Coma, coma, coma, coma, coma chameleon.
A Coma Ward Review
To be honest, Betrayal at House on the Hill should have been fired from pretty much everyone’s collection by now, right? Just looking at my wall of games I can see dozens of games inspired by Betrayal, and that frankly do the same thing better. I can save you the trouble of reading this review with a quick thought exercise. Just ask yourself this:
Do you still like Betrayal at House on the Hill and do you want more?
If so, Coma Ward makes sense to add to your collection, if for no other reason then the fact that it will make for an interesting change of pace. Coma Ward, after all, is pretty much just a slightly updated riff on Betrayal that offers a decidedly adult angle to its story telling.
Still on the fence? Let me ask you another question:
Are you willing to forgive a game for mistakes that don’t completely break the game?
This isn’t the first game I’ve reviewed from publisher Everything Epic Games. A year and a half ago I reviewed Secrets of the Lost Tomb. In that review I drew some parallels between that game and Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files series of games. If Fantasy Flight is your Paramount Studios, then Everything Epic is sort of your typical Roger Corman production after he fired the film’s editor and replaced them with a Three Toed Sloth tripping on an eight ball of cocaine. That isn’t to say that I dislike Everything Epic Games, but I feel like they aren’t making titles that are going to feel completely polished. The biggest problem they seem to have is editing. I understand that I’m perhaps not the best person to judge a company for poor editing (Hey, I’m not asking anyone to pay me for this drek.) but I can appreciate that there are many people who are upset when a game (especially one that strives to tell stories) is riddled with grammar errors and the occasional missing verb or rule. I haven’t found any mistakes in Coma Ward that I couldn’t figure out a solution for on the fly, but I can empathize that for some folks it will send their blood pressure rising (just read a few of the other reviews for Coma Ward). Everything Epic Games would do well to hire an editor to review everything they put in print from now on. This exact issue was something I pointed out in my review of Secrets, so I think we can safely say that this should be expected from Everything Epic Games in the future. They can make fun games, but wordsmiths, they are not.
You come and go.
Coma Ward has two things going for it that demand ones attention. The setting is the most obvious. Coma Ward utilizes a hospital setting with a fixed layout that becomes populated with random rooms as you explore. This approach to the exploration tries to reign in some of the balance oddities that Betrayal can have when you get an unlucky layout of rooms. Unfortunately, this means that the game board must be larger then what most people can comfortably fit on their game table. It makes for a welcome control in a game that otherwise embraces the madness of chaos and randomness. The new setting also gives the designer the opportunity to tell very different stories from than Betrayal’s classic haunted house yarn. Be warned though, there is plenty of unevenness abound. The first problem with the setting is found in the hallucination cards. Almost every hallucination card gives you the vibe that you have been sucked into Silent Hills’ hospital. This is a problem because these story sequences conflict with the random phenomenon story you are playing out. For example, the game could be playing out a scenario that evokes the plot of Halloween 2. Having a hallucination about a ghost phone seems highly out of place and quite nonsensical.
The other big thing Coma Ward has going for it is its decidedly adult content. Coma Ward earns its mature content warnings. Unfortunately, the specter of uneven writing and limited editing raises its ugly head. It isn’t that the writing is bad, so much as it can come off as immature at times, much like Kingdom Death: Monster. You need to be prepared to read cards that use profanity and crude language that is more likely to make you groan then pump your fist. The line, “Wolfman’s got nards!” was funny when I was 9 years old. Nowadays I need something more. True story, when I was 9 years old I talked my mom into taking me to see Monster Squad. I’m sure she still hasn’t quite forgiven me for that.
There is one design choice I want to make a point of calling out as disappointing and borderline insulting to the audience. The hallucination cards are a the driving story elements that dominate the first half of the game. Most turns will find you pulling a card and being given a choice of three options. Depending on the choice you make, you may have a good, bad, or neutral outcome. Sounds cool right? Nope! The outcomes of your choices are completely arbitrary. You can’t bring any skill to divining which choice is the right one to make. Many of the hallucinations are repeated, but have completely different out comes. On one card the right choice may be to answer a ringing phone, but on another card the right answer may be to ignore the phone. The game gives you no way of knowing or figuring out what the right choice may be. Therefore the choice itself becomes completely meaningless and players may find themselves picking choice “A” every time, just to keep the game moving.
You come and go.
Coma Ward is a game that leaves me feeling conflicted. Just like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Coma Ward can sometimes deliver you a mess, while other times give you an unforgettable roller coaster ride. For me, I love the experience as a whole, but the individual parts annoy me to no end. Some of this stems from the flawed 2 act bones that it inherits from Betrayal. You spend that first act just running around and gathering loot. Its completely mindless, random, and has virtually no player agency. Yes, Coma has these objectives (called “quirks”) you can work on, but most are still pretty simple and can become an at best, a distraction, after your first game. Yes, you have hallucination cards that try to inject a sense of mood and player agency, but they are so random that they make the choices you make meaningless. Then you trigger a random phenomenon (haunt) that opens up a completely random second act that could be extremely easy or impossibly hard. As a game, this isn’t good at all because the experience becomes almost entirely passive. As an experience, it can be fun if you have the right group. That ultimately is the key to enjoying Coma Ward. If you have a group of 3 gamers or more who want a super random adventure set in a Silent Hill type universe, then Coma Ward is going to deliver you the goods. Keep in mind though, the joy to be found in Coma Ward is much like that found in Mystery Science Theater 3000. The fun of MST3K isn’t in watching the movie, its in the riffing on how bad the movie is. Coma Ward’s fun isn’t in the dated game play, its in enjoying the setting and the people sitting at the table.