Edgar Allan Poe was a man who was obsessed with death. Perhaps it came from his military career, or the fact that the people in his life seemed to die at an early age, maybe it was simply due to the times he lived in. One thing that has never been in doubt is the influence that our mortality had on his work. Seen as an innovator of the short story, and the detective fiction, Poe was the creative mind behind some of the darkest and most disturbing tales in American history. I remember my first introduction to the work of Poe was a TV movie version of The Telltale Heart. I found the first person narrative of the murderer absolutely terrifying, and from that point, I was a devoted reader of any of Poe’s stories that I could get my hands on. Although he dabbled into the supernatural, it was his focus on humanity and the cruelty we’re capable of that stuck with me. Images like a wall being slowly bricked up as a captor loses their sanity as the reality of the situation becomes clear, or a descending, swinging blade getting closer and closer to your exposed gut are enough to make you lose sleep. Imagine what it was like when these stories were first published.
When Masque of the Red Death by Adam Wyse and IDW Games hit Kickstarter, I was intrigued and I finally got a chance to try it, right in time for Halloween.
In the Poe story, Prince Prospero and many of his wealthy friends attempt to avoid a deadly plague spread across the land by taking refuge in his Abbey and throwing a lavish masquerade ball (as you do). The Abbey was made up of seven rooms, each adorned in a different colour. At the stroke of midnight, a guest appears disguised to look like a victim of the Red Death. This insult will not stand, and Prospero pursues the guest through the Abbey demanding to know his identity to the last room, finally confronting him, then suddenly dying. The rest of the guests surrounded the mysterious figure removing his mask and finding to their horror nothing underneath. It was the personification of death itself.
In the game Masque of the Red Death, players take on the role of guests at the ball. Over 12 rounds they attempt to gain popularity and hear the latest gossip, but at the end of the night, death will be waiting for them.
Players get a noble to represent them in the Abbey, and they’re each dealt a unique personality action, which can affect their strategy over the course of the evening. They also each get a set of the nine different Action cards. These cards like Jest, Discuss, Threaten, Swindle, Flirt, and Mock, allow players to gain popularity, see rumours, and steal cards from each other.
Masque of the Red Death is played in two different halves. The Masquerade consists of 12 rounds where players will select action cards from their hands and then reveal them simultaneously. Starting with the least popular player (lowest of that track), the actions are resolved. Most of the actions cards are then discarded, but there are a couple, Discuss and Dance, which are returned to the player’s hand after they’re used. If you happen to be in the same room as the Prince when you play your action card you’ll gain popularity, cause who doesn’t want to hang with a prince? The Prince’s board indicates where he’ll move each round, so players can decide where they want to move next to bask in his royal glow. There are two main things players are trying to accomplish during the Masquerade; they are trying gain as much popularity as possible, and they are trying to gain as much information about the movement of the Red Death.
After 12 rounds, the Clock Strikes Midnight and the second half of the game begins. Nobles will have planned their movements for six different rounds from midnight until 12:50. They will move clockwise or counterclockwise around the Abbey, or just stay put. Two Red Death card are revealed for each time period and the mysterious figure will move through the rooms of the Abbey, killing anyone caught in the same room as it.
The winner is the most popular person who is still alive at the end of the game.
During the Masquerade, gaining popularity is pretty straight forward. Cards like Jest, Mock, and Admire earn the owner popularity and sometimes grant or steal popularity from other players. Some action cards will allow players to take a Rumour card or view one from another player’s hand. There are two different types of Rumours. Gossip Rumour cards show a room colour and a time. When you see that, you know that the Red Death won’t be in that room at that specific time. For example, drawing a Violet room at 12:20 means that is a safe place to be at that time during the second half. Evidence Rumour cards allow you to look at one of the two face down Red Death cards for a specific time period. This gives you direct knowledge of where the Red Death will be at a certain time in the night. Obviously avoid that room at that time at all costs. Knowledge is power in this game, so whatever information you’ve been able to glean from your investigation, is important to keep to yourself.
When the 12 rounds of the Masquerade are over, players plan their movements (or lack thereof) based on the knowledge they’ve been able to gain. Whatever room they are currently in is the starting point for their programming. Spending many actions looking at Rumours can mean you have a good idea the path the Red Death will take, however it also means you probably haven’t spent too much time building your popularity. Meanwhile, a very popular person hasn’t been too inquisitive and will have to hope they avoid the Red Death through pure luck. Focusing too heavily on either trait can be deadly.
Masque of the Red Death does a lot of things really well. Like other gothic horror themed game like Gloom and The Bloody Inn, the artwork and character design are appropriately dark with just a touch of Tim Burton-esque whimsy. The gameplay is simple to get a grasp on, and there is a lot of interesting player interaction and investigation, culminating with the tense final countdown as the Red Death cards are revealed. More than anything, I’m struck with how well the mechanics represent the original Poe story. The Red Death kills the Prince and then moves from room to room killing off everyone it encounters. There is an increasing sense of doom as the clock approaches midnight. IDW has even included the story in the back of the rulebook to set the mood for people who haven’t yet read it.
The next time you feel like locking yourself away with 4-7 of your noble friends, considering inviting them to a ball where not everyone will walk out alive.