Phenomenon 13 (KS Exclusive/The Green Box)

“All That We See Or Seem” is the 13th phenomenon of Coma Ward. It’s the phenomenon people have seen the most if they watched the play through video on the Kickstarter page or read any of the previews. It also sets a great tone for how a game of Coma Ward typically plays out.

What’s in the box?

Inside the box, you’ll find a Phenomenon Rules Sheet that gives an explanation of what clues you found, a breakdown of recommended player count and estimated play-time, someone’s rambling prose, instructions for what to do with the rest of the box’s content, and some rules for how the game has shifted.  You’ll also find a deck of “Nightmares”, a Nightmare explanation card, six Goal cards, and six Epilogues.

Everyone gets a random Goal with some story text and an objective they need to complete to win the game. These have some story text that tells you what your personal nightmare is and tell you what your objective is. These are also completely hidden.

From now on, at the start of each player’s turn that player will make a Focus Check. If they BOMB that check, they draw two Nightmare cards. If they get do well on that Focus Check, they draw a single Nightmare card. If they ace that check, nothing happens and the nightmares are kept at bay for a moment. And if their Focus Check is just a meteor shower of suspense and successes, the player can stack the nightmare deck.

All the nightmares either directly affect the player, meaning the nightmare doesn’t interact with the board space or have the ability to affect multiple players, or are malevolent force that cannot be attacked or defeated.

Where’d you steal THIS from?

Most obviously, I was inspired by “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But, honestly, this concept is such a common one that it makes perfect sense for me to have stolen it from an episode of Sponge-bob or a GEICO commercial.

The collective unconscious is something that’s always fascinated me. From the works of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth to the pantheistic beliefs of some Native American cultures, the idea that reality is a shared vision and our dreams are where our sub-consciousness speak to one another is just a cool thought to me. 

Now, I can’t precisely recall if I’ve seen or read anything where a group of folks is sharing the same dream-space and experiencing different nightmares. So, I may have actually put an original idea in this game. But, I’m not going to give myself too much credit. It’s more likely I saw this played out in an anime or horror movie some years ago and the originator’s title is just buried under decades of media in the storeroom of my mind.

Oh, and the title is straight up stolen from the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Because I am a horrid writer and since Poe is in the public domain I can just slap his finely crafted work on my own and claim the credit. Yay for pre-Walt Disney lobbying copyright laws!

This is the worst game I’ve ever played and here’s why…

Many of the complaints so politely presented to me about Coma Ward have to do with the first half of the game. Some folks dislike the ambiguity and randomosity of the Prologue. One person even described it as “senselessly moving from room to room, rolling dice, and just reading cards.” Which is weird because that person went on to tell me how much they love Gloomhaven… and that game is just senselessly moving from room to room and playing War against the game.*

“All That We See or Seem” is a phenomenon that can a bit disproportionate to folks if the prologue went a particular way. See, each of those “Goal” cards either requires players to end their turn on a specific Tile or take a certain action against another player… Fight them. Combat is the only action you can take against another player. I don’t know why I was being vague about it.

So, if players found a tile, let’s say Operating Room 3, during the prologue and that’s the Tile my Goal card says I need to end my turn on to meet my End Game condition… Well, I’m at an advantage over the player who’s room is still undiscovered and needs to spend turns searching the Hospital.

Granted, I did my best to account for this by having half the Goals focus on player interaction and the other half to focus on searching for/ending turns on particular room tiles. 

Also, I didn’t design Coma Ward to be a perfectly balanced pocket-watch of a strategy game. It’s more like that rickety caged-Ferris-wheel ride at the state fair that does flips and stuff… The Zipper? Is that what it’s called? 

You know, the one that puts a pit in your gut just looking at it. The person operating that elaborate switchboard of “on-button” and “stop-button” isn’t prepared for when one of those, literal, screaming metal death cages just pops off the ride at max speed. And that poor funnel-cake booth worker isn’t ready for a giant iron box of people to come crashing into their stand, sending powdered sugar and golden brown bits of fried batter soaring through the air in plumes of tasty clouds…

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah, randomness impacting asymmetrical goals. 

So, if I were to take a crack at this one again, I’d probably make all of the Goals focus on player interaction. Granted, I feel the narrative drives for that are less compelling. Some of the Goals have really interesting concepts and unique endings that don’t translate to “fight people… for reasons.” But, sometimes… and I feel weird typing this… sometimes games are about how well they play and not the story they tell. 

Okay, so it has A FEW cool things going on.

Alright, now that we’re past the morbid carnival accident analogies, let’s discuss what I’m proud of in this phenomenon. 

The Nightmare deck is an interesting mechanic that adds a really cool layer to things. Some players wil roll those hot dice and never draw a Nightmare card. Others… Those poor unlucky rubes will be dropping two horrid monstrosities into the hospital each turn.

The imagery of the tooth-fairy being a face that forms in the stairwell with teeth bubbling up and piercing from her face was a true inspiration. Granted… After the game hit shelves I saw the first season of Channel Zero and if you’ve seen it you’ll realize I just wound up sharing a dream with that shows creative team because we both had the same wonderful idea.

Oh, and vomiting snakes… That’s just a horrifying image and I feel I nailed the flavor text on that card, as well as the relationship of mechanic to story. 

Also, the epilogues are awesome. The terror of the “Find the Doll” epilogue… man, that imagery still gets to me. I wrote a LOT of gruesome and unnerving stuff for this game.  But something about this particular ending really rattles me. 

Each of the epilogues also features a dark ending that, narratively, puts characters right back at the beginning of the game. In fact, writing this phenomenon was when I got the idea of using a Sisyphean loop to really hammer in some existential dread by returning to the intro text of the rulebook.

As a game, I feel this is one of the best examples of what Coma Ward is intended to be. It’s unique, it encourages discussion once the game is done (so players disclose WHY they were doing what they did during the second half), and the players have multiple elements inhibiting their progress (the increasing chaos of the hospital, a hidden room tile/players who refuse to stay still and let you attack them, and need to pass a particular check).

I’d say it’s my Xth favorite

So, how do I rank this particular phenomenon against the others of the core set? 

Well… I don’t like playing favorites. Which is good, because this one isn’t my favorite.

Judging this phenomenon on its narrative elements and general concept, I’d say this is the 6th best of the core box.

As far as gameplay goes, I rank this phenomenon as my least favorite in the core box. Although I have a fondness for this one and think it’s a great phenomenon to get folks introduced to the concepts of the game, this phenomenon has been so exposed via videos and reviews (one of which I’m to blame for), I just don’t love this darling as much as the others in the box.

So there you have it, the first one of these little reflection posts. Feel free to leave some feedback. 

*This is satire. Gloomhaven is a fine game that is wonderfully immersive I was being glib to prove a point. That point being any game taken out of context or reduced down to merely describing its mechanics is banal. So, from now on let’s all use our adult words and just say “this game doesn’t appeal to me and the theme doesn’t immerse me.”

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