Hapless Mortals

Yeah, okay. You have my attention.

When it comes to blurbs, Campy Creatures knows how to pitch. You’re a mad scientist, see? Hoping to do eeeevil experiments, right? So your plan is to kidnap as many mortals as possible, m’kay? Except there are other mad scientists also capturing mortals, and they also have a similar roster of campy creatures doing their bidding, so you need to make sure your campy creatures outperform their campy creatures, ya dig?

Sure thing, Campy Creatures. I dig.

A Hand of Always The Same.

I’d say this is a hand of nothing, but it’s something worse.

That’s the blurb. Let’s talk about the next ten minutes.

Right away, the setup is mercifully brief. Everybody has the same hand of nine cards. Even if you want to try out an expansion or promo, it’s as easy as swapping something out — bye bye to the Invisible Man, hello to the Demogorgon — and so does everybody else. With the right cards mixed into the mortals deck, scoring tokens distributed, and a few events piled together, you’re ready to go. That only consumed one minute of your life.

The next nine aren’t bad, either. Onto the table spill those aforementioned mortals: teenagers, deep sea divers, damsels, the works. Everybody knows the stakes. Which is a good thing, because then everybody plays a single card that will determine the order they’ll be kidnapping those mortals. A Kaiju gets first dibs — his number is the highest — unless the Mummy is around, at which point his terrifying, um, ancient wraps mean he gets to capture first. That is, unless a nearby Vampire drained the Mummy’s ability to stink up the joint, and so and so on, with abilities cancelling or modifying each other. The Blob can grow stronger courtesy of a discarded card. The Beast is powerful but also worth points if you never use him. The Swamp Creature can get rid of a mortal worth negative points.

Also an astronaut, I guess? I don't think I watched the same movies as Mattox Shuler when I was a kid.

There are a lot of archaeologists in this little town.

With the mortals captured, new victims are dealt onto the table. Except this time, your previous creature has been used up. So sorry, you just shot your Werewad on an archaeologist. Ho hum. Hope you preempt your opposition better this time.

There are two things that speak to Campy Creatures’ benefit. The first we’ve already touched upon, in that the creature abilities interlock in all the right ways. At its best, this adds some real tension to your picks, with a good mix of playing boldly and holding back your best creatures until you’ve seen a few plays. Want your Invader to snatch two mortals at once? Be careful you aren’t the last player thanks to its extraterrestrially low resolution number.

The second good tidbit is the mortals themselves, which are split between straight scoring opportunities (or penalties) and those that provide a mixed advantage. Teenagers are worth a heap of points if you have the most, and a bit less if you have the second-most, but nothing at all if you wasted your mortal acquisitions only reaping a few meddling kids. Same goes for engineers, although they’re even more potentially loaded: even numbers award points, odd quantities deduct points. Engineers can pay big or leave you broke. Beware the Swamp Creature and his untimely “gifts.”

But the first ten minutes of Campy Creatures are up, and this is when it reveals it has nothing left to show. The round concludes with the usual stuff, like tallying up points and laughing at whomever kidnapped the third-most teenagers. But then your creatures are gathered back into your hand, the mortals are reshuffled, and the round begins anew — in exactly the same fashion.

Engineers, huh?

Powerful stuff. If you can get them to work.

The problem isn’t so much that Campy Creatures is bad. Rather, the problem is that it tosses you into the exact same quandary three times in a single sitting, without variance or rising stakes.

Contrast that against an older classic — “older” because it was published in 2012 — called Libertalia. In Libertalia, everybody plays as pirates divvying up a recent haul of ill-gotten booty. The gameplay is almost identical to Campy Creatures, with everybody doling out an identical hand of pirates in an effort to preempt their crewmates and squirrel away the most treasure. Both games even see you playing six of your nine cards each round. But although Campy Creatures smartly innovates on the formula in a couple of significant ways, it fails to capture what made Libertalia so good.

But before we talk about why, it’s worth noting that the upgrades are considerable. The mortals really are a great and dynamic way to score, and certainly provide more excitement than some boring old doubloons. More nitty-gritty is the way the game resolves ties on the tragically-named Clash-O-Meter. Being higher on the meter wins a tie, but drops your token to the bottom for the next round. Simple. Also easy to evaluate at a glance when deciding whether to risk a certain card. That’s much better than Libertalia’s tiebreakers, which were printed directly onto each player’s cards and thus rarely entered anybody’s consciousness until a tie actually occurred.

The trade-off, however, is disappointing. When a round is completed in Libertalia, your six used cards are discarded in favor of a new hand — and the three cards you didn’t play are added in with the new. The consequences grow over time: an identical hand in the first round, a slightly different set in the second, and a mostly-divergent group of cards in the third. Everybody’s playing from the same set each round, but their leftovers change with time.

That alone gave every one of Libertalia’s plays — and even each of its rounds — an entirely new dynamic. The social puzzle was the same, but its components required fresh consideration. By contrast, Campy Creatures begins to feel samey within the span of a single game, let alone after multiple tries.

Game Design Rule Number One: Never never never never never make me think about something I'd rather be doing than playing your game.

Now I’m thinking about Stranger Things.

More’s the pity, because between its exciting scoring opportunities and clearer tie-breaking, Campy Creatures feels like it could have been a direct evolution of Libertalia. Its first expansion contains some of its most interesting fare, like the Man-Eating Plant entangling a mortal to “reserve” it, a Rogue Robot that might kill the person you’re trying to kidnap, and angry mobs who gang up on any mad scientist gormless enough to nab their ringleader. It’s good stuff. Too bad none of it breaks the game out of its holding pattern.

The good news is that between the base game and its first expansion, there are now fourteen creatures in total. That’s only a tad under half of Libertalia’s crew of thirty pirates. Maybe in another few years, there will be enough to shake up its cast within a single play. When that happens, Campy Creatures may well be one of the best options for simultaneous play out there.

Until then… well, it’ll still be until then.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on August 12, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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