01 March 2016
Thomas Pike discovers whether it’s full steam ahead or if there’s a spanner in the works for Cool Mini or Not’s steampunk offering.
Cool Mini or Not | Strategy | £49.99 | 2-4 players | 60 minutes | www.cmon.com
1889 - The Mechanical and Magical Empire of Queen Victoria rules the world.
London has become the centre of the globe and an extraordinary stage where the appearance of monsters, the return of secret cults and the outbreak of infernal machines regularly contend for the front page of the Times. Welcome to The World of Smog: On her Majesty's Service, the latest game from high-flying publisher Cool Mini or Not.
What is immediately apparent, as with all games from Cool Mini, is this is a high quality production. The game is dripping with theme and atmosphere, very effectively capturing the steampunk Victoriana setting with good artwork and chunky, satisfying components that really take you there. Laying out the luxurious board, a giant mechanical cog complete with wheels within wheels that actually turn as part of the game mechanic, you do begin to feel a sense of immersion. This game looks beautiful on the table and fans of the genre will take pleasure in that alone.
As with Dogs of War, another very fine offering from this publisher in 2014, oversized busts represent the characters of the game. Those found in Dogs of War were a delight and the same is true with World of Smog, as each of the protagonists is portrayed from the shoulders up in finely
detailed plastic – only mounted on a suitably mechanical winchlike contraption this time. The rulebook is well laid out with plenty of evocative artwork, backstories for the characters and even the odd fauxvintage advert to add to the fun. Meaning that of the 23 pages the rules are actually covered in less than seven. That said, I would recommend reading it in advance of play as the rules-containing pages do not run perfectly in order and you have to fish around for a couple of details before getting a full sense of the game. Quibbles aside, you realise the rules are fairly elegant and soon give way to a smooth experience with little downtime.
There are four characters to choose from, each the head of one of the London Clubs: Master Fox, John Brown, Parvin Khan and Sir Daniel Home. You are tasked by none other than Queen Victoria herself to embark on an expedition into the ethereal plane known as the Shadow Market - a nightmarish swirl of cogs, gears, mist and (you guessed it) smog. It is a place out of time, giving shelter to dangerous creatures ready to hinder your passage through the ever shifting maze. Old Vic needs you to retrieve from this legendary place four precious objects, magical artefacts that cannot be made in the real world. They are two keys - one made of adamant and one of Atlantean metal, a mithril padlock and a magic chain. There are enough of these for all players to have a full set each, so the chase is on and the first player to return to the Queen is the winner.
Gameplay involves each player taking three actions per turn. You use these to navigate the board by moving your gentleman, rotating tiles and then buying or selling ethers at your present location to raise money. Money allows you to procure the precious items needed to win, but also to make offerings to the mysterious Shadow Master - ruler of the realm you have so bravely entered. Each round, the
player who has made the highest offering to this evil-doer earns his favour. In the following round that player will have the ability to move the Shadow Master's minions, the Shadow Agents, around the board - the idea being to use their individual special powers to thwart the progress of other players. These agents reduce the number of actions available to players in the same location, increase the costs of a transaction and so forth. It is a fine balance - spend too much coin appeasing the dark ones and the other players might steal a march on collecting the all important artefacts.
Naturally, to fill your pockets with coin you need to buy low and sell high and there is an interesting mechanic for this. From the beginning of the game, each player is assigned a particular side of the board in front of which they must sit. Each cog in the game has four numbers on it, representing the price of buying and selling ether in that location, and these numbers are always oriented to align with the four edges of the board. Whenever you buy and sell you simply use the value which is facing you. This adds significance to using an action to rotate a tile - you might gain a more favourable price for your transaction but you have to be mindful about which values end up facing the other sides of the board, and whether that will offer another player an advantage you did not intend. It can be mind-bending, but it really works within the theme of the game.
Trading your way into good stocks of the various coloured ethers is equally as important as accumulating coin, for these allow you to use the special action cards. These, you come to realise, are extremely powerful. For example, one allows you to rotate the entire board, another to move any player to any location. They are costly, but great fun and potentially game changing if used at the right moment.
To cap-off the thrill of the chase, each player has a slightly different win condition in addition to possessing the four artefacts - a secret combination of ethers that will unlock their own personal exit and allow them to leave the Shadow Market. All of this is kept secret during the game meaning that you never quite know how close each player is to ultimate victory. The result is that you find yourself playing right to the end, always knowing you might be in with a chance.
This is a very engaging game that I suspect, given the other strong releases at
this time of year, is likely to be largely overlooked. That’s a shame because, although there are a few fiddly rules that are easy forget during your first game, it is an otherwise solid experience with a theme that works and a balance that will hold your attention for the full 60 minutes.
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