Mascarade – A Written Review (2D6 Exclusive Content)
Designer: Bruno Faidutti
Publisher: Repos Production (2013)
If you took Citadels and Coup and slammed them together with a sledge hammer while you were jacked up on Mountain Dew and your friend Billy was tickling your back with a shiv, you’d have Mascarade. If you are equally scared and excited that’s the proper response, for this game is unabashedly a fusion of successful ingredients with an output that is absolutely fantastic. This game is not only good, but it is likely to be my top game of 2013.
Like most bluffing/deduction social games, the rules are simple and easy to grasp. Each player is dealt a random role at the beginning of the game which is public knowledge. Cards are then flipped face down and the chaos begins. On a normal turn you are allowed 1 of three actions, which include:
-Look at your Card (this is performed very rarely)
-Swap roles with another player
-Claim a role
The twist is that swapping roles with another player is performed by you taking their card, along with yours, and choosing to swap them or not below the table out of sight of every other player. The intense mind games that arise from trying to deduce if Jim took the King and left you with the Widow is deceptively deep. The thought process continues to snowball as another player swaps (or not) with you and you’re stuck trying to decipher between three possible roles you could have. The inherent chaos and unpredictability while trying to navigate through these narrow streets of confusion naturally births moments of laughter and enjoyment that are utterly memorable.
If you are skilled or lucky enough to have a strong idea of your role, you can claim it. Each player in turn has the option to challenge you, claiming that they possess that role instead. After every player has had a chance to challenge, everyone who claimed the role flips their card over. The person who actually possesses the role receives the effect, while the others must pay a coin to the Court House. If no one challenges, you receive the benefit of the role and do not even reveal your card – which means you can be devious and claim roles you do not possess, as long as others aren’t sure they possess the role instead. The goal of the game is to amass 13 coins, with roles giving a myriad of effects such as claim all of the coins from the Court House, receive 3 coins, swap coins with another player, take 2 coins from the richest player, take 1 coin from the bank and swap (or not) two other player’s cards, etc. There are 12 roles in the game and the effects vary wildly.
Huge, 7 Wonders sized cards with gorgeous artwork.
One absolutely fantastic element of this game is the strength of its ability to scale between large numbers. I have played this game many times with several different groups of sizes varying from 4-12 players. Most games purportedly playing up to 12 suffer with low numbers of players; Mascarade does not. The 4 and 5 player experience are ever so slightly different from the rest, as you place an additional card or two in the middle of the table so that there are 6 roles total. These roles are known in the beginning of the game and then flipped face down, just like an actual player had them. They are available to be swapped with, just like any other card. What is very interesting about a 4/5 player game, is that claiming to be a role that is actually in the center of the table is effective. Others will not want to challenge you because they do not have the role so you can get away with claiming to be something you are not. The emerging mind games and mental wrestling are evident and I assure you these “a-ha” moments and the opportunity for ample cleverness make this an exceptional experience.
Mascarade with a high player count is a slightly different affair as only Dustin Hoffman could remember every single card and its location at the table. Instead, you focus on a couple of roles and form a short term game plan, willing to be flexible and adjust as people start revealing what roles they have throughout the game. It works very well as long as you have an intelligent group of people who are invested in the outcome of the game. At certain moments players may be one action away from winning, and others will be forced to swap roles with them to cause confusion and halt them from claiming a card which will offer them the win. This requires the group sometimes cooperates and works together to pull down the leader. It’s an effect similar to players forming impromptu agreements to outbid the leader in auction games like Cyclades, which can bother some people. I very much enjoy these moments of negotiation, and delight in sticking the forced swap action to other players at the table. It is also worth mentioning that a number of very interesting roles are not available for use in the game unless you have 8 or more players. This can be somewhat frustrating if you will never have that many people available, as you only get to fondle cards like the Inquisitor and Peasants and never get to actually use them.
The Courthouse is a greedy bastard.
One element of the game which can cause some hesitation is the memorization aspects of trying to mentally organize who has what role and who has swapped with who. This can be off-putting if you have a poor memory or find these type of mechanisms stressful. One thing the game does well to alleviate some of this burden is an information feedback loop that will provide cues and even updated information to the entire table. When players claim a role and are challenged, you are able to see their cards. When players challenge others you can sometimes use this information to deduce that the challenging player had that card in their possession in the recent past, if not now. Watching who swapped with who and being observant on challenges is the key to winning this game. It is impossible to know everything at the table, which is part of the fun, but there is a large amount of skill in this game which has shown through with many replays.
Mascarade sounds fun, right, but what makes it exceptional and a notch above a game like Citadels? Other games in this genre possess this fun element of controlled chaos but none of them force you to interact with it to the same degree as this game. I’ve played rounds of Citadels where what other players chose is irrelevant to me, which means the bedlam comes in small spurts and trickles instead of the approaching wall of a typhoon. The hectic melee of Mascarade is in your face and embedded in your turn to turn choices in a way which instills maximum fun. If you enjoy social deduction games like Citadels, Coup, or even The Resistance you are the target audience for Mascarade and if you ignore this game you will regret it.