I took one look at Deranged and it crawled through my retinas and into my brain. So much about this experience appeals to me, including an exceedingly stylish gothic horror setting, semi-cooperative player friction, and variable scenarios with both scripted and emergent narrative. Those games that play with fire and risk utter collapse also flirt with brilliance.
That dance with chaos, the lines bleeding between grace and repulsion, is the identity of this work. To illustrate this requires we partake in a little game.
Let me explain. In improvisational comedy there is a well known rule titled “yes, and…” This is a behavioral technique of accepting another person’s input (the “yes”) and then expanding upon it with further detail ( the “and…”). It’s a permissive action which increases receptiveness and encourages creativity by affirming the idea.
We’re not doing that here. Instead, we’re going to play a little “yes, but…”
Deranged is a horror adventure game where players wander about an abandoned town attempting to lift their curses. These curses act as small goals, serving well to give players direction by pushing them towards a specific house or location on the board. They also eat up time as you must spend a precious action to lift the curse and discard the card. Once you’ve removed all of these afflictions the goal shifts to hanging on for three days and nights, outlasting the clock.
This is not a heavy or overly strategic game. Your objective is simple and direct.
Curses are an utter drag. They’re either terribly easy to shed and function as an afterthought, or you get stuck in a tenuous situation where everything spirals and you’re caught in a death loop. This happens far too often, where a murder of monsters forms – almost entirely due to the way they move towards the nearest hero without variation – and they end up blockading the graveyard where you respawn. I’ve seen players die three turns in a row, each time saddled with a new curse.
This has two effects. Most likely it knocks someone out of contention which wobbles the fragility of the semi-coop structure, but it also can shift the atmosphere at the table as people start laughing uncontrollably at the ridiculousness of the situation. Then a robed figure in the corner clasping a candelabra in one hand and a boombox in the other takes his bony finger and smashes the play button, cutting through the laughter-turned-silence like a scythe through flesh, “Yakety Sax” claims dominion over the encircled souls.
To perform actions in Deranged you play multi-use cards. They allow you to move, attack, defend, and search to various effective degrees. The most interesting element of this system is that you can pick up items along the way, rifling through the various shelves of the library or throwing open trunks in the apothecary. Finding such an item awards a new card you add to your deck, allowing an element of deckbuilding to seep into the design and offer satisfying rewards.
All of the neat abilities and personality of these cards is found in their trash ability. So maybe you attack twice with your dual pistols or you toss your vial of acid into an adjacent space sending a cadre of hungry ghosts back to hell, but then the card is gone. The game is roughly 90 minutes and you don’t see massive deck churn so this isn’t terrible, but it can be a drag that the most customizable mechanism which provides all of the character growth over the course of play is so momentary and fleeting.
The item cards themselves are also drawn randomly, so there’s no strategic component of searching. It’s more like taking a vat of water and bobbing for knives, pistols, and explosives in the murky churn. This stays true to the game’s random and unpredictable nature, but it’s disappointing that it shoots quick and dirty as opposed to sophisticated and deep in the one area it could have afforded to.
While the visually stunning board has a small element of variance in that you can flip different sections to alter the layout, the primary source of dynamic environment is provided through the scenario system. Scenarios in Deranged function as scripted narrative events with sub-tasks. They’re woven strongly into the day/night cycle where the tempo of play is somewhat unpredictable. Players can push along the clock by playing certain cards or by taking a breather with a rest action, and when the track moves into the next segment a scenario-specific event triggers.
This is actually pretty gnarly. The scripted events will bring new monster types into play and ratchet up the tension. Some of my favorite memories from my time with Deranged have been when creatures like the Gargoyle pop out and reign terror. The surprise and chaos from these occurrences adds texture to the emergent narrative and helps flesh out the environment.
The maintenance in this game is killer. No, that’s not a good thing. I mean that the framework of the game itself wants its players to suffer and wither in its shadow.
Even after multiple plays I would still occasionally forget to trigger the next scenario card. Particularly at nightfall you are expected to perform multiple tasks to account for the departure of the sun and there’s simply too much going on.
Spread before you are so many elements it can be dizzying. You have a personal hidden goal which can be something like kill a certain number of enemies or defeat another human player. Then you have a stack of night cards which are slowly revealed over time. You of course have your deck, discard pile, and hand of action cards. Your health and sanity is tracked on a large Baterang-looking cardboard dial set. Let’s not forget about the large square character sheet which acts as a player aid. Oh, and those pesky curses which are the main objective of play but found on the smallest of cards. Beyond all of this, someone has to perform scenario maintenance and move monsters about the board. For the weight of this game it’s absurd.
But let’s say you make it past all of that. Deranged only comes with three scenarios. They are certainly replayable, but they lose potency once you’ve experienced them. Like many parts of this design, the cool-factor is immense and the sharp edges are wonderful to impale yourself upon, but it all feels a little underdeveloped and shallow.
The semi-cooperative mechanism is actually relatively tight. Players become afflicted with the status of deranged entirely through random draw. This has you swapping out your investigator miniature with a feral beast. In a neat twist, you continue to use your deck of action cards but you rotate them upside down to look at the special deranged attributes, affording more power and a sense of menace. This is actually quite awesome.
You now are tasked with hunting your fellow players, attempting to kill them and lift the curse. If you are unable to do this you simply lose at game end. The friction here is tremendous as you flip back to a regular monocle-toting meatbag during the day and start working with the group again. As night creeps ever near, players begin to distance themselves, concerned about the impending werewolf-like transformation.
There are some bloody terrific moments here. Cornering a player and trading blows as you attempt to outrace the sunrise is a fantastic slice of cinema. You still need to worry about your own curses so you’re pulled in multiple directions, needing to do all things at once. The flurry of violence and aggression elevates the rowdy atmosphere at play and there’s a real sense of being hunted as one of the medically cleared humans.
As I said, the deranged affliction is entirely random. This is not a problem in the first two acts of play as you’re afforded enough time to work yourself out of the hole, but the player jobbed in the final segment by a random card draw may very well lose through no fault of their own.
Additionally, actually killing one of your acquaintances can be maddeningly difficult. If they’re smart they will block off a doorway and fight you through that defensive position. They also likely have saved up a defensive card or two. Good luck if you’re the slobbering beast hankering for some skin. The game building to this moment and then letting out a wet fart is utterly disappointing. Terror evaporates into nothingness and a growl becomes a shrug.
Deranged is aggravating. It has a bevy of components which are enticing and even a few which slot together magically. I enjoy my time wandering the village and fighting off its depraved denizens. But everything is so rickety, held together by multiple decks of cards and far too many shallow layers. It takes effort to setup and approach and too often leaves you behind as you realize two turns ago you forgot to flip the proper card or complete part of an action.
For those seeking another utterly cool yet equally fragile experience on par with Betrayal at House on the Hill, I think this game actually provides enough joy and laughter to earn a look. However, you really have to approach this as a narrative game of no consequence. If you become invested in the strategy or conditions of victory, you will certainly find your soul barren at conclusion.
I admit that there is a great deal of charm here. Those sharp edges and wild ideas are elements I really latch onto, but just as quickly as I endear myself to this experience it all starts to fall apart and I’m left wondering why I’m not playing something truly magnificent. That’s really the challenge of any modern release and one we shouldn’t neglect to answer.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.