Overview and rules recap:
Murder of Crows is a decent little filler with more strategy than it's close relative "Gloom" but with much of the same dark humor. The aim of the game is to draw and then play cards from your hand over as many turns as needed tospell the word MURDER. However, there are some interesting twists.
First, in addition to containing one of the needed letters, each card has an "abilty" that comes into effect immediately when the card is first played to the table.
M(isplace) allows a player to steal a card from another players cards on the table and place it in his hand.
U(ncover) forces all other players to reveal their hands and the active player may then steal one of the shown cards.
R(eap) allows the active player to draw an extra card from the deck.
D(rain) allows the active player to name one card value and forces all other players to remove one such card from their table cards.
E(xpell) forces all other players to discard their entire hand and draw back up to three cards.
Another interesting mechanic is the crows printed on each card. Whenever the active player adds a new card to his display (except the R which doesn't affect other players), all of his opponents must decide whether they are able/desire to block the action affecting themselves. Thsi is done by discarding a card from the hand with the same number of crows as the card just played. Once the players have or have not blocked, the active player finishes the desired action, affecting one or more players whom have not blocked.
There is also a wild crow which can be played as any other card, mirroring that cards effect, or conversely having the unique ability of forcing an opponent to discard an entire stack from their display. Additionally, the wild crow may always be used to block an affect, and is the only card that blocks another wild crow.
The cards are standard playing card size and slightly thinner than I would prefer. Card sleeves might be warranted, except these cards only just fit in the box when not sleeved, so sleeving presents a storage issue. The art is humorous, albeit darkly so. It's done in an antique black and white cartoon format which works for this theme. Think Gloom or the Adams Family cartoons.
The rules are concise on a single sheet. There are a couple of aspects of the rules that are a bit ambiguous. First, a player may only have one wild crow in their display at a time, but through other players actions, it is possible to violate this rule through no fault of your own. This is not addressed. Also, some of the adverse effects seem to be directed at a single player only, but the rules on defensive discards seem to imply all other players must decide whether to block before the card takes effect. (Incidentally, we've tried it both ways, and the game seems to work better when you play a card, all other players decide whether to block, and only after blocking, you comlete the "attack" against the affected player or players.)
This is the primary thrust of the game. Nearly all of the cards played have the potential of screwing with one or all of your opponents. There's definitely an incentive to go on offense, especially as your opponents get closer to finishing their word. While your offensive options are sometimes limited by the cards in your hand, you almost always have something useful to do.
Balancing the "screw your neighbor" aspect against playing the cards you need to complete your MURDER is a key element of this game. Likewise, knowing when to block and when to let a negative effect through can really affect your chances of success. If you're holding a wild crow, it's often tempting to use it to block in order to save some letters you might want to play later. But, it becomes increasingly more valuable toward the end game. In addition to its blocking ability, it can be used to fill the space of that last missing letter, giving you the win. Also, when stealing a card from an opponent, do you take the card that hurts them, or do you take a card that provides you more blocking opportunities? While it's not overly deep, there is certainly enough strategy to keep it interesting.
Because of the player interaction and cutthroat nature of the game, it can be a bit chaotic, but it's less about luck than about sticking it to the other guy as often as possible while trying to eventually build your word. In a multi-player game, it's not really likely that you'll develop a long-term strategy, because in all likelihood most of the other player turns will somehow adversely affect you. That's why the decision of when to block is so critical.
This is a fun little game, with a lot of player interaction. The cards are humorous (you might bludgeon someone with a frozen turkey for example). And, the flavor text on the cards is written such that the winner's MURDER will actually tell the story of when, where, and how the killer brought about the untimely demise of the victim. Played in the right spirit, it can result in laughter and mayhem. I've heard comments like "You're killing me man ... no really, you are!" And, "That cards text really slays me." Groaners, to be sure, but definitely in the spirit of the game!
So, What's Not to Like?
Okay, the theme is not for everyone. And, if you're looking for something more that a light, slightly strategic card game, with a bit of chaos -- look elsewhere. But, for about $12.00, this is a good, lighthearted, death and mayhem game. It actually keeps everyone in it until the end, and it ends with a funny story of a grisly murder. There's enough strategy to keep it interesting, but it can be taught in about a minute.
I give this about a B+. The rules could be a bit less ambiguous and the cards could have been a bit sturdier. But the game play is solid, the theme darkly funny, and the player interaction high. Given the choice between this and Gloom, we'll play this.
... a player may only have one wild crow in their display at a time, but through other players actions, it is possible to violate this rule through no fault of your own. This is not addressed.
Meant to talk to Thomas about this at Kubla '13 but didn't get a chance. Our local rule works well for the "double exposed wild" problem. Since the rules prohibit playing a second wild into your tableau until the first is covered we also play it the other way as well. You cannot Misplace or Drain an opponents letter if it exposes a second wild. This adds another defensive play option to simple stacking and bulking up on differing crows counts.