There are always those of us who love playing as the bad guys. Taking the ‘dark path’ in role-playing games, going Sith in Star Wars, running a dictatorship in city simulators or 4x games. There’s something darkly enjoyable about letting your inner sadist run free in a video game from time to time.
And then there are the games that revel in fictitious villainy: Dungeon Keeper, Evil Genius, Impire, War for the Overworld, Overlord… these games task you with running some kind of bad guy operation, fighting the forces of good with an (often silly and over-the-top) array of minions, monsters, ghouls, and/or gadgets. In many cases, these games have you set up a lair, base, or city, and lure in Good Guys (™) to destroy.
MachiaVillain is, of course, a game in this mold. It’s a simulation where you manage a team of zombies, mummies, Jason-esque psychopaths, psychic tires (this is perhaps the single best idea in the game, it’s hilarious), pumpkinheads, Frankenstein Monsters, et cetera, to build and manage a haunted mansion where you lure in townsfolk and render them into monster food as you quest to become the top villain in an organization called the League of Machiavellian Villains… which is of course, the explanation for the name of the game.
And this is all well and good until you try to think through the ramifications. This isn’t a Sims-style game, where you can purchase or build a haunted mansion from the ground up. It feels very much like Impire or Dungeon Keeper, where you build a sprawling lair with laboratories, factories, traps, moving floors, and more. It really ends up feeling like some sprawling compound (or lair) than a haunted house full of monsters. And for movie-style monsters, your zombies and werewolves seem to spend an awful lot of time chopping wood, building flooring, and constructing television sets.
All that to say, the game doesn’t take itself seriously, but also to my mind, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the theme of the game and the actions it has you take. The actions, the actual gameplay, is fun enough. But whenever I stopped to think about what was going on, I always felt a little weird about it.
The game begins with you hiring your first 3 monsters, and then it dumps your minions off on an abandoned stretch of road with a big pile of gold, food, and some other essentials to get started. Not to harp on it, but thematically it feels weird to build a haunted house from the ground up instead of inheriting or purchasing an existing house (haunted or not) and setting up an operation within it.
Cognitive dissonance aside, you get started on ordering your minions to do things like chop wood, mine stone, and metal, collect mushrooms and berries, and build rooms. There are lots of building in this game: you place floors, and walls, and doors (though no windows that I’m aware). You can order your monsters to build traps, writing desks – one of the more humorous things about the game is that you lure visitors to your mansion via advertisements, though your monsters end up having to write mountains of spam letters in order to get more valuable victim types to come over for dinner.
Most rooms can have only one function: it can be a writing room, a laboratory, a kitchen, a bedroom, a place to distract victims, et cetera. A room is ‘assigned’ when you place an item from a category into it: if you put a writing desk in a room, it becomes a home office. And then a TV placed in the room to distract victims wouldn’t function. Frustratingly, you don’t seem to be able to move items around the house but have to deconstruct them and rebuild them elsewhere. This gets to be a problem as you gain the resources to establish a better laid out lair and seek to change the purpose of rooms or reconfigure them.
Also a little frustrating is the need to place walls and floors individually: it seems like it’d be cleaner and simpler to just draw out a room with a wall type and floor type selected, and have the bounds of the room just… be walls. All of the clicking you have to do to design a room got to me after a while.
As you expand your haunted mansion, you contend with resource shortages: minions need to eat and sleep, and they are often quite easy to anger: sleeping in a room with other people can have a deleterious effect on their Loyalty score. There’s wood that needs chopping, blood that needs mopping up after a night of killing victims, TVs to build (seriously, if you can mail letters to lure victims to your house, surely you can order stuff from a catalog?)
It feels good that there’s often more to do than you have bodies (pun intended) and hours for, but at times this makes progress frustratingly slow: you often have to grind for in-game days to acquire anything that materially impacts the state of your mansion: new minions are hard to come by, researching better items, traps, and furniture can be painfully slow, and acquiring evil points to upgrade your minion slots and Lair is grueling.