Table of Contents
|Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Board Game (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Josh Derksen, Thomas M. Gofton, Dan Hoang, Aron Murch and Cameron Parkinson
The Buffy board game wasn’t much of a hit with us here at Meeple Like Us. All in all we’d rather just watch the DVDs, really. The game had a couple of major problems. The inconsistent design that liberally mixed heavy randomness with algorithmic optimisation undercut its effectiveness as a strategic experience. The theme seemed more like it was aimed at devotees of the Buffy wiki more than anyone else. That meant that it didn’t really hit the mark as a piece of fan service either. It’s a shame – it’s one of the few games about which Mrs Meeple was actually enthusiastic enough to make a special request. I would have liked it to have been better. Two stars in our review.
That doesn’t mean it’s dead and buried though. It can still rise if it can make a strong pitch as a game with meaningful accessibility credentials. I have my wooden stake handy as I sit by its coffin. I’ll tell you one way or another if I have to use it.
We can start off with good news here. Nothing in the game uses colour as its primary channel of information.
Cards make heavy use of icons and text. The board uses art and text. The standees are differentiated primarily by the characters, and each of the different tokens is adorned with descriptions.
We’ll strongly recommend Buffy in this category.
The board is quite large but only made up of a relatively small number of locations. There will be vampires, zombies and townies strewn around these. There’s a lot of evaluation that goes into knowing where you need to be and when, and in what sequence actions should be triggered in order to meet the needs of the group. However, since Buffy is a co-operative game a lot of the issues we tend to encounter here are mitigated by the fact nobody is trying to screw over anyone else.
Playing with open information is almost certainly going to empower those that are keen to quarterback, but as I’ve said in previous accessibility teardowns – what’s unforgivable behaviour in some circumstances might be just the thing to move an inaccessible game into accessibility. Here, discussion at the table can help with strategizing and prioritising. Extensive table talk and compromise would be a natural part of the game provided visually impaired players are able to contribute to decision making and to the eventual plan undertaken.
Each player has a standee which gives a way to tell the difference between Scoobies and other characters. However, individual Scoobies cannot be told apart by touch – only that a player character is to be found in a particular region of the board. The layout of the board should eventually become familiar because it never changes, and the effects of each of the locations are not especially complex. Some reminders will likely be required but those can be built into the strategy discussion.
Each player will have a small number of cards representing inventory and more powerful artefacts. Most of these have straight-forward effects, although this information is presented only textually. There is a very small set of standard items, but the artefacts are far more varied and idiosyncratic.
Each character has a set of action tokens they flip over to indicate when they are spent, but it’s easy enough to replace this with a stack that gets smaller as actions are triggered. There are only a small number of actions between which a player need choose, and what these are is common between characters. Only the specific special ability is unique to a given player board. That aids in learnability for a character and also in transferring the knowledge about how a character plays to another. There’s not a massive amount that would need memorized to be effective in any role.
Monster of the week cards, and Big Bad plot cards, often come with relatively complex text. Again this can be managed by the table-talk provided there is at least one player without visual impairments. Otherwise, the text is dense, small, and often poorly contrasted. If support at the table is available, Buffy is likely to be playable. If not, it probably isn’t.
We’ll tentatively recommend Buffy in this category.
Again, the focus on co-op play is a major boon here, but there are still concerns. Quarterbacking is a great accessibility aid, but it does require that players are able to meaningfully contribute to a discussion for it to be fun for players. Buffy does well in this category in that it doesn’t stress numeracy in its planning phases, and a lot of gameplay intention can be expressed thematically. ‘I want to go there and beat up that vampire’ converts into two or more actions without stressing the mechanisms. The game state becomes increasingly complex as time goes by and plot cards are revealed. Every new monster of the week introduces new wrinkles in the gameplay.
Game flow is consistent but the way the various parts of the game will come together varies as plots, big bads and monsters intermesh. Numeracy, where it comes in, is mostly in the probability of drawing particular glyphs in a skill challenge and there are a few interesting elements here in the design. The first is that there are only three kinds of glyphs and most challenges will give you two that will suffice for a success. That normalises the probability to about two thirds chance of drawing the symbol you need. The second element is that it largely maintains that probability because you are constantly shuffling discards back into the deck. That’s really neat because it eliminates the need for players to remember the composition of a discard deck and modulate draw probability accordingly.
Unfortunately, the game heavily stresses literacy and sometimes in complex ways. Every monster of the week will come with a pile of special effects and rules for how it changes the game. Big bad cards similarly have ways in which they impact on the rules and it might be expressed in a relatively dense paragraph of text. The fact that the table can help with this is important, but understanding the sometimes complicated rule changes and their implications can be a challenge even with support.
I like the way the game offers flippable action tokens for handling what characters can do, because it changes an otherwise ‘bucketed’ AP system into something tactile. You perform an action, you flip its token – that not only simplifies the accounting of the game it also lets you see at a glance who has acted, who is left to act, and who still has their super move to execute. Synergy of game systems is not heavily expressed in the rule-set, but there is an expectation of a certain degree of synergy of characters. You want them to be working together to optimal purposes and that sometimes means a degree of inter-character management of location, objectives and inventory. A well-placed group will be more effective than one where everyone is trying to do everything and this may require players consider where their skills are best used. There aren’t complicated chains of this though. You’re never in a position where, for example, Angel throws Willow into a room so she can do an AoE on the vampires so she can free up Buffy to kill the demon. Instead it’s more on the level of ‘You should move to there because you have a weapon and I don’t’.
We tentatively recommend Buffy for those with fluid intelligence impairments because it’s not quite as hard-core a puzzle as Pandemic can be but still has a lot of co-op features that make it all tractable. We recommend the game for those with memory impairments alone, largely because of the probability system in the deck and the fact there’s no need for secret information in play.
As is often the case in co-op games you all win together or you all lose together. The cause of success and failure in Buffy is hard to pinpoint because when things are bad it’s because the group as a whole let them get bad. That means nobody can point to a particular player and, fairly, say ‘this is all your fault’. That’s great.
What’s less great is that probability system that handles event checks. It can be the work of several turns to get the necessary items and move someone with them to the right location on the board to issue a challenge to a monster of the week. It’s galling in those circumstances to then draw a card that results in the items being discarded and knowing you need to do it all again. If the hand limits were not quite so severe it would be easier – you could either stockpile items for multiple attempts or be comforted by the fact that when you finally do get rid of the baddie you’ll likely have the components for the next too. It doesn’t work like that though – essentially approximately 33% of the time you challenge you’ll just stretch out the game experience and it’s very frustrating.
Buffy is a challenging game and will become more challenging as time goes on, but the challenge curve is linear. It gets gradually harder rather than rapidly escalating to a point of unfixable horror like you see in Pandemic. I’m not 100% convinced that’s a more emotionally accessible design – I think it probably comes down to individual preferences. Would you rather be instantly killed by a tiger bite or slowly asphyxiated by a python? If Pandemic is the former, Buffy is the latter. It makes the challenge more tractable but at the cost of potentially putting you in the position where you have failed a few turns before you realise it.
We’ll recommend Buffy in this category – if Pandemic was a bit too cruel for your liking you might find Buffy a more appropriate alternative.
There’s a lot of moving around of tokens, standees, flipping over action indicators and shuffling of the event deck. I’d be pretty critical of it as a design if it weren’t for the fact that as a co-operative game it encourages a certain kind of collegiality. For example, the board is skewed with the locations being clustered towards the top which would mean someone would have to reach over to move a piece opposite them. With a group mindset it’s easier to say ‘I’ll handle the apocalypse track’ and let manipulation of the rest be a table responsibility. However, that’s not without cost – there will be a lot of baddies on the board as the game goes on and it’s a lot easier and quicker if everyone can help action their movement rules. Not a deal-breaker, but certainly something that will impact on flow.
If players cannot physically manipulate the board, it supports easy verbalisation. The movement of non-player characters is algorithmic with only a few opportunities to change it. One of those for example is the Hellmouth where a player can move a baddie into an adjacent location. In those circumstances an indication will need to be made as to which baddie and which location.
Luckily the game has tokens that allow for full differentiation. Vampires and demons can either be stunned or awake and baddies of a particular class are indistinguishable from others aside from that. ‘Move the vampire from the Hellmouth into Sunnydale High’ will work regardless of which awake vampire is meant. ‘Move the stunned vampire’ will handle ambiguity otherwise.
Players will have a hand of cards, but these can be played open. They will also have a character sheet that comes with flippable tokens but alternate systems of tracking this are feasible if flipping will be awkward.
We’ll recommend Buffy in this category.
I don’t even know any more. I would have once said that Buffy was a wonderful example of the re-appropriation of a misogynist trope – that it’s great to see a scenario where the pretty girl is the one rescuing everyone else. But Joss Whedon has revealed a lot of his true nature over the past few years and it’s correspondingly difficult to be too enthusiastic about the authenticity of the feminism reflected in his work. This part is best left up to the views of each individual reader.
For gender balance, Buffy is of course the absolute star of the show but she’s not really the star of the game beyond the box. Her character is not meaningfully more effective than others except in toe-to-toe combat and even then Willow (if possessing magical supplies) is an equal. Buffy and Willow are the only two women Scoobies, which is a shame given how Anya and Tara would have made for just as convincing characters as Angel and Spike, even if they aren’t quite as popular. There’s no Cordelia, no Faith. No Kendra. Why not draw in characters from Angel? Where’s Winifred Burke? There are a lot more women in the game’s expansion pack but I am very critical of diversity that you have to pay for as a bolt in.
I get why the focus is where it is – fan service and all. It seems though like it would have been pretty simple to offer others that had the same action profile on the back-side of the character cards – instead you get full bleed art. Nice, but not representative.
Of the Big Bads these are linked to the seasons of the TV show and as such they likewise reflect a bias towards men. Only Glorificus is a woman and the others are male (at least originally – it’s hard to say what the Mayor becomes). The framing of Spike as a Scoobie means that he can’t take his position as half of the Spike and Druscilla villain combo, which is a shame – that again is held over for the expansion. Even the monster of the week deck has only Darla in there as a woman enemy when there are so many equally valid possibilities. An effort was made to mine the source material for a more balanced set, but only if you’re willing to pay the extra cash for a content pack. That’s not an approach of which I have been complimentary in the past.
The Buffy board game has an RRP of approximately £30 and that’s pretty reasonable. If you like it more than I do, there’s a fair amount of replayability in there and the nature of the game means that there’s room for experimentation with Big Bads and characters. Not a huge amount, mind – but some.
We’ll tentatively recommend Buffy in this category.
There will likely be a lot of communication during play as players plot and strategise how to deal with the board state. This will involve the use of unusual language but won’t otherwise be overly complex since in the end the tools available to manage said state are very straightforward. ‘Move here. Fight. Search’. The complexity of this is increased by the non-standard vocabulary but there are plenty of ways to reduce that burden.
Literacy is more of an issue as this is a constant requirement of play, and in contexts where players don’t have a shared language this is likely to be a deal-breaking problem. Crib-sheets or other compensations will not be at all appropriate given the amount of both required.
We don’t recommend Buffy in this category.
The nature of a co-op game is that they tend to be quite resilient to intersectional inaccessibilities because the burden of interactivity in play can be allocated where it is most easily handled. I would be more critical though of the game’s accessibility in the event that a visual impairment intersected with a memory impairment because of how much additional burden that would put on comprehending game state. Aside from that, I’m not sure there are any specific accessibility intersections that aren’t already adequately covered by the teardown text.
Buffy as a game tends to drag on. There’s a fixed timer that you need to beat but there are tools for bringing it back into manageability. Dealing with the monster of the week though is a metaphorical roll of the dice and in my view it adds precisely nothing except padding to the game. It makes it a grind, and if you wanted to work on the assumption that an attempt on a big bad always succeeds I certainly wouldn’t give you any side-eye. That would be a good way to add a degree of predictability to the play-time that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, and that in itself would be an important factor in addressing issues of discomfort or distress at the table.
Given this is a co-operative game it’s also quite flexible when it comes to players dropping in and out – someone can simply action their characters on their behalf.
Co-operative games tend to get an uplift in every category we cover in a teardown. Working together is basically what accessibility is all about, and when players can focus interaction emphasis where it’s most easily addressed it has a major positive impact. In that respect, Buffy does reasonably well in a range of categories that likely wouldn’t have been the case in a competitive game.
However, participation in making strategy is a core prerequisite of quarterbacking when envisaged as an accessibility aid rather than a flaw of group dynamics. That means that players need to be able to conceptualise sensible suggestions and articulate how to plan them out. That’s why Buffy suffers somewhat in the fluid intelligence and communication categories. The level of literacy required to understand the nuances of monster interactions is just enough to make them problematic.
We gave Buffy two stars in our review. It’s just… I never really felt at all interested at any point when playing. During our third game, Mrs Meeple decided about half way through that she’d had quite enough and I was left playing it out to its conclusion as a solo exercise. That’s not something that happens often – in a shorter game, or one with a more predictable end-point, that might not have been the case.
Make of that whatever you will.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
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