When I was asked to join the jury for the Design and Game Awards, a combined video and analog game award in Alberta, I had to push back certain reviews in order to not appear unbiased. Since voting has now closed I can finally review Masque of the Red Death from IDW Games and designed by fellow Albertan, Adam Wyse.
I was lucky enough to encounter this game way back in 2015, when I interviewed Adam about the Masque’s nomination for a Canadian Game Design Award. The game back then compared to the game now are VERY different things, but it’s a fun little memory I thought I’d share.
Anyhow, Masque of the Red Death is based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1842. In the game, each player is a minor member of the nobility attending a fancy masquerade ball. As they move from room to room they take action to increase their popularity and be seen with the Prince to become even more popular. But amidst the Dance and Jest, Rumors swirl. As the hours wane, and midnight approaches, each noble must choose their plan wisely, in the hopes of surviving the inevitable arrival of The Red Death.
The majority of the game takes place over 12 rounds, each round taking 20 minutes (in-game time, don’t worry). The rounds are tracked both on the Prince’s movement board and on a beautiful clock standee. During setup tiles for each room are randomly placed on the Prince’s movement board so that every player knows the path he will take as he moves from room to room at the party.
During each round players will choose one action card to play, and may also move into one adjacent room. Of the 10 Action cards a player can select, all but one are identical for each player. The Personality Action card is dealt out randomly during setup and has a unique and often powerful action on it. The standard actions, generally involve some combination of looking or stealing Rumor cards, and/or changing popularity.
Not unlike real life, it is very easy to get caught up in the popularity game. The thing to remember, also as in real life, is that all the popularity in the world won’t help you if you don’t plan for the future. When a player gets to see a Gossip rumor card, they will know that whatever room it shows will be safe at whatever time it shows. When a player gets to look at a Red Death rumor cards, they will know that whatever room it shows will result in death at whatever time it shows. Using this information, players will decide, secretly and in advance, the rooms their character will move into during the hour after midnight.
After 12 rounds, the clock strikes midnight, and the Red Death appears to kill the Prince. Then the first Red Death rumor card in the 12:00 space is revealed, and everyone in that room is killed. The second card in the 12:00 space is revealed, and everyone in that room is also killed. Then the Red Death slips away into the shadows, and players take their pre-planned movement. The first card in the 12:10 space is revealed, and everyone in that space is killed. The second card in the 12:10 space is revealed, and everyone in that room is also killed. Then the Red Death slips away into the shadows, and players take their pre-planned movement.
And so on at 12:20, 12:30, 12:40, and 12:50, until everyone is dead. If more than one player manages to survive the night, the most popular remaining player wins. Is that a bit dark, you betcha. This is Edgar Allan Poe, after all. Master of macabre, whose work is arguably some of the most influential gothic fiction in the world. It is a grand sight to see first-time players realise just how the game concludes.
The game itself is a delight to play, once you get into it. But on top of that, the art is perfect. There are few, if any, artists as perfectly suited to this game as Gris Grimly. Even if you don’t know the name, his style is instantly recognizable, and he has illustrated at least two collections of Poe’s work.
The physical production of the game isn’t perfect, unfortunately. The hand on clock standee is extremely easy to break, and even though IDW made a good attempt at making the game more accessible, they were only moderately successful. Aside from the Personality Action cards, most of the elements are not dependant on language, but it often resulted in players needing to pass the rulebook around to make sure they knew the card they wanted to play, played the way they wanted. Because of the shading and tone of the
Since the times are tracked on the Prince’s movement card, a broken clock isn’t the end of the world (and it still looks cool). Now that everyone knows what icons they are looking for, I don’t expect anyone will have issues looking for them in the future. So while not ideal, none of these issues really game breaking, and everyone still enjoyed themselves immensely.
Poe’s story, Masque of the Red Death is included in the rulebook, but you can also read it at online-literature.com.