18th Aug2017

‘Lobotomy’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Lobotomy-box

Have you ever wanted to recreate your favourite B-Movie horror movie in board game form? If such a game existed, wouldn’t you just love it to be packed with miniatures, randomised scenarios, huge stacks of cards and a deep and complex rules structure? With Lobotomy, Titan Forge Games may have released just such a game, however whilst it offers huge variation and potential, it is also incredibly daunting.

First of all, I’ll try to explain what Lobotomy is all about, because although you would be forgiven for thinking it is a bog-standard miniatures game at face value, it is actually much more complex than that. It feels to me like a miniatures based role-playing game, and the map variation, fairly scant scenario detail and complex, interlocking rules leave it heavily open to house rules and interpretation. It is certainly either a very heavy miniatures game, or a structured, moderately complex role-player.

In Lobotomy, between one and five players take control of one (or more) patients at the Melville City Psychiatric Hospital and draw an opening Scenario Card from a large and varied deck. No individual player controls the in-game enemies, and they are instead controlled by some basic and easy to follow hunt and kill mechanics, with a few variations for named Elite, Boss and Mini-Boss characters.

The game length and difficulty can easily be varied by agreeing to play through more than one Scenario Card, with one being the easiest, and four being the hardest. Each Scenario Card advises players what the trigger for drawing the next Scenario Card will be, and it is possible to have two or even three Scenarios running at the same time (although it becomes increasingly hard to manage.) My recommendation for your first game is most definitely one Scenario Card, and I wouldn’t go above two until you are playing with a team of slick, experienced Lobotomy veterans.

Setup in Lobotomy is undoubtedly among the most complex and time-consuming that I’ve ever come across, and it verges on frustrating even for an experienced gamer. If you plan to setup an amazing fright-fest for your non-gamer friends, you should most certainly do so before they come around to your house. The first game I played took almost two hours to prepare, and by the end I had more or less lost the interest of my gaming companions. Since that first game, setup has been notably quicker, and natural board game players can assist in many ways by placing doors and chests, or randomising the starting monsters and memory tokens, assuming that their is a lead player who can orchestrate who is doing what.

Arguably, although it is time consuming, the board and setup aspects (including randomisation) are one of the best things about Lobotomy, so I’ll dwell on it for a moment. The game comes with a couple of central tiles that reflect the institute’s solitary confinement wing. Each corner of this tile has a letter (A-D) and then four more boards (either chosen by players, randomised somehow, or directed by a Scenario Card) are placed against each corner. The boards are all cut to perfect standards and fit together extremely well. Because of the number of boards, their dual sided construction and the random nature of their placement, you’re unlikely to ever see the same board configuration twice, which is fantastic.

On each board, you’ll then place door, cabinet/locker and body tokens, along with an opening salvo of monsters and memory markers, and then you’ll place any additional content as directed by the Scenario Card. This process is fiddly and annoying, as it is achieved through identifying highlighted spots on the board and placing randomly shuffled furniture items. It can be hard to spot where bodies should be placed, although as long as there is one per quarter it’s not a huge problem.

You’ll also need to setup characters, which is incredibly slow if you need to bring several players up to speed, but quite quick if you can leave it to the rest of the team to sort themselves out. In summary, each player takes a character card, a miniature, a couple of character specific starting abilities (drawn from a deck of four, the other two of which can be unlocked in the game.)

Each character also draws one card for each of his or her listed mental disorders from the relevant disorder deck (for example aggression has its own deck, as does schizophrenia) and then discards down to one which is added to the others. Each character also has a randomised memory deck of ten cards, which includes five specific character memories, and give generic ones – these are placed face down and remain unseen until a memory token is activated on the board.

I would be willing to bet myself £50 (which I’ll spend on cakes) that I’ve missed some elements of setup here, but that’s kind of the point; setup in Lobotomy is ridiculously time consuming and very complex for anyone who doesn’t plan to play regularly, or who doesn’t play games of this kind in general. Actually, I just remembered – each character has some equipment too, so there you go.

Once you get going, things get harder before they get easier, but the main thing with Lobotomy is that you have to stick with it through first two or three games before all the setup and in-game systems begin to click, and you’ve established which rules you want to use and which you want to adapt or change. As a fifteen year old, I suspect I would have loved this game, it could have literally been the best game I ever played, but nowadays I have less patience, and I have to coach myself through this kind of thing.

Gameplay begins with the player who is the craziest. To determine this, I actually use the imagination score of the characters in the game (which possibly demonstrates my own lack of imagination) and proceeds clockwise as in any other game. Each character has a number of action points (usually three, and sometimes two or four) which represent moving a space, making an attack, using an ability, searching something, picking up a memory marker or similar, context sensitive actions.

This is probably as straightforward as Lobotomy gets, because everyone understands their action point score at the outset, and can simply spend it doing things that seem obvious – i.e., even a novice gamer can visually map out their turn pretty quickly. Some abilities (like the unique skill of the man-mountain Arnie Connors) allow extra actions to be taken, as do certain pharmaceuticals found in the game.

The active Scenario Card(s) will dictate to players what they need to do, and as the game is wholly cooperative, discussion about what to do next is absolutely encouraged. Will you split up, pair up, or work as a complete team? It’s entirely up to you, but what I will say about Lobotomy, is that even on the easiest difficulty configuration, it can be bastard hard at times. Why is that, you ask? Well let me tell you.

Once all player characters have moved, one player draws a Movement Card (which relates specifically to monsters and driving the scenario.) Each movement card does several things (with some being better or worse for the players than others) such as follow an event described on the card, spawn an Elite Monster, move The Warden (which I’ll get to in a couple of paragraphs) or spawn a memory marker.

Players then move each monster towards the closest player following the shortest route (with the rules pretty open to how this is determined) unless a Scenario Card specifically mandates some different behaviour. After all these other things are resolved, players then randomly spawn some standard monsters as directed by the last section of the Movement Card. I’ll talk briefly about randomisation here, as I’ve mentioned it before and it is a cool mechanic. Basically, players roll a D4 and a D12 and, for example, a result of 2 (on the D4) and 8 (on the D12) would randomise a monster or token on space B8 (where 2 = B.) This can often mean monsters appear in the worst possible place, or nowhere near the players at all.

Going back to The Warden for a moment, this is the first reason why Lobotomy is so tough, acting as both countdown timer and possible ultra-hard end boss. Depending on how many Scenario Cards are being played, The Warden moves along a predetermined path from space A1 to space A12 (in a single Scenario game) or from space A1 to space B12 in a two Scenario game (and so on.) Should he ever occupy the same space as a character, he unleashes a powerful attack, but otherwise continues along his route.

It is not uncommon for Scenarios to direct players towards an objective in the same area as The Warden, so be aware! In the event that The Warden reaches his final space, then he teleports immediately to the central square of the board, becomes a brutally hard Boss, and begins hunting and slaughtering players with ease. I’ve setup pure “Boss fight” encounters with him with various mixes of characters, each with full health and skills, and I’ve never been able to defeat him, although with lucky rolls I guess it is mathematically possible.

Whilst this is the basic structure of the game, there are an absolute myriad of checks and dice rolls that happen when players take an action, and it is in these that I feel the game could use some streamlining. A part of this problem is that whilst most checks make sense, they are all subtly different. Searches, for example, make players roll dice equal to their imagination stat, then for each roll of 4-6, a success is counted.

These successes can then be spent to buy items up to that value as indicated on the back of the searched object. Some objects might show a cost of one for Equipment, four for Pharmaceuticals and two for Weapons, for example. Assuming a player rolled five successes, he or she could then take a Pharmaceutical and an Equipment card and add them to that characters inventory. Another check is opening doors, which works slightly differently, and another is the insanity test, which is different again.

Attacking also involves rolling dice and is quite simple, with the number of dice rolled equivalent to the strength of the weapon used, and the successes counted as those dice that roll higher than the character attack value. Each character and monster has a defence value, and a defence of one would remove the first success, whilst any others would become wounds. Mercifully, attacking and defending is handled identically between monsters and player characters, so it quickly becomes second nature.

There are still perhaps a million others things to consider in Lobotomy, but controversially, I’m not going to cover them all here as there is just too much detail to go into. This is a game with a 75 page manual (including about ten pages of scenario detail) and covering it all here simply wouldn’t be practical or interesting. What I will say is that players also have an insanity gauge to worry about, weapons can break, every skill has a cooldown and some monsters have various attacks that are randomised by a D6. There are attacks of various kinds including fire, stun, ice and knockdown, each of which has a different effect. There is literally tons and tons of detail, and lots and lots of different things can happen in Lobotomy, as a result. Many of these possible interactions are interesting, complex and powerful, but for an inexperienced gamer, or anyone who hasn’t memorised every system, they can overwhelm.

I found the game worked best with a number of house rules to simplify the less “thematic” actions and arguably, lower the difficulty, as whether The Warden is in play or not, Lobotomy is still quite tough to beat. My changes included simplified searching, easier to open doors and my own interpretation of how insanity is handled, as even the much improved (compared to the Kickstarter version) manual that my game came with was a bit unclear about gaining/losing/using sanity.

As a toolkit for creating very interesting, very challenging and quite long lasting scenarios, I really enjoyed Lobotomy. There are tons of miniatures that represent just about every horror trope going, from the Antichrist himself to Lesbian Vampires and almost everything in between, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such variety among scenarios and board components. Lobotomy is an incredibly generous game in this regard, providing players with all of the pieces needed to recreate almost any scenario from their darkest nightmares.

Lobotomy also plays extremely well once you get going, and whilst there are too many dice rolls with too much variation/complexity among them, they do all begin to make sense by the end, and it’s easy to see why the designers created them in the way that they did. That said, for my group, I did need to use house rules and interpretations to streamline things, but the need to do so was nowhere near as great as I thought it was going to be when I first began to flick through that huge manual.

The game itself is a fairly harrowing, but broadly enjoyable experience. The player characters are complex to make the best of, and interesting to play, with lots of abilities and upgrade potential that mean a two or three hour long game of Lobotomy is unlikely to become boring or samey. Enemies spawn quickly, and whilst the rank and file Scavenger and Mental Patient figures are quite weak, Nurses, Slashers and other Elite Monsters soon begin to make things difficult. Combat is satisfying and impactful, but flight is often the best option, and planning your route through the asylum whilst maintaining focus on the objective is great fun, especially when enemies are bearing down from all sides, and The Warden is nearing the end of his patrol.

Can I recommend Lobotomy to absolutely everyone? Certainly not. It is a much more complex, harder to understand (and harder to succeed at) game than most people will want to put up with, whether they are existing board gamers or not. I would make an exception here for a group of friends who love the kind of horror movies that I’ve been describing, and who might be able to learn the game together over multiple plays and multiple evenings together. Experienced players of complex miniatures games and RPG’s will certainly get some mileage out of Lobotomy, and there really is tons in the box to support a flexible style of play, even excluding any of the inevitable add-on content. In fact, there is already an expansion called From the Deep. If you (or the majority of your friends) are casual board gamers that like the look of Lobotomy, then you may wish to consider starting with a lighter miniatures game like Zombicide, for example. As a result of this mixed appeal, I give Lobotomy:

***½  3.5/5

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