Cerebria Board Game Review (Mindclash Games)


Journey into your emotions with Cerebria, the game that pits dark and bright emotions against each other as they fight for control over a single brain. Cerebria is an absolutely gorgeous game, with uniquely intriguing art, detailed miniatures, and a game board that -- well, borders on excessive. Playing Cerebria is not unlike playing its predecessor Anachrony -- and that is a double-edged sword in terms of playability. With a solo mode, competitive mode, and team-based mode for three competing teams, Cerebria can be a lot of fun in the right hands. Nevertheless, this review is going to be primarily a breakdown of what did not work in the game, and why it's a problem. 

Cerebria Board Game Details

Players: 1 to 6

Game Time: 120 Minutes

Age: 14+

Genre: Area Control / Worker Placement

The Good: An Attractive Game With a Compelling Theme

Cerebria first caught my eye during a demo at GenCon. It's an undeniably attractive game. In Cerebria, you're all playing different emotions, and you're playing influence cards that are designed as small, little beasts, which personify feelings inside of the brain. As the game progresses, you fight for control of different sectors of the brain, by placing cards and influence tokens, and initiating actions against other players. As an emotion, you're upgrading your game board so you can do different things: so you can move faster, build fortifications, place cards, and even destroy cards. Positive emotions and negative emotions have different upgrade paths -- and there can even be neutral emotions, in the expansion. 

Cerebria Game Art
The card art of Cerebria is a joy.

Players are attempting to go towards common goals, such as having the most fortifications, having the most realms under their control, or having the most influence in a certain area. All of these things are perfectly straightforward for anyone who has ever played an area control or worker placement game. Unfortunately, this is where the issues with Cerebria come in. 

Aesthetic Over Function: Where the Game Falters

As mentioned, Cerebria is beautiful. But this beauty comes at a cost. An example is that nothing that cards do are written on the cards themselves. Instead, you need to consult a manual to find out the intricacies of what they do. While there are icons on each card, they're completely inscrutable unless you read the text in the manual. They serve as a reminder once you've memorized the actions, rather than being able to be read intuitively.

Let's consider Red Dragon Inn, which places a large amount of text on each card. You always know what a card does. It's fast and easy to play the game. On the other hand, consider a game like Valeria. In Valeria, there's no text on the cards, but there are only a few different icons in different combinations. Once you've read a little bit about Valeria, you can determine what these icons mean intuitively.

Every card looks bizarre and unique.
Every card is bizarre and unique. 

Cerebria is like neither of these games. Every time you get a new card, you need to reference the manual to figure out what it does. When you see some achievements, you need to refer to the manual to see what it means. We found ourselves consulting the manual every few minutes because it just was not clear what things did, even well into the game. 

There's no reason for this. There's just no excuse for it. It's a poor player experience that honestly only serves the purpose of making the cards look better. 

Complexity for the Sake of Complexity

Ultimately, Cerebria is a game that takes a long time to setup and a long time to learn, but it's not that hard of a game. You're playing cards. You're destroying cards. It's pure area control. All of the complexity is in your decision making: which areas do you upgrade? Do you move to a different area to fortify it, or do you stay in a specific area to defend it?

In fact, you have a lot of options. But you may not use all of them because of how confusing it can be.

Despite this, the manual is dozens of pages long and there were things that we just did not realize about movement, score keeping, and more. The game intentionally makes itself out to be more complex than it really is, and it could be taught in a much simpler fashion. This can even be seen in the game board, which is broken into a dozen overlapping sections, frontiers, pairs, and more -- it even has special rules about being adjacent to different slots which are not intuitive.

Some of ths complexity makes the game more versatile. With Cerebria, you can play in a duel mode, you can play in a solo mode, or you can play in teams. But even then we found things a bit shaky; when playing with a neutral team, we found it largely an exercise in frustration, as there are no direct actions you can take against a neutral team, and any action you take to mitigate the neutral team's damage also serves to give the other team time. 

What's Wrong With Games Today

I enjoyed Cerebria, just as I enjoyed Anachrony. I like these types of games. But even I can recognize that Cerebria is an example of almost everything that is wrong with games today. It's impenetrable not because it needs to be, but because it wants to be. It intentionally makes itself difficult to learn, because it knows that nerds want to feel like part of an exclusive club. It uses too many parts, just to add more parts. It hides information, just to make you work for it. It's just about everything that casual gamers loathe about more complex games.

The icons on Cerebria are inscrutable when you read them, forcing you to consult the manual every time.

And at its heart, beyond all that, Cerebria is actually not a complex game. It doesn't have all that much meat to it. It can be played in two hours. All of the complexity and confusion comes from its trappings rather than its core design: it is alienating for the sake of being alienating. As a trash human being, I'm willing to put up with this. Most players are not.

Cerebria is the type of game that is going to eventually destroy this hobby, because casual gamers are not going to want to sit through an hour of setup and two hours of learning to realize that everything that they learned should not have been as hard as it actually was. They aren't going to keep signing up for this type of bizarre, embedded gatekeeping that serves no functional purpose. They're going to start rebelling against us, the advocates, and start refusing to learn new games. 

And again, this isn't even an argument against Cerebria: it's an argument against the way that the game is presented. This is a game that could take ten minutes to learn, but instead takes easily two hours simply because it wants to obfuscate the information that is there. 

Cerebria Board Game
We repeatedly referred to Cones of Dunshire throughout the game, especially as the rules became more arcane.

So. With Anachrony and Cerebria, I have two games that I absolutely adore but that I really can't get anyone to play. The setup takes too long, the game looks too complex, and it runs just slightly longer than is actually fun. Yet both of them are really very good games, I can't deny that. Cerebria is a good game, stuck behind dense trappings. Since I've always maintained that I rate these games for myself, from my perspective, my rating on it is actually quite high. But I also can't recommend it. I can't recommend it to most people. Not because of some kind of exclusivity or feeling of uniqueness, but because it honestly won't be a fun experience for a lot of people -- and that's a shame.

Cerebria Board Game Review
  • PRO: Unique and attractive art make Cerebria a joy to look at -- and the gameplay itself is actually quite simple once people understand it.
  • CON: The entirety of the game feels obfuscated; it's hard to set up, hard to learn, and ultimately isn't a lot of fun for casual players.