(A big thank you to IDW and Ross Thompson for providing materials for this review.)
I do not write this review out of my own selfish desires, nor do I write it to entertain or even terrify. I write merely in the interest of truth. And I write so that others may know what I have been through. For I have been visited by a dark and haunting specter, and even now I fear it may come again. It fills my dreams with dread and the very idea of it sends shivers down my spine. It is a game of fear, a game of chance, and a game of death. I speak of course, of IDW’s newest board game: Masque of the Red Death.
Ah, distinctly I remember. It was early August, at GenCon, when I first beheld the game itself. The black and blood red packaging marked by the terrible countenance of death stood out among the other games proffered by IDW. Despite my interest in all of their games, as those who know me well can attest, it was Masque of the Red Death that seemed to grasp me with its horrid claws and pull me in.
Unlike IDW’s other titles, the dark birth of Masque came not from a license, but from a dream its designer Adam Wyse had: that the gothic masterpiece of short fiction by Edgar Allan Poe would be faithfully rendered onto the tabletop. After years of development, and even industry recognition, Masque was finally given flesh by IDW. With the help of noted artist of the macabre GRIS GRIMLY, who rendered the sanguinary darkness of Prince Prospero’s Abbey in wretched detail, it finally went on Kickstarter this year and will release by the end of the month.
But I am not here to merely tell the tale of the Red Death’s origin. No, I am here to review the game itself (though the sound of the ebony clock sounds in my head even so).
“Delirious fancies such as the madman fashions”
I was given the copy pictured above: a beautiful box of thick ebony cardboard, dripping with crimson foil, the words splashed as if by a knife across the front and spine. For it has a spine. What truly literary game does not come packaged as if it were its own book? This is the special Kickstarter Deluxe edition, and the beauty of it was not contained to its exterior, as I will get to later. The retail cover will instead bear a unique piece of Grimly art: an image of the Red Death at midnight, when Prince Prospero himself faces down the visage of his, and his guest’s, demise.
In the game, you receive the high quality pieces and props that IDW have made their trademark. Cardboard standees for each of the seven playable characters as well as Prince Prospero and the Red Death itself, seven screens depicting each character behind which a player hides their moves, a character board to place behind the screen, the brightly colored board, and the standout piece of the game: a 3D model of the Ebony Clock itself.
The board is naturally split into the seven rooms from the story, each with a color and symbol to represent it, including the famous “black room” bathed in red. The player’s figures stand on the board itself while their meeples, each in their color and bearing their masque, move around the edge as they gain and lose popularity.
“His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre.”
The game begins which each player, up to 7, picks from each of the guests carousing the night away while the country is in the clutches of plague. Each one corresponds to one of the classic Seven Deadly Sins, from the violent Archbishop Animus to the snooty Duchess Vanity. Each one is unique, down to the way they carry their party masks (or don’t, in the case of Baron Gourmand, who is so rotund that his just sticks to his face).
The game centers around the guests following their host around the party trying to curry favor with him and increase their popularity, which is tracked around the outside of the board. Their beginning popularity is random, but they increase it with action cards as well as being in the same room as the beloved host. But the latter goal is not so easy, as the host is so goth that he can move around the abbey at will, while his guests can only go into adjacent rooms. Until midnight, players must strive to be the most popular person at the party. The player at the end of the game that is most popular at the end of the game wins. That is, if they’re still alive.
“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death”
At midnight, the Red Death will appear in the Abbey and move from room to room. Much like ghosts, the Red Death is unconstrained by doors or walls. At the start, two Rumor cards are placed along the time slots for the five turns after midnight. At their appointed time, they will flip and the Red Death will move there. If a party goer is in that room, they are dead. No dice rolls. No blocks. Dead.
Players can plan for this eventuality, however, through the use of their action cards. These seven cards form each player’s hand and let them do things like gain popularity, move double, and gain insight on the Red Death’s eventual whereabouts. They do this in two ways. They can collect Gossip cards, composed of the Rumors NOT used for the Red Death, to see what rooms and times they will not be, or they can peek at the Rumor cards on the board to see where he WILL be. Players can also peek at or outright steal their rival’s Gossip cards throughout the game. Players also each receive a one-use-only Personality card, a unique action that has good and bad effects in either the short or long term. For instance, my personality card allowed me to move to any room I wanted, just like the Prince, albeit at the cost of three popularity.
As a final kicker, players lose control of their guest after midnight. Instead, they must plan their five moves out before the stroke of twelve, choosing clockwise or counterclockwise movements, or none at all, around the board to escape the encroaching doom. The movements are secret until midnight, and the suspicion in the party will deepen as the hands of the ebony clock tick closer and closer to the end. At midnight, the Prince is killed! Just as in the story, the Red Death rises in the Abbey and even the richest and most powerful cannot escape doom. You had better hope you planned ahead and made all the right moves. Because if you didn’t, then its a date with the morgue for you.
“A gay and magnificent revel”
This game is just an absolute blast to play, even if you’ve never read the original tale (which is reprinted in its entirety within the game’s booklet, and its recommended you read it in the rules). The deduction mechanics of the first part let players bounce off of each other in interesting ways. Five of the seven action cards are single-use, so there’s a great deal of strategy involved in them. Plus, the finite nature of the gossip cards means your plans can only go so far before a fellow player may swoop in to steal them. This strategy, as well as the random nature of the Personality cards and the Red Death, lends the game an immense amount of replay-ability. I’ve played it three times since GenCon and each game has been WILDLY different from the last.
Despite a sometimes slow first game as the rules are laid out, there’s a huge amount of back-and-forth in this game that lends itself to a very fast paced and quick game. The popularity movements don’t count occupied spaces, so an improvement of a single point can and often does shift someone from the back of the pack to the front.
As I’ve mentioned, this looks and feels like a bespoke gaming experience. Grimly’s art is sumptuously gothic, mixing the lively weirdness of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey with the macabre sensationalism of 19th century magazines where Poe’s work appeared.
All in all, Masque of the Red Death is an absolute joy to play. It captures perfectly the macabre atmosphere of Poe’s work, and works as a love letter really to his oeuvre as a whole. It walks a thin line between party game and enthusiast game, and really is a game for anyone.
For its mix of high gothic aesthetics and accessibly chaotic gameplay that can be enjoyed by Poe fans and gaming nerds alike, I give IDW’s Masque of the Red Death five stars out of five.
Tips For Immersion & Tension:
- Assign each player a party-goer based on the sin the player, or the group, think they most exemplify. It can sow the seeds of competition early and can let players get into a character of sorts.
- Role-play the action cards with your fellow players. When flirting to peek at someone’s cards, actually have some fun flirting with them. Or, on the flip side, find something to insult about them when you take that action.
- Read from parts of the original story at different points in the game, particularly the end when the Red Death has appeared and the tension in the game and the story is at its maximum.
- When the Red Death makes his first appearance, put on some thematic music to help re-center the game and double down on the players’ fears. My pick? Camille St.Saens’s dark masterpiece Danse macabre.