Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tekeli-Li: fun, but muddled and sloppy

A couple weekends ago I played a card game called Tekeli-Li. It's a Cthulhu-themed card game. Or, at least, it's trying to be. And that's the problem for me, it's the Cthulhu theme, but applied really lightly, and without much skill. Had it been the same mechanics with no theme at all, I may have been happier. Had the scoring mechanics been less clunky, or had anything to do with what the cards represented, I'd have been a lot happier. As it was, it was fun, but it left scratching my head.

It's a trick-taking game, which means you already know roughly what the play style is like. I'll start with a brief analysis of the remaining mechanics. Most of the cards are worth zero points. A handful, however, are negative points. They range from (IIRC) -10 to -240. So you don't want to take any tricks. There's a few cards that do weird things, like cancel each other out, or make you round differently.

Oh right, rounding: at the end of each hand, you divide the negative points you took by 100, and round towards zero. You then get a number of tokens equal to the absolute value of that number. Tokens are bad, the winner is the person with the fewest tokens after a certain number of hands.

Why negative scoring? Why then take absolute value? Why divide by 100? Why have inconsistent rounding? They could have just printed the cards with 1/10th the value, and it would have affected nothing, but that's at least a mistake common to many games. The negative value is, I think, so that it feels like sanity in Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian games - except you wouldn't then expect to start from 0 sanity, would you? And then this whole rounding thing - you round up towards zero, which is the same as rounding down after you take the absolute value, so it's good for you. Unless you have a particular card, which makes you instead round up, which is down, which is bad for you. Which is way more complicated than it needs to be, given that the card in question would be functionally identical if it were just -100 points. You'd get the exact same result in 9 hands out of 10, without having to change the way you round when you get a particular card.

It feels like a lot of superfluous and needless math, even if it's not terribly difficult. It's mainly just a hurdle to be jumped in trying to teach the game. If you went with positive points, with no rounding or absolute value nonsense, the game would be far easier to pick up and explain. Not to mention easier to spot-check people's totals if you thought someone had made a mistake or was cheating. I suppose I can accept, however, the idea that the unwarranted complexity is intentionally designed to make it all a tiny bit confusing, so it feels like a descent into madness.

Perhaps, then, it's intended to push the flavor and theme. Too bad the theme was applied so sloppily to rest of the game.
  • The negative point cards depict various eldritch horrors, from Deep Ones up to Azathoth. That much makes sense. If I have a face-to-face with gnarly hotep, I expect to lose something from the exchange.
  • The zero point cards are ordinary people. Construction workers, doctors, even little girls. Sure, you need these folks in any good Mythos tale, but they're not terribly exciting.
  • Perhaps that's just right, given that they are zero points. But here's where the first bit of the flavor starts to fail. Tekeli-Li is the sound made by the horrible things in Antarctica in both Lovecraft and Poe. The characters depicted on the zero-point cards aren't wearing cold-weather gear, and don't have jobs that correspond to the characters in those stories. Neither are the monsters restricted to the denizens of the Mountains of Madness. If it was all Shoggoths and Old Ones, with human explorers and professors, the name of the game would make sense. Instead, it feels like the name was chosen because "it has something-or-other to do with Cthulhu". They're making a game ostensibly for Lovecraft fans, but show very little knowledge of the actual Lovecraft tales.
  • Minor gripe: The cards are arranged into suits: red/fire, blue/water, black/earth, and white/air, with corresponding imagery in the margins. Any real student of Lovecraft will tell you that August Derleth's elemental associations for the various Great Old Ones was spurious, contradictory, and definitely not in H.P.'s original concepts. Why make that a major part of the game?
  • The cards with special abilities are equally weird. The most common of these is doctors. If you play a doctor, it cancels the previous doctor. I guess that's getting a second opinion? Why should Azathoth be captured by 1 doctor, but not by 2? I can't quite grok what the card plays are supposed to represent.
  • The Necronomicon appears on two cards. In Lovecraft's stories, it's a book that gets referenced a lot, but doesn't do much other than reveal horrible truths that you'd rather not know. So, I'd expect it to cost you some sanity just like the monsters, but perhaps less. Instead, if you have 1 copy of the Necronomicon in your score pile, it's zero points - as dangerous as a little girl or a construction worker. If you have both copies of Necronomicon, however, it's worth positive (good) points. We kept joking that the book of ultimate evil has a really uplifting surprise ending, which will make you feel all better if you just stick with it through the dense second half.
  • But the strangest of the cards with special rules is the telephone. That's right, the telephone. It's the card that makes you round away from zero (so, down, but up when you're taking the absolute value, and so overall it's bad for you). I can think of one Lovecraft tale where the protagonist was worried about people eavesdropping on the "party line" that was the only phone line in Dunwich - so maybe that's it. Someone please explain to me why the telephone is as harmful as 10 Deep Ones, more ominous than the Necronomicon, and more random than Nyarlathotep.
It's like someone with a very casual and fleeting knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos (someone who'd read one or two Derleth stories, and maybe once played in a Call of Cthulhu one-shot) took the card game Hearts, obfuscated the scoring system with arbitrary mathematical functions that serve no purpose, stapled a Squid onto it, and said "I bet the fan boys will spend $14.95 on this!"

For the record: I could be talked into playing it again, but I certainly wouldn't spend money on it. It's a game that could use a major overhaul and revised second edition. Which is a shame, given the great artwork on the cards. The visuals of the game are the best part, slick and very professional.

1 comment:

ferry said...

Thanks for sharing nice review on cards. pleases share with me if you have more information on it. I have needed.