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Review: Vampire Empire

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An evil has infected the city!  Roaming the streets and its foreboding castle’s halls, disguised as normal townsfolk, vampires walk amongst unsuspecting mortals.  Will these vile creatures lure and trap the land’s innocent souls?  Or will the humans successfully reveal their dark identities and hunt them all down before its too late?  In this new release from Stronghold Games, you have the chance to accomplish either.  So channel your inner Nosferatu or Van Helsing and enter the realm of Vampire Empire.

How it Plays

The name is a bit of a misnomer – there are no imperial overtones.  Instead, Vampire Empire is an asymmetrical, two-player game of bluffing or deduction, depending on which side you play.  It is also an interactive match of shrewd hand management, with a clever twist on that particular mechanic.

The human player uses a partially unique 40-card deck and keen intuition to deduce which three of nine characters are secretly revenants – and kill them.  Meanwhile, the vampire player uses a different 40-card deck and some wily cunning to bluff the living’s plans, seducing the rest into the ranks of the undead.
To begin the game, the vampire player secretly draws three character tokens out of a bag.  These individuals are the vampires.  The human player gets a small head start on figuring out which townsfolk are mere mortals by drawing two more tokens that they can cross off the list of possible monsters.  Each of these nine characters also has a card.  They are sleeved and shuffled together and then three are drawn to be laid out in the “castle” while the other six remain in the deck, a.k.a. the “city.”  Then both players draw eight cards from their decks.

The game is afoot! (Note: cards discarded to the cellar and moat would actually be face down.)

On their turn (“night” for the vampire and “day” for the human), players may first discard any number from their hand and then draw cards until they have eight.  The twist is that there are two discard piles: the cellar and the moat.  The cellar will replenish the draw deck once it is exhausted the first time through.  So those you can get back towards the end of the game.  Any cards played to the moat, however, are gone for good.  All cards discarded during regular play will end up in the moat, so this phase is the only opportunity to stash away some choice cards for later.

Next, the vampire player can choose to reveal any of the three characters as a vampire, whether they’re in the castle, or still in the city.  You may think such an action would be detrimental to the undead agenda, but there are two main reasons for doing so.  One, there is a win condition relevant to such a move.  And two, there are attack cards which only revealed vampires may utilize in fighting.

Combat is one of the optional actions to take in the final phase.  The other two actions are dependent upon the faction.  The vampire can play three vampire cards to whisk any character away from the castle back to the city, place that character’s card under the town deck, and then draw the top character to replace it in the castle.  The human may play two holy water cards to reveal any character’s identity, whether in the castle or the town, in which case the vampire must fess up.  Either player can also pass, but must discard two cards for this non-action.

General combat cards found in either deck.

Fighting is a central part of Vampire Empire.  You’re trying to kill each, after all.  When initiating combat as an action (or as the human player after successfully revealing a vampire with holy water), you announce which two characters currently in the castle will be attacking and defending.  In a fun bit of deviancy, the vampire may have a human character attack another human!  Indeed, it will often be integral to bluffing the human opponent.

Attacks are handled in two rounds with special combat cards, which make up the majority of the player decks.  The player initiating the battle will play combat cards to the character that he/she has identified as the attacker.  The opposing player will play cards for the defender, if he/she wishes.  Choosing the contestants is crucial, because all combat cards and each of the nine characters are categorized by one of three classes (colors):  noble (purple), servant (green), or clergy (brown).  You can only play a combat card to its corresponding character type – so choose your fights wisely depending on what’s in your hand.  Some combat cards will serve two different classes, but are weaker.  Plus, the vampire player has vampire cards that can provide offense/defense for a revealed vampire character.  The human player can play holy water cards against a revealed vampire character.

Human and vampire specific attack and specialty cards. Not all are this powerful, though…

In the first round, the attacking player commits combat cards first.  If the defending player cannot match or exceed that strength, then the character is killed.  Otherwise, one more round commences.  If the attacker can then beat the defender, the character is likewise killed.  However, if the defender ties or beats the instigator, he/she is safe – and nothing happens to the character who attacked.  In that case, play continues to the next side.Support cards are another type of resource and can be played by either player during any turn.  These grant special abilities and rule-breaking powers.  Some can be used in combat, while others cannot.  However, they generally exact a price, paid in discarding other cards.  Interestingly, the cost depends on the current player’s turn.  Each support card denotes the cost if played during night (the vampire’s turn) or day (the human’s turn).  A couple are free if played at the right time.  However, generally it’ll cost a card or two.

Victory is pretty straight forward.  The human wins outright if he/she is able to dispatch all three vampires.  Likewise, the vampire player can claim the win by killing the six townsfolk.  Additionally, the undead can defeat the humans by taking over the castle – that is, occupying the three castle spots with revealed vampire characters.  However, if at least one of each faction survives after both players have exhausted their decks and cellars, then the vampire receives two points per remaining immortal while the human earns one for each of the living.  Ties are possible, which means good and evil must be able to coexist, after all.

The cast of characters.

Love at First Bite?

I’ll be honest.  I’m not really into vampires – even before the Twilight series turned the genre on its head with its sparkly, angst-ridden, teenage Abercrombie & Fitch models from Beverly Hills 90210.  So the theme made me a little hesitant, fearing that Vampire Empire would be replete with dark material and/or questionable spirituality.  Of course, many other gamers won’t be concerned with that to begin with.  However, reading the rules erased that vibe pretty quickly and, like most board gamers, I’m always on the lookout for good, two-player titles.  Filip Miłuński’s design was thus a pleasant surprise.

The asymmetry in Vampire Empire works extremely well.  Each side has a unique feel requiring not only a different strategy, but a different train of thought.  The vampire must throw the human off the scent and has a bit more leeway for some aggressive early play.  At the same time, he/she must not be overly aggressive, in order to save for defense later in the game.  The human will usually tread more cautiously, especially if neither of the known allies are in the castle to start.  In some respect, he/she may feel at a disadvantage until the characters’ identities start to slowly surface.

But the maid looked so innocent. Nope. Vampire!

Additionally, the mixture of cards creates a well-balanced asymmetry.  While a number of combat cards are similar in both packs, the support cards are unique to each deck and tend to play to the styles of strategy one would think appropriate.  These support cards really inject a great deal of suspense and allow for some tactical surprises.  They might pop up any time, so you’re never certain if your opponent may upset a critical reveal or undo a strong attack – and he/she can’t be sure about any surprises you have up your sleeves, either.  These cards are not always cheap, forcing you to strategize and manage your hand for most efficient effect.  And the added touch of varying costs depending on player turn is ingenious.The human-specific ‘holy water’ cards and vampire-only ‘vampire cards’ create some additional balance, in spite of their uniqueness.  Either side can use these as combat cards, but only with or against revealed characters.  In the meantime, their alternate uses can prove effective.  The human player must play some holy water cards to reveal characters in order to narrow the field.  Consequently, regular combat cards seem more critical to the mortals as that player will spend some of that holy water identifying who is who.

Character and combat bonus tokens.

At first, the human player seems at a disadvantage, fighting blindly.  Indeed he/she will likely suffer an early loss before getting a grasp on the situation.  Fortunately, the living start out with a 2-to-1 advantage.  However, the vampire still has incentives to reveal the true undead, which will prove helpful to the city dwellers’ cause.  Most prominent is the victory condition in which the vampire wins by claiming all three places in the castle while revealed.  More than that, characters must be revealed before the player can use the powerful vampire combat cards.  Therefore, he/she may opt to save them in the cellar until later when it’s more likely that the human will have zeroed in on the vampires.  These vampire cards are also useful to move citizens in and out of the castle.  It won’t be a predominant strategy because it is costly.  But the ability to remove a strong human or vulnerable vampire can reap a huge advantage when implemented at just the right moment.

The discard mechanic is also innovative.  For such a small twist in the hand management genre, it adds a large dose of strategy.  Utilizing the cellar is equally beneficial and necessary – and victory often is secured through successfully manipulating this part of the game.  One, it allows you to clean up your hand by saving cards that are of no immediate use.  This also alleviates some of the inherent randomness (see below).  More than that, you’ll have to stash at least some cards away so that you’re not completely defenseless at the end.  Once you’ve exhausted your deck, the cellar is all that remains.  Finding yourself out of cards while your opponent can afford additional attacks will quickly undo your previously careful play.

While you’re deciding which cards to play and which to store for later, don’t neglect keeping some on hand to pay for the cost of support cards.  If you don’t have expendable options, you’ll need to do a quick cost-reward analysis.  The special abilities can be temptingly powerful, but may not be worth the price.  Keep in mind, as well, that some supporters are best saved for during your opponent’s turn – so don’t deplete your hand during you own action phase.  And of course, all that needs considered at the same time as remembering to hang on to some combat cards for general defense, as well.  The clever management in determining which cards to play, store, keep, or use as support costs gives Vampire Empire depth and replayability.

Human support cards to spice up play…

 

Probably the biggest obstacle for some gamers to hurdle in Vampire Empire is the amount of luck/randomness.  It is a card game, after all, so the whole “luck of the draw” is a factor.  Combat can certainly be swingy.  Not only must you have combat cards in hand, but they must correspond to the correct character classes currently in the castle.  Furthermore, you need them in adequate amounts to battle both in your own turn, plus in that of your opponent’s – keeping in mind you don’t replenish your hand until the beginning of your next turn.

Aside from luck of the draw, the timing in which the human’s known allies appear can play an influential role.  The human player’s cause is eased somewhat if one or both of these begin the game in the castle.  Conversely, if the vampire characters emerge early and often, then that player’s hand may be forced to adjust – not to mention it may be easier to achieve the victory condition by which all three vampires are revealed and present in the castle.

I would not say that Vampire Empire is a heavily thematic title.  For example, the vampire can combat with the same weapons and paraphernalia as the human and the support cards don’t always make complete sense.  However, it is still imbued with a number of thematic elements and motifs quite familiar to the genre.  The art is not especially impressive from an aesthetic standpoint, but I think it has a nice campy quality to lighten the mood, which I appreciate.  The quality is top-notch.  The card stock is good, although the black borders show wear easier.  The tokens are sturdy and the bag is nice.  However, the “above-and-beyond” medal here is the inclusion of sleeves for the character cards.  They could have skimped on these, forced owners to provide their own, or found some other cheap method of handling the vampire reveals, but chose to go first-class.  All that said, I’m still not a fan of tins.

Some delicious support cards for the vampire side…

Vampire Empire is a slick design.  It has just the right amount of cards to do what is needed and not overstay its welcome.  There is enough variety to provide depth without muddling play with numerous rules exceptions.  The action creates tension and mystery, but doesn’t burden players with crazy complexity.  Luck will be consequential and can create imbalanced fights.  Overall, however, card management, shrewd play, and the unique difference between factions make Vampire Empire an accessible, replayable, and fun nail-biter.  This is one of the better two-player only titles to arise the last few years and is well-suited to a variety of gaming pairs.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing a review copy of Vampire Empire.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Asymmetrical powers
  • Unique hand management element
  • Bluff vs. deduction implemented well
  • Very streamlined
  • Good production and nice value

Cons:

  • Luck can be swingy
  • Im not a fan of tins
  • Theme could be turn-off
9.0 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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