Wednesday 30 October 2013

Review - Dracula

Dracula teeth

Designed by Michael Rieneck
Published by Rio Grande Games (Kosmos Line)
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

Dracula board game
The eye-catching box.

Halloween is fast approaching, so I thought it was time to tell a scary story...

Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a small flat all by himself. The flat was part of a converted inn, and was home to more than one ghost. Doors would bang at night, lights would come on, and dark phantasms swirled through the young man's dreams.

One day, the young man met a young woman. They quickly became friends, and soon after became something more... Within three months of their first date, they had rented a huge house together, and the young man was finally free of his haunted flat. Unfortunately, renting a large house did not leave the young couple with very much money, so they spent a lot of evenings at home.

Neither the young man, nor the young woman, were particularly fond of television, so they were always looking for other things to pass the time.

One day, the young man said, 'Hey. When I was younger I used to really like board games. Maybe we should get some board games.'

The young woman agreed that it sounded like a good idea, and a few days later a suspicious brown box arrived in the post. Inside: a two-player game called Dracula.

Dracula is a beautifully produced, and beautifully designed, game of deduction, bluffing, and hand management. The concept is simple. One player is Van Helsing, and the other player is the titular night-time menace. Drac has arrived by ship in London, and has begun hiding his coffins in various locations; Van the Man is on the hunt, but at the same time, he is trying to protect the citizens Drac wants to bite.

Dracula board game - Dracula and Van Helsin meeples
Guess who...

So, what you have is an incredibly tense game of cat and mouse, played out over a simple 4x3 grid. In each space will be a face down card (either a card from Van Helsing's hand, or a card from Dracula's hand). On a turn, a player can choose how many spaces to move his cute little wooden meeple on the board, and as he does, he can look at the cards he lands on. If the card is one of his, he can swap it (or pretend to swap it) with a card from his hand. If it isn't one of his cards, he encounters it, which often means having a fight.

Dracula board game - the board
The board - you don't need it, but it's lovely.

Each player has three types of cards: Five objectives (Van Helsing has victim cards, Drac has coffin cards), one special object (if revealed by your opponent, your opponent loses a life instantly), and nine allies. Allies are obviously the most likely sort of card you will encounter, and they represent vampire hunters or vampires. They each have a strength value, and when they are revealed, you have to play a card from a second hand of cards to defeat them...

Wait... What? Didn't I mention the second hand of cards?

Dracula - action cards
Action cards.

Okay. You see, in this game, you have to carefully manage two hands of cards. The first hand comprises the encounter cards that get played on the board (as already mentioned). You also get a deck of ten larger action cards. At the start of the game you draw five, and then once you have used all five, you get the other five. After that, you shuffle them together and draw a new hand of five, and so on...

These larger cards add real meat of the game. Each one has four elements: A movement value, an attack strength, a barrier, and (usually) a special power. On your turn, once you have stopped moving, or have been forced to stop moving by encountering one of your opponent's allies, you need to play one of the larger cards from your hand. You need to play a card with a movement value that matches the number of spaces you moved (otherwise you take damage), you also need to play a card with a strength value that will enable you to defeat the ally. Of course, the cards with the highest movement value tend to have the lowest attack strength, so you have to balance speed with strength. Nice, clever stuff.

Most of the cards will also show a barrier colour, and this allows you to place (or move) a barrier on the board. These barriers are impassable, and can be used to block your opponent from reaching certain locations.

Finally, most cards have a cool power, allowing you to take extra turns, or move your piece, or regain health.

So, going in turns, players will move to one or more locations, revealing and swapping cards, moving barriers, and generally trying to create as much confusion for their opponent as possible. But what's the point? The point is those objective cards I mentioned before. If at any point you have found all five of your opponent's objective cards, or you can prove that the only objectives left are in your opponent's hand rather than on the board (achieved by landing on your opponent's space and showing each other your hands of cards), you win.

Dracula is a very clever little game. It plays out in around half an hour, on a tiny grid, and has a very limited set of rules; and yet it offers some surprisingly deep gameplay. Bluffing and deduction play a big part of it: You need to keep swapping cards on the board, forcing your opponent to return to locations over and over again. You need to know when to place an objective on the board, and when to keep it in hand (where it is slightly safer). But there is also a second game layered over the deduction game, and in that game you are managing a limited amount of resources: Action cards. You have to carefully plan when you want to move a large number of spaces, and when you want to move cautiously. You need to keep in mind which allies you have killed, and hold on to a strong enough action card to kill any that are left.

Dracula - encounter cards
Encounter cards.

What is great about this second layer of gaming goodness, which is drizzled all over the deduction game like cream on pumpkin pie, is the fact it helps to level the playing field. I am not good at deduction games, but I am pretty good at resource management and card games. If you can kill an opponent's ally, you get to replace it with a card of your own. This makes it more dangerous for your opponent to move around, forcing more fights that might end with your opponent taking damage. If your opponent takes four lots of damage, you win. In other words, if you are confronted with a master of bluffing, you can just beat the snot out of him or her instead.

After the young man had played several games of Dracula with the young woman, he packed it up and put it on the book shelf. 'That was good fun,' he said.

'Yeah,' the young woman said. And then it was as if a dark spirit crept into the room, possessing the young couple.

The young man shivered, as if a window in his soul had been opened, allowing him a brief glimpse of his future. 'We should get more games,' he said.

Nine years later, the young man is no longer so young. He lives in a slightly smaller house that he owns rather than rents. The bookcase with a single board game on it has become three bookcases, crammed with over 150 games and expansions. And board games have become an integral part of his character.

He even writes a blog about them.

And the young woman? She is now his wife, and the mother of his daughter.

And sometimes, just sometimes, they still play Dracula.

Spooky, huh?

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