Gaming Unplugged: Claustrophobia

March 14, 2010

A popular subset of board games are those that are effectively role-playing games without the actual role-playing (not terribly unlike video game RPGs). They typically feature plastic miniatures, interlocking cardboard tiles, a booklet of scenarios, and lots of dice; one player is usually designated as the antagonist and controls the enemies and traps while the others represent the heroes and typically work together to defeat the scenario. 

Claustrophobia, designed by CROC and published by Asmodee, is one such dungeon crawl, although featuring play for only two players. It borrows the setting and theme from a previous game by the same designer (Hell Dorado), in which desperate humans on a devastated Earth have actually attempted to colonize parts of Hell. Needless to say the resident demons are less than thrilled about the existence of “New Jerusalem”.

One player is in charge of various human characters. The main human warrior (in most scenarios) is called The Redeemer, who has special abilities that vary from scenario to scenario; the remainder of the human player’s forces are comprised of condemned prisoners conscripted into service and come in two varieties: hulking Brutes and nimble Blades for Hire. The actual composition of the humans’ party varies in each scenario, but never exceeds five Warriors (two Brutes, two Blades, and the Redeemer). The humans also have a small number of advantages (special one-use cards dealt out randomly from a deck of fifteen) and occasionally some additional equipment like shields or even a blunderbuss.

On the other side are the Demons and their seemingly endless hordes of Troglodytes. Each scenario has a specific type of Demon, with its stats and abilities indicated on reference cards; the demon player can usually only summon their Demons twice per scenario and never have more than one in play at a time (mostly because only one Demon figure is included; they have access to up to eleven Troglodytes, however). Troglodytes pretty much define “cannon fodder”, but can gain various abilities temporarily via the “Board of Destiny,” which I’ll get to in a minute. The demon player can also draw Event cards that are largely analogous to the humans’ Advantages.

The turn sequence starts with the human player rolling action dice equal to the number of warriors they have in play. Each die is then assigned to one of the warriors, which will determine their movement, combat, and defense skills for that turn; the Redeemer’s gifts also trigger off specific values being assigned to him. Then in the humans’ action phase each warrior can move and explore the catacombs, drawing a random dungeon tile from the stack and having the demon player position it on the table; warriors can also engage in combat either before or after moving (but not interrupting a move; if you move first, you stop once you fight). Once all of the human warriors have performed their actions the game moves to the Threat Phase.

During the Threat Phase, the demon player rolls at least three “Dice of Destiny” and assigns them to his Board of Destiny. This board contains ten spaces with varying requirements (“two even dice”, “a total of seven”, etc.) and corresponding effects. After assigning dice, the demon player may summon warriors by spending Threat Points (usually accumulated via one of the Board’s options); Troglodytes cost one TP each, while Demons require five. There are restrictions, however: demons can only be summoned on tiles with at least one unexplored passageway, and only if no human warriors are present on that tile. A key part of the human player’s strategy will be managing exactly where the demon player can summon enemies; of course, there are abilities on the Board that can circumvent these limitations, so no position is truly “safe”. The demon player then gets an action phase just like the human player and then the process repeats until the scenario is over.

Movement is governed by two inherent rules. The “Tunnel Size Rule” that prevents any more than three warriors from each side from being present on a given tile; some tiles are exceptions and allow either only one or up to five from each side. The other governing rule is the “Blocking Rule”, which prevents a warrior from leaving a tile if he is outnumbered by opposing warriors. Some warriors have abilities that modify the Blocking Rule; Brutes have the Impressive talent which basically imposes the Blocking Rule on all opponents at all times, while Blades have the Elusive ability that allows them to ignore the Blocking Rule entirely. There are ways for the demon player to access these talents as well, and if those two abilities are ever in conflict they simply cancel each other out and the normal Blocking Rule is in effect.

Combat is quick and simple. The active warrior selects his target (all Troglodytes on a tile count as a single target) and then rolls a number of dice equal to his combat score. Every result that equals or exceeds the target’s current defense score (usually three) causes a wound. It only takes a single wound to slay a Troglodyte, but Demons usually take several hits before they go down. When a human warrior receives a wound, the human player chooses one of the lines of action to “turn off”; an action die assigned to that line in future turns results in the warrior being “exhausted” and unable to move, fight, or put up more than a token defense. The sixth wound dealt to a human warrior kills him.

A scenario can usually be completed in around 45 minutes to an hour. But despite only allowing two players to go at it for such a short time, Claustrophobia consumes a TON of table space. The dungeon tiles are enormous, approximately five inches square of extremely thick cardboard. Many scenarios require at least ten of these tiles laid out in a serpentine manner. Then there are the human player’s card stands, which are one of the neatest innovations offered by the game if a bit bulky. These stands hold reference cards for the human warriors and has indentations to accommodate the action die and damage markers. On the demons’ side of the clutter is the Board of Destiny, made of the same heavyweight cardboard as the dungeon tiles but about eight inches square, plus his accumulation of Threat Points. Then you need space for rolling dice, unused miniatures (mostly on the demon side), referring to the scenario in the rule book, and two small decks of cards. It all adds up rapidly, to the point where an eight-foot table that can normally accommodate three one-on-one games is dedicated to just this one game; anything smaller will probably require some compromises.

But greedy spacial requirements aren’t necessarily a reason to dismiss a game. Unfortunately, a high price tag often is. In addition to thirty-six thick dungeon tiles, cardboard reference cards that are placed in plastic stands, a dozen dice, plastic damage markers, and various cards and tokens, Claustrophobia also includes seventeen fully painted miniatures! That all combines for an MSRP  of around $65, which can be a lot to ask for a one-on-one game. It’s a solid game (both mechanically and literally) with some neat features, but there are better games available for much less (and to be fair, a few that cost more, like Agricola — although they usually support more than two players). If you can find this for less then retail it should become more appealing, as few games of this nature can boast such a short session time. Regardless of what you’re willing to pay for it, adding to the value of Claustrophobia is the fact that additional scenarios are available online from the creators, expanding the game beyond the six that are included in the box; also included is a bidding variant that allows advanced players to modify the existing scenarios to provide a further challenge.