Bad neighbors can really hurt your property value. I mean who wants to live next to unsightly landscaping, crumbling houses, loud noises and cluttered yards? But what if your neighbors were monsters? Talk about plummeting assessments! So to keep your gated subdivision safe and clean, you better root out those pesky werewolves, vampires, mandrakes, gumihos and mermaids. And quickly – before you find yourself that unwanted neighbor!
How to Play
Monster My Neighbor is a light, quick-playing card game where you’re either guessing who the monster is or hiding your fiendish nature. Then again, you might start out as a normal everyday villager doing your part to root out the creature only to discover you suddenly become the monstrous target yourself! Monsters are known to have identity crises like that.
Game play is very simple and resolved over a series of five hands. To begin each hunt you create the deck according to a certain formula, ensuring only one monster per hand. This isn’t your out-of-control Saturday the 14th kind of mayhem. Each player then receives four cards so that each set consists of four rounds of alternating play.
If you’re the monster, you must lay low until you can play the monster card – usually not until the last round – or pass it off to someone else. The other players try to root the fiend out with hunter cards or the dog. Hunters cannot be played in the first round and may only be effective under certain conditions. For example, if the target has a hide card, she does not have to reveal her monstrous identity to any hunter. However, the hunter will always be effective in the final round if you guess correctly (with one exception), while the dog is only effective in that round, as well.
Still, all is not always straight-forward as it seems. Other cards can alter a scenario’s situation dramatically. You can steal a card or exchange cards from a neighbor, force everyone to exchange cards and look at another’s hand. It’s possible the monster might even gain a friend! When playing the friend card on another, that individual has to discard a hunter if she has one and the fiendish pal now wins or loses along with the monster – whoever that ends up being!
If the monster remains hidden until successfully played then she and any friends win two points. If a hunter successfully traps the deceptive beast then that player earns two points while all of the others (except for the monster and its friends) earns one. If a friend accidentally forces the monster out then such betrayal awards a point to all the others. There are five monsters in the deck, one for each hand. So after five quick games the player with the most points wins and gets to write the next neighborhood covenant – hopefully to keep future undesirables away.
Sulley or Mike Wazowski?
I’ll just go ahead and talk about the 8 ounce gorilla in the room that Monster My Neighbor will likely invoke. This quick-hitting, active design is a step up from Love Letter. In fact it rests within the social deduction category between that title and something like The Resistance. Despite its fast play and small foot print, it’s not necessarily a micro-game like the former. It’s also not as structured and team oriented as the latter. And while its decision points are extremely focused, it’s not nearly as gamer-centric as recent hit Mafia de Cuba. That leaves Monster My Neighbor in a possible quandary. How to make its mark in a crowded field?
Each hand in a full game can play slightly different because there are five unique monsters. Hunters are ineffective against the Gumiho in the last round. Since hunters cannot play in the first round, that means they only have two rounds to root her out. The Mermaid may ignore the first hunter played against her. The Mandrake and Werewolf may be played once two villagers or hunters, respectively, have been played. Once that condition is met, they no longer have to wait until the final round to reveal themselves for the win. Finally, the Vampire receives an extra victory point if successful to the end. Each of these create slightly different hands for some variety that isn’t always a staple in other deduction games.
The most distinctive element to Monster My Neighbor is its nature of changing roles created by card play. You might start out as the monster, but pass it off to another player. Or vice versa. But lest you think this is some gamer’s version of Old Maid, the role and relationships between them are more complex and interlinked. It’s possible you’re dealt the monster along with a hunter and/or friend, fulfilling more than one role. This allows you to employ some double deception that can really throw off the others. It can also create some peculiar situations. I once played a friend to ally with the monster only to acquire that role in a subsequent random redistribution of cards!
The most interesting decision is after acquiring the monster card. If you’re able to dump it on someone else, do you take advantage? Or push your luck to try to keep it? And with only four rounds per hand, you must make it fast or lose any opportunity. If you’re able to pass the card to another player and then immediately expose that individual, you can engineer a clever win and two points. But then the rest of the table gets a point, too. However, if you can safely hide your identity until able to reveal yourself, you’ll monopolize that hand’s points – unless a friend tags along.
The problem is that you’ll often play a card that upsets the dynamics for no other reason but that you have nothing else interesting to play. Sure, there are strategic reasons to forcing players to exchange cards or randomly redistributing some. Those situations are fun to work in your favor. At other times, though, there’s just simply nothing else to do. And sometimes you play a card that has absolutely no effect. So those turns can be boring and lackluster, though the hand won’t last long overall.
Its randomness, then, will largely inform your opinion of Monster My Neighbor, for better or worse. It’s difficult to definitively state that element as a pro or con. On one hand it generates a good deal of fun suspicion as you wonder who has passed which roles to whom. Being forced to give up or trade cards enhances the decision-making. Choices are very important because you only have four cards to resolve one bout of monster hunting…or hiding. The flip side is that frequent hand changes can make the deduction element an extremely tricky proposition. In a way, the design tells its players to guess who’s who, but then tosses in actions that can completely upend the picture once, or if, you’ve accomplished that feat.
Yet these type of small social-oriented games are not particularly deep and strategic to begin with. The randomness isn’t chaos, though it can keenly upset your plan. But in a light game, a little unpredictability and swingy play isn’t a death knell. Indeed this one plays simply and quickly enough that it’s a nice fit for younger gamers and family. It’s a nice start to the genre for those unfamiliar with it.
Another aspect that makes it family friendly is that it doesn’t involve bluffing, deceit or outright lying as many in this family of titles require. You can ignore a hunter with the hide card – if you’re the monster. But that’s not lying. That’s what the action allows you to do. You can also play cards in an attempt to throw others off your scent. But that’s not really bluffing in the traditional sense, a gaming element with which most kids struggle.
Other than its problematic (for some) and arbitrary randomness, really the only major weakness of Monster My Neighbor is that it doesn’t scale very well. In three- and four-player sessions, the monster can manipulate developments a little easier – aided by the good possibility that only one hunter card is in play. If you know where the important roles are to begin with, you can tend to follow them with fewer people. As the player count increases, there are likely to be multiple hunters in the game and the monster’s ability to stay hidden gets tougher. That’s in large measure due to the greater influence randomness exerts with more players.
To be sure there are a fair number of social deduction and micro-games in the hobby. With the volume of new titles produced every year, overlap is common and innovation isn’t. Monster My Neighbor may not present anything completely new, but its frequent card passing and changing nature through five hands of play create dynamic role reversals and shifting alliances. If you can manage the randomness – as in either tolerating it or working it to your advantage – then this lively design has a fresh feel. With its combination of simplicity and fine-tuned decision-making this accessible design makes a good neighbor to other games on any shelf.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing a review copy of Monster My Neighbor.