When designers Eric Lang and Antoine Bauza get together, you best pay attention. Individually, these two titans are responsible for classic titles such as Chaos in the Old World, Blood Rage, 7 Wonders, and Ghost Stories. Thus, there’s a certain level of expectation associated with Victorian Masterminds from CMON Games.
The first thing to catch your eye is the fantastic setting. The concept of competing as dastardly villains haunting cobblestone streets with a pipe between your clickers? Simply magnificent. Then we up the ante by throwing a touch of the Steampunk and going all Wild Wild West.
You compete with your fellow scoundrels to amass resources of copper plates and bolts. You will use these to construct your personal doomsday device, perhaps a giant teetering spider or a floating zeppelin of death. You can also acquire scientists from Paris that you put the screws to and exploit for profit. Finally, you capture and pillage prominent buildings across the cities of Europe and spit in the face of the Secret Service.
One key element of understanding is that this game is fast and smooth. It’s a quick 40 minutes that flies along at a weight that’s just a half-step above gateway level. If you can handle Ticket to Ride, you can likely handle blowing up the world as an immoral malcontent.
The big pull here is the unique take on worker placement, a mechanism common in the world of Euro-style designs. The twist is that your workers are each placed face-down on a space, stacking atop previously deployed henchmen. Once three of these thick plastic cogs have amassed, the stack is flipped and instantly resolved with a first in first out system.
Each of your goons will net you the resource for the space in addition to triggering their special ability. These effects allow you to snatch a building, complete a mission at the location, or even sabotage a henchman piece placed after yours. This is a wonderful component that brings an edge to an otherwise tired mechanism. It invokes drama and that ability to sabotage brings direct interaction.
Strategically you will want to cast your net wide and hit upon all of the major point-scoring vectors. You can certainly specialize such as rushing your doomsday device while ignoring buildings, but you can’t remain laser-focused as you need some variety to scoop up the VP. How your strategic decisions on resource gathering and efficiency intersect with the pacing volatility of interactive stacks forms the challenge at the center of play.
This core mechanic of stacking chips face-down and intermingling with your opponents is not altogether new. It was first seen in the fantastic and long out of print StarCraft board game released in 2007. There are some challenges in that StarCraft, as well as its sibling Forbidden Stars, require an enormous cognitive load. Victorian Masterminds deftly skirts the issue by limiting you to placing your top cog in your personal stack.
Late in the game you may unlock the ability to place whichever henchman you’d like, but that choice will still be made from a limited set as the bulk of your workers will be deployed to the board or in your discard pile. The clever maneuver to buck a round structure for a repeated cycling of turns also works well to keep the pace limber and your pool of cogs constantly in motion.
Nothing ever really settles as the tempo is lively and with purpose. You must then adapt and work to complete your machinations before another devil completes theirs.
This game balances thoughtful play with minimal overhead, despite a couple of minor issues. Its main flaw is that locations are not swapped out or altered, so it can feel samey and repetitive over the long haul. This is highlighted with the lack of player enforced strategic change–for the most part you’ll execute your strategy and only have to adapt minimally to the environment. Despite a very interactive core mechanism, other players rarely alter your plans or divert the game down an unforeseen path.
You may also take offense at the balance of abilities. Some clearly seem better than others, although the downstream effect is not hefty. The player who most skillfully maneuvers the different scoring vectors will be the one to succeed regardless of skewed player powers. Overall this is a lesser issue than the lack of strategic variance and you could even make the argument that the experience is more textured and interesting as a result.
Victorian Masterminds, by virtue of its weight and simple structure, is not likely to blow anyone’s cranium wide open. Still, it offers a gratifying worker placement system that avoids the genres bland and beaten pathways, spicing the proceedings up with a bit of villainy and perfidy.
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Image Credits: Charlie Theel, CMON Games