Designed by: Sebastian Kozak, Michal Kozak, Michal Marciniak, Maciej Owsianny
Published by: Titan Forge Games
Playtime: 60-180 minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
Lobotomy is not a small game by any means, dominating the table its placed upon after its lengthy and somewhat tiring setup process. Nor is it an easy game to enjoy at times. It’s fiddly with a myriad of individually simple rules that as a whole can be difficult to remember and constantly send you flicking through the poorly laid out rulebook. It would be easy to dismiss Lobotomy right there, but I’ve enjoyed fiddly games before. In fact one of the earliest board game reviews I did was on Arkham Horror, an intricate mess of mechanics, rules and dice rolling that takes ages to setup and that loves to make you reach for the rulebook. So I persevered. Was it worth it? Kind of.
Lobotomy, as its name would suggest, takes place entirely in an asylum for the insane, and as the players you’ll be taking control of inmates trying to escape from this horror show where warped nurses and monstrous beings are roaming the corridors, all under the baleful eye of the imposing warden. It’s standard horror-movie stuff replicated in cardboard, lovingly created plastic miniatures and paper with a hefty dollop of B-movie cheese, but the hints of something special are there as the rulebook talks of potentially twisted reality, your characters perhaps not being truly aware of what they’re seeing. Maybe it’s truly a horrible place filled with terrors, or maybe it is a regular hospital and their craziness has twisted it? Or maybe you’re just seeing this place through the character’s eyes, a place of pain where they’re poorly treated and put through barbaric practices like lobotomies.
These thematic possibilities aside, though, Lobotomy struggles to communicate its own rules to the players. Once me and my group began playing the first listed scenario on the simplest difficulty, which the game recommends will take about 45+ minutes, it took us somewhere around 2-3 hours to finish because we had to constantly stop in order to locate hidden rules and decipher the sometimes frustrating manual. The creators are not native English speakers which certainly explains many of the issues, but that can’t excuse the state of the rulebook. Indeed, there are still things I’m somewhat fuzzy on, even after reading the numerous threads on boardgamegeek.com where the designers themselves often help out. This is the only game aside from Arkham Horror where I’ve printed out community-created rule summaries and hint sheets for quick consultation and to help combat the utterly horrible layout of the rules. If you’re going to buy Lobotomy you need to head online and check out the revised rules.
Whatever scenario you opt for you first take the starting tile where the player’s characters will begin every adventure and then you add any specific quarter pieces listed in the scenario before randomly selecting another three pieces to form the large, complete board that might leave you wondering if you need a bigger table. Hint: you do. The board then needs to be populated with the starting miniatures and tokens, much of which is done via a simple randomization system. During this setup is where some of the problems begin, though. For starters the scenarios in the rulebook don’t clearly show the pieces of board very well, leaving you to consult the back of the book in order to match them up. Scenarios also sometimes describe an area of the board where something must be placed rather than showing it, which can be rather tricky. I spent a good five minutes setting up the first scenario trying to determine exactly where the guard room was meant to be. Furthermore, the book tells you to pop down corpse and cabinet tokens on the marked spaces on the board, but these spaces are actually quite hard to see, again slowing setup time. The worst offender are doorways, because while some doorways seem to have a slight white haze around them others don’t, making it unclear as to whether you’re supposed to place a door there or not. Obviously the more you play the quicker you’ll be able to get everything on the table and then back on the box later on, but even then this isn’t a fast game to start playing. It’s the kind of game that you’d want to have setup ahead of time.
With the board populated everybody needs to be given a character from the roster which includes the likes of Dayle Walker, who looks suspiciously like Blade from the movies, Ellen Ripley, and the incredibly buff Arnie Connors. These characters all come with a few starting items and two basic skills, plus a deck of memories that are composed of moments unique to them and some generic ones, although the rulebook is very vague about this, mentioning a 10-card memory deck with your character’s name on them even though only five cards actually have the name. Happily, the logical leap needed is a small one. There are also decks of cards that represent different mental disorders like phobias, OCD and schizophrenia and your character will get one card from each deck matching the ones listed on their card, adding a few more starting options to your character.
A turn consists of using your character’s action point allocation to do a variety of things, from moving to fighting to searching something, picking up an objective or trying to open a door. Your actual goal can vary quite wildly depending on the scenario which is why there are so many tokens and other pieces that only get used once. The first scenario, for example, tasks you with defeating the Big Mamma. Unfortunately, she’s unkillable unless you find a cassette tape first and get it to the guard room. Even then she’s still powerful, so you might need to deal with the creepy little girls who are busy floating through walls. These freaks of freakiness are a result of diaries spread out across the board which you must interact with. Little girls respawn at these when defeated, so by getting rid of the diaries you can thin the herd a bit and weaken the Big Mamma. For me these scenarios are the strongest part of the whole game. While they certainly aren’t all winners there are a lot of fun ones to tackle, although they do often boil down to interacting with a few things then killing something.
Trying to stop you are things like Scavengers, weird nurses, vampires and other nasty nonsense. Combat resolution doesn’t exactly break the mould as it boils down to rolling a bunch of dice and keeping your fingers crossed. Your character sheet lists what numbers will count as hits and the weapon or skill you use will indicate the amount of dice you roll, while the appropriate monster card displays how much their defense will absorb before they take actual damage which then gets represented by small tokens that you have to move around with them. However, the game does try to mix things up with a variety of abilities that you can use that may let you do things like area of effect attacks, punch through defenses better or provide other benefits.
To start with you need to pick how you’re attacking. You can always opt to simply punch stuff in the face, but weapons you pick up along the way tend to not only offer more powerful attacks but also add in extra benefits. However, weapons do slowly degrade over time, eventually breaking, so sometimes you might want to save them for bigger challenges.
Abilities don’t degrade over time and also offer up much more powerful attacks over your fists, but they’ve got their own catch; each time one is used you stick a marker on it to track its cooldown, rendering it unusable until enough rounds have passed. Happily, though, killing stuff lets you reduce the cooldown on a skill so you can get it back quicker.
While the scenario designs might be the strongest part of the game, it’s this weapon and skill management that is, for me, is probably Lobotomy at its most interesting. The constant juggling of weapons and skills brings a nice layer of thought to an otherwise mundane combat system. Sure, everything still largely comes down to the roll of the dice, but at least you can stop and consider when its best to bring out the shotgun or the area-of-effect attack that could potentially finish off several enemies at once. Likewise, the many, many keywords that will likely have you consulting the rulebook a lot mean it’s a good idea to match up certain players to certain enemies. For example some foes can be ethereal, meaning regular attacks will past through them, so someone with a weapon or ability bearing the holy keyword can combat this.
Combat is, by and large, the thing you’ll be doing the most of other than moving since this is ultimately a dungeon crawler in disguise with enemies happily charging straight toward you. However, there are other things to do along the way. Doors, for example, are nothing short of a royal pain in the arse, the bane of every player’s entire existence. These cheeky buggers look fine until you waste an action point to try them, at which point you flip the tile over and if you’re lucky its open. Sadly more often than not they are either barricaded or locked. Barricaded doors mean wasting either an action point every turn to batter it until it runs out of health, or using no action points to hit it with a weapon which will then degrade the weapon. As for lockpicking that means making an imagination test by rolling a bunch of dice and seeing if you get enough successes to get through. Since there’s a lot of damn doors and goodies are typically behind them a considerable amount of time may be spent swearing at doors.
But wait! Doors have an upshot! Interestingly enemies can move through any door that hasn’t yet been flipped, but once they are flipped they can no longer walk through unless it happens to be open. What this means is you can actually trap foes in rooms, because nowhere in the rules does it say they can kick ’em down. Huzzah!
When it comes to the monster’s turn everything is handled via a very simple system where enemies basically moves toward either a visible player character or the closest player character. You also draw an oddly named Movement card (oddly named because it has little to do with actual movement) that lists special events, such as monsters getting an attack boost, and tells you what new enemies to place on the board. Colored stars will also trigger scenario specific events, and finally the Movement card will also inform you of whether the Warden is going to travel to the next space.
Ah yes, the Warden. This hulking brute of a plastic miniature is present in every scenario and acts as a timer of sort. Movement cards will make him amble along the numbered spaces on the board that get referred to as the Insomnia Track, as does a few other things. The worst is character death which makes the Warden move three spaces forward, but he can also advance on the board due to special abilities I’ll talk about later. Whenever the Warden reaches the last spot on the Insomnia Track the scenario becomes impossible to finish without also having to face off against the Warden himself in what the game calls “The Clash”, a final boss battle that’s damn near impossible to beat without hefty lashings of luck. The inclusion of the Warden brings a welcome dose of tension to the game, even if there’s a sometimes frustrating chunk of luck involved in his movement along the track.
As for regular enemy attacks they’re handled exactly the same as player’s attacks, the exception being that certain foes have multiple types of assault that they can use, so to find out which one a die is rolled. Whereas players often have defensive abilities that they can employ some enemy types instead have a variety of keywords to consider, but enemies biggest advantage is that they can swarm players through sheer numbers. For each monster that attacked before them an enemy miniature gains an extra attack die, meaning if you find yourself battling against several opponents things can go from bad to worse terrifyingly quickly.
But wait, there are some extra options for handling the torrent of unspeakable evil that wants to introduce your face to any nearby hard surface! Every character has an insanity track, and by spending an insanity point you can roll a special attack or defense die that can really help sway the outcome of a fight. You can also spend insanity to conjure up an imaginary locker that only you can search, although this ability is limited until the Warden reaches the second piece of the board in a multi-scenario game. You can even throw a temper tantrum by cashing in on your insanity which will draw enemy’s attention toward you and you alone. Who knew slowly going insane was so useful? Careful judgement should be used, though, because once insanity reaches a certain point abilities will take longer to cooldown, and if you max out insanity then you are returned to the starting confinement cells, resulting in the Warden moving three spaces along his path.
You also have access to Insomnia Shifts, special powers that you pay for by moving the Warden an extra space along his Insomnia Track. You can use this to gain a bonus action point or to change the result on a single die.
So far the game doesn’t seem overly tricky to deal with, right? Well, now we start getting into the more fiddly stuff. I’m not going to explain everything in detail as that would far too long, but here’s the gist: you’ll perform tonnes of different dice rolls for a variety of checks, many of which work slightly different in order to confuse the hell out of you. An imagination test, for example, varies depending on the situation, so to unlock a door or to search a cabinet you roll as many dice as you have imagination points and count up the successes, while another version of the test has you rolling two dice and seeing if the result is equal or less than your imagination. Then there’s being able to trade in two memories for a basic skill, or how running lets you move further at the cost of doing anything else, or the piles of keywords and symbols that all interact with each other. It can be a fiddly mess at times until you’ve put in a solid couple of games, but by that point playing with anyone else other than an experienced group almost feels like a chore because you’ve got to guide them through the maze that is the rulebook.
The board can be a clusterMcfuck, too. By the time you fit a character miniature, several enemies and health tokens into a single space it looks like a mosh pit at a thrash metal concert. I’d like to have bigger spaces, but the board is already quite sizable. A prime example of this came during a scenario that asked us to place three vampires, three patients and three tokens on the same entrance space and we just couldn’t.
I also can’t help but feel as though the game manages to waste some of its own thematic ideas. The rulebook mentions cool stuff like the enemy you’re fighting maybe being nothing more than a normal inmate, doctor or even a potted plant that just happened to get in the way. You can even lose some insanity to create a locker to search, essentially imagining its existence when you may, in fact, be rifling through a broom cupboard before triumphantly holding aloft a mop. It sounds amazing, but in gameplay terms it means absolutely nothing. The fact that you might just be fighting an unlucky piece of scenery or wielding a bar of soap rather than a knife never makes a difference in the gameplay. Maybe it’s just a potted plant, but for the sake of combat its a nasty nurse intent on killing you. It would have been nice to see these ideas incorporated, perhaps so that you have moments of lucidity where reality intrudes.
But what we get instead is a reasonably strong theme, just a strong theme that’s very generic. This feels like most horror games in that you’re playing as a bunch of heroes tossed into a typical creepy location where they have to fight off loads and loads of enemies that stagger, walk, shuffle and float toward you.
One thing that does intrigue me is how it’s very strongly hinted that the things you’re fighting are nothing more than innocent doctors, nurses and staff trying to help you, which would, of course, explain why they all seem to simply rush toward the player characters. It’s an interesting question as to whether you’re genuinely insane and killing innocent people who are trying to keep you calm, or if perhaps this is one of the more inhumane asylums where patients were treated incredibly poorly. Again, though, this idea is never developed any further.
Still, at least it’s a horror game with some really nice miniatures to admire and potentially paint. The quality of the components is generally very strong, and while there were a few bits of character art that looked strange to me the overall presentation of the game is strong.
So, let’s trying and bring this jumble of words to a conclusion. In the end, I liked Lobotomy, but it’s a heavily flawed game in some areas and doesn’t manage to convert some of its thematic ideas into original gameplay mechanics, instead coming off as a Zombicide style game that maybe struggles to completely cement its own personality. The rulebook is in dire need of being updated, which would likely greatly help combat my opinion that the rules can be fiddly to deal with at times. But once you get the hang of everything Lobotomy is a compotent dungeon-crawler style game that can tell some good stories through a variety of scenarios, including such ones as Lesbian Vampire Diaries and Momma’s Home Cooked Dinner. I don’t think this is going to be anyone’s favourite game, but it’s solid enough to be enjoyable. Y’know, if you can muddle through the rules.