Tabletop Tuesday – Comanauts
Plaid Hat Games‘ adventure book games have been a fantastic approach to tabletop gaming. We raved about Stuffed Fables and its unique style, with the instructions and board wrapped into one.
We’ve also always appreciated the pseudo-RPG cooperative campaign type games, and Plaid Hat Games has continued the tradition with their latest: Comanauts.
In Comanauts, players portray individuals who enter the mind of Dr. Strobal; a scientist who entered a coma after a lab accident. The good doctor was working on his latest technology when things went wrong, and now a miniature black hole threatens the world.
In order to wake him (and subsequently save the world), players must travel through his nightmares, and learn the secrets of the doctor’s life while battling his inner demons. The group takes on the forms of avatars from many different dream realms, fighting creations and solving puzzles, all in pursuit of Strobal’s deepest fear taken form.
Can the players survive in the multitude of strange realms? What mysteries will they unlock about Dr. Strobal? What is his primary inner demon, and can they defeat it?
Comanauts uses the same system as Stuffed Fables; from how the story flows on each page to the draw-and-play dice mechanics. Once a specific page/encounter begins, each character-turn the player draws five dice and applies them per the rules. Afterward, if there’s enough Threat, enemies might take a turn in response.
White dice provide Clarity (which can be used for re-rolls or special abilities), black dice increase Threat (the possibility of enemies returning or attacking), and the clear blue die activates Dr. Strobal’s Inner Child (as well as the “timer” of the game). Other colored dice are used for generic actions (like Moving or Equipping) or attribute tests: red (Melee attack), green (Ranged attack), yellow (Search or Intelligence tests), blue (Resistance tests), or purple (anything).
When rolling dice, the game provides target numbers, from the armor of an Enemy (to defeat it) to a specific interaction with characters (like listening in on a conversation). Players may combine dice of the same color (or with purples) to guarantee a chance at higher target numbers and success.
Once all dice are used, the game checks to see if the enemies receive a turn based on the amount of black dice on the tracker, the number of enemies on the board, and whether the current scenario is considered safe or hostile. If so, the enemies activate ranging from attacks to other consequences for the Comanauts.
Although using the same general mechanics and a similar style to Stuffed Fables, we found that Comanauts was much more difficult than its predecessor. The game is designed for older audiences, not only in theme but also the complexity of its rules.
Whereas Stuffed Fables followed a linear path, moving between scenarios from the front of the book toward the rear, Comanauts only does this within each realm. Players can begin within any realm (Comazone) and later will choose which one to visit next, sending them all over the book itself.
Part of the game is figuring out where the Prime I.D. (inner demon) is located based on clues learned in each chapter. This aspect provides a bit more player agency, as they might easily discover their destination (and finish their mission) or travel through several Comazones (facing lesser dangers and building their avatars up).
Although players might choose to purposefully visit different realms to “power up” their characters, there is a timer in the form of Vital Signs. These limited amounts of cards may activate because of the scenario, when the Inner Child is found, or when avatars “die”; critical condition can cause in-game events whereas flat-lining means Dr. Strobal has died, and the players have lost.
The game includes 11 Comazones in total, each with their unique theme, rules, and encounters. As players will randomly draw only five during set-up, this game has a lot more replayability than Stuffed Fables.
Unlike its predecessor, where the realms were somewhat consistent in theme (and threat), Comanauts provides much more variety. You might solve a Scooby Doo-like mystery in a creepy theme park, become involved in a D&D-like fantasy adventure, have a shoot out in a Western, or even witness direct moments in Strobal’s life (albeit twisted by his nightmares).
Each player begins with two random “backup” Avatars and their initial chosen one; these avatars match different Comazones — although they can travel between them. Of course, if your avatar is out-of-place, like an ogre in the streets of the big city, they’re considered Suspicious, and the realm (and denizens) may react.
Avatars change as they “die,” meaning you’ve lost all your Life tokens; the card (as well as its abilities and starting equipment) are discarded and the next (face down) Avatar is put in the queue until the players next turn. Be warned, however, as you only have two such “backups,” and should any player run out (or all players be “killed” at the same time, regardless of backups), then everybody loses.
Comanauts has a vast variety of equipment that ranges from weapons and armor to useful devices or disposables. Characters can only carry and equip a certain amount of items (Head, Body, two Hands, and an Accessory) and carry two more unequipped in their inventory, so choose wisely; not every scenario requires combat or specific items, so discarding is often a valid choice.
As mentioned, each Comazone is different in how it responds, and the consequence isn’t always to fight enemies. Sometimes it’s better to interact, learn some Insight, find Clues, and gather Totems (special items that let you immediately jump to other realms).
Still, combat plays a regular role and its as varied as the realms you visit. You might fight evil robots in a video game, gangsters in a 1920’s noir setting, or even face off with citizens who know you’re not one of them (reacting like Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
More importantly, you will fight Inner Demons (I.D.) at the end of each realm, representing the emotions currently plaguing Dr. Strobal. From his Guilt to his Self-Doubt, each is specific to a Comazone, but the mystery is which is the Primary I.D. that’s keeping him in his coma.
Whether you find the right zone (and the Primary I.D.) through deduction or stumble upon it by accident, players must defeat the demon to win the game. If you succeed, Dr. Strobal awakens, and the world is saved!
Whereas Stuffed Fables had us engrossed with its family-oriented story, Comanauts keeps us interested through its mystery and player agency. The goal is to find the right Comazone and defeat the Primary I.D., but the travel itself reveals interesting facts about Dr. Strobal and his life experiences.
Because each game you use a random five out of 11 realms, the mystery (and replayability) is better than Stuffed Fables. Unfortunately, after several full games you begin to figure out what the clue cards point toward, what I.D.s are associated with each realm, and already know the whole story; it will eventually lose the mystery that sets it apart from its predecessor.
Another complaint involves Comanauts’ components; whether because of cost-cutting or the sheer variety of figures necessary, it uses cardboard figures on plastic stands. Most pseudo-RPG games use beautiful plastic miniatures, and these “standees” (no matter how nice they are) simply don’t have the same immersive effect.
Another problem we encountered was the sheer complexity made the rule book harder to understand and brought up unanswered questions. Things as simple as “does an Encounter during Setup make a Comazone hostile” to “how do you play the campaign” are not included, and the response from Plaid Hat Games with FAQs has been somewhat lacking.
Despite these concerns, Comanauts proved to be just as gripping as its predecessor and (unlike other campaign games) we played through until the very end each time. The story, the mystery, and the unique realms and avatars kept us going and interested in trying again.
If you enjoyed Stuffed Fables and wanted a more complex, mysterious, and darker-themed experience, then Comanauts is the perfect evolution of the adventure book genre. It has some flaws because of the increased rules, and it loses replayability after a while. Still, it should reach the table enough to warrant the price.
Strap on those avatars, dive into strange realms and prepare to face Dr. Strobal’s inner demons.
Comanauts is on shelves now. 2-4 players, 60-120 minutes, Ages 14+.
I give Comanauts an enigmatic 4 inner children out of 5.
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