“Like life…a cooperative game that’s only really cooperative sometimes”
Distant Rabbit Games
Note: Distant Rabbit Games sent us a copy of Mantis Falls so that we could write this unbiased review (it’s going to seem biased because we loved it so much!)
It’s the 1940s in a mob-ruled town, and you’ve seen something you shouldn’t have. The only way for you to survive is to escape across town but the journey will be a treacherous one. You and another witness must work together to survive the endeavour, but what if they are not who they say they are?
Mantis Falls is a game of trust. The players must work together (to a point) to avoid certain death while keeping a watchful eye on one another in case of betrayal. Will they withhold vital supplies when times are desperate? Or will they help drag you to the edge of town and victory?
This beautifully made, edge-of-your seat game encapsulates everything Jess and I love about board gaming; careful strategy, deduction, tension, foes to overcome and of course vicious back stabbing murderers. So why do we think it deserves a place in our Hall of Fame?
How the game works
The aim of the game is to escape the town of Mantis Falls along with your fellow witnesses, overcoming deadly oppositions, ambushes and incidents along the way. That sounds difficult enough as it is without the added complication that one of you might be an assassin working to kill you as well! At times you might feel like everyone is out to get you…
At the start of the game each player is dealt a Role card in secret. In two player games, there are two witness cards and one assassin card, so a 1 in 3 chance of there not even being an assassin in the game. In three player games, there are three witness roles and one assassin.
If you are the witness your job is to make your way from the start of the road, all the way through the town to the end of the road along with all your other fellow witnesses OR to find and kill the assassin without being killed yourself. If you are the assassin your job is to kill one of the witnesses!
You are aided by a hand of cards of different suits. The cards can be weapons, special abilities, medicines, ongoing effects and others. Some cards are notably better than others and it’s absolutely vital you look after cards that heal you.
Another thing to know before reading on is that it is quite easy to die. Each player has a wound tracker and once you get to 8 wounds you are almost dead. You then have the chance to save yourself through a “last gasp” where you play cards from your hand hoping to heal at least one wound. If you succeed, you survive and carry on playing, if you fail, you are dead and the game is over! You can have a maxmium of three last gasps, so do try and limit the number of times you die to two 🙂
For the purposes of the explanation I will assume a two player game.
The game is played over a series of rounds where both players are active but one player is the “lead”.
- The lead player moves one street closer to the end of the road. This is optional and there are ways of moving more than one street, but most of the time its slow going.
- The lead player draws an event card from the event deck (but nothing happens yet). Some of the events are made public to all players, others are “unseen” allowing the lead player to cause some treachery if they have ulterior motives. The events are either oppositions (which can be overcome using weapons), or incidents (nothing you can do about these!) and cause damage to players’ health in various cruel ways. At this stage you only read the event, you don’t process it.
- Each player then chooses their main action. They can either:
– Play cards from their hand. You can play as many cards from your hand as you like so long as they come from the same suit. One good card can be better than several ineffective ones.
– Discard two cards from their hand. This allows players to get through the deck, getting rid of bad cards and hopefully picking up something that heals them or kills other people.
– Place a card into “conserved energy”. This is a place on the playmat where players store cards, either to swap between players or to spend later for additional movement or to heal themselves. A really useful action to do.
– Do nothing. (brave)
- Process action cards. Most rounds both players will play cards as their main action. Once players have chosen them they carry them out alternately. The order of the cards played can have an absolutely crucial bearing on the game! If you’re facing an opposition, any weapons you’ve played will do their damage now. If you’re hurting the other player, that will also happen now!
- Event processing. Now you play out the event card. If you defeated the opposition you avoid losing health and sometimes gain a bonus, if you failed then expect to take damage.
- Draw up to hand limit. Your hand limit in most cases is 7 cards, and you always draw up to this at the end of the round.
- Play passes to the other player.
You continue like this until either one of you dies or you both reach the end of the road. If the assassin succeeds in killing one of the witnesses then they win, if the witnesses make it to the end of the road or kill the assassin, they win! If everyone dies, everyone loses!
Picking the right action during stage 3 of each round will go a long way to determining your success in the game. Holding on to health-giving cards until you really need them is a wise choice, and saving weapons for meaty oppositions is a good idea too. Sometimes though, you’ll have absolute rubbish you need to get rid of, so don’t be scared to discard or put a card into conserved energy.
If you are the assassin, it’s even more crucial to manage your hand well as you will need to find the perfect time to strike. Once you reveal yourself as the assassin (if the other player hasn’t worked it out for themselves, but usually by turning your weapons on the other player), you must make sure you can finish the other player off, and usually heal yourself too. Striking before you have enough to kill them puts you at serious risk.
Every player begins with a “Call a Hit” card, which can either be used to defeat an opposition or to fatally wound the other player (but can only be used this way if the player using the card is a witness). That means if you attempt to assassinate the other player, they can use their Call a Hit card to kill you back, and possibly take you down with them. Once I managed to kill Jess (get her to 8 wounds), and during her last gasp card play she managed to Call a Hit on me and heal herself, meaning she won!
Mantis Falls has provided us with some of our greatest ever board game moments, and for that reason I have no choice but to place it into our coveted Hall of Fame.
The main objective itself (getting across town without being murdered) is very hard even if you are all genuinely witnesses, as there are lots of things trying to kill you and a very limited supply of healing cards. Add to that the fear, doubt, suspicion, action and counteraction of having someone opposite you who might be trying to kill you, and the game is nothing short of incredible.
Every single move they make, every action card they take, every unseen event they claim to be reading out word for word helps you build a picture of who you think they are. Is Jess lying when she says all the wounds from the event need to be dealt to me? Has she really not got any weapons to kill the opposition this round, or is she stashing a gun to turn on me later when the time suits her? Why would she heal me if she wanted me dead?! It is an amazing and terrifying experience!
Of course not every game can be as dramatic as that. Due to the randomness of the event deck and the precious few healing cards there are, sometimes its too hard to survive so one of you dies fairly early on with not much to save you. It’s a shame if this happens before the assassin has really had a chance to formulate a plan on how to carry out their task. One game we played where I was the assassin, I was so up against it trying not to die that I had to use every good card I had to try and stave off death so couldn’t really muster a plan at all.
But I don’t really mind the odd shorter game, because I know that most of the games we have played have been Oscar-winning film drama sort of stuff. Whether I’m on the winning or losing team (guess what guys, I’ve never won a game of Mantis Falls!), the sheer thrill of that final act when the assassin strikes (or attempts to) is so epic that we end up talking about the game for days. I remember making that comment in an early Instagram post about it, and its been true of all but one of our games – we can’t stop talking about the game in the hours/days afterwards. What we could have done better, where we were lucky and unlucky, how clever/stupid we were at certain points.
My only worry is that new players to the game might have a bit of an anticlimactic first game (either because the assassin reveals their identity prematurely, or the events are inescapable and someone dies early) and give up on it. But I urge you if you do find this, give it another go, and another! It’s so worth the effort because you will end up with a ludicrously exciting finale at some point.
As mentioned towards the start of the post, this can be played either 2 or 3 players. In the 3 player version play goes around in a circle where two players take on the round together and the third player is the bystander. This could introduce downtime but you can’t afford to take your eyes off what your opponents do on their turn, you feel every bit as involved and there are some small actions you can take.
We actually think it works better with 3 players. You’re less likely to die in a heap at the start of the game because its actually much easier to cycle through the deck of cards to the healing cards with 3 players. Add to that the fact that players can openly discuss their suspicions and the game really is taken up a notch. We had a particularly epic game the other day with Jess and her brother Joel as the witnesses and muggins here as the assassin. I’ve written about and taken photos of what was the epic final act of our game below (spoiler alert: I end up dead).
It’s also worth noting that the game comes with a printed playmat which I love! A board would be ideal but the original prototype was purely card based so a playmat is an upgrade from that. They also include a playlist of songs to create a soundtrack to your game which really adds to the atmosphere!
So there you have it, more twists than a series of Game of Thrones and more back-stabbing than an episode of [insert generic soap opera here]. If you like social deduction and ever play two or three player games, I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you have an overly easy or overly hard first game then persevere, that breathtaking game is just around the corner…
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