So Say We All – A Menace Among Us Review

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game came out in 2008, a lifetime in cardboard years, and we’re still looking for a quality successor that can play in a fraktion of the time. Dark Moon came close. The Menace Among Us lands just a bit closer.

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It’s difficult to shake comparisons when discussing this genre. The trick to nailing this concept is in abstracting the core of BSG while not pushing too far into simpler social deduction fare. The Menace Among Us functions as a pretty even divide between that mammoth of an IP design and the lighter Resistance. At times it skirts close to both titles, intermingling DNA like a sloppy Petri dish that’s had one too many, head-banging to Andrew W.K.

But it’s also kind of its own thing. The good guys here are trying to repair their ship by increasing the energy track, which must be done before the O2 runs out. Actions come at a cost, often eating up precious oxygen and foreshadowing the end of play. The bad guys of course want to torpedo the ship by venting those resources into the void.

One of the main areas of interest is the asymmetric deck-building that happens prior to play. There’s this large card library that forms the genesis of the experience. Each action card allows you to repair the ship or gain O2, maybe even sabotage the vessel if that’s your bag. Players receive a certain assortment of cards based on their hidden role and their character. This means even two good dudes will have a slightly different suite of options, although there’s quite a bit of overlap.

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This mechanism is the most radical and interesting quality of Menace. The number of characters and roles are in such a quantity that repeated plays feature substantial diversity. All of this comes at a cost though.

The bugbear with this mechanic is that it requires dealing out cards and building the individual character decks prior to play. Likewise, cleaning up this mess is a bit of a chore. It’s a level of sorting and organizing on par with Dominion. This cost is certainly one that can annoy and the time is felt, however in my experience it’s been worth that momentary pain.

Once we get to actually playing the game it’s certainly more smooth and engaging. Play order passes clockwise with each crew member performing an action. You can either toss a face-down card into the pot, or avoid the heat and draw more cards or perform a character specific action. The character abilities are flavorful and at times potent allowing you to break the rules in interesting ways. They will also often draw suspicion as their effectiveness can be clouded. Such is life on a floating steel coffin.

That pot that some of the players end up contributing to is the real turning point. This forms a kind of faux BSG crisis check. There’s no card which dictates what will help or hurt the ship, rather, each character tosses in an action which will be performed. So if you’re jonesing for some pain and need to accelerate your traitor game, you throw in an explosion which reduces the ship’s energy. Or, maybe you include a backstab and hurt the mission’s leader (first player).

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If we’re playing a six player game but only three participants elected to add to the face-down pile, well, accusations will start to fly. You of course can’t discuss specifics of what you added, but there’s quite a bit of subtlety and nuance at play depending on your specific deck build and timing. There’s also obvious risks playing a traitorous action if you’re the first player, as the rest of the group may elect to not play any cards at all and leave you hanging. There is a neutral card mechanism which includes a random card from a pre-determined build – think the destiny deck in Battlestar – but it still affords much less cover for a traitor than a round flush with action cards.

There’s also a pretty vibrant gray area to play within. Cards such as Repair will increase energy, which is of course needed to win the game, but they also cut away at the O2 pool. Playing a repair can be a positive maneuver or it could be a traitorous play depending entirely on the timing.

That’s the bulk of it. We go around, the first player changes, sabotage happens, and everyone points fingers. The personality of this does lean more towards optimally playing actions and managing your hand as opposed to reading others and blindly accusing them. In that way it certainly hews closer to Battlestar Galactica than Resistance.

There’s a hefty amount of texture in some of the ancillary elements, such as optional personal goals for the protagonists. These are baked into each role and will force you to behave in non-obvious ways to fulfill your personal objective. Clearly, these are inspired by the Dead of Winter mechanic of the same makeup, and they do a great deal to inspire doubt and shore up the deductive aspects of play.

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The Menace Among Us is an absolutely solid design, at least at the upper end of the spectrum. At lower player counts it’s a bit wobbly as players have less room to hide and there is overall less chaos. The most enjoyable experience is when you can push to six, seven, or even eight players. With more traitors and a larger pool of action cards, bedlam ensues.

This is also a game that reveals itself over multiple plays. There are strategic connections you may not make in your first rodeo or two, elements such as the importance of choosing a character that will obfuscate your role if you’re a black hat. Or the benefit of sabotaging when you’re the first player and then manipulating the meta by arguing that no one in their right mind would do that due to the risk.

The coercing of group behavior and assumptions is the most tantalizing part, leaning into the strong points of the social deduction genre while not completely straying into that more airy realm. This feels akin to a grounded board game – perhaps by illusion, really – and slightly more serious and meaningful as a result. Yet, those looking for spatial movement or a ship layout will be disappointed as abstraction is still high.

It also will occasionally feature player elimination. The length of play and timing of this occurrence means that no one must sit long, but it’s still a consideration for those sensitive to this design choice. I’ve found it has minimal impact in the majority of plays, but a wild group may brandish arms more quickly and backstab with abandon.

I think the inclusion of player elimination was thoughtful and provides a sharp edge which is positive. It increases investment and provides a nuclear option to vent the mayhem.

There’s also a lesser lever players can pull to quarantine participants. This is intended as a way to neuter impostors but it can be utilized as a weapon by the villains, drawing suspicion away from themselves and even costing precious oxygen. The consequences of being quarantined are softer than the BSG brig and you’re still able to participate throughout play. Again, it’s a smooth and measured inclusion that supports the intent.

I want to fully lay down judgment and claim this is a worthy take on Battlestar Galactica in a 45 minute time-frame, but it’s difficult to appeal to a sense of objectivity. For those who love that classic release this won’t quite hit the same highs or achieve the same level of richness. It lacks the deeper connection to a setting and absolutely nailing its influences themes.

But if you’re looking for a spin-off of the same bloodline, The Menace Among Us succeeds admirably. It gets right to the heart of betrayal and passion leveraging its strength with skill. A 45 minute affair being anything more than a nicotine patch for your BSG addiction would be a ridiculous expectation, and Menace is certainly fine being just that.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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