The Phantom: Secret of the Mask
(Das Phantom: Geheimnis der Maske)
from Amigo Games
I haven't had the joy of reviewing a board game before this one, mainly because there aren't very many of them. But look! It's adorable!
This is a German board game (original title: Das Phantom: Das Geheimnis der Maske), and like a lot of German board games from the nineties, it's a little bit abstract, being more focused on good gameplay mechanics and replay value than on tying in closely to its theme. However, it actually does a pretty great job of giving the mechanisms of gameplay a neat connection to the source material it's based on, and the end result is a fun little game that will probably entertain folks who are into the Phantom story and Philistines alike.
By the way, you may notice some silver writing on my photos of the box, which includes a signature and a date. I am told by the powers that secondhand sold it to me that it was signed by the designer, although apart from a signature that looks like it does indeed start with the letter W, I can't tell if that's true. The designer was Wolfgang Kramer, who is a semi-famous designer of board games for companies like Ravensburger, as well as being a novelist and all-around badass.
Okay, the first and possibly most important thing you need to know about this game is that it has an interactive box, and that interactive box is delightful. Here's what our Phantom on the front of the game looks like:
He's obviously rocking a Lloyd-Webber-inspired half-mask, which is not surprising since that musical was still incredibly popular at this time, although the red lipstick does give it a bit more of a Carnivale/Old World feel that might hearken back to some earlier interpretations. Everyone in my house (so John, and some cats) was very impressed by the Phantom's manly yet handsome appearance; check out that stubbled jaw, those chiseled lips, that bushy red hair! He looks like he should be a sailor named Seamus or Arthur or something, wearing a mask for Halloween after a long day out trawling and sweating. He seems like someone with whom it would be fun to eat a shepherd's pie and drink too much beer.
But then you realize that you can actually flip the mask up to see the face hidden beneath, and behold:
Okay, so, well, let's forget that whole "let's go get a drink" thing. I'm a fan of everything going on here; in addition to being a serious deformity that is having none of your lip (obviously, since he doesn't have lips, man you guys don't even deserve how hilarious I am), it's clearly drawing inspiration from much earlier versions of the Phantom, most likely including Leroux's original. The deformity of that half of his face is very similar to Leroux's description of the death's-head, including pale, grey, corpse-like skin, a total lack of hair and softer tissues such as lips, and large protruding eyeballs with a marked resemblance to a dead person. It looks very much congenital, skipping us past the versions of the Phantom that came by their ugliness due to scarring or accidents, and also brings to mind images of Frankenstein's monster, which this game's premise might also owe a slight debt to.
It's odd that the deformity of the right side of the face is completely at odds with the "normal-looking" left side; little obvious effort has gone into reconciling them, making it clear that the intent is to surprise and shock those who peer under the mask rather than to look all that realistic. The disfigurement of half of the face is so severe that I wonder why the game's creators chose to represent the Phantom with a half-faced deformity at all; all I can figure is that the popularity of Lloyd Webber's first musical made using visually similar design elements a good marketing move.
By the way, there is no "secret of the mask" in this game unless it's the box's easily-discovered secret. But we can probably forgive it for these shenanigans. It's a pretty good box cover.
But what about inside the box? Well, the game is in German, so those without translations may have a little trouble making headway (for those of you who want to try it anyway, might I suggest the good volunteer translators over at BoardGameGeek?). A quick introduction to the game's premise informs us that the Phantom (who, like Lloyd Webber's version of the character, is never named) has kidnapped a girl from "the village" and spirited her away to "Castle Zitterstein", from whence she must be rescued.
Alas for this poor girl; she also doesn't get a name, and the rules only refer to her as "the pretty one" when they talk about her, which I believe happens a grand total of two times. I don't know where the "village" she was kidnapped is or why the Phantom is living on a creepy castle on a hill abducting people instead of doing his normal Phantom stuff, and no one is going to enlighten me so I'm just going to have to imagine that the game's designers apparently wanted to mix some elements of the Phantom story, Shelley's Frankenstein and traditional German fairytales to give us a vaguely spooky setup for the game's events. They're clearly not trying to freak anyone out - "Zitterstein" means "trembly stones", for god's sake - but it's still a stab at ambiance.
The players, according to the rule booklet, are all fellow villagers, who are determined to break into the castle and rescue the kidnapped woman. It makes a point of telling us that all the players want to be the first one to do so, since this is not a co-op game, which helps prevent anyone from being confused about the object but also makes us all kind of jerkbags (seriously? she's been kidnapped and we have to wave our dicks around over who's going to save her first?). But at least someone is trying to rescue her, and the smallish mob of villagers coming to her aid recalls the angry mob that chased down the Phantom in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film as well as the angry ending chorus from Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical.
The gameboard itself is a tile-map of hexagonal spaces, some of which are "clear" and available for players to advance through and some of which are blacked out and represent walls. We also see multiple "rooms" in the castle, which, although they are off-limits to the players and can only be entered by the Phantom, nevertheless tie into the game's theme - one has a pipe organ in it, suggesting the Phantom's famous usage of such, another is full of what look like costumes, another has a large free-standing mirror suggesting his use of mirrors to communicate with Christine, another features several drama masks, and one even includes a small rowboat on an underground lake, calling back to the Phantom's place of residence in Leroux's novel.
The kidnapped girl is in the last room at the end of the board, where we can see from her artwork that she is also a redhead (neat! we seldom see red-headed Christines!), and the players have to navigate their way there to rescue her. They also can't get in to save her unless they collect various objects on the way; according to the rules, the door will only open "to the sound of a violin and the smell of roses." That's all the explanation that aspect of the game will get, but it's kind of refreshing that they don't bother to make a lot of sense with it. Look, the Phantom plays a violin, he gives the girl a lot of roses in some versions, you need both to win. It's magic. Deal with it.
The players' pieces are pawns wearing dapper little top hats, which make them look like gentlemen adventurers - and gentlelady adventurers, since the rules make a point of saying that the players represent men and women from the village, so we are all free to imagine ourselves as tiny Marlene Dietrich if we want to. The Phantom is also on the board, and is represented by a black piece twice as tall as the other pawns, with a white domino mask slapped on its face. It's interesting that the domino is fully face-covering where the box and gameboard art keep using the half-mask, but probably not relevant beyond someone in design reasoning that a mask is a mask is a mask.
Hilariously, while the roses are scattered all over the board, the Phantom himself begins the game hoarding all the violins. Everyone has to find his room and break into it in order to steal valuable musical instruments, which is pretty entertaining.
I won't go thoroughly into gameplay, but the basic premise is that you roll dice for the number of players in the game, and each one chooses a die result in turn, allowing them to advance that many spaces. One possible outcome, both on dice and on the board, is to receive a mask, which allows only limited movement but also gives access to board tiles and/or Magic cards, which grant special powers such as discovering secret passageways or being able to fend off others who might steal your hard-won items. The choosing-dice mechanics adds an interesting element of not only giving yourself the best advantage but also looking ahead to what advantages you might give your opponents, and the Magic cards are resources that everyone should always be reaching for.
The ability to gain board tiles is especially genius; the game has a modular board, meaning that you can change what areas can be visited or are blocked off by essentially rewriting the board as you add tiles to it. This allows players to in effect "find" secret passages through walls or spring "traps" on opponents by walling them up in their current location, which is a very neat way of alluding to the traditional ability of the Phantom to build and use cunning secret passages and locations as well as confounding others who try to follow suit. The Phantom himself also demonstrates these powers; each round, he moves around the board, menacing the players, and unlike them he is capable of walking through walls and frightening players away from wherever they were heading, illustrating his power as a master of his environment and perhaps suggesting a hint of the truly supernatural around him.
This isn't what I'd call a "perfect" board game; its exact-roll-only mechanic for landing on important board spaces is frustrating for players, and there were several areas where the rules were unclear, including whether or not Magic cards that moved spaces counted as "exact rolls", whether or not the half-spaces at the edges of the board could be stood on, and whether or not Magic cards that removed already-placed board-changing tiles could remove them while someone was standing on them. John, who dedicated half of a Sunday afternoon to testing it out with me because he is supportive and also a huge game snob, pointed out that it also tends to bottleneck halfway through; players can technically steal items from one another, but especially with low numbers of players, doing so is difficult and impractical so it's pretty easy for the first player to take a lead to retain it without the other players being able to do much about it, leading to everyone ending up having fisticuffs outside the door to the end room while the person they are supposed to be rescuing probably sighs and rolls her eyes within.
But it's still a nicely designed and functional little game, with a creative premise and neat Phantom-flavored touches, so it's a pretty good way to pass an afternoon if you don't mind giggling at yourself and anyone else who voluntarily plays it with you.