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  • Reviews
  • Postmortem- The Gothic Game Fails to Fund, But Is Still Awesome

Postmortem- The Gothic Game Fails to Fund, But Is Still Awesome

MB Updated November 11, 2019
 
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Postmortem- The Gothic Game Fails to Fund, But Is Still Awesome

Game Information

There Will Be Games

Rise from the grave.

Last week, Blackletter Games announced that their Kickstarter campaign for Damnation: The Gothic Game was cancelled. It’s coming back in March, but I can’t help but be disappointed that this ridiculous, malicious, and utterly singular game did not fund compared to all of the copycat garbage that today’s gamers throw money at on a daily basis. It’s not a game that comes with 300 bubblegum machine figures. It doesn’t try to trick you into thinking that the five years’ worth of expansion content is actually worth having or that you will actually play any of it in the two weeks your group is interested in the game. It doesn’t come with the FOMO prize of a three foot tall statue of a squid man created by one of genre fiction’s most racist writers. It’s a stupid, obnoxious roll-and-move game focused on player elimination. It flies in the face of modern game design, thumbing its nose and blowing raspberries. We need more games like this and less like whatever this week’s worker placement spreadsheet or Heroquest clone design happens to be.

I will be reviewing a prototype of the new edition soon- I already have a number of hot takes about it. I think the art direction is in the wrong direction (More Edward Gorey, less Mike Mignola) and it needs to position itself as an alternative to the morass of modern gaming mediocrity. And it needs to be just The Gothic Game, not “Damnation”. Regardless, in light of its failure to fund I wanted to boost this obscure 1992 game’s signal. Following is the review I wrote for this game ten years ago when I was writing the tabletop games column at Gameshark.com. I think it gives a good idea of what the game is all about, which I’m  not sure the Kickstarter campaign did adequately. Moreso, I think I get into what makes it so unique.

When I wrote this review, the game was already 17 years old – an eternity in game years – and it was painfully difficult to find. I’ve only ever seen two copies and neither were for sale. I would very much like to see this game rise from the grave, but I also think it needs to do so with care and consideration. It’s a fragile thing – atavistic and rebellious, a morbid whimsy and a sense of good natured wickedness.


In past installments of “Games from the Crypt”, I’ve covered a lot of games that really weren’t dead at all. In fact, most have enjoyed a favorable afterlife and are still beloved by many gamers around the world. Some of the dearly departed games that I’ve written have even been brought back to life via new editions, suggesting that perhaps eternal life through republication is where good games go when they die.

In honor of the Halloween edition of this semi-regular series and for your reading pleasure, I have decided to exhume a game that is completely dead and buried with little or no hope of resurrection. It is unfortunate that the game is, in its post-partum condition, both stupendously great and outrageously rare because chances are this column is as close as you’ll ever get to it- if you would even dare to face the shocking horror that is…THE GOTHIC GAME.

To be clear, when we’re talking about THE GOTHIC GAME we aren’t talking about some Eurogame wherein the players represent mall-rat teenagers trying to impress the local vampire lord by collecting wooden cubes standing in for tubes of eyeliner, Sisters of Mercy records, and bad poetry. Nor does it have anything to do architectural styles or early Germanic tribes. This is a gothic horror game full of dread, insanity, murder, and the macabre with a decidedly British sense of mordant humour and sinister atmosphere. The goal of the game is very straightforward and to the point: kill all the other players. Each player starts with a set number of life points that generally fritter away as the game progresses until all but one player has been slain.

Each player gets an old-fashioned pawn with which to wander the doomed hallways of the haunted castle depicted on the garishly illustrated board- it’s really, really ugly but I wouldn’t have it any other way. On each turn, a player rolls a die and moves, possibly entering a room or taking advantage of one of the castle’s secret passageways. If a player enters a room, they get to draw a card in classic adventure game fashion. Each of the castle’s seven rooms has a small but unique deck so that the kitchen knife is always found in the kitchen and the iron maiden is always in the torture chamber. And the chandelier always falls in the Great Hall.

Sometimes, you might find a useful weapon and if you manage to land next to another person’s pawn you get to murder them and put them out of the game- unless they have an appropriate counter item. Other cards describe generally terrible events that befall the players- poisoned prunes, bloodsucking leeches, rampaging taxidermy, and untimely sewage dumps can happen with typically hilarious effects. One of my favorite cards is the vengeful ghost- if you get murdered your spirit lingers and kills anyone who moves into the space where you died.

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There are also a couple of special rooms, a spiral staircase, a tower, and a crypt. The spiral staircase traps players, forcing them to move down toward oblivion for every roll that isn’t a six. On sixes, the hapless pawn gets to move back toward the exit. The tower lets you dump burning oil on players below, or if you have the Congolese Blowpipe you can snipe any player on the board. The crypt is entered by brave souls who have made the life-changing decision to become a vampire. Once in the crypt, the player sticks this larger black pawn over their normal one and has several turns to wander around making like Pac-Man after a power pill. For every other player that the vampire manages to catch, it extends the length of their vampiric transformation. Of course, if the vampire tries to bite the player with the wooden stake or flaming cross then its black, satiny curtains for the bloodsucker instead.

There is also an absolutely brilliant rule dubbed “the power of adjacency”. When a player starts their turn next to another player’s pawn, that player gets to choose where they move. Perhaps it represents misleading information or psychic suggestion, who knows. At any rate, the result is that a player exercising this power can force the other to step on the unstable walls of the castle parapets, possibly causing them to fall in the moat. Or they can cause them to move closer to the vampire. Or they can simply shove them into the Oubliette space and eliminate them. It’s wicked, nasty, and a fun way to be hateful toward one another.

That’s pretty much the entire game, and truth be told it is incredibly stupid. It flies in the face of almost every tenant of modern game design aesthetics, values, and expectations. It’s ruthless, directly confrontational, and almost ludicrously dependent on die rolls and card draws. And the actual goal of the game is that big no-no of modern game design, player elimination. This makes it a game that requires gamers who enjoy fun and laughs over mechanics and precision to really work. I introduced the game to a group of Eurogamers who asked me over and over again if it was really a game or just an activity. They sat and stared at their cards and wondered what they were supposed to be doing as they searched for clever mechanics and efficient strategies- neither of which exist in this game. I cackled with glee as I offed them one by one, but my malicious fervor was dampened by the fact that they were glad to be out of the game.

It sucks to be them, because THE GOTHIC GAME is also one of the most fun games I have ever played, and every single session among spirited, willing players has had at least three or four turns of events or interactions that wound up with everybody at the table dying with laughter. There is one story in particular that I’ve probably recounted every time we’ve played since it happened where a player got set on fire and had his eye pecked out by a bird before he fell in the moat and drowned. And then there was the time that somebody actually made it out of the Spiral Staircase, an event still refuted by those who didn’t actually witness it.

Among some of my friends, THE GOTHIC GAME has also taken on several house rules that we’ve sort of incorporated over the years. One is the ironclad law that any player caught rolling the die without the assistance of the included dice cup is immediately killed and out of the game. This rule has created a bizarre metagame wherein players try every trick in the book to get the person following them to forget to roll with the cup. The classic method is to hand the person the die but not the cup. Sometimes, you can catch someone off guard and they’ll kill themselves. Another rule cropped up when my friend stuck this pewter, ruby-eyed Grim Reaper figure in his box for no apparent reason. The Grim Reaper starts in the Spiral Staircase. If any player ever touches the Grim Reaper with their hand or their pawn, they die instantly. So the strategy there is to roll the die at the Grim Reaper and knock him into the pathways or into pawns. It’s hilarious when it happens.

The real woe and misery of it all though is that THE GOTHIC GAME is so rare it may as well be considered entirely unavailable. I have never seen a copy of it for sale anywhere, and those who do have it probably purchased it sometime in the early 1990s when it was briefly in print. The designer, Robert Wynne-Simmons, claims to have actually designed the game in 1966 and if this is true then it was a pretty groundbreaking design that prefigures some of the same concepts in TALISMAN and other adventure games by nearly twenty years. It is the only game to Mr. Wynne-Simmons’ credit, although it is definitely worth noting that he was the screenwriter for 1970’s BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, a particularly good British horror picture that scared the dickens out of me when I was a kid and I saw it on Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Mr. Wynne-Simmons has also apparently written a stage musical about THE GOTHIC GAME, although I suspect it has never been performed.

I love THE GOTHIC GAME, but I am also enormously predisposed to love it. I am a gothic horror fanatic, and specifically I love English gothic horror. I have a fondness for all things spooky and morbid, and I think anyone so inclined would love this game as much as I do. I love it so much that a couple of years ago Dollar Bill (whom you may remember from the Cracked LCD series “There Will Be Games”) and I contacted Mr. Wynne-Simmons to see about possibly reprinting the game in a new edition with the classic gameplay intact and a modernized version with some new elements included in the box. He was very receptive to the idea, but plans never fully materialized and the initiative was lost. Chances are we would have lost our shirts on it. I’m not sure the polite world of modern boardgaming would have been very receptive of a game that encourages you to kill everyone at the table in the most gruesome ways possible.


Editor review

1 reviews

Board Game Reviews 
 
5.0
The Gothic Game
One of the most fun, most obnoxious games ever published.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 69 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #304087 11 Nov 2019 13:45
Sorry to hear that it didn't fund. I think is actually the second time that it failed to fund, as a friend of mine tried to back a kickstarter for it about a year ago. I bought The Gothic Game in early 2018 from a seller at BGG who had five of them for sale, and I got the cheapest one for $110 plus shipping of $10. I questioned my sanity at the time, but it has been a consistent hit with a wide of variety of players, including AT gamers, general gamers, and even total non-gamers. I can only imagine that the game would fall flat with euro-gamers, because I generally avoid euro-gamers as humorless fun murderers. Anyway, I hope that they find a way to get The Gothic Game funded, because it offers a unique experience in a hobby over-run by dry, themeless games about worker placement, deck building, and auctions.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #304089 11 Nov 2019 14:05
We played just this weekend. I have vowed to write up rules clarifications (which may actually be considered house rules, as some of the rules are a bit ambiguous). I think there is only one issue that needs to be addressed, which is that when the game gets down to only two remaining players it can drag. I'm thinking of adding a house rule that when the game gets to that point, players lose 10 or maybe 20 points of heath at the beginning of every turn.

We write how people die on our score sheets and save them. Looking over the old score sheets the number one killer is "Death by Prunes."
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #304091 11 Nov 2019 14:11
I look forward to being able to own a copy of this some day.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #304092 11 Nov 2019 15:05

ubarose wrote: We played just this weekend. I have vowed to write up rules clarifications (which may actually be considered house rules, as some of the rules are a bit ambiguous). I think there is only one issue that needs to be addressed, which is that when the game gets down to only two remaining players it can drag. I'm thinking of adding a house rule that when the game gets to that point, players lose 10 or maybe 20 points of heath at the beginning of every turn.

We write how people die on our score sheets and save them. Looking over the old score sheets the number one killer is "Death by Prunes."


I like the house rule. I save my old score sheets, too, and I am surprised that your Prunes are so lethal. I estimate at least 1/3 of the deaths that I have seen involved the vampire.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #304097 11 Nov 2019 15:37

Shellhead wrote:

ubarose wrote: We played just this weekend. I have vowed to write up rules clarifications (which may actually be considered house rules, as some of the rules are a bit ambiguous). I think there is only one issue that needs to be addressed, which is that when the game gets down to only two remaining players it can drag. I'm thinking of adding a house rule that when the game gets to that point, players lose 10 or maybe 20 points of heath at the beginning of every turn.

We write how people die on our score sheets and save them. Looking over the old score sheets the number one killer is "Death by Prunes."


I like the house rule. I save my old score sheets, too, and I am surprised that your Prunes are so lethal. I estimate at least 1/3 of the deaths that I have seen involved the vampire.


I think it is because we nearly always play with 8 players, and the Kitchen seems to be the most visited room due to it being in the middle of the board, it's proximity to Dracula, and the fact that it seems to have more beneficial cards than the other rooms (butcher knife, garlic, Christmas pudding). Therefore, we always run through the Kitchen deck, so Prunes always makes an appearance at least once, if not twice. I think Prunes ding you for about 40 life points, so it can be a killer.

Our Draculas seem to be more successful at getting themselves killed by garlic, stake or not returning to the Vault in time than they are at killing other players.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #304098 11 Nov 2019 15:56
Sorry Michael, it failed to fund because (as you have said of other old games) it is out of date and (as you have criticised previously) people have started to decide not to buy another new game just because it has a vocal fanbase and have stuck with what they have or what they know they like. Also it cost too much for a once or twice a year silly fun when people have other games for that price they's get much more enjoyment out of playing. And I say this with total recognition that a hell of a lot of people love this game, just like most games have their ardent fans, unfortunately those people already have their copy and not enough new fans wanted to buy in.
Anyway I better go now as I have likely earned ire from many people and they are probably all thinking of a terrible misfortune for me ... likely very gothic.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #304102 11 Nov 2019 17:04
No no Tom, you are absolutely correct. Your comments point to some of my issues with the reprint. It was remodeled and reframed as a modern game with the assumption of an audience that frankly isn’t there. This is a cult item with very limited appeal for sure and expectations should have been cast as such. The reality is that there was never really was a big audience for this, there was not a clamoring for a reprint.

But I do think a modest 500 piece print run would sell through, especially if it were only very lightly updated.

But this is not a million dollar KS. Or even a $50k one.
Kris's Avatar
Kris replied the topic: #304122 12 Nov 2019 07:14
Hi everyone,

Firstly, I just want to say thank you to everyone from here who backed the game on Kickstarter. Obviously, it didn't go the way I wanted it to go on this occasion. I need to consider the options now in terms of moving forwards, but I'm still committed to releasing the game in the future.

Also, I just wanted to respond to a couple of points that Michael has made in his excellent piece, as well as to some of the subsequent comments.

Michael's version of the game
I would have been really interested to have seen your interpretation on how to take the game forwards - I'm sure you'd have done a great job of it. However, if you'd gotten a little further with the venture, you'd have hit a couple of significant barriers. Firstly, the trademark had lapsed. I couldn't have called the game 'The Gothic Game' without the risk of being sued by the people who developed the 'Gothic' series of video games. I contacted them to see if we could come to an arrangement (I didn't want to alter the name), but it didn't lead anywhere.

If anyone thinks finding a sensible, original, available ‘.com’ URL is tough... try finding a decent trademark that's available in the UK, US and the EU. Personally, I'm delighted with Damnation - apologies if anyone doesn't like it. Whatever your take, I really don't think this would have had too much bearing on whether people backed the game or not.

The second barrier was that the creators (Robert and Nigel) didn't own the IP for any of the artwork, which includes the logo. So I had to start from scratch with all of that too. Using the same box art was simply never an option.

Art is obviously hugely subjective, but if there's something about this game that's drawn - almost - entirely positive feedback, it's the visuals. I think this game would have worked with a Gloom, or Escape the Dark Castle aesthetic, but given the positive reaction, I have no regrets going down the Mignola-inspired route.

Second Kickstarter
No, this is absolutely the one and only Kickstarter that has been run for this game. This is obviously quite concerning to read. Shellhead – if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind asking your friend if they have a link to that campaign? I’ve not been able to find anything on there myself.

The Gothic Game in today's climate
Thanks for your blunt assessment, Southernman (Tom?). This clearly characterises the views of many people.

During the development of this version I've not shied away from making changes to the game in an effort to make it more appealing to a modern audience. People will read that and I'm sure blood will begin to boil... but just from reading the comments on this site, this is a game that is almost universally played with a set of house rules. I’ve just tried to expand on what most fans have already identified as being improvements to the game.

Fundamentally, here are the two things I wanted to try and improve:
- I wanted to speed the game up, particularly after the first player has been eliminated
- I wanted to increase the number of options available to players

Having read the comments on here, as well as on the other post, I hope the first stated aim is something of a no brainer. On the second aim, the original can feel like a 'spectator sport' at times - even if you're still alive in the game! I wanted to give players more choices and decisions to make, which I think adds a great deal to the experience.

At some point, I'll write in detail about the individual changes I've made. I’m sure there will be people who disagree with them, but I can talk through the reasoning for each one in more detail at a later date if anyone’s interested.

For me, the magic of The Gothic Game is in the way it generates "remember that time when..." moments. I think there's something about these shared experiences that transcends 'modern' or 'old school' tastes. Does the game feature mechanics that are considered outdated? Clearly, yes. Does that mean it can’t be popular with modern gamers? I’d argue, no – but obviously it will always be something of a niche audience.

I'll be honest with you all, I was pretty terrified when I sent out the review copies. I was braced for the absolute worst, but I've been blown away by the reaction to the game, which has been hugely, hugely positive - one guy actually said it's his game of the year (!!!?!?!). It gives me hope that this version does have an audience, despite suggestions to the contrary.

Thanks again for all the comments - I enjoy reading them. If anyone has any thoughts and suggestions, I’m all ears! I’m a huge fan of the original, just like you, and I want to make this game the best it can be.

Kris
Nodens's Avatar
Nodens replied the topic: #304123 12 Nov 2019 08:40

Kris wrote: At some point, I'll write in detail about the individual changes I've made. I’m sure there will be people who disagree with them, but I can talk through the reasoning for each one in more detail at a later date if anyone’s interested.

Please do.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #304209 14 Nov 2019 17:37
Hi Kris, if you don't follow your dreams then you can lose a bit of yourselves so kudos for getting it out there. It seems it is going to be a case of getting the message to the people out there who do want a game like this, Kickstarter may be a big word for all of us here but it still isn't that well known - hell I only started looking at it regularly about a year ago (and instantly regretted missing out on Nemesis). Also the high quality production may not be the right fit for this game, it's probably not needed for fans of the game and I'm assuming it is contributing to the cost.