Mistborn: House War Review

Mistborn: House War Review

Take a multi-million selling fantasy IP and a board game about revolution, negotiation and backstabbing and you have Mistborn: House War...almost, what you’ll have is a really great idea for a game that this want really wants to be.
The Mistborn series is basically X-Men in an Iron Age setting, except there are only ten powers that some people have, and which only manifest when certain metals are eaten.  Trust me, they’re good books.  Our heroes of this trilogy, Kelsier and Vin, along with a ragtag band of semi-powered individuals launch a revolution...blah, blah, blah...actually, the narrative doesn’t really have much effect on the game.

At all in fact.

It’s not so much that the theme is “pasted” on, its more like the theme and the mechanics shared a shelf together for a little while and it picked up a hint of it.  Kind of like putting anything else near garlic in the fridge.

Mistborn: House War Review

Now, I’m going to warn you, dear reader, that I am a huge Brandon Sanderson fan.  In fact, I once went to a book signing just to meet the man and get my book signed.  But before you go thinking that this will affect my review...well you’re half right, it will.  I had such high hopes, such high expectations for this that when it finally arrived...I was, simply put, disappointed.  Disappointed in a way only a geek can be by thinly veiled tie-ins, by lacklustre attempts to breathe a new and different life into a beloved IP, by taking a series of exciting stories full of adventure and peril and making a game about the fantasy statecraft that is a backdrop to the action, yeah, exactly like the feeling you had when you first watched The Phantom Menace.

So, in this game there is a departure from the expected, you’re not playing as the under-appreciated lower class fighting for truth, justice and the Allomancy way.  No, here you are playing as the fat cats sat atop a pile of cinders trying to put out the fires and stay in control.  The game opens with the board rife with problems, literal cards called Problems.  These are what the great unwashed are doing in the city to pull you and your fellow House Lords down.  In response, you must negotiate and plan with your fellows to stomp the resistance out.  Each problem requires certain resources to quell, anything from food and money, to warriors and prestige.  It is with these resources that you’ll barter and haggle with one another to earn Favour (victory points).  Once a problem is resolved the Favour points that the card was worth is divvied up as agreed during the negotiation.  Fail to reach an accommodation or solve the problem single-handedly and next turn the problem will worsen and possibly erupt.

Mistborn: House War Review

At the beginning of each player’s turn, all the existing problems increase in severity, represented by 4 columns and the moving of all the cards from left to right one space, you’ll also add a new one too.  Should a card ever breach column 4 it will Erupt and the consequences of that card will be wrought.  That may sound dramatic (dammit I want this game to be dramatic), when really it isn’t.  It basically means some things will happen that range from a minor inconvenience to irritating inconvenience.  At no point, will you ever feel really under threat. 

Sooner or later (depending on the game length you’ve chosen, but pray it is sooner), the heroine of the story, Vin, appears in the problem deck.

Mistborn: House War Review

Vin ends the game one way or another.  Solve her and you’ve re-written the ending to a very good book, allow her to erupt and the Lord Ruler is overthrown. This aspect of the game is the singularly most interesting thing about the whole affair; there are two, contradictory, win conditions.  If Vin is solved, the player with the most victory points is deemed the winner.  However, if the Vin card erupts and the revolution is successful the player with the most disgrace (i.e. the lowest amount of victory points) wins.  However, even this “interesting aspect” doesn’t rescue the game from the pile of ‘meh’, if anything it draws attention to what this game could have been.

It could have been balanced upon a razor’s edge, it could have been shady deals and treachery.  It could have been blind panic as a major problem escalates further and further while pandemonium runs riot across the board as you desperately try and put out the biggest fires first.  It could have been suspicion and intrigue, of hidden plays and sudden twists and flips, telling an engaging story each time you play it.  Now, the rules are very light and actively encourage players to make more of this game, and to some degree that is what happens, this game lives or dies on the players around the board and their interaction.  But if that fails to really click then this game will, despite all your hopes and expectations, fall utterly flat.

Mistborn: House War Review

On a side note: The quick start rule sheet is brilliant and aids getting into the game very quickly.  It’s so good in fact it sort of makes the actual rulebook itself almost useless.  

Ultimately, my issues with the game all stem from the balance or the lack of it.  The House cards which each player has and dictates the resources they collect each turn are quite drastically uneven, with House Venture being top of the pile and all the others being significantly less.  This makes sense thematically, but since this is seemingly the only time theme weighs in on a mechanical decision it adds to the disappointment.  

Mistborn: House War Review

On the other hand, in some areas of the games there is so much "balance" the playing field is so even it presents no dynamism, no drama, no tension.  In other areas of the game, there is so little balancing the game is frustrating and boring as you take the same actions by rote each turn.   Case in point being the Personality.  These cards are used to aid or hinder negotiations and should add twists and surprises, yet they are very repetitive and most of the time of little consequence.  More often than not I found myself with a hand of near useless cards - or cards that would only be useful in specific situations.  The Problem cards, the cards that should drive the drama and the story of the game have a similar flaw, in that they are all too alike, with the exception of a few colourful “character” cards these Problems are more representative of a tirade of strongly worded letters than a dangerous insurgency.

Perchance I’m being overdramatic. Mistborn isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t a great one, or even a good game either.  It sits squarely in the unimpressive middle of games that have just been made with an attention-grabbing theme.  With the right group of people around the table, it can have interesting moments, but those are generated by the people playing it, not the game itself.  If like me, you want games to provide more than just the context for fun, if you want a game that will engage you and your mates then Mistborn probably isn't for you.

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