As tabletop pitches go, “It’s Stuffed Fables meets Holding On meets T.I.M.E Stories” is pretty damn exciting. Add to that a theme and story which could be summed up as “Inception meets Fantastic Voyage” and it sounds like a stone-cold winner. But the sad truth is, Jerry Hawthorne’s Comanauts doesn’t quite add up.
A spiritual sequel to last year’s delightful and innovative Stuffed Fables, Comanauts keeps that game’s neat, multicoloured dice-drawing action-selection system: red dice for melee attacks, yellow for searching or diplomatic interaction, and so forth. White dice now offer skill-fuelling ‘clarity’ rather than heals, but for the most part the system is left untouched, including the placement of black dice on a threat track, which builds tension until the enemies are unleashed.
It is also, more significantly, another “Adventure Book game”, where the board is incorporated into a spiral-bound tome. The left page is (usually) a map to explore, while the right provides the narrative, with details of events that occur at certain trigger points. The story that fills those pages is calibrated for an older crowd than Stuffed Fables, taking place in the fevered, irradiated subconscious of a comatose scientist named Martin Strobal rather than the dreams of a little girl. Strobal is a dying world’s last hope and needs to be drawn out of his coma by a group of psyche-delving explorers, who control avatars conjured by his slumbering mind.
Unlike Stuffed Fables, which takes you through one big story chapter by chapter, Comanauts has a light legacy element, by which you need to locate and eliminate a number of Inner Demons, or I.D.s, over a series of sessions. Each ‘Comazone’ offers a distinct experience: there is the ‘fantasy’ one, from Strobal’s teen RPG-playing years; the ‘superhero’ one, inspired by his comic-book reading; the ‘college days’ one, from, er, his college days. The idea being that during each mission your group will root around six randomly selected zones in search of the unknown ‘Prime I.D.’, learning about Martin’s life along the way and picking up pointers (in the form of clue cards) that propel you in the right direction.
At least, that’s the idea. Sadly, the clue cards don’t work. They don’t combine to point your group in any direction, eventually turning each session into a goose-chase slog where you have no idea if you’re making progress or just eating up time. The box promises 60 to 120 minutes per game. Unless you luck out with your choice of Comazone, you likely won’t be done for at least two-and-a-half hours. After which, the idea of repeatedly replaying a Comazone you didn’t need complete this time around really doesn’t appeal. Especially as Comanauts also lacks the engaging player characters of Stuffed Fables; your avatars are basically nobodies.
It’s very frustrating, only more so because the visual presentation is so impressive (even if you get standees rather than minis this time) and because Stuffed Fables offered so much promise for Hawthorne’s Adventure Book format. It might be best to skip this chapter and hope for a proper page-turner next time.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
Comanauts’ scenarios would be good fun if treated as one-off mini-narratives. But it doesn’t knit together to a satisfying overarching narrative experience like its predecessor Stuffed Fables did.
Designer: Jerry Hawthorne
Artist: Jimmy Xia, Tregis
Time: 1-2 hours
This review originally appeared in the March 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.