Social deduction is one of my favourite mechanisms. I love the puzzle of working out who is being sincere, and who is lying through their teeth. Some of the best social deduction games like Werewolf and Blood on the Clocktower require large groups, something which is often an obstacle for me.
It Takes Two (Sometimes Three)
When I found out that Mantis Falls was a social deduction game for 2-3 players, it was a no-brainer. So I guess the big question is whether a social deduction game can work at a low player count, or do games of hidden roles and hidden motives really need more to be better?
Before we even get into the game, I want to delve into the story behind Mantis Fall’s creation. First-time designer Adrian Kerrihard and his partner lived in different parts of the US and often played games online. When they did this, they found their conversations weren’t often about the games being played. This led to wanting to create a game where interactions mattered.
Witnesses & Assassins!
Each game starts with players finding out if they are a witness or an assassin. The witnesses are just trying to leave Mantis Falls and survive the night. The assassin has a very different job to do, but obviously they don’t want to give the game away too early. You’re then given a hand of six action cards, and a seventh card to “call in a hit”, which I’ll come back to later on. Once you’ve placed the road cards out in a serpentine path (probably fitting for a game where my partner accuses me of being a snake at least ten times before we’ve even started) you’re ready to go!
A player’s turn follows six steps, which starts with an initial movement. They can move their piece one space along the path before picking up an event card. Once the event has been read out, players choose which actions they want to take from their hand and place them face down in the order they want to play them. If you’re not wanting to play cards, you can simply discard cards, use a card to conserve energy, or simply do nothing. Once actions have been processed, the event is resolved before all players draw back up to seven cards, and the next round begins. The game ends when the witness or witnesses escape, or the assassin has killed them.
Now I’ve given you a rough idea of how the game plays, let me tell you why Mantis Falls is a tense and wonderful monster.
There are three modules which include characters who have between seven to nine lives. The base game sees you playing as urbanites, who can only take a maximum of eight wounds before they have to make a “last gasp” play. Wounds can quite easily be caused by events, from ambushes on the road cards, and quite often caused by the other players. There are opportunities to heal wounds, but those are scarce in comparison to the ways of causing them. The game is relentless. You get caught between trying to get to the end of the road as quickly as possible and just trying to survive your next turn.
Events can be oppositions who are trying to attack the players as they move through the roads, or could simply be an incident. Event cards can also be seen or unseen. Seen events have to be placed on the table for all to read, but unseen cards can be… adapted. For example, if a card says that failing an event would cause you to “suffer four damage divided between the players,” it doesn’t mean that it must be equally divided. If you’re a witness who suspects they’re paired with an assassin, there’s nothing to stop you saying “oh yeah… you have to take four damage. Hard lines old chum.” These unseen events add suspense and tension to an already frenzied game.
As I mentioned before, chances to heal are pretty scarce, and one way to do this is by conserving energy. This means playing an action card face up on the playmat rather than using its action. Once there are four cards here, these can be used as a means of healing for one player. It’s also a good way of swapping cards, as players can pick up a conserved card rather than drawing blind from the action deck. Certain action cards such as “teamwork” or “strength in numbers” require more than one person to play them for their effect to have any impact, so being able to swap cards is key. Each action card has its own suit, and players can only play more than one action card from their hand if it’s from the same suit.
Then there is the ‘midnight’ suit, which have incredibly lethal and potentially game-ending actions.
I mentioned earlier that each player starts off with a card that allows them to “call in a hit.” This can be used by either the witness or the assassin, but the way it can be used by both is different. The assassin can only use the card to prevent an event causing players to be wounded. On the other hand, the witness could use the hit to potentially kill off a suspected assassin. Imagine if someone played their hit card to stop you from getting injured. Does that make them more or less likely to be an assassin? An assassin can’t use a hit to kill you, and discarding it looks way more suspicious… but if they’re an assassin why haven’t they tried to kill you already?
Does Mantis Fall Short?
Whilst I strongly believe that Mantis Falls has proven that it’s possible to create the tension and suspense of a deduction game for lower player counts, I do think it has a couple of problems.
I mentioned that Mantis Falls is relentless and there are many different ways in which players can get wounds. I would argue that in some games I’ve played, the assassin hasn’t really had to try very hard to kill me because the game has done that before they’ve had chance to! There are also times when players may be several roads apart from each other, yet you can still use actions to give them wounds. You then find yourself trying to justify how that would happen thematically, like “oh sorry, I must have left that grenade lying around there, take four damage!”
Those are a couple of flaws in an otherwise terrific game, the quality of which is mirrored in its glorious production. Having drawstring bags instead of baggies, a cloth playmat and sleeves for all 200+ cards really show that Mantis Falls is a passion project rather than simply a game. I look forward to getting Mantis Falls back to the table, and looking to see what lurks down those dark streets time and time again.