Did you think Halloween season was over with the coming of November? I don’t think so, and I still have some ghoulish board games perfect for those with macabre tastes.
The latest of these is from one of my favorite publishers, Plaid Hat Games. Known for favorites like Dead of Winter and Stuffed Fables, they’ve brought us into the realm of Mary Shelley with their “sequel,” Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein.
Set twenty years after the novel (in the early 19th century), a mysterious benefactor claims to hold Victor Frankenstein’s research and is holding a competition. The greatest (and most deviant) minds must compete to recreate the experiment, and the prize is the secret of life itself.
Players take on the roles of up-and-coming (well, as “up-and-coming as 1819 London was) scientists trying to prove their worth with their creations. They must navigate society — including the halls of academia and the God-fearing people — while procuring the equipment (and parts) necessary to complete the job.
Each scientist must increase their expertise, earn money to pay for tools (and help), and find the freshest (or most accessible) body parts. This competition comes at a cost, however, and the characters must either try to retain their humanity or become the monster themselves.
Beginning with basic knowledge and a couple of assistants, can they solve the secrets of creating life from death? Can they balance the demands of academia while digging graves or even murdering others in pursuit of their goals?
Will they lose themselves, risking their reputations (and souls) during this unnatural competition?
Abomination is a worker-placement game, where players earn points through multiple paths, with the most critical bringing life to the dead.
Each Round is divided into four phases: Event Phase, City Phase, Lab Phase, and Reset Phase. The game ends after 12 rounds (when Captain Walton catches his quarry) or when a player creates a new creature, whichever comes first.
Players portray unique scientists, each with their own background and distinctive traits. From the psychopathic Baptiste Rousseau to the more humane Prisha Catwal, these characters are more than flavor as they have mechanical effects as well.
All players receive a board with dials to measure their Humanity, Reputation, and Expertise. As these traits increase (or decrease), players may receive bonuses or penalties, from additional workers to loss of access to certain areas of London.
Player boards also double as a lab, tracking organic Materials (which decay) and Monster Part progress. Workers may be placed here (instead of London) to perform a variety of functions, including giving practicing their craft and preparing (or repairing) their experiment.
During the Event Phase, a card is drawn, that might affect the Round or only a specific location. Events may also spawn Executions, which temporarily leave body parts in the Public Square, or Lightning Storms, which charge Leyden Jars.
The City Phase is when players take turns placing their workers, from their lowly Assistants to their Scientist. The board has ten different locations, some with multiple placement options, in addition to the possibilities in the lab.
Some options are restricted to the Scientist, like lecturing at the Academy, while others can be performed by Assistants, including taking bodies from the Hospital. Many options also receive a bonus if the Scientist chooses to complete the task, rather than send someone else.
Performing jobs has many costs, from money (Francs) to a toll on one’s Humanity. That cost may appear on the location or a drawn card, like the Cadavers; digging up graves is more inhumane than taking the recently dead.
The Lab Phase uses Materials gained during the City Phase, usually from Cadavers. Materials are received at particular stages of decomposition and are placed on the player board in those categories.
Players use the Materials to manufacture Monster Parts: Arms, Legs, Torso, and Head. Each Part uses up these Materials, as well as requires a specific level of Expertise.
A Monster Part has two stages of completion (muscle and skin), each providing Expertise and immediate Victory Points based on the quality of Materials used. Once on its skin side, the player can try to bring the Part alive by Throwing the Switch.
To Throw the Switch, players flip charged Leyden Jars and roll dice equal to the number used. Dice have either a Lightning, Eye, or blank faces, and there are special dice that can be earned through increased Expertise.
Lightning damages the creation, putting a marker on each available Monster Part. Should a part receive two markers, it is downgraded or even destroyed; Scientists may need to repair the damage on the next Round.
Eye results make the Part alive, and push the creature one more step toward completion. Only by damaging those portions further, as they Throw the Switch for new Parts, do the players risk their creation.
Afterward, the player may choose to Preserve certain Materials, which is necessary given the Reset Phase.
During the Reset Phase, Materials decompose, lowering their value, or even being lost. Only if the player purchased an Ice Block or chose to Preserve Materials is anything safe.
The Game Board also Refreshes during this time, with all cards discarded and most of them replenished. The Captain also advances on his track, leading the story further toward completion.
When either a Scientist has succeeded at bringing all five Monster Parts to life, or the Captain enters the 13th (and final) spot, the game ends. Players receive points for living Monster Parts, Bonus Objectives, and traits (Humanity, Reputation, and Expertise), with the highest total winning the game (and the competition).
Abomination is probably one of the most complex, but enjoyable, worker-placement games I’ve played in a while. The number of possibilities where you can concentrate each Round is tremendous.
Players may choose to focus on increasing Humanity, Reputation, and Expertise, all with their bonuses in-game at the end. Of course, creating a living creature (or at least its Monster Parts) nets the most points, so you still need to concentrate on that endeavor.
Unfortunately, that also means the game may not play well for novice gamers. The sheer variety of paths toward victory, not to mention the massive amount of components, makes this game intimidating.
If your group suffers from “analysis paralysis” (AP), this game is one of the worst possible choices.
The quality of the components is quite lovely, with beautiful artwork that fits the theme. Unfortunately, it’s marred by several criticisms I had during play.
The first is the Player Board or “Lab,” which is made of thin, floppy card stock. The dials exacerbate this issue, as they’re composed of thick cardboard and make the board sit at an angle (and not pack well in the box).
The second is the lack of an insert or baggies, which necessitate most owners to find (or make) their own. With 134 different cards (divided into nine decks), 170 Material cubes (in five colors), 170 tokens and markers, 28 meeples, and twelve sets of dial components, you’d think Plaid Hat would provide something to organize it all.
My final critique is that, for all its beauty, this game is as visually inaccessible as the Game of Thrones: Card Game. Tiny text in flourished fonts makes them hard to read even without a visual disability.
I think Abomination works best as a fun, themed worker-placement for gamers with some experience. The game also has Plaid Hat’s trademark “story” touch, as individual cards reference entries in the rulebook, so it feels like you’re telling a tale.
The variety of scientists available, plus the randomness of the decks, provides high replayability. We played multiple games at different counts, and it was a unique experience each time.
Unfortunately, the sheer footprint of this game, from its board to its hundreds of components, might be too much for more casual gamers. Add in the playtime, which often clocked at two hours (even with the limited Rounds) and was subject to AP, and I think Abomination is definitely for “one game only” nights.
Still, I think its a quality successor to the story of Doctor Frankenstein and his creature and will find its place on the table multiple times.
Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein is on shelves now. 2-4 players, 60-120 minutes, Ages 13+.
I give Abomination a juicy 4.5 cadavers out of 5.
(We’d like to thank Gamers-Corps in Ellicott City for providing us the space to playtest and demo this game!)