Like a Polaroid Picture
We're all standing around the table shaking these cardboard haunted house trays, each sectioned off into a 3x2 grid of rooms. Colorful language abounds as the pieces in each player's tray rumble around as if these spook houses are along the San Andreas faultline on a bad day. We're all trying to get a little witch meeple into a specific room along with an assortment of ghosts, eyeballs, snakes, spiders, and treasure chests. I almost get everything together but then an eyeball rolls in. I shake it away into another room but doing that brings a couple of unwanted guests into the mix. Finally, my daughter declares she has the requirements and gets the point.
This is Blue Orange's Shaky Manor, released in Europe to a Kinderspiel des Jahres nomination under the title Panic Mansion. And it's a well-deserved nod because it's a brilliantly simple, obnoxious little game practically guaranteed to delight kids and frustrate adults into accidentally swearing around the young ones. It takes about one minute to explain, set up, and play. Don't come into Shaky Manor expecting to nod thoughtfully and smugly execute a clever move. This is simply not that kind of game and it shouldn't be rated against designs of that nature.
The design is really quite brilliant because of how it is executed. Each object's shape, weight, and material react differently to the shaking. Those $#@#$ snakes are shaped in such a way that they inconveniently block doorways or catch other pieces. The eyeballs roll sometimes uncontrollably. The spiders are rubber, and have a little bounce to them. All of the wooden pieces sometimes slide like you want, and other times stubbornly refuse to move.
Also brilliant is the way that this game is packaged. I don't think I've ever seen a game where you can actually play it while it is in shrinkwrap. Windows on the box show you one of the trays, preset with everything in it, and pretty much all of the basic rules right there. Shake the box, and you are playing the game. I love this.
Shaky Manor is all things considered closer to one of those zany Zoch or Haba dexterity titles that seems almost too dumb to be fun, but the appeal is undeniable and even the most furrowed-brow hardcore gamer might crack a smile if they lower their geek-guard enough. There aren't enough games out there that have a lunatic concept like shaking a haunted house to get a witch into a room with a couple of eyeballs and a spider. And that's a shame.
There are a couple of variations that scale up the difficulty, but I think after a couple of 10 minute games players will likely settle on the game type that best suits their group. Families with small children can play a very simple version where you simply have to get the witch into a room with treasures and no monsters. I think you could get a three or four year old to play this, but beware of tears - it can be unusually stressful. The sort of median difficulty finds players having to combine an assortment of elements on a card into a designated room. This is where most players will find the sweet spot, I think. The "hard" version is using the same variety of cards but the goal is to get everything to a room except what is pictured. There's a cognitive layer there that makes this quite tough when the shaking gets hectic.
I'm sure there's a contingent out there who will scoff and debate whether Shaky Manor is a filler game or an activity but pay no heed to these spoilsports. This is a fun game for everyone, smartly designed and loaded with laughs. It's absolutely deserving of its Spiel Des Jahres nomination.