Across the frozen wastes, rushing rivers and verdant forests of the Northern Expanse, humanity tries to carve out settlements – but great, mythic Beasts have risen to defend the land from their incursions. Villages are forced to hire Hunters, master trackers to conquer the Beasts and keep humanity from the brink. Will you become the Beast? Or will you strike it down?
Beast is an exciting new hidden-movement game from Studio Midhall for 2-4 players, with one or more players taking on the role of hunters whilst one is the titular creature. Coming off the back of a highly successful Kickstarter, game combines deck-based hidden movement for the Beast with card-drafting of actions (basically search, attack and/or move); Beast and Hunter(s) alike can only take two actions per turn, and as a Hunter you aim to find the Beast’s trail: if you search a location where Beast has been (or the Beast attacks!) its trail is revealed, and you can start to hunt it down; as Beast, you must evade the Hunters (or take the fight to them).
The Number Of The Beast
First of all, let’s talk component quality: it’s pretty impressive. The hero and Beast standees give off a bit of Gloomhaven vibe (or I suppose Frosthaven, more accurately), clearly evoking the characters with distinctive art, whilst the little watchtowers are rather lovely. It’s decent thickness, high gsm with good feel in hand. More generally, the cardstock tokens are good, though not exceptional: the habitat tokens drawn from the (again, lovely) token bag are distinct from the others by size, the ancient power tokens are whacking great swords and the wound tokens are… well, heart-shaped.
If I’m being really picky there might be an accessibility issue there for some gamers – they could perhaps be more distinct.
Pleasingly, though, the two main types of cards are in distinct decks (small card for movement compass points, regular sized hero/beast cards) with sufficiently distinct card backs to make everything very clear. The meeples are absolutely stunning, settlers with the tiny pitchforks and nobles with swords a delight and the various animals, with whorls of gold decoration, look really beautiful; also, by having wooden Upgrade pegs that slot into the (very heavy-duty) character boards you don’t suffer the risk of token scatter (or indeed, token fatigue – we’ve all had it, punching out 5000 tokens…)
Speaking of player character boards, they really are superb: clear, straightforward and very sturdy. The (double-sided) game board itself is likewise beautiful, with the distinctive feel of a classic fantasy novel map, printed to very high quality but without too much sheen (really bugs me when the board is too shiny – is that me?), instead being quite matte and pleasantly tactile. A further gem is the micromat that allows the Beast to track their own position, complete with quick reference display. Also, the addition of A5 sized art cards is a lovely touch – the art of the game really is quite spectacular, so having key pieces to display really adds an extra something.
Run To The Hills
The game itself is played over 3 phases (Dawn, Day and Night); when a number of turns have passed (usually 3, but varies by scenario), even if the Beast has not been destroyed, the Hunters win as Reinforcements arrive to slay the Beast. Fundamental to the game is its hidden movement mechanic; the Beast plays from its own movement deck to the board, with a marker indicating only the Beast’s last known location. The Beast player seats themselves facing North, whilst the Hunters take the opposite side of the board; this reinforces the oppositional-yet-co-operative feel. The scenarios are on 2 “Contract” boards – two 2/3 player scenarios, 2 4 player, each using different sides of the map (further scenarios, and customisation rules, are available for download from the Studio Midhall site – you even get a handy QR code to scan and take you straight there!)
Into The Woods
In the game’s Dawn phase – having first placed the Beast at the centre of the map and players in a Settlement – Action cards are drafted between the players. In two player, the Hunter player controls two Hunters with two separate “hands”, whilst in 4 player, the Beast gets an extra card, to preserve balance. Now, in some ways the 2 player version can feel a little cumbersome; however, it also takes the game weight up to the upper end of mid so is equally a more satisfying challenge, if that’s your preferred poison.
During the main Day phase, you play Action cards, Hunters using the text on the upper box, The Beast on the Lower – so when drafting you are not only considering what will help yourself (and teammates, if Hunters) but hinder your opponent, or at least help them least. A further interesting twist is that, whilst you can play two a turn, only one may be a RED standard action and one BLUE special – forcing you to not only draft with care but plan which way you are going to respond to the plays of others. You have a number of character specific action cards, which you always have but can only play a limited number of times, and any card can be discarded for a single move.
Some cards are also Habitat dependent (Forest, Swamp, Cave or Settlement) – and different Beasts tend to favour specific Habitats, which can further affect both sides’ decisions – whilst others require Grudges. These are a means of marking the physical and mental scars of your past (whether as Beast or Hunter): the Beast typically gains them from hunting the animals of the expanse (sheep being less dangerous than bears, so grant fewer Grudges) or indeed human Settlers, whilst Hunters gain them from completing their contracts on the Beast (such as doing it a certain amount of damage, or killing its Summoned lesser beasts).
At Nightfall, you may upgrade your unique abilities on your board (or in the case of the Beast, damage also) which are typically passive but occasionally can trigger one-off effects; also, dead Hunters are resurrected by the Village Shaman, so no player is completely out of the game. However, if the Beast is not destroyed by the specified Night, or 3 settlers have been eaten, The Beast wins!
The Beast Is Back
Where this game really succeeds is the way it combines so many different aspects well. It’s a deduction game, with a dash of the social – the round-table banter (or, in the case of my children, bickering) – as the Hunters plan their turn is all part of the immersive feel of the game, whilst the hand-drafting plays to the tactical gamer and builds the complexity of the whole package without tipping into the upper end of mid-weight. It’s a really impressive package, and with 6 heroes and 6 beasts, all with very different play styles, plus a choice of maps and the ability to customise Contracts also, the replay value is massive. Playable in under a hour, it’s a superb game and a welcome addition to the shelf!