Mantis Falls by Adrian Kerrihard and Juli Bierwith from Distant Rabbit game is a brilliant, cooperative card game, based on trust, or more accurately, the lack of it! Mantis Falls is beautifully designed. The artwork, components and gameplay knit together to create atmosphere and challenge in equal measure. You feel as though you are part of a film noir gangland movie from the 1940s. Having to work together, or not, to get to the end of the road running through the town and escape to share the story of what you witnessed.
Unfortunately those you travel with may or may not have seen what you have, and could be far more dangerous. Any teammate may in fact be acting as an assassin whose sole aim is to make sure you don’t make it to the end and ensuring your secret dies with you.
The game oozes atmosphere and the cards feel and look just right, slightly dark with just the right font and wash. Added to that a set of weapons and actions that fit the theme - you may be forced to kill with a baseball bat or be healed with a shot from the doctor’s bag.
The game is relatively simple once you get your head round the stages of play. You start by setting up the road. There are three sections. Sunset, night and dark each has five cards from which you randomly deal out four. This allows for some randomisation of the board and acts to increase replayability, even your journey through the town will not be the same form game to game. You move your pawns in a serpentine pattern through sunset ‘til dark hoping to reach the end of the road.
The road cards have simple iconography that will be referred to in the action cards. The traffic lights on each card have numbers within each light, which are used to assign damage or provide extra movement. There are bus and phone icons that can be used to call in a hit, or move past the broken road card that causes many to stumble and stall.
The game is in essence a two player game although can be played at three. I have only played it at three. In the three player game you gain some extra cards to support play, but each turn is played in a pair with the third player acting as bystander. Included in the three player game are special action cards that provide some involvement for the bystander and at the end of each turn the bystander can burn some cards allowing them to work through the deck to potentially gain stronger, more useful action cards.
At the start of your turn you can move your pawn one step along the road, uncovering the next road space so you can see what lies ahead. If you land on a card with an ambush, you take the allotted damage and burn that many cards.
You then draw one of the event cards. These are brilliantly designed, but within lies the mechanism that allows the assassin, if one is playing, to do some real damage and still remain hidden. The events fall into two categories: seen and unseen, and either incidents or opposition. Seen events are played face up, and you have to discuss and use your action cards to get past the incident, or kill off the opposition, otherwise you will take wounds. Unseen cards have to remain hidden, and the player has to be true to what the card says… well, almost.
Most cards will have options around how you deal out wounds, often they can be shared. However, an assassin may pretend to read the card out word for word, but can change the way the wounds are dealt stating that they have to be taken by the other player. Here the assassin appears to be playing fair and it is just unlucky whereas they are merely dealing all the damage to one player rather than taking some for themselves as you would if you were both witnesses.
Once the event has been discussed, you have to manage it using any of the action cards you have in hand. There are so many amazing action cards in this game all providing a wide range of effects. These include: simply damage to another character or player, healing options, special abilities that allow you to look at other cards, and there are even some that require you to both play the same card. Teamwork is a great example of this, where if you both play the teamwork action, the event can be avoided.
Providing much needed respite and allowing you to make progress without taking wounds. Some of the action cards can remain as conditions in play, the gun is one of these and can be passed between players at any point. However, it is only useful if you have bullets in your hand. Of course, you need to be careful; you could be trying to kill an opposition character with a health of four, two sets of bullets would dispatch him. So, you choose to use your bullets, pass the gun for your companion to finish the job.
However, you discover they are the assassin when they use your gun on you, providing two wounds to you. This is then made worse as the opposition character has not been killed off and you are now forced to take the additional wounds. With most characters having only 7-9 health, it doesn’t take long for you to be headed towards your last gasps. This is another great mechanic providing a second chance at life. You get the chance to play additional cards that may allow you to heal, or borrow healing cards from other players.
However, you only have three chances to heal and complete the current event. So in some cases, last gasps just prolong the agony as you try desperately to cling to life.
All action cards are played face down and in an alternating pattern between players. So not knowing what the other player has played is always a worry. You may end up with the wrong combination of cards and so take the resulting damage. Then you have to wonder, could this be down to miscommunication or was the other player trying to do you in? As with all hidden traitor games this game starts to build that lack of trust right from the start. It feels even more personal with such a low player count. Making the feelings of mistrust and the moments when you are stabbed in the back even more painful/enjoyable. Depending on which side of the coin you find yourself on.
Some of the action cards allow you to interact with allies, another deck of cards. Allies introduce a set collection mechanic. If you are able to collect the allotted number of the same ally, you gain an additional persistent effect that is beneficial for the rest of the game.
Another great addition to the rule book is the inclusion of the conserved energy spaces. Up to four cards can be placed in this section as part of your possible actions. When players are drawing their cards back up to four, at the end of their turn, they can choose to draw one of these cards. This allows players to either pass cards that may be useful to other players. Who may be stuck behind the broken road space, or getting dangerously close to their last gasps. Or it is a means of getting rid of a card that could provide real damage to others. As such a careless assassin might pick this up.
The game comes with a huge level of replayability. The number of cards for such a game is great and there are so many different options. The game also comes with a number of small add on packs that allow for more complex, in depth games. And the addition of a third player. The additional packs add some great new cards to the deck which increase the fun. Strategy required to beat the game and any assassin in your ranks.
As you make your way down the road in Mantis Falls, you will uncover more and more difficulties to be overcome. A constant stream of unfortunate incidents will befall you and you will have your progress hampered by a group of opponents. Their sole aim is to prevent you getting your story out of town. Along with the difficulties present in the town there is of course the risk that one of those sharing your journey could also be out to get you.
The game ends in one of two ways, either you all get to the end of the road, or one or more players dies. Firstly, if you all get to the end, the witnesses win. If there is an assassin amongst you and a witness dies the assassin wins. If the player killed is the assassin, the witnesses win.
Mantis Falls was a massive hit at our game night we all loved playing it. Each game was different, and the balance between co planning and the gradual change in trust kept things exciting. You really do feel this one! The sense of joy as you manage to overcome opposition. Only to lose health in the next turn and the constant fight to build the right hand of cards. Balancing the chance to cause damage, yet heal illustrates how well designed this game is. Working out whether your friends are really friends keeps you on your toes. The unseen cards make it so difficult to work out.
The assassin can lurk in the dark blaming your wounds on an unlucky draw. You cannot be sure if they are telling the truth. Because on the last seen card they helped you out and an assassin wouldn’t do that… would they?
Mantis falls, looks and feels great. Distant Rabbit have captured the essence of those old movies. It really does feel as though you are in the midst of the 40’s. Although it is not clear what you witnessed, you do feel like you are really trying to get out of this awful place to tell your secrets. It creates the atmosphere perfectly and long after the game ends. We were still talking about the journey down the road we had been on. So lay the road out on the table. Find out if you are a witness or an assassin.Finally, do your best to get the secret out. Or make sure you keep it safe inside Mantis Falls at whatever cost…