London Dread is a fully-cooperative game for 2-4 players set in a gothic, Lovecraft-infused version of London, probably quite similar to the real London of 1899 only with people performing dark magic rituals, and the appearance of the occasional robot monkey.
Players have to navigate across a layout of 24 cards spread across a map of Victorian London, resolving (‘investigating’) them by matching symbols from their characters to those on the cards. Unresolved cards, plus a variety of unfortunate events, will cause the ‘Dread’ to rise (basically the doom track) and make winning that little bit more difficult. Resolved cards can provide benefits, and make it easier to provide the all-important symbols to other cards later on.
Careful planning of your route across the map is essential for success – you often need more than one player at the same location at the same time to investigate a card, particularly the crucial Plot cards.
But – and here’s possibly London Dread’s most interesting aspect – you have to do all of this planning in 12 minutes flat. Using any clock or the game’s free timer app, players must jointly plot 12 moves on their player boards before the time runs out. Then you execute your plan and see how it pans out over the 12 moves, which represent one day in the game.
Game in progress
At the end of the day, you face the Antagonist and a series of challenges, before the final, game-deciding dice roll.
What?! Game-deciding Dice Roll?
Ah, yes, probably a good time to bring this up. After you’ve investigated your way across London and overcome the Antagonist you will have accumulated a number of the game’s Action Dice, which have 4 blank faces and 2 showing a clenched fist (not quite sure why). The doom track – er, I mean Dread track – will be sat at some number between 0 and 49, and that number will determine how many clenched fists you have to roll to win. That’s it. Good roll = win, bad roll = lose.
You just lost
The balance between the Dread level and the number of dice you have is determined by your joint performance during the game, so better play will certainly improve your chances of winning, but the level of luck in this showdown dice-roll is just too high. Or at least it feels too high, regardless of the maths. You can easily have 10 dice and roll 3 fists, or 5 dice and roll 4. Losing an entire game (where a significant part of it has been an exercise in planning) due to the randomness of a dice roll, is really not fun. And it takes the gloss off winning too somehow, which is possibly worse.
If you’re OK with this pivotal event being dice-driven then… that’s great, because the rest of London Dread is certainly an interesting challenge.
Production – Thick Cardboard but No Minis
London Dread is a cardboard-heavy game that weighs in at over 2kg, with a huge 6-fold board and double-thickness player ‘clocks’ amongst the many chits, tokens, linen-finished cards and standees. The physical quality is excellent, although the presence of an entire deck of replacement cards in the box, to replace misprinted ones in the edition I received, was a bit of a bad omen; however the later print runs don’t have this issue.
Apart from a couple of glaring omissions, London Dread’s rulebook does a reasonable job of describing the rather over-complicated gameplay. The main omissions relate to the start of the Endgame phase; the first being that each player should receive one Action Die (or two dice in a 2-player game, which is mentioned later in the rules) at the start of the phase. The second is that all accumulated Confidence cards should be distributed evenly between the players, and that these can be selected and played from the hand instead of being drawn face down as they are in the main part of the game. Again, if you receive a print run other than the first, you should find the rules have been updated.
You won’t be unhappy with the production values of London Dread, although you might think with an RRP pushing £50 that there could be a handful of minis instead of the character standees.
Gameplay – Matching Bulls and Peacocks
There are 6 characters in London Dread, each with a unique player board detailing their abilities and back-story. There are two female characters among the six but with one being a nun and the other a ‘burlesque dancer’ maybe the less said about them the better. Each character also has a unique deck of 6 Personality cards, 5 of which provide extra bonuses when resolving Plot cards, and one which provides the complete opposite, representing a traumatic event that comes back to haunt the character just at the wrong time.
After the slightly convoluted task of distributing the Dread cards face down across the map of London, the 12 minute planning phase is started (the app for this is free for both iOS and Android and is very professionally done, or you can of course just use any kind of timer). Everyone frantically flips over the Dread cards until the 5 special Plot cards are revealed – you have to reveal all 5 but you can go further and keep turning over more Dread cards if you wish, as unresolved cards cause the Dread level to rise. You won’t know on your first game when to stop, but you probably will on the second!
Jacqueline and The Professor tackle a Dread card
The task you have to plan is for players to visit as many Dread cards as possible and ‘investigate’ them by matching the symbols on the cards with those on your characters. Sometimes just one player can investigate a card, other cards might need two or more. There are a number of ways to boost your ability to match symbols (notably equipment cards you can pick up) but for maximum efficiency you will want to have players tackling the cards that best match their abilities, and joining forced on the tougher ones. Resolved cards go into an Investigation Deck that you can draw from when investigating other Dread cards, using the symbols on them as though they were your characters’ abilities, so the better you do early on, the easier it will be later.
Things get more complicated when you visit the special Plot cards. These are the turning points of the story, and new subset of rules apply. Players who visit Plot cards (and they are compulsory) have to draw from their Personality deck and throw dice according to the card being investigated. Here, with luck, you can gain valuable equipment to help with further investigations, or you can end up being injured or traumatised, which can be a problem later.
These handy items might save your skin, or your soul
Once you have visited all the Plot cards the unresolved Dread cards cause the Dread level to rise, and the higher the Dread level the more successes you’ll need on the final dice roll.
When playing London Dread’s first story “The Letter” you now enter the Endgame, where the Antagonist card and a series of Challenge cards are laid out for all players to take on if they wish; individual players can chicken out they’re injured, or just feeling pathetic. Yet another subset of rules applies in this phase of the game, and this is when you can earn more dice to use in the game’s final dice fest.
In the other three stories there is a second ‘chapter’ before the Endgame; the board is reset with Dread cards, and the entire planning and investigating phase begins again. Twice as hard and double the dread.
At the end of the Endgame all surviving players – and yes because “this is London Dread not London Picnic” there is player elimination in this phase – collect up their fistful of hard-earned Action Dice and… well you know what happens then.
The Stories – Oooh, Dark, Creepy etc.
Plot cards from the first story
London Dread offers you 4 scenarios with unique cards, setups and rules, all documented in a separate “Story Guide”. The first scenario is the one-chapter learning game which you will probably want to have a few goes at before you tackle the other three, which are two chapters long.
The stories follow on from each other too so there is a feeling of this being a campaign that becomes progressively harder, but there is no ‘legacy’ element so any story can be played individually.
Summary – HP Lovecraft or HP Sauce?
London Dread is like one of those blockbuster films that get released and make zero impact despite the star-studded cast, award-winning director and $150 million budget. For all its flavour text and storyline, it failed to engage me. The stories churn through an entire thesaurus of adjectives – “dark”, “grotesque”, “brooding”, “strange” – in an attempt to create mood, but it didn’t manage to make me care about the plot or the characters. However if you like Lovecraft and that style of literature you’ll probably like the London Dread milieu quite a lot more than I did.
A typical Dread card
Mechanically London Dread is solid co-op material of “go there and match those to get that” although once again, in order to get into the spirit of the game, you might have to make the effort to think in terms of “courage” and “guile” rather than lions and snakes; “We need 2 pigeons and a peacock over here” kind of breaks the mood. Plus the real-time element introduces a fun and frantic element and adds tension to what could otherwise be a dry planning exercise.
London Dread lives and dies by whether or not you can get into the theme and the story. If you like Eldritchy, Arkhamy, gothicy stuff, then you’ll probably love it; and to be fair there are plenty of people on BGG who appear to love London Dread. Personally I could not get into it and I felt I could get a similar symbol-matching co-op experience without the complex rules by playing The Big Book of Madness, or with a more interesting (to me) theme with Shadowrun: Crossfire. For these reasons I’m rating London Dread an OK-only 6 out of 10.
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Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.