Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tommy's Take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer Board Game

Let me preface this by saying that this review is the first review I had ever written of anything, and appeared at RPG.net over 12 years ago. Since then, I have encountered a number of board games that trump this one, but I still maintain that this game was head and shoulders above the licensed games and typical Wal-Mart shelf fare available at the time (or, y'know, now).

Enjoy my first ever review. Ever.


Looking around a nearby game shop not long ago, I found the Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game from Hasbro. Looking it over, I wound up putting it back on the shelf due to lack of funds. A couple of months later my girlfriend picked it up for me, since she's a fan of board and card games, if not RPGs.

Man, I love her.

The box art is beautiful, with purplish hues covering a montage featuring The Judge, Spike, Drusilla, The Master, Cordelia, Angel, Buffy, Oz, Willow, Giles, Xander and vampire Xander, with a full-color picture of Buffy acting as the centerpiece of the box.

Opening it up, the instruction book is a full-color book, with the cover montage rearranged from the dimensions of the box art to the dimensions of the book's cover.

The premise of the game is supposed to be a rough representation of the first four seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with one player playing the forces of Evil and the remainder of the players dividing up Buffy, Xander, Oz and Willow.

The gameboard is a nice, if simplified, Sunnydale, featuring such landmarks as the Graveyard, Spike's Mausoleum, the Buried Church, The Mayor's Office, The Bronze, Giles' home, Buffy's home, Xander's home, the Majik shop, a warehouse, a factory, a hunting store, the University library, Stevenson Hall, Lowell House, The Initiative HQ, a museum and Sunnydale High School complete with Hellmouth. The starting spots of all the characters is indicated on the board, such as Buffy and Faith starting in the graveyward and Oz in The Bronze.

Several of the spaces inside the buildings have colored dots on them, corresponding with the red Weapon cards, yellow Research cards, grey Help cards and black Evil cards. When good guys land on the first three, they can draw from the appropriate deck, and when Evil lands on a black space, they can attempt the same.
Each of the four corners of Sunnydale holds an artifact, which are randomly determined before the game. The middle of the board holds areas for the Weapon, Research, Help and Evil cards, as well as a nice Moon Phase tracker which affects game play depending on the phase of the moon or whether the sun is out. A cardboard standup of the Moon Phase tracker is meant to be set up over it on the board, which allows enough room for the cards to be slid partially underneath it. The problem with this, is that the plastic holders are a bit too small, while the cardboard tabs for the Tracker are a tad too big, meaning that after only a few games, my tabs are already showing some bad wear. The upshot is that there's enough room on the board to lay the cards sideways instead of longways, if the cardboard piece gets too frayed to fit properly.
The Moon Phase tracker is a neat concept, as a pewter Buffy symbol traces the phase of the moon with the following effects: On a New Moon, villains get to draw two Evil cards instead of just one when they land on the appropriate spaces. The Full Moon means Oz (and Veruka, if she's in play) transforms into a Werewolf for the duration of the Full Moon, which - like the New Moon - occupies three spaces on the track. Sunlight only gets one phase, but if the piece even passes over Sunlight, all vampires immediately have to enter the closest availible building, and take damage for every space they had to move in order to get there. In addition, they can't go outside until sunlight ends.

Around the board there are life tracks, which you place markers on to keep track of everyone's health (white for good, black for evil). At around the midway point of the life tracks, the color lightens up, showing that the characters are wounded, and more vulnerable to stakings and sirings.

One black die is the Evil die, rolled to see just how many bad guys get to move in a given turn, indicated by the size and number of white flames on the side of the die facing up.
Before anyone, good or evil, does anything, they roll the blue Movement dice. The "1" on one die and the "6" on the other die have a moon in the background which, if rolled, advance the phase tracker along for each moon rolled.

Three yellow Majik dice are included, three sides of each being blank, three sides of each having a Majik symbol on them. Most spells only require one Majik symbol to cast, some require two.
Finally, we have the four Fight Dice. Each die has one blank side, which counts for nothing in a fight. Each die has a punch, kick and a jab, which anyone gains benefit from in a fight. Each die has a stake, which is helpful only for staking attempts. Finally, each die has a set of fangs, which count as damage if a werewolf rolls them, and are also used when a vampire attempts to sire a character.

Different cards come into play, such as the Weapon, Research, Help, Evil and Artifact cards.
Weapon cards usually add points to your total damage, but some add dice to the damage instead. Some cards, like the Sledge Hammer, Explosives and The Rocket Launcher add bonus damage if used against specific villains (The Master, The Mayor and The Judge, respectively). A variety of stakes, and stake-like weapons, include Kendra's lucky stake, a no.2 pencil, a crossbow, a broken chair leg and more allow you to attempt to stake a vampire. Staking is accomplished by rolling the Fight dice, totalling the damage, and then counting the Stake symbols. A wounded (health in the lighter area) vampire only requires one symbol to kill, but a healthier vampire needs two. Finally, the Holy Cross deserves mentioning. It provides no bonus to damage, but using it on a vampire has the added effect of driving a vampire up to 10 spaces away (your choice), the exception being that you can't move them into sunlight.

Research cards include sewer tunnel maps, which allow you to use any of the manholes on the map to connect to any of the other manholes, to garlic, which prevents you from being sired. It also includes spells like The Living Flame, which is nearly essential in The Judge's game and The Mayor's game, if you want to prevent the resurrection of The Judge or the ascenscion of The Mayor. The Spell of Soul Restoration is a handy spell that lets you turn the evil Angelus to the side of good, or turn any of the characters who have been sired back into heroes. The Spell of Phases lets you mess around with the moon and sun, while The Spell of Good Summoning lets you pluck a good guy from, say, potential danger to your side. The Spell of Oblivion, aka Willow's Big Boom, is the only spell that actively causes damage...requiring two Majik symbols to deal five points and three to deal ten.

Help cards typically provide bonuses to Fight and Majik dice, such as the less-than-useful Cordelia giving you a 1 die bonus...or Angel, giving you three Fight or Majik dice. The Angel and Faith help cards, however, cannot be used if the Angelus, Angel or Bad Faith pawns are active in the game. Rupert Giles offers you bonuses, or allows you to peek at all of the Artifact cards currently hidden, as well as all cards in evil's possession. Assistance from some of the cards is just what you need to lay a hurting on some of the bad guys, and the only way Buffy or Xander is going to cast some of the spells.

The Evil cards include Sire a Vampire, which is identical to the process of Staking a Vampire, replacing stakes with fangs, though. Instead of removing the newly dead hero from the game, though, their character card holder is flipped over and they become evil vampires. Summon an Eclipse, if successful, allows the Villain to move the token to the New Moon. Cards for summoning Kathy the Demon Roommate, Angelus, Harmony and Veruka can be used if you have lost minions, to replinish your ranks, with successfully summoned evil characters appearing in The Hellmouth at Sunnydale High. You Are Invited is a frightening card that allows a vampire access to the three houses in the game, Buffy's, Giles' and Xander's homes, which Vampires normally can't enter. The game includes a stand-up holder for Evil cards, which allows them to stand up and still remain hidden from the good players.

Artifacts round out the cards, with one of four artifacts used in the game predetermined by which Villain is being used. The Master's Story Artifact is the Mark of the Anointed, which is placed on a vampire servant, and gives The Master one point of life for every point of damage the servant does. The Judge's Arm is used to retore The Judge, who doesn't start the game in play. The Box of Garvok is used to transform the Mayor into The Demon Mayor, though if the heros can destroy it, The Mayor's ascension is prevented. Finally, the Power Chip grants Adam the ability to move whenever the three small flames are rolled on the evil movement die, thus allowing Adam to move on any turn. Other artifacts include the Gem of Amara, which allows vampires free reign in the sunlight, the Glove of Myhneghon, which causes you damage when used, but also boosts the damage done based off of your Majik. The Moon Stone is a handy little one-use device that summons the Full Moon, potentially depriving Evil of a New Moon and giving Good Werewolf Oz.

Each hero character has a "card holder" which is a beautifully done piece of cardboard showing a full color picture of the hero with their name underneath, places for the cards they can acquire over the course of the game, a quote from that character from the series, and a quick reference to the number of Majik dice and Fight dice they get in the game. On the flipside of the Xander, Willow and Buffy card holders is a picture of them as a vampire and their modified Fight and Majik dice. Oz' flipside shows him as a Werewolf, his modified Fight and Majik dice, and instructions for Werewolf Oz.

As a matter of game balance, in a five player game, four people divide up the heroes. In a four player game, one person plays Willow and Xander, while one person each plays Buffy and Oz. In a three player game, one person is Xander and Oz, while one person is Buffy and Willow. In a two player game, one person is all of the heroes.

Each one has advantages and disadvantages: Buffy is the strongest one, except for Werewolf Oz, but she can't cast spells with much success. However, being the combat master of the heroes, she can carry two Weapon cards and one each of the Research and Help cards, as well as one Artifact.
Willow is your best bet for casting spells, as reflected by her three Majik dice, and her capacity for holding two Research (typically spells) cards.

Xander gets 1 die each for fighting and Majik, but he can hold two Help cards instead of just one. A strategy we quickly learned was using Xander to collect cards, and let him rearm Buffy and Willow while they do the fighting and spell-casting.

Oz, on the other hand, can only hold one of each card...and he loses all of his cards when he transforms into a Werewolf. However, being a Werewolf lets him move double the roll of his movement dice, and it raises his Fight Dice from 1 to 4. Transforming back into Oz also has the effect of healing him if he was injured.

Whoever is playing the bad guys has a lot of options, given that they control the bad guys and his minions.
The Master begins play with Spike, Drusilla and Darla active as his minions, and the goal of killing Buffy. All good has to do to win is kill The Master, though he's the toughest villain in the game, life-wise. One problem with the rules was that they were too vague. They make distinctions between the villains and their servants, but don't clarifiy whether The Master is bound by all of the vampire rules in the game. Presumably he is, however, meaning if the good guys can work him down to wounded, Buffy has a decent chance of staking him.

The Judge is the only villain that doesn't start the game in play, but all three of his minions (Spike, Drusilla and Vamp X) move every turn, until they find the Arm of the Judge and take it back to his start square, where he is reformed. The Judge also has to destroy or sire all good characters in order to win, not just Buffy.

The Mayor is my favorite villain from the show, and his minions are Bad Faith (YES!), Mr. Trick and Vamp X. The Mayor and his minions are seeking the Box of Garvok, which good is trying to destroy. If the Mayor gets ahold of it, he transforms into The Demon Mayor and starts kicking all sorts of tail. The only restriction for the good guys here, is that they cannot kill The Mayor until he ascends. The Mayor and his minions, however, have to kill off all of the good guys in order to win.

Last is Adam, who is in a kill or be killed game with Buffy. Everyone else is window dressing, as the death of Buffy or Adam decides the game. Adam's minions are Spike, Drusilla and Vamp X.

The game really comes to life with multiple players. I was playing as Buffy and Adam's minions had me pinned in the University Library, with Adam and each of his cronies blocking a doorway out. I would likely have been toast, but another player, playing Willow, used the Spell of Good Summoning to bring me all the way across the board to Sunnydale High. Heroes can trade cards with each other, and while the game seems slanted towards evil in the first few games I played, in three four-player games the good guys didn't lose once, thanks to teamwork.

Hasbro did an excellent job this with game, for the most part. The rules were a little unclear in place, so we had to make up some house rules to make sense of a few situations. The only design complaint I truly have is the plastic holders for the Phase chart being too small for the tabs, which seems to be frighteningly common in board games. Every character has a stand-up with their dice written on them, and they're color-coded to their stands and their life meters. Some stand-ups are double-sided, such as Spike's, showing his "normal" face on one side and his "vampire" face on the other. Oz and The Mayor get two stand-ups each, for 
Werewolf Oz and Demon Mayor respectively.
If you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and board games, get this game if you can. The only reason it doesn't earn top marks from me on the quality area is because the Phase Chart. Having owned many board games in my 22 years, making plastic holders too small for the cardboard never ceases to annoy me. As for substance, the game looked designed so that "seasonal expansions" could not only have been possible, but probable. Were "season five" expansions on the way, that would be a great boon to the game. Otherwise, like most board games, I see it being great fun for a while, but you'll find yourself playing it less and less when everyone knows the ins-and-outs of the game.

As it is, any board game that feels like a good, fantasy/horror romp, and gets my girlfriend sitting at the table, enjoying herself along with the rest of us, is a good thing. The only other game that came from an RPG shop or an RPG company that had a similar effect on her was Chez Geek, which me, her and all of my friends have fallen in love with.

In closing, it's a great game marred by one nasty flaw that a lot of game companies keep repeating, and if you keep from wearing it out by playing it any time have people around, it has enough built in variety to stay fresh for a long time. As it is, it's the closest thing to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG we've got right now.
In every generation, there is only one Slayer. Sadly, that seems to apply to truly fun board games as well. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is shining light in a mire of substandard games.

Thanks for reading this, my first review.