Monday, January 30, 2017

Quick Review - Vampires & Villagers: The Curse of Christoph - Kickstarter Preview

Vampires & Villagers:
The Curse of Christoph

Designer: Dave Logvin
Publisher: Askwith Games
2-4p | 30-45m | 10+
Quick Review - Vampires & Villagers: The Curse of Christoph - Kickstarter Preview

From Buffy to Blade, Dracula to Lestat, True Blood to Twilight... OK, maybe not Twilight...  But usually vampires and vampire hunters are pretty cool.  Who doesn't fantasize about being a creature of the night, stealthily sneaking up on unsuspecting prey, either as the vampire or the hunter.  As creatures at the top of the food chain it's thrilling to imagine that there might be something out there that can hunt us, and even more thrilling to imagine those that hunt the hunters.  In Vampires & Villagers: The Curse of Christoph players can take on both roles as they work to both build up the fearsome strength of their own vampire crypt as well as send angry townsfolk led by ruthless hunters to attack opponent crypts.  Will your vampire clan be the strongest once the town is wiped out?

Vampires & Villagers is a fast card based game for two to four players.  It takes 20-40 minutes and will be making it's second run at Kickstarter very soon.

Vampires & Villagers: The Curse of Christoph came to me to review via the Everything Board Games Network!  Check the page out for more awesome reviews!

In Vampires & Villagers players will play through four rounds, trying to build up the strength of their crypts while also defending against attacks against their crypts and attacking the terrified villagers.
The different card backs in Vampires & Villagers, featuring the game logo.
To set up the game you first have to separate all the cards into separate decks.  There are Master Vampires, Lesser Vampires, Thralls, Hunters, Turned Hunters, Villagers, War Events, and Terror Events.  Each player gets one Master Vampire and one Lesser Vampire.  Then the Lesser Vampires, Thralls, and Hunters are shuffled and two more creatures are dealt to each player.  Any remaining Master Vampires are returned to the box.  

Next the village square is set up by placing four Villagers in a tableau and four into a discard pile.  Then all the remaining Villagers as well as the deck of creatures are shuffled together to become the draw pile.  The Turned Hunter cards are set aside and may be used later in the game.  Each player also receives nine Stealth Tokens and two Link Tokens.  The War Events and Terror Events are set aside, near the village square, as are the Stealth, Mist Form, and Giant Bat tokens.
There are a lot of different cards and a lot of sorting required to get a game ready.
Now play can begin.  The first player is the player with the latest bedtime.  Since I usually end up going to bed around 2am most nights that'll probably be me.  I really should get more sleep, but then when would these reviews get written?

On your turn, all you really do is draw a card and play a card.  Then there are all sorts of attacks and abilities that need to be resolved, and that's where the meat of the game is.  When you draw a card, if it is a Villager it goes into the Village.  A Lesser Vampire, Thrall, or Hunter goes into your hand.  Then you can choose to either play a card from your hand into your crypt, or play a card to attack a creature in an opponent's crypt.

If you play a card into your crypt (either a vampire or thrall) you can choose to play it face-down and add two Stealth Tokens to it (if you have them), or face-up to use its abilities.  If you decide to attack an opponent you can either attack with a Hunter from your hand or with a Villager that has the Leadership ability.  Hunters are better since they're stronger, but village leaders can sometimes rally a sizable force, too.  Regardless of which you attack with, the rest of the village will show up to support the attack.  
Each player has a limited supply of Stealth Tokens that they can use for various purposes throughout the game.
However, between declaring an attack and resolving the attack (or after adding a creature to your crypt), you can perform some stealth or direct attacks on the villagers.  If you are attacking an opponent's crypt you probably don't want to thin out the village, but if you didn't attack a neighbor taking out a few villagers may score you an extra point or two.  First, any face-up creatures in your crypt can use their abilities (and you can choose to reveal creatures if you want).  Vampires can each kill a Villager and Thralls can kill one or two Villagers, but only if they were revealed this turn.  Creatures may also have other attack abilities that could be useful, too.  After resolving any abilities or direct attacks, stealth attacks occur.  Any face-down creatures in your crypt that have one or more stealth tokens on them may discard one stealth token to kill a Villager (only once per turn though).  If you manage to kill two Villagers with the same occupation (e.g. two farmers) or three different Villagers you'll gain a Bat token in your crypt, for bonus points at the end of the game.
Bat Tokens give bonus points at the end of the game, if you can earn them.
After resolving these attacks, any remaining villagers join the Leader or Hunter in attacking a crypt, if an attack was declared.  Crypt attacks also follow a series of steps.
  • First, if the attacking Hunter has the Word of Truth ability, the defender must reveal all creatures in the crypt, or discard a Stealth Token per creature to keep hidden.
  • Next, the defender may reveal hidden Thralls in order to use their abilities to defend.  A face up Thrall that was just revealed this turn can kill a villager, as long as the villager doesn't have Dodge.  If the Thrall has Rage it can kill two villagers without Dodge.  Vampires never defend other Vampires (except for Turned Hunters).
  • Third, hidden defending creatures can each use one Stealth Token to remove one villager, except Fearless Villagers and Villagers with Dodge.  The defender can gain Bat tokens if enough Villagers are killed during a crypt attack.
  • Fourth, any surviving villagers with Combat can each kill one Thrall with equal or lower strength.
  • Finally, the combined strength of all the remaining Villagers & Leader or Hunter is compared to strength of the attacked creature, plus any supporting Thralls or Turned Hunters.  
If the crypt defense is successful all the remaining Villagers (including the Leader) are returned to the village.  Defeated Hunters are discarded, unless they have been defeated by a Master Vampire.  If so, and if they are not Unbreakable, the Hunter is turned into a Vampire.  The Hunter card is removed from the game and the defending player gains the "Turned" version of that Hunter.  Turned Hunters will only defend their sire Vampire in crypt battles, not other Vampires.  The defender gets to draw a card (Villagers drawn are added to the village, creatures and hunters are kept in hand).
Villagers can be killed when creatures attack the village, or when creatures defend a crypt from being attacked.
If the crypt defense failed the creature was defeated.  Defeated Thralls are discarded (Thralls that defended a defeated Vampire are returned to the player's hand, unless they have Loyalty), Turned Hunters are removed from the game, and Vampires turn to Mist Form.  When a vampire is in Mist Form it is particularly vulnerable to attacks.  When a Vampire is defeated it is placed in the Village with one or more Mist Form tokens placed on it, face down.  Some Master Vampires let you add two Mist Form tokens, but most Vampires let you add only one.  You can add an additional Mist Form token by discarding one Stealth Token, if you like.  

At the end of your next turn any Vampires in Mist Form will rematerialize in the Village, but in a weakened state.  Reveal the Mist Form token(s) on the Vampire to see what it's weakened strength is.  Mist Form tokens have a value ranging from 0 to -5 on it.  The highest value (i.e. closest to 0) Mist Form token is used to modify the Vampire's strength (any others are just discarded).  If the Vampire's modified strength is less than the total strength of the Villagers currently out, that Vampire is destroyed and removed from the game.  If the Vampire survives it is returned to its owner's hand.
Mist Form tokens may weaken your Vampire when it rematerializes in the village after being defeated in a crypt attack.
Play continues clockwise until one player defeats all the Villagers.  That ends the round.  Then six new villagers are added to the table and an event card is drawn.  There are two types of events, War Events and Terror Events.  War Events tend to affect the players while Terror Events tend to affect the gameplay.  After the first round a War Event is drawn.  After rounds two and three the player that ended the round chooses which type of card to draw.  Some of the event cards effects are one-time effects and some are persistent, remaining in effect for the remainder of the game.  The player that ends each round also gains a benefit of gaining one or two Stealth Tokens and a Bat token.
After each round a War or Terror Event is drawn and resolved.
After the fourth round is completed no event is drawn and players tally their scores.  All creatures in your crypt are scored based on their strength.  You'll also get a bonus point for each Bat you've collected.  The winner is the player with the strongest crypt!

Final Thoughts:
I really liked the idea and theme behind Vampires & Villagers, and the game plays fairly quickly - anywhere from 20 to about 45 minutes.  There is a lot of player interaction, but it doesn't really feel like a take-that style of game.  There is also an interesting contrast between trying to build up your own crypt, weakening opponents' crypts, and attacking Villagers to drive towards the round end.  If you attack an opponent you won't want to attack the village because you'll want the villagers strong enough to take out your opponent.  But your opponent may take out enough Villagers to allow the next player to end the round.  This results in some interesting decisions and more depth than seems apparent at first.
Defeat the Villagers before building up your crypt and you'll fall behind,
but let the Village get too strong and they may attack you!
However, I feel the game fell short in a few areas.  First, and perhaps most critical, the game didn't feel balanced.  Often it didn't feel like it made strategic sense to attack an opponent's crypt.  It usually felt better to add a creature to your own crypt and then attack the village.  That would add points to your crypt, strengthen your possible defenses, add Stealth Tokens to your arsenal, and give you a point or two worth of Bats if you could kill enough Villagers.  The only time attacking an opponent felt necessary is when the village was strong, the opponent had few Stealth Tokens at his disposal, and you had no choice other than a Hunter to play.

Because of this we found rounds to go by almost too quickly.  In many rounds players only had one turn, and a few times the round didn't even last for a complete cycle, leaving a player without a turn at all for the round.  If all players choose to hold off on attacking the villagers the rounds last a bit longer, but as soon as someone takes out several Villagers either through direct attacks or through crypt defense, the village falls pretty quickly.
Lots of Villagers, but it seemed like too often they were too easy to defeat.
Additionally, the events felt awkward and even a bit out of place.  They almost felt like they were part of an earlier version of the game where events happened more frequently.  Some events felt wildly unbalanced as well, with some being mostly ineffective and others causing devastating effects, sometimes to all players and sometimes to just one player, and some others really need some clarification or refinement in the text.  I'm also not sure the game needs the additional complexity added by having two different event decks.  Only three events are going to come out per game, and only twice do players have a choice of the event type.  It would streamline the game a bit by just having one event deck with somewhat more balanced events, or maybe even no events at all.

Why there are two different types of events, and why their effects are so varied (some are super strong, some are pretty weak,
and many are very situational) is beyond me.  One event deck is enough, if any at all.
They just add more randomness when less would probably be better for the game.
Speaking of balance, the starting Master Vampires also felt unbalanced.  Two have identical strengths and abilities.  Bela the Flayer and Lady Cseithe both have strength 10, Darkness Spawn and Sire Slave abilities, and get one Mist Form token.  The other two seem significantly weaker.  Lafaura has strength 9 and only one ability (Sire Slave), but does get two Mist Form tokens.  Count Christoph (the game's namesake) only has strength 8 and two abilities (Cloud of Shadows and Sire Slave), and does get two Mist Form tokens.
Lafuara and Christoph definitely seem much weaker than Bela and Csejthe.
Less critical to the gameplay, but still important in a game is the artwork.  Some may like it, but I find it a bit haphazard.  The style looks like it wants to be simultaneously dark, and humorous, and mysterious, yet also contain a Disneyesque playfulness and cartoony feel.  However, it doesn't quite pull it off.  The artwork is busy and very dark.  Dark colors, not mood.  Many of the characters are shown in partial or all shadow, making them difficult to see - thematic, but it doesn't work for the cards.  The humor just misses the mark in the cards that attempt it.  The graphic design is also questionable.  Each type of card has icons on it that identify the card type, but they are in different places on each card and difficult to see.
Why are the icons scattered all over the cards?  And do you think they could be more difficult to discern?
Finally, the rules...  The rulebook is 13 pages.  There's a lot going on in this casual game, and a lot that has to be done in very specific order on your turn.  Doing anything out of order really messes up the mechanics and strategies.  Each step is described in detail in the rulebook, however with so much going on in the game there will be a lot of flipping back and forth through the rulebook.  And even though there's a lot of detail, it's not always explained clearly.  Fortunately each player gets a reference sheet... that's about the length of a rulebook...  Each reference sheet is a full letter size sheet folded in thirds with the gameplay summary and summary of all the different powers that Vampires, Thralls, Hunters, and Villagers can have, and whether those powers are offensive or defensive powers.  I found the description of turns and attacks clearer in the references, but the fact that the reference sheet is nearly as long as the full rules for many other games indicates that there's too much going on in this game.  The mechanics are far from elegant, not very intuitive, and the amount of rules underlines this fact.  There are a ton of areas where Vampires & Villagers can be streamlined into an efficient, fun filler game, and the rulebook is a great place to start.  A turn overview should fit onto a postcard sized card, or smaller, and the rules for a filler game should only take a few pages in a rulebook.  The complexity of the rules, and the amount of work needed for game setup (there's a lot of sorting decks, then mixing decks, dealing out certain types of cards, etc.) is really disproportionate to the length and style of game.
13 pages of rules are a lot for this light of a game.  Add in a pamphlet worth of player reference per player
and it's obvious the game needs a lot of streamlining.
Overall, I wanted to like Vampires & Villagers: The Curse of Christoph more than I actually did.  It feels like a game with promise, but still some rough edges and kinks that need to be worked out.  If I had played at a game design event I'd have been encouraging, and excited to see the next iteration, but it doesn't quite feel finished yet.  I do like the contrast between choosing to extend the round to add points to your crypt versus driving the round to its end by attacking the Villagers.  And I really like the mechanic of sending Vampires to the village in a weakened mist form.  The game isn't bad, it just feels unfinished to me.  But if it sounds like something you'd like to give a try, be sure to check out the Kickstarter, coming soon.  In the meantime you can follow along with the developers here:

Preliminary Rating: 6/10

This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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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.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times 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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