Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: A Touch of Evil

My biases first: I'm a role-player first and foremost, so theme and story add a large amount to the entertainment factor of any game that I play. I'm also a huge Arkham Horror fan and the game remains in my top three all-time favorites (right now Dune and Battlestar Galactica are also sitting in that lofty top-three position). That being said, it is impossible for me to review this game and be completely objective without tying in all of my experiences with Arkham Horror and the fun-filled world of Cthulhu.


The Overview:

I won't get too in depth with the rules because I want to get into the idea and feel of game play, rather than just the mechanics. The mechanics themselves are simple and rather uncomplicated, so they probably don’t need too much time on them anyhow.

The nutshell version of the game is that you are one of eight characters investigating the town of Shadowbrook, a village set in early nineteenth century that is being plagued by a terrible villain whose evil is influencing the town and its surrounding countryside. As you play the game, your character investigates various sites to try to track down and hunt the villain who is plaguing the town to free it from its evil and corrupting forces.

The game can be played cooperatively or competitively, which is a fun little twist. Either the players can be working together to stop a more powerful version of the villain, sharing resources and all joining in for the final showdown or the players can try to hurry and grab enough resources to take down the villain before any of the other plays have a chance to, claiming the villain's head (with the notable exception of the Horseman's lack of head) as their prize for a solo victory.

Each of the eight characters that the player can choose from consists of an early 18th century character with different stats including Combat skill, Cunning, Spirit and Honor, as well as a set amount of health indicating the number of wounds that they can take before they are knocked-out in combat. Each character also has one or two unique abilities as well. All of this is presented very nicely on a well-produced character card, similar to the high quality of Last Night on Earth's components.

The characters move around the board to different locations, trying to collect investigation markers (the currency in the game) and try to collect useful items and event cards to put into their hands for later play when encountering the Villain's minions or the Villain himself. Cards are collected after the character moves to a specific location and draws the card associated with that area. Some areas are more dangerous than others and you may find yourself prey to a horrible event instead of drawing that weapon you wanted or a useful item. After all of the players have taken their turn, a Mystery card is drawn in which the Villain unleashes some of its evil and influence over the town of Shadowbrook, harming or hampering the characters and possibly moving itself closer to the Villain winning and all of the characters losing.

That is a general overview of the game play. Now, let me take that same paragraph and make a couple of word edits:

The characters investigators move around the board to different locations, trying to collect investigation markers clue tokens (the currency in the game) and try to collect useful items and event cards spells to put into their hands for later play when encountering the Villain's minions monsters or the Villain Great Old One himself. Cards are collected after the character investigator moves to a specific location and draws a card associated with that area. Some areas are more dangerous than others and you may find yourself prey to a horrible event instead of drawing that weapon you wanted or a useful item. After all of the players have taken their turn, a Mystery Mythos card is drawn in which the Villain Great Old One unleashes some of its evil and influence over the town of Shadowbrook city of Arkham, harming or hampering driving insane the characters investigators and possibly moving itself closer to the Villain Great Old One winning awakening and all of the characters investigators losing being devoured in some horribly perverse way.

As you can see, the game seems to borrow heavily from Arkham Horror. This is not necessarily bad. I like Arkham Horror. I also think that the re-theming could be very interesting as the early 1800's are rarely touched upon as let late 1800's seems to steal all of the gothic glory.

Now, there are a few other mechanics in the game that make it stand out from Arkham Horror. For example, there are six town elders in Shadowbrook. But no one is ever completely who they seem to be and everyone has a few secrets that no one knows about, especially in the days before viral videos, YouTube and TMZ. Each town elder starts with one unrevealed secret beneath them. Now, when you are ready to fight the Villain, you call two of the town elders to join you as you muster up pitchforks and torches to hunt down the scourge and they lend aid with a unique special ability in the fight. At this point, you reveal the secrets beneath the town elders. Perhaps they have a drinking problem, perhaps they have committed war crimes in the past, but there is evil afoot and they rise about these flaws to join you in the fight. However, it is also possible to discover that the town elder you asked to join you is actually in league with the Villain and will betray you and join him in the fight. This is an interesting and unique mechanic and one that I enjoy in theory. Throughout the game, the characters can spend their investigation markers to look at and read the secrets beneath the elders, finding out a little about them and knowing who they can and cannot trust before knocking on their door and passing out torches and pitchforks.

Skill checks are very simple in the game. If you need to make a Cunning check, for example, you look at your Cunning on your sheet (a rating between 1 and 4) and look over your items to see if any add points to your Cunning. Then whatever the total is, you roll that many d6 and usually succeed on any die that comes up a 5 or 6 (some checks need a 4+ and some need a 6+). Combats between the characters and the minion or Villain are also very simple. You roll a number of dice equal to your modified Combat skill. Every roll of a 5 or 6 hits. The Villain or minion does the same based from his Combat skill, then you apply the results simultaneously. So this means that you could defeat a minion AND get knocked out as well.

Penalties for being knocked out can be rather harsh, but it is implemented almost too randomly. If you are knocked out, you roll d6, and then you lose that number of Allies, Equipment cards and/or Investigation markers. So, its possible that you lose just 1 Investigation marker, or that you have to find a means of paying off up to 6 of those items in combination.

While gathering investigations markers and collecting resources and equipment, there is a Shadow Track which moves closer to darkness as the cards dictate. If it ever reaches 0, the Villain has won and all of the players have lost, cooperative or competitive.

There are also four areas outside of town that have their own decks of cards associated with them. Investigating these areas can yield greater rewards, but the risks in the decks are greater as well. There is also a Town Item deck which represents the items available for purchase at the town blacksmith. These items add to your stats and abilities, but are in a limited supply. So, in a competitive game, you need to try to get the items you want before the other players, while at the same time, not hindering yourself too much by spending all of your resources on items and letting someone else get the jump on the Villain first.

And finally, to fight the Villain to win the game requires purchasing a Lair card. Lair cards cost Investigation based on how close to Darkness the Shadow Track is. Then once you bought one, there is another cost associated to it and possibly something else that would affect the battle based on the location. This mechanic is easily dull in the cooperative game, as everyone can pay to tag along to the final battle. And as far as the competitive game, I would almost like to see a way for other players to pay or be able to react to try a last minute cutting off of the character to stop him from getting to the Villain first.


The Theme:

Theme is usually one of the more important traits to a game for me. A Touch of Evil has a good setting and a good theme in theory. However, somewhere along the line it comes off a little too light.

While in any game it is up to the players to embrace the theme to make it word, A Touch of Evil does not go out of its way to make it easy. There is not enough variation in cards and too many cards break into the same mechanic:

Flavor text telling a vague story.
Game mechanic, often just Roll X stat. Gain 1 investigation for every roll of 5+.

That would even be alright, I suppose, if the flavor text story was presented a little better. Here is where I like Arkham Horror's presentation better; it forces you to read the flavor text as the mechanic is listed in it (something like: Make a speed (-1) check as you run though a collapsing archway). With the breakdown on the cards in aToE, it separates them too much. Small print italics for the flavor text is begging to be ignored for the larger print mechanic beneath it. Personally, I prefer the mechanics being included in the descriptive text, making the roll and mechanics more a part of the theme of the card and drawing the player further into the event.

Now, the thing that I like the most about this game is the town elders and their secrets. I think that this is a really good idea. However, you can look at each secret for the cost of 2 investigation markers each. There are times during this game that you seem to be swimming in investigation markers with no real place to spend them, so you just decide to burn off a few of them and read 3-4 town elder secrets (though admittedly, this occurs more in the cooperative game than the competitive game, where you are not racing quite as much to complete everything). We've yet to have a game where anyone fought the villain and didn't already know at least a couple of town elders that were "safe" to bring. To keep the elder mechanic and the secret mechanic a little more important to the game, in my opinion, the secrets should either cost more or you pay for a chance (making a roll) to reveal a secret.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is very low, which is nice. The rulebook is 24 pages of large type, lots of spaces and Flying Frog's usual knack of throwing in well-produced pictures whenever possible.

Our first game went very quickly and easily with little pauses to check rules. The game really is that easy to pick up. So, in that respect, it might be better for non-hardcore gamers, since playing it with our group of experienced gamers, it started to feel a little weak after a couple of plays when our game turns flew by so quick. Then again, I suppose some may see that as a positive.

I do not necessarily find that to be a problem in many games, but it feels weak here. I still love Last Night on Earth, which has a similar easy mechanic and quick game play. It fits the game well. Here, it does not carry the same sense of a hectic quick hunt or any sense of urgency throughout most of the game.


The Components:

Typical to Flying Frog productions, the components are very nice. The cards are of their typical heavy stock (perhaps a little over glossy, but that is really just nitpicking). They use the same type of artwork as Last Night on Earth, with real pictures modified to create a unique (well, since LNoE uses it, no longer exactly unique) feel for the artwork of the game. The cards, the plastic figures for the characters, the heavy cardboard tokens are all well produced and live up to Flying Frog's usual excellent components.

However, the playing board is abysmal. It is small. Granted, I am glad not to have an Arkham Horror monster board taking up the table, but it is a small board. And it is just visually the least aesthetically pleasing board that I can think of. The effect that they were going for was to make it look like a parchment background with a map drawn on it. However, it just looks too monochromatic. And the small board with the bland background makes the text smallish and harder to read than is necessary. I was really surprised at the board when I first saw it. It really looks like it is a prototype board that was just thrown a mix of otherwise high-quality finished pieces.

But, again, everything else offered is of remarkable quality and is quite sturdy and resistant. And this is coming from a gamer with two box-loving cats and a two-year old who wants to sit and "play" with Mommy and Daddy and needs her own character board and figure and a couple tokens to play with. I have no fear in these pieces being easily damaged by my daughter. So I thank Flying Frog for their consideration in making strong boxes for those of us with cats and sturdy components for those of us with toddlers who want to play with pieces and occasionally call out "My turn!"


Playing the Game:

I wish I could get more into this game. It really seems like a lot of work and production on something that could almost be a lighter, quicker version of Arkham Horror and fill that gaming void when you want to play AH, but it's already past midnight. However, the game just feels too light.

After one or two games, the mechanics are so down pat that you just fly through the turns. As mentioned before, the cards and such are not devised in such a way to force you into the theme. And the flavor text on the cards is just not interesting enough overall to draw us into it alone.

In the cooperative games and competitive games in which I have played, the Shadow Track just didn't seem like enough of a threat for me to worry about losing to it. When playing Arkham Horror, there are many times when you feel the anxiety of the players rise as the Great Old One's track is about to fill up or you are just one or two gates away from awakening him. Perhaps it is a little unfair to keep comparing it to Arkham Horror, but the game play lends itself too much to it. In fact, it is common at our group to have to consciously correct ourselves whenever we collect Investigation Markers from saying that we get Clue Tokens and I cannot count how many times we’ve finished movement and someone said, "Okay, Mythos Phase," instead of calling it the Mystery Phase.

One of the other flaws is the mechanic of the character just being knocked-out at the end of fights. Since you cannot die, it generally means that you are more worried about your character's current gear than the character themselves and you do not get that self-preservation instinct with battles. In the first couple of game rounds when you have no items and few investigation, you may realize that it would make more sense to lose a fight and wake up fully healed than to win the fight with one health left. And as long as you have 6 investigation, you know that you do not have to worry too much about losing your equipment no matter what you roll in the later game. That kind of takes away from the theme and feel of the game.

And I mentioned in the Overview some of my problems with the Shadow Track. I would almost like to see the Cooperative game require more physical planning. Such as one player starts the fight at the Lair and after each fight round, the other characters not involved in the fight need to roll to try to reach the Showdown location on the map, making the fight harder for first rounds until the cavalry arrives to join in the later rounds, unless they planned ahead and were laying in wait. And the competitive game would be better if you could make that last ditch attempt to stop or hinder another player, either by bidding Investigation on the card when one plays it, if the one who played it wins, then they go, otherwise the others pay their Investigation, but no one goes. Or a character vs. character duel to stop the battle. Just a couple of ideas to add to what feels like a soft theme here.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play a lot of games without her, but I really enjoy when she joins us at the table and can get into a game. She's less a strategic player, but really enjoys a good theme. With that said, she is not exactly enthused about this game as well. Arkham Horror is one of her favorites (if not her favorite, but I won’t know unless I can convince her to create a profile her on BGG and rank her game opinions) and she is always itching to play it. I had hoped that as AH has become more and more difficult to play with just 2 players since Kingsport was added on, that A Touch of Evil would satisfy that craving and fill that opened void.

Unfortunately, it has not. A Touch of Evil comes close on a lot of ideas, but does not exactly execute them well enough. My wife likes Last Night on Earth and actually ends up getting more into that than this game, which is odd knowing her preferences and knowing the theme of each of these games. In fact, in LNoE she has small back stories for each of the characters in her head. I know when she plays certain combinations of heroes, which one likes the other and who is dating whom and where all of the crushes are. None of this is spoken aloud, but I know my wife and by watching her play her characters against my Zombies, I know what she is doing as a Hero character will rush back to make a bad strategic move to protect the female character that in her mind she has him like. A Touch of Evil does not do that for her. And it is a genre that she should like better than LNoE.

We've played cooperatively and competitively and with more players than just us and in no real combination of plays has the game shined in her mind. She'll play it, if asked, but I do not think she will ever suggest it. And, unfortunately, other than my last couple of times of asking to play it to try it again before reviewing it, I do not think I'll be asking her to play it much.


The Pros:

*Incredibly well-produced game pieces.
*The box has stood up intact after my two-year old stood on it to reach something on the table.
*A very easy mechanic to learn to play, even by non-gamers.
*A quick play when compared to beasts such as Arkham Horror.
*A few innovative and interesting ideas, such as the secrets for the town elders.
*You can play competitively OR cooperatively.


The Cons:

*Despite almost being there in so many facets, the theme just doesn't quite jump out and grab me like similar games have.
*There just doesn't seem to be a sense of threat and doom in the game. It's not terrible in the competitive game, since you have to worry about someone else beating the Villain before you, but in the cooperative game, it is a rather leisurely stroll before you decide that you probably have enough stuff to fight the Villain now.
*Sometimes it really feels like you are swimming in Investigation markers with nothing much to use them on.
*The board is terrible. I really had no clue that something like that could detract so much from a game, but it is just so plain and dull to look at in a game where everything else is so well produced.


Overall:

I like Flying Frog Productions and I enjoy Last Night on Earth. I think that perhaps had I not played Arkham Horror before this (and fell in love with it), I would have liked the game better. I really wanted to like this game and it still has potential and I can see that it still probably has an audience. However, it just feels too light with little immersion into the game for me to fully embrace.

The one last thing that I will add before my rating is that I have not played this game with a full table of players. Perhaps that is where the mechanics would shine a little more. But my group tends to be smaller for most games and that is what I am rating this for.


6/10

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