Nobody likes hospitals. It's the smell more than anything; that overwhelmingly sickening, sterile smell associated with death, needles and surgery. Very rarely is there an occasion when you'll want to go to a hospital, more often than not you'll go because you have to. Everything Epic's Coma Ward will make you never want to go back again. With survival horror at its heart and a huge play on the unknown, this game has the potential to give you nightmares and experiences that will make you question whether entering that big old building is really worth it.
This unique storytelling experience is guaranteed to make your stomach writhe at certain points and will make you gag at the happenings throughout the hospital. If you're a fan of psychological horror and aren't put off by a few bloody corpses or profanities, this game is right up your alley! But be warned, even the strongest of wills might crack at some of the content...
Initial Coma Ward Gameplay
A game of Coma Ward always starts out the same. You, among the other players, awaken in the Coma Ward of a hospital. No one knows why they're there or how they got there, only that you're all alone. You have only one choice. Explore.
The game allows you to do so many actions based on your health, strength, and dexterity, and some actions end your turn immediately so you'd be wise to plan ahead. Most actions you take will require a focus check to make them successful (a dice roll determined by how scared your character is). Too scared and you have no hope of success, and every failed focus roll causes a hallucination that might give you choices; the wrong choice could be catastrophic, the right one will yield benefits! It may seem frustrating at first making such little progress, but acting quickly will dwindle your chances and decrease your focus meaning you'll be more prone to hallucinations.
All rolls are deemed successful based on how many fives and sixes you roll, and you roll dice equal to the value of the condition you're checking. Rolling a 1-3 is a fail, but a four will allow you to re-roll it and one extra die (it might sound complex but you do pick it up very quickly). If you need a successful roll of 3+ you'll need to have rolled three or more fives/sixes.
Once you've got started and have several rooms on the board, you'll start "rummaging" for items. Again, fail the focus roll for this and you'll hallucinate, but pass it and you get an item card. Items include an assortment of sharp surgical implements, hospital knick-knacks which can be used as blunt force weapons, food, clothing and medicines. There is nothing as demeaning as being killed with a bedpan.
It can get to a point where your character may be too scared to be able to roll a successful focus check, meaning you have no hope of ever getting any items by rummaging. However, some hallucinations grant items and other bonuses if you're lucky enough to choose the right option! Most of the horror in the initial phase of the game is centred on the hallucination cards; some of the outcomes of these are pretty dark and made us wince a fair few times.
Coma Ward beautifully lulls you into a false sense of security through these as well, some hallucinations have the same initial text and options, but the outcomes are always different. Choosing to run in two of the same situations will yield two very different outcomes.
Triggering the Phenomenon
Now you're ready, fully kitted out with items and armed to the teeth with brooms, candy bars and syringes, you can begin hunting down the clues to trigger the phenomenon. The way to start the phenomenon is to find three clues, which are shuffled into the top 15 cards of the item deck. There is no risk of missing them, and there are four in total (A, B, C and D) and the order you reveal three of them will determine which phenomenon is played.
Be warned, some phenomenons require more players than you may have, and some have clear warnings on them about the questionable context of the phenomenon. Even those with really strong stomachs may decide against playing certain phenomenons, it might be best to choose the next phenomenon sequentially rather than make yourself freak out through horror. Whoever reveals clue three identifies the phenomenon and organises its set-up.
All the explanation you'll need and story for it is contained within the phenomenon box. It can be tricky to identify which cards are which inside the box, however reading the cards or looking at the back helps. We genuinely couldn't find role cards for one phenomenon until we realised some cards had the word 'who' written all over them. In hindsight, we would guess the developers did this to make it fool proof, we were just testing how fool proof it was.
Anyway, so long as you don't read the epilogue cards until you're instructed to do so, you should be fine to peek at the rest to identify their purposes if you need to, but again the instructions are fairly straightforward!
The phenomenons are all different and have multiple outcomes based on whether your team wins or loses, or based on which player wins. Some are entirely competitive and some co-operative, but nothing says you have to co-operate! All of the phenomenons will have elements of a need to survive, and therefore the combat in the game is something you'll have to engage with no matter what.
There are two types of attack in Coma Ward; dexterity and strength. If you're lucky enough to have found a weapon you can use that to increase the power of your attack, and all modifiers stack for other items you have active (clothing and the likes). Any unused items in the attack are not counted. You then roll dice equal to the attack value; e.g. strength four and a syringe with +2 to strength would be six dice.
Thoughts on Coma Ward
All of the components fit the theme of a hospital/psych ward. There has been a lot of thought out into every card's backing, every component's shape and design... It all just fits beautifully together. That being said, some of the components feel somewhat flimsy; the player mats and associated parts to them don't feel overly robust. Not a major issue and something that a player could go out of their way to fix, but worth taking note of.
Alongside that, you'll need a lot of space to play, the board is enormous. Combining that with all the cards you'll have on the table, you'll have to be smart with where you place things. Despite this being a psychological horror game, there are lots of realistic elements to it as well; some weapons break after use, the flavour text for items reflects what your player would think when certain events happen and or when they find certain items, and some items can be more of a hindrance when used than expected; no one would voluntarily eat hospital food so why would it be overly helpful!
The game itself says it should last 30-60 minutes, but that's a bit ambitious from what we found. The initial phase of searching and rummaging lasted 20-30 minutes and then the phenomenon will have its own time scope. Maybe once you've done a phenomenon more than once you'll reel it back, but we'd say you're looking at 60-120 minutes minimum! And of course, Coma Ward isn't a game you'd want to rush anyway. The entire game is hinged on its storytelling and its ability to engross its audience in atmosphere and theme, rushing would remove some of that and take away from the actual experience.