22 May 2019
Playing mind games with psychedelic psychology
Cerebria is a beautiful game. From its wonderfully characterful artwork to its dreamlike colour palette, its jewel-like plastic tokens and its gigantic board covered in psychedelic illustrations, it’s one of the most visually striking tabletop releases you’re likely to ever encounter.
It also comes with a novel theme; a strategic, team-based game, it sees you and your fellow players inhabit the inner world of the human mind, using different types of feelings to influence a person’s psyche. As you play you’ll push them towards happiness and optimism, or gloom and despair, aiming to claim victory by having the greatest effect on their psychological make-up.
It’s a bold and original proposition, the over-the-top presentation of which extends to a rotating turntable contraption that slots into the centre of the play area and a modular three-dimensional monolith that you’ll assemble over the course of the game to mark your team’s score.
Yet, as physically gorgeous as it is, it gets bogged down in a morass of complexity, with rules and mechanical subsystems piled one on top of one another in a way that feels confusing, disjointed and counterintuitive.
As you play, you’ll attempt to gain control of different regions of the game’s environment, playing emotion cards to establish your influence on different regions of the brain. If you’re on the side of happiness, you’ll employ feelings like courage and excitement to stake your claim on areas of the board. If you’re controlling the forces of misery, you’ll play cards like anger and jealousy. Over time you’ll aim to intensify the effect of your own cards while reducing the power of your opponents’.
At the same time, you’ll aim to unlock new actions and upgrade your abilities. While this lets you make more powerful plays, it forces you to discard some of your emotion cards, and there’s a tricky balance to find between gaining new powers and maintaining your ability to influence the conflict playing out across the board. On top of these already complicated decisions, you’ll attempt to fulfil sets of objectives – some public, some secret – to add pieces to the central scoring tower and establish a lead against your opponents.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but this kind of complexity can often be very rewarding in games. Where Cerebria starts to fall apart is in the way it presents its intricacies. It comes with some truly bewildering iconography, and before you graduate to its full setup you’ll have to play a simplified training game to get your head around its basic structure. It’s a serious investment of time and brainpower – if you’re looking for a chewy, head-scratching, strategic experience, there are plenty of other options that will get you into the action with far less preliminary hassle.
Finally, there’s the fact that for a game with such lavish artwork and a theme that purports to revolve around emotion, Cerebria’s gameplay feels decidedly dry and technical. You might be playing cards representing joy, rage, fear and fulfilment, but the only real feelings you’re likely to have are head-scratching confusion and a desire to go and play something like Brass instead.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
If you don’t mind sinking time and mental bandwidth into reading the rulebook, watching an explainer video on YouTube, re-reading the rulebook and playing a simplified learning game to ensure you’ve got the hang of the basics, Cerebria has some tough branching decisions and top-notch presentation. If you don’t have the luxury of unlimited time, though, there are plenty of more appealing options.
Designer: Amann, Peter, Pócsi, Schőberl, Shaw, Turczi
Artist: Alberto, Allen, Farkas, Sichel
Time: 1-2 hours
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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