Thursday 12 November 2015

Review - Mr. Jack

Mr. Jack

Mr. Jack
Published by Hurrican
Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc
For 2 players, aged 9 to adult

Everybody has a line.

You know, that line in the sand. The point of no return, when something becomes intolerable.

It's different for every person, and it isn't always rational.

The line is a personal thing, and sometimes people aren't really able to explain why the line is where it is. Some people don't even know they have a line until someone else crosses it. Or maybe even when they cross it themselves.

But, and here's the important bit... Nobody's line is in the right or wrong place. And nobody has the ability to move their line.

The line works on an emotional level. If something offends someone, they can't simply choose not to be offended. They aren't wrong for being offended.

Because the line is about a gut feeling. And guts are complicated.

I have a line.

It's not a straight line. It twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing, and I freely admit I don't understand it.

It is the line that allows me to sit through a game of Cards Against Humanity (disliking every minute of it), but which makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable at the thought of playing Freedom: The Underground Railroad

It is the line that means I can happily play war games that recreate real life conflicts in which thousands of people lost their lives, but which makes me feel a bit icky about Paolo Parente artwork.

Recently, a game appeared on Kickstarter called Lobotomy. It looked pretty cool, with a dark, Gothic horror style and an intriguing premise. And for a little while I was vaguely interested, until I noticed it had inadvertently tripped over my line.

You see, as far as I can gather, the players each take on the role of a psychiatric patient attempting to escape an asylum. During the game, the players fight monsters, but... they're not really monsters. They are only perceived as monsters. They are actually the orderlies and nurses, attempting to return the mentally ill patients to their ward.

So, effectively it's a game about mentally ill people murdering their carers.

At least, that's how it seemed to me.

Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick a bit. It doesn't matter. There is so much about the theme I find distasteful, there is no way I am ever going to buy the game.

Mental health problems are not entertainment.

But that's just my feelings. My line. And just because I feel that way, it doesn't mean the game shouldn't exist. It doesn't mean the people who supported its creation are bad people. Indeed, I would never call for the game to be banned.

I am well aware my line is mine, and mine alone.

Here's another example...

A few years back, I bought my wife a copy of the old 1988 board game, Willow. I picked it up on eBay for next to nothing. It was complete, and in beautiful condition. Slight wear on the box, but otherwise unused. A real find.

Check it out - it's Val Kilmer.

I bought the game because my wife is a huge fan of the movie. Because obviously her line is much further away than mine.

So, I gave my wife the game, and she was delighted. It's a cute little adventure game. Some players are good, controlling heroic characters as they move around a truly ugly board finding equipment and generally being heroic, and other players are evil, and get to work for Bavmorda.

Willow board
Good God. The colours. The colours.

For anyone who has seen Willow, alarm bells should be ringing at this point.

You see, in the movie, Bavmorda is attempting to find a baby in order to kill her. So, the players controlling the evil characters in the board game are... well... they're attempting to find a baby in order to kill her.

Okay, okay. The rules gloss over it a bit. They never say your aim is to kill a baby. The rule book says you have to find the baby card, take it to your castle space, and then "remove it from play." But it is what it is... And what it is, is a game about murdering a baby.

And that's a no sale.

As it stands, we have never played this game, and I am not sure we ever will.

I know it's only a board game. I know that the people involved are not really killing a baby. I know it's irrational. I know...

But I can't play a game where my objective is to kill a child.

I can, however, happily play a game in which I assist one of history's most infamous serial killers.

Lines are funny that way.

The game, of course, is Mr. Jack, an incredibly clever and slickly designed board game for two players, in which one player attempts to sneak Jack the Ripper out of London, while the other player is the detective attempting to bring the ne'er-do-well to justice.

Mr. Jack box
Now, the cover art really is getting close to my line...

So, how come I won't play a game about a fictional character killing a fictional baby, but I am happy to play a game based on a real life murderer who killed real people?

It's a good question.

For me, it is all about the degrees of separation.

If Mr. Jack was a game in which one player took on the role of Jack the Ripper, moving around the streets of London in secret, scoring victory points for every prostitute murdered, I would find the game utterly repulsive.

But that isn't what Mr. Jack is.

First, Mr. Jack is quite abstract, and involves moving wooden discs around a stylised map of Whitechapel. Second, at no point does Jack kill anyone; he is simply attempting to escape. But most importantly of all, neither player is asked to specifically step into the role of the serial killer. Indeed, at different points during the game, both players may have the opportunity to move Jack on the board. It clearly delineates fact and fiction, game and reality. It defines a barrier between emotion and logic.

This is not a roleplaying experience.

Mr. Jack playing pieces
Heroes or villains?

Mr. Jack is an intense, head-to-head experience, using mechanisms that encourage players to focus on the challenge, rather than the theme.

The Jack player doesn't feel any more like Jack than a chess player feels like a bishop... Assuming the chess player isn't actually... you know... a bishop.

The concept of Mr. Jack is incredibly simple: At the start of the game, there are eight characters on the board. The Jack player draws a card that indicates which of the eight characters is Jack in disguise, and then one player shuffles a deck of eight character cards and lays out four face-up.

Mr. Jack innocent cards
Innocent or guilty?

The detective player gets to pick one of the four face-up character cards, and then moves that character on the board. The Jack player picks two characters, and then the detective player uses the remaining character.

After four characters have moved, a gaslight may go off, plunging an area of the board into darkness, and then the detective player asks the Jack player if Jack is visible. If the token representing Jack is adjacent to a gaslight, adjacent to any other character, or within the beam of Dr.Watson's torch, then he is visible. Otherwise, Jack is hidden.

Next, the remaining four cards are laid out, and the process is repeated, except Jack picks the first character, then the detective player picks two characters, with the Jack player taking the last character.

This continues for eight rounds, until Jack is captured, or until Jack leaves the board.

When moving characters, players are attempting to do different things. The Jack player wants to move Jack off the board, but for this to happen, Jack must have been hidden from sight at the end of the previous turn. The detective player wants to keep Jack visible so he can't escape, but also wants to rule out suspects by keeping some characters visible while other characters are hidden.

Mr. Jack board
Ah, London... Where the streets are paved with hexagons.

For example, if at the end of the round, the detective has managed to keep four character's visible while four characters are not visible, and then the Jack player says Jack is visible that round, the detective player is immediately able to determine that the four characters that are not visible are no longer suspects.

At any point, the detective player has the ability to move a character on top of another character to make an accusation. If the accused character is Jack, the detective wins; otherwise, Jack wins. Jack also wins by escaping the board, or remaining unchallenged for eight turns.

The game is incredibly simple. It is possible to teach the rules to a new player in a couple of minutes, but there is plenty of depth and strategy to enjoy, much of which derives from the special abilities of the characters, which range from the ability to move manhole covers to stop characters accessing the sewers to blowing on a whistle to draw surrounding characters closer.

Mr. Jack rules
The rules are three pages long, and not as intimidating as they look.

It's all very clever, and very clean. Clinical, almost. There is no bloat. No saggy rules. No fiddly tokens. No clutter.

Just you, and your opponent, locked in a battle of wits as you frantically move the same eight characters around the board in a furious game of cat and mouse.

It is very special, and beautifully presented.

And I never play it.

Well... hardly ever.

Mr. Jack character cards
Holmes is on the case... Or maybe he's Jack in disguise.

My wife hates the game, which is a big problem as two player games are usually reserved for playing with my wife.

Not sure why she hates it. She just does.

Normally she loves games that are incredibly streamlined and quick, with simplistic rule sets but lots of strategic depth.

But not this one.

I occasionally roll the game out with friends, but I get the impression they don't really like it as much as I do.

And it's a shame, because you need to play this game a lot to get good at it. Sure, you can learn how to play in five minutes, but your first experience is not a true reflection of what the game has to offer.

You need to face the same opponent time and time again to build a rapport. You need to be able to read your enemy, call the bluffs, and really drill into the psychology behind each move. So, perhaps this is more of a roleplaying game than it appears at first... Because without the tension of two long-established foes locked in a battle of wits, you are just pushing wooden discs around a board, and that clinical rule set starts to feel more than just clean.

It starts to feel cold.

It starts to feel empty.

And that's where I have to draw the line.

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