Friday, January 22, 2021

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Review of Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle by Blueprint Gaming Concepts

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Review of Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle  by Blueprint Gaming Concepts
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Title: Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle & 2nd Story Expansion
Designed by: Brandt Hoffman, Seth A Cooper
Publisher: Blueprint Gaming Concepts
Year Published: 2021
MSRP: $64
1-7p | 15-105 min | 14+

A couple of weeks ago I did an unboxing for H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle and mentioned how I was looking forward to playing the game with my family.  The game combines an interesting theme with a number of mechanics that we really enjoy in other games, like tile laying, exploring, action selection, and more, so we thought it would be something that we'd really enjoy playing.  The rules are pretty simple, so it was an easy game to jump into, even though there are a ton of cool components.  So I set up the game on a Saturday and played a three player game (well, four players since my three-year-old played on a team with my wife).  So read on to find out if the game met our expectations!

In H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle, each player is a character who was involved in Holmes' various scams, cons, and schemes, who is trying to collect and remove incriminating evidence from the Murder Castle hotel.  The first player to collect all the evidence cubes they need and then return to the Pharmacy will escape and win the game.  The hotel starts with four rooms, the Pharmacy and three Basement rooms, but as the game progresses the hotel will grow.  With the 2nd Story expansion the maze of rooms becomes even more complex throughout the game.

On your turn you'll get to select an action.  Then you'll take the action, plus a bonus.  Then everyone else gets to take the same action without the bonus.  After everyone has taken an action the round ends, Holmes will move somewhere in the castle, and then the actions are reset.  Turns move pretty quickly and everyone stays pretty engaged.
Actions that can be taken include exploring the hotel (which lets you add new room tiles), moving your character one or two rooms, collecting evidence from the room you are in, draw event cards (some are played immediately, some kept for later), or moving Holmes.  Some of the rooms have special rules that activate when players enter them, some events help you out, some let you hinder your opponents, and some events add features like secret bookcase passages, trapdoors, and more.  There are five types of evidence cubes to collect and each player has a different combination of cubes they need to collect before they can escape.  Evidence cubes are placed randomly into a Ferris Wheel rondel that rotates as the game progresses, so you can plan somewhat for the types of evidence that will be appearing in the rooms.

After everyone has finished all their actions (and when someone takes the Holmes Moves action), Holmes will move about the castle.  The Holmes Moves cards show two or more rooms on them.  If any of the rooms have been discovered in the castle, Holmes will move to one of them.  If there are any players in that room they'll suffer a Holmes Strikes effect; they'll have to discard one or more evidence cubes from their board.

Once a player has all the evidence they need to clear their name (or prevent them from being convicted along with Holmes), they'll have to make it back to the Pharmacy in order to escape and win.  

Blooms are the game's highlights and features.  Elements that are exceptional.
  • Pretty simple, straightforward rules make it easy to play and introduce to new players.
  • Love exploring the house and uncovering new, weird rooms.
  • Action selection mechanic is great and keeps everyone engaged throughout the game.
  • I love the idea of the Ferris Wheel mechanic so you can see the evidence that'll be coming up.
  • Nice components and artwork.
Buds are interesting parts of the game I would like to explore more. 
  • Solo mode adds an automata challenge for Holmes.
  • Can play in a one-vs-all mode with one player taking on the role of Holmes.
  • Quite a few rooms, some with different features or events tied to them, make for a different game each time.
  • Tons of event cards so it'll take a couple of games to see them all.
Thorns are a game's shortcomings and any issues I feel are noteworthy.
  • Most of the rooms are just rooms.  Evidence is just colored cubes.  There's no drive to explore other than to just get more rooms and cubes on the board, not because they result in any interesting experiences.
  • Even at three players some actions taken left the last player with nothing to do, especially early in the game.
  • Game has very little arc and doesn't ramp up in tension or complexity.  It gets repetitive and feels the same from beginning to end.
  • In the standard game Holmes' movement is completely random and directionless.
Final Thoughts:
H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle has a lot going for it.  It uses some great mechanics put together in a straightforward, simple to understand way that makes the game great to introduce to new players.  The inspiration for the game is pretty dark and macabre, but its presentation in the game is much less so.  The game is more about the mystery behind the hotel and exploring it than it is about the murder and malice that surrounds the Holmes mythos.  The artwork throughout the game is mildly gruesome (some blood stains, morbid imagery, and a few dead bodies - you could have been featured as a cadaver as a Kickstarter pledge level), but far from gory or disturbing.  Most of the rooms are empty with a few odd props scattered about.  The game doesn't satirize or make light of the history it represents, but it also doesn't glorify or sensationalize the history either.  In fact, the theme is just very lightly incorporated into the game and the artwork.  

Beyond the theme, the game is pretty mechanically sound.  The rulebook covers most situations pretty well and there's a FAQ on Board Game Geek that covers the couple of areas where questions might arise or where the specific rules may be easy to miss in the rulebook.  Mechanically and strategically the game is pretty light, so it's good for families or casual gamers.  A lot of the game relies on luck - are the colors of evidence you need coming around on the Ferris wheel, is Holmes going to end up in your room, is an event card going to help you or hurt you, etc.  
Unfortunately, however, we found the game almost too light.  I love gateway games - they're great to play with my family or newer players, and this has all the right ingredients, but there's no escalation to the game.  The actions and strategies you use at the beginning of the game are the same as what you'll use at the end of the game.  You're just moving around from room to room picking up the colored cubes that you need.  And the evidence cubes are just that, various colored cubes.  They have no bearing on the game except for you needing to collect a slightly different combination than everyone else.  The only sense of urgency is if you can get your cubes before someone else gets theirs.  Everything else is just happenstance - does the Ferris wheel happen to have the color cubes you need to collect, do the colored cubes happen to be in a room that you can get to and collect evidence from, did Holmes happen to move to your room, etc.  Even the methods of messing with your opponents are just random chance event cards.  

In the game we played, my wife collected her last evidence cube and just had to move back to the Pharmacy.  There was nothing anyone else could do to stop her except draw event cards and hope one would mess with her or hope Holmes would move into her room.  So we just sat back for two turns hoping something would happen that would stop her from being able to move, but with two move tiles and everyone getting to take those actions, there wasn't anything we could do to stop her.  And both of the other players were only one evidence cube away from having our full sets, too.  But we couldn't move to rooms to get our cubes without giving my wife the movement actions she needed to win.  

So the end was very anticlimactic and helpless feeling.  Up to that point the game was interesting, but felt very repetitive.  There was probably too much flexibility.  With everyone getting to do every action that was selected every round, the bonuses for being the player to take a specific action didn't feel significant enough to matter.  The game ended with everyone very close, but it felt like we were close because we were all basically doing the same things as each other, over and over.  I think the game would be more interesting without the bonuses for taking an action, and having only the active player taking the action.  That would give some tension, wondering if you're going to be able to move this round, or collect that evidence you need.  It would also add some strategic choices and ways to mess with other players.  We could have taken move actions, even if they wouldn't have been optimal actions for us, just so my wife wouldn't get to move to the Pharmacy.  Then she would have had to figure out other ways to achieve her goal (maybe through events or by purposely getting Holmes to move toward her so she could use her special ability).  Alternately, let players choose to take the bonus and give everyone else the base action or forfeit the bonus and only take the action themselves.  Either of these options would have kept the gameplay simple, but allow for more strategic choices.

I was also disappointed in the rooms themselves.  In Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has a similar exploring the house mechanic but very different gameplay otherwise, almost every room has some special effect, action, or rule.  This keeps the game exciting and unpredictable, and even gives you a purpose for visiting specific rooms sometimes.  In H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle only a few of the rooms have special effects.  Most of the rooms are just plain rooms with different artwork.  So the only reason to go to those rooms is if they have the color evidence cubes you need.  But those are placed mostly randomly and even in a three player game rooms were quickly emptied of cubes.  So there was no reason to move to (or avoid) most rooms.  The only thing that matters is if evidence cubes you need are in a room.  This keeps the game simple, but also not very interesting.  One room is pretty much the same as any other room.
Finally, in the standard game anyway, the movement of Holmes is very uninteresting.  You draw a card and move Holmes to one of the named rooms if possible.  If someone is in that room they get a Holmes Strikes cube and have to discard one or more of their evidence cubes.  The room Holmes moves to is completely random, and many times Holmes doesn't move at all.  The story is that Holmes knows all the secret passages and can appear in any room at any time, but there's no tension in that.  I'd much rather see Holmes prowling through the hotel, moving from room to room.  If he moved through all the rooms between where he was at and his destination, there would be a lot more tension and fear.  This might mean a lot more interactions with Holmes, but it would also really add to the experience.

Keep in mind that these observations were with a three-player count game.  In a five or six-player game the board will be tighter, there will be more competition over the available evidence cubes, and rooms will empty quicker, requiring more strategic decisions.  And with the one-vs-all mode, a player is controlling Holmes' movement, so there should be more tension.  However I believe a game should play well at all player counts listed, especially in the middle range.  Since the game is rated for 1-7 players, three should have played fine but it really felt like it was missing something.  Mechanically everything worked well, thematically it was interesting, but the game felt repetitive and lacked the excitement and tension that would deliver the "thrilling" experience the box promised.

Crimes in History H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle gets a Bud.  It's a solid gateway level game that you may enjoy, especially if you like games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, true crime, or action selection mechanics.  It's somewhat disappointing though, especially because I feel that just a few tweaks could turn an okay game into an amazing game.  It's not far off the mark, but it falls just a bit short.  A lot of things in the game reminded me of one of my first game designs - Polterheist, a game about exploring a haunted mansion and trying to find a hidden treasure.  Mechanically the game worked, and it was even fun, but it suffered from many of the same issues that H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle suffers from - every room felt the same, finding items was random, and players felt like they were just wandering the house for the sake of just getting to the next spot they could search a random deck.  Someday I'd like to get back to Polterheist because I feel the same way about it as I do about H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle - there's a great core idea, but it needs something to bring it up a notch to make it great.  Maybe someday H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle will get a second edition that addresses some of these issues, and if it does, I'll be all over it!

If Crimes in History H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle sounds like a game you'd like to try, you can pick up a copy from Blueprint Gaming Concepts or your favorite online or local game store for $64.

Buds, Blooms, and Thorns Rating:
Bud!  This game definitely has some
great moments.  It's good for several plays
and should appeal to most gamers, especially
if you enjoy other games like this.

There are a lot more pictures in the Unboxing Post.

Yes, we did play one rule incorrectly and added an extra room in the basement.

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GJJ Games Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some were provided by a publisher or designer for my honest feedback and evaluation.  I make every attempt to be both honest and constructively critical in my reviews, and they are all my opinions.  There are four types of reviews on GJJ Games: Full Reviews feature critical reviews based on a rubric and games receive a rating from 0 to 100.  Quick Reviews and Kickstarter Previews are either shorter reviews of published games or detailed preview reviews of crowdfunding games that will receive a rating from 0 to 10 based on my impressions of the game.  Buds, Blooms,and Thorns reviews are shorter reviews of either published or upcoming games that highlight three aspects of a game: Buds are parts of a game I look forward to exploring more, Blooms are outstanding features of a game, and Thorns are shortcomings of a game.  Each BBT review game will receive an overall rating of Thorn, Bud, or Bloom.

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