The Bloody Inn
Playing Time: 30-60 mins
Setup Time: 2 mins
Value For Money: Mid
I’ve picked up The Bloody Inn in my FLGS several times but couldn’t quite justify the price tag for a solo game I didn't know much about, which is why I was so very happy when I got a review copy sent out to me. It’s a neat little game from French publisher Pearl Games. As with many of their games its good looking with a strong style and turns out a strong solitaire experience.
Gameplay is a fairly simple card-based engine builder. You are a Sweeny Todd style hotel owner in rural France in 1831 with a plan to get rich murdering and robbing guests (in that order). This is achieved by hiring other guests to do your dirty work who you pay, slightly weirdly, with other other guests. Guests essentially go up in rank from 0 to 3 and to use them you spend as many guest cards as their rank, so you can snaffle zero rankers for free, but need to spend guests to use high rankers. You can spend actions to claim guests, kill them, rob and bury them or, slightly oddly, build them into annexes onto your hotel. Most of the guests are suited and if used to perform the action matching their suit they don’t need to be spent, and some give permanent discounts on actions when you build them as annexes, allowing a hand/tableaux management engine to build up as the game goes along. Some guests give you money when you make them into annexes, but most of the time the most profitable thing to do is rob and bury them. If you manage to do this efficiently and consistently enough, you’ll stack up enough filthy lucre to rank as a Demon Innkeeper.
As a package the game is nicely put together. The artwork has a stylized macabre comic book feel to it that sits perfectly with the theme of the game. The contents of the box consists of a deck of cards, a healthy stack of counters and a board that serves the purpose of score tracker and layout guide for the cards. Sadly, the box is about two thirds cardboard inlay of the type that just sit there to no real purpose other than remind you that most of the box is not for you, the whole package could easily have come in a box significantly smaller. The rules are clear apart from a couple of blind spots, the first being that they refer to the police who might arrest you if you’re caught with a dead body just lying around the place without ever mentioning that the police are simply cards of the gun suit (ironically the exact guests that you’ll be looking to in order to do most of your killing). Even now that is actually my assumption, since I can’t find an official FAQ, but if that’s not the case my set is missing all the police cards, which would qualify as a far bigger oversight. The other minor rules quibble is that the solo player is asked to specifically use “neutral” markers for the rooms of the inn that are not their own, while in non-solo mode non-player rooms are specifically marked with white keys. Since certain card powers target white rooms this minor wording inconsistency can make you feel when playing solo that you might be either taking unfair advantage or selling yourself short.
The actual gameplay flow is very good. I’m not a huge fan of this sort of puzzle or engine based solo game, I prefer something much more narrative if I’m playing alone but I did find myself going back to this one several times and it will probably find a place in my solo rotation. Set-up asks you to pull a certain number of cards out of the deck before beginning and the game can be really varied depending on which ones get pulled out and the order they come in, which is great for solo replay value. Some games you can focus on annex building and room service and turn a tidy profit without actually needing to kill anyone, others you’ll turn your hotel into a veritable slaughterhouse for cash. The only weakness is that if you do end up pulling out a lot of the lower ranking cards, or even if they just don’t turn up early enough in your run, you can really suffer from an inability to get your engine running in the early stages in a way that can ruin the whole run. It doesn’t make the game “Unwinnable” as such, but it will place a high score out of reach. Also, since cards in your hand require wages to stick around, a bad start can leave you both penniless and literally empty handed. Still, when you get a good run the gameplay rolls along at a nice pace and makes good sense.
Solo play itself is score attack, you check your final cash count against a ranking. The required scores are high enough that you might not place at all on the table in a first game or two, but low enough even at the ceiling that you should find your way to the top of the table after a half dozen plays. Sadly, the game comes at two length settings, short and long, predicated on how many cards you pull out at the start, but there is only a score rating for the long version. Given that extending the table would have required very little extra effort missing this out seems a real pity.
Now, I’ve never run a murderous inn in the Belle Epoque rural French countryside, but even from my pasty, law abiding, English perspective the mechanics of the game don’t quite re-create the theme of the game. That’s largely fine, since I don’t really want to know what its like to hack up passing peasants and bury them under my barn for money, but it doesn’t seem to re-create what would be fun about a game version of the theme either. What I mean is that I imagine a fun version of this sort of thing to be a little bit dark and a little bit farcical, and I always thought that the French were the masters of this sort of big building set farce. I imagine a process of juggling and stashing growing mounds of corpses and putting off the authorities when necessary by strange and comical means. But that never really transpires because the police only raid the hotel at the end of a stay, meaning that to have even an outside chance of being caught by them you need to have been on a shockingly careless murder spree for no strong reason with really no contingency or clean up plan at all, not least since the murdering itself doesn’t give you anything, it’s the burying that pays out. You almost need to be wanting to be caught for them to pick you up for your crimes, and when you do, you lose. I accept that this might pick up more in the multi-player game where police can be bribed away and players can pay to bury bodies in each other’s annexes, possibly undercutting a reasonable plan, but this is a solo review rather than a multi-player one, and in the solo game your hotel quickly becomes a conveyor belt of death for its unfortunate visitors. While this is satisfying to a degree its not really "fun" as such.
The other issue with the theme is the way that guests are wrangled as resources. While mechanically elegant it seems odd. You start with free peasants and use them to buy a bribery expert, who you use to buy a killing expert and a burying expert and set them to work like some sort automated murder team while you sit back and count the money rolling in. Your unseen Inn owner never actually does anything, they pay off their accomplices a fairly petty amount of money considering the tasks that they’re taking part in and become mighty rich in the process. It doesn’t feel as though it would be unreasonable to have had some kind of marker to represent yourself to some degree within the game itself to place the theme to some degree. I feel like I would quite like to know if its me cracking the local baron over the back of the head rather than the passing peacekeeper that I’ve tossed a few quid to for the job.
In conclusion, it is a solid and well running solo game. I suspect it would have run just as happily if it had come in as largely abstract, but the artwork is attractive and the theme both unusual and intriguing, so I’m willing to ultimately forgive that it’s a little superfluous. I’ll keep it in the rotation and happily play it again, which isn’t true for many solo games of this nature, so that has to be a good thing.