Not quite a Modern Prometheus.
Had the occupants of a holiday chalet in Geneva 1816 been less beset by the inconvenience of an unseasonably cold summer, we may never have been gifted the tale of Frankenstein at all. Birthed of a creative story-telling competition amongst a cadre of fops du jour, the puffy sleeved ensemble of proto-emos Byron, Shelley, and Polidori were roundly outdone by the eighteen-year old Mary Shelley (nee Godwin), as she unspooled a tale of body snatching and tragic obsession that has proven resonant enough to spawn an ongoing procession of offshoots that straddle the entire media landscape as successive generations unpick its motif and metaphor, while it continues to play upon our own dark obsessions with mortality.
The latest in this shambling parade arrives courtesy of Plaid Hat games in the form of Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein, a 2-4 player development in the mewling but burgeoning ‘narrative eurogame’ experiment.
Normally the prospect of a ‘midweight euro’ would hold about as much appeal in my house as a pair of tan coloured slacks. The thrills of worker placement and multiplayer solitaire are largely lost on me when compared to the ebb and flow of a great narrative boardgame, but theme counts for a lot in my estimation, and Abomination waved promises of something delightfully macabre coupled with branching story-elements that left me eager to step into the shoes of a Parisian scientist as they grappled with quandaries both moral and morbid. Elbows bloodied at their operating table, silhouette framed by the crackle of electricity as they stitched together both cadavers and their fraying reputations at the behest of a lovelorn beast.
I had read numerous pieces warning of the game’s graphic nature. Pundits furrowed their brows over its ‘confronting artwork’ and wrung their hands over mechanisms that prompted players to commit unholy deeds as though the taint of corruption was upon it and the mere act of opening the box would lead me into some kind of perilous pit that would compromise my very humanity.
Needless too say, this was a big selling point for me.
Sadly, it turned out to be largely hyperbole. This thing is PG13 to the bone. A smattering of gore and some decidedly textbook manifestations of sinew and gristle are as nasty as it gets. The subdued colour palette comes across more dreary than devilish and the play mechanisms tend to rob the player’s narrative actions of their visceral heft, couched as they are in mathematic abstraction.
In addition to the vanilla worker placement element of the game where players dispatch scientists and their assistants to various locations throughout Paris, there is an engaging laboratory phase that tasks players with constructing their own Prometheus, toiling to complete body parts hewn together from the disparate shreds they have harvested, all while harried by time constraints, their hand forced by the onward march of decomposition.
Even more compelling are the three primary attributes players are tasked with keeping track of throughout their ordeal. The business of body-snatching is grisly, morally compromising work and must be conducted with a modicum of clandestine flair, lest the good people of Paris, or worse, the resolute Captain Morgan discover each scientist’s demonic dabblings.
Throughout proceedings, certain actions and events will affect players Morality, Reputation and Expertise, as they either resolutely resist the monster’s urging, toe a pragmatic middle pillar, or succumb with glee to the wetwork at hand. This balancing act is a welcome wrinkle in an otherwise rote set of action selections, and whilst it brings to mind the corruption mechanic from its antecedent Lords of Waterdeep’s expansion, it does so with a thematic binding that enhances the weight of decisions, as players seek to balance the relative rewards of obtaining more fleshy plunder vs. spot-cleaning the cascade of stains upon their immortal soul. It is entirely possible to achieve victory via a circuitous route of deception and benevolence, doing just enough to appear in acquiescence with the monster’s demands whilst steadfastly refusing to engage in the grand guignol he truly desires.
Of course, this runs counter to the game’s appeal and is decidedly much less fun but the range of characters offered to players to embody is kind enough to offer a backstory and motivation for varying modes of play that is a pleasing addition to the games relative thematic strengths.
Narrative-wise, the promised interactive storytelling element falls a little flat as though animated by a defective Leyden Jar, feeling somewhat tacked-on even as it adds a little spice.
At the start of each turn an event or encounter card will be drawn that may direct players to delve into a slim selection of passages tucked into the rear of the manual. These well-written snatches of prose will often lead to a binary choice of actions that tend to telegraph their strategic merits. A welcome addition, at their best they are a strong reminder of the stakes at play, the urgency of your tasks and the insistent shadow of the lurking Monster, who can otherwise become an afterthought, obscured as he is by the focus on corralling and maintaining your resources.
At a not quite tight three hour run-time, the relative paucity of actions and options, combined with the scant mechanical development on offer as the game unfolds may render this a bit of a slog for some groups. There are thrills to be had though. The pressure to complete your creation before Captain Morgan’s looming arrival, the gleeful schadenfreude of the ‘take that’ elements and the tension as the dice tumble during the critical reanimation phase all lead to some boisterous table talk and fraught puzzling that will surely be enhanced by groups with enough improvisational nous to truly embody their characters and thematically gild their actions.
Whilst it doesn’t reach the heights of other recent euro-style darlings such as Everdell, Abomination will nonetheless find its fans, it’s intermittent bolts of lightning enough to sustain it, even as its blood remains congealed.
You can get a copy of Abomination here.