Earlier this week, I got my copy of Miskatonic School for Girls from the Kickstarter project I had helped fund a few months ago. The game was designed by Luke Peterschmidt, designer of Bakugan, at Fun to 11 games. So last night, I forced my group, the Rotgut Manglers, to play a game before we started in on our Call of Cthulhu RPG session.
The game is based around the idea that each player runs a house of girls at a boarding school run by creatures of the Cthulhu mythos. You’re trying to keep your house sane while driving every other house insane. You accomplish these feats through a deckbuilding mechanic that involves “purchasing” girls to bolster your own house and teachers to plague the other players’ houses.
The rules themselves are simple–the most important rules easily fit on a single card. The basic game play can be seen in a video here. But, in short, you draw a hand of 5 cards (including the student you bought in the previous turn, and the faculty that was bought for you by an opponent). You flip over cards from the supply until there is a choice of 3 teachers and 3 students. (You also resolve any event cards that are turned face-up.) Then, you use the Friendship and Nightmare points on the cards in your hand to purchase one new Student and one Teacher. The Student goes into your purchase pile (to be drawn the next turn) and the Teacher goes into the Purchase pile of the player to your left. You then play any “Pre-Class” abilities on the cards in your hand. If you have any Teachers in your hand, you play them into your classroom, and discard the rest of your hand. You then draw one card from your deck for each Teacher in your classroom. If you draw Students, they will fight your Teacher; if you draw Teachers, you can place them in the discard pile of any other player. You compare the Girl Power value of your Student to the Health of the Teacher. If it is higher, the Teacher is defeated. If it is lower, the Teacher deals sanity damage to you. You subtract the resolve of your Students and take the remainder as sanity damage to your house. (Lose 20 sanity and you are out of the game. The winner is the last player with any sanity.) Finally, you move all the cards in your classroom to your discard pile, and the next player’s turn begins.
So, how did I feel about the game?
My favorite part of the game was the overall theme. The artwork is evocative of the mythos. Even when the cards are silly, they still manage to create a menacing ambience. (I’m thinking particularly of Cthulhu, who is the lunch lady, which is funny, but is serving a plate of something that is largely indistinguishable from its tentacles, which is kinda creepy.) It never felt as dark as a game like Lunch Money, but it still was evocative of the general creepiness of Lovecraft’s stories. I also like the way the designer handled references to the mythos. Most of the card’s names (or, heck, could be all of them, and I just didn’t catch some of them) reference Lovecraft’s stories. There’s a student named Charlotte D. Ward who is a member of the Art Club, and the music teacher is Mr. Asa Toth. (Of course, I’m not sure I’d be as amused by the references on the 50th play as I was on the first.)
I also liked the overall idea of both building your own deck and poisoning the decks of the other players. The game has a little more interaction than many deck building games, but the limits on where you can place Teacher cards avoids most dog-piling tendencies. The game dragged a bit in our play, but it was our first play, and I imagine it would become a pretty quick game once the value of each card was memorized.
While there wasn’t anything I outright disliked about the game, there were some things that bothered me a bit. The least significant of these was that some cards (Locker cards, that stay in play for the rest of the game) have values for resolve, friendship, nightmare, and girl power, but those values seem to have no influence in the game. Locker cards go into play as soon as they are purchased, so their values are never used to buy other cards, and they can’t attack or defend. Not a major concern, but something that did have us scratching our heads and looking in the rule book.
A more significant concern was the way the classroom battles are handled. In most cards games, you want to establish card control–where you have a better chance of pulling the cards you want at the right time. Usually, part of the card control comes from the fact that you draw multiple cards on your turn. While you do draw 5 cards in this game, the only value of those cards is to buy new Students and Teachers (and, rarely, to use a Pre-class ability). In purchasing cards, there was usually an obviously best card to purchase, and you either had the currency to buy it, or you didn’t and settled for a less-expensive card. There wasn’t usually much of a decision to be made about the card purchases, and your cards presented a binary option–buy the good card, or don’t. When you actually battle in the classroom, you have no card control at all, and the game became more like War. You draw one card for each teacher, and if they are better, you win. If they aren’t, you lose. Once again, not much of a choice. Additionally, the good Students that you buy are pretty unlikely to show up when you need them in the classroom, making their classroom abilities not very valuable. When I did draw a Student with a useful ability in the classroom, it felt like luck of the draw, and not my careful deck-building.
Now, I’ll freely admit that this review is based on only one play of the game. I could be proven wrong in future plays about any of my observations, and I like the theme and production values of the game enough to definitely give it a few more plays. For me, this feels like a Red Dragon Inn kind of game–something that gets played when there’s some spare time before the more strategic game gets played–and not the main course–like Dominion would be for our group. Overall, I like the game, and I think that players who are looking for an amusing, random filler for game night would probably enjoy the game, but the limited strategy in the game won’t win everyone over.