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Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition Review

The original Fury of Dracula was a seminal game of my childhood. Whisked off the shelf as a curio on a trip to get some gaming miniatures, it quickly became a staple. Van Helsing and his pupils spent hours sweeping Europe, seeking for the Count. Instead they often found feral wolves and savage gypsies as the vampire secretly spun his wicked web of intrigue across the continent.

That copy is tattered now, worn down by love. The chits are soft at the edges, the box battered and the figure of Dr. Seward snapped off at the knees. He still struggled manfully after his quarry, those paired feet creeping into my adult years like the memory of childhood sins. Yet a little of the magic had gone. The game could be frustratingly random, and it needed an aggressive Dracula player to make it work.

A second edition fixed those problems at the cost of bloated rules and play time. It wasn’t a worthy trade off. Worse, the balance had shifted toward the hunters. Dracula was constrained by bizarre rules that made it hard for him to double back on himself, so the hunters had an easier time to box him in. He didn’t seem much of a Prince of Darkness when he couldn’t even cross his own trail to escape.

Here, now, is a third edition. The box cover might a laughable vampire Liberace but I had such hopes for the contents. Somewhere in the fog between the those two flawed editions was an incredible game. A game that smoothly wove deduction and strategy with thrills and theme. I knew that game existed, but I wasn’t sure there was a designer on the planet who could tease it out.

Inside the box, disappointment. There was still a location deck. There was still a six-card trail. Yet promise gleamed at the bottom of the card stack in the form of special power cards. There are several ways now for the Count to confuse his pursuers by moving twice or not moving at all. The best is Misdirect, a new card that not only lets Dracula double back but removes a link in the trail. Many unsuspecting hunters can stumble in the resulting hole in the chain of clues.

This is just the start. It seems that the developers thought the best way to get the best of both previous editions was to re-arm Dracula. Not with greater strength or fangs but with the powers of lies and obfuscation. At each place he visits, Dracula can place an encounter. Some of these are there to hurt the hunters but others exist to thwart or bamboozle them. They can lose turns, get moved away, prevented from searching the town for vampires. One, if allowed to “mature” by spending six turns on the board, even clears out half the card trail, leaving the hunters chasing after ghosts.

I would never have thought that adding misinformation was the way forward for this game. But it works. It works brilliantly. The hunters are grasping at endless tendrils of data with a variety of tools and cards to help them get more. Everything they need is there, but piecing it together demands method and skill. So much so that having one player run all four hunters can be too much to handle, remembering who found what, where. The Count meanwhile is doing everything in his diabolical power to muddy the waters.

Combat has had a major overhaul. Hunters now only fight vampires and Dracula himself. This allows the combat system to be boiled down to simple icon matching with a few special effects. It’s crude but effective, allowing a balance of luck, bluff and skill without slowing down the game. Facing a vampire at night is a stream of hot terror, cards flashing past and damage accumulating at lightning speed.

Dracula felt too weak in the previous edition. Initially, it felt like he’d gone too far the other way in this one. With his newfound combat prowess and slippery box of tricks he ruled our first games like the dark prince he ought to be. It seemed unbalanced, frustrating for the hunters. But it’s a testament to the skill of this design that we wanted to keep searching. Not just for Dracula, but for a way to beat him.

When we found some, it revealed yet more layers of excellence to the game. Dracula can coast against unskilled hunters. They, in turn, have the harder time of it, and never get an easy win. They have to learn to behave like pawns in a chess game. As a group, they can triumph, but only by making individual sacrifices when needed.

When they learn this, games become agonisingly tight. By the end Dracula will have been lost and found repeatedly and Europe will be awash in the blood of hunters. Although the focus seems to have moved away from action to deduction, this edition might actually be the most brutal of the three.

The production evokes a fine sense of gothic grandeur. Yet the real period feel comes from the way that the mechanics evoke the characters of hunters and Dracula alike. The former are puritans, calculating efficiencies, working through probabilities, forming plans to ensnare their quarry. The latter is the very devil. A terrible, charismatic liar who must use all their powers of cunning, bluff and misdirection to put his pursuers off the scent.

This version of the Fury of Dracula is a triumph. It’s become something greater than the sum of its previous editions. Where one was short and the other long, this walks a satisfying line between. Where one was cast as a hunt and the other a chase this can be both. Where one was seen as a combat game and the other a deduction title this can be both. And as the game captures your imagination like the mesmeric eye of the vampire, you can be sure of enough repeat plays to see it in every one of its many guises.

Specter Ops Review

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Hidden movement is the most under-used mechanic in all of board gaming. You can count the quality titles that use it on the fingers of one hand. Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel, Scotland Yard, Nuns on the Run and that’s about your lot.

Specter Ops still does’t take us on to the second hand. But it expands the genre with a style and energy that has to be played to be appreciated.

Like many of these games, it’s very simple. One player is an agent, who moves around the board in secret trying to sabotage three of four randomly-determined squares. The others are hunters, enhanced humanoids whose mission it to catch and kill the agent.

The hunters move on the board, the agent records theirs on a paper pad so you can check for cheating. Whenever a hunter ends their turn with a straight line of sight to the agent, the agent figure joins them on the board until it can hide again. If the agent moves across a hunter’s vision, they place a marker to show where.

That’s pretty much it. The game has an age rating of eight plus on the side of the box. It’s not lying. It’ll even play to completion in about an hour. You might imagine that such a simple framework couldn’t support anything worthwhile. You’d be very wrong.

Specter Ops manages to nail an aspect of hidden movement that’s too often overlooked: deduction. The hunters have to use an unholy combination of logic, strategy and intuition to pin down the agent. It’s rare they can be certain where the agent is, and equally rare that they have no clue. There’s plenty of opportunity for bluff and counter-bluff. Trying to second guess the agent player’s mind could pin her down or let her escape into the shadows.

“We saw her there, so now she can be here or here, unless this or that in which case …”

Almost every turn both sides feel like they’re inches away from victory or disaster. The agent can be shivering behind a barrel as hunters stalk past. The hunters can get a sudden unexpected flash of their quarry and be away in full cry.

Unlikely as it may seem, the main arbiter of all this wonder and excitement is the board itself. It’s a tricksy, labyrinthine thing with just enough space to rush around and just enough corners to hide behind. That players can move diagonally yet only see in straight lines facilitates a strange sense of open claustrophobia.

The board is aided and abetted by a handful of special abilities. There’s a small selection of hunter and agent characters, each with specific powers. One agent is hard to kill, for instance, while one hunter has psychic powers that can reveal limited information about the agent. The agent also gets a choice of limited-use equipment to help them, like a flash grenade that blinds hunters for a turn.

These extras add a lot of flavour, strategy and replayability to the game without cluttering up the rules. They do also introduce a small problem, though. To play effectively, hunters need to know upfront about what all them can do. It’s an annoying but minor speed bump in the game’s shallow learning curve.

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There will be inevitable comparisons with the existing dark prince of hidden movement, Fury of Dracula. The super-simple rules framework of Specter Ops means it can’t compete on grand narrative or replay value. For sheer atmosphere, however, it’s a dead heat. Moving plastic over cardboard feels scarily close to creeping through the shadows, potential danger at every turn.

The game is a chameleon, effortlessly slipping between a hunt, a chase, a little tactical combat. And back again as the agent is lost and found in the wandering alleys of the board.

The hunters are actually faster and more flexible than the agent because they have access to a car. This might seem odd at first but it’s a big part of what makes the game work. To succeed, the agent needs to rely on their information advantage, and little else. Powers and equipment help in case of slip-ups or lucky hunter guesses, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.

The game was clearly designed for three: one agent and two hunters. It works well enough with two, leaving both hunters in the hands of a single player. Adding in a fourth player means three hunters and a bunch of free power upgrades for the agent, which seem to balance out.

A fifth player means that one of the hunters gets to be a traitor, secretly working with the agent. This is either going to be the best or worst variant of the game, depending or your taste. It can lead to a bunch of confusing rule anomalies, which is a bit annoying. On the other hand, it pushes the fear and paranoia in the game through the roof.

I know which I think is the better side of that trade off.

Specter Ops is a clean distillation of everything that makes hidden movement so compelling. Yet it still retains strategy, deduction and excitement. Tense, slippery and with a real sense of emergent theme, it’s a heady brew indeed.