29 November 2018
In which we make an ‘illimitable dominion’ joke several times
The shelves of games stores groan under endless titles based on H.P. Lovecraft, so it's surprising that it's taken so long for designers to cotton on to the work of the granddaddy of modern horror, Edgar Allen Poe.
Masque of the Red Death is based on his 1842 short story of a prince and his court who shut themselves away for an opulent party while the country outside is ravaged by a deadly plague, the Red Death of the title. But at midnight the plague itself appears in human form at the centre of the party and people start dying until "the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all".
And that's basically the game.
The board is seven coloured rooms that match the ones described in the story, and you play one of the partygoers. The gameplay splits into two halves: the first half runs up to midnight, during which you must both increase your popularity and do research on when and where the Red Death will appear, and the second is the hour after midnight when the plague appears in ten different rooms – pre-determined, but secret. If you're in one of those rooms at the same time as the plague then all your dominion is illimitably held, which is game over for you.
So you spend the first half balancing between dancing attendance on the prince, who moves on a pre-set but erratic course, and either procuring rumour cards, looking at other players' rumour cards or outright stealing them. Everyone has an almost-identical hand of ten action cards, most of which are single-use, so working out a strategy for when to use them is key. Rumours first? Popularity first? Ignore popularity and hope you’re the only survivor? It’s a fun choice.
Each rumour card shows one time and location where the Red Death won’t appear, and you need to collect enough to plot a post-midnight course so you aren’t in the same room as it at any point. You each have a mini-board for this, hidden behind a screen, but there's a twist: you can only move one room clockwise or anticlockwise at a time – if you're not in the right position as the clock strikes and the prince cops it, then it's the illimitations of the Red domination for you.
It feels like Cluedo for grown-ups, with a pinch of Wolfgang Kramer's delightful kids' game Midnight Party – or, at least, it would do if it was a tighter and more polished piece of design. There are a lot of clever ideas in here, but there’s not enough variety of actions, no tension, no sense of impending doom and no feeling of being nobles at a decadent party – or anything other than cardboard standees on a circular board.
The game's other problem is in its production. It's a good-looking set including a somewhat pointless 3D grandfather clock. However, it’s crying out for notepads for players to jot down what they’ve learned. Worse, the rooms and cards come in seven colours, and the colours don't match. It’s even possible to confuse one colour of card with another – with illimitably domineering consequences. There are icons for the different rooms, but they're tiny and not obvious. Like the rest of the design, it works but could have been clearer and sharper with more time and attention.
A clever stab at melding a deduction game with programmed movement, let down by under-development and poor graphics choices. Not bad, just flawed.
Designer: Adam Wyse
Artist: Gris Grimly
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October 2018 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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