Thursday, October 2, 2014

Quick Review - Vampire Hunter

Quick Review - Vampire Hunter
Vampire Hunter
Designer: Uncredited
Publisher: Milton Bradley
Tonight I played a game that I picked up for a buck at Goodwill.  The game was brand new and looked like something the boys would like, so Vampire Hunter came home with me.  When I got home I read a few reviews of the game and was pretty tentative about it, but the boys were begging to play so tonight we sat down and gave it a shot.

On the surface Vampire Hunter is a pretty basic game.  Players roll a die for movement, if they land next to a tile they get to flip it over.  If it's a weapon they keep it, if it's a monster they battle it.  Battles are super simple, roll a die and if you get a hit remove the monster tile, if you get a skull you get sent back to the entrance to the current room (quadrant of the board) you were in.  When you get to the end you have to fight the boss monster, in this case Drakus the vampire.  You have to defeat Drakus three times, once with each weapon (garlic, sword, and the classic wooden stake), to win the game.  All pretty straight forward, and kind of boring actually.  Everything is based on the roll of a die.  The game board is a grid layout, not linear, so there is some strategy behind deciding where you move to, and you may decide to attack Drakus sooner or later, or with a specific weapon depending on what other players already have, but that's really the extent of the decision making.  It's not a very deep game.

However, the game has one really big hook.  And it's pretty ingenious and unique.  Amongst the pretty standard gameplay is a mechanic that makes the entire game one of the most thematic games I've ever played.  The game must be played in the dark, or very low light.  Then, you turn on a light in the large plastic tower that is situated in the center of the game board.  To start each player's turn he has to draw a card.  That card tells the players if it is day or night.  If it's a change from the current state you tap the top of the Drakus's tower.  This changes the color of the light in the tower from red (for day) to blue (for night) or vice versa.  Depending on the color of the light everything on the game board changes.  Spaces that were empty now suddenly have spider web traps.  Simple villagers are now wolves.  Grave stones now have creeping zombies.  Even the dice used for movement and battles change (at night movement is reduced and battles are more difficult to win).  In normal light the game board and graphics is mostly black and white except for the red and blue printed graphics, which only show up during the appropriate time of day.

Oh, and did I mention that the game is semi-cooperative, too?  You see, players need to kill the Drakus before his ship reaches the tower so he can escape.  There is a 'time' track along the side of the board that a ship piece is placed on.  As players draw cards to change between night and day some of the cards will indicate that the ship also moves forward a space.  If the ship reaches the tower before a player reaches Drakus's coffin Drakus escapes and everyone loses the game.  So there is a bit of a sense of urgency for players to get to Drakus's coffin before the ship arrives.  Once a player has reached Drakus players stop drawing cards and it stays always night, thus more dangerous.  So players can work on their own to collect all three weapons and try to take on Drakus alone, or team up with each player gathering one weapon and all players working together to bring down Drakus.  It's very basic cooperation; there's no trading of weapons and no real helping each other accomplish anything.  And the fact that once at least one player reaches Drakus the ship stops advancing makes it mostly easy to eventually defeat Drakus, so the cooperative aspect of the game is pretty weak.  The winner is supposed to be the person to finally slay Drakus with the last weapon, so it's possible for someone to hit Drakus twice and then someone else to swoop in for the kill and be the winner.  Really though, the fun is in finally defeating Drakus, regardless of who does it.  Assuming someone gets to Drakus before the ship gets to the tower (which is very likely) you know that eventually someone will slay Drakus.  It's just a matter of who will get the lucky die roll.

The changing light may seem a bit gimmicky, and it is really, but it's the feature that makes this game.  The rest of the gameplay is too basic and too random to make this anything more than a family game, but the changing board, spooky lighting, and vampire theme makes this a great family game.

OK, aside from the very basic underlying gameplay, Vampire Hunter does have a few problems.  The biggest problem is also the best part of the game, and that's the light.  The light is what makes the game, and while my kids had no trouble reading the spaces and the dice, my older eyes had a tough time.  If Milton Bradley ever reprints this game hopefully they'll use brighter colored LEDs (that will also require much less power than 4 C batteries).  But int he mean time I have a solution to that.  Luckily we have a few flashlights by Life Gear in our camping supplies.  These are great flashlights that I highly recommend for camping.  They're cheap, bright, lightweight, turn on automatically in water (i.e. if your canoe tips) and the batteries seem to last forever (plus the company will send you replacement batteries for free, plus shipping, if you want).  But the big thing that makes the flashlights perfect for the game is that in addition to the standard white LEDs, they have colored LEDs.  The lights come in blue, red, and green and the blue and red are perfect to give the game light the extra oomph it needs to easily see everything.  I got my lights for about $6.50 each at Walmart, but you can get a 3-pack from Amazon for about $20 here:  They also have smaller versions that would probably work, too.

One other very minor issue with the game is the walls that jut out from the tower.  They kept tipping over and when they were standing up they block the vision of part of the board.  But that's a super easy fix.  Just don't add the walls.  They don't play any part in the game anyway, so I'm not even sure why they were included aside from the fact that they kind of make the tower look like it's on a rock hill and serve to separate the board into quadrants a bit, although the graphics and spaces layout does that anyway.  So we just took them off.

Finally, some of the rules are a little vague.  When you flip tiles do you battle monsters immediately before flipping any other tiles you are adjacent to?  Or do you flip all tiles, collect the weapons, and then battle the monsters?  We played that you have to battle monsters as they are turned over before you can flip other tiles.  There are also a few other vague areas, but nothing that you can't easily make house rules for after playing once or twice.

So, is Vampire Hunter a great game?  That really depends on what you're looking for.  It's not a game that you'll be able to pull out with serious gamers, but I don't think that was ever the intent of the game.  Is it a great family game?  Heck yes.  My boys had a great time and that's all they talked about for the rest of the evening.  We played twice and if bedtime hadn't rolled around I'm sure they would still be playing it.  As far as family games that we have here, it's one of the best.

I did find a few rules variants online that I think will make the game even more exciting.  I also want to see if I can tweak a few things on my own a bit more.  One thing I want to play around with (and isn't really covered in either of the variants I found) is the fact that the last player to slay Drakus is the winner.  Some of the variants require you to battle other monsters with specific weapons and if you lose the battle you lose the weapon, so that might be a way to balance the game a bit more - it'll be more difficult to get the exact weapon you need.  But I'd like to figure out a way to either make the game more cooperative or make the game more evenly competitive.  I'll see what I come up with, but judging from the boys' reactions I won't have any shortage of enthusiastic playtesters for some alternate rules.

So for gameplay as it is, I'd give this game a 4, but with the light gimmick and just for the theme, mood, and overall fun I'm giving this a 6.  It really is a great family game that kids will absolutely love, and with a few tweaks it might even make a fun adult game, too.  We'll see.

Preliminary Rating: 6/10

Starring out in the graveyard.

In the daytime things don't seem so scary.
But at night the monsters come out.

During the day we see friendly townsfolk.

At night we have vampires and werewolves.

Drakus is slain!  All that's left is a pile of dusty bones!

The game board in plain light.

Drakus is sleeping or dead in his coffin depending on the light.
Also, the dice change depending on the time of day.

At night the tower glows blue.

During the day everything is red.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  First Play Impression reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first time playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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