Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle Review (prepublished version)

Please Take Note: This is a review of the final game, but it might change slightly based on the success of the Kickstarter campaign. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the game’s website or visit the Kickstarter campaign. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review.


The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up (publisher suggests 14+)
  • For 2 to 6 players
  • Approximately 45 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Get out of the Murder Castle before its too late!

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

American serial killer, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (better known as  H. H. Holmes), said, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.” So good was Holmes at killing that he constructed a building full of traps and prisons right in the middle of a street in Chicago, known now as the “Murder Castle.” You and a few other unlucky souls find yourself lost in the sprawling labyrinth designed to torture and confuse. If you hope to survive, you must find evidence and escape, but time is short!

Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, designed by Brandt HoffmanSeth A Cooper and to be published by Blueprint Gaming Concepts, will reportedly be comprised of 210 cubes representing blueprints, the remains of past victims, and various other unsavory articles, 30 Room tiles, 79 Event cards, 37 Holme’s Movement cards, 24 Evidence cards, two Abraham Ability tokens, one First Player token, one Evidence bag, one Ferris Wheel (with base), one Laboratory shelf, six Evidence board Pillars, six Character Ability tokens, three Hidden Bookcase Pathways, seven Character tokens (with base), two Trapdoor Landing Zones, two Trapdoors, 12 Second Story tokens, 11 Padlocks, five Potion tokens, six Tonic Potion tokens, six Poison Potion tokens, and seven Action tiles. PHEW! That’s a lot of components! Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the quality of any of them, as this is a review of the game’s prepublished version. However, I will note that the prepublished version of the game we were provided was of excellent quality, with glossy bits and solid parts.

Building the Murder Castle

To set up the game, you first need to find the “Pharmacy,” “Basement 1″, Basement 2”, and “Basement 3” Room tiles, placing them together to create an “L” formation. From these initially set tiles, the Murder Castle will grow.

Second, find one “Brick Wall” Room tile and place it aside. All other Room tiles are now shuffled and placed in a stack, face-down.

Third, assign a Character to each player or have the players select their own. All Character tokens are placed in the “Pharmacy” Room tile. All other Characters, save Mr. H.H. Holmes, are placed back in the box. If no player was assigned or selected “Jonah Nisbet,” the previously set aside “Brick Wall” Room tile is put back in the game box, as well. If Jonah was selected, give the “Brick Wall” Room card to that player now. The “H.H. Holmes” Character is placed in “Basement 1”. Ye gods, that’s creepy…

Fourth, give each player their Character’s Evidence board, which is placed directly in front of the owning player. You might also give the Evidence Board Pillars out, as well, to cover certain portions of the Evidence Board depending on the number of players in the game.

Fifth, give each player one Character Ability token. If any player has the character “Abraham Fitzsimmons,” they will receive two Top Hot tokens, as well. All tokens are placed on the player’s Evidence board. Each player can use their Character ability once per game, as well. The ability itself is described on the Character Evidence board.

Sixth, shuffle the Event cards together and place the deck face-down to create a single draw pile. Do the same for the Holmes Movement cards, but put this deck face-down beside Room tile “Basement 2”. Shuffle the Evidence Setup cards and deal one to each player now. All remaining Evidence Setup cards are placed back in the game box.

Seventh, place several Action tiles in a pile and within easy reach of all the players with the “Action” side face-up.

Eighth, each player now collects the specified number and color of Evidence cubes, placing them on their Evidence board. The amount and color to receive are noted on each player’s Evidence Setup card. Place all remaining Evidence cubes into the Evidence bag. Randomly pull three Evidence cubes from the bag and place one cube in each of the starting “Basement” Room tiles.

Ninth, place the Ferris Wheel to one side of the game playing area, and fill each of the wheel sections with a randomly pulled Evidence cube.

That’s it for the game setup. Determine who will be the first player and give them the First Player token, which looks like a Skeleton Key.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle is played in turns and rounds, with no set number of rounds per game. A player’s turn is summarized here.

Step One: Select Action

The Action tiles indicate different actions the players can take in the game. These range from moving Holmes, opening rooms, moving characters, and collecting evidence. As the round is played, the available actions to select from dwindles. From the available Action tiles, the player selects one, places it on their Evidence board, and takes the action the tile indicates. The Action tiles do a great job of informing the player what to do.

Actions include:

  • Explore the Castle: This will allow the player to select a Room tile and place it to the growing Murder Castle, but only if the Room tile their character currently occupies has a doorway. The drawn Room tile is placed and connected to the doorway (doorway to doorway). Evidence cubes are then taken from the Ferris Wheel and placed in the newly drawn Room tile. When there are no more Evidence cubes in the current gondola of the Ferris Wheel, the wheel is rotated.
  • Move Into One Room: This will allow the player to move their Character from one Room tile to another if there are connecting doorways.
  • Move Up to Two Rooms: Same as the previous Action tile, but the player can move their Character through two Room tiles.
  • Collect Evidence: This will allow the player to collect one Evidence cube found on the same Room tile as their Character. The Evidence cube is placed on the player’s Evidence board. If the player receives an Evidence cube for a track on their Evidence board that is already completed, it’s placed on the “Holme’s Strikes” space on the Evidence board instead. This will trigger the removal of a certain number of Evidence cubes.
  • Draw an Event Card: This will allow the player to draw one Event card. The Event card is read by the player, but not shared. After it’s read, the player places it face-down above their Evidence board. Event cards give the player a small but meaningful strategic offensive or defensive advantage against other players or Holmes. Event cards are either played when drawn or kept for later, as indicated by the Event card. A player can hold only three Event cards at a time. Event cards that are shown as “Keep” can be played at any time during the player’s turn or as indicated by the card itself. There are a few Event cards that allow the player to connect Room tiles via a secret passage. All players may use this secrete passage during the game. Once an Event card is played, it’s discarded.
  • Move Holmes: This will move the Holmes character on the board. Before moving the “Holmes” Character, draw the top-most Holmes Movement card and place it in the discard pile by Room tile “Basement 1”. The “Holmes” Character is then moved to the indicated Room tile if it’s already revealed. More than one Room tile is listed, giving the player several options. If none of the Room tiles listed are available, the “Holmes” Character remains in its current space.

Note that each Action tile has a “Selection Bonus” that is only available to the player who selected the Action tile. These are listed on the Action tiles.

Step Two: Share the Action

After the first player of the round completes the action, the selected action bonus, and resolves any impact the action triggered, each player may duplicate the action. This is done in player turn order sequence and is optional. Subsequent players do not get to take the “Selection Bonus” action.

Step Three: Continue Drawing Actions

After all the players have completed the action drawn (or elected not to), the next player in turn order sequence draws an Action tile from what is available, completes the action (with the “Selection Bonus”) and then all other players can choose to take the action or not.

Step Four: Holmes Moves

After all the players have had a chance to select an Action tile, a Holmes Movement card is drawn. The first player of the round decides which of the listed rooms the Holmes Character will move into. All Action tiles are then reset, and the next player in turn order sequence is handed the Skeleton Key (indicating they are the first player of the next round).

This completes the round. A new round now begins.

Trips, Traps, and Crazy Time

Some Event cards trigger the placement of trapdoors. These are placed and have a corresponding Trapdoor Landing Zone, which might or might not give the player a soft landing. Players can play certain Event cards to avoid falling through the trapdoors if they so choose. It should also be noted that some Room tiles have special effects. These are indicated on the Room tiles themselves.

When Holmes moves into a Room tile with a player, this will trigger the removal of Evidence cubes. Furthermore, players cannot collect Evidence cubes if Holmes is in the same room as their Character. If Holmes goes on a rampage (via the Holmes Movement card), the next three Holmes Movement cards are drawn, and if player’s Characters are occupying those rooms, they must resolve the Holme’s Strikes effect. If a second rampage card is drawn during the drawing of the Holmes Movement cards, Holmes goes on an extended rampage!

Surviving the Castle

While all players are working together to survive (there is always safety in numbers), there is only one winner in the game. The first player to collect all the necessary Evidence cubes to complete their Evidence board and returns safely to the “Pharmacy” Room tile survives and wins, but will have years and years and years of therapy ahead of them.

Expanding the Murder

An expansion titled “The Second Story” includes new Room tiles and Holmes movement cards. Padlock tokens are also introduced. The gameplay is more or less the same with unique effects to resolve. Essentially, this expansion makes the Murder Castle that much more challenging to navigate. Of particular note is a new Room tile titled “Laboratory” that forces players (for reasons never explained) to randomly select a Potion token and have their Character drink it. These characters aren’t brilliant. Depending on what the player drew (and their Character drinks), they will get an Evidence bonus or lose them.

To learn more about Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, visit the game’s website or visit the Kickstarter campaign.

Final Word

The Child Geeks struggled at first to grasp the game, thinking that they needed to run and hide in the ever-growing maze of rooms, but then just as quickly “got the game.” This is a game of hiding and seek, but one that is done right out in the open. The Child Geeks understood that Holmes could always pounce on them, but the danger there was not of losing their character, but of being penalized by missing evidence. This proved to be more of a fear and motivational aspect of the gameplay than initially thought. According to one Child Geek, “I like this game, how the castle comes to life in front of you, and you have to race around trying to find all the pieces you need to win!” Another Child Geek said, “I thought the game was hard at first, but the only thing you need to know is that you have to collect evidence as quickly as you can then get the heck out of the castle!” Such language! When all the votes were in, the Child Geeks fully approved the game.

The Parent Geeks were skeptical at first. When I told them what the game was and its narrative, they thought for sure the thematic elements in the game would include murder. It should be noted that this game, despite having a murderer running around acting all crazy, player characters are never actually in danger of being killed. This was a bit confusing at first but proved to be a real win from the Parent Geeks’ perspective and wasn’t that big of a deal to the Gamer Geeks. According to one Parent Geek, “I didn’t know what to make of the game based on your description over the phone, but now that I have played it, I enjoyed it. It was as much a race as it was a puzzle. Excellent stuff.” Another Parent Geek said, “Truly an entertaining romp through a maze of twists, turns, and one heck of a crazy guy. It had just the right intensity and speed for me. I enjoyed it!” When all the evidence was found, the picture was clear. The Parent Geeks fully approved the game.

The Gamer Geeks thought, at first, that this was a slightly watered-down version of Betrayal at the House on the Hill (a real classic if you haven’t played it yet), but then started to see the differences as the game progresses. They didn’t like the fact that characters weren’t murdered – Gamer Geeks are funny that way – but changed their attitude when they saw that the penalities of losing Evidence cubes were much worse than having their Character stabbed. According to one Gamer Geek, “I think the game has a few pacing problems, and some of the rules are a bit too open to interpretation, but overall I enjoyed it. I would play it again.” Another Gamer Geek said, “Engaging and light. An interesting theme, and I was very impressed with the components. I love this new trend of game boards having sunken spaces to place cubes. Overall, I’d play this game again.” When Holmes was finally behind bars, the Game Geeks all agreed that this game was worth keeping at their gaming table.

This was a fun game. It was easy to teach, entertaining to play and even mildly entertaining to watch. You’ll have the best experience with four players (don’t bother with six – takes a bit too long to get the game finished), and having a mix of experienced players doesn’t detract from the game’s entertainment value. Do play this game with family and friends. Having different experience backgrounds makes the gameplay all the more impressive as experienced players go about collecting evidence like shrewd pack rats, and the younger and more casual players have a hoot exploring the Murder Castle. There is something here for everyone, even though the game is set in a twisting maze of murder designed to trick, trap, and eventually allow Holmes to dispatch his victims. GOOD FAMILY FUN! Do visit Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle when time allows, but don’t stay too long…

This is a paid-for review of the game’s final prototype. Although our time and focus were financially compensated, our words are our own. We’d need at least 10 million dollars before we started saying what other people wanted. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek, which cannot be bought except by those who own their private islands and small countries.

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About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner. Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....

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