Literal Abomination: The Frankengame

Actually, she's the one who's broken into his house with murder on her thoughts. That'll teach you to judge.

It’s the Age of the Hybrid. Fair enough. Got a spare mechanism? Cram it in there. Shove something else to the side if you need to make room. When you’re finished, your deck-building set-collection roll-and-move dexterity game won’t only be named everybody’s game of the year, but game of the millennium, going down in history alongside Senet and Chess as the most likely to be extracted from a garbage dump by alien archaeologists.

Except here’s the thing: you’ve got to make it stick. Like stitching together body parts from a dozen “donors” to create a companion for Frankenstein’s Monster, your creation needs to walk and talk and probably shag. And none of that is happening without functioning ligaments and tendons and everything else that puts a body into motion and keeps it from sloughing apart after a handshake.

Want a negative example? There are few finer than Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein.

Technically it's "Uncaring Father-Figure Scientist and Scruffy Orphan Desperate For Love placement," but let's not get too technical.

Worker placement!

For the most part, Abomination’s framework — the bones, if you will, over which will be draped layers of muscle and adipose and dermis — bear the appearance of a worker placement game. Not any worker placement game. Right away, you’re treated to constant reminders that the game’s release was timed to coincide with Halloween: corpses in various states of decomposition scattered across the board’s approximation of Paris, dismembered limbs and torsos strewn wherever you emptied the baggie, hirelings boasting names like “Dog Catcher” and “Hospital Thief” down at the docks. Even the characters with their variable powers won’t let you forget it. One of them, the psychopath, even makes good on his diagnosis by ignoring the “humanity” dial altogether. Each player has three dials, in case you were wondering: humanity, reputation, and expertise. The psychopath is totally numb to one of them. Appropriate.

There’s even a pair of much-appreciated twists. Like most worker placement games, the progress of any given round takes the shape of a funnel. Early on, your workers have the run of the town, perambulating over to whichever destination holds something worth snatching up. Usually these hotspots are relatively apparent: the lectern or research stations at the academy, good for making some coin or learning the latest tricks; the public square, hospital, and back alleys, home to the freshest corpses; the docks, at least when the right ruffian is looking for work. More than that, you have two different levels of worker. While the best spaces are reserved for your scientists, your assistants are more limited, perhaps because they’re small and likely orphans you’ve bullied into service. As always, the prime destinations are claimed early, leaving everybody’s orphans grappling for space in the later stages. No need to prioritize dog scraps or digging through the cemetery when the hospital is chock-full of those who have recently passed from consumption.

But in addition to having two types of workers, you also have the ability to bribe somebody off a space. This isn’t totally ideal, mind you. For one thing, it costs money, which goes straight into the pocketbook of that worker’s employer. For another, you can only do this a few times per round before all the “bump” spots are taken. A slight dent in the funnel, but minor compared to the careful management of your employees in the first place.

Lots of bad dogs in Paris, I gather.

Human Resources Department simulator!

If this sounds grim, it is, right down to its pickled liver. According to the fluff, Frankenstein’s Monster is back from retirement and looking for a companion. The original Frankenstein, the one who insisted on everybody calling him Doctor, has gone the way of all earth. The task therefore falls to the madmen (and madwomen) of Paris to assemble Franky’s heir.

Don’t let this conjure images of skulking through the streets, throwing electric levers, and screaming “It’s alive!” while backlit by lightning. Although all of those things are possible in abstraction, most of your task revolves around the aforementioned corpses. As fate would have it, suturing together a monster isn’t as easy as it sounds. Each part must be carefully built from scratch. And that requires two things: one, enough expertise in anatomy and barbering to know the difference between a thumb and a big toe and, ahem, another important digit, and two, lots and lots and lots of body parts.

Like, lots and lots. No, more than you’re picturing. More… more… okay, maybe not that many, sicko.

Where the worker placement of Abomination was serviceable, even interesting, this is where the first swell of queasiness settles into the belly. Not because of the body parts, since surely you bear a stern constitution. Rather, because this process has all the unpleasant fiddle of sorting an anatomy classroom’s worth of body parts into the morgue refrigerator after the local medical school’s dissection spree.

"Bone doesn't age." —Fun factoid I learned from Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein that I'll try to use at a dinner party with doctors and look like a total idiot

Laboratory Manager!

Here’s the gist. Whenever you claim a cadaver, you’re presented with a choice: tinker with its innards to increase your expertise or lop it into segments for body parts. Cadavers come from a few different sources, which naturally means they also provide various levels of freshness and actual usable parts. While a body that’s recently died — whether from a hanging, disease, or your own blade — provides everything, earthworm food from the cemetery yields the usual muscle and organs, but they’re probably also aromatic enough to make your vision swim.

And each tidbit requires its own form of care. Bone never goes bad, at least within the timeframe offered by the game, so you’re free to stack it in the corner of your lab. Muscle and organs gradually decompose, decreasing the points you earn from stapling them together to form limbs and faces. Blood goes bad almost immediately, forcing you to put it to use as soon as possible. That or drain a few extra liters from your orphans. And animal parts are basically wildcards. Very handy until you remember that they also decrease the, ah, integrity of your final product. Dog legs might make for a faster freak, but that’s not precisely what Frankenstein’s Monster ordered.

At times this process works just fine. Digging up corpses and deliberating over which to chop, which to harvest, and which to throw back — certain bodies ding your humanity for reasons unknown — well, it isn’t bad, exactly. Rather, it’s burdened by irritation. Not only are you moving loads of cubes back and forth, ignoring the publisher’s inability to provide enough bone cubes for everybody, and doing your best to never bump the table for fear of spilling your freshness trays together, but you’re also taking care to limit yourself to only fifteen bits per tray, store enough muscle and organs to sell at the market to feed the indigent and earn some coin, and maybe buy ice to keep everything cool a while longer.

When you get around to looking under the sheet, any resemblance to a dog dick is entirely coincidental.

Your, um, bride, Herr Frankenstein’s Monster.

To be clear, the problem isn’t just that all these details and consideration and limitations pile together. It’s that they don’t translate into interesting decisions. It’s bookwork. Accounting. Balancing a ledger. Except in place of dollars you’re trying to work out if you can afford two legs and a head, while also trying to increase your expertise to stretch skin over an arm, while also balancing a real ledger of in-game money, while maybe forgetting that too many workers have already been bribed and thus you won’t be visiting the kennel for extra dog stomachs. At the very least, it’s possible to begin your turn while somebody else puzzles over the three cadavers they just dug up. But there’s no repairing the tedium of everybody reassessing their grocery list every time somebody deploys a scientist to work at the hospital.

And then Abomination has the gall to undermine everything you’ve accomplished.

Picture this. Over the past hour and a half, you’ve amassed a medieval plague ditch of body parts. You’ve assembled a new body over multiple stages, first muscle and bone, then blood and skin. In the meantime, you’ve been fiddling with research cards and the occasional dalliance with atonement down at Saint-Roch. You’ve forgotten and remembered and forgotten that there are also random objective tiles to pursue, and gotten wrecked by at least one ill-timed event. Now for the crowning moment: jolting your monster to life with bottled lightning. Provided you remembered to buy the bottles, anyway.

Yay! Two hours of work and then we decide who wins based on who doesn't roll too many lightning zaps! So great! This is exactly what I wanted!

Frankendice!

By this point, you’re barely even playing the same game anymore. While anyone tailing you in monster construction is still lugging bodies back to the laboratory, you’re charging Leyden jars and getting ready to roll a fistful of dice. Yes, dice. The goal is to zap your monster, but not too much. When you roll, each lightning symbol zaps a body part. One zap is necessary, two will downgrade that part, possibly even wiping it off your table entirely. Only after a finished part has been zapped can you wake it up. Repeat six times, once per body segment, without over-zapping and thus forcing yourself to rebuild that limb, and your monster will end the game.

Not that you win, necessarily. There are still points from a half-dozen sources to tally. Much of the time this is a formality, since the lion’s share of your points are earned in the operating theater.

But that’s emblematic of a game that’s as stitched-together as its subject matter. Points can be scrounged from every corner, but most don’t matter. All that thunder, no lightning. Or rather, all that lightning, no undead monster. Abomination even teases an alternate ending without bothering to actually provide it. Rounds are tracked by the approach of Captain Robert Walton, seeking vengeance for the death of his pal Victor Frankenstein. Rather than melting all the ice blocks in the market (maybe that’s too subtle a joke), he’s chasing you… and then his arrival awards a measly five points to the player with the highest humanity. No bloody revenge torn from the cruelest madman. A pat on the head for the nicest body-snatcher. Ho hum.

not for fun though

Lopping up bodies for science and profit.

There are other problems I haven’t even touched on. There’s the wild divergence of the game’s research and humanity cards, the characters who ignore entire game systems, the detours into the rulebook to read snippets of narrative that could have been compressed onto the event cards for all the heavy lifting they do. Is it a requirement that every title from Plaid Hat feature a storybook? In this case, it’s about as useful as sewing ears onto your monster’s knees.

Then again, at least that would constitute a decision. Far too often, Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein isn’t interested in such notions, or at least in letting them matter. With all the elegance of a piecemeal golem it lurches from one notion to the next. And while some of these ideas show a spark of brilliance, like the slow decomposition of your materials, it fails to care for how everything fits together, with all that early accounting soon crumbling at the whims of the dice. Its stitched-together nature might be considered appropriate given its subject matter. I would return with some similarly appropriate advice: when encountering a monster animated from castoff limbs, take the long way around.

 

(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 October 14, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    Shish.
    I had high hopes for this one. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking, because I loved the theme. I was maybe conceiving it as an horror version of Trickerion.
    It seems the series of Plaid Hat failures is still ongoing…

  2. Wow, I hope I like it more than you did, considering it’s been holding up three other games for me due to release delays.

    Great review as always!

  3. A shame. As a tinkerer of broken games, though, let me pose a few questions.

    First, assume that Captain Robert Walton kills the player with the least humanity. That adds some danger to his approach and keeps with the theme.

    Second, assume that rolling the dice will never overbake your monster (just underbake), so you need to get enough lightning to get your Bride to stand up and make her vows, but too much lightning just means she got a free trip to the tanning salon. The dice no longer undermine the work you’ve done in the early parts of the game, though they still add the anticipation of wondering whether it is all going to come together before your fellow scientists finish their monster.

    Would these two things improve the game: (a) considerably, (b) somewhat, or (c) not at all?

    My guess (based on your description of the game) is that all the bookkeeping makes it impossible to save this monster…but perhaps I’m wrong?

    • Interesting thought experiment, Travis. I’d go with B. The clutter of the central game would still be present, but that alone is irritating rather than game-breaking. I’ll just add, it would be great if it were shorter by half an hour. This thing can run *long*.

  4. Chess? Is a masterpiece….

  5. Thank for your time and review. I love this game, its theme is fantastic and and presents some very fun but macabre choices . I can’t imagine the coming alive part not have dice. Unless I mis-understood your review on this part I think you got the mechanics wrong. You don’t need 1 lightning bolt to come alive as all lighting bolts present damage. The eye symbol brings a part to life. Additionally you dont need to make parts alive 1 at a time. The game offers alot of luck mitigation by collecting research and advancing dials. It really is a push your luck aspect to attempt to bring parts alive too early. If you wait until you have all the body parts ready and have collected plenty of mitigation bringing your monster alive is in your favor, and at the very least any damage can be spread out. The game then offers you to repair the damage and prepare to try again. It is very thematic to wait until your entire body is ready to Come Alive.

    • I have no idea what you are trying to parse from the review. Quantity of lightning results is tied to your ability to waking limbs up.

      Page 5 of the rule book: “Resolve all [lightning] results by placing that
      many [lightning] markers, 1 at a time, onto 1 or more parts on your operating
      table. If 2 [lightning] markers are ever on a monster part, immediately discard
      those markers and downgrade the monster part one step: if it is a
      muscle part, discard it; if it is a non-alive skin/complete part, flip it
      to its muscle side; if it is an alive part, discard its [eye] marker.”

      Toast a limb with 2 bolts? Well, I guess you can’t wake that limb up due to its downgrade.And, actually, the lightning/eye result combination seems even worse than as described in the review.

      • If you wait until you have all body parts ready and have a few mitigation abilities, then pull the switch the luck is in your favor that’s all I was saying. A part is still alive with one damage and one eye, one lighting bolt is acceptable per part but not required. If you have all 6 parts ready to come alive you can get 6 damage without real effect. With any mitigation abilities you should almost never get 6 damage. There are plenty of mitigation cards that let you ignore damage completely or re roll them. After a come alive phase the damage that is left can be repaired 3 at a time on your own lab card. The review suggested you needed a lighting then an eye to come alive which would be much more difficult and also suggested you must focus on one part at a time -“Repeat six times, once per body segment”. The only reason I have even commented on any forums is I think there is a misconception on the luck factor in the late stages of the game. If you wait until you are ready then there will be varying levels of success but virtually no chance of real failure (loss of part). Very thematic I think do you push your luck and go early fail chances high. Do you wait until prepared Success chances high.

  6. Frankengames are absolutely a problem.  My interpretation is that the gaming world has become highly reductionist in its sensibilities, and newer designers and publishers think that they have to build games tailored to this mentality:  “Check out my new game, it’s worker placement with some drafting and a bit of resource management and asymmetric player powers thrown in”.  This mentality thinks of a game as a collection of mechanics it cobbles together, and I think it’s a highly artificial way to design, and the results of this approach speak for themselves.

    Second, I’m worried that you seem to pooh-pooh the idea of a climactic random event at the end of a game.  I say this self-servingly because I have a game that works this way!  But a popular example of this would be War of the Ring’s tile-based ending.  The key in that game (and in mine) is that players know what the game is leading up to and have the ability to take measures to influence that random event in their favor to give themselves the best odds of succeeding.  Thus the game is all about that final event, but the event is the culmination of everything that has gone before.  If that’s how Abomination works, it doesn’t seem intrinsically abominable; but of course if it’s just tacked on at the end that is indeed bad design.

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