Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tommy's Take on A Touch of Evil

I *like* the photo art. Quite a bit, actually.

I like board games quite a bit, as I've alluded to in the past. Board games have become impressive creations these days, with miniatures, glossy game boards and so on. And A Touch of Evil is a game that nearly derailed my Savage Worlds group when we found it a few years ago.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Retailing for $49.99 (but you can find it cheaper on Amazon), A Touch of Evil is the second board game released by Flying Frog Productions (their first being the best zombie board game I have ever played, Last Night on Earth). It is also probably my favorite board game ever. Set in the 19th century, in the mysterious town of Shadowbrook, A Touch of Evil is a monster-hunting game filled with twists, turns and secrets.

The players all play as travelers who have arrived in town, taking up the call to arms against a supernatural horror threatening Shadowbrook. The extra twist is that the town's six Elders have secrets of their own...they may be dirty gossips, they may be monster hunters themselves, they may be in league with the villain, and they may BE the villain itself.

The game uses a static game board, with the town in the center (divided into the Town Hall, Church, Blacksmith, Magistrate's Office and Doctor's Office), and has four "corner" locations (The Manor, The Windmill, The Abandoned Keep and the Olde Woods), as well as Fields, a Marsh, a Covered Bridge and a Crossroads.

You can play Competitively, Cooperatively or even Solo, moving around the board, investigating locations, encountering minions, unraveling the secrets of the Elders and trying to pin down the location of the Villain's Lair so you can attempt to destroy it.

Eight heroes are included in the base game, each with stats of Spirit, Cunning, Combat and Honor, each with a different number of Wounds depending on the character, and each with their own special abilities:

Karl, The Soldier - The simplest option to play as, having the highest Combat among the characters, three Wounds and the ability to ignore the first Wound in play. Note that not all encounters can be thwarted in physical Combat, though.

Heinrich Cartwright, The Drifter - Gets to draw extra cards (and choose the one he keeps), but isn't trusted by the Elders or other travelers (which can have an effect in gameplay).

Victor Danforth, The Playwright - He can take back any card that's been played whose title is a quotation, has high Spirit and Cunning and can draw Event cards more frequently than others (Event cards being good things, generally).

Thomas, The Courier - A stranger with a dead eye, Thomas moves more swiftly than the rest of the travelers, and can begin play knowing an Elder's secret.

Inspector Cooke - High Cunning and he can generally pick up more Investigation per action than anyone else.

Isabella Von Took, Noble Woman - Generally regarded as the most broken of the initial characters, in that if she's given the time and opportunity to hoard Investigation points, she can steamroll through most anything given her ability to spend Investigation to prevent Wounds.

Anne Marie, The School Teacher - Can't use anything bigger than a Pistol, but her Combat goes up for every Book she owns.

Katarina, The Outlaw - High Honor (Honor among thieves and such), hits more frequently than others, and is tied with Cartwright for the highest number of Wounds in the base set.

Each hero includes a mini figure and a character card, as well as a short bio in the rule book.

The four Villains in the main set cover the iconic choices for a horror setting like this, each having a token, a villain card (with rules for the Basic game and Advanced game) and a two-sided Minion Chart (Basic and Advanced). They are:

The Spectral Horseman - He likes to appear in a location and ride to Town Hall, attacking everything in his path before disappearing. He gets stronger with every kill, and summons hounds and ghost soldiers to do his bidding.

The Scarecrow - As the fear level in Shadowbrook grows, he gets stronger and stronger. He summons locusts and crows, and can turn the very environment against the heroes, though he does have a vulnerability to fire...if you can find him.

The Vampire - Looking like a classic Nosferatu, turning into mist, unleashing bats, wolves, succubi and walking dead, and he's even able to turn Elders into vampiric minions to do his bidding.

The Werewolf - He attacks before you, he hits more frequently than you, he can turn you into a werewolf...pretty much the only advantage you have is that he's easier to find than the rest because he doesn't cover his tracks very well. His minions include werewolves and rats.

Each of the Six Elders have Spirit, Cunning and Honor scores, which can be used in place of your characters if you have them along with you, and each has a special ability, with some elders being more useful against certain types of enemies than the other. If they go evil, you flip their card over to get a red-tinged, evil version of their portrait, with a new tagline for them.

Various events can force the Shadow Track down as the game goes on, and if it ever reaches the bottom, the town has collapsed into fear and chaos and you have lost. Throughout the game you can get Event Cards, either by landing on certain spaces or rolling low for movement (as compensation), which include things like ability bonuses (represented by tokens placed on your character card), "I Think Not" (which can stop the Shadow Track from moving, or cancel cards being played), Reassuring Speech (which can push back the Shadow Track if you play it in town) and Militia, which allows you to put Militia tokens in play on spaces, allowing anyone in that space to join the Militia in fighting any adversaries there.

These are countered with Mystery Cards, which prompt additional villain attacks, spawn new minions, turn the Elders against the heroes (for instance, forcing Magistrate Kroft to confiscate Guns in play, taking those weapons away as options for the heroes), and Weather Cards like Fog that reduce movement.

Exploring a location is a matter of card draws as well, with each "Corner Space" having its own deck.

The Manor has allies you can recruit like Lucy Hanbrook, as well as events like Nightmare (which lets you witness one of the Elders doing unspeakable things, allowing you to draw a Secrets card, look at it and add it to an Elder), Secret Passage (which, if found, lets you travel anywhere on the board) and items like the Sabre (which boosts you Honor and your Combat).

The Abandoned Keep includes cards like Collapse (which causes the floor to give way, making you take Wounds and lose cards AND draw a new card at the Keep), Old Prison (which can give you clues if you roll well enough with your Cunning), weapons like Rogue's Rapier (bonuses to Combat, Honor and Cunning) and enemies like the Spectre (which has to be fought with Spirit and not Combat).

The Olde Woods include cards like The Witch of the Woods (which can either give you a bunch of Investigation or can cost you clues and dump you off at Town Hall), Timber Wolves (who are more ferocious the more allies you have), Franklin the Old Hound (a useful ally) and Crossroads (an eerie encounter with an owl that can give you clues if you roll well enough on a Spirit test).

The Windmill gives you chances of things like Pitchfork (which boosts your combat but can break), Wicked Altar (which can give you Investigation, but also exposes you to attack), Whistling Wind (which can give you a Lair card for free if you roll Cunning well enough) and Murky Water (dipping your hand in can net you Investigation, an Item card or merely a Wound).

In Town, you can spend Investigation to buy Items that can help you, like some weapons, Torches (which fend off Weather cards), and even neat items like Tools of Science that allow characters to use their Cunning in place of their Combat, which can be a huge game changer for some characters.

When you gain a Lair card, usually by purchasing them with Investigation (they get cheaper as the Shadow Track goes down and the Villain gets stronger), you can initiate a Showdown with the Villain by going to the Location on the card and spending the amount of Investigation listed to "find" the Villain. Not all Lair cards are created equal, however. One Manor Lair card, for instance, lets you immediately recruit Town Elder Lord Hanbrook to your side, while another Manor card makes you immediately roll an Honor Test and, if you fail, an Elder is killed.

Combat is handled by rolling a number of dice equal to your relevant trait (usually Combat) and every 5 or 6 counting as a hit (unless you or the Villain has a trait that says otherwise). There is no player playing as a Villain, you just take turns rolling for them depending on who is fighting the Villain (or their minions).

If you defeat the Monster in a Showdown, you win. If the Shadow Track bottoms out, the Monster wins. If you are playing Solo or Co-Op and the Villain KOs all heroes in play at once, you lose.

Multiple expansions have been released, free, premium and even fan-made, and I plan on covering the official ones at a later date.

With the exception of the map, which was drawn by Matthew Morgaine (who also portrays Heinrich Cartwright), virtually every piece of art in the game is a combination of photography and special effects. Some folks have scoffed at how some of the characters (especially villains like the Vampire) look, but I've always thought it added a certain charm to the game.

The game also includes a soundtrack CD, which I've actually kept in fairly regular rotation in my CD player. Yeah, I'm a fan.

Lastly, there are optional rules, like Team Play and the Showdown Chart, which can add extra chaos to the Showdown with the Villain, but can also dramatically extend gameplay.
Showing off the Werewolf, Lucy Hanbrook, some of minis and more.
WHAT WORKS: Theme, theme, theme. The whole game oozes it. When I had a regular roleplaying group, there were many times that our planned adventures got derailed for playing this instead...and that was BEFORE I got the expansions. The different combinations of cards, characters and villains have provided a flexibility to the game that I didn't even expect, and aside from a time or two when the Noble Woman overtook the game, I haven't experienced nearly as many balance issues with this game as I have with others.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The more you add, the bigger the set-up time is, unless you keep things VERY organized. There's technically no solo rules in the base set, but you can push the Coop rules there with little effort. I have had one person play it with me who could not wrap their heads around Investigationt tokens as an abstract for all currency in the game, from buying items to powering abilities to finding the Villain's Lair.

CONCLUSION: Look, I don't have a lot of bad to say about this, because the proof is in the fun, and after my first time stumbling through a game, I haven't had a bad time playing this, whether solo, with my kid, or with a whole group of buddies. The villains all feel distinct, the characters all feel distinct. Yeah, you can have bad runs where the dice or cards fall against you, and there are certain combinations of Hero vs Villain that are easier or harder, but there's not a villain that we haven't both beaten or lost to. I've heard the game called Arkham Horror-lite, and I've heard it called a rip-off of Arkham Horror. I've recently played Arkham Horror for the first time, and so far I prefer A Touch of Evil (though they both have their merits). I like the feel of it all so much that I've even been tempted to turn it into a Savage Setting a time or two. I firmly believe it doesn't get enough love at all.