|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Filip Neduk and Tomáš Uhlíř
A review copy of Sanctum was provided by Czech Games Edition in exchange for a fair and honest review.
It’s pretty clear what Sanctum is aiming for from the moment you pick up the box. The cover doesn’t so much remind you of Blizzard’s Diablo as it does conspicuously emulate it like a con artist trying to steal your identity. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Good artists copy. Great artists steal outright.
Open up the box and you’ll find several decks stacked full of monsters, treasures, upgradeable abilities and a well structured manual. These together promise that a world of bloodshed awaits you on your journey to the city of Sanctum where the ominous Demon Lord lies interred in a jade sarcophagus.
It’s a simple pitch – there’s no complex mythology or intricate lore here. You’re good guys and you need to slaughter your way through the bad guys to stand face to face with the grandest evil the world has ever known. You’re not going to be doing side quests or meandering around solving the domestic disputes of those that society has left behind. You’re going to be killing monsters and converting their carcasses into ever more efficient means of corporeal deconstruction. The mechanism you’ll be using for this is dice-play, but of a more interesting variety than simply ‘roll to hit, roll for damage’. Instead you accomplish your agenda through the manipulation of numbers through abilities powered by your chosen character’s limited pool of stamina and focus. Corpses turn into equipment you can buy as well as points of coloured experience you can use to advance a series of gems off of your locked abilities.
When all the gems have been moved off of one of your abilities cards, you collect it and upgrade your skillset accordingly. Those gems are also the currency from which you buy your specialist kit, and the exact gems you get to manipulate depend on the colour code of the monster you kill. Those become more fearsome, and lucrative. as you progress through the game, with bigger enemies exploding into better gear upon the sweet release of their death.
You begin the game at the start of a winding track that constantly seeds monsters into your path. Every time you move you pick up a set of horrors and add it to your board, gradually attracting your own little entourage of defered devestation that follows in your wake. Parts of Sanctum feel like a sort Studio Ghibli interpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. At a point of your choosing you turn around and start whacking your weapon into the hordes behind you, rolling your small handful of dice and manipulating them shamelessly until you set of fdistant cheating alarms in a random Vegas casino. These dice you assign to the damage slots of your foes. Any you don’t kill will deal damage, and you need to mitigate that through whatever armour you’ve acquired through the course of the game.
That’s basically it, until you reach the city of Sanctum itself at which point the game changes into something unexpectedly intense and challenging. Of all the heroes that Mrs Meeple and I have progressed to the finale, only two have actually made it through to a ‘win’ screen. Everyone else perished before the sheer avalanche of damage that was sent their way. Sanctum in that respect evokes the feeling of a good roguelike – when the challenges you face are incidental to the brutal Darwinian natural selection of the goal itself. As iron sharpens iron, so your quest to the citadel of the Demon Lord sharpens your characters. And if your iron breaks, well… all that’s left to do is bury the pieces.
That makes Sanctum, in effect, a racing game. You’re not racing each other though, at least not directly, you’re racing the clock. Advancing along the map is the only way to acquire monsters – and thus loot and experience. Every time someone does that though, they shrink the map for everyone else. When you move, you move ahead of the farthest character – there’s no cooling your heels behind the vanguard here. Every character in Sanctum is eager for the final confrontation. That’s even if their player might be more keen on playing the part of the sullen five-year following their parents on a tiresome chore in the hope of annoying them into providing a new toy. As such, the chances are high that you’ll reach the final stage without actually being confident in your ability to handle what lies waiting there. And that’s great, because any confidence you have will almost certainly be unfounded. I stress again the final stage of Sanctum is brutal.
All of these things come together in a surprisingly elegant way. I say ‘surprising’ because while a lot of CGE’s more thematic games work well it usually comes with a significant amount of complexity in the ruleset and it’s often in a way that is contrary to expectations. Last Will for example is like Brewster’s Millions expressed through a psychotic spreadsheet. Dungeon Petz looks from the box like a kooky Tamagotchi simulator but actually plays like an open book exam for a topic you haven’t studied. Sanctum though doesn’t have any of those issues – it plays really smoothly. Every turn you’re either moving, fighting, or resting. The progress of each of those phases is linear and straightforward. The decisions you take within are simple but interlinked in a way that makes everything cohere. Aside from CGE’s line of party games, I don’t think I’ve seen a game of theirs that felt so comprehensively integrated.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s say you take a step along the map to pick up the newest recruits for your murder pool. They get dealt out in sets – maybe you face a level two and a level one monster. Maybe it’s a level three. Maybe it’s two level two monsters. When you select your pairing, you need to do so with a close eye on your character. You get more dice as you go along, but the word that mostly characterises your available dice pool is insufficient. Your abilities are what lets you compensate for that but they’re often distressingly situational. Sure, let’s say you can spend a blue focus token to turn any dice to a four – great. Now, are there any fours in the monsters you want to collect?
That makes a great link between your skills, your dice, and your opportunities. But also, because Sanctum is a race, you need to think about what you’ll get from killing the foes you face. Maybe all the monsters that will happily accept a four being slipped between their ribs are also the ones that grant gems you value least in your upgrade plan. Maybe all the gear you want requires red gems and all your easy choices are blues. Or worse, and more common, maybe you need to buy red equipment but you also really need to move green gems off of your locked skills. Those easy blue kills must be evaluated in that context, and so must all the other choices. Your job is to use the scant time you have to get your skills, gear up your character, and arrive at the final confrontation with enough damage, and damage mitigation, to stand a sliver of a chance.
With that in mind, you don’t really get to make easy choices. Or rather, you get to make as many easy choices as you like provided you don’t mind staring into the face of your eventual annihilation. Sanctum punishes cowardice in a very effective way – by letting you shy away from challenge right up until the point your mettle is truly tested. When you say to yourself ‘This seems a bit easy’, it’s because you’ve confused the levelling up process with the game objectives. The easier it seems on your journey, the harder it will be at the destination.
In many respects Sanctum reminds me of Galaxy Trucker, the first CGE game we ever looked at for Meeple Like Us. In Galaxy Trucker you spend a lot of time building up a ship that shows your incompetence. In Sanctum you kill monsters and level up. In Galaxy Trucker you frantically grab ship components and try to slot them into spaces that look increasingly unsuitable with every passing second. And in both games this is an enjoyable experience that really brings out the best of the mechanisms.
In Galaxy Trucker you’d then go into what is essentially an extended scoring algorithm with very little player interactivity. What happens to your ship is in large part outside your control, and even when it’s not it’s usually outside your ability to rationalize. How well you designed your ship will determine how well you scored, but it’s largely out of your hands.
Sanctum has a similar thing, but I think executed much more effectively.
When you reach the final encounter, your board is wiped clean of possible progression and you lay out a long row of interleaving cards. Each card has requirements you need to meet with your dice, and also has a payload of damage it’ll send your way every turn. Some cards are face down and when you finally reach them they’ll reveal a horrible special ability that is designed to make your day worse. ‘Reroll all your dice’, or ‘Corrupt an ability space so you can’t use it’, and so on. Every turn at this point becomes a battle, with no opportunity to rest or recover, and it doesn’t end until you, or the demon lord, is dead. And, as with Galaxy Trucker, which outcome is most likely depends on how well you handled the first phase of play. Your journey sets a trajectory and the finale sets where it terminates.
Unlike Galaxy Trucker you are involved at every stage of the way here because in effect the scoring round is the same as the combat rounds that occurred regularly before. It’s just more difficult, with fewer opportunities to catch your breath. You will never have enough dice to progress easily through to the end. That means that every round is potentially the one that will end you because the amount of damage that comes your way is astonishingly greater in magnitude to anything you faced before. It’s like turning the wrong way in a level of Dark Souls to meet a boss that you can only realistically defeat once you’ve got twelve hours of levelling under your belt.
But still, the core skill you need to succeed is managing your stamina, your focus, and your dice rolls. Situations that seem unbeatable can sometimes reveal themselves otherwise if you just stare at the dice long enough and calculate out your modifications. The final phase of Sanctum is, like the game itself, a race – this time a race against oblivion. You will succumb to the damage if the fight lasts long enough. It’s just arithmetically inevitable. Your job is to reduce the damage as much as you can every round so that you can hopefully beat the final card with a sliver of health remaining. And if you played well to begin with, and carefully manage your dice in the final encounter, you might well just do it. But with every round, your bag of tricks gets emptier. Your run out of free abilities. You run out of the fuel to power them. You need to ration out your attacks and defences lest you find yourself dead through nothing more than exhaustion. It’s really nice.
I do have some criticisms though, because of course I do. I’m a curmudgeonly old man and I can’t let ‘it’s a lot of fun’ stand as a judgement. Let’s cycle back to the dice manipulation first.
The abilities you get are all useful and varied, and they have a tactical weight that lets your make interesting trade-offs and occasionally dramatically effective equipment loadouts. One character for example lets you ‘double tap’ abilities on a weapon wielded in your character’s right hand. Weapons themselves may emphasise focus or stamina, which means that you might well be weighing up which weapon goes in what hand on the basis of future opportunity cost. That’s awesome and intricate and exactly the kind of decision I like to see games putting before players. I would say though that those circumstances are rare, and for the most part getting what you want from your dice is straightforward once a few equipment upgrades are in your hands. If you need to hit a two, then you can hit it with anything other than a rolled six with your starting character. That is, if your abilities are available and depending on how many of them you might want to spend on a single encounter.
That by itself would be enough to make it tense and interesting, but you can rest freely even when you’re surrounded by the assorted cast of the Lost Boys, and resting lets you reset all your abilities. It’s risky from an efficiency perspective but not so risky that you won’t be doing it liberally. This permissiveness of ability use is lost in the final reckoning, but for the main journey it’s just not that difficult to take down even the toughest foes, and it’s trivial to mitigate the damage of the ones that you don’t. And the thing is, it has to be because you can’t heal damage that you take and you only get ten health to last you the entire journey. The huge difficulty differential between final encounter and every day encounter means that the rest of the game can’t really threaten your health-pool in a serious way or everything collapses.
In other words, the dice manipulation mechanics are just a scooch too simple to be as interesting a puzzle as they could be. Something Elder Signs flavoured might have been good here – something that made dice range and flexibility as important as mere numerical matching. Perhaps even something Sagrada shaped, where the theme of ‘colours matter’ carried through to the dice as well as the gems. To be fair, that would have been a massive problem for colour blindness but it’s not like Sanctum doesn’t have that already.
Uh, spoiler alert for the teardown I guess.
The second criticism I have is that while there’s a lot of interesting choices in the equipment you get, you’ll be majorly screwed if you don’t emphasise a massive amount of damage mitigation in your final loadout. You’ll only have enough dice in your pool to take out two cards per round in when you face the Demon Lord, assuming you are always able to manipulate your rolls to lethal effect. Each card ahead of you in the track deals damage every round, and with ten points of health you need to be able to absorb as much of it as you possibly can. Some abilities let you reclaim spent tokens to reuse equipment, but not to the extent it lets you genuinely focus on a damage build for your character. If you arrive without enough mitigation to last for three rounds, then mathematically you are going to fail no matter how well you play.
That in turn reveals a problem with character builds, which is that your total potential damage output is based on the number of dice rather than how well you can control them. If you have enough control to hit the centre ring every time with every dice it doesn’t actually translate into more damage output. Just a higher reliability of your maximum damage. And again, that has a mathematical implication in the final reckoning – if you have six dice maximum, and each card has either two or three health, then you can defeat at most two and a half cards per round. There’s no equivalent of a glass cannon build here. Every character, in the final reckoning, needs to be at least part tank and that’s a powerful limiting factor on just how creative you get to be with your choices.
Still, I guess anyone going toe-to-toe with the devil will have failed in their due diligence if they arrive in their bathrobe.
Sanctum then is a really enjoyable hack ‘n’ slash dice puzzler with enough interlinking consequences in its advancement and equipment model to keep you absorbed for its full playtime. I thus commit it, and this review, for your consideration. Check it out if you get the chance.
A review copy of Sanctum was provided by Czech Games Edition in exchange for a fair and honest review.