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Reviews - A Touch of Evil
 
by Lee Valentine


A Touch of Evil cover

A Touch of Evil

Published by Flying Frog Productions
Designed by Jason C. Hill
2-8 players
$49.95

I'm a fan of Flying Frog Production's zombie game Last Night on Earth which I have previously reviewed here. So, I was eager to try out the Frog's latest creation, A Touch of Evil (ATOE), designer Jason C. Hill's second major release. ATOE is a board game for 2-8 players, ages 12 and up. It's a Gothic horror-style game set in the fictional Colonial era American village of Shadowbrook. If you think of the Washington Irving tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (and, in particular the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow) then you are on the right track.

In ATOE, each player takes on the role of a monster hunter or investigator who is new to Shadowbrook and has come to investigate a series of untimely deaths and strange events. The characters each have a couple of special abilities unique to them, and like a simplified role-playing game, each features four attribute scores: Spirit (representing a character's ability to interact with the spirit world and stand up to supernatural fears), Cunning (representing problem solving and guile), Combat (representing a character's skill in ranged and melee combat), and Honor (representing a character's social status and his courage when facing most earthly fears). While characters do not officially start out with equipment of any kind, some of the attribute scores and special abilities obviously represent items, animals, allies, etc. which are intrinsic to the character and which cannot be readily removed from the character during game play.

Game Overview
The game is played on a board which represents a figure-eight-shaped map of the main roads and sites in Shadowbrook. At the center of the figure-eight is the village center and town hall. Town hall is the space where most characters start play.

At its heart, ATOE is a game of exploration and combat where characters travel the board using a d6-based roll-and-move mechanic. Characters interact with the spaces that they land on. There are three basic types of spaces in the game: empty road spaces, village center spaces which allow a player to draw an Event card and then optionally use a special power on the board, and four other sites of interest: the Manor, the Windmill, the Abandoned Keep, and the Olde Woods. Each of these four sites has a customized deck of items and allies that characters can collect, and frequent encounters which will test a character's mettle.

Characters travel around the board trying to gather items and allies that may be useful in their investigation or to aid them in their final Showdown with "the Villain". There are four Villains that come with the game: the Vampire, the Scarecrow, the Werewolf, and the Spectral Horseman (read "headless horseman"). Each Villain has a variety of special abilities which will harass the characters throughout the game or, more commonly, which serve to give them special powers in combats with the characters. Each Villain is strongly themed. For example, the Scarecrow is an evil, animated construct with the power to control swarms and flocks of creatures, including locust swarms and murders of crows. His goal is to take over Shadowbrook by turning it into the Colonial era equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. A fifth villain, the Delion Dryad, was released online as a free PDF web extra for fans.

Each Villain is served by a customized set of Minions who will harry our intrepid monster hunters throughout the course of the game. For instance, when the Spectral Horseman is not out collecting heads and the souls of the fallen, ghostly soldiers and spectral hell hounds haunt Shadowbrook. When a character encounters most types of minions, combat immediately ensues. Like an RPG, ATOE has a basic task resolution mechanic used to make attribute rolls and to engage in combats. ATOE uses a d6-based dice pool system, where a number of dice equal to a given attribute score (usually Combat in hand-to-hand combat) plus any modifiers is rolled. Different challenges have different difficulties, but typically the target number is 5, and so every 5 or 6 rolled is one success (in an attribute test) or a hit (in combat).

Characters have a number of hit points, or Wounds, that they can sustain in the game before they are knocked out (generally 2-4 before adding items and enhancements). When a character has taken his full allotment of Wounds, he is knocked out and sent to town hall to recuperate, skipping the rest of his turn (which usually means he doesn't encounter the underlying board space the minion was protecting). Combat is very dangerous in ATOE, because there is typically no defensive roll. If your Combat score including enhancements is eight and you are facing a Combat three Minion, he will damage you just as readily as if your Combat score was a 1. Some characters can shrug off wounds, but most can't and eventually need to be healed at the village's doctor's office. Thankfully, though, our heroes are never killed in combat, only KO'd for part of a turn, so all the players that started the game will finish the game playing the same characters (unlike the more grisly Last Night on Earth, where characters are so much fodder and players are sometimes forced to draft a new character to continue play).

When characters aren't busy collecting items and allies they are busy picking up leads and collecting points of Investigation. Investigation is the common currency of the game. It is used to pay for a variety of in-game effects and also doubles as money to buy items from the store at the village's Blacksmith shop. Many cards and in-game effects leave Investigation tokens on the board to be collected by any character that lands on the Investigation and can make a successful Spirit or Cunning check. Investigation is also commonly handed out in many of the encounters at the sites of interest in the four corners of the board. Finally, Heroes gain Investigation from killing off Minions of the Villain. If a player accumulates enough Investigation his character may acquire a musket with silver bullets (for the Combat specialists in the game) or items like the "Tools of Science" which allow a character to use his Cunning score in fights instead of his Combat score. I like this latter option, as it allows for nominally non-combatants like Johnny Depp's inspector character in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.

The game revolves around a series of growing investigations, combats, and attempts to "buff up" one's character. Eventually a player is ready to have his character enter a Showdown with the villain. To start the Showdown a player must first purchase a Lair card from the Lair deck; an Investigation cost is paid and one is drawn at random. The Lair deck is an assortment of cards featuring all the named locations on the board. Each Lair card also provides special rules that will concern the Showdown and a fixed cost in Investigation that must be paid to start the Showdown (this cost is in addition to the cost to purchase the Lair card itself). Lair cards have a variable cost to draw them. Early in the game, the cost is typically 12, far too high for characters to initially afford. Late in the game, the Investigation cost to purchase a Lair goes all the way down to one point. Purchase your Lair, go to the space listed on the Lair cost, pay the fixed Showdown cost listed on your Lair card, and prepare to fight. Did I mention that you should pray a little too? Why? While the game has a cooperative mode of play, the default mode of play is competitive. This competition does not come in the form of players thieving from each other or fighting each other's Heroes. Instead, many of the Event cards that can be collected in the town center and some outlying roads spaces on the board allow players to buff up the villain, allow the villain to escape (canceling the showdown), or force the hero to drop a much needed item at an inopportune moment.

While your fellow players are out to get you in the competitive game mode, your hero may find some Showdown help from the Town Elders. At the beginning of the game six cards representing prominent town elders are dealt to the table, and each is dealt a Secrets card. You can bring up to two Town Elders to the Showdown with you, and they will grant you special powers in the Showdown if you win them over. But be careful and pay some Investigation early in the game to snoop on the Secrets of those Town Elders because some of them may actually be Evil Elders, either slavish servants of the Villain or in control of the Villain himself. Special rules allow your fellow players to force the Evil Elders to unmask themselves and join the Villain during the Showdown. As if fighting the Villain alone wasn't bad enough, now he has help.

The tension and pressure in the game are kept up through a time limit, established by a combination of two mechanisms in the game: the Mystery deck and the Shadow Track. At the end of each Game Round (one turn for each player), a card is drawn from the Mystery deck. Typically this will generate effects which kill a town elder, put a minion on the board, buff the villain permanently, or create an environmental condition which will haze the players for the remainder of the game. Commonly, the Mystery deck will also generate effects which move the Shadow Track toward Darkness. The Shadow Track starts at 20 and when it is driven to 0, metaphysical Darkness has fallen over the town and the Villain wins the day. In the competitive mode of play there is little difference for the Heroes, other than the cost to purchase Lair cards, whether the Shadow Track is on 20 or 1. In the cooperative game, the Villain gets increasingly more powerful as the Shadow Track heads toward Darkness. In my experience, the Shadow Track makes the game last 60 minutes to 2.5 hours.

Rulebook
The rulebook itself is a gorgeous glossy, full-color 28-page saddle-stitched booklet. It's close to 8.5" x 11". If I have anything really negative to say about the game, it is the rulebook's structure and content, not its look and feel. In spite of the game having basic and advanced rules, cooperative and competitive rules, and a team play variant, there was no table of contents and, more importantly, no topical index. Given that the rulebook's organization occasionally leaves something to be desired, a detailed index would have been greatly appreciated. While the rulebook might lead you to believe otherwise, the game is easy to pick up and runs well with even one rules-familiar individual to handle the minutiae, particularly in cooperative play. Also, the game designer was not particularly tight on the wordings on some cards and even left an important rule or two out of the rulebook. This meant that I spent time online searching for an FAQ file and asking questions in a forum before I could handle all the nuances of the game - I didn't need to do this just to get the game up and running, but I had to do this to learn about less commonly occurring card interactions. ATOE is easy to house rule, so this may be less of a concern for non-rules lawyers than it was for me. Thankfully, designer Jason C. Hill maintains a strong online presence so I usually get my questions answered quickly.

I wasn't always impressed with the organization of the rulebook, but there's a lot of meat in here, including a variety of ways to play depending on the audience and number of players. While primarily intended as a competitive game, a small variety of additional rules and a simple chart turn this game into a solid cooperative game. While the rules don't mention it, one player can easily pilot two characters and play the game solo as well. Unfortunately, some of the rules additions for cooperative play do not scale well, and so the cooperative game is probably best played with 2, or at most 3, players. In competitive play I think the game could easily handle 4 players without bogging down, as the game moves along at a fairly good clip, pausing only for the occasional combat. For the game to really effectively handle 5 to 8 players, the game includes rules for team play. Teammates cooperate with each other but compete against opposing teams. I liked this variety of options to handle different numbers of players. The game also features some optional Showdown rules to increase the game's difficulty level, allowing for a lot of replay value.

The game's rules include both a basic and advanced mode of play. Primarily the differences are that in the basic mode the Villain has fewer special abilities, there are fewer types of Minions, the kinds of Minions are simplified, picking up Investigation of the board requires no attribute check in the basic game, and a few cards and effects are removed from play. While you might need the basic mode to introduce non-gamers to ATOE, my non-gaming wife dove right into the advanced game with me, without reading the rulebook, and she only had a little difficulty. Given that my wife, as a non-gamer geek, doesn't like overly-complicated games and likes ATOE, I think this speaks volumes about the overall playa

Comparisons to Arkham Horror
Readers familiar with the Fantasy Flight Games board game Arkham Horror will probably suspect based on the review thus far that much of this game is a clone of Arkham Horror. Mechanically the two are cousins, but ATOE is not a copy of Arkham Horror with the serial numbers filed off. ATOE is faster and lighter to play. I have found that if one player knows the rules for ATOE the game can easily be played in co-op mode with a couple of beginners to show them the ropes and teach them the rules on the fly. This is much more doable with ATOE than with Arkham Horror. ATOE also features cards with less text per card and often larger font sizes than Arkham Horror, making the game flow more quickly.

Creative use of artwork on cards helps to identify them after multiple plays, allowing ATOE to be played with minimal reading of cards after you get enough games under your belt. While both Arkham Horror and ATOE attempt to create a story with a strong theme, the narratives that come out of ATOE are far more coherent and have a specific cast of characters. Arkham Horror achieves that level of narrative success only with some of its smaller themed expansions.

A major difference between Arkham Horror and ATOE is the way Minions are handled. In Arkham Horror there is a huge array of random monsters that can pop up, generally wholly unrelated to the extra-dimensional world they wandered out of. They go in a big cup and are draw randomly. Their combat abilities are listed as tiny symbols on the back of the counter in a small font. In ATOE there is a specific set of themed Minion counters that are associated with the villain. You set these to one side of the table (for later use) and roll on a chart that lists both the Minion counter to put on the board and that Minion's combat statistics. While some may feel that the chart lookup is "old school", as a person with some visual impairment I felt it was much easier to read and interpret a chart (printed at about 8.5" x 5.5") that can be passed around the table than it is to scrutinize the backs of tiny counters. Also, given that the Minion encounters are less diverse and more narratively themed in ATOE, it's much easier to memorize the combat stats of the monsters in ATOE for a single session than it is in Arkham Horror.

Finally, having played Arkham Horror a couple of times, I was turned off by the lack of interesting choices that I had available to me. Frequently the strategy was obvious. When playing ATOE I feel that my decisions are more important and they are not always obvious, particularly in competitive play where timing given plays really matters a lot. This is not to say that either Arkham Horror or ATOE have enormous strategic depth. Rather I would say that Jason C. Hill, ATOE's designer, does much of what Arkham Horror intends to do (other than feature a Cthulhu Mythos theme), and does it better than Arkham does, at a lower price point, and with a game board and components that won't demand the vast table real estate that Arkham Horror demands. Arkham Horror is better in one way - it scales a bit better in cooperative play up to a larger number of players. However, as ATOE is primarily a competitive game, and has a variety of ways to play with different numbers of players, I don't think this was a serious detraction for me.

Components and Packaging
Flying Frog's games feature high quality components. ATOE is no different, with thick cards, thick counters, and glossy color printing. Unlike Last Night on Earth which had many plastic zombie miniatures, here monsters are primarily represented by high end counters and only the Heroes rate plastic miniature figures. As with Last Night on Earth, the many cards in this game each feature a nice piece of color photography of actors in genre-appropriate costumes. Some of the same actors from Last Night on Earth take on new characters in this game. There are illustrations mixed in as well, particularly on those counters featuring some of the Minions. The mix of illustration and photography in the same game was not particularly a distraction as the color palette was comparable and the photos are already heavily "Photoshopped". Some cards even combine both photos and illustrations. A lot of the photos and costumes do give the product a grade B movie feel, particularly the shots of the Nosferatu-esque Vampire. However, I didn't feel that the style for the most part detracted from the product, and I expected the style used because I own Last Night on Earth. The grade B horror theme is something of a key element of Flying Frog's trade dress at this point.

There were a few problems with the components. As with Last Night on Earth, the cards felt initially like they were shrink wrapped too soon after receiving their press coats and tended to stick together. This required me to individually hand separate cards one-by-one to play the first time and that took quite a while. However, once hand-separated, the cards looked great and shuffled reasonably well. While the production quality was high, quality control was an issue, and I had 5 or 6 factory damaged cards that I had to ask for replacements for. Once I found the right email address at Flying Frog I got quick service on replacements, much to their credit. The trim size of the replacement cards I received was very slightly different than the originals - not enough to mark them, but just enough so that I can feel the difference when I shuffle the cards.

The real star of the show here is the board itself. The board is a bit small and can become crowded with counters, but I think this is a worthy tradeoff to keep down on the table real estate it takes to play a game like this. The board looks gorgeous, is quite functional, and is trivial to navigate and memorize. It is a quad-fold board with a black gloss black. The face of the board features a golden parchment colored undertone with black ink on top. The level of detail of the board is astounding, and each area of it gets a lot of attention to detail, down to individual blades of grass, small animals, trees, and buildings.

The packaging was attractive, but had a few problems. I had the game shipped to me (I got it as a birthday present from my wife). The box lid didn't seem to take transit will, and showed up with some damage, although that may be more attributable to the shipper than to Flying Frog. One of my major complaints about the game was the size of the box - it just wasn't large enough to reasonably contain the game after I punched it out. There are hundreds of components in the game, many of them counters, and so the game counters practically beg to be separated out and stored in gripseal bags. I have a supply of those luckily, because none were supplied with the game. Once bagged, the game no longer fit back in the box well; the lid no longer closes down fully. I have purchased a 16 card promotional expansion for the game, and after purchasing even that tiny expansion the cards no longer wholly fit inside the card wells in the box. The box exterior is full color with samples of the game art on the front and sides of the box, with pictures of actual components. I think this box does a good job of selling itself and included all the relevant information I was looking for.

As with Last Night on Earth, this game features a themed soundtrack on CD to play in the background while you are playing the game. While the production values weren't exceedingly high on the CD, and while much of the instrumentals were synthesized, it was a nice addition. While there were some overly techno elements to some of the music, in general the soundtrack is a better match for this game than the one the same composer, Mary Beth Magallanes, produced for Last Night on Earth. Some of the choral vocals on here were quite spooky. While I wouldn't give the music a solid "A" overall, I'll give it an "A" for effort. Since I don't normally expect a CD of music in my games, this didn't detract from the game experience and could add to the experience for some gamers. Unfortunately the box was small enough that I had to pull the CD out to fit my bagged components back in the box.

As a point of fun trivia, take note of the Flying Frog logo on the packaging. The standard Flying Frog mascot has bird wings. The Flying Frog from Last Night on Earth was zombified. This time he has vampire bat wings.

Conclusions
I had some concerns about the size of the packaging, and particularly the clarity and completeness of the rules governing uncommon situations. However, in terms of replay value (including the obvious solo play option that goes unmentioned in the rules), I give this game very high marks. The theme is deepest in the cooperative mode of play due to the increased number of Minions on the board, and an ever-strengthening Villain.

Theme aside, as a pure game, three to five player competitive play is where the game really shines. There are limited in-game resources on the board and in the town store at the Blacksmith's shop, so in competitive play players will have to balance out "buffing up" their characters to the max with getting in on a Showdown before the competition does.

I have really enjoyed the games I have played of ATOE. Since I have gotten this game it has been in extremely heavy rotation, and the components have held up nicely. I like the fact that, unlike other story-oriented board games of its ilk, ATOE uses a CCG-style decoration of one unique picture per card that really acts as a great mnemonic aid while playing. Since I have some visual impairment, this makes it much easier to play than some other board games in my collection.

As a gamer with a non-gamer spouse, I am happy to say that this definitely passes the "will the wife play it with me" test. I've also had a good time playing this game solo in spite of it having less strategic depth as a solo game than something like Pandemic.

A Touch of Evil is the right game for a lot of different situations. If you somehow play this game to death and are looking for something more, the board even features a Crossroads space at the edge of the board to attach the upcoming Something Wicked expansion set. I like this game enough that I will definitely be picking up that expansion. I already have purchased the 14 card mini-expansion The Madness, and I will review that soon.

I hope you'll give ATOE a chance. I really enjoy the game. Compared to other narrative horror board games like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Arkham Horror, I think this simply has more replay value for less work, decreasing the play time and increasing my overall enjoyment of the game. For now, it's time to take a break from gaming to go rent and watch Sleepy Hollow again.

For Retailers
Given that Colonial Gothic has less of a built in draw to gamers than flesh-eating zombies, I don't expect A Touch of Evil to be the hot seller that Last Night on Earth was nationwide, but I think it will sell well enough. Flying Frog Productions does a great job of promoting their products online and at conventions. Some of their convention appearances even feature the costumed actors from the game.

If you run demos make sure that the person running the demo is fully familiar with the rules and, ideally, that he runs full-length games. During any given five minute span of this game there's some flavor, but not always a lot of tension. The true experience of the narrative flavor and tension that ATOE provides comes from playing the full-length game. To do a short demo, break out the components (or do a back-of-the-box demo) and talk about the overall game play. The components will really sell this game, so ideally keep a demo copy on hand.

It's easy to pitch this game. It's got a solid, interesting theme and a good look. If you handsell this to Arkham Horror fans, ATOE may not replace their mainstay Arkham game, but they might buy this game and put it into rotation in their gaming group to mix things up. Certainly pitch this to your customers who bought Last Night on Earth; while the games are very different from each other, love for the Flying Frog may help sell a few copies of this game as well.

 

Lee's ratings:
Overall: B+
Gameplay: A- (lots of ways to play, solid replay value, nice overall experience)
Rules Clarity: B (good for most things, but lacking on less common rules questions, really could use an index for first time players)
Rules Complexity: Mid-weight (particularly in co-op mode playable by one experienced player helping out a small group of novices)
Component Quality: A- (fantastic components with a few that needed replacing from the publisher)
Packaging: B- (insufficient bags, a box that's too small for bagged components)
Retailer Saleability: B (B+ if handsold to Arkham Horror and Last Night on Earth enthusiasts)

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