|Interaction||Components & Design|
Inside every one of us, powerful forces are at work. Forces that form our core personality for better or for worse. Forces of Bliss. Forces of Gloom. Fighting to define who we are.Ever since Pixar’s Inside Out we readily accept that our inside world is populated by tiny people who represent our emotions. We also readily accept that animation movies can make grown men cry, but that’s quite besides the point. The little inside people in Cerebria are less humanoid than Pixar’s, and the forces of Gloom and Bliss work against each other instead of together, but for all I know that’s exactly how others’ minds work.
Cerebria: The Inside World is a magnificently beautiful game. The creatures that represent emotions are easily some of the prettiest illustrations I’ve ever seen in any boardgame. But don’t let the radiant beauty and whimsical setting fool you. Cerebria is also a rock-hard area control strategy game.
Let me brain on that – how to play Cerebria: The Inside World
Cerebria is primarily a partner game. There are rules to play solo, in two, or in three players, and they are good, but two versus two is what this game is meant for. The two teams – Gloom and Bliss – try to contribute more the Origin, the core of their person’s personality – than the other team. That’s not the only way to score points, but it is the most important one. Also, the large obelisk in the middle of the board that is the Origin is sort of dominating.
Until anyone puts their influence on the origin, however, it’s a bit of a way, and it all starts with areas and how you control them. The mind is made up of five realms, arranged in a circle, with five borders between them. Each border has space for one emotion card, each realm has space for two. That’s where it stops being simple. Control over a border doesn’t simply go to the team who’s card is in the border space. It goes to the team with the highest combined emotional intensity on the border and the adjacent spot in each bordering realm. Likewise, a realm is controlled by the team with the most intensity on that realm’s two cards and on the two adjacent borders – except that a card on a realm spot blocks an opposing card on the adjacent border spot.
To get those cards on the board you – to get anything going, really – you use three actions per turn. Action either come from your spirit board, or they come from the five realms. There are ten actions to pick from, total, and while they aren’t complex the number of options can be very challenging indeed. To start with, you don’t have all your abilities, you’ll need to unlock them first. After you unlock an action you can still upgrade it in different ways, and those upgrades are not even the same on all spirit boards. They are also optional to use. Why would you ever not use an upgrade? Because using them costs extra willpower, the currency you pay your actions in. The thinking doesn’t end when you bought an upgrade, you have to think about it every time you use it.
But as I said, at least the actions are simple in theory. For an action you can move your spirit along a path on the board. You can invoke an emotion and play an emotion card from your hand to a spot adjacent to your spirit. You can quell an enemy emotion and remove an opponent’s card from the board. You can create a Fortress in a realm your opponent doesn’t control. You may upgrade an emotion card into it’s corresponding strong emotion if there are enough essence tokens on it. You can turn Courage into Valor, for example, or Selfishness into Narcissism.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well… maybe not. Those emotion cards you play are way more than simply an Intensity number that helps you control Realms and Frontiers, each emotion also has an ability you’ll want to consider when playing cards. When you play Self-Esteem you immediately unlock one of your action upgrades. Bitterness gains +1 intensity when you play it in a realm with a fortress. Optimism can never be quelled. Isolation can not be blocked from contributing its intensity to control a Realm. And so on. Each team has sixteen mild emotions, each with its own strong emotion to upgrade into.
The five Realm actions are even simpler, the one thing to keep in mind is that they cost less willpower if you control the action’s Realm. They let you add those precious essence tokens to your emotions, move emotion cards on the board, draw fresh emotion cards, …
On top of the three actions you have per turn, there are two things you can do without actions. You can spend one of your scarce Ambition tokens for an ambition ability. This is how you get those precious ability upgrades. The other not-an-action action is called Absorb. It’s where simple things really start giving you brain cramps. Absorbing is your main way to gain willpower. You take a number of willpower tokens from the Origin sphere in your current Realm. In addition to the willpower you’ll get a bonus depending on the Realm you absorb from. You might get an Ambition token, or earn Essence, or snag another action upgrade. That’s all very nice but the really big thing about Absorbing is that, when you empty an Origin sphere, you trigger a Revelation.
A Revelation is what it sounds like. The person learns something new about themselves and adds something new to their core personality: the Origin. Bliss and Gloom both check their hidden Aspiration and determine who wins the common Aspiration. Aspirations are short-term goals concerning some form of majority. You might aspire to control the most Realms, or to have the longest chain of cards on the board. Each Aspiration you fulfill when a Revelation happens lets you contribute Fragments to the Origin. Fortresses in the realm who’s sphere was emptied to trigger the revelation also become Fragments of the Origin – that’s why Fortresses and Fragments are the same pieces. If you’re out regular fragments, you place your capstone on the Origin and trigger the end of the game.
Or you ignore that whole thing with Revelations and the Origin. The other way to score victory points is to complete Intentions, four conditions printed on your team board. The first Intention you complete each round is worth one point, each other Intention is worth two. If you get to twenty points that way, you also trigger the end of the game. Sum up the points already collected and the points for your Origin fragments and you have a winner team. That’s all there is to it.
Is there such a thing as a good headache? Our Verdict
When I say that that is all there is to it… it obviously isn’t. The explanation above gives you a rough idea of Cerebria‘s elements, but there is a lot more nuance to it. There are plenty of details to the rules that would have been tedious to repeat here, and that’s before we even get started on action upgrades, emotion abilities, … . Cerebria: The Inside World has so many moving parts, it’s daunting to keep track of them all at first. To be honest, it’s still daunting after you played a couple of times.
Nevertheless, each bit of Cerebria, each mechanism, each option is perfectly simple. The complexity is in how they come together. Imagine you have a field of cogs, and some of them can switch between different positions, and you’re trying to figure out which way you must spin the cog in front of you so the one you want to move turns in the right direction. That’s playing Cerebria. Each step is simple, getting your desired result is hard, more so with the opposing team getting in the way. It’s even harder to get what you want at the right time, because timing is everything in Cerebria. You want to have that Revelation when you know you’ll get two Aspirations, but triggering that Revelation at the right time is tough.
That’s what makes team play in Cerebria so ingenious, too. You have to get the timing of things right, but the two team members don’t have the same options available to them. You need things to happen on the right player’s turn to get the best effect. That’s a lot of planning, a lot of coordination, with all the cogs spinning away – and if the other team figures out your plan, they might find a switch to throw that makes the cogs switch their way. Is there a good kind of headache? There absolutely is, and Cerebria is it. Getting your plans to line up is hard work, but it’s so, so satisfying. When things go your way, you know it’s because you planned right.
Beyond the game mechanisms, the other thing is how amazingly well the two factions are done. They both have their own emotion cards with unique abilities, but they’re are perfectly balanced. All emotion cards are not only beautifully illustrated, they really capture their emotion. You just want to hug those Gloom guys until they feel better. What really amazed me, though, is how right the mood of both factions feels. Bliss emotions are all about forward momentum. They let you upgrade actions, intensify emotions, give you more actions. Gloom tries to hold you back and profits from Bliss’s activity. Doubt disables opposing emotions special ability, Boredom gives the Gloom team Willpower when a Bliss player moves, Guilt does the same when a Bliss player plays a card. I have been suffering from – fortunately mild – depression for a while, and some of the Gloom abilities made me go “yup, that’s what it feels like”. Especially the ones that profit from the Bliss team’s action.
So, it’s a beautiful game, complex and engaging, with a surprisingly deep connection to its theme despite its fantastic setting. I want to find something I don’t like about Cerebria, but the only thing I can come up with is that I don’t get to play it as often as I like because it’s too long and deep for a casual game brunch.