The most grave sin a game can commit is to inspire boredom. Don’t Turn Your Back is anything but boring. Its art is dark and evocative and the blend of mechanisms is enticing. It’s a game that meets your imagination half-way and beckons you to play. I never would have imagined a worker placement/area control/deck builder could be so damn smooth.
Evil Hat Productions is a passionate RPG company known for the spectacular indie-style storytelling games Spirit Of The Century and Don’t Rest Your Head. The pulpy Spirit Of The Century setting was already featured in Evil Hat’s first board game production Race to Adventure, a family weight action selection game that was solid and boasted strong components. I was genuinely surprised that a newcomer to this industry could release such a standup product on their first shot.
Don’t Rest Your Head is a fascinating RPG that features protagonists suffering from insomnia and bridging their nightmares to the Mad City, where they use their Tyler Durden manifested powers to avoid the horror and reap the reward. It’s absolutely worth your time and features an intense and mysterious setting that is quite engaging. Don’t Turn Your Back makes ample use of this background by thrusting the players into the City Slumbering and utilizing a mixture of stellar mechanisms to pull off another win.
Similar to its forefather, this game features players who have entered the dark realm that will take advantage of their newfound power to extract favors from nightmares. The goal is to appease the Wax King and have him grant your true desire. It’s an interesting twist turning the similar story thread from the roleplaying game into a competitive worker placement affair but it works and it pulls off a similar air of creepy and mysterious.
Beautiful illustrations adorn each card.
Initially the mashup of mechanisms sound clunky but the gameplay is silk. Each player starts with a standard deck of cards which are drawn into the hand and placed on the board as workers. You can place these nightmares into the City Slumbering to add more cards to your deck, the High School to gain Candles (victory points), the Bizarre Bazaar to trigger special action text, or District 13 to interact with a random law that is drawn every turn. The options seem dizzying at first and the fact that cards function differently when deployed to certain areas adds for a tremendous amount of depth and choice.
This wall of options is quickly scaled due to the sheer clever graphic design coupled with elegant procedures. It reminds me of the fantastic strategy game Eclipse in that much of the rules and procedures are given clever nods on the components and everything is very clear. You don’t spend time or effort deciphering how you do something, rather mental energy is focused on strategy and why you should do it.
Most every area trigger effects based on the number of cards at the location (among limited worker placement style spaces) or the Pain value found on each card, which is the primary stat. What makes things very interesting is that while each card has multiple uses, they may only be deployed to certain locations. This is a valuation nuance which adds another layer of depth as you may not want to play a specific card to the Bizarre Bazaar for its text effect if it’s the only card in your hand that can hit up District 13. Turns are very dynamic in this way and teeter on the edge of this excellent mix of choice and destiny.
The game takes place over a number of rounds and, like most deck builders, the pace of your engine building is integral to your success. Candles are scored on a separate board and you do not buy victory point cards exactly as in Dominion. There is still that element of “when should I cutover to start grabbing at victory rather than simply improving my engine.” It comes via the Wax Kingdom.
This is the final area of the board and it’s the most intriguing aspect of this game. When players toss cards into the Wax Kingdom they are added to a combined deck that players are not allowed to look through. Much like the Castillo in El Grande, it’s difficult to determine who has the majority of cards and where each player lines up in pecking order. Additionally cards entering the Wax Kingdom permanently leave your deck so it serves as a way to trash the chaff and manipulate your deck tempo.
When the game ends player score a large amount of additional Candles determined by their deck in combination with their place in the Wax Kingdom. The person with the most cards in the Kingdom earns an additional Candle for each point of cost on their cards. Second place earns Candles based on Pain values, third on the total number of cards, etc. The values tend to cascade down with first place earning a larger amount than second which earns more than third and so on. What is so brilliant is that cards placed into this stack do not score you points, so you’re constantly gunning for first in the Wax Kingdom but by sacking the least amount of cards possible so your deck remains healthy. This sounds great, right? Well it plays even better.
The second area that offers maximum interest is District 13. This area features a very limited number of spaces to place Nightmares so it’s always tightly contested. The specific function of the area is completely up in the air and shifts each round according to this slick Law deck. Some rounds the player who has the most Pain in District 13 will score a set amount while anyone in second place will lose Candles. Other times any player who doesn’t place into a space here loses points. Occasionally the more people that place the more the leader in District 13 will score. Each round is unpredictable and the flow and feel is constantly shifting with a great deal of drama. Love it.
Don’t Turn Your Back is a very good game that approaches the horizon of brilliance but falls just one step short. What’s holding this game back from fields of grandeur is the fact that it is highly symmetrical and the decks themselves can get repetitive. There is this neat little mechanism in that each player has their own row of cards they can purchase from to add to their deck, but the rows are seeded from player decks that have identical pools. So I may grab the awesome Taxi card but chances are you’ll see it pop out as well and may pick it up.
The final card pools do end up diverse, but you will see other players evoking similar strategies to yourself. Dominion has this quality as well but the thing about Dominion is that each play features a different set of Kingdom cards, inspiring great variety. This highlights that Don’t Turn Your Back’s variety in a single play isn’t the issue, it’s the long term replayability. This doesn’t severely harm the game or bring down its overall quality, it’s just an element of the design that spells a small missed opportunity. While it would have been hell to playtest and balance, each character possessing a unique starting deck and unique upgrades would have catapulted this game into my top 30 or so designs. It has that much potential and would have given the strategy space a huge amount of area to explore.
Don’t Turn Your Back may not have a strong enough replay factor to put it in the upper echelon of its peers, but it’s a damn good game. This is the type of design that is well honed and developed, features excellent production values, yet it will be fighting an uphill battle for recognition. It deserves to be played and it deserves accolades for its fresh sense of gameplay treading new ground with a blend of existing mechanisms. It’s a game that I may not play every week, but I’d bet cold hard cash I’ll still be playing semi-regularly in a couple of years.
This review was originally written for 2d6.org. To view other reviews written by Charlie Theel check out this Geeklist.