We crawl deeper and deeper through the tight corridors of the cave. Already after the first branches we discovered one of the smaller worms, but our goal is deeper. Those who want to impress the royal monstrological society have to have at least a cave troll. The corridors get narrower until we squeeze through a narrow gap and finally stand in a bigger cave with stalactites. A group of cave trolls blinks frightened at the brightness of our lamps. But this does not last long. Almost instantly two large males come towards us roaring. Was it worth it to impress the society at the Carnival of Monsters?
Once upon a time there was a card game that wanted to be especially beautiful. It had a big sister, who was praised by everyone for her beauty, and so the card game decided to have its clothes made by the same tailor, so that it would be as beautiful as its sister.
This or something similar could be the story of Carnival of Monsters. Amigo Spiele had the idea that you could hire the same illustrators for the illustrations of the cards as for the always very nice looking illustrations of the Magic the Gathering TCG. After all, both games have the same author, Richard Garfield. Unfortunately these illustrators are not exactly a bargain, because many of them are very successful artists from different fields. So Amigo thought that they could try a Kickstarter campaign and get the money for the illustrators together. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out, because as everybody knows by now, the visuals are what counts on Kickstarter and with naked cards and pure mechanics there was just not enough money to realize the project.
Happy End in Monsterland
Nevertheless Carnival of Monsters is now on the market. Not because the highly acclaimed magic illustrators were financed out of their own pockets. No, they have taken into consideration that there are also some excellent illustrators in the German board game scene and have engaged them. Therefore you can now admire illustrations by Michael Menzel, Dennis Lohausen, Oliver Schlemmer, Loic Billiau, Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan and Franz Vohwinkel on the cards of Carnival of Monsters. One illustrator was responsible for each landscape and its monsters. Despite their own style, however, this collaboration has resulted in a visually harmonious interplay.
Monster hunters also have money problems
In the game you slip into the role of a monster hunter, who competes with the other players at the table for admission to the Royal Monstrological Society. Places are limited, so you will travel to faraway lands to capture the most dangerous creatures and display them in your menagerie. At its core, this is a draft game, where you pick one card at a time and pass the rest on to the next player. In each of the four seasons, you will draw 8 cards together, with the last card simply being dealt to you. This is very important, because you must either play each card for free or store it with you, which will cost you a crown. Since you have no regular income, money is quite rare. It can happen that the last card you receive from your fellow players is one that you can’t do anything with. But then you still have to store it with you and pay for it. If you don’t have any money, you have to take out a loan for 3 crowns, which counts as 5 minus points at the end of the game. You also keep the credit and cannot pay it back.
Travelling to distant countries – that sounds familiar
But actually you want to play cards and ideally monster cards. To be able to do that, you need the appropriate country cards first. Similar to Magic the Gathering, you will need these to pay for the monster cards with country points (not mana). To make sure you are not completely lost, you will be given a few starting countries at the beginning of the game. The monster cards tell you how many land points you need to spend in a particular area to be able to play them. For example, land maps are cloud land, forest or caves. More lands of one type allow you to play more or more dangerous monster cards from these areas in one turn. Playing a land card is free of charge. However, distant lands require that you have a certain number of land points of the same type in front of you. If you spend land points on monster cards, flip the country cards to the side. They will not be available again until next season.
What the King wants and what fortune gives you
Apropos season: At the beginning of each of the four seasons, a season card is always revealed, which determines which monster types the king prefers during this season. For example, there’s money for the first monster from the cloud land that each player plays. At the end of the season, the player who earns the most monster points of the corresponding type also gets the season card and thus additional victory points. That sounds pretty good, because you have a specific goal for each season. In practice, however, it is one of the biggest criticisms of Carnival of Monsters. It’s very random what land cards a player has, what monster cards are in circulation in a round, and what season card is on display. Especially in the first round, where everyone is randomly assigned starting lands, often nobody can meet the conditions and play a monster at all. At the other extreme, a player may have a real advantage if he or she randomly has a matching land and can play a matching monster card for the season card of the first drafting round. The two crowns can be crucial to avoid having to take out a loan or hire a valuable employee.
Draft, draft, draft and more draft
Specifically, a drafting round is when you select a card, pass the other cards, and then either turn your card over or save it and pay for it. In addition to land cards, there are also monsters. But there are also the already mentioned employees who offer a permanent advantage, but want to be paid for it when they play. Then there are cards with one-time advantages and secret goal cards that count for the final score. These secret goal cards cannot be played out, but you must save them, which means that they will definitely cost you a crown.
Large card piles for large monsters
The pile of cards is really impressive tall and in one game you don’t even get to see all cards. This also means that it depends on chance which cards are present in a game. Sometimes you have only lands and few monsters and in the next game it’s the other way around. Sometimes everything fits into each other like a well-oiled clockwork and you run away from the others, sometimes you are completely cut off or you compete head-to-head for the most dangerous monsters. Some are so dangerous that you need cage symbols to keep them safe at the end of a season. First of all, the hunters of society will help you with this. This is again done randomly by rolling three dice, and the potential cage symbols are then shared by all players. More often than not, however, these dice will show a yawning emptiness. The wise monster hunter therefore either takes care with suitable markers on cards if he can, or in the ideal case he even has a competent staff member to ensure safety. If you don’t have enough cages for your dangerous monsters, you (of course) have to pay money again.
Is it just pretty or is it fun, too?
Who would have thought that monster hunting has so much to do with luck and so little to do with planning and skill? Besides the many beautifully illustrated maps and the otherwise very nice game material, Canival of Monsters also convinced us in a playful way. Of course there are those rounds in which nothing fits together. But there are also the rounds in which you save a really fat monster and then manage to get the matching countries together and the feeling when everything fits together is just great.
A little less luck and more tactics also come up in the two-player version. Here, in the drafting, each time a card is discarded and a new card is drawn, which is added. Here you have to be very careful which cards you pass on to your opponent and you can destroy cards that are important for him. This is also a lot of fun and reduces the luck factor a bit. But it doesn’t eliminate it completely.
We’ve had a lot of fun with Carnival of Monsters, both in pairs and with more players. But you shouldn’t expect to find anything in the direction of Magic the Gathering or Keyforge. Carnival of Monsters is a well-done drafting title, which is visually and playfully convincing and provides for many an exciting round of fun, trouble and entertaining entertainment.