#940 – UNDO: Forbidden Knowledge

Base price: $15.
2 – 6 players.
Play time: 45 – 90 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 1, though I believe you actually can play this more than once.

Full disclosure: A review copy of UNDO: Forbidden Knowledge was provided by Pegasus Spiele.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, very few things are as exciting (for a board game reviewer) as checking out a new board game series that I haven’t tried before. Getting to compare it to other things I’ve played and try to contextualize it against the near-thousand games I’ve reviewed is, at this point, pretty fascinating! Always more to do. This week, it’s going to be the UNDO series, from our friends over at Pegasus Spiele! Lots of reviews coming from them, lately. Just got to try out the massive Carnegie (frankly, fantastic), and looking forward to whatever comes up next! So let’s see how this UNDO series plays out.

In UNDO: Forbidden Knowledge, you, as a Weaver of Fate, are going back to a mysterious death in 1923. Lost in a swamp, two people seem to have died pretty terribly. One of them, well, not much you can do for that guy. But the other, you might be able to save. You just need to figure out what brought him to that wretched place and what he was trying to do there. With your ability to change the past, you’ll have to unravel the mystery if you want to save his life. Will you be able to protect him from what lies below?

Contents

Setup

Each game comes with a set of Rules Cards (which explain the game; useful to read), 13 Story Cards, and some Solution Cards. Those are the big cards. You can place the Story Cards out in one or two rows, leaving space above and below the cards for some small cards, as needed during the game. To avoid spoilers, I’m just gonna … not take photos of these. Sorry.

There are also a bunch of small cards! These are 9 Time Cards, 4 Investigation Cards, 36 Fate Cards, and 13 Clue Cards. Set the Clue Cards below their corresponding Story Cards, without looking at them. Place the Fate Cards above Story Card 12; that’s where you’ll start. Once you’re set up, you’re ready to start playing!

Gameplay

UNDO games are narrative adventures, in which you’ve been tasked with going back in time to successfully prevent a death that you witness at the beginning of the game (on Story Card 12). However, you’re not omniscient or omnipotent, so you’ll have to prioritize and use your best judgement. You have nine Time Cards, which will allow you to visit a point in the past or future to learn what you can. At the start of each turn, discard a Time Card and choose an unvisited Story Card to visit. If not all players agree, the current Start Player gets to break the tie.

Once you arrive at that Story Card, read it aloud. They usually present some decision you can make that may alter how history previously ran. Discuss amongst yourselves and choose how you want to change history. Once you’ve made a choice, reveal the corresponding Fate Card from the deck! It will award you positive, negative, or no points based on how that decision helps or hurts the person whose life you’re trying to save. It might also do nothing. That happens sometimes. Leave the selected Fate Card face up; it’ll make things easier later when you want to calculate your total score.

In addition to revealing a Fate Card, you may also spend one of your Investigation (sometimes called Magnifier or other things) Cards to reveal a Clue Card for the current Story Card. It can sometimes offer you useful insights about which Fate Card to choose (or which one to avoid).

After spending your final Time Card, check the Solution Cards to see how you did! Will you manage to save their life? Maybe make it even better?

Player Count Differences

This is another one of those puzzle / mystery games that suggests that it can be played with two to six players. I’m a bit skeptical of the six-player count, just because, as with other puzzle games, it’s challenging to get your voices heard. I find that it’s best to have a player propose the next direction and take turns reading, but there’s honestly not so much to do in an UNDO game that you’re well-served by having more than four people, unless you truly want to take turns reading the cards (and even then, there’s not that much text). With six, I think you’re just getting overcrowded. I haven’t tried it, granted, but I’m not convinced. I’d say, for my group, two or three is probably about our ideal player count. You can definitely play it solo, but I tend to jump to wrong conclusions very quickly, so I try to avoid playing these games by myself.

Strategy

  • There’s no particular order you need to tackle these Story Cards in. Just kind of go where you think you can have the most impact! It might be the far past, it might be the recent past, or even the future! There’s twelve different Story Cards for you to investigate, and you get nine shots at them, so try planning out your travel or casting a wide net. You don’t need to try and divine an Ideal Order, but there are definitely spots that are more helpful than others.
  • Think about where the story is leading! That may help you decide where to go next. If you get a clue from one location, let it lead you to the next one! That might be easier than trying to track all the information you’re getting across multiple time periods. Plus, if you have a theory about what’s happening, the evidence you find and the history you change might be linked. So, keep that in mind. Just remember that all your changes take place at the same time, so any changes you make don’t actually affect the character until the end of the game.
  • Consider the implications of your decision. How might it change the outcomes for the character? Why would it work that way? Coming up with reasons why a change might cause some outcome can be pretty critical, since those are your main levers by which you evaluate whether a decision will give you positive or negative points. If you think a change might be funny, you run the risk of losing points. In this game, particularly, that can be disastrous.
  • Investigating for clues might be helpful, but not all of the clues are helpful. Try to suss that out before you spend a card. The clues may just give you some additional information (or tell you something you already know, in at least a few instances of UNDO experiences I’ve now had). If you don’t think the clue will be helpful based on the highlighted word, don’t spend your card on it! You might be able to use it better elsewhere.
  • Here, you’re going to need to watch out for Insanity! It’ll double your negative points in some circumstances, which is super not great. I guess it wouldn’t be a Lovecraft-themed story otherwise, but here, there are plenty of Fate Cards that will give you additional Insanity, which causes some bad outcomes to double the negative points you get. You want to avoid those at all costs; they can compound your woes and cause you to end up with a significantly worse outcome than you started with!
  • Getting a 0 on a time period isn’t necessarily bad; at least you didn’t cause problems. You can obviously do much worse. Naturally, you don’t want to get 0s across the board; that will just lead to no change in the timeline. But, better a 0 than a -1; try to make sure that you’re avoiding doing harm with your changes.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Since this is my first UNDO game review, I’m spending more time here talking about the UNDO system, in addition to the game. Subsequent Pros / Mehs / Cons sections will likely be shorter, as a result.

Pros

  • I was very impressed with the UNDO system! I definitely expected the game to be more EXIT-y, with puzzles and mysteries and the occasional weird physical thing, but this is actually not … like that at all. This is more akin to a point-and-click adventure, where you jump to different points in the story and make a choice to try and change the bad outcome. Essentially, you’re rewinding time and seeing if you can change things. I guess that makes this closer to, uh, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective? But with more time-bending and less ghost tricks. This is more of an adventure game than an escape room game.
  • I appreciate how the order by which you attempt certain points in the timeline can give you additional (useful) context. There’s something to be said for future events giving context to past conversations, rather than just following the normal flow of causality. I think that speaks to the games being well-written; there’s always something to glean from a time period, rather than feeling lost and confused unless you follow the designers’ pre-ordained order.
  • I also like that there are limited numbers of hints you can get during play. I’m just a big fan of hints, generally speaking. I like them; I like that players can get them; and I like that, fundamentally, there’s no way to supervise players when they’re taking hints. I respect the limits on hints, but I also appreciate that if you’re playing with less-experienced players, you can just let them take more hints, if you want.
  • I appreciate that the solution outlines key decisions that would influence the outcome and explains in-narrative why the changes made there would have the impact they did. I think that’s a nice touch? It’s a good commitment to the narrative. So, when you look at the solution for an UNDO game, it goes through the highest-impact changes you could have made to the victim’s life, and how those changes would have impacted the direction of their life. That’s interesting! It’s not quite an epilogue, which I would have liked, but it’s certainly demonstrative of the investment they have in their story.
  • As far as escape room / mystery games go, this doesn’t feel like it took that long to play. As mentioned, more of an adventure game, but the game moved at a good pace. It was quick enough that we opened a second one and played it immediately after, which speaks to us enjoying this and having some extra time.
  • I always super like the thing where the game walks you through setup and play by just using the stack of cards. It’s a nice touch. I think it’s also a solid interactive tutorial concept; I wish more things had that, speaking as someone who thinks a lot about education.
  • I like that this is adapted from a story, conceptually; that’s a fun thing to do with short stories. I like games that play a bit in landscapes adapted from stories, even if the stories are ones I’ve never read before. It’s just a fun adaptation, especially if they’re playing in the space (like this UNDO does).
  • I also appreciate that you can actually play this game again with the same group. They recommend taking some time between games so you don’t remember the answers quite as clearly, and I imagine that’s probably a few weeks to a month, depending on how well you index, but I appreciate that you can play this again with your group and you don’t have to immediately give it away or smash it or something.

Mehs

  • I super don’t like Lovecraft stuff, but I actually think this was handled pretty well? Just hate the dude, really (and, I suppose, the xenophobia at the core of so many of his narratives, amongst other unsavory thematic things). That said, this wasn’t mired in a bunch of garbagey tropes; it was just a spooky story about a dude making bad decisions around a crypt. It was based on a short story, but it seems to be playing in the narrative space more than being burdened by the writer’s Whole Thing.
  • I will say, system-wise, I don’t love spending a Magnifier to get a vaguely-unhelpful hint. I get that that’s the risk, but it feels unsatisfying as a player to spend a limited resource on something that doesn’t end up helping you all that much (or worse, encourages you to make the wrong choice). It’s not that big of a deal; just mildly annoying.
  • I can’t imagine playing this with six people, though. It seems like a lot of committee work to get decisions made, at that point, even if it does functionally work. I found two or three to be the sweet spot, for these. Solo can work, but as I mentioned earlier, I don’t trust myself enough for that.

Cons

  • I will say that I don’t think that this should be your first UNDO game. I think the Insanity feature, while interesting (and contextually accurate for this theme, I suppose), adds an extra layer of complexity to the game that you might not be expecting if you’re just learning how to play the UNDO series. You may be better off with a more thematically straightforward title to learn the ropes, and then dig into this one once you’re ready to tangle with potentially doubling negative points based on choices.

Overall: 8.25 / 10

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by UNDO: Forbidden Knowledge! Like I said, first time with the UNDO system, and given how many EXIT games I’ve played, pretty big shoes to fill. That said, the UNDO system is a pretty unique spin on these mystery / puzzle games. It’s not as escape-roomy as, say, the EXITs, but it’s a narrative adventure where thinking about the long-term impacts of your decisions is most of the challenge! It presents a purely narrative puzzle, rather than a logical or tactile one, and I think that’s pretty interesting. It’s a nice way to experience a story, especially one that’s been adapted from another medium, like this one has. I’m super not a fan of Lovecraft, but I think that this story was handled pretty well, which is a relief, honestly. I like what this game does, and I enjoy that you can explore the story in whatever order you find interesting or narratively fruitful. I especially like that, since you don’t necessarily see all the outcomes of potential choices, you can actually come back and replay this game again later if you didn’t succeed, which is nice. This game in particular messes a bit with what seems to be the standard UNDO formula (via that Insanity multiplier), so I might recommend starting with a different entry in the franchise, should you be interested, but if you’re looking for a fun little adventure puzzle, I’d recommend checking UNDO: Forbidden Knowledge out! I had a great time with it.


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