Designed by Richard Amann & Viktor Peter | Published by Mindclash Games
1-4 Players | 60-120 Minutes
“Initially formless, the mindscape of Cerebria arises from the Origin. But nothing can exist forever unnamed and untamed. Two opposing forces – Bliss and Gloom – emerge to shape the world in their own image. As they spread their influence throughout the Realms, they build the identity, leading it through Revelations that have a lasting impression on Cerebria. Which will dominate, Bliss or Gloom? The ultimate outcome is up to you.”
Over the years Mindclash Games have become known for their highly produced, uniquely themed, and deeply strategic euro-style games. In their first game, Trickerion, you were an illusionist building and creating your own bag of magic tricks to perform in a contest with other fellow magicians in hopes to win the magical Trickerion stone that would grant the bearer real magical powers. In probably their most well-known game to date, Anachrony, you were thrown into the middle of a futuristic apocalypse trying to prepare your faction for the impending doom by gathering resources through clever time-travel and exploration of the harsh land using giant mech suits. And now, with Cerebria: The Inside World, a team-based, objective-driven area control game where players take on the role of opposing spirits of the cerebral mind in an effort to form and build an identity (think Pixar’s Inside Out), Mindclash Games have proven once again that they will continue to deliver games with themes that are a far cry from your standard euro fare. So will Cerebria leave you in a state of cerebral bliss, or dismal gloom? Let’s take a closer look.
In Cerebria, players will take turns performing up to three main actions and/or several free actions, gaining willpower, essence, and ambition in an effort to invoke and manipulate emotion cards on the board that will allow you to take control of frontiers and realms of the mind, ultimately triggering revelations that will score the players points based on shared and hidden objectives known as aspirations. I know I just threw a ton of vocabulary at you there. Cerebria is one of those games that wants to push the theme so hard that It often goes out of its’ way to change common gaming terms into others that fit the theme better. So it’s important to take note of that based on your preference.
Each player’s spirit board contains five actions to choose from in addition to five actions that are indicated around the perimeter of the game board. On top of these choices are three free actions on each respective team board, if your team has the required ambition tokens to trigger them, as well as one major free action called “absorb”. The absorb action allows you to pull willpower, the main resource used to pay for actions during the game, from one of the five central pools of the main board. Each pool gives you an additional bonus based on which pool you’re pulling from. These pools are actually part of a rotating platform that you turn immediately after taking willpower, thus changing the landscape of the board for future turns of all players. If during your absorb action you happen to empty one of these pools completely, then you will immediately trigger a scoring round known as a revelation. Timing when to make this happen is a critical part of the strategy of this game, as you usually want it to occur if you are ahead in at least one of two objectives that you are working towards. If you hesitate too long, then you can guarantee that the board state can and will change dramatically by the time it’s your team’s turn again. So, if you’ve been keeping track, that’s a total of 14 different actions you can choose from each and every turn!
The five actions of the player boards will essentially allow you to move, add your own cards to the board or remove opponent’s cards, fortify locations that are not controlled by the other team by placing down fragments into fortress locations, and if playing the advanced game, upgrade cards to stronger versions much like evolving a Pokémon. This is first and foremost an area control game, so having more cards on the board that are stronger than those of your opponents is what you’re shooting for, but it’s where you have those cards that’s key as the board is split among 10 different regions known as realms and frontiers. Controlling a realm will net you a discount on that realm’s respective board action, whereas controlling a frontier will allow you to grab more willpower from an adjacent pool when doing an absorb action. The objectives you are trying to accomplish in order to score points usually have to do with controlling frontiers or realms, or having specific card placement and/or card strength, so getting as many cards as you can onto the board and keeping them there will greatly improve your odds over the course of the game as the objectives change.
But there’s even more to these five player actions. Before taking an action you can choose to discard a card from your hand to upgrade the action you are about to take, or unlock one of the five actions you hadn’t had access to previously since at the beginning of the game you only start with a maximum of four actions unlocked and available to you. These upgrades of course make each action much more powerful by providing the players with even more options to consider, and if you have chosen to play on the ‘B’ side of the spirt boards then each player’s upgrade paths for their actions are asymmetric in many cases. It’s also worth noting here that each spirit has their own special ability power that is unique to them, allowing experienced players truly asymmetric characters to explore.
The five main board actions on the other hand, are a bit more straightforward and are usually used to give yourself a much-needed resource, more cards, or to add strength to a card already on the board in order to flip control of a region to your favor. Just like all actions though, these main board actions cost willpower, so controlling realms to get that discount is a big deal in many cases.
Let’s talk more about the cards for a bit. Each card usually has multiple power levels with each card usually coming into play at level 1 and gradually increasing in strength should the player pursue that course of action to a max level based on the card. If the total power of all of your cards is greater than that of the other team’s in a given region, then you control that region. Pretty simple right? What’s tricky is that the realms and frontier regions overlap, and there is one space of every frontier region that overlaps into two realms allowing that card to add its’ power level to both unless the other team has a card adjacent to that card essentially blocking it out of the realm. But that’s not all. Each card also comes with an ability listed at the bottom. These abilities are either triggered as soon as it comes into play, or in some cases offer a passive ability that will constantly be in effect until it leaves the board.
All of that is well and good. You’ve played plenty of area control games in your time, although maybe ones that don’t sound quite so complicated, but what you really want to know is, “What in the world is that giant orange and purple obelisk shooting up from the middle of the board like the Tower of Isengard?” Glad you asked. This tower is known as the “identity”, and is one of the two main score trackers in the game. When scoring is triggered each team will add a number of their team’s fragments to the identity based on if they were able to win one or both of the current round’s objectives. In addition, these plastic fragment pieces are used on the board as fortifications in realms, and if a team is able to time a revelation scoring just right by emptying a pool of willpower that is adjacent to one of their fragments, then that piece also gets added to the identity. These pieces come in two sizes worth three or five points. If one team is supposed to add a fragment of a certain size, but doesn’t have one, then a capping piece is added to the identity worth four points, thus completing this mind’s identity, and ending the game.
There are two other ways for the end game to be triggered however. The first is if the common objectives run out, and if playing the advanced game, the second is if one team is able to reach 20 or more points on a secondary scoring track that they are able to earn points on outside of scoring rounds. These points are awarded if they were able to make specific things happen during their turn. The more of these you’re able to do on a single turn, the more points you score. Advancing on this track will also net the player bonuses when reaching certain thresholds.
If you haven’t gathered, Cerebria: The Inside World is a complex and intimidating game that will require multiple plays to get just the basic game’s intricacies down. There is a lot going on and a lot to think about multiple turns in advance with systems upon sub-systems. Before my first play I watched several videos in addition to reading the rule book just to feel confident enough to put it on the table and start playing. As hinted at previously, this process was very much hindered by trying to navigate all of the game’s thematic terminology. Terms such as ambition, intentions, aspiration, and emotions come at you fast and furious, and keeping that all straight is a game in and of itself. Add on top of that the time it takes for setup, which is a very time-consuming process when you factor in the building out of each player’s respective starting decks. The basic game tries to help with this by providing suggested starting decks, but even with this assistance, finding and locating these cards out of a very large deck is quite the time suck, so I would highly recommend keeping these cards separate over the first several plays to make the setup that much quicker.
With all of that in mind, this is a game that for most groups is probably going to have a hard time finding the table often due to the sheer amount of work involved, especially in groups with inconsistent players. When the game does hit the table, you will quickly be reminded of just how much iconography the game wants you to be responsible for knowing and remembering. These icons are spread across all of the team, player, and main game boards as well as the emotion cards, and will more than likely cause you to have to pause the game many times as you look up the icons in the reference section of the rulebook. The game does provide a very well-done reference sheet for the emotion cards, but I wish the same would have been provided for at least the spirit board asymmetrical powers and upgraded actions as finding and flipping to the appropriate pages of the rulebook was an additional constant hassle.
But once you get passed all of that initial investment, you will find that Cerebria does offer a very interesting, deeply strategic, and tactical game. A game that If you are a player who enjoys levels upon levels of choices, quickly changing tactics, and take that style of play, could very possibly end up being a game you love. Once you have the suggested basic game ruleset down (trust me on this, I strongly recommend you start with the suggested basic game on your first couple of plays even if you are a seasoned gamer) the game offers multitudes of additional variety that will add additional complexities to the game. Meaning that if you do love this game and want to dive deeper, it will have very long legs for you. Every team and player board has two sides to play on, one more complex than the other. There’s also an additional way to score points outside of the central identity tower, scoring you bonus points if you are able to chain together certain effects during a single turn. And as mentioned previously, each team has a very large deck of cards in which to build a deck of 16 cards out of before the game even starts. If you don’t have a group to play with then solo and co-op rules are also given, pitting you against an AI system that acts and feels like a real player allowing you to hone your strategies outside of group play.
Cerebria is a constant game of tug-of-war. Managing the always tight resources to pull off a turn that can see you take control of strategic points on the board that will then put you in the lead on multiple objectives, and then timing that up just right with the triggering of a revelation scoring round is an intriguing puzzle. By my third play I was finding that these tactics were really starting to click for me, but what I found odd is that even on turns where I did extremely well by nabbing both objectives and completely shutting my opponent out, I still wasn’t enjoying myself as much as I thought I should be, and I’m not really sure why that is.
Maybe it’s due to the fact that the turns feel very mechanical in nature; bump that guy down here, put a card into play there, great my team is in control everywhere it needs to be so let’s trigger scoring now that I know I’m winning both objectives. I feel like some of the excitement is taken away when you know you are winning and you make the scoring happen, rather than like in most games where you are trying to get all of your ducks in a row before the game triggers scoring. So, it’s a novel idea, but one I’m just not sure fits with my preferred play style.
Or, maybe it’s because at times the combination of the common objective paired with my team’s hidden objective just happened to play right into scenarios that we were already winning or could be winning with one or two simple moves already set up from the round before, and that didn’t feel very exciting or earned either.
Or, maybe it’s because to pull off these wildly successful turns comes solely at the detriment of the opposing players without them ever getting a chance to react. This includes ending the game as most times the game will end without all players getting an equal number of turns. Cerebria is a surprisingly mean game. If you are playing well, then you are constantly knocking the other team’s cards out of contention, and trust me, it’s not easy to get these cards set up, especially later in the game when empty spaces to place your cards come at a premium and the resources are still tight. If you are on the losing side of that battle then you have to sit there and watch as the identity tower grows ever taller with nary a block of your team’s color contributing to its’ height. A constant in your face reminder of just how poorly you’re playing, and that honestly didn’t feel great when on the winning side either as I could just feel the other team’s frustration and sense of defeat permeating from across the table.
Cerebria very much reminded me of another game that I finally got over my trepidations to play this last year called Feudum. It too had a very complex and intimidating ruleset with loads of thematic terminology and sub-systems, several of which could probably have been streamlined or done away with completely, but surprisingly left me with totally opposite feelings. After finishing a game of Feudum, win or lose, I was smiling from the fun I had just had, and couldn’t wait for another chance to rise to the challenge of exploring and understanding the plethora of different avenues to victory the game had to offer. Whereas Cerebria, even with the knowledge that there were more options to add to the gameplay, left me feeling less and less compelled to play again after each successive game. Heck, I may even go so far as to say that Cerebria may in fact be the better game between the two. But is it the more fun game? For me, the answer is obviously no. But for you? For you, Cerebria may just trigger an entirely different set of emotions.
WHAT I LIKED
- Unique theme
- Very nice brightly-colored art and overall production quality
- Interesting strategic and tactical gameplay
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
- Overuse of thematic terminology made learning and understanding the game more difficult than needed
- Too many icons to learn and remember
- A little too complex for the amount of fun you get in return
- Very take-that driven