Epic Gumdrop Ep 38: Boardgame Vampires

This episode Jeff and James put in their glow-in-the-dark fangs in order to talk about boardgame vampires.

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(Length: approx 36 min)

Boardgame Vampires

I’m not sure if this is definitely the first Vampire themed game published, but the first one I can find in the BoardGameGeek database is:

Dracula Mystery Game (1963), by Hasbro. This one is a movie tie in and it is described as a roll and move game. The subtitle reads “Will The Vampire Catch You?” Pretty spooky stuff I’m sure. Many a sleep-over nightmare was surely fueled by this terror.

Dracula Mystery Game

After this it takes a few years for two games inspired by the 1966 Dark Shadows TV show franchise to come out. 1968 brings us the first, Dark Shadows. Here’s the gameplay description from BGG:

Each player is dealt 4 cards of varying types. Players use these cards to drive their movement across the board by matching a card to a particular space. Each turn, a player either plays the appropriate card to move ahead or discards one and stays put, then draws a new card. The first player to reach the end space is the winner.

This would be a gameplay mechanic that Whitman would use in a few later games.

A note of interest: The publisher of this one, Whitman, was a subsidiary of Western Publishing. Want to take a guess at what popular children’s books came out from Western? Little Golden Books. Simon & Schuster were the original publisher with Western as the printer, but in 1958 it was sold entirely to Western. But we digress.

The second Dark Shadows game had to come up with a cleverer title: Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game (1969). This one was put out by Milton Bradley, and it looks like they stepped up their game a little. Sure, games are now loaded with minis and cool stuff – but how many have a coffin for component storage, glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth (not used in game play, sadly), a spinner, some tiny wooden stakes and four sets of glow-in-the-dark skeleton parts.

Essentially this game is about spinning and set collection, but that component list sounds pretty cool for 1969. The only thing better is the original commercial:

As for why this TV show had back-to-back deals with two publishers, no idea.

At this point we jump ahead as the next BGG listing is for 1977 when we get the Game of Dracula (1977) from Waddington Games. They seemed to have also thought that they needed a prop in their game, though, as it includes a green bat mask! Here’s the BGG description of this light chase game:

The first player to suffer Dracula’s bite becomes the “green vampire” and dons the green vampire’s face mask. This vampire then flits from room to room, seeking another victim to take over his role. Any further victims of Dracula go back to the vault and must attempt their escape from square one again. The Dracula and Green Vampire pieces actually engulf the players’ playing pieces when they’re “bitten”.

Now you might be thinking that we’ve had enough gimmicks and that we should just move on to the much more sensible 1980s. No. Hasbro and 1979 brought us I Vant To Bite Your Finger (1979). Forget coffins and masks and such. Let’s get down to the heart of what vampires are all about. What we have here is a:

Game featuring a large vampire figure that can “bite” players’ fingers. Players advance around the board and at some point are required to roll a die and then have to turn the clock attached to the vampire up to that number of clicks. If you roll a 4, you can turn it 1,2,3, or 4 times. If you’re unlucky, the vampire will “wake up” (his cape swings open) and you have to put your finger in his mouth and he will actually bite you (with red felt tip markers).

I had to click on the photos to see if this was as weird as I thought. Yep. It’s weird. Also kind of brilliant. Go take a look. I’m surprised Hasbro didn’t go out of business at this point from bite-related lawsuits.

Now we can move on to the serious 1980s, which start out suitably somber with Mayfair Games and Neil Zimmerer bringing us Translyvania (1981) – I’m assuming that’s the punny title as the cover gives the same spelling. The cover art is a menacing black and white drawing of a robed skeleton about to stab a sleeping traveler with a sword, and the box description states:

The village and the surrounding countryside have for years been ravaged by night and by day. Finally the villagers confront their nemesis for control of Transylvania.

Also, this is listed under the categories Fighting, Horror and Wargame with Area Movement being the chief mechanic. When you look at the map and the tokens you really get the impression this is a wargame aimed at a slightly younger market. It also marks a shift in tone from player as victim to player as vampire nemesis.

It should be noted that 1981 was a huge year for Mayfair and for designer Neil Zimmerer – they only had a few titles previous to this. The Wikipedia page for them links to their business beginning in 1981, but BGG shows them attached to titles earlier. Perhaps they weren’t officially registered as a business before this, I have no idea. But BGG lists 4 games by Mayfair prior to 1981 and 11 games in 1981, so this is really the year they kick it off. Neil Zimmerer also has a tremendous year with Mayfair, bringing out several other titles for them for 1981, including Space Empires and I.C.B.M.. He also published two titles with other publishers for a total of at least 5 games that year.

Translyvania wasn’t the only vampire themed game for 1981, though. American designer Steve Jackson also brought us Undead (1981). The description is interesting, with this also having a serious tone as well as a play time of two hours:

This is an attempt to recreate the legendary battles of Van Helsing and the vampire hunters against Dracula, in Victorian London. The game is based on the books, not on the movies, so many things are different to what Vampire-fans are used to (Dracula CAN move during the day for example, although it tires him). The game takes two forms: a two player game and a simplified roleplaying game. A game master is helpful, but optional.

The game came with a map of London, circa 1890, crypt and indoor combat maps, and colour tokens. The back of the box states that you can either be Dracula or you can try and hunt him down. This is the first vampire based game that made me think of the later Fury of Dracula. But more on that title in a bit. People comment that this game is a bit light and also a bit dependent on a decent GM for optimal play. But it was also on the inexpensive side which helped move copies. On a side note, this was also the year Steve Jackson Games brought us Car Wars, and the live role-play game Killer.

So was this it for 1981 and vampires? Of course not.

TSR threw their hat in the ring with Vampyre (1981), Philip A. Shreffler’s contribution to TSR’s minigame series. Here’s some text from the rulebook:

The Vampyre game is faithful to Stoker’s original novel. It may be played by up to 6 people, each playing the role of one of Stoker’s characters. Many of the game elements are also derived from the book. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula did indeed hide coffins in various secret locations so that he would always have a place to hide during the day, should his principle lair be discovered. Dracula did have vampire brides and could command wolves, rats, bears and other supernatural beings. Effective against these un-dead creatures were The Host, holy water, crucifixes and silver bullets; not to mention the hammer and stake – tools required for dispatching vampires.

The Vampyre basic game takes place on the map of Transylvania. The game is a race between the vampire hunters to see who will be the first to find and destroy three of Count Dracula’s hidden coffins.

The extended game is played on the reverse side of the map, Dracula’s Castle, after the players have finished the basic game. Here, the players have already destroyed Dracula’s hidden coffins. Now they must track down and destroy the Count himself in his heavily guarded lair.

The game comes with a hexed map of Transylvania, which appears to flip over for a map of Castle Dracula, a d6, and some game chits. Although it also tries to stick to the original novel it has a lighter play time at 45 minutes and accommodates 2-6 players. I have a hard time imagining 6 players finishing this in 45 minutes, but who knows.

The next few years bring us the odd vampire themed game, but none of them are that remarkable until we get to 1987. This is the year we get Stephen Hand‘s original The Fury of Dracula (1987) from Games Workshop. At 2-4 players with a play time of 3 hours this is a bit heavier still. The BGG description reads:

Fury of Dracula

The premise of The Fury of Dracula is very similar to Scotland Yard, but with additional rules for combat, events, and encounters. One player secretly controls Dracula while the other three players are Vampire hunters cooperating to locate and defeat him.

Dracula must move around the countryside, evading the hunters while leaving minions and encounters for them to uncover in his wake. If he can hide six new Vampires in Europe without the hunters destroying them, the dark prince will be declared victorious and rule the day!

Meanwhile, the hunters try to locate and destroy Dracula before he succeeds in raising an empire of undead Vampires. When they occupy the same space as a dark minion, a vampire, or even Dracula himself, then a combat system is used to determine the results.

Will the hunters be able to stem the tide of darkness, or will Europe be consumed by the Fury of Dracula?

Whoever wrote the description seemed to be trying to knock it down a peg – yes, people love Fury of Dracula, but no it’s not groundbreakingly original. But it did include minis! Or whatever we called those globs of plastic back in 1987.

Instead of learning lots about this game I stumbled into a BGG thread about Games Workshop lawyers making BGG purge user created files back in 2009. My curiosity ensured I barely made it out of that quagmire to finish putting together this episode – so let’s move on.

The only thing more frightening than the hunt for Dracula might be the next few titles. I had completely forgotten about this, but 1988 brought us a new count. Count Duckula. Which of course meant we would get at least 3 games dedicated to him.

And then in 1992, for good and bad, Francis Ford Coppola would bring us Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which meant we would also get games such as An Evening With Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), complete with audio cassette, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Board Game (1992), complete with miniatures. While the costumes on the minis does not quite capture Eiko Ishioka’s wonderful costume design, they certainly try. I’m also not sure I could figure out which one was supposed to be Tom Waits and which one was Richard E. Grant. But we’ve spent more than enough time thinking about the high points of that movie.

1994 would bring us something much better. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (1994). Briefly known as Jyhad, but forever known as VTES, this is Richard Garfield‘s second work of card design after a little-known and seldom-played game referred to as Magic: The Gathering. He also did a few other minor games, such as Netrunner or RoboRally. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle is seen as Garfield fixing some elements of Magic. There is too much to say about this game here, though, and I think we’ll have to dedicate an episode to it at some point. The last official card set came out in 2010, so the game had a bit of life in it.

And since there were no more vampire franchises, ever, that brings us to the end of our list.

What’s that? Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a few games in 2000? One that Rob Daviau worked on when he was at Hasbro? Heavy stuff. Wait, even Reiner Knizia, designer of all the games ever even put out a vampire game that very same year, called Vampire?

The next few years would see a slurry of Buffy and Angel based games. And a lot of other vampire based games trying to capitalize on the re-re-re-resurgence of the theme. This is the part where I start getting cynical/bored.

2004 brings us in a kind of full circle with Steve Jackson’s Munchkin Bites! 2005 ushers in Fury of Dracula (second edition).

Then it goes something like this: Blade, Twilight, Twilight, Twilight, misc, Twilight, etc, Twilight.

To recap: The vampire picked up steam in the early 90s and kind of never went away. All that fear and darkness of the undead melded perfectly with the anxiety of the era. Even 2015 brought us a bunch of vampire titles, including the much anticipated Fury of Dracula (third edition) (2015), or the inevitable One Night Ultimate Vampire (2015).

V-Wars

One of the more interesting vampire titles of 2015 was IDW’s boardgame adaptation of V-Wars. Designers Rob Daviau (where have we heard that name before?) and writer Jonathan Maberry give us a twist. Here’s the publisher’s description:

V-Wars pits humankind against vampires in an all-out global war. Scarier still, our most steadfast allies could change sides at any time, because this new breed of vampirism is spread not by bite but by virus, activating junk DNA in its victim, and converting them to vampire. Take command of the included 120 highly detailed sculpted miniatures and battle to save the world, but be careful, players who fight by your side in one round may be at your throat in the next, because in V-Wars, the virus is always spreading.

V-Wars begins as a co-operative game, but shifts as players reveal themselves to be vampires or the virus takes hold in infected players and forces them to change sides mid-game.

In V-Wars, the vampires are trying to infiltrate the world’s governments, taking over human cities while simultaneously attempting to sway public sympathy to recognize them as victims of a viral outbreak, not just cold-blooded killers. Meanwhile, the humans are trying to stem the vampire tide, fighting back against their covert attacks and outright rebellions.

The vampires win immediately when they’ve reached a balance of city control and public sympathy to a point where their Victory marker and Sympathy markers reach each other on the Vampire Victory track or, alternatively, engage in a holding action long enough to exhaust all Player cards. Humans win by placing six cities under Martial Law in different regions of the world or if the vampires’ Sympathy tokens are reduced to zero on the Vampire Victory track.

Vampires? Minis? Technology? Co-operative game with with secret unit deployment? OK. Maybe I would give this a try.

The vampire theme seems to often be one about pitting players versus evil, or getting players to inhabit the role of evil against the other players. We get to dabble in unreal horror, toying with darkness for a while until we close the box-lid for another night. It’s a perennial theme, one that will surge with popularity in correlation to trends in pop-culture. The vampire’s role in pop-culture is perhaps part of what makes them safe. Like zombies, they’ve been rendered powerless by the constant reuse of the imagery and legends. But this is what makes them perfect for games. They’re an instantly recognizable opponent with supernatural powers that change over time. They’re everywhere, throughout time, and in 2016 they’re undoubtedly still coming for you.

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