My favourite games have, for a long time, been the ones that have a story at their heart. Whether it’s telling a collective story as they work their way through a dungeon in Descent or closing those dastardly portals to other dimensions in Arkham Horror, I love those thematic games that really make you feel like you’re part of the experience. Of course, you don’t necessarily need an oversized board with hundreds of cards or endless snaking passageways to get the theme across. Look, for example, at Netrunner – an abortive two-player CCG that Campfire wrote about in his last column. Two simple decks of cards are all that you need to play and yet it’s an immensely thematic experience, with the runner player buzzing about like a scalded cat as the corporate player cackles away, not realising that their defences aren’t as strong as they first believed. Feeling like you’re actually doing something that involves you in the game, rather than just performing actions for the sake of it, is important.
House of Spirits from Lock ‘n Load Publishing attempts to distil this feeling of being in a story into a card game that you can play in about thirty minutes. As a group of investigators working their way through the mysterious House that gives the game its name, their objectives are simple – play all seven Plot cards as a group or be the first player to score 18 points. Each of the characters come with their own abilities and stats, shown on a card that you draw blindly at the start of the game. Players also take a Secret Victory card which scores you bonus points at the end – often significant when it comes to claiming the win. Although the game is ostensibly co-operative in nature, a winner is declared on highest score. As the investigators work their way through the rooms of the house, they come up against a range of monsters (the amount you face in each room is down to dice rolls from the players) but thankfully there’s always a selection of items that will assist you in combat. Fights are resolved by adding these modifying items to your attack or defence scores and rolling a six-sided die – nice and simple.
This isn’t the most complex game in the world, and if treated that way you’ll have a grand time. As a half-hour filler it’s ideal and works well for between two and four players. There’s no deep strategy involved and as you’ll generally have a good supply of offensive and defensive items monsters can be dispatched pretty quickly – it’s only if you’re unlucky on your dice rolls that any major issues will present themselves. Thankfully healing items are also available, but a character who is killed doesn’t really have a huge disadvantage – they lose their items and couple of points, but then respawn on the following turn. Dying doesn’t feel like a massive issue – a slightly curious design decision in a game which focuses on the macabre.
As you can probably tell, it’s far from perfect. The game end being triggered by someone hitting 18 points feels incredibly dissatisfying – we’re meant to be working our way through this terrifying house, then all of a sudden all the characters decide to just pack up and bugger off home? Doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, story wise. The artwork, though good, is a mish-mash of different styles, from the cartoonish to the downright gory – a bit more consistency would have been nice to see. I also had a bit of an issue with the cards – they’re a little thin and could do with being sleeved if you’re planning on getting this out regularly. Finally (and this is a very minor whinge) – a game requiring dice should surely ship with at least one? I know that the vast majority of people will have a dice or two laying around, but what if you’re one of those who actually don’t? There are folks out there who don’t have spares! This could act as a decent enough gateway, but if you were to pass it on to someone who was new to gaming they could well be stuck – onto the shelf it would go, never to be seen again.
Despite my gripes, I can see that this – at its heart – has some interesting ideas and would be a good title to play with newer gamers, especially younger players. Does it succeed in getting players involved in the story? I’ve got to say… nearly. It’s not a failure by any means, but it doesn’t quite hit the target. There’s not quite enough in that little box to sustain a huge amount of plays, and I can’t help but think that those who are more experienced in the hobby would dismiss House of Spirits after only one or two. However, it certainly has an audience who will appreciate it and therefore deserves attention. Certainly an interesting first game – I’m intrigued to see what the designer comes up with next.
House of Spirits was published by Lock ‘n Load Publishing in 2010. Designed by Mark Thomas, between two and four can play and games will normally take 30 to 45 minutes. Copies are pretty hard to come by here in the UK, but are available from the company’s website for a shade over US$22.