Mad Monks and Relics

Designed by Randy Moorehead.
Published by Simulations Workshop.
Reviewed by Mike Siggins.

$16 + p&p
3 to 5 players
120+ minutes

After the continued success of Ironman Football, it was with great expectations that four of us sat down to play Mad Monks and Relics from the same company. The game concerns the search for the Holy Grail and lesser relics in 13th century Europe, a theme of huge interest to me for the simple reason I've been interested in relics and icons for ages. Something to do with Indiana Jones, John Peel and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but that's a long story. The players take the role of mad monks and scholars scouring the continent for clues as to the relics' locations. The winner of the game will be the monk who gains the most victory points, gained from gold and finding those elusive relics. The game is a good one, if rather long but it has a number of original systems, and is well worth playing. Being a gamekit it is also good value for money and is also notable for being the first game, to my knowledge, to feature a foreskin card.

Just like Ironman, MM&R features hundreds of cards, full of flavoursome events, characters and period colour. There are names like Richard of Wallingford, Dietrich of Freiburg, Dalimar of Bohemia and Ibn Manzur.You will encounter plagues, accusations of heresy, forged relics, carnivals and bandits. The Templars will be suppressed, Islam will spread its influence and pirates will have their wicked way with passing ships. All good stuff, nothing particularly historical or deep, just a damn good range of varied events. This is useful because aside from atmosphere and a modicum of decision making, the game runs, more or less, on the interaction generated by playing cards on other players. And you all know how they play....

The map is large and depicts the area from Ireland in the North West to Cairo in the South East. Every major city is there, linked by lines to show the main movement routes. Your mad monk can travel by foot, or horse if he is feeling rich, and by boat if he has knocked over the local Nat West Bank - money remains tight all game, with a constant trade off between moving quickly or saving gold. Predictably, storms at sea will become the bane of your life, as they do in all HTT (Hah! Take That!) card systems. But wherever you go, it will take a long time to get there. Interestingly, the British Isles remain remote both in feel and distance, simply by virtue of the channel crossing. Strange how many games manage to capture this phenomena. The players start in their home city and spend the rest of the game pottering around, pursuing leads, delivering icons for sale or as gifts to grateful churches. Additionally, players may arrange to meet up somewhere on the map to exchange information which adds a much needed touch of interaction. Almost inevitably during the game, owing to a decline in piety levels the world over, your monk will get burned at the stake (fortunately you are allowed two lives) or, worse, be sent on a pilgrimage. This will take you off across the board on some wild goose chase and will also take you out of the game for up to half an hour. Flavoursome, but a bummer.

There is however a saving grace in the game, and this is what holds it together for me. Partly because it works the first time well enough, but mainly because it has enough oomph to make you want to improve it and steal it for use elsewhere. The jewel in the crown is the knowledge system, which is used to determine where the relics can be found. Having acquired the right event cards, the mad monks can collect knowledge cards. Each card represents a clue, research or fragment from a history book on relics. These include such famous volumes as Vulgates, Joseph d'Arimathie, Historia Britanniae, Merlin, Le haut livre du Graal, Peredur ab evrawc and Chretien de Troyes' Bumper Book of The Grail. Each 'book' is made up of five cards and the more cards you have the greater the chance of finding the relic. The location however is only listed on a couple of the cards, so you'll often need to find, or trade for, several of the same set. Medieval collectible card games? Once you have the location, you can trek to the relevant city and do your best to find a relic - chosen randomly. Even with a complete research file, you are far from guaranteed the find, but sometimes, when the dice are smiling, you will unearth The Burned Bush of Moses, the Bread of Judas, The Shroud, Thomas a Becket's Hair, the Lance of Longines or, on a 1 in 20ish chance, The Big Enchilada. Game over; high fives all round.

The intriguing angle is that the knowledge system could have been superb, indeed almost a game in itself. More appeal here could have diverted one's attention from the more pedestrian aspects of play and really put you on the edge of your seat. Let's say that each card gave you one of nothing, a lead to another book, an actual extract from a book (a la Consulting Detective), a partial clue (perhaps a symbol - three symbols gives you a location) or a completely different lead - go to Adrianople to collect a map etc etc. You could trade information with other players, you might get leads to specific relics, you might be given a new mission or sent after a red herring. And with enough card variety it could be played again and again. Can you see what I'm aiming for? More Indiana Jones than collecting random facts, rather more inspiring than a hand of cards. I think it could be done, and I'm thinking about an application already. Combine this with a speedier movement system and you could have a game and a half.

As it stands Monks is not a great game, but it is far from bad. It suffers somewhat because of the time required to achieve anything, which is closely linked to the plodding movement system. This in turn is slowed by the need to pay out money for horses and ships. It seems that any game that requires slow point to point movement, such as Die Hanse and similar, always seem to drag. And money just aggravates this. I also have in mind here the miniatures hobby which has been toying with, but failing to solve elegantly, the same problem. The closest they have come to a solution is the variable bound system. This effectively means the game proceeds concurrently for all participants until something happens that requires resolution. Then it all stops, players catch up to the player who has caused the halt, and it is resolved before proceeding again - event driven gaming, if you are familiar with the concept.

All very interesting Siggins, but how do you do it? Not sure exactly. At its simplest, let's say everyone is at least five moves away from their destination or any possible event. Everyone quickly moves five turns, and then each turn after that is simultaneous until one player stops. It's fiddly though, and prone to getting into a pickle, and we need something better. I am tempted to say that you can do it rather better with cards, chits and chaos, but I'll probably get shouted at. And the money should probably be ditched as well. My feeling is that the game needs to come in at the hour mark, but is currently at least twice this length. In fact, in our first game it took me best part of two hours just to find just one relic, with five found in total. Where this time goes is not difficult to analyse. Down time doesn't help, neither do pilgrimages and money transactions, but the killer is that sluggish movement. Nevertheless, it is no worse than many hundreds of games out there and if you like that sort of thing it will cause you little discomfort.

Where MM&R scores is in the overall atmosphere, the unusual theme, the flavoursome event cards and, mainly, the discovery of icons and books. The slim, but real, chance of finding the Grail keeps you trucking on through event after gruesome event. The irony being that if a rival has found enough relics, you could still lose despite finding The Big One. I agree with the sudden ending on finding the Grail (surely this would have been enough to stop the presses even then) but it could be argued that the automatic win should also follow - however, since you have as much chance of finding the Grail as you have the True Foreskin, then perhaps the logic is right. If however there were a decision mechanism to hunt for either the Grail or icons at large, then perhaps there would be more justification. And then again, perhaps there are just too many ifs in this review. Why? Because MM&R is a near miss. A close miss, and almost annoyingly so. With slightly more development, a little downsizing and an exciting and involved information system, it could be really good. As it stands the 'Take That' card play is, well, about as appealing as it always is and the book clues are something of a missed opportunity. There is too little intrigue to make them gripping pursuits and something beyond simply collecting sufficient cards would have made for a storming little sub-game. What we get is good, but nothing more, and certainly not up to the overall package offered by Ironman Football. Worth your time then, but perhaps not worth your money.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell