Review: Claustrophobia

Posted by James (admin) on January 20th, 2010

At first glance, Claustrophobia looks like it could be a fantasy-themed Space Hulk – in fact, I often call it Dungeon Hulk when trying to describe it.  As a big fan of Space Hulk, this is no bad thing at all; however, Claustrophobia is more than just a re-theme of Space Hulk as it has it’s own unique gameplay too.

Set in the tunnels beneath New Jerusalem, Claustrophobia is a game for two players – one playing the demons invading from below and the other playing the humans trying to defeat the demons once and for all.  A Holy man leads a team of condemned thieves and murderers ‘enlisted’ to fight the demons – weak but numerous troglodytes and a few, powerful demons.

The board is made up of tiles showing different tunnels, rooms and junctions.  Some scenarios have a pre-determined map but many begin with a single tile and more tiles get revealed randomly as the tunnels are explored.

Combat and Movement
Both sides use the same game mechanics for movement and combat.  All humans and demons have 3 statistics: Movement,Combat and Defence.  It costs 1 movement point to move to a new tile so long as there are no more than 3 characters of each side on a tile, and a character can not leave a tile if there are more of the opponent’s characters on the tile.  Some tiles have special rules, i.e. narrow tiles restrict the number of characters, and water-filled tiles end a character’s movement when entering or leaving.  Combat is simple too – the attacker rolls a number of dice equal to the attacking character’s combat rating and each dice equal to or higher than the defence rating causes a wound.

The Different Sides Play Differently
Whilst combat and movement are the same for each side, the way each side’s actions are determined are very different and offer a lot of choices.

The core gameplay for the human player is that the stats of their characters are determined every round.  Each human character has a board showing 6 lines of different mixtures of stats.  For example, line 1 may show movement 1, combat 3 and defense 3; whereas, line 3 may show movement 2, combat 1 and defense 4.  Each different character type has different mixtures of stats too. 

At the start of each round, the player rolls a number of dice equal to the number of characters and then allocates one dice to each character.  The number assigned determines which line of stats on the character’s board will be used that round.  When a human character suffers a wound, one of their stat lines is marked out-of-action.  A dice allocated to an out-of-action line means the character is exhausted and can only defend that turn.  If all 6 lines are out of action then the character is dead.

Human characters may carry equipment, plus the Redeemer (holy man) starts with two special skills which are linked to one of their lines of stats.  When a dice is assigned to a line with a special skill, the skill can be used.  These skills range from healing to boosting stats to arranging the next 3 tunnel tiles.

The demon player on the other hand has fixed stats for their troglodytes and demons; however, they have a special board with 10 different options.  The player rolls 3 dice and allocates them for different effects.  Some options require dice to add up to a specific total, or show specific scores, or show all odd score, and so on.  The effects range from rolling additional dice, gaining event cards, boosting demons’ stats and skills, gaining Threat Points, and more.

The demon player spends Threat points to gain forces (2 for a troglodyte, 5 for a demon) and these can be brought onto any tile where there are unexplored passages leading off of it and where there are no human characters.  There are also a few other ways for demons to appear on tiles.  The scenario being played determines which type and amount of demons available.

The  goal of the game is laid out in the scenario.  Often it is for the human player to achieve their target before their characters are all killed off (as the demon player has unlimited troglodyte). During this, both players have their own decks of event cards too which give them special actions and/or abilities – the human player normally starts with one or two but the demon player can gain them by assigning dice. 


The explanation above has turned out to be quite long but only because the game mechanics within it are quite different to most and each player has very different systems.  In actuality though, Claustrophobia is a simple game.

Combat and movement are very simple and easy to learn, as are the other rules in the game, but there are still lots of choices to be made both in assigning dice in a way that maximises their actions as well as deciding on the best use of the actions available.  New players may take time to work out the best dice assignment (especially when all characters have no wounds) but we found the game played quickly as it’s a relatively light game.  It is possible to plan ahead to some extent but you’ll need to adapt if the dice you roll can’t be assigned in the way you hope, so the game is more tactical than it is strategic.

The 6 scenarios included with the game are nicely varied and tell a sequential story, although you don’t need to play them in order.  The scenarios appear to have good replay value too because of the variety in the dice available to be allocated, the outcomes of combat, the random tile layout, plus there is a method for generating the human’s set-up too (using a points system).  Saying that, I would have liked there to have been more pre-written scenarios as 6 isn’t very many, and it is good to see that the publisher has already released 3 new scenarios on their web site.

We did find that the game was much more difficult for the human player.  The game gets harder for the humans as scenarios progress because their character’s take damage and start to be unable to act.  Attrition like this isn’t a design problem because games often work this way (Space Hulk has the same effect and that has well-balanced scenarios.)  However, we found 3 key areas that made it difficult for the human player.

First, the human player seems weaker because of their limited resources versus the demons almost unlimited resources.  Second, demons can potentially gain multiple event cards each turn which can be quite powerful, whereas humans rarely gain their event cards.  (Maybe the demon player should be allowed to draw multiple cards on a turn, but only keep one of them.)  Finally, generating random tile layouts offers good replay value but it also adds a large luck factor – this doesn’t affect the demon player much but can really punish the human player.  For example, in one of our games, the human player was progressing quite well but then drew several dead-ends and had to fight all the way back through the tiles they’d come through.  This may just be our inexperience at playing the humans, but we’re both experienced gamers and we suspect the game is simply more of a challenge for the human player.

Physically, the game is really nice – the tiles are big and solid, and the figures are all painted, which I really appreciate as I hate unpainted figures.  There aren’t many different types of characters and demons, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem.  (Again, Space Hulk has shown how only two types of humans and one type of alien can do just fine.).  One minor gripe though is that there are pairs of two of the human character types and the only way to tell them apart is the colour of their hair.  The character boards show different colour facemasks too (which would be a tiny bit more help) but the facemasks on the figures are painted the same.

In summary, Claustrophobia is a fun and relatively light, 2-player tactical combat game.  It doesn’t have the depth in its complexity like Tide of Iron or Space Hulk, but it is good fun, different and quick to play, so I think it’s more similar to Memoir 44 and Battle Lore.  We both look forwards to playing it more.


[Played with 2 players]

If you would like to read the rules, visit Claustrophobia’s official site.

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