Cooperative Series – Fury of Dracula

(image by ColtsFan76 @ BGG)
I’m relatively new to the board game scene so I missed out on Avalon Hill, Milton Bradley, Games Workshop and others in their prime. Thankfully many classic games from that era are finding their way into reprints and redesigns by new publishers, giving new gamers like me a chance to see what all we missed out on!

Fury of Dracula is Fantasy Flight’s reprint of the 1987 game of the same name. One player is Dracula, running around Europe hiding from the team of hunters trying to bring the Count down. Dracula will forever disappear if the hunters take too long, but defeating him is no easy task – especially once the sun sets. The hunters will need to work together to pick up Dracula’s trail and have the strength to defeat him. Dracula, on the other hand, will need to be crafty in his movements and use his available tools wisely to set traps for the hunters and throw them off his trail.

Dracula may be looking for fresh blood, but not everything about this game sucks:

+ Hidden movement – I love the mechanic of hidden movement. Playing as the hunted is usually the most entertaining as you try to outsmart your opponents, but it’s also fun for hunters to work together and try to give Dracula as few escape opportunities as possible. The game’s length and difficulty does hinge around the Dracula player, though; poor play or mistakes can make the game incredibly easy for the hunters.

(image by Jasly @ BGG)

Fury of Dracula also uses a pretty clever card system for tracking Dracula’s movement. The Dracula player has a deck of cards representing all of the location on the map. Each turn they put their next destination face down and also place an encounter marker on top of the card. The movement track is eight spaces long so Dracula essentially keeps a history of his last eight movements. This gives the hunters a chance to pick up Dracula’s trail but will have to encounter the token Dracula placed on that location card. It also means Dracula can’t double back on his trail (without the use of some special cards) as he only has one of each location on the map. It’s very clever and a great way to handle Dracula’s hidden movement.

+ Gorgeous map – I’m a sucker for maps and Fury of Dracula has one of the nicest maps I’ve seen in a board game. The design is clean and clear and I love the color palette. It is bound to turn some heads when set up.

+ Event cards – On their turn the hunters have the option of drawing an event card. Unlike most decks, they draw from the bottom because the card back designates if the event card goes to that hunter or to Dracula. It’s a clever risk-reward system as the event cards give the hunters some nice bonuses and abilities but they risk giving cards to Dracula to make him more powerful or easier for him to escape.

Unfortunately in some ways I find the concept of the game better than the actual implementation:

(image by Filippos @ BGG)
– Event cards – While there’s a fun risk/reward system for the hunters in drawing event cards, they can take some of the fun out of the game depending on the timing of certain events. For example, some events allow the hunters to scout out areas on the map without moving there. If they get lucky and pick Dracula’s hiding spot early in the game the hunters can quickly mob Dracula, resulting in a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

– The hunt – Trying to pick up Dracula’s trail or trying to avoid the hunters is a lot of fun. Unfortunately once the hunters pick up Dracula’s trail the game can often turn into a big of a slog as they chase him down. Dracula has some tricks up his sleeve during nighttime but during the day it’s not too difficult for the hunters to corner. Yes, it will take several rounds of combat for the hunters to ultimately defeat Dracula but it often feels like just a matter of time.

– Combat – I’m really not a fan of the combat system. Ultimately it is functional but highly unintuitive and I generally have to relearn how it works each time we play. There’s essentially a rock-paper-scissors style element with card plays and some dice rolling to determine which player wins the battle. My main complaint is that between the charts, symbols and text used there’s no way you can just look at a card and even begin to guess how the combat system could possibly work. Once you understand it there’s actually some subtleties and I do like that Dracula is far more powerful at night, but I do find combat to be the least interesting part of the game.

(image by Filippos @ BGG)

– Length – Often running a solid two hours I feel like the game can outstay its welcome. Mostly this comes towards the end when it’s fairly clear the hunters will win. At that point Dracula could just toss in the towel but that takes away some satisfaction the hunters get from finally capturing their nemesis. The length can also be highly variable based on how quickly the hunters manage to track down Dracula, which isn’t always a fault of the game but can still result in an unsatisfying experience.

Fury of Dracula is at its best when Dracula manages to elude the hunters for a couple of days, giving him time to run around and force the hunters to really stretch themselves thin and cover as much ground as possible. When you get that fun game of cat-and-mouse going the game is fantastic. Unfortunately my last couple of plays have been pretty unsatisfying with Dracula getting revealed early via event cards, ending the game long before any buildup happened.

In the end I think Fury of Dracula is good to pull out from time to time for the fun of the hunt but doesn’t have quite enough going to keep it hitting the table on a regular basis.

Cooperative series – Defenders of the Realm

(image by Gryphon Eagle @ BGG)
Matt Leacock’s Pandemic sort of took the gaming world by storm. There had been other successful cooperative games in the past but Pandemic proved there was serious demand for purely cooperative gaming. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery so we’re starting to see a rush of cooperative games hit the market and Defenders of the Realm is one of the newest entries.

Four evil generals are marching towards Monarch City, sending their minions out to defile the land and bring about a new era of evil. Players are the heroes of Monarch City, stepping out to defeat the generals and maybe earn a little extra glory along the way. Defenders of the Realm is mechanically very similar to Pandemic: four colors of generals, minions that spread across the board when too many fill one area and players collecting sets of colored cards to defeat the generals. The heroes save the day if they defeat the generals; unfortunately if any general marches to Monarch City, if their minions taint too much of the countryside or become too populous the heroes lose. Like many cooperative games there are many ways to lose but only one way to win.

At a glance it is easy to see Defenders of the Realm as a Pandemic clone. Once you dig into the game a bit, though, you’ll see that Defenders has enough to stand on its own:

(image by rsolow @ BGG)

+ Hero Abilities – Each player controls a unique hero with special abilities, not unlike the roles in Pandemic. All of the heroes are very powerful and have fairly unique abilities, though, so every turn you feel like you are doing really awesome stuff that nobody else at the table can do. Some of the heroes are certainly more powerful than others but I think they all give you the satisfaction of contributing something special to the team.

+ Dice-based Combat – Some purely cooperative games break down into a group puzzle solving exercise, leaving little room for individual decisions. Defenders of the Realm certainly has some of that but combat against minions and generals is dice-based. Nothing is guaranteed so it is much more difficult to determine the optimal move for any given player. Sometimes there are clear actions you need to take but other times – especially early in the game – players are more free to do what they want. Some will go for big risks, others will play the safer odds.

+ Taking Down Generals – In order to take down generals you need to collect cards matching their color which determines how many dice you roll in the epic showdown. What I really like is that multiple heroes may meet up and take on the general at the same time, giving a nice epic feel to battles against generals. Players run around the countryside keeping minions at bay and when they are ready to strike they meet up and assault the big bad guy. It’s also crucial to be prepared because failure against a general can be devastating.

+ King’s Champion – This small competitive aspect may be more important to some groups than others. Players win or lose as a whole but individually earn points for completing quests and slaying generals. At the end the most renown hero is declared the King’s Champion. This is generally a fun little bonus for our group but I could see where other more competitive groups might play to become MVP. It’s a small touch but I think it works well and doesn’t add any extra complexity.

As much as I enjoy Defenders of the Realm, the game isn’t without fault:

(image by Titus SWE @ BGG)
– Graphic Design – Eagle Games always seems to struggle with graphic design. Larry Elmore’s artwork is great but the font choices are questionable at best and the map is a hindrance. It’s a map of a fictional fantasy world and the locations on cards are referenced only by name. Each time you read off a location players have to scan the board to figure out where they go. Familiarity does come with time but it would’ve been nice had the cards given you some reference on where on the map to look. A small complaint perhaps but it is an annoyance.

– Game Length – Unlike other cooperative games there’s no real built-in timer for Defenders of the Realm. The game only escalates as you kill generals so it’s possible to get into maintenance mode where you are just keeping up with everything that’s going on without making any real progress. Sometimes it can take awhile to get the right mix of cards to take on a general, so you spend a lot of time cleaning up the countryside hoping to draw the cards you need. Depending on the number of players a game can easily take 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I don’t feel that the game outstays its welcome but it does play long compared to similarly styled game.

– Story Arc – I feel that great boardgames follow some sort of story arc. You build over the course of the game to the climax with spikes of tension along the way, ending with a quick winding down to the conclusion. Due to the game’s pacing being mostly in the player’s hands, I feel that there’s not a very strong arc in Defenders of the Realm. The game is highly oppressive which adds to its challenge and sense of urgency but you don’t always get a very nice progression. Constantly being at that heightened state can make the game feel relatively flat.

(image by EndersGame @ BGG)

Overall I’m very pleased with Defenders of the Realm. It is challenging – giving the game plenty of replay value – and each game seems to play out a little differently. Sometimes the generals march straight on to Monarch City, forcing you to content with them quickly. Other times minions spread out of control, sending the heroes scrambling across the countryside. It really evokes the fantasy theme and offers what seems to be a fairly well-balanced gaming experience. Unfortunately I think the game’s length may turn some away from it, especially with similarly-styled games running much shorter. It’s also too bad that Eagle Games still struggles with graphic design issues.

If you have the time to play a longer cooperative game and can live with some poor graphic design choices, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in Defenders of the Realm.

Cooperative Series – Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft

(image by scottandkimr @ BGG)
Dungeon crawls all share a similar formula: kill things, get stuff. The excitement comes from the random encounters you have and the loot you find in the process. Several board games have tried to capture this excitement over the years to a varying degree of success. Wizards of the Coast took cues from modern board games and video games with the release of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, especially in the highly tactical combat. I’ve played some 4th edition and have always thought it would translate well to a board game. Not surprisingly Wizards of the Coast felt the same and they’ve started turning some of their classic adventure modules into cardboard, starting with Castle Ravenloft.

Castle Ravenloft is a cooperative dungeon crawl for one to five players. Unlike other dungeon crawl board games, Castle Ravenloft is strictly cooperative, meaning the heroes play against the game system and pre-programmed monster intelligence instead of a live opponent. The game comes with over a dozen scenarios, each with varying layouts and goals. Players explore the mostly random dungeon, trying to complete their mission while fighting off monsters and surviving dangerous encounters. If any hero should permanently die the group fails the mission, strongly highlighting the cooperative nature of the game.

I’ve managed several plays now and overall I’m very pleased with the system Wizards has put together. Here’s a quick rundown of the highs and lows of Castle Ravenloft, broken down by classic D&D alignments!

Lawful Good

(image by Toynan @ BGG)

* Scenarios are fast, usually playing in an hour or so. Your first learning game will take longer but once players understand the system turns go quickly. I appreciate the overall simplicity of the rules and should questions arise players can easily agree on what is best in the spirit of the game. The overall turn structure is simply activating your hero (moving and attacking), explore a new tile if you end on an unexplored edge, resolve an encounter if necessary and active your monsters. Quick and easy, just as it should be.

* I love the card-based monster system. When you place a new monster on the board you take the corresponding card and place it in front of you. At the end of your turn you activate all of the monsters in front of you, following their pre-programmed commands. This is great as it essentially splits the role of dungeon master across all the players. It also adds some interesting tactical decisions as you often prioritize targets based on when they will next activate. I’ve found it to be a very elegant solution to what is often a difficult problem in a dungeon masterless dungeon crawl.

* The game system forces tough decisions on the players. You want to stick together to help each other out and take advantage of special abilities and synergies but encounters often affect all heroes on a tile, meaning multiple people will get injured if you stay bunched up. Also, if you don’t explore new territory you are forced to resolve an encounter which are often worse than any monsters you may run into. This means players need to decide if they split or stay together and how close together they work. It’s a great balancing act and leads to some really fun situations.

* I feel like Wizards of the Coast did a great job of keeping the spirit of 4th edition while distilling it down to the basics. The five characters included in the game keep the themes of the classes from the full roleplaying game but greatly simplify their powers and abilities. Mechanically Castle Ravenloft is nothing like Dungeons and Dragons but I think it captures the overall spirit of the system.

Neutral

(image by Zelgadas @ BGG)
* Health is the currency of Castle Ravenloft. Players are knocked unconscious if they drop to zero hit points and the group fails the mission if any player starts their turn unconscious with no healing surges remaining. I like how health management is one of the most important parts of the game as it forces players to think about positioning and the risk/reward factor of exploring over drawing encounter cards. Unfortunately I think this also lends to a small scaling problem; I’m not convinced the difficulty of extra monster activations and encounters balances against the extra pool of health another player adds.

* Overall I really like the minimalistic design. It roughly follows the aesthetic Wizards has been following with 4th edition overall and I think it is clean and clear. Yes, it’d be nice if some of the cards (especially the treasure deck) had artwork but in this case I’ll gladly take function over form. It may not be quite as eye-popping as other games but the design is very functional which I appreciate.

Chaotic Evil

* The encounter deck is your true enemy in Castle Ravenloft. It is filled with all sorts of nasty stuff that will whittle away at your health. My main complaint with the encounter deck is that you often have no control over the results outside of rolling the die. It becomes more apparent later in a scenario when you are done exploring tiles and are resolving encounters each player turn. Overall the game feels balanced as many of the scenarios I’ve played have been extremely close wins or losses but the constant encounter fatigue can wear on you. I wish more encounters gave the players decisions to make instead of just causing damage with a die roll.

* Generally speaking monsters are programmed to attack the nearest hero which will almost always be the hero exploring a new tile. If you explore you are almost guaranteed to have that new monster take a swing at you. Again, this isn’t mechanically a problem but it does take away a little bit of tactical choice from the player.

(image by Toynan @ BGG)

* While game tiles are made up of 4×4 squares and player movement is defined in squares, the real unit of measurement is tiles. Monsters attack and move by tiles and heroes generally either attack adjacent enemies or by tiles. Outside of scenario-specific rules there are no terrain or dungeon features on the tiles that impact the players outside of walls and corners. Terrain plays a huge part in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and I think it is too bad there’s no difficult or special terrain to navigate.

Overall I’m very pleased with Castle Ravenloft. The rules are simple, the game plays fast and it certainly scratches the dungeon crawling itch. I’m very impressed with their simplified take on 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons combat; in fact, I think some concepts could serve to make the roleplaying game combat system more enjoyable! At the same time I do feel the encounter deck’s constant oppression of the heroes does detract from the experience a bit. I understand its purpose and it makes for some very tense moments but generally it feels like the game is just beating you down turn after turn no matter how well you do. It gives the game a much more “beer and pretzels” feel – which is fine – but I know some will want a deeper, richer game. Castle Ravenloft is as much an experience as it is a game.

For a first attempt I think Castle Ravenloft is certainly a success. I’ve been pleased to see the designers have been active in discussions on the game and look forward to seeing the system evolve over time. If you like pure cooperative games or want a fast, easy dungeon crawler experience, give Castle Ravenloft a try. It isn’t perfect but is a very solid first attempt.

Cooperative review series

Cooperative games are all the rage these days. Most board games pit player against each other with one claiming victory over the rest. Some games, though, have players working together against the game system (strictly cooperative) or in a many-against-one scenario (semi-cooperative). There are even sub-genres within semi-cooperative games: some with set adversaries from the start and others with a “hidden traitor” aspect where you discover who is and is not loyal to the cause over the course of the game.

These are certainly not new concepts but cooperative games have seen a major resurgence as of late. I’ve covered some cooperative and semi-cooperatives games here already: Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot and Space Alert. Lately my gaming groups have been on a bit of a cooperative kick, though, so I thought I’d take some time to dig a bit deeper into the realm of cooperative gaming.

My next few reviews are going to cover a wide variety of cooperative games, both old and new. For the most part, each will be discussed on its own merits. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the games I’m thinking of discussing:

Lord of the Rings
Defenders of the Realm
Arkham Horror
Dungeons and Dragons: Castle Ravenloft
Red November
Ghost Stories
Forbidden Island
Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Last Night on Earth
Fury of Dracula
Betrayal at House on the Hill
Saboteur
Bang

Some discussions will certainly be more in-depth than others but hopefully I can give them all a fair shake, even if it has been awhile since I last played some of these. Maybe it’ll be a good excuse to go back and revisit a few, although some may ultimately not make the cut if I’m not comfortable enough with my knowledge of the game. At the end of the series I plan on compiling my thoughts on how they stack up against each other, grouped by mechanic (cooperative, one vs. many, traitor). There’s a lot of ground to cover but I hope to get through them fairly quickly to help keep the thread going.

Are there any games not listed that you’d like to see included? I can’t guarantee I’ll have a chance to get them tabled up but I’d love to hear about other cooperative games I may not be aware of! Right now the most obvious omissions from my list are Castle Panic, The Republic of Rome and Battlestations. I have access to both The Republic of Rome and Battlestations but doubt they will have a chance to hit the table any time soon.

I’m a big fan of cooperative style games. I find they often provide a low barrier of entry for new gamers as they are often more comfortable working together with more experienced gamers instead of against them and rules questions are easily answered without giving away individual strategies. There’s also a lot of fun to be had in the camaraderie of rallying against the odds of a challenging game system or flying under the radar and keeping your treacherous motives hidden. Cooperative games provide a very different and highly enjoyable social gaming experience than traditional versus style games.

My thoughts on these games will hopefully get posted over the next few weeks. If the thought of cooperative gaming already has you excited, though, check out some of my earlier posts or grab any one of the games I’ve mentioned above. If you’ve never tried any cooperative games before you are most certainly in for a new experience! For those that love cooperative games, I’d love to hear about your favorites.