Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: the name of this game is not misleading – yes, men can be witches. More importantly, the game does not technically take place in iconic Salem, Massachusetts.
See, the game is based off the writings of German fiction writer Wolfgang Hohlbein…
Who in turn was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of Arkham, Mass…
Which itself is a mythical interpretation of the actual Salem…
You could just do we what we do and pretend that this adventurous character, one Robert Craven, hails from nearby Salem, but I digress. Nevertheless, welcome to the true home of the occult, bad tidings, and inter-dimensional aliens.
Welcome to Arkham.
Long, long ago, evil deity-like space aliens called Great Old Ones ruled our world. Due to unknown causes, they were trapped, unable to interfere with mankind. However, one of them is trying to break free in circa 1920’s Arkham, Massachusetts. While not yet free, the being has managed to weaken the barrier created to protect the world, and, with the help of the nefarious (and conveniently-named) villain Necron, it has created portals to transport its minions into the middle of town. If Necron and the Great Old One manage to open up enough portals, the barrier will be break and mankind is doomed. It is up to Robert Craven and you, the player, to work against the forces of evil, close the portals, and identify which Old One is behind it all before time runs out.
The Witch of Salem is a Co-op game wherein the players collaborate against the game rather than against each other.
To begin, you select which Old One will be your nemesis. This card is placed face-down immediately – you do not get to see exactly what you’re up against just yet. Additionally, you choose six Portal Tiles and place them at various locations in Arkham. Each player is given a character sheet, a set of movement cards, and one starting item. The item is chosen randomly from one of five different types available throughout the game, and each item has a special power (i.e. a potion can heal a character, a dagger can slay a monster, etc.). Additional items are distributed at random in six of seven locations on the board, though collecting them often comes at the cost of your sanity or health. Still, throughout the game, you will need to visit these locations and collect items in order to defeat minions, identify which Old One is pulling the strings, locate and close portals, and stop said Old One. All at once.
The turn structure is played over a series of rounds. At the start of each round, new minions show up and/or unleash their minion-y evil upon you. Then players take turns venturing to different locations to deal with or defeat monsters, trade with each other, and use or collect items. Once all players have taken their turns, Robert Craven moves. Craven and Necron are controlled by mechanics within the game, and they will help and hurt you, respectively, in your quest. Then, it all begins again.
Rounds continue until the players successfully close all portals and banish the Old One back to whatever ancient cave he crawled out of.
Well, or until you all die.
Yes, you will die. You will lose often at this game. But that doesn’t inherently mean the game is bad. Like most cooperative board games out there (See Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, etc.), the randomness element is paramount to forcing players to work together. Even the game’s thematic big brother, Arkham Horror, follows the testament that luck is a main part of most co-op design. This makes sense – with luck no two games to play out the same way, and therefore player groups remain engaged across multiple sessions.
That said, yeah…The Witch of Salem has randomness in spades. The enemies? Random. The number of portals? Random. Items to be placed are literally pulled out of a bag, and once the game gets going, at almost every turn you risk losing some of those precious items that are essential to victory. There are honest debates as to whether it is too random, as a short series of poor dice rolls could swing the entire game from the ‘Winnable’ to ‘We’ve Lost This’ column.
This will drive Architects and Strikers batty, as they are unable to plan accordingly. Architects will find it difficult to build around accumulating item pools since they risk losing them so easily, and Strikers won’t like that the entire outcome of their position, be it going up against a Lava Worm or Cthulhu himself, can hinge entirely on luck rather than skill. Tacticians who prefer long-term strategies may also find themselves regularly vexed.
Conversely, as random as it is, strategy is paramount to victory. Daredevils may like the fact that they have a free hand at attempting tactics that could prove worthwhile, but they may not like that they can’t just ‘wing it’ without conversing with their teammates. Their strategy may succeed in one situation while completely failing the next, and that premise itself should interest them.
Lastly, it almost goes without saying that The Witch of Salem portrays well both the look and feel of typical Lovecraftian chaos that many Immersionists will certainly enjoy. So, at least they can enjoy the authenticity of being driven mad.
The Portal Aspect
The other big detail is what we call the “Portal Aspect”. When setting up, the game will randomly have between two and four portals in the town, and closing them with the proper items is the path to victory. One of the item types you can collect is a pair of Magical Glasses, which have a one-time use to determine whether or not there is a portal at one of the six possible locations. However, the “Portal Aspect” is a rule that explicitly says you cannot tell the other players if a portal is there or not.
In theory, the design makes sense: if everyone immediately knows which locations hold a real portal, other players might not have to spend resources finding out and closing them before facing off against the end boss. This drives game tension down, and the game becomes much easier.
However, implementing this rule makes less sense. You are free to discuss strategy in general. So, for example, you could state that you kinda, sorta, maybe could benefit from specific items on the board whose sole purpose is to close portals. You can even say that you’d like to move to that item’s location that turn, but then you aren’t allowed to state why. Or, when starting the game, you could task players to solving the portal issue at specific locations. Thus other players don’t have to bother with looking at all the areas. Rather than have its own purpose, all the rule does is build in an extra restriction for game complexity that isn’t all that effective and could have been solved through other means. No one likes artificial difficulties.
For Tacticians, this will be the biggest stumbling block in the game. If they can overcome (or overlook) this glaring design hole, they’ll enjoy the difficulty the game poses. Besides, telling a Tactician they can’t discuss strategy is like telling a musician they can’t play instruments: there are ways around it, and it’s ultimately counterproductive.
The Witch of Salem is not ideal if you’re looking for a quick and easy game. The odds of winning are often low, and victory can plummet away at any time. Even still, The Witch of Salem is a good choice for people who enjoy diving into the deep Cthulhu mythos but may not have the time or attention span for a full game of Arkham Horror. Alternatively, if you are the type of person who really likes a challenging game to conquer, definitely consider giving Robert Craven a hand. Just don’t tell him about the portals.
Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Rules Clarity: 4.5
Replay Value: 3
Physical Quality 4.5
Overall Score: 3
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