Designed by: Thomas M. Gofton
Published by: Jasco Games
Playtime: 40-60 Minutes
This game was supplied free of charge by ChaosCards for review.
As a grown man I have no problem admitting that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite TV shows ever, the marvelous imagination of geek icon Joss Whedon creating something that I have cherished. I grew up watching it, and throughout the years I’ve appreciated it more and more, from being a little lad with a crush on Willow and loving the fact that it was about a badass chick killing monsters to beginning to understand how the show subverted genre norms, or the clever dialogue or the constant subtle things that were left unsaid. Of course, by today’s standards it’s cheesy and goofy…but man, is it fun, and its themes remain relevant to this day.
Cue this third attempt at a Buffy board game, this time from Jasco Games who think they can nail it. This one is a co-operative adventure where you and up to five Scoobies (that’s the name of Buffy and her group of friends, for those not in the know) will attempt to defeat the Big Bad while also defending the innocent townsfolk of Sunnydale from vampires, demons and the Monster of the Week. Fail to protect those who need protecting and your reward will be defeat, the forces of darkness having managed to finally gain a true foothold on Earth.
Before any of that happens you’ve got to decide what characters will be entering the fray and just who the Big Bad is going to be. Included in the box are Buffy, Willow, Angel, Spike, Xander and Giles fighting the good fight, while evil can be led by Adam, Mayor Wilkins, Glorificus, The Master, Caleb and The First Evil. Whatever character you choose to kick evil ass as with you’ll be given four action tokens to use up during each round. Not all that surprisingly these tokens let you do a few different things. Moving is the most obvious, allowing you to jump to any location you like on the board, regardless of whether there are any enemies occupying those areas, although the rulebook does say that for a harder game you can take a wound when leaving a location with baddies in it. We’ll come back to how wounds work later.
Fighting obviously lets you throw some of the vampires and demons around the place, but the basic fight action merely lets you stun a vampire – meaning it won’t activate at the end of the round – and won’t even touch a demon who simply shrug off even the Slayer’s attacks. If you want to get rid of these guys on a more permanent basis you’ll need to pick up a stake or weapons from the item deck.
To get stuff from that deck you’ve got two choices; any location can be searched in order to draw two random cards off the item deck, but if you want to be more specific then you can activate the use ability at certain locations such as Sunnydale High where you can grab two tomes or The Crypt which contains a handy supply of pointy stakes just waiting to be rammed into a vampire’s chest. Those tomes can be discarded to draw a card from the artifact deck where you may discover some powerful tools like The Scythe or Faith’s Knife. Be warned, though, there are a couple of horrible artifacts that make life worse when drawn. Other items include garlic, crosses and holy water, each with their own abilities that can help you out. The limitation, though, is that players can only hold three cards at a time, something that becomes important later on.
Now we arrive at the cool bit; the special action token that can be used to take a boring basic action like move or search or fight, or it can be spent on activating your character’s special skill. The mighty Willow, for example, can discard magic supply item cards to destroy an equal number of baddies anywhere on the board using her witchcraft, while Buffy can leap across the board, fight something and then immediately stun everything else in the area as an added bonus. Angel, meanwhile, can draw three artifacts, keep one and place the rest on top or on the bottom of the deck.
But as we all know almost everything good thing in life comes with a catch. You see, every time a special action token is spent and the action resolved an event card must be flipped over, telling you where new vampires, demons and townies must be placed, as well as hitting players with a usually nasty effect. This is easily my favorite aspect of the entire game because it creates simple yet compelling decisions; do you wait to maximise the effect of your special ability by waiting for the most opportune moment to unleash it or do you use it early in a round in order to have plenty of time to deal with the new baddies who have spawned?
Speaking of the baddies (both vampires and demons are referred to as baddies) they get to activate after all the players have exhausted their tokens. Firstly any baddies, plus the Monster of the Week in most instances, will kill townsfolk in locations that they occupy. These sadly deceased folk will get placed on the Apocolypse Track and when that track fills up it’s game over, because clearly you suck at the whole protecting the innocent thing. If a monster occupies the same space as a character then a wound is placed on the track instead, which isn’t so bad because there are a couple of ways to discard wound tokens. This system means a player can leap to shield a townie since vampires, demons and other horrible things will always attack the characters. Should a baddie not already be occupying a space containing a character or another townie they’ll begin to move around the board, seeking adjacent townsfolk or heading straight for the nearest player. It’s a simple A.I. system but it melds nicely with the rest of the gameplay because you can use it to lure enemies into a specific location, perhaps in order to send Spike in with his special ability to wipe out every baddie at the cost of some wounds.
But what of the Big Bad that’s overseeing all of this trouble? Well, he or she begins the game hidden away, refusing to yet reveal themselves to the world. To get the Big Bad to come out of hiding you first need to deal with three Monsters of the Week, randomly drawn from a handy-dandy deck of cards that contains a bunch of favorites, like the geeky Trio, the creepy-as-all-bloody-hell-Gentlemen and even Sweet, each boasting their own abilities that alter the game. In a lovely thematic touch, for example, when the Gentlemen are on the board players can’t speak to each other lest they are forced to add a wound to the apocalypse track. To beat these guys you need to take the items shown on their cards to their current location and make an event check, done by flipping over an event card and seeing if its symbol matches one of the two shown on the Baddie of the Week card. With a total of three symbols you’ve got a great chance of getting what you need. Succeed and you defeat the bad guy, who helpfully leaves behind a clue token on their initial spawn point. Fail and…er, nothing happens. it’s a bit of an anti-climax, really. Claim this clue token and one of the Big Bad’s evil plot cards gets flipped over, introducing a powerful permanent effect that makes the game harder.
Once the third plot is flipped over the villain fully reveals himself or herself, at which point they are usually placed on the board in a specific location and a special effect kicks in. What makes the Big Bad dangerous is that every time an event card has to be drawn it kicks off one of three powerful effects, forcing players to do things like permanently lose an action token. To defeat them and claim victory you need to do away with each plot card, done again by collecting the listed items, traveling to the location of the Big Bad and spending an action to do an event check. Defeat the plots and you win the game, it’s that simple! And that anti-climatic. This is where the game feels weakest to me, because going up against the Big Bad never does feel like kick-ass fight you really want to have. It never builds up in the way I want, the final plot being resolved like normal and the game just…ending.
But importantly while I don’t think the game has the proper crescendo and finale that it deserves the puzzle that lies at the heart of the whole thing is simple yet wholly appealing, with an almost Pandemic flavor to it. The constant conundrum is deciding who needs to gather the items required to beat the Monsters of the Week and the plot cards, and what demons and vampires need dealing with. Should a townie be left to die? Should gathering items be put on hold for another round in order to clear the board a little? Is it worth sending a character to defend a townie in order to take a wound instead of a permanent addition to the apocalypse track? It never taxes the brain but it’s still engaging and moves along at a brisk pace, a game usually lasting around an hour in my experience.
For a Buffy game, though, it’s surprising to see a few key characters missing from the lineup; Tara, Anya, Dawn, Faith and Oz are all entirely absent, their presence sorely missed. Of course, we could potentially see them in a future expansion if the game does well enough. It’s also a little disappointing to see that while Angel and Spike are both playable heroes, Angel’s evil side Angelus and the bad-guy incarnation of Spike don’t get to make an appearance, either, although I suppose that could have been awkward.
But how well is the theme conveyed? The answer is quite reasonably, although it’s fair to say that if were hoping for a more narrative-driven game then you’ll be disappointed as designer paints Buffy in broad strokes. The game doesn’t replicate the show’s stories in anything but the vaguest terms, and it doesn’t allow for players to craft their own Buffy tales, either, except again the broadest strokes. There are some smaller niggles, too, like how the Slayer herself is still only capable of stunning vampires with her normal attack and can’t deal with demons without a weapon item card, which feels a little off.
My biggest gripe with the theme stems from the villains and how alike they feel. Choosing The Master over Glorificus doesn’t change the feel of the game as much as I would have liked, nor do they evoke their counterparts on the show as strongly as one might expect. None of Glorificus’ rules, for example, replicate how she transformed into another character named Ben, or how she had help from a bunch of knights or how she wanted to open a huge portal. It’s a missed opportunity to really nail the theme and create a more varied game, but with that said it’s entirely possible that designer Thomas M. Gofton couldn’t find a way to integrate such mechanics into the game without losing its straightforward style and snappy pace. With that said I still find myself wishing that the Big Bads had abilities and plot cards that managed to invoke the feeling of the show more.
However, with that said one thematic win is the inclusion of a mechanic where players can turn evil briefly, riffing on the fact that throughout the show almost every character wound up getting possessed, going nuts, flaying people or coming under the influence of some strange magic. When this happens you’re given an evil card and on your next turn instead of doing a normal action you have to waste a token, flip an event card and do whatever the symbols tells you.
Let’s wrap up with a quick excursion into component territory. Sadly while you don’t get a life-size replica of Mister Pointy (Buffy’s favorite stake, though it does appear as an artifact) or the Slayer Scythe the standout is easily the beautiful artwork which nails the look and feel of Buffy and the gang while giving the game its own unique style. These characters get represented on the board by cardboard standees that don’t exactly scream quality, although I’m biased because I just really wanted to get some cool miniatures of all my favorite characters. The problem is the plastic stands are cheap and you don’t get enough for every character in the game, meaning you’ll need to swap them out which damages the cardboard. Sadly the Monsters of the Week don’t get the same representation as the player characters and the Big Bads, relegated to a simple generic token for all of them. Speaking of the tokens they’re made of a reasonably thick card stock and have a shiny finish that I rather like. The cards are average quality, again finished with the shiny-shiny, but I did find the artwork on the item cards to be a bit dull. It’s also rather a shame that the Monster of the Week cards don’t get custom artwork, either, all of them sporting text and a light background image that’s the same as the one on the back.
On Buffy’s grave it stated that she saved the world a lot. I can’t make that claim, but I have played Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Board Game a lot. Here’s the thing: I want to love it a lot more than I do. As a huge fan of the show I naturally wanted this to be the bestest game ever, draped in slayer awesomeness. The truth is much different. It’s a good game. Not a great one, not an amazing one, just a good one. Nothing in the gameplay design wows me and the theme, while obviously handled with love, isn’t integral to the mechanics nor quite well executed as it perhaps could have been. With that said don’t let my words fool you because I’ve had a lot of fun with it and I have every intention of playing it a lot more. If you aren’t a fan of the show it’s difficult to recommend it over a host of other great games that are out there, but if you’ve ever had a passing interesting in the world of Slayers are an ardent lover of the series then it’s a no-brainer. I’m therefore slapping a recommendation sticker on this one. Its strength lies in its simple but enjoyable gameplay, and the fact that you can run around as the Slayer and make lots of funny puns.