Publisher: Devious Weasel
Game Designer: Jim Felli
Artist: Tani Pettit, Naomi Robinson
Playing Time: 20 minutes
Suggested Retail Price: $25
You are the muse
Devious Weasel has cut their teeth with three titles now; the very well received Shadows of Malice and its expansion, along with the strangely interesting Zimby Mojo, which I reviewed last year. Now we have another venture through the slightly bent design vision of designer Jim Felli, with Bemused. Felli has a penchant for off-beat, outlandish theme’s, but knows how to meld the mechanics to make them work incredibly well.
If you’ve ever felt a kindred attachment to Erik ‘The Phantom’ and Christine Daaé, you’ll get your chance to emulate their doomed relationship in Bemused. Your role is that of a timeless being, acting as a Muse for a human virtuoso, with the goal of elevating them to the pinnacle of success. To do so, you’ll need to destroy your protégé’s rivals, casting doubt and dread to drive them insane, or to the great beyond.
Inspiration and dread
Those who have played any of Felli’s past designs already know that they’re not standard fare, and Bemused is no different. Unlike most social games, Bemused is not about rooting out a hidden role for the win. It’s simply about maximizing points, and fulfilling your secret agenda, while hampering other players in doing the same.
That’s because, unlike the assumption at first glance, Bemused is not a social deduction game. While it is most certainly a social game, requiring a healthy dose of chatter, diplomacy, deal making, and manipulation, this is not the standard social game we’ve grown accustomed to.
It will take a few plays for you to really grok, not that it’s a complex game, but because it’s quite different. Players will be required to rethink how they interact socially in a game, and not be afraid of being a little schemer to get the win. Don’t worry, you’ll be surrounded by them. It’s a fast-playing game that clocks in at around 20 minutes, so notching a few plays quickly is fairly easy.
Each player is randomly assigned a virtuoso, one of six different artists; dancer, thespian, musician, poet, painter, and singer. Virtuosos have gained inspiration their entire lives from what is called their gemina, the other virtuoso’s in the game, which is hidden at the game start. Your virtuoso maintains a deep connection with their gemina, and they are not revealed until your virtuoso goes insane or does so by their own choice. Your virtuoso can even have themselves as a gemina, making for an interesting exercise in malignant narcissism. This is where some may deem this a social deduction game, but it’s only a piece of the overall puzzle that this game provides. More on geminas in a bit.
Virtuosos harbor a secret attitude towards their gemina, and there are twelve of these, with six being unique. These secrets are agendas tied to your virtuoso and their gemina, similar to traitor mechanics in other games. If the conditions are met, you gain a scoring bonus in the end game.
Gameplay itself is straightforward, as you draw, play and discard cards from your hand to instill doubt and dread amongst your fellow artists. These cards drive the action, and can be played in more than one way.
Doubt cards are played on their matching virtuoso, to start that virtuoso on the road to madness. Once five of these cards are played on a virtuoso, they go insane or pass from this earthly plane. Contrary to other games, dying in this game does not take you out of play, or contention for the win!
You can also play doubt cards on your virtuoso, to enable their special abilities. These unique abilities allow you to change conditions of cards played on any virtuoso, including your own. This is an interesting take on the conflict of self-induced doubt for an artist, while competing against rivals. It’s a fine balancing act, and one that can easily put you in a padded room if you push too far. Some people maintain that insanity is the hallmark of true genius, in this game you can test that theory.
Back to the gemina cards for a moment, they play a critical function to your success. Once revealed, their abilities can also be played by the virtuoso, as long as that gemina’s virtuoso is still alive. This doubles the available powers for your virtuoso, giving you great flexibility in manipulating cards.
Insane virtuosos are, as you would expect, much less decisive. As such, they can only play one of two randomly drawn cards from their hand on their turn, making it more challenging to accomplish their goals. Insanity in the game is reversible, once you reduce those doubt/dread cards below five, but it’s not easy.
Dread cards are as bad as they sound, three of these and your virtuoso dies. Once dead, the virtuoso is now a fantasma, which wipes all doubt and dread from your card. As mentioned earlier, players are not eliminated from play once their virtuoso dies. Free of your earthly concerns for dread and doubt, you are now more singularly focused on eliminating other players to score more points.
Once there are fewer than two sane virtuoso’s remaining, the game ends and the scoring phase determines the winner. On average, games take about 20 minutes, as long as there’s not a lot of AP in the group.
Amused or bemused?
It’s tough to properly encapsulate this game into the written word. Bemused is a game that plays similar to games we’re familiar with, yet defies the standard tropes. While the game looks and at times can feel like a social deduction game, it isn’t. This is one of those games that requires thinking outside of the box, and a willingness to let go of some pre-conceived notions. Bemused needs to be experienced multiple times, digested and reflected upon. That is a standard trait of games from Devious Weasel.
Playing the virtuoso in different states causes the gamer to alter their strategies on the fly, and never feels dull. While sane, you are the ultimate manipulator, making pacts and alliances to protect yourself, while harming others, and advancing your secret agenda. Once insane, the limited card options available to you induce fairly chaotic play that is tough for others to work with. The final stage as fantasma is quite freeing, as you are solely focused on wreaking havoc and destroying your opponents. There’s a distinct feel to each state, and all are enjoyable.
While I have enjoyed Bemused, and do recommend it, I also understand that not everyone will feel the same. Some of that is due to it being a social game, of which I’m generally not a big fan, except with the right groups and at conventions. The other is getting past the games odd veneer, and requirement for direct social interaction. It’s not your standard social game, and will take people out of their comfort zones a bit. Those who don’t like negotiating, and deal making and breaking, will likely give this one a miss.
As with all social centric games, your experience is highly dependent on the group at the table. If it’s played as a social deduction game, you will be fairly disappointed. If the group is experimental, and willing to embrace the social aspects of wheeling and dealing that this game invokes, things will go much more smoothly.
Before I forget, let me say that the art is brilliant, and very evocative of the artistic theme of the game. It’s so easy to overlook putting such beautiful art in a short game like this. Devious Weasel has made great strides forward in this area from their first game, with this being the finest looking of the bunch.
For those headed to Gen Con this week, designer Jim Felli will be there running demos of the game. If this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend taking a little bit of time to sit with the game, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Company Website: http://deviousweasel.com/
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/DeviousWeaselGM
Note: A copy of this game was provided to me for this review.