Review: Gormenghast – the board game.

I don’t intend to review things very often on this blog, but today I thought I’d make an exception. I refer to the board-game adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s classic Gormenghast books.

gormenghast-board-game-componentes

As a bit of backstory, I bought this back around Christmas 2014, when I was visiting family in the UK. I didn’t get much of an opportunity to play it, until some friends and I recently decided to start board-game evenings, whereupon we dusted it off and started playing it regularly.

The funny thing about Gormenghast (the game) is that there is so little material out there on it – just two reviews that I could find: a broadly positive one from Board Game Geek, and a broadly negative one from Kicking Down the Door. Hence the review here: given that I now have a fair few games under my belt, I feel reasonably well-qualified to comment.

Basic play:

Rather like a sort of weird reverse version of Cluedo. You (and everyone else) are trying to manipulate characters to take specific items into specific areas – the nature of which are determined by the Plot cards you hold in your hand. You get one point for moving a character into a given room, and three for getting them in the room with an artefact – victory is achieved when someone hits nine points total. Things are complicated by the fact that the board layout literally changes every game, and by the Book of Rituals, where random stuff happens at the roll of the dice.

The Kicking Down the Door review suggests that winning the game is entirely down to luck. While there is a hefty element of luck involved (having the right Plot cards, with the right characters, items, and rooms being close together), the real trick is learning how to coordinate moves between your Action cards (the cards that allow you to move characters), so I would argue that there is an element of skill involved too.

Positives:

+ While a bit fiddly at the start, the game is surprisingly user-friendly if you aren’t familiar with the source material – no-one I have played it with was familiar with either the books or the BBC TV adaptation. It isn’t a particularly complicated game once you get started, and doesn’t drag on for too long.

+ You can make it less about luck and more about skill if you add house rules (like, say, rather than first to nine, make it first to fifteen: the more Plot cards you need to complete, the less likely that the layout will simply hand everything to you).

+ I really like the variable and changing nature of the board, and the capacity (table space permitting) for some very strange layouts. It definitely helps the replay value.

+ The Book of Rituals is a nice call-back to Peake’s books.

Negatives:

-Despite the game-creators clearly intending interactive play, with players sabotaging each other, it doesn’t work out that way in practice: once you’re comfortable with coordinating your use of the Action cards, it makes much more sense to pursue your own mission, rather than thwart someone else’s (especially if you are playing with three or four players). While it can happen that two players will engage in a tug of war with a character, it is quite a rare occurrence – there are normally enough characters and diverse Plot cards to go around.

-The font and drawings on the item tiles are simply too small. It can be very difficult telling what is where.

-Rituals only sometimes affect the actual game-play.

-You will very likely have to come up with your own house rules to resolve ambiguities in the rulebook.

Overall

Well, my board-gaming friends and I are still playing it regularly, so that’s something. It’s not a perfect game – I think the key flaw is the lack of interactive play – but there’s still fun to be had.

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