Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Claustrophobia

Demons vs Christian zealots? Poppy will have some of that!!!

Well it's a game that many readers of my blog and personal friends have suggested I should get for review. It's been described as a 'dungeon skirmish game' also as a 'sort of dungeon crawler' and a 'wargame on a board' by various people I know and respect, who are normally far more eloquent. I can see elements of all three statements in the game if I'm honest, although for me it certainly has felt more like a skirmish board game. Claustrophobia is produced by Asmodee, the company originally behind the Hell Dorado wargame, and this game too is set in the very dark Hell Dorado universe. So I was very keen to get on and play the game.

Product Description

It is a board game in a box, what can I say? I'm addicted. Given the price of the game, and the fact that the miniatures are pre-painted I think there's a fair amount of stuff in the box. There are 36 floor tiles, single sided but seriously 36 is more than enough and they're a decent size too. There are about 50 or so card tokens, 17 pre-painted miniatures, 5 reference cards for the human faction (the Westerners), 5 plastic stands for those reference cards, and 13 dice split between 1D10 and 12D6. There are also 25 plastic damage tokens that you stick into the player reference cards to denote wounds. Finally we get a rulebook, a vitally important component to any game!

Gameplay 8 out of 10

And so the game begins, already my coffee table looks way too small

Claustrophobia is a two player adversarial game. In this respects it's more like a wargame with two players pitting their wits, cunning and guile against each other. There are two factions the Humans, or if you're familiar with Hell Dorado lore, the Westerners and the Demons. There are some interesting play mechanics though, involving differing statlines and dice rolls for the Westerners. Each warrior has 6 different statlines numbered, unsurprisingly, from 1 to 6. At the start of each round the Westerner player rolls a number of D6 equal to the number of warriors they have, so if I had 5 warriors that would be 5D6, I'd then be able to take the numbers I'd rolled and apply them to each individual warrior choosing which statlines I wanted to use for them. At first I wasn't sure about this mechanic, but you see as your warriors take wounds you have to 'block' off certain statlines, meaning there is a serious amount of thought that has to go into your planning and choosing which lines to get rid of. When things get a bit tight making the right decisions becomes vital to your success. A blocked statline can't be used, and if you don't roll a number that can be applied to a warrior they're useless for a round. Nasty. Once all statlines are 'blocked' a warrior is dead.

And so the Westerners already get split up
Like the Westerners the Demon player also has random abilities that they generate by rolling the 'Dice of Destiny'... is it me or does that sound like a particularly bad 80's hair metal covers band? Any who, the idea here is very similar to that of the Westerners dice rolls to determine their stat lines. The Demon player then chooses the abilities they want to use from a list of abilities they have. Again it's a random way of changing the sides abilities each round, while still giving the player a degree of control over their abilities. This too, at first I was unsure of, and whether or not it actually worked, but the more I played the game, the more I grew to like it. It's certainly different from what I'm used to. The tiles themselves also have a number of special attributes from having stashed treasure, being booby-trapped, flooded and many more besides. These too have an effect on the game, and take some getting used to. Claustrophobia is more about how you deal with what the game throws at you than studious or careful planning.

Two quick runners make an early, daring break for home!
That took a bit of getting used to at first, and we cocked things up the first time around. The first game of Claustrophobia I played swung wildly in the favour of the Demon player and the Westerner player. This was primarily down to the way the card tiles came out of the deck of tiles. At first they allowed the demon player to swarm me and hem me in, slowing my progress. And then as the narrow tiles came out I was able to scuttle off down the tunnels with two of my adventurers and leave the demons trailing in my wake powerless to do anything about my bid for freedom. It was our first game and we got a few things wrong, but nothing majorly. Certainly not so that it would have drastically changed things fundamentally, if anything it might have aided my escape sooner. It was also the first mission, the one that's designed to teach you the fundamentals of the game, rather than being the full experience. However, it wasn't a great start if I'm honest, it felt more like the tiles had won the game than me.

One man down, another badly injured and the Priest about to get curb stomped. It's not looking good for the Westerners

One of those early runners bites the dust
But I persevered with the game, and I played the first mission again. This time the tiles fell horribly for the adventuring Westerners and as the Demon player I was able to loop the dungeon back on itself meaning the Westerners were never far from my sight and in constant threat from all sides, they couldn't escape from me or make a break for it. That they got within 1 tile from the end was a testament more to the tenacity of my opponent than it was any inherent balance. Once again I'd won a game based on how the tiles had randomly been pulled from the stack. I boxed Claustrophobia up for a week and tried to forget about my experience with the game, as I was sure that there was more too it that I was missing. I felt this mainly because the mechanics were fun and engaging and looked sound in principle. It also looked to offer a serious amount of tactical depth to players on both sides. I was sure I was just missing something...

With the exit revealed it's close but...
I was! The other sodding missions. The first mission is pretty much dependent on the way the tiles fall from the deck, what I'd observed in those two games might have been standard for the first mission. Although it was more just blind luck having looked through all the tiles, but that mission isn't indicative of the whole game. The game has six scenarios in all, of which the first mission 'The Survivors' is just one. The second mission 'Holding Back the Invasion' provided a twist on the first mission, trying to get through another dungeon in a similar vain to trigger an explosion to seal a pit to hell. Sounds very similar to the first mission except its not just about racing off into the distance this time with two fast runners. I played this mission quite a few times and actually found it to produce some quite close and tense games. I started to warm to Claustrophobia.

...Definitely no cigar as the priest finally gets slaughtered
The other two missions that I have a lot of time for are 'The ritual' and 'The possessed'. Suffice to say the 6 missions actually offer up some very varied gameplay, and tactical options and choices for each side. It's not all random circumstance, it's more about how you deal with what the game throws at you, like I said earlier. Once you get your head around that fact and accept it for what it is Claustrophobia can be an awful lot of fun, especially if you play winner stays on! It can however take up a lot of space, and ironically there have been times that the dungeons created have been longer or wider than the space required for a wargame. So I'm not too sure, ironically, it'll be 'right' for many wargamers. As it does have a very strong element of skirmish wargaming about it, and if that's what sort of games you are into then there's a good chance you'd rather play those sort of games I guess. Things like Hell Dorado itself, Malifaux, Anima Tactics so on and so forth. Still as a board game it does have merit and it's a fun addition to my gaming cupboard.

As those miniatures come packed in the box
Detail 9 out of 10

I don't mind admitting I was a little surprised when I opened the box to find that the miniatures were pre-painted. Now don't get me wrong, these aren't likely to win any painting competitions, and I could do just as good a job half asleep. But, if you view them as a neat base coat over which to do some further shading and highlighting they're not that bad you know. It also made a bit of a nice change putting painted miniatures down to play a board game, so I actually appreciated it. It's not something I'd go out of my way to find, or look for in a game I guess, but here with Claustrophobia it kind of works. The miniatures themselves are also actually quite nicely detailed, and are a significant step up on a lot of the usual board game miniatures you find. It would have been nice to have had a little bit more variance I guess in the troglodyte miniatures but it's not too awful.

Two piles of those detailed floor tiles
The card components are really nicely detailed too. Especially those floor tiles, the artwork on them is really nicely realised and adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the game when you're playing. True the tiles themselves could do with being slightly smaller, as at 6" by 6" they take up a hefty amount of space, but then you wouldn't get to see as much of that lovely artwork. The playing cards too are covered with lots of dark evocative artwork from the Hell Dorado universe, and are easy to read and understand when playing the game. It's all very good stuff and as I always say, it's these details that really count with board games, as they give you so much of the atmosphere of a game. If it's something that is done right really can help immerse you as a player in the 'world' above and beyond what wargames often achieve. The tokens and character cards are also well designed, produced and continue the strong design aesthetic.

The rulebook with a few other game components

The final piece of the design work is the rulebook. Often I skim through such things, desperately seeking to get to the end of them so I can put them away in the box, their rules absorbed. As long as they're neat and suitably well laid out I'm not all that bothered about the rulebooks to be honest with you. But, I have to say for some reason I found the Claustrophobia rulebook a particular pleasure to look through, I can't really tell you why. Yes it's full colour with some nice pictures in it, but so too have been other games rulebooks. It was accessible and easy to navigate, again other rulebooks have been too. My only option left to explain my feelings is that I quite like the design aesthetic, with the stained parchment look of the pages and just how many bright pretty pictures and diagrams there were. I hadn't really noticed or thought about it before, but the first interaction with any game product I guess is always the rulebook, so it's nice Asmodee took their time and lavished some attention on it.

Those pre-painted miniatures
Quality 9 out of 10

I really can't grumble about any of the components really, and of late I've been given plenty of course to whinge about a fair few things. So it's nice to be able to once again be positive about something. The playing cards are a really good quality, easily comparable to the best Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast produce. The card tiles, tokens and other components are all made out of a sturdy, thick card that feels solid a durable enough to me to take the ware and tare of daily gaming. Plus if you look after the components it should see you right for many, many years to come. The miniatures are also a decent enough quality too, with enough detail on them to make more than passable wargames pieces. They're plastic and although it feels like the rubbery plastic many board games miniatures are made out of it is a firmer or denser form of the stuff. They retain a fair amount of surface detail too and don't flex wildly.

Service 9 out of 10

As I've said, I had one or two issues with some slight damage a while back with OG Games and since pointing it out to them they've been great.  They also kept me well informed while searching for this game. Loads of places had sold out and I was beginning to wonder if it had gone out of print. OG Games chased down the facts and found out more would be being made available to market soon, and it was a short term supply glitch. They asked to be kept informed and let me know when they were close to becoming available. They even sent it straight out to me as soon as they got it in. Maybe that's standard service, but I appreciated their effort any way.

Price 9 out of 10

It's recommended retail price is £39.99, and I think that's not bad at all for a well produced board game with interesting play mechanics and slick design. OG Games sold it to me for £34.99 though, so that's even better isn't it? I think it's a good price for a game, and it sits right at that impulse buy range for most people... especially if you have a job!

Overall 8.5 out of 10

I'm glad I stuck at Claustrophobia I really am. Because for a little while it did perplex me. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it as a challenge and a game. But, it does have a nice ebb and flow to it and certainly deserved me giving it more time.  It can get frantic and panicked quite quickly and on the whole produces tense skirmishes that go right down to the wire normally. I still think the game takes up maybe a little bit too much space at times, and as a two player competitive game it does have somewhat limited appeal I guess, given that most of my friends are wargamers like me. However, given that the game is so quick to get through, games lasting no longer than 30 to 45 minutes it is somewhat quicker than most wargames I own. Peace out!


  1. just bought it yesterday, and reading a positive review about it makes me happy :)

  2. @Wostry Ferenc, ah yes there's nothing like external validation!!! lol. Yeah it's a good little game. And there appear to be some expansions coming out for it now too, so it'll grow as a game it seems. Not a bad addition to most peoples gaming stash I'd say.

  3. Yay! Claustrophobia! I love this game.

    I can understand being a bit thrown after you first couple of games. While I think the first scenario is a lot of fun it can swing wildly depending on what tiles you draw.

    Dealing with the changing environment (and injuries!) is what it's all about, just like you say. I think it it's great that you can setup and play the game in 30-45 minutes and I'm usually up for another scenario or two. Or simply switching roles! To me at least the demon side is a lot more fun than the genestealers in Space Hulk for example.

    The expansion (De Profundis) has indeed been released and from what I hear it's good! You get two more heroes and two more demons. And of course, there are a lot of additional scenarios and material at the official site.

    Well, sorry for coming off like a salesman. Haha! Just a fan... just a fan. :)

  4. Another great review, and it reminded me to check out Hell Dorado, as well.
    I have to say I am consistently amazed at the low cost of many of the boardgames. A single one time investment seems to net many hours of fun, and the prices don't seem that steep.
    Pre-painted minis, even? Sheesh.
    I trust the kitties...

    Cuz I love cats...I love every kind of cat...and I want them on a rainbow....
    Damn that song!

  5. @Martin, once again it seems we have similar taste my good man!!! lol. Pimp away, I love hearing gamers wax lyrical about games they love as it gets me all enthusiastic too. I did struggle to wrap my head around some of the mechanics at first, not that they're complex. They're not! Just how they played out more than anything else... but... it won me round as it's quick, exciting and an interesting tactical challenge. A really good fun, solid product and a bit different too boot. In American parlance Asmodee hit a home run with this, true it might have been on the third ball, but a home run is a home run!!!

    @SinSynn, I too have been surprised by my board games of late. I'm so glad I had my hobbying epiphany about board games, I really am. I'd forgotten how much fun I used to have with board games as a kid and teenager. I'd forgotten that they kept my gaming hobby alive for long periods of time. God knows how it slipped from my mind in the first place but it did. Plus most board games can involve way more people and you can have multiple friends round, play with kids or your significant other. They were the gateway products for many of us, the hobby needs its board games.