“Who is this game for?”
The Prospero Hall team just don’t give a damn. They spend all their Jimmy Stewart/Warriors/Goofy Movie money on cool as hell objects like Husqvarna Viking 360s and 70s Challengers with “No Fear” stickers on the bumper.
A 2022 board game based on a 1954 Hitchcock film is wild. When companies like CMON go big, Prospero Hall go small. It’s so peculiar and interesting.
If you haven’t seen Rear Window, then you should rectify that. The movie is a classic that warrants repeat viewings. The tabletop experience merits the same degree of attention.
You likely weren’t expecting that evaluation. I wasn’t.
The pitch is straightforward. Succinctly, it’s the modern cardboard classic Mysterium dressed up in the Hitchcock film’s trappings. One player – the “director” – uses cards as the sole method of communication to provide context for the rest of the player’s deductive reasoning. The majority of the group are the “watchers”, attempting to determine which resident lives in each room within the apartment building across the courtyard and what their specific quirk is.
Is the red-headed woman living in apartment C, and is she the artist? Does the police officer moonlight as a photographer out of apartment A? There is a set pool of possible residents and a subset of descriptive attributes to form various potential combinations.
The role of director is strained. You’re working with a limited hand of cards drawn from a large deck. Each depicts a vague scene that can be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps a broken vase with a shadowy woman on the wall. Or a lavishly adorned dining table with a lonely man waiting for a lover. There are weird cross-references – such as the same piece of pottery appearing in multiple different settings – and various connotations clearly intended to reference several possible attributes or people. It’s all muddied up and the player given the role of “The Master of Suspense” must sort it out.
Rear Window is small-C clever in that it transposes an existing game’s popular and compelling structure to a rather sturdy representation of the film’s setting. This has been Prospero Hall’s modus operandi, so it’s not altogether surprising. Their take on Groundhog Day utilizes concepts from The Mind. Hocus Pocus riffs on Hanabi. The Fast & the Furious board game hearkens to the glory days of Thunder Road.
In fact, this is often why Prospero Hall designs struggle to maintain longevity for a hobbyist gamer. They feel like covers of more robust and innovative works, perfectly packaging them into a nutrition-less smaller serving like a cardboard TV-dinner. These types of products have a place, of course, and I even know several families out there thoroughly enjoying titles like Villainous, without ever having heard of seedy places like Board Game Geek or Miniature Market.
But, for the most part, I have a hard time really latching on to Prospero Hall’s work. Jaws is perhaps the only exception, as I feel that game is a standout hidden movement title. I could watch Quint get chomped in half all day.
If you’ve actually read every word in this review and aren’t just skimming, you’re now waiting for the turnaround as I proclaimed earlier that this board game merits a level of attention equivalent to that of the classic film.
That’s because Rear Window reaches for more.
Well, maybe there’s been a murder. Roughly 30% of the time, a murder attribute will sneak into the game, replacing one of the regular options. This is when Rear Window is simultaneously at its best and its worst.
If the director randomly draws the murder tile, then the game has shifted. Instead of desiring to lead the watchers into correctly choosing all of the residents and their associated attributes, they want to mislead them. This is pretty absurd, you know, in an enjoyable Taika Waititi way.
If there is a murder the players won’t know it. Instead, they will have to deduce such a grievous deed has been performed by extrapolating confusion or misdirection from the clues. Mechanically, this is tightly constructed so that the director can’t just throw the game. For that lone player to win, they need the rest of the group to correctly identify six of the eight possible pieces of information – four residents and four attributes – but not correctly identify the murder.
The result, from an experience and social angle, is enthralling. It provides the foundation for thematic exposition linked to the source material by injecting an underlying sense of tension. There is a constant nagging feeling that what you’re seeing in those windows across the courtyard isn’t the real story. Suspicion is an integral element of gameplay. This fuels fantastic moments of discussion and brilliant realization.
However, from a balanced mechanical perspective, it’s a flop. The issue is that it’s far too easy for the Hitchcock player to ignore the murder component and pretend as if the resident linked to the crime is instead joined to another attribute. For instance, if you’re gifted the random combination of the elderly glasses-wearing man residing in apartment B and committing murder, instead you offer mock clues as if he’s “the Klutz”.
The combination of the vague clue cards intermixing with a relatively short lifespan of four rounds results in the deducing of misdirection unlikely. Furthermore, the rest of the game isn’t well-balanced around this.
One of the really strong qualities of this design is that it scales very well to grow with player experience. You can swap in new advanced attributes which are much harder to deduce once you’ve grown stronger in your sleuthing capabilities. My group, for instance, gets along quite well with several of these mixed in, commonly providing for a strongly tense affair where victory often comes down to a final gut-wrenching leap of faith.
The problem is that the random inclusion of “murder” results in an enormous difficulty spike. An attribute subset perfectly balanced around the cooperative structure will end in a landslide defeat when murder appears. Since this tile is only going to appear roughly 30% of the time, there’s no easy way to achieve a satisfactory implementation of that particular mechanism. It’s most logical to balance the game around the 70% likelihood of occurrence as opposed to the minority happening.
From a mechanically focused argument, the game would be better off without the possibility of murder. I’ve played with a couple of people who have voiced this perspective, and it’s valid.
But screw that.
The organic discussion that arises on the watchers’ side of the table is, at times, incredible. There is bickering, indecision, and often concession. One player will express their gut feeling that a murder definitely occurred, and the director is sandbagging. Another will retort that this isn’t true as it’s very unlikely and the group is incredibly close to piecing it all together.
It feels like the film. L.B. is trying to convince Lisa that he’s not crazy and something nefarious is afoot. Stella’s in the background making brazen quips. Tom’s brooding over it all, ever the skeptic.
The beauty is that it’s all organic. There’s no coercion. It doesn’t require several sub-systems, any tracks, or multiple resources. There’s not even flavor text. This is just theme, forming in the loose tissue between art and participant. It’s sublime.
There was one particular moment that illustrates this wonderfully. In my penultimate play prior to writing this review, several of us were caught up in trying to suss out the details of one particular room. We couldn’t quite reconcile the two previous day’s clues, even though we had a pretty solid understanding of the other occupancies.
Then it happened. I met another player’s eyes and we both looked across the table, towards the apartment building and into its recesses. We immediately shut up, not wanting to share any more information openly with the director, for fear we could lend them a hand in deceiving us further. We slinked back behind the player’s screen so that we could privately communicate, just like L.B. Jeffries retreating into the darkness of his apartment and avoiding the stare of Thorwald. It was something.
I’m just astounded at how deftly this experience captures the film’s voyeuristic themes of paranoia. There’s another whole angle of how it leads to unwanted reflection on the pandemic and our own individual experiences concerning lockdown and being shut in a room against our will. The degree of subtext and capacity of analysis here is frankly beautiful. The game ascends, in a small way, beyond its scope and manages to capture so much of what has eluded Prospero Hall’s work in the past.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.