Cardboard Cinema: Lobotomy 2: Manhunt Is The Latest Dungeon Crawler Board Game For Horror Buffs

With all due respect to mechanical marvels like "Wingspan," nothing quite scratches my tabletop itch like a horror-themed board game. The lines between board games and cinema are at their most thin in horror titles, where developers spend most of their rulebooks proving — in ways often as subtle as a Mack truck — that their appreciation for the genre means they belong behind the wheel. And while the list of horror board games has grown over the past few years, it may be a minute before we find another game as lavish in its creature design as "Lobotomy 2: Manhunt, Titan Forge Games's sequel to 2017's "Lobotomy." Primarily known as a producer of high-quality miniatures, Titan Forge Games combines exquisite components with a stated desire to make the original "Lobotomy" more streamlined and accessible to new players. And while there are still a few hiccups to work through when it comes to gameplay, "Lobotomy 2: Manhunt" is a fun addition to the dungeon crawler genre — albeit one with an understandably contentious theme.

Fight the demons, learn the game

In "Lobotomy 2," you and up to four friends play as a group of patients in a mental asylum. Or at least that's what you're told, but recently, you are not so sure. The world around you has become dark and twisted, and the people who move through the asylum — security guards, orderlies, and the occasional dog — have become grotesque, violent versions of themselves. Each turn, you will have three actions that you can use to move, attack, upgrade items and abilities, or swap equipment between characters. The ultimate goal of "Lobotomy 2" is to escape the asylum — but to do so, you'll need to face a slew of unnatural creatures, including horror favorites like an animated doll or an evil children's toy named Buddy.

Much like fellow horror title "Mixtape Massacre," "Lobotomy 2" tiptoes around copyright with a few overt homages to Hollywood icons. You may take on the role of "Maddie Maxwell," a not-so-subtle tribute to Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road," or Wicked Jimmy (cough) and his dog. Those who prefer science fiction may choose Matt Riggs — say it quickly — a patient whose bald head and sunglasses make him the spitting image of Laurence Fishburne in "The Matrix." Each section header for the rulebook also offers an overt reference to popular culture, with nods to "Aliens" and "Crocodile Dundee" in just a few opening sections of the warm-up session.

To help you learn "Lobotomy 2," Titan Forge has also introduced an introductory scenario that expands the rules as you hit various in-game benchmarks. It's an approach with solid precedent — the hybrid rulebook from "Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion" remains a personal favorite to this day — but Titan Forge's proves to be no match for Cephalofair Games. To learn the game effectively, you must be willing to cut several pages out of the scenario booklet with a pair of scissors. Given the attention to detail that has gone into each miniature, the very manual — and frustrating — process of clipping out rulesets from a booklet with no custom storage option for these loose pages is a bit of a letdown.

Customize your skills – and your insanity

But if you can look past that, there's much to like. High-end miniatures may be the name of the game in crowdfunding these days, but there's a real weight to the board when characters and monsters are placed. And even if you end up with a dozen baggies for the various components, combat feels streamlined and satisfying. Players roll two sets of dice — the attack dice for their character and the defensive dice for their target monster — and subtract successful blocks from successful attacks. It's easy to intuit — even if you spend a lot of time cross-referencing character cards — and the result is fistfuls of dice bouncing atop the modular board, one of life's undeniable pleasures.

"Lobotomy 2" also offers several game modes to fit every group size and game night frequency. My playthrough ended three hours into the introductory scenario; the party's exploration of the asylum spawned a group of cultists who killed one of my characters for the first time. From here, "Lobotomy 2" offers players a modest campaign mode and a series of standalone scenarios meant to be played in a group for fun. Both are appealing — there's something to be said for a campaign mode that will not take 100 hours to finish — but either seems like a decent excuse to wrangle up a few friends and a six-pack of some horror-themed craft beer.

For my money, what sets "Lobotomy 2" apart from other dungeon crawlers is the upgrade system. Most weapons and equipment you encounter in the game come with basic and skilled upgrade options. As you collect junk — by searching tiles or killing elite enemies — you will unlock more powerful upgrades to your current loadout. This gives "Lobotomy 2" a surprising amount of variance in its gameplay. With several characters to choose from, each with innate abilities, and a host of items available, it is possible to customize your character for combat to your heart's content. When you improve armor by adding defensive success roles or make it harder for enemies to avoid the damage from your weapon, you really do feel like you are building on your experiences to improve your ability as a fighter.

And this character evolution is important because "Lobotomy 2" — like most dungeon crawlers — does settle into a familiar routine after a while. If the introductory scenario is any indication, the game asks you to establish a rhythm of attacking, defending, and respawning on both sides of the table. This might be a problem for those who like their campaign games with more robust elements of worldbuilding (and changing), but for those of us who believe dungeon crawlers are an excuse to thwack wave after wave of bad guys with friends, getting to tinker with different load outs is precisely the kind of variation I need. That's what the dice are for.

Mental illness and horror

Of course, any conversation about "Lobotomy 2" must end with a discussion of the theme itself. When "Lobotomy 2" hit crowdfunding platform Gamefound, Shelf Stories creator Jason Perez — a well-respected voice in the tabletop space — released a video voicing his concerns about the treatment of mental health. One of the core mechanics in the game is the development of disorders; how you manage the conditions of aggression, anxiety neurosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia is integral to your ability to progress your character and battle higher-level monsters. For some, the depiction of mental illness as a mechanical power-up might be viewed as a clumsy (but not unwelcome) reversal of trends. For others, it appropriates a lived experience in bad taste.

Does all this make "Lobotomy 2" the right or wrong kind of exploitative? It's hard to say. Horror has spent the past decade having half-serious conversations about trauma, and horror fans often find themselves evaluating past and present films through a somewhat subjective lens. In my own privileged position, I treat "Lobotomy 2" as less a treatise on mental health and more as an attempt to recreate the experience of video games like "Silent Hill" and "Alan Wake." Both franchises were more interested in a dark, funhouse version of their protagonist's worlds, and "Lobotomy 2" is at its best when we ignore the flimsy narrative and focus on the mechanics and creature design.

But at the bare minimum, games like "Lobotomy 2" offer a powerful reminder of the importance of content warnings. There is a lot of material in here that is, charitably, handled without a ton of tact, making this a game that not everyone should consider. But if you are on the prowl for something that blends the mechanical options of "Descent: Journeys in the Dark" with the horror theme of "Mixtape Massacre," then "Lobotomy 2" could occupy a nice niche in your collection. Just make sure you do your research before digging up a retail copy.