The Doom That Came To Atlantic City
Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 45 mins
Setup Time: NA
Value For Money: Low
Firstly, due to the 2020 corona virus lockdown, I have played this game only via the online simulation platform Tabletop Simulator. It may be that The Doom That Came To Atlantic City is an example of everything that’s wrong with Kickstarter. One of the more clearly controversial or even outright fraudulent high-profile cases, the money raised on the game, some $122 thousand, was taken and largely spent on developing an entirely different game, with the actual campaign providing nothing to its backers. Eventually the company Cryptozoic stepped in and produced the game, even honoring some backer’s original pledges. Which is one way that it’s the problem with Kickstarter, arguably, the design and gameplay is the other.
In general, it’s like reverse monopoly, the board looks much like a monopoly board, set up with two houses on most properties and a few having hotels. You take the part of one of the elder gods from the Lovecraft Mythos, when you land on one of the houses you roll dice, score high enough and you wreck it. Clear the last house off a space and you open a gate to a Mythos location, open six gates and you win.
Which is entirely roll and move, roll and attack, random and procedural. So how did they beef it up? This might take a minute, so hold on. There are Chants cards (instead of chance) and Providence cards (instead of community chest), Chants cards being one use powers or events that you often have to spend wrecked buildings or cultists to power and Providence cards being ongoing powers which can increase your dice rolls or allow you to manipulate your rolls or the drawing or use of cards, each god starts with their own specific Providence card. You have cultists which you gain and lose from various effects, if they run out you get banished, as you do if you roll doubles three times in a turn, banishment being an even more annoying version of being sent to jail. If you roll doubles, you get to move again, or get a second chance at whatever other thing you’re trying to do, such as attack buildings, or another elder god. You can attack the other players; you both roll the dice and if the attacker gets higher, they steal a cultist and gain a Chants card. Each player has a Doom card, an alternative win condition that generally involves opening fewer gates to win if the player can fulfill set other conditions, the Doom card can be replaced by various events throughout the game. If you destroy one of the hotels you get a Tome card, which represents a Mythos book and does something or another, when you open a gate you get a gate power related to how many gates you have of that colour that lets you do various stuff. If you are on a gate you can hop to another gate belonging to the same owner before moving, though whenever you land on a gate that belongs to someone else, you have to pay them a fee.
You might think that the way I explained that made it look like a bit of a mess and in the game it would all fall into place. You would largely be wrong, if anything the actual playing experience is far more confusing, with specific card wordings constantly being almost willfully non-specific and the rulebook offering little or nothing in the way of help. The game abounds with small confusions, such as the fact that the cards with the gate powers on them are not colour coded to the colour of their area on the board, leading to pointless and frustrating mistakes and double checking. It’s a graphic design choice that seems almost in line with the distinctly bi-polar feeling of the game’s visuals, half of them being John Kovalic style cartoony mythos, half of them being Call Of Cthulhu seriousness. As a rule, there is a sense that you might get a handle on what you’re doing, but there is very little chance of grasping where your opponents are in the race to win from one moment to the next. With some playthroughs you can have the idea that certain gate powers or dooms are preferable, but fundamentally, it’s a roll and move game, so you can want whatever gate powers you like at the start of the game, its not down to you which ones you’ll have a chance to get.
There is a point where the game starts to shift into an interesting place. Once you have a few gates on the board and a couple of powers that let you manipulate your movement there begins to be a feeling of control, since you can aim for a gate and use it to hop back and forth on the board to achieve specific aims. Sadly, this has two main problems. One is that the ability this gives is essentially the chance to start your turn from one of several points on the board, say, three, and move a range of distance, say 6-10 spaces. That gives you a range of up to 15 different spaces depending on the distribution of your gates, once you have three or four players all trying to optimize that situation on their turn, remember you can’t do it before you roll because the dice can vary, the game can slow to a crawl. The other problem is that once this engine is going, which is what the interesting meat of the game consists of, you’re generally a couple of turns from finishing the game. It commits the cardinal sin of being too long and too short at the same time, the interesting bit is too long coming and is over too quickly.
Now, clearly, this is aimed at a certain sort of Lovecraft fan, somewhere between the fan who enjoys the pulpy end of the more lighthearted Mythos and the one who will buy anything with HPL’s name even peripherally associated. So, a fair question is, does it work as a Mythos game? To be honest, taken on its own terms, not really. It is hard to judge, because at every point the game wants to be two things, from its gameplay to its artwork to its background. For example, this is a game where you can be Azathoth wandering through the downtown area of a small City smashing individual dwellings. So, it’s a low risk version of the Mythos, because Azathoth is manifest in our dimension and the entirety of existence isn’t over, but its sort of high risk because he’s now opening a bunch of gates to do something, what? Worse? Worse than summoning Azathoth, Nylarthotep and Cthulhu simultaneously at the same place and the same time? Then we have the fact that Azathoth, or whoever, is striding about downtown pushing over buildings, because they’re mighty, right? They’re towering elder gods who are able to push over entire buildings at their whim, right? Well, slightly better than half the time they can shove over a single clapboard built two story building. The rest of the time they seem to herniate a disk or something and possibly poop themselves with the effort. If I’m a Great Old One striding down the high street of a modern city I don’t want to feel that there’s a significant chance that I’ll fail in trying to kick in the local KFC. If I’m a Great Old One striding through a city in which there are two other Great Old Ones present there’s only one thing in that city I should be capable of fearing, and it should be the other great old ones, not the structural integrity of the domestic dwellings.
The game is, at route, a sort of parody of Monopoly. Its main problem here is that Monopoly ends up being an arguably better game. Certainly, Monopoly is horribly over long, it needs a proper and balanced rule to end the game at an interesting and climactic point, and could probably do with the first couple of turns being hustled along a little. But the bit of Monopoly that’s interesting, the bidding on properties and the later negotiating and trading to find sets without handing the game away is actually well handled. The weaknesses of Monopoly are more about the weaknesses of its design era and the necessity of not deviating from a brand stopping them from being fixed, but its strengths are about human interaction, negotiation and planning. The Doom That Came To Atlantic City lacks that humanity and interaction, even the combat between players feels pointless and under developed. If you land in another player’s region you can attack them, by rolling two dice, and they defend, by rolling two dice, if you win you steal a cultist off them and gain a Chants card, then continue with your turn, if you lose you end your turn. Landed on a space with nothing else to do? Then there is literally no downside, no interaction, no negotiation, you just smack them in the face. Monopoly, even at its worst, after an interminable over long game, at least gives the satisfaction of a board developed from nothing to a sprawling empire of buildings. In Doom That Came To Atlantic City the game will generally end while at least a few neighborhoods are pretty much untouched, it ends up largely being The Unpleasantness That Occurred In Very Localized Areas Of Atlantic City.
The game is, at its heart, riven by not knowing what it wants to be. As I’ve said, its riddled through from its artwork, to its gameplay to its theme. There are other, more minor, weird disjuncts. Neighborhoods in Atlantic City are all linked in some way to the same Mythos realm, so collectively they are known by their Mythos name, but these locations are not in Kadath or Carcosa, they’re in Atlantic City and naming them such just seems to be a way of crowbarring the words Kadath and Carcosa onto the board. The locations themselves include a few HPL references, there’s a witch house somewhere on the board, but its not done consistently enough to really sit home while playing and comes in around the half hearted level, as though the locations have been named by someone who has heard of Lovecraft being popular, but isn’t willing to read through a whole story for location names.
At the start of this review I’ve said that I think this game exemplifies all that’s worst about Kickstarter due to its design as well as its history. In that respect because it feels designed by committee, much like the film Snakes On A Plane, where someone put in everything the fans asked for. That might be unkind of me, I don’t know that it’s the fans' fault, it could just be bad editing on the part of the designer(s)/developer(s). Kickstarter allows games to be written without the influence of a producer and with the input of the fans, sometimes it allows for an indy gem that would never make it to the shelves otherwise to be finessed by the people that care most about it. Sometimes it leads to the kitchen sink with all the washing up in it hitting the table. I don’t know whose fault it is, but Doom That Came To Atlantic City is badly in need of some editing and some commitment to a single vision. There is a strong feeling that there was a Monopoly checklist and a Lovecraft checklist, and whatever was in those checklists just went in, for good or ill. Take the tomes for example, they’re a whole chunk of the player board, given as much space as the Doom cards. It feels that this is because the books in Lovecraft are a huge part of the mythos, not because the cards are a huge part of the game. When you receive a tome card this is almost comically underlined by a card that consists around 90% of a huge picture of a book, nicely rendered although totally out of keeping with most of the other art, and a couple of lines of actual game text at the bottom of the card. This is a card that you might never pick up, depending on the vagaries of the dice, and while powerful in the game it tends to not be collected until a decent way into proceedings. It’s also twice the size of all the other cards apart from the Doom cards with some of the most carefully rendered art in the game. The card could happily have been a third of the size and done the job just as well, or frankly, been removed altogether. Why does every resort in Atlantic City carry a library of Mythos Tomes? Its never explained, but it might be part of why so much nastiness is happening there now.
All that said, if you largely disconnect your brain, are immune to disappointment (or have low expectations) and are willing to laugh at apparently bone headed mistakes in rules clarity and graphic design, Doom That Came To Atlantic City isn’t the worst experience you can have on a tabletop. I would be willing to play it again with the right group of friends. It’s pretty quick and its hard to feel bad if you lose since everything is so random. It’s a crying shame that the game never decides what it wants to be, or if someone had made the decision that they hadn’t fought for it a little harder. I wouldn’t pay for the game, and I’m glad that I got to play it online for free, but if offered the chance to play again I’d accept it. If you’re the very niche sort of person who is a huge Lovecraft fan, but doesn’t get upset about the fact that the mightiest Mythos gods are sometimes represented as failing to kick in a single two-story town house several times in a row, maybe pick this up. Ultimately, this is a roll and move game that requires you to land on a specific space to win the game, released in the second decade of the twenty first century by a modern boardgame company for a non-casual audience. It arguably shouldn’t even exist, so considering that, the fact playing it doesn’t make your eyes bleed should probably be considered a major win. Arguably, spending an hour looking at something that ought not exist in the realm of man without having your eyes start bleeding being considered a major win is probably the most Lovecraft thing about the whole game.