15 August 2019
Get your moustaches twirling – the world’s not gonna destroy itself
Whenever you see the CMON logo on a box, you can be sure it’s going to have high production value. But sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a game really, honestly requires all that table space and moulded plastic.
On the surface, Victorian Masterminds looks like a big game. It has a big theme: competing steampunk supervillains try to build their own doomsday machines and dominate the globe. It comes from a pair of big designers, namely Blood Rage creator Eric M. Lang and the brain behind 7 Wonders, Antoine Bauza. And it presents an impressive tabletop spread, with chunky, cartoony miniatures representing buildings (which earn points when captured) and scientists (who can be spent to shortcut to certain achievements along the way).
In fact, the game is a surprisingly light worker-placement, engine-building hybrid which, honestly, could have fitted in a box half the size if it just used cardboard counters and cards instead of environment-bothering plastic figures and tokens. Not that this is a devastating issue (unless the price point puts you off); Victorian Masterminds is a fun-enough little game.
Partly, it involves building gigantic, deadly contraptions, which are chosen from six possible options at the game’s start. You have to gather materials to piece your machine together, placing jigsaw-style components on a fetching blueprint player mat. Partly, it requires assigning agents, who are drawn from the top of a shuffled, facedown stack of thick, plastic gear tokens and placed on one of the board’s five cities (London, Paris, Moscow, Rome or Washington D.C.). Each site will take up to three stacked agents (two in a two-player game), before they have to be turned over and resolved in order.
Each agent will firstly snaffle a resource specific to the city, then trigger its own power. So the gunner can attempt to capture a building, for example, while the saboteur will negate the next agent down’s power. The fact that you can’t choose your agent – well, until you collect enough Da Vinci Codex tokens – adds an extra stratum of challenge. It helps to have a good memory, just in case you end up accidentally sabotaging your own efforts.
However, there is a bit of a disconnect between the two halves. While the agents help build the machines, and the machines boost your powers, you don’t really feel how these gigantic inventions impact on the game world. It’s the agents who do all the work in the capitals, while the machines sit rather passively off to the side. Surely with the OTT, cartoony steampunk style, you’d want to imagine your gargantuan, metallic tarantula rampaging down the Strand, or looming over the White House? Instead, it feels like it never leaves the workshop, especially as the game ends when the first machine is built.
For both Lang and Bauza this is definitely a minor work. It’s certainly serviceable, looks great and adds a neat little twist to worker-placement mechanics, but it doesn’t quite bolt together into a resoundingly satisfying whole. And, we suspect, would have worked just as well at half the size and price.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
A straightforward game elaborately presented, which is most likely to appeal to fans of worker placement. But it’s far from either of its designers’ best work.
Designer: Antoine Bauza, Eric M. Lang
Artist: Davide Tosello
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 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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