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Nicholas Korpelainen
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What's Mascarade?

Mascarade is a hidden identity game designed by Bruno Faidutti for 3-13 players. The game draws some inspiration from Citadels (by the same designer), and most notably from the bluffing sensation, Coup.

I write this review after enjoying several games with two players, as well as trying it out with three and eleven players.

How does it work?

The rules are extremely minimal and simple to explain. Each player randomly receives a identity card and starts with 6 coins. The aim of the game is to either obtain 13 coins, or to be the richest player at the time when someone loses their last coin. Each identity card has a special thematic power that somehow manipulates the number of coins, card ownership or reveals secret information to a limited audience.

The primary mechanic of the game is for a player to take two identity cards (his own and one other player's) and to secretly either swap them or not, without looking at them. (For the rest of the review, I will call this a 'swap', holding onto the quotation marks.)

At the start of the game, all players briefly share their identities openly, before hiding them. Four special turns are then taken exclusively for 'swaps', to introduce a level of uncertainty. Starting from the fifth turn, players can do one of three things:

1) To 'swap'
2) To look at one's own identity card
3) To activate a special power by claiming to have the corresponding identity card.

How do I call a bluff?

Contrary to bluffing games such as Coup, there is no conventional method of challenging a player's claim. Instead, the original claim goes unchecked, unless at least one other player stakes a claim to the same identity. In the latter case, all involved players reveal their cards: 'liars' have to pay a penalty of one coin to the courthouse, whereas the 'truth teller(s)' get to activate the aforementioned power, possibly out of turn. (Usually there can only be one truth teller, except for the owners of the two identical Peasant cards: these work in tandem.)

Although the absence of a traditional way to challenge a claim may seem odd at first, this design choice helps induce silliness and laughter. For example, it may be a perfectly viable strategic option for an openly revealed King to claim that he is now a Queen (cue for giggles). In spite of the obvious lie, this move can serve as a relatively cheap way to get several identity cards revealed or to prevent someone else's play from going unchecked.

Is there a trivial winning strategy?

To prevent the overuse of 'checking cards by claiming', one of the identity cards, The Judge, has been designed to collect all amassed penalties in the courthouse. This creates an interesting strategic balance between caution and recklessness. This feeling of a balancing act extends to all the identity cards: every identity has a counter-identity. The game comes across as a complex rendition rock-paper-scissors, albeit with players partially blindfolded and spinning themselves dizzy every few minutes. There are a million and one incentives to keep changing cards and tactics.

Each turn tends to change the game state in some amusing or meaningful way, which is then duly noted and whispered around the table. Players tend to talk nonsense to confuse others, however the players with the strongest cards or the biggest purse size get targeted mercilessly. One must try to prevent other players from winning, while waiting for a chance to strike gold quietly and inconspicuously, without drawing too much attention. Managing one's own game while simultaneously managing others' is the key.

Time investment and player numbers.

Game duration and the atmosphere can vary wildly depending on the number of players.

Two player games (an official variant with three cards each, one of which is locked/protected) tend to be fast and furious and surprisingly fun 5-15 minute sparring matches. The same is true for three player games, perhaps increasing playing time to 20 minutes. I also heard positive opinions about four player games, which use an open pool of free-to-pick face-up identity cards in the middle of the table.

A gigantic game with ten or more players feels almost like a different board game entirely -- less about absolute memory, and more about prioritizing the most important things to remember and to track. In a large game, there is a rather long wait before getting another turn, so choices are all the more difficult. Consequently, spending a turn to look at one's own identity card seems to be distinctly weaker play than the other two options of play, since by the time the next turn arrives, the card's location might again be a total mystery. Depending on the shape and size of the table and on the noise level of the gaming environment, it may be hard to keep track of what happens on the far side of the table. It could take more than half an hour to finish a game, and some of the more impatient players tended to throw around comments such as 'Phew, at least it didn't take too much longer'. Eleven players seemed a bit excessive.

Low on coins = Death?

The game has some good catch-up mechanics: for example, The Witch identity lets a player exchange his entire fortune with another player, whereas The Widow offers a shortcut path to 10 coins. One always feels like there are ways to influence the game state, despite an atmosphere of anarchy. Also, it never feels like the game is lost mid-game for anyone. There is a certain element of co-operative play and negotiation to prevent leaders from running away with victory.

Double-bluff wonderland?

Pretending to swap cards, but not actually doing so, is a very intriguing bluffing tactic, sometimes deliciously cunning. If A suspects that B will attempt to steal his card by swapping, A can pre-emptively 'swap' the two cards himself, unsettling the opponent psychologically. Should B make the planned swap in any case, possibly wasting a turn just to restore the original situation? Or should B waste a turn to simply look at his card, knowing that the same situation might repeat again on the following round?

In a recent eleven player game, another player 'swapped' my Peasant card away, since otherwise I could win. However, looking at his game state, I realized that he would not benefit very much from owning a Peasant: He was rather down on his coin count, so it would take rather long for him to bounce back with that card. So I called his bluff: I claimed to still own the Peasant, despite the apparent swap, and alas, I won. This felt immensely satisfying and rather deductive, with an elegant simplicity to the logic. It shows how analytical the game can be at its best, despite the apparent randomness and lightness.

What's in the box?

Mascarade benefits from beautiful components. The fourteen large Dixit-sized cards have stunning artwork that is very provocative of the theme (menacing comic book style caricatures). The first printing also comes with a free expansion card called The Usurper. The coin chits and courthouse tile are made from very thick, sturdy cardboard. The perfectly sized small box is even illustrated on the inside. Since the cards get passed around and handled a lot, sleeves are a must, and I recommend investing in quality in that regard, since any scuff marks could reveal cards whose identity ought to be secret.

Will it grow old fast?

The game is pleasantly customizable by giving the player the option of choosing a desired combination of identity cards to use (at least a third of which should generate money). Player aids and role chits do an adequate job of easing the trouble of following which roles are in play.

Overall, Mascarade satisfies the itch for role selection, but combines it with a memory game and ample opportunities to bluff and double bluff. It's amusing, involving and comically thematic.

Pros:

+ The components are beautiful and of high quality. The illustrations evoke role play, dialogue and laughs.

+ The game has potential for more psychological analysis than may be obvious after just a few plays.

+ The chaos is amusing, without being overwhelming.

+ The different identities seem incredibly well balanced.

+ By customizing the combination of starting identities, the general feel of the game changes enough to feel fresh each time. This is a strong antidote to boredom.

+ The game is a breeze to teach and each individual turn plays fast.

+ Since the rules assert that a special power that was revealed on the previous player's turn may not be activated, there is a curious significance as to which identities sit in neighboring spots. This adds to the tactical depth of the game. Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer!

Cons:

- There are a number of foreign language rulebooks to throw away, and the English player aids have Spanish text on the opposite side. It doesn't affect gameplay in the slightest, but it feels like an odd solution to find in a package that generally has a great sense of esthetic.

- In game sessions with a high number of players, it is hard to pull off planned strategies, because so many unpredictable things can happen between turns. One is often forced to 'sacrifice a turn' simply to prevent another player from winning.

- In a large game of 10+ players, where several people are on the verge of victory, deciding the winner may feel as if it just comes down to turn order and initiative. This can feel anti-climactic, especially since games with a higher player count tend to take longer to complete. Eight players might be the sweet spot for larger games.

- Although the game is very balanced, some cards, such as The Spy, seem overpowered in games with very few players. However, it is easy to swap cards in and out for the future games... it is helpful that some cards are officially recommended only for games with 8+ players. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that in a game that arguably works better with 5 rather than 10, so many cards have this 8+ restriction.

- There is a slight drought of interesting female characters. However, the blank card called The Beggar is encouraged to be used creatively for role creation.

What's a good special power for The Beggar?

My suggestion is for The Beggar to replace The Thief as follows:

Up to two other players of The Beggar's choice must either:

1) give one coin to The Beggar

2) give two coins back to the bank (the cost of hiring bodyguards to usher The Beggar away... or the cost of running boots)

3) reveal their identity to The Beggar (the cost of taking the time to look into the Beggar's eyes in an intimidating fashion to scare her away)

4) offer a 'swap' for The Beggar to make with them (The Prince and the Pauper)
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Robert Manore
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Warlord beats Troll, Troll beats Elf, Elf beats Water Sprite, and basically everything else beats Enchanted Bunny.
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Nice write-up. Love your Beggar ideas! thumbsup
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David Short
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Thumbed for the title alone! Thanks for the review. Can't wait to get this.
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Randall Monk
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"the English player aids have Spanish text on the opposite side"
How is that a Con? Just don't turn over the aid.
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Nicholas Korpelainen
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Monkatron wrote:
"the English player aids have Spanish text on the opposite side"
How is that a Con? Just don't turn over the aid.


That's a good question. I guess it just feels a bit cheap to me.

We open up this majestic looking game where half of the fun is in the beauty and elegance of the components, with luxurious attention to art and detail. It's not just black text on white background... everything adds to the experience. We set everything up and then someone asks 'oh, but this one is in Spanish' and we have to say 'just flip it over, guess they cut costs in printing'. Suddenly the luxurious feeling is gone.

Although I love multiculturalism and diversity more than anything, it shouldn't be possible to set up a component on the table and to accidentally have it be unintelligible without flipping it. It's no big deal, but it's just not elegant.

Functionally, there's nothing wrong with it, nor will it bother most people(?), but it comes down to aesthetics and detail. When Steve Jobs designed a computer or a bookshelf, he put special attention to details that we don't usually look at (the back of the bookshelf, the paintjob and screws on the inside of the computer case). Even if we never check those things out, the knowledge that they are there makes a difference. For example, Mascarade has beautiful art on the inside of the box, for no reason other than giving off a nice touch.

I don't need Spanish instructions during my game, and they play no part in my game, so I would prefer them to be absent, or for them to be there separately, so that I can throw away whatever I don't need. I think beauty isn't just about what is included, but also about what isn't included (all extraneous things).
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bruno faidutti
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Actually, most copies sold in the US have only English rules and players' aids, while some may have English/Spanish/Portuguese/Dutch and some others English/Japanese/Polish. Just have a look at the back of the box to know which ones you are buying...

Multilanguage copies allow the publisher to adapt and ship more games to the countries where it sells best. They are definitely not "cheap", they are even a bit more expensive to print than single language ones, but they give more flexibilty. If there are multilanguage copies in US shops, it probably means that the game is selling really well there and Repos Prod was short of only-english copies. Sounds good to me ;-)
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Eric Lucero
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Thanks for the review.

I'll be purchasing this game as soon as it's available. I was wondering if anyone knew what the best sleeves were for this game.
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Robert Manore
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Warlord beats Troll, Troll beats Elf, Elf beats Water Sprite, and basically everything else beats Enchanted Bunny.
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Ash1138 wrote:
Thanks for the review.

I'll be purchasing this game as soon as it's available. I was wondering if anyone knew what the best sleeves were for this game.


The "which sleeves" thread - answered
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David V
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Nice little rules summary and review (although, since you analysed quite a few aspects, I did miss a comparison with other recent bluffing games. But, then again, you might not have played them).

I'm also surprised (and a little disappointed) that you consider multilanguage components a con, and a cheap one at that. I wish to state my opinion to the contrary, lest publishers become tempted to make monolingual games (since I also heard one of The Dice Tower team complain about including rules in several languages).

For me it is a strong plus to have rules and components in several languages (in the case of components the different languages, it should be easy to hide them to minimise confusion during play, and this seems to be the case here). I like to see them there (due to language curiosity and a multiculturalist disposition and all that). Also, it may add flavour if one associates the theme to a particular country (e.g., I prefer the French version of Troyes), and in a multilingual group everyone can choose the languages they feel most comfortable in. Finally, it may give one the possibility to read the rules (or have someone read them) in the original language, as sometimes problems of interpretation that emerge in the translations disappear in the original. (And a multilingual game certainly does not seem cheap. Rather the opposite!)

I might add that, in particular, rules and components with English and Spanish on opposite sides sounds perfect for me, as both are my mother tongues and I usually play with Spanish speakers but occasionally with English speakers. As I say, this is a very strong plus!
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Jonathan C
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"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose."
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Quote:
In a large game, there is a rather long wait before getting another turn,...


The primary reason I would buy this would be to support a player count of 6 or more in a mixed group. But in this case your description gives it the similar attribute to Citadels, with excessively long wait periods between player turns on the 7- or 8-player game. This is unfortunate.
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Martin G
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Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
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It's nowhere near as bad as Citadels because you're very often involved during other players' turns; if not directly, then at least watching like a hawk how the cards are moving around!
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Paul S
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DARK IN HERE, ISN'T IT?
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Great review. Read it 10 minutes ago, bought the game 5 minutes ago! Please review nothing else, I'll go bust
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Katherine Boag
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I quite enjoyed the 12 player game I had recently, the chaos is delightful. My local group often plays high player count fillers to round off an evening, and I think this one was the most fun yet.

I'm the Inquisitor.
No, I'm the Inquisitor!
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torontoraptors
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DDDDave wrote:
Nice little rules summary and review (although, since you analysed quite a few aspects, I did miss a comparison with other recent bluffing games. But, then again, you might not have played them).

I'm also surprised (and a little disappointed) that you consider multilanguage components a con, and a cheap one at that. I wish to state my opinion to the contrary, lest publishers become tempted to make monolingual games (since I also heard one of The Dice Tower team complain about including rules in several languages).

For me it is a strong plus to have rules and components in several languages (in the case of components the different languages, it should be easy to hide them to minimise confusion during play, and this seems to be the case here). I like to see them there (due to language curiosity and a multiculturalist disposition and all that). Also, it may add flavour if one associates the theme to a particular country (e.g., I prefer the French version of Troyes), and in a multilingual group everyone can choose the languages they feel most comfortable in. Finally, it may give one the possibility to read the rules (or have someone read them) in the original language, as sometimes problems of interpretation that emerge in the translations disappear in the original. (And a multilingual game certainly does not seem cheap. Rather the opposite!)

I might add that, in particular, rules and components with English and Spanish on opposite sides sounds perfect for me, as both are my mother tongues and I usually play with Spanish speakers but occasionally with English speakers. As I say, this is a very strong plus!

Well said!
Even though I have no trouble with English, not everyone I play with feels the same way. So I think the multi-language option is pretty great!
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Really great review.

Imm sold on this game, Citadels 2P is really really good (hated it with 4).

I'm also in the 'thumbs up for multi-language' camp too, I must say.

Eco
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