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by M. Pending Düüm

“Down a lonely alleyway, under a starless sky, lies a city that never was, yet is: the Mad City, where Nightmares walk the streets, and a good night’s sleep can get you killed. Every now and then, the Awake – chronic insomniacs from our world, the City Slumbering – break through the barriers of normal human perception and cross over to the Mad City, becoming trapped there, gaining abilities fueled by madness and exhaustion. Most of the Awake live a short, phantasmagorical, frantic life in the Mad City, before it quite literally eats them alive. However, there are those rare few who manage to master the city and even find a way to escape…”

– From the Don’t Turn Your Back Rules Guide

In Evil Hat Productions’ deliciously dark worker placement/deck builder hybrid, players take on the roles of characters trapped in a terrifying nightmare realm known as the Mad City. Each with his or her own motivating desire, the characters vie for the favor of the only being who can give them what they want – the mysterious and powerful Wax King. Whichever of the characters is able to best complete His Horrific Majesty’s tasks shall gain that which they seek. The others will be forever encased in wax, becoming a part of the King’s chilling menagerie.

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Each player starts with an identical hand of beautifully (though creepily) rendered minion cards known as Nightmares, all of which have unique stats and abilities, including rules about how and where they can be used in the characters’ efforts to satisfy the Wax King. To fulfill the King’s requests, the players take turns placing their Nightmares into different areas of the Mad City – The Bizarre Bazaar, The City Slumbering, District 13, The High School, and the Wax Kingdom. Each area produces a very different effect when Nightmares are sent there. For instance, the Bizarre Bazaar activates the special abilities on the Nightmare card, while District 13 simply provides victory points in the form of Candles. As the game goes on, players are able to spend points earned by placing Nightmares in the City Slumbering to purchase newer, more powerful cards which increase the overall power of their decks and open up more possibilities. Players must be smart with where they place cards, however, since each location has only so many open slots, and once they’re full, players must wait until next round for another shot at sending a Nightmare to that location.

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The game is played over a set number of rounds, each of which is impacted by a Law Card, that offers bonuses and incentives unique to that particular round. For example, The 13th Admonishment card dictates that whoever comes in 1st Place for that round (scoring happens at the end of each round) can acquire any available card from his or her Acquisition area and place it on top of their Favor pile, essentially giving the player a free card of their choice, which will enter the player’s hand upon the next draw. The number of players decides how many rounds are played, and at the end of the final one, Candles are tallied, and the winner receives his or her reward while the others are carted off to the meet their fates in the waxworks.

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Summary: Set in the world of the Don’t Rest Your Head role playing game, Don’t Turn Your Back is twisted fun for two to four players, and a game can easily be played in about an hour. While the terminology in the rules can be just a bit confusing at first, most gamers will be able to figure it all out in a round or two, and Evil Hat provides a terrific tutorial here. DTYB is well-balanced with lots of conceivable strategies and paths to victory, and it has excellent replayability. The rich theme offers terrific and terrifying storytelling possibilities, the components are chillingly well-crafted, and the artwork is evocative and unsettling. My only criticism (and it’s a small one – this is a great game) is of the lack of cards and/or abilities unique to each of the playable characters, though this element could easily be added in a future expansion. As Halloween approaches and you find yourself looking for the perfect horror-related game to bring to the table, look no further than the fantastic Don’t Turn Your Back!