There are times when a game sounds so much better in your head than it actually is in real life. You read every review and gaze upon the box on the store shelf. And you finally get the game…and it just isn’t that great. Not bad, exactly. Just not what you had hoped it would be. That’s where I find myself with Fearsome Floors. It’s not that it’s a bad game. Indeed, it has some good things to recommend it. But it looked so much better in my mind’s eye. Maybe it’s a situation of expectations. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be a problem. Lots of games try to do something different than you expect. But the issue with Fearsome Floors is that I think the game IS trying to be what I wanted it to be. It can see the goal, but it can’t quite make that crucial leap to excellence.
You take control of a group of frightened people, prisoners of the fiendish Count Fieso. You’re let lose in the dungeon of his castle, where each player will take turns moving all of their pieces. After a full round, Fieso’s evil monster is unleashed on the dungeon floor. Through a series of priorities, he pursues the characters around the board and will eat them if he catches them. In the first half of the game, eaten characters go back to start, but after that they are removed from the game entirely. The floor is littered with obstacles that can be manipulated and used to your advantage, like stone pillars that can be slid to hide you from the monster and pools of blood that let you slide across the floor. The first player to get all but one of their guys out the door is the winner, unless the game goes 14 turns without a winner. At that point, the roof collapses and kills everyone. I’m usually a fan of games where everyone can die, but unfortunately I’ve only seen this happen one time.
For the most part, Fearsome Floors works. The rules are mostly straightforward, and it’s not hard to get into the spirit of the 1950?s b-movie setting. I’m especially fond of the movement rules for the monster, which operate on line-of-sight and proximity. It’s one of the cooler examples of building a makeshift AI into a game design, something that I’m always impressed by. And there is fun to be had as you slide in pools of blood and somehow contrive to get the monster to chase your friend instead of you. It’s possible, with a little planning, to really screw your opponents.
But therein lies my problem with Fearsome Floors. The ability to game the movement of the monster is clearly a fundamental part of the game, but it’s pretty opaque. By that, I mean that it takes a lot of analysis to see how the monster will move and how that will affect the game board. It’s difficult to set up more than a couple suckerpunches this way, but I’ve seen some people do some huge damage. Unfortunately, those people are usually slowing down the game. In the later turns of every round, the game can slow to a crawl as players figure out how they want to lead the monster to their opponents. It’s true that then distance the monster travels is randomly determined, but you often have a good idea how far it will be. Sure, you could play breezy and fun (and I recommend you do), but the guy mathing it out will hurt that process while he figures out how best to move. It’s too bad too, because it’s not like thinking about it gives you that much of an advantage. You might do a little better, but the victory conditions are such that it’s usually more advantageous to move in the direction of the exit than it is to position yourself to maybe take someone out. The monster is drawn to people anyway, so he’s sure to find someone. The game tempts someone to ponder, but it doesn’t give much reward for doing so.
Alright then, fine. The game can be analyzed to death. But if you just agree to play fast and make gruesome comments throughout the game, you can still salvage the experience, right? To some extent, yes. But the flipside is that the game doesn’t really provide as much atmosphere as it could. Again, if it were easier to manipulate the monster, it would be more of a take-that sort of affair, which would suit the design well. But as it is now, it’s largely a race game. That’s not a bad thing, and a lot of people will like that. But I suspect that the intent was to be a little more cutthroat. Fearsome Floors finds itself in the unfortunate realm of being a little too random to be strategically rewarding, and a little too strategic to just be full-on goofy fun.
I don’t want to come down too hard on the game. There’s good there, not the least of which is the presentation. The first thing you’ll notice is the cover, which pays homage to 1950?s horror comics to great effect. Illustrator Maura Kalusky has worked on other games with designer Friedemann Friese, but this might be their best work together. Each color has a little cast of characters to them, so the person with the black pieces are all policemen, while the purple pieces are clergy. My favorites are the high schoolers on the red pieces. They have a lot of personality and charm, and it predisposes me to like the game. The coolest bit, however, is the monster. Since it’s a cardboard piece that is put together, they took the opportunity to provide multiple heads and arms so that you can create a custom monster every time. It’s one of the coolest component choices I’ve ever seen.
And it must be said that this game holds the rare distinction of being very popular with my family, especially my mother. It’s not hard to see why this is the case. It’s a light game with mostly accessible rules. If one guy knows the monster’s movement really well, it can keep any of the really complicated parts out of the hands of the people who don’t want to deal with them. And there is not a lot of changing player information that needs to be tracked (like there is in, say, King of Tokyo), so the board state is all there is to analyze. That does make a difference with some people. The game is also one of the rare ones that plays up to seven people and does it pretty well. I recommend playing with at least five, since that makes analysis all the more senseless and ramps up the chaos. I feel that big crowds are more what the game was intended for. But beware here too, because a slow player who might merely delay a four-player game will send a seven-player game into 90-minute territory, which is just too long. Still, I keep the game around to have something light and fun for big groups.
And yet, I really think it could have been better. I can’t escape the feeling that Fearsome Floors is just a little at odds with itself. It wants to be light and goofy, but it can’t quite cut loose in a way that will really let it embrace it’s sillier nature. The game was released in 2003, before the Ameritrash movement really took off. That’s too bad, because I think it could benefit from a good shot of dice-rolling. It’s mostly just content to be a fun, light game without being too random or too strategic. There’s nothing wrong with that, and some people will applaud it. But I wish it had just picked one way and committed. That could have made the game terrific, instead of merely pleasant.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.