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12 January 2014 @ 09:30 pm
Board Game Review: Sanitarium  
softlykarou and I went to a games party at our friend Cori's today, and because we showed up late, everyone was already involved in a game by the time we got there. Well, everyone but us and Cori that is, so while I poured myself a drink, softlykarou and Cori picked out some game called Sanitarium that Cori had backed on Kickstarter.

The basic premise is that everyone plays a person who wakes up in an insane asylum in the middle of a psychotic break, and thus with no idea of who they are or how they got there, and has to regain their senses and find their Safe Items (number determined by the number of players) to get out of the asylum. The asylum is built out of a deck as the game is played, and each card that's not a room is both a hallway and an item or event--players who are in the hallway can search them to pick up the card and then replace it with a new hallway from the deck.

There are various scenario cards that set the starting conditions, how quickly new rooms and hallways come out of the deck, what the players have to do to win (co-op vs. competitive, individual vs. group escape), and so on. Each player has a character card that lists the actions they can perform (move, search rooms, place a new room, try to shake off their madness, and so on), with one side for when they're suffering from hallucinations and the other side for when they're in their right mind. Meanwhile, there are Shadows that are spawned in the Dark Hallways that seek out the players and attack them. Well, sometimes, because a Shadow coming into contact with a player just requires a Horror check (2d6, beat a number). The uncertainty is probably supposed to represent the moments in horror films where the protagonists start panicking as they think they're about to be attacked but it turns out that they're jumping at...well, at shadows.

Okay, one thing I have to say after this is that my review may or may not be useful or even correct because we found the rules to be incredibly confusing. For example, the actual rule for Shadows and horror checks is apparently that the difficulty of the Horror check is based on the total number of Dark Hallways in the game, but I believe that the scenario card we started with (co-op, individual escape) specified a difficulty, so we went with that until we found another rule in the rulebooks. Yes, rulebooks--there was the original rulebook and scenario card that came with the game, and then there was a v1.1 that was sent out the kickstarter backers, but they didn't cover all the same subjects and weren't organized the same and it was quite difficult to tell what parts of the original rules we were supposed to replace with the new ones and which ones could remain as is.

Another example of how we screwed up was with the placing of rooms. Originally, we were only placing down new rooms if we were specifically doing the Expand action, but then we learned that we were supposed to place a room before each player took one of their turns, which would have made it significantly easier to run from the Shadows at the beginning of the game even though we also missed an rule that on an each players turn all Shadows moved two spaces toward them. Constantly referencing different rules books and the scenario card to try to figure out how things worked was probably a quarter of our game time, and I think Sanitarium would really benefit from a unified v1.2 rules or someone writing a single rules reference sheet.

Once we figured those rules out, though, the game started to hum. The Shadows moving toward the active player and the necessity of us to find our Safe Items caused us to resort to the classic horror cliche of everyone splitting up even though we wanted to stick together--though that's another example of a confusing rule. The original scenario card said that Shadows can't hurt a player in the same room as another player, but the revised one said that the player whose turn it is picks one of the players to be attacked. That was another rule we missed for a bit.

Sanitarium was pretty fun even with all the confusion, but unfortunately I can't provide an accurate review. I'm not even sure if we were playing it correctly after we figured out the rules, and the ending was even more confusing than the beginning. When the draw deck runs out, then every time a card should be drawn, one of the hallways or rooms is removed from the board, and any player who has no way to get back to the foyer is trapped forever in the Sanitarium. There were other rules that were supposed to take place too, based on switching to the Desperation side of the scenario card...but the original scenario card didn't have a Desperation side, and some of the new scenario card's rules were an odd fit with the other mechanics we thought we were supposed to be using (edit: As an example of the problems with the rules layout, there was nothing to distinguish the new rules from the old ones, so half the time I don't know which set of rules we were using). I'm not sure if that's the reason we easily won was because we had properly planned before the Desperation phase and were able to pull through or because we didn't correctly ramp up the danger. There was some reference to Shadows attacking more often or collecting Shadow tokens or something, but there wasn't anything like that in the revised rules I had, and we only had two Desperation phase turns anyway.

Also, a lot of the strategy and Event cards seemed based on screwing over the other players, as does the fact that people can choose where to move the Shadows on their turn after the initial Shadow movement toward them, but since we were playing co-op none of that came up and we just ended up trading in Thief and Dazed and Stunned cards in to recover our sanity, which made the game a lot easier. I suspect if we had been saving those cards to play on each other, then the game would have come a lot closer to the wire and the Desperation phase might actually have been desperate. If you play it, I suggest you spend a bit more pre-game time trying to read and integrate the rules into a coherent whole and play a competitive scenario so you get the full range of what the game has to offer.
 
 
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