Tuesday 17 September 2013

Review - Vampire Hunter

Vampire Hunter

Vampire Hunter
Published by Milton Bradley (Hasbro)
Designed by someone with really good eyesight
For 2-4 players, aged 9 to adult

If you know me at all (and let's be honest, you probably don't) you will know that I like games with a bit of theme. I enjoy abstract games, and I can enjoy cube-pushing games that have a pasted on theme for colour; but what I really want is a game that oozes theme (not in a gross kind of way). I want a game that makes me feel completely involved in what is happening, and totally invested in the success of my character.

Creating theme in a game is more than just suitable artwork and playing pieces (although, of course, that is a major element). It also takes game mechanisms that make sense. If what you are doing makes sense (without having to perform mental backflips to link everything together), then the battle is already won. And if you have a game with a novelty element or gimmick that reinforces the theme in some way... Well... Sign me up.

On first blush, Vampire Hunter is a perfect fit. It has suitably moody artwork, plastic miniatures for playing pieces, and a cool 3D tower in the middle of the board. But it is the novelty element of this game that really sells the theme.

Vampire Hunter Tower
The tower.

You see, in that cool 3D tower is a light. Switch it on, and the light glows blue. Press the top of the tower, and the light changes to red. Why? Simple really. Everything in this game is printed twice. Every card, every token, every dice, and even the board, has been printed once in red, and once in blue. When the light is blue, certain elements on the game components are washed out to reveal particular images; but when the light changes to red, different elements are washed out, and the images change.

This is more than just a gimmick: It is the central conceit of the game's mechanisms, and the beating heart of the game's theme. Without the tower, the theme is virtually non-existent; and without the theme, the game is virtually non-existent.

When the red light is on, it is the daytime. The movement dice show higher numbers, graveyard tokens show harmless tombstones, and in the village you will bump into amiable farmers. But when the light goes blue, night has fallen over the land: the movement dice shows lower numbers (because it is harder to travel at night), zombies claw out of the ground beneath the tombstones, and those farmers transform into slavering wolves.

It is incredibly clever, and a beautiful example of how to integrate theme with game mechanisms. The two are literally inseparable.

Unfortunately, beyond this wonderful piece of ingenuity the game is rather sub-standard. Your glasses would need to be as rose-tinted as the board during daylight turns in order to see the game as anything more than a minor distraction.

You may already have noticed I mentioned a movement dice. That should have been the first warning sign: The game is roll and move. The game is also rather boring.

Vampire Hunter
The rules.

Two to four adventurers are racing to the vampire's tower in order to kill him before he can escape in his ship. To do this they need to move through a graveyard, a marsh, the castle dining hall, and finally the vampire's crypt. On the way, they will flip tokens, which may contain bad things, but may also contain good things. The heroes need to collect garlic, a stake, and a sword, and then defeat the vampire in combat three times (once with each weapon). If they do this before the vampire's ship arrives, they win. If the ship arrives, the vampire escapes, and everyone loses.

You may think this sounds like a co-operative game, but it isn't. Realistically, the vampire will never escape; and really it is just a race between all the hunters to see who can land the killing blow. And yes, it is possible for someone to defeat the vampire twice, and then for a third hunter to turn up and win the third battle, thus claiming total victory for doing only a third of the actual work.

Vampire Hunter Weapons
The weapons.

One of the biggest problems is that it is all incredibly pedestrian. Yes, the changing light mechanism is clever and inventive; but it has been used to disguise a boring game system that is older than Dracula himself. You roll to move, flip a token, take the token if it is good or fight a monster if it is bad, and then... Then you wait until your next turn. Oh, and if you lose a fight? You get pushed back to the entrance space. Like in Mario. Because that's really fun. And thematic.

This is just a bog-standard race game in which you charge around the map gathering up the tools you need to fight the vampire. And of course, whether or not you gather those items is entirely down to luck of the dice (rolling high enough to reach tokens), and luck of the draw (randomly flipping a useful token rather than a harmful one). It may be a children's game, but that's no excuse for this kind of lazy design.

But the biggest problem is also the biggest draw: that tower.

The tower just isn't bright enough. You are supposed to play the game in a darkened room, using only the light of the tower to see what you are doing. But the light is so dim, it is incredibly difficult to see what you are doing. And after 15 minutes, you will have a headache.

Vampire Hunter playing pieces
Is it just me, or do these guys not look like vampire hunters?

I have had this game for a few years now, and I have made a habit of rolling it out at Halloween. But this is a bad habit, and one I don't intend to continue.

Besides, I have Fury of Dracula in my game collection, which happens to be the most thematic vampire game ever made. And it manages that without a silly light-up tower.


  1. Nice review of a, shall we say, less popular game. I've had this for years, too, and I just keep wanting the game and the tower gimmick to be better than they are.

    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      If the tower had worked, it would have overshadowed (so to speak) the poor game mechanisms. As it is, the game is a curio. A failed experiment. It gets points for effort, but no prizes.

      I have two other Dracula themed games, and both of them are better than this one.


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