These days, when the daylight shrinks, the trees blanch and litter their leaves thither, tither, and beyond, the air gets colder, and nights get longer, I always stir and restlessly yearn to grab a shovel and dig deep for a familiar game, a game that upon exhumation and cleaning will reflect the current sombre environment and illicit a deep, rhythmic piccicato on my bass soul string, a game that matches the October moment, that game is Finstere Flure.
Finstere Flure, or Fearsome Floors (the English title, although your pieces never traverse an additional vertical floor, either up or down, at all during the course of the game) is a monstrous creation of veteran designer Friedemann Friese (infamous for the blessing of alliteration) and my version is the German version published in 2003 by 2F-Spiele and Maura Kalusky is given graphics/illustration credit.
I love this game! It has all the horrible things that I cringe to confess that I celebrate: chaos, confounding the players on either side of me, and clapping quietly when a foe’s meeple is callously eaten. Finstere Flure is a racing game at its heart, and your job is to get your crew of meeples (round disks) through the skewed square arena and safely exit as many of your party into the sunshine that is diagonally opposite your entrance, i.e. your egress from this diabolical dungeon. The player who gets all but one of their meeples into the sunshine the fastest is the winner. Fairly simple, easy enough. The only trouble is that there is a fearsome monster, Furunkulus, who haunts this very dungeon, and this monster hasn’t been fed in weeks and is very, very hungry.
Perhaps the best feature of this game is that it can easily accommodate 7 players in a quick, brutal game. But here is a more prosaic description to lure you into Prince Fieso’s fiendish floor plan. Your group of meeples (3 or 4, depending on the number of players willing to dare such a race fraught with dire danger) represents an odd collection of geeky stereotypes (nerds, bullies, police, Trekkies, priests, pre-teens, and possibly the Addams family) that would haplessly, or purposely, wander into the fearsome fortress of Prince Fieso. The rectangular board consists of a roughly oval/hexagonal-shaped play area made up of squares that define movement and occupation. The dungeon area is surrounded by walls with a double alphabet labelling (plus the obligatory pentagram) system that means you can find a matching letter (or symbol) on the diagonally opposite side of the board. The dungeon is further occupied by large, moveable stones and static (non-moving) gore slicks. These will affect movement and might block the monster’s vision (the monster can see over gore slicks, but not diagonally or through stones).
This is an all-against-the-AI game, where every player controls their group of meeples to the extent of the circumstances allowable, and the monster moves automatically. So, it’s not a cooperative game. And the most ruthless and cunning players will quickly exploit the circumstances to their benefit and other players’ detriment. But as the game progresses, the monster, akin to the fabled, even trite, Dr. Frankenstein’s (for you literary types of gamers), quickly frees itself from predictability. And this fiendish unpredictability is what I find most adorable about this game.
The meeple disks are double sided with a dark and light version and different movement points available on each side (each with a sum of seven; 6-1, 5-2, 3-4). Players move one meeple orthogonally up to their movement allowance printed on the current side of the meeple. Meeples can push stones as long as no one is behind them, and can glide across gore slicks with one movement point. Once a meeple has completed its movement, the disk is flipped to its opposite side with a different movement rate. The player on the left then moves one of their meeples to the extent of its movement allowance, and play precedes until all players have moved and flipped their meeples. Of course a player can move through other meeples' space, but can never end a move on top of another meeple. No meeple stacking in this game, although Furunkulus would surely love to eagerly gobble up such a succulent stack of juicy meeples in one square. After all the meeples have moved, then the starting player turns over the monster movement tile, as all players suck in their breath and strain their eyes to spy the number or symbol turned over before bursting into a chorus of varying degrees of dismay.
There’s a palpable tension before the turning over of the monster’s movement tile. Is it gonna only make a short lurch forward and rest, or is it going to go on a blood-thirsty rampage wildly across the fiendish floor? Furnukulus is a humanoid model made from a wild assortment of gruesome possibilities and collectively assembled before the game begins, but its feet dictate a clear orientation as to its facing. The monster always looks before it moves. It first looks left, then straight, and then right. It will turn towards the closet victim, or it will continue forward and look again. The loss of a meeple to the monster isn’t entirely a loss of the game, the eaten meeple is regurgitated at the entrance and next turn can enter the race once again.
The monster is an unstoppable wrecking ball, which, in my humble opinion, makes it the heart of the game. The monster blindly and effortlessly pushes stones in front of it and any meeples crouching fearfully behind it, even squishing them (same as eating) into the walls. The monster also glides artfully across gore slicks (which never move) without losing a movement point. And, most dastardly of all, the monster alone can utilize secret passageways from one blank wall to its diagonally opposite side of the dungeon in one move, if no other tasty tidbits are available. Thus the monster invariably upsets all smug strategies by suddenly appearing in front of brazen meeples who thought running behind the monster was an easy way to safely egress the dungeon without being eaten.
This game really delivers on the zombie-themed movie trope - everything seems easily avoidable at first, but then comrades, erstwhile companions, and foes start falling victim to the insatiable menace and every player quickly dreads the turning over of the next movement tile. At times, the situation becomes utter chaos with all players shrieking in dismay as the monster marches on, devouring everyone in its path. This is probably why I love this game so much, it so harks to that tired variation of that poetic adage: “the best laid plans of both mice and meeples oft go astray.” This game is always welcomed on my table!!
This game was always a big hit at the after school game club at the elementary school where I work. It was easy to set up, the rules were simple enough for the kids to grasp, and building the monster was always the highlight of every game. The monster pieces were the most abused parts of this game. In fact, they were so irresistible that they proved a distraction during the course of the game, when players would turn away from other players’ turn and start building a horrible new monster that wouldn’t enter their game, but it did capture their attention.
Props to the fallen. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how I acquired this fabulous game. In my internet search for mostly military games at the turn of the millennium, I just happened across Boulder Games in Atlanta, GA, but I quickly became a loyal fan after reading a couple of their regular email newsletters where they would frequently give a recap of the games that they themselves played with their families. The reviews were hilarious, and you could call the company up and ask them questions and place orders. And they included candy in the box your games were shipped in. All of my Friedemann Friese games, and I have three, were purchased through them. Interestingly, it was on one of those phone calls that I discovered that Boulder Games used to be based in Boulder, CO. Since I live in Boulder, I immediately felt a strong connection of loyalty. Later I discovered a coworker who had lived here longer than me, and remembered Boulder Games when it was in Boulder. They represented a type of company that sadly sank in the merciless maelstrom of the free market. I miss them immensely and have searched sadly in vain for a comparable game company.. Alas.