So … long time no long, rambling post about board games.
You’ve probably noticed that I have kind of a thing about horror-themed games. Which is odd because I’m not a huge fan of horror in real life. I mean I’m fine with the Anne Rice end of the spectrum where it’s mostly just hot people and over the top violence, but the sort that’s meant to legitimately scare you never made much sense to me. I mean either it doesn’t work, in which case it’s failed as a piece of art, or it does, in which case you’re scared. And being scared is unpleasant.
Anyway the horror-themed game I’m talking about today is Grey Fox Games’ London Dread. It’s a co-operative game (because I increasingly can’t be bothered with games where you actually have to attempt to beat other people) that casts you and up to three friends as bizarre Victorian stereotypes out to solve some manner of mystery causing, well, dread on the streets of London. Hence the name.
I picked up London Dread on a whim. The theme was appealing, and I was looking for something to play with some guests who were visiting. I’ve been super into Eldrich Horror recently, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to play multiple sessions in a weekend, so I very much wanted something else that would scratch a similar itch without getting us too burned out on Lovecraftian shenanigans.
So far I have played exactly two games of London Dread, which is enough to play through half of the game’s four scenarios (or possibly five? Some reviews seem to say five). I’ve wrestled a lot with my feelings about it. And I’m aware that’s slightly portentous way of describing the sensation of not being sure whether you think a game is any good, but I think this might be my first unambiguous discommendation of the series, and since this is a game that practically screams “labour of love” I feel kind of bad about not liking it. I mean I could be wrong – Grey Fox Games seems to be a perfectly legitimate publisher and to have a whole bunch of games under its belt, but everything about the game screams passion project to an almost unhelpful degree. Basically every element of the game feels like something the designer or designers thought was completely awesome (programmed action! Weirdly specific Victorian criminal conspiracies! Personality mechanics!) and I feel a lot like your enjoyment of the game will hinge on your ability to find those things equally awesome, rather than on the way those things come together as a satisfying experience.
To make this review short, my reluctant but simple conclusion about London Dread is that it … isn’t very good? And I feel bad, because I really want to like the game. There’s an awful lot in it to like, there are a number of quite clever ideas, there are some interesting mechanics and in some places it shows a remarkable attention to detail (there are little markers to put near all your decks of cards, so they organise themselves quite well) but so much of it just feels like it doesn’t hang together properly.
I was sufficiently bothered by this that I actually went out and listened to some other people’s reviews, and they seem incredibly positive about it, so it might just be that I have no taste. And now I feel even more confused because I really don’t understand what it is I’m missing.
Anyway, that’s the opening angsting and the tl;dr bit. On to the main review.
Bad First Impressions
I did not get off to a good start with London Dread. On opening the box and enjoying the delicious new boardgame smell, I was confronted with a little insert that began with the words “due to a printing error.” My friends and I then spent really quite a long time sorting out which of the cards didn’t have the symbols on them that they were supposed to have (which was a bit awkward because it’s surprisingly hard to identify something that is notable primarily for its lack of a feature that you have never actually seen). The insert also informed us that some of the cards had a printing error that made their backs look subtly different to the backs of other cards from which they were supposed to be indistinguishable, and again it took quite a long time to work out which the faulty cards were, which the non-faulty ones were, and why it made a difference.
The thing is, accidents happen and mistakes get made. I get that, I really do. But it didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence going into my first game.
A Learning Curve on a Timer
London Dread uses what gamers sometimes call a “programming” system where the players decide in advance what their moves are going to be, either for the whole game or for a turn, and then record their decision in some manner, normally with imperfect information about how everything is going to turn out. This is used to good effect in the now-rather-aged Robo-Rally and to hilarious effect in the I-really-should-get-around-to-reviewing-it-some-time Space Alert. Both of these games are wacky comedy affairs where failing ignominiously is very much part of the point. In Robo Rally you get a new bit of randomised wackiness every turn, while in Space Alert you have five minutes of space chaos that you then resolve in the ten minutes that follow.
London Dread is a bit different. You get twelve minutes to plan your actions, and then actually resolving them takes the best part of the next hour. This is partly because it’s a thematic game with (I would argue light) storytelling elements which you do a disservice by rushing them, it’s partly because the middle and end phases of the game are just legitimately long. We played it with three players, and resolving twelve actions each for three people, many of which involve overlapping or slightly contradictory mechanics, takes a while. Then there’s the endgame segment, in which you have yet another wholly different set of mechanics, which aren’t very well explained in the core rules (to the extent that one very important rule for the endgame must be intuited only from a single reference to the fact that it should already have happened, that reference occurring in an example describing a completely different situation).
To put it another way, a game of London Dread is fundamentally won or lost in the twelve minute planning phase. The hour-long execution phase and endgame phase are very much an exercise in seeing how it all turned out.
This means several things. Firstly, it means that you’re only really doing gameplay for the first ten minutes of an hour long game session, the rest is implementing decisions already made or very occasionally drawing cards. This is especially brutal the first time you play, when you’re essentially having to make decisions about what you’re going to do over the next half hour to an hour of game time, but you’re making those decisions on the basis of an at best limited understanding of the way the game mechanics work. This means that the first time you play the game you’re pretty likely to either (a) lose or (b) win, but only because you interpreted the rules overgenerously.
This problem is exacerbated by the game’s story focus. Of which more later. Or, more precisely, of which more now:
London Dread is a story driven game. It comes with an app in which a proper actor reads out a little introductory paragraph that sets the scene and explains what it is that your characters are doing. The plot then unfolds through a number of plot cards in which your characters follow a series of clues to reach their ultimate goal.
Unfortunately the plot cards only make up 4-6 of the 24 cards on the board. The rest are “Dread” cards; prettily illustrated but thematically sparse cards that describe a particular encounter that a character can have by visiting them. And when I say “describe an encounter” I mostly mean “have a title and some art and a bit of flavour text”. The encounters on the Dread cards are always the same in every game (although they are different between the first and second chapters of any given game) and they feel – and there isn’t a nice way to say this – a lot like filler.
For example, in the second scenario the premise is that your characters have a Mysterious List of Names, and know that at least two of the people on that list have been murdered. Your goal is to find the people on that list and warn them that they should leave London. On the way you encounter a strange group of owl-themed occultists and fall foul of a corrupt police officer.
Which is great, but that’s only about a quarter of what you’re actually doing in the game. The rest of what you’re doing is dealing with Dread cards. So maybe at 6 a.m. you’ll visit the plot-crucial NPC you have to deliver your dire warning to, and then at 8 you’ll go to another location to pick up a clockwork monkey, which is in no way contextualised but which does give you a bonus on problems that have a gear symbol on them. Then you’ll take your clockwork monkey and, at 10, deal with some Grave Robbing which apparently it is important for you to deal with despite the fact that there is no logical connection between that and the warnings you’re apparently supposed to be giving out. And apparently a clockwork monkey helps you with this.
It all puts me very much in mind of that subcategory of modern video games which deliver a terribly serious story through cutscenes but fill the space between them with generic shooter gameplay or sandbox chaos. There’s no connection between what your characters are supposed to be doing in the narrative and what you actually spend your playtime doing. It’s sort of like in Grand Theft Auto IV, where in cutscenes you’re this jaded ex-con trying to put his past behind him, but in all the gameplay bits you’re a gleeful maniac happily mowing down pedestrians for fun. Except here it’s that you’re supposed to be warning a bunch of strangers to leave town and instead you’re encountering Boris the Bear, and the game doesn’t really explain who he is or what that means.
Agency and Lack Thereof
This is a tricky one. There is a tiny part of me that suspects there are levels of gameplay in London Dread that are accessible if you understand it very, very well. For example, clearing Dread Cards is an almost entirely deterministic process (you need to match the symbols on your character to the symbols on the card) but you can draw cards from an “adventure deck” in an effort to resolve a card that you don’t quite have the symbols for. This isn’t something we’ve ever done in any of the times we’ve played it. It just never seems worth it, and we don’t have a good handle on how the probabilities shake out. So the Adventure Deck winds up being largely full going into the final confrontation, and this has the knock-on effect of making the final confrontation largely trivial. Except for the final showdown bit, which is a single dice roll that you have a reasonable chance to fail no matter how well you played the earlier game.
Umm … I’ll get to that.
The big issue I have with London Dread (okay, one of the many big issues I have with London Dread) is agency – that sense (even if it’s illusory) of having control over the outcomes of the game. The feeling that whether I win or lose will depend on whether I play well or badly, rather than on dice rolls or blind choices.
To a new player especially, London Dread is all dice rolls and blind choices. You move around London trying to resolve Dread cards to avoid the Dread Level rising. This is important because every five points of Dread is an extra fist icon you need to roll on the single dice roll that decides the final confrontation (again, I’ll get to that). But it isn’t at all clear how bad or not bad a rising dread level will be until you’ve actually had the final confrontation and seen how many fists you need to beat it (and if you’re playing the game for the first time, you may not understand what a rising dread level means at all). I can imagine a world where I knew enough about London Dread that the decision to visit a Dread Card I couldn’t resolve, relying on drawing cards from the Adventure Deck to put it away, would be an interesting and considered tactical choice. But I don’t live in that world, I live in the world where I know what’s on my character and what’s on the card and that Dread is nebulously bad, so I just kind of move around to the cards that match my symbols, if there are any.
Then there’s the random elements. Dread cards are wholly deterministic if you want them to be. Plot cards, on the other hand, require you to roll dice. But there’s more! The number of dice you roll is equal to the number of symbols on your character sheet that match the symbols on the plot card, but you draw an additional card that is used only for Plots and in the Final Confrontation which has extra symbols on it. These cards are from something called the Personality Deck, which is a cute idea (each character has its own deck of cards which give it, appropriately enough, a sense of personality – it’s kind of nice to know that the Soldier character is also a musician and the Dancer character has a missing sister). As cool and thematic as the personality deck is, however, it’s adding randomness to randomness. If I need to score one fist to get a good outcome on a plot card (I keep talking about fists, sorry: the game uses custom dice that have four blank sides and two fists, fists are good, you need fists to win) then I know I have to roll three dice on average, but the number of dice I get to roll in my effort to randomly score the fists I need for victory is itself randomly determined.
It’s only having written that down that I quite realise how absurd it sounds.
And there is still more. Not only does beating plot cards require me to randomly roll the appropriate number of fists on a number of dice that I have determined randomly by drawing cards from my personality deck, but one of those cards will randomly fuck me over. Everybody has one card in their personality deck that gives them Trauma. If you get Traumatised (the Soldier flashes back to the war – and I’m not sure which war, incidentally, peculiarly his art makes him look a lot like a WWI vet despite the game being set in the late 19th century – the Dancer freaks out about her missing sister, that kind of thing) you contribute no dice unless you use Adventure Cards or Items (which are one use) and you also roll the Trauma Die, which can lead to your becoming “Unhinged” or “Injured”, two conditions that do nothing the first time you get them but which raise dread by five if you get them a second time.
This means that if a character tries to resolve a plot card alone then no matter how trivial it is (many of the plot cards in the second scenario require only a single fist to defeat), the range of possible outcomes varies from “the card is resolved and you get bonus resources that help you” to “the plot card fails, raising Dread, and your character rolls Trauma, raising Dread again.” And you can’t really influence which outcome you’ll get in any meaningful way.
This is a lot of variance to build into a game.
Then there’s that whole “all comes down to a dice roll” thing.
Once you resolve the final plot card of the final chapter (all scenarios after the first are in two chapters) you move on to the final confrontation with the “Antagonist” of the scenario (confusingly, several of the scenario “antagonists” are actually abstract concepts like “infiltration” and “escape”). There’s a nice bit of flavour text leading into the final confrontation which sets the scene very thematically, but the atmosphere is rather marred by the fact that you then have to resolve a series of challenges using a mechanic that appears nowhere else in the game (each challenge card has a number of symbols on it, and you must match those symbols with those on your character sheet, personality card, and adventure cards – but in this phase of the game adventure cards are dealt out to the players in advance, and you choose which ones to play instead of selecting them randomly from the deck and by the way this is the mechanic which you have to intuit from an example elsewhere in the rules).
There are always three challenges in the final confrontation, and each player who successfully completes a challenge gains a die to use in the final-final-really-final-we-mean-it-this-time final showdown. In a three-player game, this means you have zero to nine dice. The players win the final showdown if they roll a number of fists equal to or greater than one-plus-one-for-every-five Dread.
And … that’s the big payoff. You roll zero to nine dice, and you need to roll between one and nine fists, so you might have no chance of succeeding (if Dread is high or you won few dice) but you almost never have no chance of failing (some cards give you free fists in the final showdown but they’re seldom enough to guarantee the win).
I honestly don’t have words for how anticlimactic I’ve found it both times. As I say, I really wanted to like this game, but the final showdown mechanic in particular makes me honestly want to call bullshit. And again, there might be a greater depth of gameplay if you’re more familiar with the game, if you understand the distribution of symbols on the cards better and you know the endgame challenges better and you have a better handle on the risk-reward of managing Dread.
But this is a story-driven game. And since you don’t find out if you’ve won or lost until the final dice roll (although a lot of time you will have effectively lost the game on the basis of the twelve minutes of planning you did right at the start) you always experience the whole story (barring the “good ending” flavour text) on your first playthrough. We haven’t lost a scenario yet (then again, we’ve played some rules wrong, and in ways that have generally made things easier for us, and I think this was a big part of our success) but if we had I honestly don’t feel like I would have had any desire to go back and play it again to get the win. Annoyingly even having decided that I probably just plain don’t like the game I sort of want to play the next two scenarios to find out where the story goes. Although I suppose I could actually get the same experience by just reading the plot cards and listening to the intro and outro sequences.
I feel really bad about this but I just … don’t like this game. And I know a lot of people do, and I’ve seen some very positive reviews from people who seem genuinely blown away by the whole setup, but it does so little for me that I can’t even suggest who this might be a good game for. I feel like if you want a glossy story-driven game there are glossier games out there (Arabian Nights and Eldrich Horror being obvious examples). I feel like if you want simultaneous movement and programmed actions, there are games that implement that better as well and while I don’t think there are any games that implement simultaneous movement and programmed actions into a story-driven experience, that feels like a weirdly specific thing to want out of a game.
So … yeah. Sadface. I can’t recommend this one. I do understand that some people love it, and if you google for reviews you’ll find plenty of people who responded far more positively than I did.
Perhaps it would work better for me if it included an adorable panda.