the card. The more skulls, the more dangerous the room and the more likely monsters are to appear. Each player rolls a die, and for each roll that comes up equal to or lower than the current number of skulls, a monster is revealed.
Then, item cards are revealed to bring the current number of revealed cards to the number of players in the game. For example, in a 4-player game, if 2 monsters were revealed, then two items are added to bring the total up to four revealed cards.
These items take the form of combat weapons, investigative aides, defensive boosts, and important items for unraveling the mysteries of the manor.
Each player then in turn performs one action, starting with the current start player. Those actions include picking up a revealed item, fighting one of the face-up monsters, using an ability or card that costs an action, "investigating" to be able to nab the top plot card from a separate plot deck, and attempting to play plot cards from hand. Certain actions in the game award points, and it's the player with the most points at the end who will be the winner. Dealing the killing blow to a monster is worth 3 points; playing plot cards are worth 3 points (with a 3 point kicker to the final plot card played, which subsequently ends the game as the mystery is solved); and deviously, healing another player is worth 1 point.
If there are an equal number of monsters revealed as there are players yet to take a turn in the current round, then their action MUST be to attack one of the face-up monsters. Combat is a simple affair--attacker rolls a die and adds it to their attack value, defender rolls a die and adds to their defense. If the defender fails to repel the attack, they suffer a wound. Assuming the monster survives, it then retaliates, reversing the process and infliciting a wound with a successful attack. There is a cool "overkill" element here in that if you can come up with an attack value that there is no way the monster could successfully defend against even with a maximum die roll, then the monster is immediately defeated and the three points scored. Again, this is important, because only the player dealing the final blow will be rewarded with the three points for the kill.
If at the end of a turn there are no face-up monsters, then it's time to move on to the next room, and a new room card is revealed and another set of rolls made to see if more monsters appear. Otherwise, new items are revealed to bring the number of face-up cards back to the number of players in the game, and a new round continues with the start player passing right, but play passing left (yes, you will likely screw this up at least once or twice during play. Don't worry, we did it too.)
Plot cards are the other major source of points and act as the timer on the game. These plot cards are aquired by a player taking the investigative action. They then roll one die and add their investigation score (plus any booster cards they wish to play to help them.) The top card of the plot deck is revealed, and if their combined score is greater than the investigative value of the card, it is added to their hand. Some plot cards can then, on future turns, be played from hand as an action, netting three points easily. Others require either a particular item or being in a particular room and making a die roll, so these are tougher to play and yet still only give the same reward. Once all seven plot cards have been successfully played, the game ends and scores are tallied.
Lastly, there are "Secret Objectives" for each player, and accomplishing these at game's end will net a fat 4 point bonus. These too vary in difficulty (example: end the game with fewer cards in hand than all other players) but give you something else to shoot for.
One thing I didn't note was that player "death" isn't really death at all but is a pretty severe setback, as you lose 2 points and all items in hand. If all players die in the same round, the game ends in failure for all players.
That's a pretty lengthy description, but that's the game in a nutshell. Move from room to room, kill some beasties, steal some items, screw other players over by taking things you know they want, or force them to deal with a monster and later vulture that same monster for the sweet, sweet victory points.
I'm not going to beat around the bush...the components of the game are not terrific. The cards aren't bad quality but they aren't the best either, and the imagery and text can be a little blurry on the cards. The art is nicely done, though.
You'll also need to provide your own dice, and some means of keeping score, and tracking wounds, both for players and monsters.
It also comes in a little double-sized cardboard box that will stand very little abuse before it's coming apart completely.
All this being said, the cards are functional, a lot of the art is very, very nice, and the iconography is fairly clear, though you may need to check the rulebook a few times to know exactly what some values mean (such as the + and - values on room cards, for example--these relate to the play of certain plot cards.)
I simply sleeved the cards, got some tokens and a fistful of six-siders, and put them all in a small little plastic plano, discarding the original flimsy box. This all seems to work very well. I would've liked to have seen some slightly better quality cards and maybe some chits or tokens for keeping track of certain things, but I'll live...after all, most of us have this stuff lying around anyway.
You know what? I like this little game quite a bit. It has a nice feel of being co-operative, and it's easy to get lulled into that sort of mindset, but the game itself is a one-player takes all competition. In that regard, there's plenty of opportunities to screw your fellow investigators over, either with certain cards you can play or even the special abilities of some of the investigators themselves. You can also take cards you know they'll need before they get a chance to nab them, or leave them to deal with a pesky monster, wasting their turn.
I like the exploration element, even if it is pretty abstract (we're in the guest room! Now, we're in the kitchen! Wait, we're in the attic!) Moving from room to room is a nice touch, even though it does lead to some gamey elements. You can't move on until all monsters are defeated..and in fact, if there are no monsters revealed at the end of a turn, you MUST move on, even if there are some juicy items or you'd rather wait another turn to try and get one of your plot cards in play. So sometimes you find yourself gaming the system, trying to find a way to stay in the current room, even if it means tanking a roll against a monster.
I really dig the theme, of course. The monsters are all your typical horror tropes but are nicely illustrated. My only beef with them is that few of them are truly, truly dangerous, and I think a lot of them should have had some additional game-altering ability on them to add more flavor. We have not even remotely come close to the "game over" situation where all players die in the same round, and I think for that to even be a danger you'd have to be in a four-player game and have bad luck, with everyone hitting a revealed monster roll. This hasn't even been a factor at all, and I'm not even sure if anyone had more than one wound at any given time.
I did find myself wishing there was "more, more, more!" Of course I want more monsters, more rooms, more plots, more items, but that's the crazy impulse that I think a lot of us have these days, where we have difficulty respecting and recognizing the boundaries of a game, constantly craving expansion material and not treating a game complete, as is.
There are some decent paths to victory, though. You can try and turbo the plot cards, or try and hold off so you are the one playing the final plot card for the point boost. You can farm monster kills and try to delay the game so you can kill even more monsters. You can "ping" some healing in there for an extra point or two, you've got your secret objective to worry about, and of course, you can go blended strategies of all of the above, playing opportunistically.
I would actually love to see this game get the deluxe treatment, with nicer cards (and more of 'em!), chits for health and scoring, and a set of horror-themed dice. As is, this is a good, affordable adventure thriller that plays in 30-60 minutes, has a great theme, and some nice player screwage.
Definitely a thumbs-up from me, and I'm sure this will become a holiday staple for this time of the year.
- Great Theme
- Plays quickly
- Nice player interaction
- Exploration is handled well
- Monster killin'
- The plot cards spell out the final mystery, which is a nice touch
- Card quality could be better
- Not everything needed to play is included
- Could use maybe just a touch more cards; would like to see more variety in the monsters
- Some of the mugs on these beasts...only a mother could love 'em
- 4.0 (out of 5.0)
You can find out more about this game, along with other Lock 'n Load titles, at their website.