Two titles isn’t enough to tell, but I’m beginning to think Hassan Lopez’s talent might lie in reduction. That sounds too negative. Rendering? Distillation? Refining? Sublimation? No, reduction must serve.
Like Clockwork Wars before it, Maniacal takes an idea and reduces it to its most essential. In Clockwork Wars, magic, technology, and religion were reduced to special buildings and their bonuses, but in an especially clever way that placed them inside the game world, both concrete and vulnerable. Maniacal does something similar for its Evil Genius simulator. Nearly every detail feels like there could have been more. Except, when placed in parallel, those parts accrete into something so smooth, so sparing, so — yes, I’m going to say it again — reduced, that anything extra would have been as vestigial as a hangnail.
Here, let me give you some examples.
In Maniacal, you’re doing what every evil genius has done since the beginning of time: hiring a bunch of bad bois, erecting a sick lair, and jet-setting around the world to conduct schemes more dastardly than villainous. Sure, you could blow up a building. Yawn. How unsophisticated. Instead, how about you summon an evil fog that envelops a sleepy town, or maybe command a modern pirate fleet? At the end of the day, one gets the sense that these villains are in business for their own amusement, not actual domination. Can you imagine the paperwork? Much more entertaining to just punch a hole through the Earth’s crust.
Each of these steps — building a lair, hiring a crew, undertaking contracts — is tiny in scope. Base-building is a brief drafting phase. Pick a card to either build or sell, pass the rest around the table. All the things that might be associated with your brand-new lair, like adjacency bonuses, resources to manage, meeting the break-hour needs of your recruits, or keeping heroes out, are entirely absent. So what’s it for? Well, rooms do provide special actions. Sometimes. More often, they’re useful because they provide “attraction points.” Sounds like something in a carnival game. Here, they’re measures of how appealing your evil outfit is to the game’s four suits of baddies. Evil scientists tend to like labs with open floor plans, evil mystics appreciate scary shrines and decorative skulls. That sort of thing.
Surely all those baddies are more complex — you know, interlocking special abilities, group affinities, food allergies? Nope. They’re worth a number of dice. That number is equal to their cost. No need for extensive balancing when your integers are so plainly aligned. A job-hunting Ghost Mantis will always be five times more powerful than Cockroach, and their prices on your attraction track reflect that.
Meanwhile the contracts are, what, a separate minigame? A tactical skirmish? Ion cannons, chitinous armor ratings, responding squads of caped crusaders with varying initiative levels? No again. You deploy a designated number of baddies, count up their dice, and chuck ’em. Land enough hits and you succeed for a big reward. Fail and you still get a smaller reward, because hey, at least your raid on that criminal asylum was worth some laughs. There’s some nuance to the dice tossing, but not much. Different types offer different odds: stealth is easy but pays out small, magic tends to punch but only when it lands, and so forth. Matching the right color of dice to each contract improves your odds, while certain rooms in your base can be manned for rerolls. It’s all very straightforward.
Now that this review’s gimmick has worn out its welcome, let me clarify that straightforward isn’t bad. If anything, Maniacal’s individual segments are streamlined to their bare essentials. Although there’s still some fiddliness there — and it’s a bonafide table hog — you don’t want somebody agonizing over room placement for ten minutes, or min-maxing their stats and abilities, or halting the flow with a separate tactical battle. Maniacal is too one-minded for such distractions. Instead, each element shifts organically into the next. Your leftover cash matters because you need to pay your henchmen at the end of each round. Your lair’s rooms matter because they acquire new baddies, who in turn matter because they’re the dudes activating rooms and going on evil missions.
The one place Maniacal goes too far in its obsessive pursuit of aerodynamics is with its contracts. There are six at any given time, each showing a difficulty rating, how many henchmen it requires, and which color of dice will be most effective in pulling off whatever heist is hidden on its backside. Yes, hidden. Because actually looking at those contracts would take a few extra minutes, what with all their icons and target numbers, Maniacal opts to keep them concealed. The rules provide hints — easy contracts have targets ranging from one to four rolled successes, for example — but its points, cash, and other rewards or penalties are invisible.
On the one hand, this does keep the game running at a brisk pace. On the other, it elevates the chanciness to tremendous heights. Earning some henchmen at random is one thing. Rolling dice comes with the territory. But walking into a contract blind removes much of your remaining free will from the equation. Your henchmen can gain new powers that grant additional dice, or become injured or captured, or maybe come home with some rule-bending scheme cards. Some of these surprises are pleasant, while others are more nasty. The result isn’t a crapshoot (that’s the dice-rolling part), but puts itself across as a literal random draw.
Maybe some of my reluctance is because I recently replayed Greenland, which manages to be a supernal dice game while also letting you select from an open menu of perilous options. By keeping everything concealed, Maniacal doesn’t feature much in the way of strategizing. There are still decisions to make, like maximizing your lair’s attractiveness, carefully spending your time pips during the action phase, and knowing when to heal henchmen or recruit a pricey mercenary in their stead. But these are more like nudging a speeding car with a pole rather than directly steering. Most of the time, Maniacal steers you.
Then again, it doesn’t seem to care, especially when it’s far faster and more stylish than its competition. Hassan Lopez has assembled hundreds of silly contracts, henchmen, and chambers, each with their own description. Although I’m not normally a fan of flavor text, that’s because this hobby’s italicized words are often achingly dour. In Maniacal, it’s hard not to chuckle at some of its combinations of inept villains and awkward power-ups. It’s less of an advantage than the game’s smoothness, and will wear thin significantly faster, as is the case in every game featuring “wacky” cards. But at least the examples here are genuinely colorful and amusing.
In the end, Maniacal’s charms are enough to win some affection in spite of its weaknesses. It’s as capricious as a middle school crush, as chancy as a slot machine, and as controllable as a runaway semi, but it’s also an impressive reduction of a big idea into constituent parts that hang together far better than they might have otherwise. And anyway, sometimes a mindless ride is exactly what I’m looking for. There’s probably a place for a complex Evil Genius sim; Maniacal heads the opposite direction while cackling gleefully, its paucity transformed into one of its greatest strengths. It isn’t as significant a design as Lopez’s previous title, but this dice game is both surprisingly big and pleasantly big-hearted.
A complimentary copy was provided.