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Some games are luckless efficiency engines and some are made to create narratives. Transylvania: Curses and Traitors, currently on Kickstarter, is definitely a narrative style game. Players take on the roles of 19th century monster hunters desperately seeking knowledge to combat these horrid foes. But, careless or unlucky players may be turned into monsters themselves – and now they must feed on the other players.

The Basics. Transylvania plays 3-6 players, and though the players are each monster hunters, this is not a cooperative game. Instead, players will independently try to acquire the five knowledge cards necessary to win the game and put an end to the monsters’ reign of terror.

Players can choose, or select randomly, from a set of characters that include individuals such as the Big Game Hunter or the Inventor. Each character has four stats: movement indicates how many spaces the player can move each turn, while the other three stats are skills such as Fight or Spirit that are used when encountering certain events.

Players start at the church and can move out from there. When a player reaches the end of a tile, they may draw a new tile and continue their movement. Each tile has a number of counters on it as well as potential Event spaces. When a player reaches a counter, he may flip it over to reveal a skill check. It might test any of the non-movement skills and generally has a number from 3 to 5. The player rolls the dice equal to his skill and if he exceeds the number on the counter, he gets to draw a Quest card. If he fails, he can move along.

If a player encounters an Event space, an Event card is drawn. Generally, it will be introduced by a few lines of narrative text and then followed by a skill check. If the player succeeds, he often gets a reward. Failure often means a penalty – including taking damage.

Players can also challenge one another on their turns. They roll dice as specified by an attribute chosen by the aggressor. The winning player can take a Quest card from his opponent.

Most Quest cards are helpful, but not all qualify as Knowledge cards. To win, a player must acquire five knowledge cards, including at least one knowledge card for each of the three monsters: Vampire, Werewolf, and Zombie. But some Quest cards aren’t so helpful. You might acquire the bite of a vampire, or the zombie serum. Acquiring just one is relatively benign. But if you die while holding it, or acquire a second (or related card), you will become the monster. Once you are a monster, you can no longer win by grabbing knowledge cards. Instead, you win when you kill two or three other players. Finally, a player can win by defeating a (player) monster, rather than by gaining knowledge.

The Feel. Despite having some really great elements (especially when it comes to theme), Transylvania really fell flat for me. The main reason was because the actions felt highly scripted, and players had very little choice from turn to turn. Half way through my first play, my programmer friend turned to me and said, “Y’know, I could develop a script to take care of 99% of this game.” Although I’m not a programmer, I have no doubt that that was accurate.

But first, lets touch on some of the good aspects of the game. The theme is well represented and the artwork is great. Throughout the game, it is easy to see the narrative unfold as players explore different areas and some get too close to the very monsters they are studying.

Also, most games (at least most of the popular ones) in this style are cooperative in nature. So, big kudos to the designers for creating a thematic horror game that is purely competitive. Though I enjoy cooperative games, they do have their drawbacks. There is no need for an AI in Transylvania and the players are constantly pitted against one another. You never know when that player behind you decides it is in his best interest to take one of your cards.

Though Transylvania does create a narrative during play, it does so with only minimal player involvement. At game start, the goal for everyone is to gain more Quest cards. So, players begin by simply marching out and flipping tokens while hoping to gain as many cards as possible. Cards are drawn randomly and have widely disparate powers. Many give strength to combat, others help with movement or defense. Players end up building their strategy largely around what was received. The cards essentially tell you how you need to play.

Additionally, when drawing cards you are only slightly less likely to get turned into a monster than to draw one of the precious knowledge cards. In my first game, two players had become monsters within the first three rounds. While it may sound cool to be a zombie or vampire, it is actually much less exciting. As a monster, you have almost no decisions at all. Essentially, you look to whichever hero is closest, move to that hero, and then attack. Rinse repeat. Since that is your only win condition, there is really not much else to worry about.

Similarly, other players simply stay out of range while continually gathering more Quest cards. Even though the main victory mechanic is to get five knowledge cards, there simply aren’t that many knowledge cards in the deck. So, rather than a race to be the first to get the cards, it is more of a struggle to get any knowledge cards at all. In my plays, the closest anyone got to the five card threshold was three cards before the game ended another way.

And while Transylvania certainly focuses on the narrative aspect, some of the choices seem rather odd. Why are quest opportunities simply littered around various tiles? Events are drawn from a single event deck, so they seem divorced from other actions in the game or even from location. Player combat, like everything else, is resolved through die rolls.

While narrative games can be memorable, Transylvania felt more like Television. Sure, there might have been a good story, but your involvement with it was minimal. Major decisions are almost absent. Instead, most turns are obvious and players are simply random number generators when checks are made or combat is initiated. I wanted to like Transylvania, but ultimately it’s an activity that happens much more than a game that is played.

Components: N/A of 5. The version reviewed was a prototype and not representative of the final product. That said, I did enjoy the artwork and felt it was quite evocative of the setting. The artwork fills Quest and Event cards and major artwork appears on the tiles and character cards. It certainly enhances the atmosphere of the game.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 1.5 of 5. This was the biggest failing of Transylvania. Strategy was largely lacking. Sure there were occasional cool combos from Quest cards, but those were gained almost entirely by sheer luck of the draw. Meanwhile, monster players no longer have any important decisions to make and instead feel like automatons hoping to catch up to other players and then roll well.

Mechanics: 2.5 of 5. So far as it goes, the game is workable, but some choices are strange. While the Werewolf and Vampire are faster than even the fastest humans, the Zombie is not. Sure that makes thematic sense, but it also makes it hard for a zombie player to catch up to and attack a human player. But mechanics don’t always bow to theme – such as with completely random events or Quest cards literally every few steps – so it seems inconsistent. Plus, the relative dearth of knowledge cards makes the main victory condition difficult to achieve.

Replayability: 1 of 5. Although things will undoubtedly be different every time, there is little reason to return to this title. Once you’ve played once or twice, you’ve basically seen everything this game has to offer. I doubt that much more will be gleaned from repeated visits to Transylvania.

Spite: 1.5 of 5. Spite is relatively low. Sure, there are some powerful damaging cards, and players can attack each other, but it rarely feels spiteful. Once a monster shows up, players generally save their good stuff for avoiding or defeating the monster. And, even though it is still competitive, it feels like humans vs. monsters. Plus, if there are two monsters, they are essentially on the same team. If they kill one another, it doesn’t help them at all.

Overall: 2 of 5. Is there fun to be had here? Sure. Transylvania is a little like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Are there choices? Absolutely, but they are scripted from the beginning, and the only real difference is how things end up, i.e. who wins. But, this isn’t the kind of game that provides meaningful decisions on every turn — when it is over, everyone is definitely ready to move on. The best games leave players saying, “If we’d only done X” or “I should have done Y.” With Transylvania, players make the obvious choice each round, and then the random cards and dice tell you who won.

(A special thanks to Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If games for providing a prototype for review)

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
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J Holmes
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The game definitely looks beautiful which is part of the appeal.

How much work would it need to be more playable, and replayable?
 
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GeekInsight
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j_holmes wrote:
How much work would it need to be more playable, and replayable?


That's definitely a question of taste. For me, though, it would require fairly substantial work. Most of the choices are simply too straightforward to present any real decision-making opportunities. And, for me, that's paramount in why I play games.

For others, that may not be the case and less effort would be necessary.
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Randolph Bookman
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Haven't watched the entire kickstarter video but this game felt very dice roll candyland fest to me. Can't judge yet, but based on the intro video that was the vibe I was getting.
 
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Jeff Endicott
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Good, thoughtful and informative review, but as someone who invested in this Kickstarter project, not great to hear.
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Magic Pink
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We tried this last night as well and I have to agree, there just isn't much here to excite anyone. The 8-13 year old crowd would probably like it a lot tho so if you have younger gamers who like spooky stuff it would be a good choice.
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Dan Fielding
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Played twice with 5 people. Very disappointing.

1. font on cards too small to read without a magnifying glass
2. green text on black causes eyestrain
3. red text on black causes eyestrain

4. Instructions on cards ambigious. Such as "After Exploring..." -- does this mean "at any time after" or "immediately upon" Exploring? Cards lack consistant phrasing. Nested & branching tests sometimes not clearly distinguishable.

5. In both games, one player had much more to do than the others, taking up about 1/3 of the playing time while everyone else sat around waiting.

6. In the first game a player turned into a monster very early, so its 10 to 12 attack dice easily overwhelmed everyone elses strength, since they had no buffs from cards yet.

7. I spent both games trying to reach a Discovery token. By the time my turn came around the other players had removed all the nearby tokens. In the second game I only collected 2 cards total. So very boring. Since cards give buffs, it becomes exponentially easier to collect another card & avoid losing a card to another player. So runaway leader effect.

8. Rules poorly formatted. For example, had lots of trouble figuring out how many cards you can play or discard per turn, and have in Explored status, because the rules for Discovery vs Quest cards are DIFFERENT and scattered amongst different pages and important rules buried as the last sentence in a paragraph instead of being visually highlighted in some way.. Needs a tabular summary. Should have been edited after playtest feedback from new players.

9. Being able to use a character's rather weak special ability only once is useless. Either make it powerful enough to be a one-shot, or just include a minor buff into the character card stats.

The Explorer being able to look at & re-order the top 3 tiles is particularly useless, since he won't be able to place them -- so their orientation & connection to the board is just as random as if he had not stacked them. All its good for is to put the tile having the most Discovery locations on top, so he can step onto it immediately & hope to reach them.

10. Must tiles be placed with maximum possible connectivity to the surrounding tiles? Are they placed with a random orientation, or does the player choose how to rotate it? Probably makes no difference to the outcome.

Tiles themselves are too dark. So lack of proofing before printing. Color on a monitor is not at all the same as ink on paper.

11. Some cards say to have each player roll a die -- but that's just a waste of time because the result has no effect on the individual player. All that's needed is the sum of the dice. Faster to just have one player roll all the dice, instead of having to look around the table to see all the dice results & then collect the dice again. Activity without purpose.

 
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