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Friday 25 October 2019

Friday Filler: Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection

There is nothing quite as vicious as university politics and there are no more university politics as vicious as those at Miskatonic University—especially at the Orme Library where not only your reputation and your standing are on the line, but so is your sanity! With the position of Head of the Library Committee open, there are five candidates for the position, but as the candidates gather to discuss who gets the promotion, there is a scream from the Library’s Restricted Section. Some foul thing has been unleashed and Head Librarian, Doctor Henry Armitage has asked for your help in defeating it. In order to do that you will need to delve deep into the library stacks where you will find the pieces of the sigil and fragments of lore from the many grimoires upon the library shelves necessary to defeating the otherworldly threat. Yet tarry too long, open too many books, pick up too many artefacts and your very sanity is at stake. Perhaps you may be able to gather hapless wandering graduate students together enough that they will protect from a threat kept hidden on the stacks—either that, or you leave them behind as rush to safety behind the wards that Doctor Henry Armitage has set up. After all, there is no renewable resource than graduate students! Return with enough accumulated fragments and sigils and the highest sanity of your rivals, and you are sure to get that coveted promotion to Head of the Library Committee.

This is the set-up for Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection, a heavily thematic, but simple-to-play board game published by Chaosium, Inc. following a successful Kickstarter campaign and winner of the 2019 Silver ENnie for Best RPG-Related Product. Designed by Reiner Knizia—who also designed the Glorantha-set, cow-raiding game, Khan of Khans for the publisher—it is a ‘push-your-luck’, set collection game with a strong card-counting element for two to five players, that takes about thirty minutes to play. It is easy to learn—a player only ever having one decision from turn to turn—and can be played by anyone of sufficient sanity over the age of thirteen.

Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection consists of six sets of cards. There are an eighty-card Library deck—itself consisting of sixteen Graduate Students, twenty-eight Grimoire Fragments, and thirty-six Sigil Pieces; thirty-five Defence cards, broken down into five sets of seven cards, one per player; thirty Lore cards; and thirty Red Sanity cards and five Black Sanity cards. There are nine optional cards. Of these, the players delve into Library deck in order to find the Grimoire Fragments and Sigil Pieces they need; they use the Defence cards to prevent themselves from learning too much and being expelled from the stacks; and if they escape the stacks, they will pick up Lore and Sanity cards. Each player has a Player Desk mat, each one an academic like Doctor Harold Ohm, Dean of Parasitology or Professor Edith Mayberry, Dean of Astrozoology, these having spaces around the edge to store their Graduate Students Grimoire Fragments, and Sigil Pieces.

The game is played over five rounds. At the start of each round, the Library Deck is shuffled and placed face down. One Sanity card is laid out in order per player, all Red Sanity cards bar a single Black Sanity card, which placed last. The Black Sanity card has a higher value than the Red Sanity cards and since obtaining a high Sanity at game’s end, the players should be keeping an eye on when to exit the Stacks in order to grab a higher valued Sanity card.

On his turn, a player can do one of two things. First, he can search the Orme Library’s Restricted Collection. This simply means he draws a single from the top of the Library deck. He can draw a Graduate Student, a Grimoire Fragment, or a Sigil Piece. Graduate Students come as one type—Graduate Student, but there are different types of both Grimoire Fragments and Sigil Pieces. There are seven types of Grimoire Fragments—Folk Magic, Summoning Magic, Curse Magic, Dream Magic, Gate Magic, Possession Magic, and Resurrection Magic—each marked with a different symbol, and three types of Sigil Piece—left, right, and middle. When a card is drawn, it is added to the slots marked around the Player Desk mat. Once a card is drawn, a player’s turn is over and he can draw another card on his next turn.

However, if a player draws a Sigil Piece card which completes the Sigil—consisting of left, right, and middle Sigil Pieces—he earns a Lore card, discards the Sigil Pieces he has, and can continue exploring the Restricted Collection. Similarly, if he draws a Grimoire Fragment and completes a set of any five different Grimoire Fragments, he also earns a Lore card, discards the Grimoire Fragments he has, and can continue exploring the Restricted Collection.

If a player instead draws a Sigil Piece card or a Grimoire Fragment card identical to one that he already has, then his Sanity is compromised, he has seen too much, and is expelled from the Restricted Collection. He cannot take any further action this Round and he also loses all of the Graduate Student, Grimoire Fragment, and Sigil Piece cards acquired that Round.

The other thing that a player can do on his turn is voluntarily leave the Restricted Collection. The advantage of leaving rather than being expelled from the Restricted Collection, is that a player is awarded a Sanity card and he gets to keep his Graduate Students. Otherwise, his Grimoire Fragment and Sigil Piece cards are discarded.

In addition to either exploring or leaving the Restricted Collection, a player also has the option to play a Defence Card. There are seven of these, each player having his own identical set. They divided into Proactive cards, played before drawing a Library card, and Reactive, played after. Example Proactive Defence cards include ‘Steal’, which enables a player to take a card from another player—useful in either completing a Sigil or Grimoire Fragment set or preventing another player from doing so; and Premonition, which lets the player reveal the top three cards in the Library deck which everyone has access to. Example Reactive Defence include ‘Reflexes’, which enables him to discard the Library deck card just drawn, and ‘Gift’, which lets the player give the Library deck card just drawn to another player as long as that player does not already that card. This is a good way of getting rid of a duplicate Library card.

Once a Defence card has been played, it is turned face-down and cannot be used again until refreshed. This either requires the discarding of a complete set of four Graduate Students or the player is expelled from the Restricted Collection. Only one card is refreshed when either happens. The optional cards included in Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection provide players with more Defence cards.

Play continues over a round until either every player has left or been expelled from the Restricted Collection. Once a player has been expelled or has left the Restricted Section, the round is over for them. The Library deck is reshuffled, new Sanity cards are laid out, and a new Round begins. Play continues until the end of the fifth round, at which point the values of each player’s Sanity and Lore cards are added up, the player with the highest total being declared the winner and awarded the position of Head of the Library Committee.

Not only is the play of Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection simple enough, with each player being limited in their choice of actions, but so are the game’s tactics. This simply amounts to card counting, each player needing to watch what other cards have been drawn from the Restricted Collection, because as more and more cards are drawn, a player has a greater idea of what has been drawn from, and what is left in the deck. With that information in mind, a player has a greater idea of whether or not he continues driving deeper into the Restricted Collection and keep drawing Library cards in search of a Grimoire Fragment or Sigil Piece he believes to be still there or flees because neither is there. And this effect is greater the more players a game has, but conversely, the greater the number of players, the more competition a player has for the cards remaining…

Physically, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection is really nicely, thematically presented. The artwork is excellent, the rules are clearly explained, and that fact that it comes in a box that looks like an ancient mythos tome is not only pleasingly satisfying, it also adds to the feel of the game. If there is fault to the game it is in the Defence Cards which are marked with various icons to indicate the actions they provide. There is no text on them. This though is understandable given that the game’s components are designed to be language independent—that is, work with any of the languages the game’s rulebook covers. As much as that is a laudable aim, it does mean that during the initial playthroughs, players are going to be making regular reference to the rulebook in order to determine what each Defence Card does.

For all its simplicity of design as a ‘push-your-luck’ game, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection forces a player to think about his ‘action’ on each and every turn primarily based on what he thinks is still left in the Restricted Collection. There is a constant balance between going too far and being expelled after a Sanity draining discovery or pushing on to find the last Grimoire Fragment or Sigil Piece that will ensure Sanity and Lore towards winning the game (especially if there is a high value Sanity to be won on the way out!).

Better with four or five players than two or three, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection is easy to learn, easy to teach, and with a few decisions to take, easy to play. Thus making it an excellent filler. Thematically it feels very different to other Lovecraftian board or card games, perhaps drier than directly facing the Mythos, but Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection proves that the world of librarianship and academic is not as fusty as you would think, having its own dangers and its own luck. Not all of them from the dangers in the Restricted Collection...

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