In any group of friends, there will undoubtedly be people with wildly different tastes when it comes to the settings they enjoy. Some will be obsessed with superheroes, others will prefer fantasy, others still will be fans of noir, and there may even be a few horror-heads that always insist on playing “Betrayal at House on the Hill”, much to their friends’ disdain (I should know, I am one of them after all). As such, finding a game that fits all of their tastes at once is practically impossible. How could it not be? It’s not feasible to fit all those vastly different settings in a single game… Right?
Well, “Comanauts” is an ambitious board game by Jerry Hawthorne that attempts to do exactly that. Depending on the luck of the draw, players may find themselves exploring an abandoned amusement park, stopping a Wild West execution, saving the life of a songstress from a noir bar or hacking their way into a cyberpunk corporation. How is this possible, and more importantly, does it work at all?
Overview and Rules
“Comanauts” is an RPG for up to 4 players which tasks them with delving into the mind of a comatose scientist. The scientist in question, Dr. Martin Strobal, attempted to create a new energy source, only to be sent into a deep coma by his own creation. As his energy source threatens to turn into a singularity and obliterate the entire planet, it falls to a team of Comanauts to delve into his subconscious and find a way to wake him up so that he can save the world.
Martin’s subconscious is separated into eleven different Comazones, each drastically different from the rest and inspired by a different aspect of his personality and past. You may visit his childhood home to fight his bullies, or a sci-fi utopia inspired by his greatest scientific dreams and accomplishments, or a black and white noir town that symbolizes the regrets of his young adulthood. Each of these zones is haunted by an entity known as the ID (Inner Demon), the primal, negative aspects of Martin’s personality that oppress his subconscious. One of them is the Prime ID and the reason why Martin is unable to wake up from his coma. The goal of the players is to go through the 5 comazones available to them in each playthrough, defeat the ID in them and try to identify where the Prime ID is hiding thanks to clues gathered in the other zones. Once the Prime ID is down, the game has been won.
Mechanics-wise, the game makes use of dice for almost every action that you can perform. At the beginning of each turn, every player gets to reach into a black bag and retrieve 5 different dice of various colors. Some dice don’t even need to be rolled, as discarding them is enough to permit you to perform an action – for example, discarding any die will let you explore any adjacent zone. Others, such as the red and green dice, will be used for attacks (red for melee, green for ranged), and the player will need to roll to see if their result, combined with their characters’ attributes, will be enough to break through the enemy’s defense. Black dice will be rolled for enemies, with the result determining whether they move, attack or both. Meanwhile, the unique, translucent-blue die will place an entity called the Inner Child somewhere on the map – tracking it down and fulfilling its request successfully will give you clues towards the location of the Prime ID.
The Adventure Book
Bundled with the game is what it refers to as the Adventure Book – a nearly 100 page, fully colored tome that will serve as both your narrator and the game board. All of the various comazones are described and illustrated within that Adventure Book, meaning that once you know where you’re starting (or where you’re going), all you need to do is go to the respective page.
On the left-hand page is the board, a top-down view of a particular area within that comazone divided into 4-8 different spaces. All player avatars will go in their respective starting space, with enemies and items placed in the others as instructed. The right-hand page is similar to the “gamebooks” of old, filled with text described in various paragraphs, each bearing a different number. Those numbers correspond to spaces on the left-hand page, and when a character decides to explore there, they trigger a different effect. They may obtain an item, summon enemies, encounter an important NPC, or find their way to a different page. Every single comazone in the game has several different routes through it depending on the players’ choices and whether they succeed or fail at certain actions. This ensures that replaying the same comazone isn’t as monotone as it would have otherwise been.
Of course, replays are inevitable – especially if you’re going after the true ending. There are eleven different endings depending on which ID was the Prime one in your playthrough, and six more depending on which playthrough this is in a row. Since you can’t get the same two Prime IDs in a single campaign, this guarantees that you’ll get two new endings every time you play… But it also means that you need six playthroughs if you want to actually “beat” the game and wake Martin up from his coma. Which, admittedly, can be kind of a bummer, even if it gives a good incentive to keep playing.
The players won’t be just playing as themselves when they enter Dr. Strobal’s head, of course – instead, they’ll take on the roles of different constructs from his imagination. There are over 20 of these constructs available in the game (known as “avatars”), each of which coming from a different comazone and possessing his or her own skills. Carl Gantry is a smooth-talking detective from the Noir zone who can talk his way out of trouble by rolling all-black dice and discarding all 1s and 2s without activating them. Oh is the name of Martin’s teddy bear from his childhood, and as such can automatically pass any test of the Inner Child without having to roll any dice. Evimira is an elf from the fantasy-based Hatespire who can heal any avatars in the same space as her.
But, just as the movie “Inception” showed us, the constructs that inhabit each comazone will grow suspicious of characters that don’t belong – which means that most characters will have at least a few zones where they’ll stand out like a sore thumb. Evimira would stand out almost anywhere, as an elf would raise eyebrows regardless of where you are, while Perkins, a chef from the urban-based New Metro City, can blend in just fine because, well, there are chefs everywhere. Characters who are suspicious may trigger additional negative events or make dice rolls more difficult, which makes them stay on their toes.
At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt two avatar cards face-down and then gets to pick their “primary” avatar from the remainder. That is because, when an avatar dies, it’s gone for good. Each avatar has three health points to help withstand enemy attacks, and once they’re all gone, so is the avatar, and there’s no way to get them back for the rest of the game. As such, when your primary avatar is gone, you have two more randomly assigned to you to fall back on. Watch out, though – if even just one player runs out of avatars, the game is over for everyone! This is only one of two ways to lose the game, the other being triggering too many “stress” events in the narrative and causing Martin to flatline.
The Big Problems
“Comanauts” is a big game – perhaps a little too big for its own good. The box claims that one playthrough should take between 1 and 2 hours, but our own playthroughs usually last between 3 and 4, meaning that, if we were to play Comanauts, we would need to dedicate almost an entire day just for one playthrough. Even if the game limits you to only five zones per playthrough (out of the total 11), exploring each one thoroughly as you search through them for items and clues just takes far too long. Perhaps the developers have intended players to only play through two, maybe three of the five zones before encountering the Prime ID, but that won’t always happen. Some players enjoy exploration and seeing every nook and cranny, especially as all zones have multiple areas and several routes to their respective IDs. Other players might be challenged by the clues provided, or just have terrible luck, and may not be able to find the Prime ID until their 5th comazone.
The other problem is that the game is just a bit more complex than it perhaps should have been. It almost feels like it was intended to be a tabletop RPG before being converted into a board game at the last minute, there are just so many rules, mechanics and elements to keep track of. While it certainly feels like there were attempts to streamline and simplify the systems as much as humanly possible without compromising on their depth, perhaps it should’ve been just a little bit simpler. Maybe instead of dice of several different colors, the game should’ve only had “player dice” and “enemy dice” (alongside the translucent die for the Inner Child), thus giving players few rules and restrictions on what they can do on their turn. Or perhaps some elements, such as items or non-enemy NPCs, should have been cut or reworked to be a bit simpler. It’s difficult to offer a clear-cut solution while being just a player enjoying the finished product, but as it is, the game is certainly not suitable for players who aren’t very experienced with RPGs. What I said earlier about it being a game that can appeal to everyone is still true… Provided that everyone is familiar with tabletop games, or at least more complex board games.
Reactions to “Comanauts” in my player group were mixed. Some, such as myself, recognized its flaws, but still adored every second with it and we’re eager to play more of this truly unique and creative game. Others got bored halfway through and swore off the game entirely, opting to never play it again and instead settle for shorter, simpler games (or at least ones with rules that are simpler to grasp). And honestly, it’s hard not to see validity in both reactions. While I’m happy to recommend “Comanauts” to anyone interested in board game/RPG hybrids for its truly fantastic setting, its high price and long playtime signify that you should probably try it at someone else’s expense before deciding to commit to owning your own copy.
OUR RATING: PLAY AT A FRIEND’S HOUSE
(Possible ratings: Buy it to Own, Play at a Friend’s House, Ignore it Forever, Burn it on Sight)
- Outstanding and extremely creative setting
- Highly story-driven while also playing differently every time
- Lots and lots of elements and characters, and a stunningly beautiful adventure book
- Provides dozens of hours of entertainment on the route to the true ending
- Play sessions just take way too long, especially if it’s your first time
- Mechanics are just a bit too complicated and numerous to easily keep track of
I am a professional copywriter and editor for big iGaming companies. Board games are a big passion of mine! I love playing board games with friends, testing and reviewing new ones.