Before I begin, I was provided a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid review. If you would like to watch a video of this review, check it out below. If you want your own copy click here.
Steampunk=good. Cthulu=meh. Horror=I’m a big baby. Dungeon Crawls=the best. Those are facts. It is also a fact that I play a lot of games, and am blessed that I fairly regularly get sent games by publishers/designers to review, so there is rarely a time that there is not something waiting for me. So why in the world would I see out a game that is certain to make me lose sleep, and has a theme that I am lukewarm on?
The short answer is I watched it played. I was utterly captivated by it, especially because it was doing a lot of things that just seemed so different to me from many other dungeon crawls I play.
The game plays on in a series of one shot scenarios. Your explorers enter the creepy dungeon, and seek to accomplish a series of tasks the scenario throws at you. Each task has a card that gives you story, new events, and conditions, and tells you how to move on to the next card. The requirements might be sacrifice your valuable essence, or your life, or just get off the map tile.
The maps are a series of randomized tiles that change every time you play the scenario, and has the cool bonus of never been larger than 2×2. If you ever leave a tile the one at the far end scrolls off, in a weird creepy horrifying way. All over the tile are various things you can interact with, all for a cost of stamina. There are traps to set off, barrels to blow up, workbenches to activate, recharge stations, chests filled with all kinds of weird gear…and all of them can be used one time…unless of course a monster destroys it on you.
Oh right, did I forget to mention the monsters? Every. Single. Round. A new monster, or monsters might spawn, it is all based on the roll of a die, and even if you are REALLY lucky, each time you manage not to spawn one, the number you need to roll under to be safe is reduced by one. So eventually you will be summoning beasties. In addition to this there is a potential “horror” event each turn, and like the monster spawns, every time you do not have an event, you it gets more likely that you will next time. Oh and did I mention that each horror event slowly increases the difficulty of the monsters?
The last thing that I need to mention is that when you find items you pull them from one of four decks, usually keeping one and then putting the others back on top of the deck or removing them from the game. The items do the same things that most DC items do, give you better armor, or toys or weapons. However, in addition to this there is a simple system that allows you to combine items and upgrade them to new and more amazingly bizarre things!
So what do I think?
The artwork. It is wonderful. Super creepy, but wonderful. Along with that there amount of story, and flavor that has been added to this game is enormous. Yes there are only a few scenarios to play, but each one has such a dark and creepy story, with amazing imagery, not to mention borderline terrifying text on the horror cards, and you have a very immersive story.
I really like the mechanics of essence and stamina, and how EVERYTHING has a stamina cost. There are not freebies in this game, this means you are constantly trying to decide what you should spend your time on: “do I kill that monster, or equip this new weapon?” “Do I activate the chapter space, or do I try to heal some?”. It is great.
Next, I really like how the equipment works. I love how as the game progresses you add better gear to the stacks, and every time you do not pick something up you can choose to put it on top of the deck of gear, or throw it away. Again, hard choices. However, the real shining part of the gear is how you can upgrade equipment. There is nothing more satisfying than finding a scope, and then later finding a rifle that you can attach it to, so now you are more awesome than you were.
Now, I have saved the best for last. I love how spawning works, and how horror events work. I love that you are rolling the dice, but each time you now the horror is getting closer, and no matter how lucky you are it will find you. IT’S AWESOME.
While, the universe is very immersive, I do feel the need to point out that it is definitely not for everyone. It is creepy, sometimes a bit gross, and frightening. This is not your grandmother’s dungeon crawler!
I will also add that this game is hard. It is not particularly complicated, compared to other dungeon crawls, but it is really hard. I have yet to win, though I have had some devastating last turn defeats.
Finally, the components. They are solid, but not spectacular, and the gear cards, which have to be shuffled regularly, are an odd size, and they are actually hard to shuffle if they are not sleeved.
The rule book is a bit scattered, now they did create a player aid in response to this, but I would suggest watching a video to really figure it out the first time through. Finally, I think the insert is not the best. If I want to sleeve cards, it definitely will not fit, and as it is, I am putting it all away differently each time, it just is not the best.
Bringing it all together
Machina Arcana is a fresh feeling Dungeon Crawl, where each scenario feels like its own mini campaign. The art, and story components are exactly what you need to feel completely immersed in the creepy, creepy world that is Machina Arcana. It has an awesome loot “crafting” system, and has one of my favorite methods for spawning monsters, and increasing the horror. The insert, and rulebook could use a bit of love, and this might not be a game for everyone, as it is dark and quite challenging.
Sooooo…I have an evil ritual to stop, could you get to the point?
* Horrifyingly thematic in both the story and art
* Mechanics that feel different from most Dungeon crawls
* So many hard choices to make!
* Very cool crafting mechanic
* Though there is no campaign, each scenario feels like its own mini-campaign
* Insert is not the most efficient
* Rule book needs some love
* One of the most delightful monster spawning mechanics I have played of late