“Witch of Salem” is a recent Euro board game import from Mayfair games. “Witch of Salem” is another in the recent surge of cooperative board games that pit the players against random obstacles generated from a card deck. Right off, I need to mention the main problem I have with this game; the terrible name. Yes, I am going to complain about the name because it is easily the worst translation of any game title in recent memory. The current title implies (at least to me) some good old-fashioned witch hunting. Given the name, I half expected curses, spells and at least one devil worshipper barbecue in the town square.
Instead I got a Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos-themed game, based in Arkham. A bit of research revealed the original game is based on a series of books by Wolfgang Hohlbein. Hohlbein’s hero is a Cthulhu-busting sorcerer from Salem named Robert Craven. The original title “Der Hexer von Salem” very loosely translates to “Witch of Salem.” Warlock is a better term, but some marketing person probably saw the Salem Witch Trial tie-in as too good to ignore. Do not be fooled, this game is Cthluhu to the core, with sunken cities, madness, Necronomicons and you can even visit R’lyeh.
Once you get passed the poorly chosen game title, it really is a fun game. Here is a shot of the board during my test game.
The player have two primary goals and failing either results in Armageddon. In the early game, investigators use Necronomicons to identify the Elder Gods attacking the portals. There are six and you have to identify all of them before the Necron track reaches the half-way point. At the same time, investigators with the glasses look at the hidden portal tiles and determine which ones need sealing. There are six portal tiles and between 2-4 portals randomly distributed across the board. Once identified, you use artifacts to close the portals. If you place an artifact on a “false” portal, you actually create a portal and lose the game at the end when all is revealed. Guessing is very bad.
Each player receives an investigator card. There is no difference between the investigators, they are just cards to hold the items you acquire and track sanity loss. All player tokens, including an extra white token for the “Witch of Salem,” Robert Craven begins at Miskatonic University. Each location has several items you can pick up. Including weapons, glasses (to look at portal tiles,) potions (to restore sanity), Necronomicons for creature identification and artifacts to seal portals. Some items cost nothing to pick up, while other cost sanity or advance the Necron token along the track.
On each turn a creature card appears on the board in an empty location. That location is now dangerous, so if an investigator goes there to pick up an item, he has to roll a die and risk whatever effect the die determines. You might lose sanity, an item or the Necron marker advances. Going to a location to look at the portal tile and losing your glasses on a dice roll is brutal! My review game had several instances of this and really put a crimp in our early game strategies. Robert Craven moves around the board at random and gives some bonuses to investigators if they act at the same location as his token. Critically, he prevents the evil die roll for item loss.
There are two of each creature in the monster deck and if one of them is already on the board when the copy comes up, the special ability goes off. They are really, really bad. The “Red Witch” card shuffled the portal tiles after we identified all of them! We had to start portal hunting again, but got lucky because we knew exactly how many portals were on the board. We had two and found them both very quickly.
Players have a hand of cards with location names on them. After the creature cards is drawn, the players may move to any location on the board for which they still have a card. Once visited, you cannot use the card again until you return to Miskatonic University, where your hand is refreshed. Planning several moves ahead is critical for success.
Haaldaar and I won our game, but he played several previous games that ended in defeat. He described it as tougher than Pandemic and I tend to agree. It is winnable, but just barely. Our successful game ended three points away from Armageddon.
There were no major issues (aside from the name) but there was one oddity in the rules that we chose to ignore in my game. The rules state that the investigators may not tell anyone what they find under the portal tiles when they use the glasses item. Essentially, critical information is withheld from other players and each player has to find and seal portals without telling anyone where they are. Haaldaar and I were at a loss as to why you would add this mechanic to a cooperative game. Admittedly, sharing portal location intel does make the game easier, but not sharing this information makes the game nigh impossible.
Not that I want a lot of verisimilitude in my board games, but common sense dictates you might mention the GAPING HOLE IN REALITY in the local cemetery to your portal-sealing allies. But that is me. I may try this mechanic in our next game and see how it goes.
This is a fun cooperative game with a Cthulhu theme that I really enjoyed. Cooperative games like “Pandemic” I find fascinating, so combining good mechanics with a great theme (huge Lovecraft geek that I am) was a great experience. I look forward to losing more sanity in the future.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer
Full Disclosure: Haaldaar paid full retail for this game at our local game store.