Beemer (dr_tectonic) wrote,

Game Review: Miskatonic School for Girls

Jerry brought a copy of Miskatonic School for Girls home from work to try out, and we played it twice this evening.

It has an interesting premise: it's a deck-builder, like Dominion, but you buy both good cards (schoolgirls) to put into your own deck and bad cards (teachers) to put into your opponent's deck. A Lovecraftian patina is overlaid on it all, with many of the names referencing the Cthulhu Mythos. (Mr. Pickman is the art teacher; Erica Zahn is a 2nd year student who plays the violin.) Confrontations with the teachers wear away at your sanity, and the last player standing wins.

We both liked the concept, but unfortunately we also both agreed that it doesn't really hold together in the execution. The problem is that the randomness dial is turned up too high.

The biggest issue is that there's way too much swing in the card-buying. You start each turn with a hand of five cards; each card has a different monetary value in two currencies (friendship points for girls and nightmare points for teachers), and you use them to buy one of each type of card, one for you and one for your neighbor. The problem is that there are only three girls and three teachers to choose from, and it's pretty common to have, say, 2 nightmare points available when all the teacher cards cost at least 5, or 6 friendship points when the most expensive girl only costs 3. So the structure of your deck ends up being determined mostly by luck of the draw (how your purchasing power matched up to what was available to buy), with very little strategy.

The other big problem is in the use of the cards. After you're done buying cards, there's a combat phase where you have to fight any teacher cards that you drew. In addition to two currencies, each card also has an attack and a defense; you use the attack power of your defending schoolgirls to take out teachers, and then if any are left, their attack power in excess of your total defense drains away your sanity points until you hit zero and are out of the game. Buuuuuut... you don't get to pick your defenders! You discard all the cards you used for buying and just draw one card per attacker and see what you get. So again, it's all luck of the draw, with no strategy other than the composition of your deck.

I think these are fixable problems: you could divide the cards for purchase into three or four different tiers based on cost, so that you always had one from each tier available for purchase. That would make for some interesting decisions. And in terms of the combat, probably what you need is some kind of persistent pool of defenders to choose from, so that you can decide whether to put this card in the pool for defense or keep it out for purchasing power, or whether to use that good defense card now or keep it around for a bigger threat, etc. But I think those fixes would also require rebalancing all the numeric values in the game, so they can't really be applied as a rules patch. (There are also some random event cards and persistent effect cards, which in general seem to have much too big an effect. Again, the numbers need tweaking.)

It's a handsomely produced game, with good quality components and evocative art. However, I did find that the sepia-tinted palette of the artwork, while thematically appropriate, made it kind of hard to differentiate between cards. There's something to be said for simple iconography in bold colors.

Overall, I think I would give it a C+. It's almost a good game, but I think the design got locked in too early, and it really needed a few more iterations before the overall structure was settled. It relies a little too much on appearance and not quite enough on substance.

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