Don’t Turn Your Back, from Evil Hat Productions (Race To Adventure, Zeppelin Attack!), is a moody, atmospheric game in which players will take on the role of the Awake as they struggle to survive the Mad City, a sinister realm of nightmares and phantasms. Who among us will garner the favor of the Wax King, whose alliance comes at terrible cost, and which of us will simply join his court of the Smothered Folk, trapped for all time in a waxen prison?
Don’t Turn Your Back is designed by Eric B. Vogel (who designed, among other things, the bite-sized and definitely fun Romans Go Home!) and plays between 2-4 players. Clocking in at just under an hour (your analysis paralysis may vary), it is a competitive deck-driven card game in which players will compete across the Mad City, vying for control and influence. Over the course of the game, players will gather allies, attack one another, and twist under the ever-changing laws of the city, and at the end of the game, the player with the highest score will be the victor.
Gameplay itself is fairly straightforward, once you have it down. Players will receive identical starting decks; these represent Nightmares within the Mad City over whom the players have influence. In turns, players will use cards from their hand by assigning them to the various areas of the Mad City. Each card is restricted in which district it can be placed, though most cards can potentially be used in more than one area.
You can send Nightmares to the City Slumbering, where they will help you draft new cards into your deck from your own personal reserve. Or you can deploy your cards to the High School, where you will score Candles (victory points) directly. Agents sent to the Bizarre Bazaar will enact unique actions, often manipulating other areas of the city or attacking your opponents. District 13 is where the ever-shifting Laws of the Mad City are enacted, and Nightmares you dispatch there will help you seize opportunities (or negate penalties) which change from round to round.
And of course there is the Wax Kingdom, where you can permanently sacrifice cards to the Wax King in exchange for potent end-game scoring opportunities.
Once players have assigned all their cards (possibly having activated card abilities as they are placed), each area of the city is scored according to its rules, granting controlling players additional actions or Candles (points).
After this is done, most (but not all) of the cards will be discarded from the board, a new hand will be drawn, and gameplay will continue for a set number of rounds based on the number of players. Interestingly, each round will see a new Law put into effect, causing clever players to constantly shift their strategies. After the last round, final Candle totals are calculated and a winner is declared.
Don’t Turn Your Back is, mechanically, an interesting mashup of several gameplay types. Each player is playing a (mostly) solitaire deckbuilding game, as they draw additional dream denizens into their influence. They then send these Nightmares to the various districts of the Mad City in what is essentially a worker placement mechanic. Finally, at the end of the round, players determine who has taken control of the different areas of the city and are rewarded for doing so, in the classic style of area control.
Jess: For me, on paper at least, once you get past your second or third core gameplay mechanic, I get nervous. I love deckbuilding. I love worker placement. I love area control. But to have all of those systems going at the same time in a game, without any of them feeling either underdone or unnecessary is really hard to do well. But Don’t Turn Your Back does a really smart job of keeping all of it working smoothly.
Andrew: Absolutely. The mechanics are really clean and, despite the large number of options on any given turn, strong iconography (and color-coded values) let you immediately identify how different cards might be played. And since the board uses different numbers of (clearly labeled) spaces to accommodate different player numbers, you are always left with just not-quite-enough space to do everything you want to do in a turn, which makes choices much more meaningful.
Jess: The theme of the game is very dark and surreal, connected to Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head roleplaying game. Fans of that RP series will undoubtedly squeal with horrified delight as they recognize names and themes from the setting sprinkled throughout this game…but we’re not among them.
Andrew: Yeah, we’ve never tried Don’t Rest Your Head, so we can’t really comment on how faithfully Don’t Turn Your Back translates the RP experience into a board game (aside from the similarly prohibitive titles, at least). This review is strictly of Don’t Turn Your Back, however, I’d wager that it could only enrich the gameplay to have a firm basis in the theming.
And the theming is very neat. The game’s art and delivery are decidedly sinister, conveying a nightmarescape of images just recognizable enough to be unnerving. Taking any time to truly examine your cards yields some pretty grim results, and the story snippets provided in the rules and on the player boards further characterize the frightening, sinister world of the Mad City. It’s good stuff, for sure.
For as good as the theme is, it isn’t a roleplaying game by any stretch. The theme penetrates the gameplay a fair bit; cards sacrificed to the Wax Kingdom are encased and therefore removed from your deck, agents sent to District 13 help you interact with the ever-shifting Law cards drawn from there. However, why sending nightmares to the High School lets you score candles is anybody’s guess.
The only substantive negative I can come up with is that they really missed out on the opportunity to differentiate the characters at all. Each player starts with not only an identical starting deck (perfectly typical deckbuilding fair), but they all draft cards from their own personal stock decks, which are also identical. Sure, players will draw cards in different orders and with different frequencies from game to game, but ultimately, it’s all the same cards over and over.
And for as much care as was given to provide some flavor text for each player board, there are no variable player powers, no unique advantage, no spark of individuality that would serve to make the cop with the magical gun play any differently than the girl with the drug-fueled rave powers. Which is a shame, because if Don’t Turn Your Back does anything amazingly, it is that it makes me curious about the stories of the world which inspired it.
Jess: Heck yeah it does. The source material resonated really well with us, and I wasn’t surprised at all that it was inspired by a roleplaying setting. Sure, they could have squeezed a little more uniqueness into the mechanics, but its mechanics are so smoothly meshed it’s hard for me to get annoyed about that.
Andrew: I’m a teensie bit less forgiving, only because I am a little more worried about its long-term replayability, but the bottom line is that Don’t Turn Your Back is a really fun, solid game. Once everyone becomes familiar with its iconography, gameplay is fast, intuitive, and surprisingly engaging.
We don’t have any compunctions about recommending Don’t Turn Your Back as is, and we think it makes a really great introduction into what is obviously a really interesting game universe!
(As if driven by nightmarish compulsion, Evil Hat Productions sent us our copy of Don’t Turn Your Back for review. That didn’t scare us into liking their game – we did that on our own, thanks)