Mantis Falls is an odd, curious gem of a board game. It’s a slick, two-player take on the social deduction of certified classics like Werewolf and The Resistance, crossed with the rich atmosphere of an arthouse mystery movie and cardplay that opens the window for the dramatic twists and turns of a weekly soap.
After discovering it at last year’s PAX Unplugged and itching to dive deeper into its sepia-tinged charms, I’ve come away enraptured by a game that I reckon has the potential to become a cult classic in the genre. (Disclaimer: PAX Unplugged is run by Dicebreaker owner ReedPop.)
Mantis Falls is a crime thriller set in the 1940s, as two witnesses to a crime (the rulebook leaves it at an ominous “something you were not supposed to see”) look to flee a town under mob rule. Well, you’re told that the other person with you is another witness, anyway. They could actually be the assassin sent to silence you before you escape.
It’s a thrilling setup, and one that Mantis Falls pulls off with aplomb by twisting the classic hidden roles of Werewolf into a new form. In lieu of whittling down a bigger group to the few traitors known to lurk within, both players can be innocent witnesses - or one could be an assassin. Or they might not. (With three - possible via an included rules variant - the assassin is similarly not guaranteed to appear.) There’s always a chance of playing a fully cooperative game rather than engaging in a competitive fight to survive, but you have no way of knowing for sure. Assuming the best and letting down your guard is a quick way to find yourself at a loss.
There’s a chance you're playing a fully cooperative game, but you have no way of knowing for sure.
Primed for suspicion, witness players must spend the game trying to work out whether their companion is about to sink a knife into their back - or whether they risk eliminating someone who genuinely was on their side. The lone assassin, meanwhile, must avoid scrutiny until the time is right to strike, or risk losing their target into the dark night.
Rather than working things out through pure discussion, Mantis Falls puts an explosive card game at its centre. Each turn, the two players both have the chance to play a series of action cards from their hands. There’s a light bit of combo potential, with cards in a matching suit able to be strung into a series of actions. These abilities can be used to hurry along the road to freedom, call in helpful allies and more. Most of the time, though, you’ll be using them to fend off enemies that put you in their sights.
Harm doesn’t always come from your would-be assassin. Event cards drawn at the start of each round throw up various hurdles along your escape path. Some of these are incidents, like storms and earthquakes, that can only be mitigated, rather than avoided. Sometimes, though, it takes the form of opposition: an enemy who must be dealt enough wounds to avoid a negative effect, from suffering wounds yourself (you die after a tense ‘last gasp’ window to reduce your topped-out wounds with cards) to discarding precious cards.
Like the inky black shadows of a noir movie, the spaces left unfilled are as potent as those given detail.
Key to this is that often only one player actually gets to see the event, even after it’s resolved. While you can’t cheat by altering a hidden event’s effects, you can twist the truth - or outright lie - to try and manipulate your companion. You might pretend a minor foe needs as much firepower as possible to see off - leaving your target defenceless - or insist you had to deal them wounds, keeping schtum about the card’s choice of dividing them as you like.
These parts - the choice to reveal or not reveal, growing feelings of doubt, windows of opportunity - coalesce into a rich social experience. Like the inky black shadows of a noir movie, the spaces left unfilled are as potent as those given detail.
An example: in a recent game, Chase found himself in possession of a gun, without any bullets. Meanwhile, I had picked up a couple of rounds along the track, but had nothing to load them into. As we were cornered by an enemy, we weighed up our chances of survival, settling on a tenuous agreement: Chase could hand me the gun (which allows the card to be swapped between players at any time), and I could load it with rounds before blasting away our foe. Or, perhaps, I might turn the loaded gun on Chase…
Cinematicity is baked into every moment of Mantis Falls, from its fit-for-TV title down.
Sealing the deal inked by the gameplay is the impeccable atmosphere created by Mantis Falls. Its sepia, typewritten cards are soaked in moonlight and ebbing streetlamps. The few supporting characters encountered by players appear as noir silhouettes, with delightfully pulp descriptions like “Ms Cardello, the woman with volition” and “Mr Edwards, the man with connections”. Events, meanwhile, have terse, evocative names like “purge”, “witch hunt” and “the whistling wind”. With its sparing brushes of theme, it sharply conjures the feeling of crunching along a sidewalk in the cold, dark night, glancing behind you every few steps and listening through the silence for a second set of footsteps.
Cinematicity is baked into every moment of Mantis Falls, from its fit-for-TV title down. There’s the tragic betrayal of every great gangster movie in here, mixed with the stark thrill of classic noir mysteries and topped with a sprinkle of Twin Peaks’ moody small-town claustrophobia. (The late Angelo Badalamenti’s score appears as a recommended soundtrack, along with an original soundtrack for the game composed by publisher Distant Rabbit.)
On top of this, the tightly-packed box is surprisingly generous, throwing in complementary card sleeves and a number of optional modules. One of these serves as the three-player mode, in which the two active players rotate around the table (you always play with the person on your right) and the third largely sits out of the action as a bystander with a limited ability to swap some of their cards. It works efficiently enough to be worthwhile, even if the fairly passive nature of the bystander really cements the sense that Mantis Falls is truly a two-player experience at heart.
Another module recommended for those with a grip on the basics promises deeper gameplay through unique player characters and more advanced action cards. I’m yet to dive into this properly, but I’m keen to: the base game has plenty to recommend it as it is. The last, Under the Rose, is billed as an even more in-depth variant, introducing agents that players’ characters can meet with along their journey, leaning further into its thriller trappings.
I’ve come away from my time with Mantis Falls excited to share it with as many people as I can. It has the feeling of a cult series of television - like The Kingdom or, yes, Twin Peaks - in its refreshing originality and willingness to play around with the conventions of an established, familiar format. I can’t wait to see what other moments of tension, delight and shock emerge from its loaded gun of a premise. While it’s still early, in time this may well become my favourite social deduction game - it really is that good.
Mantis Falls is available now from publisher Distant Rabbit Games.