Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Touch Of Evil - Chasing Mouth-Breathing Vampires Through Shadowbrook For Fun And Profit

Well, after WAY too long of a hiatus, I'm back in action for another review! Now that birthday parties, drama on the interwebz, and finalizing my game design is pretty much out of the way, I've decided to make good on my promise and write a little bit about a game that, when released, had a lot of people talking, A Touch of Evil from Flying Frog Productions. As you can see from the game box, they've decided to use the neat live-action shots FFP is known for, but unlike Last Night on Earth, there are indeed some LARPer Hall of Shame shots. That being said, if you can get past what appears to be a photo of the love child of Marty Feldman and The Bride of Dracula, this game is actually a lot of fun. It's a co-op/competitive game that pits the players against an unspeakable horror that's terrorizing the town of Shadowbrook, with minions and baddies galore trying to stop them. While not necessarily an autobuy game, it's certainly a good one that bears taking a look at.

As I noted before the cover art is, while not quite an Epic Fail, not all that interesting. From the photo above, you can see that it's very decent, but that goofy fucking vampire simply ruins it for me. I'm not sure whether he was sneezing when the photo was taken, if he simply has nasal polyps, or just has a terrible overbite, but that particular bit is really bad. Not only that, but everyone knows that you can't photograph real vampires, so obviously this one is a fraud. That, and you'd think and undead thousand year old Master of Darkness could've seen a good orthodontist and a plastic surgeon to get them damned ears fixed. I mean, it's pretty hard to sneak up on somebody to drink their blood when you look like a goofy bastard at a low-budget costume party, especially when it's not Halloween.

Anyhow, I got past that after a good laugh and cracked the box open to find a great rulebook and a veritable ocean of plasticized die-cut chits and cards, all of which are of the exceptional quality that FFP is known for. There's also a large, well-illustrated, sepia-tone black and tan game board for use in the game. Searching further, there's the well-detailed grey plastic miniatures that one has come to expect in games these days which are used as the player pawns and the FFP-standard "track" card which keeps track of your nemeses' strength. Speaking of players, there are player dashboards that are also plasticized and are of the same dimension and layout as the Last Night On Earth boards. The baddies also get their own large dashboards which tell you who they are, what they do, and what manner of fell beasts are under their control. Finally, there's some minion charts that help you navigate which minions do what, a couple of handfuls of mini-dice, and the trademark cheeseball mood music CD that someone at FFP believes to be a good idea. All in all, the component quality is exceptional, as usual, and the art, while mostly good, has some really bad ones that made it in. These are the ones that make you wonder who the hell is steering the ship at FFP's art department, and when you add in the fact that they put in a jewel-cased CD that does nothing more than add five smackerels to the price of the game, you begin to wonder what the hell you were thinking when you decided to buy this game for fifty bones.

The wondering stops once you delve into the rulebook and realize what a solid game this is, and what a neat little theme the game has when you look at it in its totality. It has a surprising amount of depth, but it's not too horribly complex that it becomes a four-hour ordeal. Once you've punched and sorted the bazillion chits, simply separate the cards and chits and you're ready to set the game up, which only takes about 5 minutes or so. Setting up involves picking a baddie to battle, putting the chits away that you won't need, setting the cards up in their respective locations, and putting the characters you've chosen to play in the town center. It's really simple, and because each main archfiend has it's own set of chits, there's really not that many in play at any given time so there's not as much "chit overload" as you might expect, considering the massive swath of tokens you get when you first open the box. The last bit to decide is whether you want to play a cooperative game or a competitive game, the difference being what information is shared and whether or not you can join forces during boss battles. Once you've set up the game and have determined who goes first, the game is ready to go, and you're off to hunt the big bad monster. For the purposes of this review, I'm going to look at the co-op game only because I believe that's where this game really shines the most, although the competitive game is fun to play as well.

Speaking of the Big Bad Monster, the technical term is "The Villain", but I always think of The Joker from Batman when I hear Villain, so I'm avoiding that term. In this game there's 4 uber-baddies to select from: That seriously ill Vampire, the very hollow Headless Horseman, the creepy Scarecrow, and finally, the evil Werewolf. Each has their own set of minions and a minion card for use with each Villainous One. The art on these are very good, with the exception of the aforementioned Vampire, who is, well, incredibly stupid looking. In fact, I noticed a similarity with the Vampire and "They're Not That Into You guy"; looks like someone found himself a modeling gig! Hooray for Big H! The chits are well-illustrated and thematic, with each representing a different creature with a different ability as noted above, so you really need to punch-n-bag them into 4 sets as no creatures overlap and if you're playing one Villain, the rest of the minion chits get the night off.

The game plays in a very linear roll-and-move fashion, with players taking turns moving via a D6 roll, fighting any enemies that you happen to run into, and then taking actions, with the round ending by having the first player draw a Mystery Card which is the narrative mechanic in the game. The Mystery Phase, where you draw that Mystery Card, also acts as a bookkeeping phase where you reconcile reviving dead heroes and heal the Evil One if he was wounded in a previous altercation. Actions break down by the space you land on, with every named location having something special you can do just by landing there. There's multiple actions a player can take as well, so it's not like Talisman where once you land on a space and do whatever the space tells you to do, the turn ends; there's a lot going on, generally. The only required action is that you must do what the space tells you to do or, if there's an enemy in the space, you must fight that enemy. The corner spaces on the board allow you to take a card, and these cards generally represent weapons and special abilities that help you defeat monsters, where the center spaces represent the town where you can take actions such as being healed, buying items, and other like actions. There are also Investigation tokens you can try to take by making skill checks against your character's abilities. All in all, there's a lot of dice rolling involved in this game, but this is a good thing because it certainly helps keep the game replayable as well as keeping it from being a simple "puzzle game" where if you do the right thing enough times you end up winning.

Another cool mechanic in the game is the Lair Cards, which essentially tell you where the bad guy is hiding out. You have to buy these cards with Investigation tokens, and this information is shared, meaning once one player has a Lair Card, everyone can go kick the boss's ass. Another twist to this is that the cost of the card is determined by the Shadow Track I mentioned before, which is essentially a chart that tells you how tough the "monster at the end of this book" is. The further down the track you go, the less expensive the Lair Card is to buy, but the stronger the boss is, and if the Shadow Track gets to the end, the town has been completely taken over by the forces of evil and all the players immediately lose. Having this information is vital because you need to have this card and be in the location listed on the card in order to enter a "Showdown" with it, which is the end-game battle. The Lair Card also has a battle cost associated with it, which is printed on the card, and this value is how many Investigation markers it costs to initiate a Showdown.

Yet another neat little inclusion into the game are the Town Elder Cards. Apparently, Shadowbrook's nobility is a bunch of crooked bastards, and they all have done some bad stuff in their past that they don't want anybody to know about. In the course of the game, they can be investigated via spending Investigation tokens to buy a Secrets Card which is placed underneath the Town Elder Cards at the top of the board. Each Elder has one, and these secrets essentially tell you if the Town Elder is in league with the Evil One or not, and if they can be counted upon to help you defeat him in a Showdown. your nemesis is trying, via Mystery Cards and events, to kill or turn them, which will bolster them against you in a Showdown, so making sure to determine the allegiance of the Elder is pretty critical to beating the Horror Of The Hour.

Combat is pretty simple, really, as it is essentially pitching dice at the enemy minions as it does the same to the players. D6 rolls are the sword of the realm, with fives and sixes registering hits, and both the player and the minion can be hurt during a battle; there are no "defense dice", only cleaving blows and musket balls. Battles are done in bloodbaths of dice-rolling rounds, so if neither the player or the minion are killed, the player has the option to continue the battle or to flee to an adjacent empty space, if possible. Players can even use healing items between combat rounds if they're injured! There are also cards and items that can be used in battle which players extra dice, re-rolls, and other bumps to your death-dealing ability, so the odds really are stacked against the minions. That being said, the Villain is a whole different issue. The Villain has buddies to help him, like fallen Elders, and is tough as the odor of an M:TG tournament. Generally the Villain has a ton of life points, special abilities, and multiple fight dice which can bust your shit loose with the greatest of ease. The good news is that you can also call Elders into play on your side, if they're "good", and you can also have co-players jump in and help you knuckle up some Villainous ass.

Death, in A Touch Of Evil, is not permanent, though, with the players who lose all their life not actually being sucked dry of all bodily fluids. The Villain, who apparently is not entirely villainous, just kicks your ass, leaves you knocked the hell out, and walks back to his lair to catch some "Everybody Loves Raymond." Punked players simply roll a D6 and lose that many items, Investigation markers, or allies. It's a lot to bear when you consider that it takes a lot of time to get that stuff, but at the end of the day it's not too harsh a fate since the game doesn't have anyone killed early, sitting by the table and second-guessing every single player's move loudly and obnoxiously for the rest of the game. The end comes when one or all of the players kick the hell out of the Villain or if the Shadow Track gets to the end, and the cleanup is relatively simple after everyone's done talking smack or high-fiving.

All in all, the game is a lot of fun, is pretty difficult, but not "Ghost Stories" difficult, and is challenging enough to make you want to play again. There have been several boxed expansions, the largest of which is called Something Wicked, and there are several little expansion packs with new heroes and whatnot. There are also some online exclusive expansions as well as a set of templates to create your own villains and heroes. I've only played with the extra bits in Something Wicked once and it did add a bit to the game, so that may be something you'll want to consider when you make this purchase.

Things That Make Me Want To Touch Some Evil:
*Good co-op gameplay that doesn't drag on for 4 hours
*Simple enough to be approachable, even to light gamers
*Complex enough to be attractive to the uber-gamers
*Good replayability makes this a decent value for the dollar
*Lots of expansions allow even more fun and mayhem

Things That Define Dumbass-Vampire Levels Of Suck:
*What the fuck is up with these CDs they keep including?? I want my five bones back on these coaster-quality wastes of box space
*Lame-looking Vampire Lords are the pinnacle of suckage

Aside from the Count Suckula, the game is a hit at my house. We really enjoy the gameplay as it's brisk and engaging, and the game doesn't take 4 hours to finish. Some compare this game to Arkham Horror by calling it "Arkham Horror Lite", but I'm not one of them. They're two very different games with pseudo-similar themes, but at the end of the day this game stand on its own as a solid co-op light horror adventure game. Definately check it out, and were I you, I'd buy it before it goes out of print.

3.75/5 Stars

Learn more about A Touch Of Evil from Flying Frog Productions' page:

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