Social Deduction’s Last Gleaming
Of all the many virtues a board game may hold, brevity seems to be the most dazzling. “It’s Game X but shorter!” we say, breathless at the prospect of compressing each hour of play into forty-five minutes, half an hour, the heartbeat of a hummingbird. It’s like shortening recess for adults.
And hey, I get it. Really. After all, a number of positive improvements are directly connected to time-saving measures. Decreased waits between turns, fewer needless components to fiddle with, decisions spaces that are honed rather than sprawling. It’s easy to confuse the distinction between sharp and slender.
Speaking of which, The Menace Among Us is Battlestar Galactica in forty minutes. Kinda-sorta.
To deliver the review by way of comparisons, The Menace Among Us is the destiny deck of Battlestar Galactica, the personal objectives from Dead of Winter, and the nuisance of sorting the cards after a messy game of Dominion. Yes, this will be on the test.
The setting is boilerplate, but only because it’s a classic setup. Your spaceship has broken down. With the oxygen meter ticking down, you need to get the power back online. That’s the pitch. There are only two resources, and I’ve already told you what they are. Most actions cost one or the other, and because you’re on the clock — metaphorically, this isn’t a timed game — even the slightest aberrancy in behavior will get your crewmates’ fingers waggling.
Because, naturally, there’s a traitor aboard the ship. Hey, I said it was boilerplate.
It works like this. Every round, you’re presented with an option. Either you draw a card (yawn), take one of your above deck actions (visible to all, largely benign, generally not super useful), or play a card face-down. These concealed cards represent actions taken “below decks,” a handy shorthand that also translates into “below board,” as in possibly not quite up to Starfleet’s high standards of honesty. These cards are shuffled together and dealt into a line, revealing whether you raised morale for a bonus to oxygen, fixed some of the engine — down goes the oxygen, up goes the power — or maybe vented the airlock like a jerk.
Now, as a game-player and game-thinker, the wheels might already be turning. “Why should I play a card at all,” you’re saying, leaning back with your arms folded, under the assumption that you look like anything better than a smartass. “If everybody passes except for the first player or two, we’ll whittle down our options. If one of the cards is bad, we’ll know who played it, or near enough!”
And that would be true, except designer Jeff Gum installed an anti-smartass measure in the form of Em.M.A., the ship’s onboard repair computer. If you haven’t invested enough cards on any given round, random cards are peeled from the Em.M.A. deck. And while some of them might prove useful, others highlight the shoddy programming of the Em.M.A. system. In other words, relying on the computer is about as clever as trying to toss flares at a nearby propane tank.
Although there aren’t too many card types, there’s enough to provide both variety and some unwanted clutter. Each player opens the game by setting up a personal deck of twenty cards. Thirteen come from your agenda — the Saint packs a lot of morale-boosters, for example, while the Reckless has good options mixed with a few panic cards — and the remainder come from your actual character identity. This combination not only gives each play some unique flavor, but also helps mask the traitor’s selection of cards, which, unsurprisingly, feature lots of stabbing and exploding.
Here’s the good news: for such a brisk game, there are nuances to explore. Foremost is the resolution of the cards themselves. Certain options, like how “replicate” duplicates the next card or “backstab” wounds the current first player, are deliciously conditional. In the former case, are you doubling a life-saving advanced repair, or a reactor leak that kills half the crew? In the latter, are you wounding an innocent mission leader or a suspected traitor? Even the hits are flavorful, drawn from yet another deck. A flesh wound might be harmless, but mental breakdown shuffles a card from every other player’s deck into yours, internal bleeding gradually kills you, and a crushed windpipe means you can’t talk anymore. Like, actually talk. At the table. In a game about talking. That’s worth a good laugh. Except for you, Geoff. Your windpipe is busted.
The other wrinkle is that most players also have a secondary goal to accomplish. One person might want to delay the ship’s recovery until after a certain number of rounds, while another needs to finish with more cards in hand than their neighbors. The idea is that these personal goals will prompt otherwise honest players to behave in suspicious ways. Although that’s admirable, it only works some of the time; while hoarding cards or delaying repairs often comes across as suspect, trying to keep everyone alive or the air topped off isn’t exactly squirrely.
In fact, this cuts to the quick of my complaints against The Menace Among Us. It’s brimming with cool ideas, most of them slickly appropriated from other (much longer) games. Personal objectives, streamlined round missions, easily legible resources — these are all to the game’s credit. But there are so few actual roles that spotting one or two bad apples isn’t all that difficult. There are only two, the Contagion and the Butcher, and they’re overloaded with suspicion-raising cards. If you see a breached airlock or a backstab, there’s a very good chance that someone nasty contributed to the past mission.
It’s a small thing in a relatively small affair. And anyway, that’s the other thing about short games: they’re easier to forgive, if only because you aren’t dropping six hours on a title that can’t bear the scrutiny.
Still, a few additional roles, especially for the infiltrator, would help thicken the paranoia. Strictly speaking they would also add to the game’s weird volume of card clutter, with the setup and breakdown consuming far more time than you’d expect. It definitely helps to prepare the role decks in advance. But that’s a secondary problem. The real issue is that there’s very limited opportunity to develop a metagame, which is where most social deduction games come to life. After a few plays, once everyone is hawk-eyed for those two offending cards, pulling off a successful sabotage can feel nigh impossible. Drawing the nefarious agenda at the beginning of the game should be a savage delight, not a burden.
Not that it totally ruins The Menace Among Us. As an occasional play, it’s good at getting everyone’s hackles up, especially at higher counts. But for those groups who find themselves playing the same social deduction game over and over, there are far better options out there.
A complimentary copy was provided.