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Friday 4 January 2013

It Spells Murder!

Murder of Crows is a new card game from Atlas Games – the publisher of other card games such as Gloom, Cthulhu Gloom, and the recently re-released Once Upon a Time. It is a game of spelling, detection, and undermining your fellow players that can be played through in twenty minutes or so. Designed for two to five players, aged thirteen and up, it is a darkly themed humorous game that easily slips into play between other games.

The aim of the game is simple. To win, a player has to spell out the word, MURDER. This is done by playing the game’s many letter cards, each marked with the letters M, U, R, D, or E. Each of the five letter cards also has an extra effect beyond adding to a player’s MURDER. The “M” or “Misplace” card allows a player to steal a card from a rival’s MURDER and add it 0t1000o his hand; the “U” or “Uncover” forces every other player to reveal his hand of cards and allows the current player to steal any one of the revealed cards; the “R” or “Reap” allows a player to draw another card; and the “E” or “Expell” card forces every other player to discard his hand of cards and draw back up to three. As can be seen from these five cards, the game has a strong “take that” element in that the majority of the letter cards affect the other players rather than the current player. Well, this is a game about murder after all…

Given this strong “take that” element, it is no surprise that Murder of Crows provides a means of blocking these “attacks.” Each of the letter card is marked with a number of crows in the top left hand corner – one, two, or three. When a letter card is played, if a targeted player has a card marked with a number of crows equal to those on the letter card played, then it can be used to block an attacking card. A second card type, the “Wild Crow” card, can also be played to block an attacking card. Another use for a “Wild Crow” card is as a letter card in a player’s MURDER. The letter it replaces needs be chosen when it is played and it has all the effect of that letter. A player’s MURDER can contain only the one “Wild Crow” card.

Play itself is simple. Each player begins the game with a hand of five cards. The first player is decided upon who is decided to look the most suspicious… (Cue any number of arguments, if not murder itself!) On his turn he draws one card and plays one card into his MURDER on the table in front of him. The effect of a letter card takes place – or is blocked by one or more of the other players, and then the next player takes his turn. The first player to spell out MURDER is the winner.

In addition to spelling out the word Murder, a player’s MURDER also tells the story of a murder. Placed in order, the “M,” “U,” “R,” “D,” “E,” and “R” letter cards spell out the atmosphere, place, culprit, motive, means, and victim for the player’s MURDER. For example, “Shadows haunted the night” “on a shore reeking of dead fish when” “Heidi Harmony” “due to an inferiority complex” “used a frozen turkey to bludgeon” “Alexis Eldridge”. This adds an element of ghoulish storytelling to the game as well as a degree of uncertainty to the crime as the atmosphere, place, culprit, motive, means, and victim for a player’s MURDER will change over the course of the game.

Physically, Murder of Crows is nicely done. The rules sheet is easy to read through, although it will be passed around from player to player in order to check what each letter card does. It helps that the game includes a reference card, but more than one would have been useful. In fact, one per player would have been very useful.

The game’s fifty-five, full colour cards though, are very nicely done. Perhaps a little thin for extensive play – though Murder of Crows is a filler game and will not be played over and over – every card is attractively illustrated by Thomas Denmark, who along with Eduardo Baraf, designed the game. Denmark’s full colour art for Murder of Crows is Gothic Americana in style, possessing a sly humour that echoes that of Edward Gorey.

In terms of play and tactics, a player is simply trying to spell out his MURDER whilst preventing his rivals from spelling out theirs. Late in the game, as the players get closer and closer to achieving that goal, the game becomes quite cutthroat as they try and stop each other. Since almost every letter card is used to attack one or more of the other players, then one key tactic to be aware of, is knowing when to block. A player can of course use one of his letter cards – that is if the crows on the blocking card matches the card being played, but if he has a “Wild Crow” card, he can use that. Of course, that “Wild Crow” card might be a stand in for the last letter he needs to complete his MURDER.

The given age of the game – thirteen plus – seems a little over cautious. Younger players should not have too much difficulty playing Murder of Crows, although the “take that” element might be a little too cutthroat for them. Nevertheless, Murder of Crows is a light filler game, one with slight tactics, a light storytelling aspect, and a wryly dark theme. Murder of Crows offers fast, fatal fun.

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