Comanauts is the second cooperative story-driven adventure game from Plaid Hat Games by Jerry Hawthorne following his award-nominated Stuffed Fables. Aimed at a more mature audience, there are thematic parallels to the movie Inception as players explore the mind of a comatose scientist in their attempt to save the world.
Some games of this nature shine because of their story and plot development, others because of their gameplay. This is strong in both areas, but with only 10 pages in the rule book and each scenario featuring its own rules, the game can be frustratingly stunted by the constant need to interpret rules and work out what is supposed to happen in each new situation. Perhaps veterans of Stuffed Fables would be better prepared than this reviewer was, but I have rarely had such a tough time working out how to play a game, and even now I still don't feel confident that I played it correctly! Having said that, the game is essentially set in a dream, so perhaps a spirit of making it up as you go should be encouraged. If you find yourself riding a futuristic motorbike while equipped with a rifle, why shouldn't you be able to shoot an enemy biker on the other side of the road and then gain their helmet as loot? A faithful reading of the rules implies that would be fine. Perhaps it's up to the players to decide how realistic they would like the game to be in some situations rather than re-reading the rules for the hundredth time to see if they missed anything. Nevertheless, in many aspects the rules are clear and make for a compelling and challenging cooperative game. There's also humour at times: you may find your ogre character looks a bit suspicious on a 1950s dance floor, riding a skateboard while carrying a frying pan and a longsword, but so long as you're dancing no adverse effects will trigger.
With 22 different avatars and art by Tregis and Jimmy Xia, there's a lot to enjoy in this game. The eleven different zones are so unique that they feel like different games, and you will typically journey through 3-4 of them in one session, meaning you could just about play through the whole game three times and not visit the same location twice. The range of items, characters and enemies available is also impressively extensive. The variability does, however, mean that playtime is difficult to estimate: you could lose or win the whole thing within half an hour or you could still be trying to find the right zone after four hours of searching. Although the game does not make adjustments for player count, having two players is very different from having four, with some situations being much easier and others much harder, but all taking much longer with more players. As is usually the case with fully cooperative games, you can also play Comanauts solo.
If you have the opportunity for open-ended games sessions where time is not an issue, and if you're willing to house-rule difficulties rather than insist on getting everything exactly right, you could have a brilliant gaming experience with Comanauts - indeed, you could enjoy it multiple times before revisiting the same content. If you get to play it with an experienced player, that will help your enjoyment of it greatly. Players who like to get together and try a new game and 'work it out as you go along' may be in for a tough time though.
(Review by Matt Young)