I like to think myself a fairly balanced and reasonable person (stop laughing at the back!), giving things the time they deserve before making a decision on whether I like it or not. It’s very rare I just flat out call something rubbish or that I hate it or say that it’s worse than Hitler, but I feel very strongly that 2 of these 3 opinions apply to The Isle of Dr Necreaux (Ok, ok. It’s not worse than Hitler).
Buying blind is a gamble at the best of times, but I saw this game on Shut Up & Sit Down and they loved it. I liked the look of it and those chaps always seem to know what they’re on about so I thought I’d take a punt after the enthusiastic review so it wasn’t really like buying it blind. Unfortunately it seems they were playing a completely different game to me.
A co-operative card game, you are part of an elite search & rescue team sent to the titular Isle of Dr Necreaux to locate and rescue a team of scientists who have been captured and held for some nefarious reason by the Ming the Merciless lookalike. It looked compact with nice artwork so I took a quick nip to Amazon and I procured a brand new copy for £13, which has to be a bargain, right? RIGHT?! Well…
My partner in dorkery Jonny came round as he does on a Monday (whether I want him to or not) we jumped straight in after reading the instructions, which while being short, seemed to be easy-ish enough to follow and the game itself easy to set up. It comes with just 2 piles of cards (Chatracter traits and the Adventure Deck), a countdown timer, tokens and some dice. You deal each player 3 Character cards, of which they choose one and pass the other two to the person on their left, then they choose another one and pass along again until you have 3 cards, all of which makes up the Character you are playing. This was the first thing that confused us, as Character, Player and Team aren’t that well defined. I’ll get back to this.
After you’ve chosen your Character cards the Scientist and Rescue Shuttle cards are shuffled into the last 2 thirds of the Adventure deck which are then stacked up to form the pile from which you’ll draw cards to have, well, Adventure! The aim is to get to the scientists and then get to the shuttle and escape the island. The game can end in numerous ways with you escaping without the scientists, with the scientists or the island getting blown up and no-one escaping. Along the way you’ll be fighting monsters, evading traps, getting split up and manically trying to escape before the timer ticks down to zero and the game is over. The timer represents the turns you have before the bomb goes off, destroying the island. you get 12, 11, 10, 9 and 8 turns depending if you have 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 players.
The interesting thing about this game is that it’s played by consensus, as in everyone has to agree what to do in a turn. Your options are move through the island, or rest to recover and reload. Rest moves allow you to turn one flipped Character card back face up and may add one Charge to a card with the Charge keyword. Charges are used to trigger various character powers as directed by the card.
Movement is measured as ‘Speed’, which is represented by turning over cards from the Adventure deck, with the minimum being zero but the maximum being limitless. However, as the more cards you turn over the more you risk running into things that are going to kick your teeth in or hinder you horribly. You only have limited turns to get the scientists out and off the island (so when you’ve done your moving you move the turn counter down one), so you have to strike a balance between caution and speed. The thing is the island is out to get you any way it can, and it’s an evil, hateful, spiteful shit of an island,
First, you have Monsters. Monsters have to be fought by rolling a D6 and are defeated by rolling a number higher than their printed Combat Value (CV on the cards). The Monster has hit points equal to the amount of people playing, so it is, theoretically, possible to defeat a Monster in one turn. Each player gets a roll, however if they roll LESS than the Combat Value the team takes a hit for each dice with a number less than the Monsters Combat Value. This damage is represented by turning a Character card face down, or discarding a face down card from the game. The damage can be distributed between the team members as the team sees fit unless otherwise stated. Some Character card powers can still be used while the card is face down so there’s an element of strategy as to who takes the hits. If you don’t want to fight the Monster you can choose to retreat, but each Character takes a hit point of damage, you lose any stockpiled Item cards (which are stacked on a separate pile when revealed and are won by defeating Monsters) and the turn is over.
Once the monster is defeated you continue your turn if you have unspent Movement or the turn is ended if it’s the last move.
Then there are Trap, Event and Room cards. Traps are instant effects that generally fuck up your turn or deal damage to you, usually by rolling a dice against your teams Speed. Again this is where you have to be careful as if you’re rushing with 6 or more speed you’re essentially fucked as a lot of them trigger by rolling less than your Speed.
Event Cards can swing either way, offering benefits or detriments to your team depending on a roll of the dice, usually modified by how many Character cards with a certain keyword (like Heroic) you have on your team. The Room card works in a way like Event cards.
So that’s the game. Sounds, good right? Sounds like it could be a fraught, mad scramble with bountiful laughs, derring-do and peril in a Saturday morning matinee way, right? No. No it isn’t. The problem this game has is that it’s obscenely unfair. Now, before you start I’m all for games that are difficult, because what’s the point in playing a game just to piss through it and finish it? It’s not a video game. Video games, for me, are there to be enjoyed, played and then traded when I’ve had my fill of entertainment whereas board and card games last much, much longer. They require replaying again and again, mainly because playing against different people means you get a different challenge and the random factor of cards and dice rolls means strategies need to change each time you play (if the games designed well, at least). Castle Ravenloft is hard. Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is hard. Space Hulk is (arguably for the Space Marines) hard. Isle of Dr Necreaux is just poorly thought out and spiteful.
First off the rules aren’t incredibly clear (as this FAQ makes apparent) which is an instant NO in my book (but that’s a rant we’ve had before from Pele). I’m not sure why rules are so frequently shoddy and ill written, because it’s a pretty fundamental thing to have to get right. Just one of many axes to grind about this hobby. Anway, so the rules aren’t great. But there’s more.
The Monsters are often ridiculously powered and kick your teeth in for you. Take, for example, the Formless Terror. The Formless Terror has a Combat Value of 5 which means you need to roll a 6 to hit it, but the problem is it has hit points equal to twice your team size so, essentially, you have to roll 4 6’s to defeat it. What? Really? Ok, then lets run away from it. No, no you can’t because if you do you roll 3 dice and place it back in the deck the number of cards equal to the number you just rolled.
Maybe it’s just that Monster, right? The rest aren’t THAT bad? Not quite, but they’re pretty nasty.
The Military-Grade Defense Drone discards itself when it deals damage, but also gets rid of any pending Item cards and deals 3 additional points to the one it deals if you fail the Combat Value roll. What about the Psychic Leech? Once it deals damage it gets placed under one damaged character card and then puts a -2 modifier on that characters rolls until it’s discarded through a rest action. Oh, and you don’t get to do anything else on that rest action. Cheers for that. The rest of the monsters are similarly evil.
The rooms, events and traps aren’t as bad as the monster except for one, which is the Sliding Wall. The Sliding Wall effectively splits your team up, so you have a Main team and a Lost team. All encounters are now separate, with the timer only going down when the Main team take their turn. This changes the Monsters health as you are now 2 teams of however many players you decide upon (if you’re playing with 2 or more). The problem is if there’s only 2 of you playing you’re in big trouble, especially if you get split up very near the beginning of the game. This happened twice to us and it’s ridiculously frustrating, especially as the only way you can join back up is to draw another Sliding Wall card.
Then there’s the character cards themselves that seem to be inversely proportionate to the head fucks that are the Monster cards in that most of the simply aren’t very good. There are 33 cards, which is great if you have 4 or 5 players as you’ll likely get a spread of cards that might possibly probably be good, but in 2 player the chances aren’t that great. On one hand you have the Skilled Character card which gives you +1 to ANY roll, which is awesome, but on the other hand you have the Ninja card which damages a monster as soon as it’s drawn but makes it so your combat rolls on succeed on a natural 6 and fail on a natural 1. That I don’t understand at all, but then that could be just me.
I’m going to be honest and tell you we only played a few games of The Isle of Dr Necreaux before finding all of the above made the game to be absolutely, positively, utterly and completely devoid of any kind of fun simply through being sheerly, bloody mindedly hateful and difficult. Should we play it more to get a more balanced view? Should we keep playing even thought we’re not enjoying it, just to see if we’re wrong? Well, to be quite frank why should we? The game’s fairly simple to pick up and understand, we found the FAQ, went through Board Game Geek for rule clarifications and we still found the game to be horrid. I’ve already said not all games should be easy, but there should be an element of balance to the game to keep it enjoyable, and that’s the fundamental thing; I play board and card games for fun and enjoyment. This gave me neither.