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Machina Arcana : a Lovecraftian Board Game in Review

AL Updated July 15, 2020
 
3.5
 
0.0 (0)
2613 0
Steamed Calamari- Can Machina Arcana revivify Lovecraftian relics?

Game Information

Publisher
Designer
Players
1 - 4
There Will Be Games

Steamed Calamari - Can Machina Arcana revivify Lovecraftian relics?

One has to wonder what xenophobic neuroses-vessel and famed mummy’s boy Howard ‘Poontang’ Lovecraft would have made of the current ubiquity of his mythos and creations. Far from the days of struggling to find purchase in the ink smeared pages of pulp magazines, the rise of Dagon from the depths of his watery lair to encompass everything from be-tentacled plushies to Fhtagn Yahtzee and The Dream Flakes of Unknown Breakfast (rich in Folate!) would have been an unthinkable proposition as he brooded in his Rhode Island loft, busy being fastidiously racist and not getting laid.

Stripped of their cosmic import and otherworldly strangeness by virtue of their familiarity, the deep ones now dangle from our rear-view mirrors and adorn our knitted onesies as we sip Cthonic Cocktails beneath a castrated gibbous moon. No longer the unpronounceable otherworldly entities that compelled us to shiver as the dust of the ages settle upon our spines, more a kitsch approximation of wyrdness – distilled, corked and labelled as the funnel to monoculture consciousness clipped their scaly wings with its narrow and unforgiving rim.

Machina Arcana 01

The world of tabletop gaming has been peculiarly enamoured with this particular goo-drenched touchstone, revisiting it with an insistence that verges on the compulsive as the well-worn cobblestones of Arkham surrender to a volume of foot traffic that weathers its edges and chokes its byways.

Into this foaming throng strides yet another robed acolyte in the form of Adreama Games’ Machina Arcana, and this time it’s adorned with the cogwheel trappings of a steampunk aesthetic to try and distance itself from the tommy-gun and fedora sporting crowd of the roaring twenties that has seemingly settled as the default dressing.

More ambitiously, it seeks to bring back the dread. The suffocating, cloying sense of tension and doom that pervades an encounter with unspeakable eldritch beings from beyond time and space. The mind-flaying discombobulation and psychic unravelling that would surely occur in the face of such inscrutable oddities whose very existence shatters all the precious illusions upon which our assumptions, both scientific and theological, are founded.

All told, it’s a lofty beam to vault for. And it makes a better fist of it than some.

Machina Arcana 01

To my mind, the gold-standard for this kind of understanding of what makes Lovecraftian fiction tick and successfully shackling it to a mechanism for play is exhibited by runaway indie darling videogame (and soon to be tabletop offering) ‘Darkest Dungeon’ with its focussed and best-in-show take on madness and neuroses.  And whilst Machina Arcana doesn’t attempt this kind of thematic consistency with its inspiration, it does at least purport to make things scary again. This time via stacked odds and a creeping sense of escalation that threatens to overpower even the most well-armoured and blunderbuss-laden steamy boys.

Familiar at even a cursory glance, Machina Arcana is first-and-foremost a dice-chucking Dungeon Crawler replete with the loot collection, narrative story beats and player elimination that are the hallmarks of the genre. It sits comfortably amongst similar offerings such as Mansions of Madness, Descent and Warhammer Quest et al but with a focus on responding to contingent threats that recalls Eldritch Horror’s frantic race to seal gates before your ambitions become fatally octopus-clogged. My copy is of the 2nd Edition “premium” set and having not played the first iteration I can’t really comment on how the mechanics may have evolved but I will say that in gussying up the components between outings they have trowelled on a sheen of opulence that both enhances and obscures.

The addition of larger cards and sturdy double-layer player boards is a fantastic addition, but in what may be a contentious call – I’d trade them in a heartbeat for the reinstatement of the first edition’s art.

Machina Arcana 01

Under its initial Miskatonic guise, the monster cards and standees that are so vital in conjuring the desired sense of the unease and dread came plastered with a selection of fantastically creepy and evocative black and white linework illustrations that positively screamed with a stark beauty. Their hand-drawn ink outlines were both visually alluring and stylistically vague enough to embody the unknowable in a way that left your imagination to buffer in the blanks – pallid visages triggering a sense of the occult and obscure that recalled the obfuscating early days of satanic panic D&D modules, as well as more contemporary takes such as Cave Evil, Escape the Dark Castle and Cryptic Explorers.

Fabulously moody, their two-tone impact also served to stand out when perched atop the gameboards, where they seemed to pop out of the murk, rendering them both thematic and practical whilst simultaneously standing out from other offerings in what is a crowded genre and brainspace.

The second edition, by contrast has opted for more ‘professional’ looking art that is deeply competent and equally generic, as its photoshopped edges blur into the thousand other offerings that ape this style. It’s slick and glossy and absolutely top shelf amongst this kind of offering, technically superior and still inviting but I miss the idiosyncrasy that its more homespun antecedents offered.

Machina Arcana 01

This glossy sheen and air of professionalism extends to the entirety of the components nestled within the box here. Card stock is thick, tokens are chunky and the proprietary dice sets are both beautifully ornate and pleasingly functional as they determine your fate at the conclusion of each round.

At the outset of proceedings, players will select their champion from a diverse range of protagonists (bolstered by the premium edition) that embody classes or archetypes such as the Bruiser, Crafter, Shooter and Mystic. Balancing your party’s aptitudes is essential, as during their sojourn through the depths they will be assailed by horrors both physical, ethereal and arcane, with communication and delegation being paramount to corral and control the onset of bestiary entries as they shamble onto the board. In order to progress the story, unspooling via a series of narrative chapter cards, players will need to balance their exertions and focus, as they co-operate to complete mission objectives whilst both exploring and maintaining the growing threat that comprises the games mounting tension.

Each of the semi-modular dungeon/crypt/cave/lair tiles is festooned with chests to plunder, diary entries to scry, workbenches to commandeer and – coolest of all- trap mechanisms to trigger. These aren’t the punishing pit-traps and spiked darts of the creative commons that assail players at the flip of a card. Instead they form one of the most satisfying tactical elements of the game, as players can opt to trigger them at the cost of stamina, a well timed flick of the wrist immolating a handful of oppressors in one fell swoop, but not without the risk of friendly-frying a companion or two in the process.

Machina Arcana 01

This sense of tactical positioning, risk and stamina management loom large over proceedings as whole. Exploring and interacting with any of the aforementioned features and furniture both costs stamina and grants ‘Essence’ – the currency required to both trigger story events and mitigate dice rolls.  Stamina and Essence will also be used to conduct attacks and utilise each player’s abilities, whether granted by their starting class or the abundance of items, weapons and armour on offer as they loot n’ shoot their way into destiny.

At its best this makes for a tense and tactical exploration of your options as you prioritise objectives and struggle to keep waves of monstrous abominations at bay, with your agency always straddling the chasm between fight and flight as pragmatism dictates.  In certain instances however, the randomness baked into the spawning of both beasts and items can render you a bit of a behemoth, which robs the game of the teeth it has so carefully sought to cultivate.

Those same teeth are sharpened at the conclusion of each and every round, as after both players and seafood have taken their turns, each player is compelled to conduct a duo of rolls on the ever-ratcheting threat tables that form the vaulted beams of this pipework cathedral.

Roll higher than the threat number and a fresh, gibbering abnormality is launched from the Gauntlet-style spawn portals that dot the boards. Roll higher and you reduce the threat number by one, ensuring an increased probability of their arrival on the next roll. A second track similarly triggers ‘horror events’ that are drawn from a generous deck of debilitations and debuffs to hinder you, adding a slight film of thematic dressing whilst threatening to derail your carefully plotted trajectory with each occurrence. The game is absolutely at its best in these moments when players feel overwhelmed and outnumbered, and the mechanics of mounting stakes are probably the cleverest element at play, as you race to wrest a modicum of control from the roiling fog of chaos that threatens to consume you, lending a much needed sense of urgency to proceedings as your opponents both multiply in number and strength as events unfurl.

Machina Arcana 01

It still runs long though. The story cards that bookend each chapter form the rhythmic punctuation of your tale and can flit along in both rapid or glacial fashion depending on the whims of card and dice. The prose here is full-on double-ply velvet royal purple in style and succeeds in setting the scene whilst simultaneously failing to offer much of a framework or motivation for who any of these people are or what they hope to find amidst the abyssic debris of these embroidered brass mazes.

There are three scenarios in the core box (with an additional two in the premium edition), some of which come with additional end-game flourishes/minigames which I won’t spoil here, and in our experience they can take around 3-6 hours to complete. Our first expedition into the ice was split between two evenings, and thankfully, it isn’t too hard to keep track of your progress, stats and inventory whilst re-boxing and reclaiming the floor between sessions. Hopefully the other scenarios we are yet to explore offer a variety in mechanics and scenarios as well as additional gothic literature to wade through, bolstering our reason to return, and at this early stage, yeah- I want to play again.  There’s always something to do, turns tumble by quickly, and the urge to unveil the next event is enough of a hook to entice- at least initially.

So… a true sense of horror in boardgame form? That prospect remains tantalisingly out of reach and is perhaps a unicorn we’ll never truly harness. A cool, atmospheric adventure complete with enough tactical agency to engage and morbid motifs to enthral? That’s perhaps a more manageable ambition, and Machina Arcana realises it in a puffy jet of eldritch steam, even as its boots fit snugly into the well-worn footsteps of its many progenitors.

What would Lovecraft make of it all? Well-it probably makes for a good solo game. So if you have no friends, add an extra point for thematic verisimilitude as you retract the attic door flap behind you to secure hermetic solace and block out an outside world full of terrifying other cultures and women who aren’t your mother.

Machina Arcana 01

Delve into the madness here.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

(Updated: July 13, 2020)
Rating 
 
3.5
Machina Arcana : Second Edition
AL
Andi Lennon (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Andi Lennon is Sydney based writer, musician and soap dodger. He graduated from Wizbang University with full honours and no teeth. When he isn't feeling conflicted about Morrissey he likes to play indie games with a dubious 80's aesthetic.

You can read more of his work by visiting Mongol Cult

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Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #312084 15 Jul 2020 12:25
Great stuff, Andi. It feels like it should be obvious that games based on HPL's work, where atmosphere is the very essence of its function, require elements that serve that atmosphere like the art style from the 1st edition that you cite. Of course, that's an aesthetic thing and maybe more people feel like the new stuff is even more Lovecraftian. Or maybe it's just because it has color and will sell more. Dunno.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #312085 15 Jul 2020 12:26
Lovecraft supposedly disliked board games, so it is ironic that his mythos slipped into public domain and became popular grist for boardgames. This seems like a game I might want to play at least once, but the steampunk trappings are a disappointment. I find steampunk to be the aesthetic equivalent of the comic ms sans font... not inherently horrible, but horribly overused relative to its limited merits. Something has gone terribly wrong in boardgaming circles (cough, BGG, cough) that steampunk games are so common and cyberpunk games are so rare, when steampunk is a cheap spinoff of cyberpunk.
OhBollox's Avatar
OhBollox replied the topic: #312091 15 Jul 2020 15:30
Good old HPV Lovecraft.

I presume the distinctive 1e art was divisive so they went with something more generic for the 2e? Never heard of the game before, and I'm interested, but the chances of me picking up 2e are non-existent now I've seen 1e, so it's a bust all round.
SebastianBludd's Avatar
SebastianBludd replied the topic: #312096 15 Jul 2020 17:25
The 1e art looks like it's "in universe," drawn by a steampunk scientist living in the game's world as he catalogs the monsters humanity is going up against, as well as the items they're using to fight them. For me, it reinforces the tactile aesthetic present in several of HPL's stories, where protagonists record their experiences in papers or journals as they're messing around with forbidden tomes. It's a familiar approach but it has its own style, and it's very evocative and makes me want to learn more about the world, which is not a low bar to clear when one is talking about steampunk nonsense.

The 2e art is the equivalent of a band recording their second album with "better" production, where it ends up obliterating everything that was interesting about their sound in the first place.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312098 15 Jul 2020 18:43

Jackwraith wrote: Great stuff, Andi. It feels like it should be obvious that games based on HPL's work, where atmosphere is the very essence of its function, require elements that serve that atmosphere like the art style from the 1st edition that you cite. Of course, that's an aesthetic thing and maybe more people feel like the new stuff is even more Lovecraftian. Or maybe it's just because it has color and will sell more. Dunno.


Yeah, the more fully-realised style of the 2nd edition definitely has a wider mainstream appeal. I feel like this site is probably home to an abnormal percentage of aesthetes who appreciate the thematic consistency and mystique that a more personalised approach entails.

I'm mystified when I converse with people that will swear up and down that say the new GW art is better than the 80's stuff for example, but again- there's no accounting for taste. I will say that the art in the second edition here is fantastically well done and some of the monster illustrations and vistas presented on the chapter cards are wonderfully evocative in their own way. They just lose something by dint of their adherence to what is a pretty common style, formula and digital toolset in my eyes. The game itself still manages to bring both atmosphere and immersion through a punishing insistence on strategy and tactical positioning that is a real strength.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312099 15 Jul 2020 18:49

Shellhead wrote: Lovecraft supposedly disliked board games, so it is ironic that his mythos slipped into public domain and became popular grist for boardgames. This seems like a game I might want to play at least once, but the steampunk trappings are a disappointment. I find steampunk to be the aesthetic equivalent of the comic ms sans font... not inherently horrible, but horribly overused relative to its limited merits. Something has gone terribly wrong in boardgaming circles (cough, BGG, cough) that steampunk games are so common and cyberpunk games are so rare, when steampunk is a cheap spinoff of cyberpunk.


Hahaha well to be fair to old Crafty, given that during the era his options were probably limited to Backgammon and 436 slight variations of 'The Goose Game' he was probably right to dismiss such relics as idle frippery. As far as the Steampunk stuff goes, it really only rears its head in the weapons and equipment decks which gifts a thematic coherence to what is actually a pretty sweet crafting/augmentation system that I probably should have touched on further in the main review. It also allows for the 'dungeon' tiles to feature some cool contraptions and whatnot. I'm yet to be choked with Steampunk style offerings and this is probably the first such title in my collection. I think it's version of 'steampunk' is more 'alternate universe Victoriana with hints of Jules Verne' which again separates it from the countless hard-boiled detective takes on HP.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312100 15 Jul 2020 18:52

OhBollox wrote: Good old HPV Lovecraft.

I presume the distinctive 1e art was divisive so they went with something more generic for the 2e? Never heard of the game before, and I'm interested, but the chances of me picking up 2e are non-existent now I've seen 1e, so it's a bust all round.


Hahahaha you just know he would have thought that HPV and STI's were further proof of the demonic otherworldly taint of women right?

As far as picking up a copy there may well be another kickstarter for additional expansion materials but if you're hellbent on 1e i'm sure there are some floating around.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312102 15 Jul 2020 19:01

SebastianBludd wrote: The 1e art looks like it's "in universe," drawn by a steampunk scientist living in the game's world as he catalogs the monsters humanity is going up against, as well as the items they're using to fight them. For me, it reinforces the tactile aesthetic present in several of HPL's stories, where protagonists record their experiences in papers or journals as they're messing around with forbidden tomes. It's a familiar approach but it has its own style, and it's very evocative and makes me want to learn more about the world, which is not a low bar to clear when one is talking about steampunk nonsense.

The 2e art is the equivalent of a band recording their second album with "better" production, where it ends up obliterating everything that was interesting about their sound in the first place.


Yeah you've hit the wrought iron nail right on the head here and these are my thoughts exactly. The game actually comes with a cool optional codex book that contains a not-insignificant backstory written in that familiar half scientific treatise, half 'confessional unburdening' first person diary narrative style that counterpoints brilliantly with the sketchwork, almost 'botanic specimen' style diagrams of the first outing. It really seemed to make the whole product more mysterious and like if you squinted it could actually be a found relic recounting real events. Much how I felt when I first read "At the Mountains of Madness' as a kid. The clunky stilted prose, rather than being off-putting, instead lending the whole thing a strange authenticity. Again though- the games systems and play are solid enough that even in its more high street garments it remains a pretty compelling playthrough for its genre.
MarloweSpade's Avatar
MarloweSpade replied the topic: #312108 16 Jul 2020 00:13
I agree entirely with preferring the 1E art to 2E; I think it contributed greatly to the whole atmosphere, which clearly was of primary importance to the designer.

Having played both editions now, I think the fatal flaw in this one is the sheer length; put simply, it takes _forever_ to finish a scenario, even the shorter ones. Sure, you can remove some (or most) of the Chapter cards to make for a shorter experience, but that just results in an even more disjointed experience than is already being delivered. You make a good point about there being a singular lack of motivation here; it's just "weird people exploring a horrible place for some reason". I don't need much to start rolling dice, but give me _something_, you know? Especially in a game that relies this heavily on theme.

That said, I do like the crafting element and the inventory system, and individual turns are neat mini-tactical puzzles. I just think the whole thing needed a developer to package it all up into something that has a chance of finishing in under three hours.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312109 16 Jul 2020 00:34

MarloweSpade wrote: I agree entirely with preferring the 1E art to 2E; I think it contributed greatly to the whole atmosphere, which clearly was of primary importance to the designer.

Having played both editions now, I think the fatal flaw in this one is the sheer length; put simply, it takes _forever_ to finish a scenario, even the shorter ones. Sure, you can remove some (or most) of the Chapter cards to make for a shorter experience, but that just results in an even more disjointed experience than is already being delivered. You make a good point about there being a singular lack of motivation here; it's just "weird people exploring a horrible place for some reason". I don't need much to start rolling dice, but give me _something_, you know? Especially in a game that relies this heavily on theme.

That said, I do like the crafting element and the inventory system, and individual turns are neat mini-tactical puzzles. I just think the whole thing needed a developer to package it all up into something that has a chance of finishing in under three hours.


Yeah, we found we had to splinter our sessions into two evenings in order to complete the scenarios as the hours bled into the a.m. too. This is an issue that pervades similar titles such as Mansions of Madness even with its heralded app assistance but it sure does make for a barrier to entry when contemplating a casual evening fling with theme. I have since found that it's actually pretty serviceable to burn through one or two chapters in a sitting though and still enjoy the tactical interplay but it's definitely a game that demands your time. As far as characterisation and a more complete overarching story arc there is talk of a campaign style expansion being developed which will hopefully add more depth to that aspect of things and double down on the atmospheric strengths on offer. Perhaps given the feedback about the artwork since the 2nd edition launched there may be a revisit to a more stylised take on things in that regard too, although I'd imagine they'll want to keep things coherent.