The Miskatonic School for Girls has a slight problem: all the faculty and staff are either “mind-rending creatures or insane cultists.” The knowledge that they impart to the students is the sort of thing that will drive you to insanity.
That’s the basic premise of a rather funny, surprisingly light-hearted deck-building game by Luke Peterschmidt, which has just a few days to go on its Kickstarter campaign.
I’ve gotten to play a prototype version of MSfG, though some of the rules and cards have been updated since the version I’ve tried. I’ll give you a quick overview of the game and how it works, along with my impressions, but keep in mind that the finished game may be slightly different.
In most deck-building games, you add cards to your own deck, hoping to amass the right combination of cards to win, whether that’s through buying victory points or slaying monsters or some other combination of factors. Usually you don’t add much to the other players’ decks — you’ll add Wound cards in Nightfall or Puzzle Strike, but those aren’t typical cards. In MSfG, you actually build the other player’s decks as well as your own, using an interesting mechanic. The goal of the game is to be the last player to go insane.
Each player starts with a small set of Starting students and 20 points of sanity. During each player’s turn, they will draw a hand of five cards, and then purchase one card from the Student store, one card from the Faculty store, and then go to “class,” where they battle any faculty that turned up in their hand. This is the point in the game where you can lose sanity points — lose too many, and you go insane and are eliminated from the game.
There are a few ways MSfG differs from deck-builders you may be familiar with. First, purchased cards go face-up in a stack to the left of your deck, and when you draw your hand of five, you actually take all of these first before drawing from the face-down deck. Also, the student you buy goes into your own purchase pile, but the faculty goes to the player to your left. Basically, you buy one good thing for yourself and one bad thing for an opponent.
Each card (both students and faculty) has two numbers at the top: friendship points and nightmare points. These function like two different currencies. Friendship points are used to buy Student cards, and nightmare points are used to buy Faculty cards. The catch is, each card can only be used to produce one or the other — if it has numbers for both, you have to decide which type of points you want to use it for on your turn. If you go for a really strong student, you may not be able to afford the truly terrifying faculty, or vice versa. If you don’t have enough points, there is a stack of Transfer students and Substitute teachers that serve as free, not-very-powerful alternatives. Either way, on each turn you must buy one of each.
After you’ve purchased cards, you get to use “pre-class” abilities of your students, if any. Some of these may allow you to discard a faculty and replace it with a substitute, or pull an extra student into the classroom to help fend off the faculty. After this, all faculty in your hand go into the classroom, and everything else is discarded. Then, you draw one card per faculty in your classroom, and these are the ones you’ll get to use to fight off the faculty.
Students have an attack power, shown on the mallet, and resolve, shown on the shield. Faculty have health, shown on the apple, and damage, on the paddle. If your students’ attack powers add up to the health of a faculty, you can fend off the faculty, sending them to the discard pile. However, if any faculty survive, they do the amount of damage listed, less the total resolve of your students. You tick off points on your sanity tracker. Some of the faculty also have various other effects if they survive or are defeated. For instance, the Headmaster, although he doesn’t do a ton of damage, will go back into your Purchase section if he isn’t defeated, meaning that he can just keep coming back.
Of course, sometimes when you draw your cards to fight the faculty, you’ll get some more faculty. In this phase of the game they function as “pet teachers,” and you get to place them in any other player’s discard pile. So you’re short a student to help you fight, but at least you get to send a few nasty things to somebody else.
Finally, once you’ve fought and resolved all special text, your turn is over and all the faculty and students get discarded.
The stores always have 3 card available each (in addition to the Transfer student and Substitute teacher) — you slide them down and add a new card each turn; if the previous player didn’t purchase from the store then the oldest one is discarded and a new one is drawn. Occasionally you’ll run into event cards, which can be good or bad for the player drawing them. These add an additional element of randomness to the game.
I played MSfG a cople of times with different players, and most people that I played with enjoyed the game. The theme is fun, and Peterschmidt definitely is going for a funny take on Lovecraft rather than a more serious one. The artwork is excellent, and really helps set the tone for the game. The rules (the version I read) are pretty straightforward and easy to read, but also include silly things like the fact that when you switch between colors on the sanity tracker you have to laugh or cackle madly. The penalty for not doing so is that your opponents get to “taunt you as a spiritless hack of a human.”
Once you get used to the order of play, the game goes fairly quickly. The fact that most of the time you’re adding faculty to the player to your left means that there’s less ganging up on a single player, so although there is player elimination we all succumbed to insanity at nearly the same time. There is a bit of a luck factor in the cards available, somewhat like Ascension — since there are only 6 cards in the stores at any given time (not counting the Transfer and Sub), sometimes you just won’t like your choices. Sometimes you may end up with a bunch of friendship points, only to find that there aren’t any really good students at the time.
The other thing we noted is that there are some really nasty faculty cards, but not very many super-powerful students. Of course, this is by design, because the idea is that you really can’t fend off the horrific faculty forever. Eventually everyone goes insane. Also, there are some powers that work “pre-class” and others that work when the player fights the faculty — sometimes you’ll draw a card that doesn’t help you in that particular phase, and this can inspire some great schadenfreude among your opponents. “Oh, too bad that didn’t come up earlier,” they smirk.
One thing that I wish they could change is the sanity tracker on the play mat. Of course, the play mat (as with most deck-building games) is largely unnecessary. Once the players know the game it’s pretty easy to play without a mat to tell you where your deck and discard piles go. However, this game also has the sanity tracker, so without the mat you’ll want something (like a D20) to indicate each player’s sanity levels. The tracker, you’ll notice, is at the bottom of the mat. Often as we were playing, we knocked the little stone off the tracker as we were drawing cards or cleaning up after a turn. It would have been nice to have the tracker across the top of the mat instead. Alas, it’s probably too late to change.
Overall, it’s a neat mechanic, buying a card for yourself and a card for another player each turn, sometimes having to choose between building your defenses or wearing down your opponent’s. There’s a bit more of a screw-your-neighbor vibe to this one than most deck-builders, and perhaps a little more luck and randomness than those in which everyone has access to the same available cards. It’s not my favorite in the rapidly-growing genre of deck-building games, but it has a great look to it and if you like Lovecraft you’ll get a kick out of the theme.
And speaking of kicking, you’ve got a few days left to put in your pre-order for the game. Peterschmidt blew past his $11,500 goal, so the game is guaranteed to be printed. For $45, you can get in on the action, or add a few more bucks to get some rare Kickstarter promo cards thrown in. Check in on the Kickstarter page for more about the game (and be sure to go to the Updates page for full rules, tutorial video, and more).