Welcome to 2016, everyone! Hope you had a great holiday, and if you stopped by the store for our pre-release of “Oath of the Gatewatch,” we hope you had a great time! If you didn’t come out for the prerelease, there will be some great events for release weekend, so sign up on our events page and stop on by!
This week, I wanted to take some time to highlight some games I played over the holiday break. All these games carry a big recommendation from me and range from cooperative horror to deduction to card-based fighting. If you’re looking for a new game to start your “Play more games” New Year’s resolution, you can do worse than starting here!
FURY OF DRACULA
Since last Halloween, I’ve been on a serious vampire kick, specifically related to Bram Stoker’s iconic novel “Dracula”. I’ve re-watched the Francis Ford Coppala adaptation (still holds up). I’ve re-read the book — Pro Tip: if you’re looking for a great audio version of “Dracula”, I highly recommend Audible’s fantastic full-cast read with Alan Cummings and Tim Curry headlining the cast. — and I’ve immersed myself in as much vampire lore as I can get my hands on. So when a board game called “Fury of Dracula” came into the store during one of my shifts, I immediately set about learning how to play it.
Turns out this is the third edition of a game that has been around since 1987, originally published by Games Workshop and re-published by good ol’ Fantasy Flight Games in 2006. “Fury of Dracula” is an asymmetric deduction game where one player takes on the role of Count Dracula and all other players play as vampire hunters from the book (Prof. Van Helsing, Lord Godalming, Dr. John Steward, and Mina Harker.) Set years after the novel, Dracula survived his previous ordeal and re-emerges somewhere in Western Europe. The vampire hunters must traverse across the continent, searching for clues and gathering helpful supplies, while Dracula moves in secret across the board, siring vampire spawn and laying traps in the path of his pursuers. Dracula earns “Influence” by allowing his vampire spawn to mature, by his trail going cold, or by attacking and defeating the vampire hunters. If Dracula gets to 13 influence, he wins the game. The vampire hunters, on the other hand, are trying to pick up on the Count’s trail, corner him, and put an end to him once and for all.
I’ve described “Fury of Dracula” as playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” if one of the players was Carmen Sandiego, trying to avoid being caught. Being a Fantasy Flight game, the production value is excellent. The board is beautifully printed, and as you can imagine, there are components galore. My only complaints are that the rules are so streamlined from previous editions that vagaries in how mechanics interact can pop up, and the rulebook isn’t much help. It’s a game that could use an official errata in a big, bad way. Also, Dracula’s mini, while well sculpted, has a very “jack-o-lantern” face that is hard to imagine as the steel-faced Count. But that’s a minor gripe, and I have several other vampire miniatures that can stand in for Dracula just fine.
DECEPTION: MURDER IN HONG KONG
“Deception: Murder in Hong Kong” is a deduction-based liar game that we recently started carrying at the store, and has quickly become one of Lauren’s favorite games to demo. But before we continue, a brief break for semantics; a “liar” game differs from a “traitor” game. A traitor game, like “Shadows over Camelot” or “Dead of Winter” gives the traitor mechanics to hide behind, a turn sequence or card effects that can misdirect from your evil intentions. A liar game is a game where the only defense that the defector has is to straight-up lie to everyone. There is no other recourse. I am not good at liar games. In fact, I’m comically bad at liar games, to the point where I’ve taken the advice from the WOPR supercomputer in “WarGames”: “The only winning move is to not play.”
That said, I do admire “Deception: Murder in Hong Kong” and its approach to the mystery-game format. The players are murder investigators trying to deduce a crime with the help of one player who is designated as the “forensic scientist.” Each player, sans the forensic scientist, has ten cards in front of them: five “means of murder” cards and five “key evidence” cards. The catch is that one of the players is the murderer and must indicate to the forensic scientist one of each type of card in front of them as their chosen cards for the game. Then, the forensic scientist, through the use of various lists and indicators (in the shape of bullets), must silently guide the team to deduce the clues that will lead them to the murderer, their means of murder, and what key evidence cracked the case wide open.
After the last bullet is placed, each player has a short amount of time to state their case and their suspicions uninterrupted. Once everyone has had a chance to speak, another list is added to the mix and another bullet placed to further define the clues. After three rounds of clue-giving and deliberation, if the players have not correctly identified the murderer and their selected cards, then the murderer gets away scot-free. At any time in the game, a player may literally turn in their badge and make a guess. If they get any part of their guess wrong, then their badge is forfeited and play continues. Badge-less players may still participate in the deliberations, but cannot make any further attempts to solve the murder.
I’ll admit that I have a lot more fun playing “Deception: Murder in Hong Kong” as an innocent investigator than as a murderer. There are times when the murderer gets lucky and the forensic scientist has to really stretch to make the clues fit, or they cleverly pick cards that could be mistaken for other cards on the board. But in the times that I played and was the murderer (currently batting a 0.500 average in my career as a murderer), it was obvious who the murderer was and all eyes were pointed at me in the first round. Granted, it is still possible to win even if you flat-out admit your murdering ways; the Investigators still have to guess your chosen cards. There are also some additional player archetypes (the “Accomplice” and the “Witness”, to be exact) that I haven’t played with yet, but I would like to give those a shot in the future.
Just know that if you’re sitting at the table with me, no matter how many people are playing, there is at least a 50% chance that I did it.
WWE SUPERSTAR SHOWDOWN
I make no secret that I’m a wrestling fan. In fact, I’m writing this bit in my favorite Daniel Bryan shirt for maximum synergy, and these 2000-ish-word columns are my WrestleMania 30. I just hope I don’t get sidelined with a concussion after hitting “publish” and have to drop my belt to someone else on the roster. (Side note: We miss you, Daniel! Come back to us, Yes Man!)
Anyway, when I discovered this new WWE-branded board game by Gale Force Nine, I knew that I was going to have to check it out someday. Well, it arrived on Christmas Eve and I got a chance to run a few demos for people. Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s not just a quick cash-in with a marketable logo on it, but a well-made game that packs a lot of theme into not a lot of components.
The basic game revolves around a single one-on-one match featuring current WWE talent like the aforementioned Daniel Bryan along with Randy Orton, Big E Langston, the Big Show, Roman Reigns, and John Cena. The gameplay is resolved through cards. Each SuperStar has their own deck designed to reflect their style and move-set. For example, Big Show and John Cena are primarily strikers, while Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton rely more on maneuvers. Each round, the players in the ring select three cards from their hand to play this round. They flip the first card over simultaneously and compare the results in a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic, with a “Slam” card trumping all other cards. The winning card gets to perform its actions, and play progresses to the next card.
After a full round is resolved, the players compare who had the most winning cards in that round. If the winner is in the ring and adjacent to their opponent in a non-diagonal space, they can go for the pin. When pinned, a player can play a card with a “kick-out” symbol from their hand to escape the pin, or must roll cards off their deck for the three-count. If a kick-out isn’t played by the third card, the wrestler is pinned, the winner’s music hits, and the crowd goes wild.
Throughout the game, the players will move their wrestler around the ring, bounce off of ropes, and perform high-flying moves off the turnbuckle to damage their opponent. Damage is measured in cards that the damaged player must “give up” to their opponent, effectively burning them from play. The deck measures the wrestler’s stamina. The more cards they give up, the more tired they are becoming, can rely on fewer moves, and are more susceptible to being pinned. Players can play “Block” cards out of their hands to prevent damage, but these cards are given up to their opponent, so you will eventually run out of tricks and will be forced to take damage. If your deck runs out of cards to give up, then you are considered knocked out and you lose the match.
While I did have a lot of fun playing “WWE Superstar Showdown,” there are a few nagging problems that keep eating at me. First, I hope that, if Gale Force Nine is allowed to make expansions, they give serious thought to either the NXT or Women’s division. (I refuse to call WWE female wrestling talent “Divas.”) Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the rulebook could’ve gone through one or two more rounds of copy editing. It’s helpful, but I was referencing it constantly and that doesn’t make for good demo. Do yourself a favor; if you do play this game, look up an actual-play video online. It’ll be of more help.
Based on my predisposition to wrestling, I figured I was going to like this game. I was cracking in-jokes and playing the entrance music for the wrestlers in the match for that extra level of authenticity. But everyone else I played with was impressed with the game as well. These weren’t my fellow marks playing the game; they were regular people who aren’t as invested in the product as I am and they still had fun. That speaks to the elegance of the design. Gale Force Nine crammed an incredible amount of theme into a board and a small deck of cards, an experience that (in some ways) rivals that of the “WWE 2k”-series of video games. If you are a wrestling fan, it’s an easy buy. If you aren’t a wrestling fan but know someone who is, you might get a kick out of playing it with them.
THE SHADOW OVER WESTMINSTER
Let’s see: co-op game? Check. Deck builder? Check? Horror atmosphere? Check. Extreme likelihood of failure? Super-check. Sign me up!
“The Shadow of Westminster” scratches the same itch that “Betrayal at House on the Hill” and “Pandemic” do: a co-op game with an anxiety-inducing premise that will punish you very harshly for bad play, but is just as much fun to lose as it is to win. The players take the role of Agents in London that are beginning to see signs of a coming darkness, or “cataclysm” as the game puts it. They must work together to deal with cataclysm-related disturbances in the city while also researching the cataclysm, acquiring useful artifacts and knowledge, and keeping the whole affair on the down-low. The Agents are opposed by “darkness” that creeps up in different locations and threatens to set back their progress. Like in “Pandemic,” those locations can only take so much darkness before the darkness engulfs the area, progress is lost, and the world gets that much closer to destruction. Also, like in “Betrayal,” the players don’t know what the end-game victory condition is until the Cataclysm is revealed through play. But if darkness ever engulfs the Cataclysm, you and the world are lost.
What sets “Westminster” apart from the previously mentioned games is that the game is primarily a cooperative deck-builder. Players spend and discard cards to accomplish tasks, acquire more cards, and build their deck up to be the most effective. Thrown into that mix are Exposure cards, which take up space in your hand and prevent you from accomplishing things. Exposure is acquired by fleeing an active investigation, being caught at a location when darkness engulfs it, or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Managing your exposure is crucial to effective play. When the world ends, you don’t want the last photo taken of you to be on the front page of the National Inquirer.
This game was a finalist on Cards Against Humanity’s “Tabletop Deathmatch” YouTube show and turned to Kickstarter to achieve its first print run. I backed the game early in the campaign and even got to demo it at PAX East with the game’s designer, Robert Huss. I will note for the record that our demo was the first group to beat the Cataclysm at that PAX. #Humblebrag. After a few delays in production, it shipped to backers at the end of 2015 and I got my copy right before Christmas. I’ve been playing it ever since and it has only grown on me more and more. I hope that more copies get printed so it can reach a wider audience than those initial Kickstarter backers. Until then, “The Shadow Over Westminster” will sit proudly next to “Pandemic” and “Betrayal” on my shelf. If you can find a copy or get a chance to play it, it’s worth your time.
That’s all for now. If there are any new games you’ve been trying out, or games that we recommended that were big hits over the holiday break, let us know! I’ll be tweaking my white/green Ally deck to ramp faster, but I’ll be back next week. Until then, happy gaming!