|Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Board Game (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Josh Derksen, Thomas M. Gofton, Dan Hoang, Aron Murch and Cameron Parkinson
I’m the one that purchases board games in our house-hold. Mrs Meeple, truth be told, would be happier with a smaller collection of well-worn favourites. As such she views every new game arriving at the door with a justifiable amount of suspicion. At a certain point running a blog like this you’re not exploring new games – you’re taking on new chores. A brand new game doesn’t glimmer with promise. It threatens to carve out a chunk of your free-time with no guarantees it’ll make it worth your while. We don’t have unplayed games on my shelves. We have procrastinated responsibilities.
Truthfully, the only reason that I wouldn’t have bought it would be that I have a prejudice when it comes to television shows being adapted to board games. I think of the mass-market dross that filled the shelves in the 80s, 90s and well into the 21st century. The Blockbusters board game. The Dragon’s Den board game. Numberwang. I think of games that were produced to fill a gap in a product branding campaign rather than because a designer had a great idea that just had to be let out. I assumed Buffy was going to be more of the same. I loved the television show. I just don’t love cash-in board games.
The good news is – it isn’t a cash in-board game! The bad news is – it’s uninspiring for other, more fundamental reasons.
Here’s the basic gist of play. You take on the role of one of the Extended Family of Scoobies. You can be Buffy, Xander, Giles or Willow as you would expect. You can also choose to be Angel or Spike if you like. Each player gets a limited pool of actions they can perform each turn. Each draws from a shared menu of abilities, but also a special Super Ability that is unique to them. Each character will also have a couple of inventory cards representing consumables. Wooden stakes, weapons, magic supplies and so on. Each of these will have some combination of additional actions they permit while you have them. They will also provide a bespoke special powers that activates if they’re discarded. If you have a wooden stake in your inventory for example you’ll kill vampires you fight rather than stun them. If you discard the stake, you’ll kill the vampire without spending one of your precious action points. Different locations in the game have different power that you can access, which makes it seem like there’s an extent to which you need to defend and optimise your control of areas to accomplish the tasks. It’s a solid pitch.
Your job in the game is to gather up the items that will let you make an attempt at the monster of the week. Defeating each monster of the week will reveal a plot point, and when you’ve gotten enough of those you reveal the big bad that serves as the boss battle for the game. As each plot point is revealed, new things happen– escalations of consequence that force you to undertake increasingly difficult challenges that will only end when you or the boss is dead. Once you defeat the big bad, Sunnydale is safe – or at least as safe as a cursed city built on a Hellmouth can possibly be. I grew up in a Dundee housing estate, so I can sympathise a bit there.
So, to begin with it’s a lot of searching areas. A lot of fighting vampires and demons, And a lot of hoping to get the one-two punch combo of items in the hand of a single character so you can make an attempt to deal with the mid-level baddies. Things escalate though every round because when anyone uses their special action they’ll draw an event card from the deck and that will seed enemies and townies through the area. At the end of the round, all those baddies will converge on the civilians and if one of your gang isn’t there to prevent it, the death will get registered on the apocalypse tracker that is counting down to the end of the world. You’re all constantly pulled in several different directions at a time – pest control, protecting the weak, and trying to make some progress towards the end-goal.
Vampires and demons left unchallenged will start to mass up, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself with a game state that looks like someone crossbred Pandemic and Fury of Dracula. The epidemiology of villainy shares a lot of features with the Matt Leacock classics, although it lacks the exploding ‘oh shit’ moments where an epidemic meets a thin reshuffle deck. However, occasionally the game will throw you its own moments of minor panic as it spawns a townie in an area thick with the undead and then rings a metaphorical dinner bell.
It’s a solid design, attached to an appropriate premise. Unfortunately, threaded into this are some of the most frustrating interlinking game systems that I have seen for a long time. It feels like it has design sensibilities that were out-dated even ten years ago and it just doesn’t really fly in this day and age.
Here’s one of them. Each monster of the week has a unique thing they do during play to add complications to the game, and as such you’ll want them to be dealt with swiftly. Each has a specific combination of items that let you make an attempt to get rid of it. Parts of the board give you a chance to get specific items but you can search in any area to find something random. That’s okay – it gives the choice to sacrifice position and time in exchange for a guaranteed item that you need. You can get magic supplies at the Magic Box, and that makes sense. You can get garlic at Glorificus’ Mansion and that’s… okay, whatever. If you don’t want to risk losing your foothold in an important area of the board then you can just hope the draw deck is kind and trust to fate. That’s a meaningful choice.
But when you do actually face the big bad, you draw a card from the event deck in the hope it shows one of the monster-specific glyphs you need to actually succeed in the challenge. If it doesn’t, you lose the items and the big bad is unaffected. It’s no more aggravating in theory than rolling a dice, but you can’t mask the fact that this brings a massive dose of ‘Lol, draw better cards’ into the design space of play and it’s incompatible with how the rest of the game plays. These ‘event checks’ are needed for a number of things and every time it happens it feels like someone left a placeholder mechanism in the rule-book and forgot to replace it with something that is actually good.
One bad mechanism doesn’t necessarily destroy a game though – there are plenty of games I enjoy despite some problematic elements in their design. The big crack in the design here is in the consequences attached to this design element. It makes progress through the scenario erratic and uncontrollable. You can fail several times in a row, each loss forcing you back into the cycle of ‘search for items’, ‘get them in one player’s hand’, ‘send them off to the big bad’.
And even that’s not necessarily enough to destroy a game. If that cycle of activity was inherently enjoyable then it wouldn’t be that big a deal. The real problem with this is that the repetition of core game loop increasingly reveals just how unsatisfying all of the game systems are. It’s a combination of staid predictability of the baddies and a stochastic inconvenience of the plot related-enemies. It forces your attention to return, again and again, to a part of the game that might have been able to survive shallower exposure. The more you come to it though, the rougher the game appears. The more you have to grind away at the board, the less fun you seem to be having. That’s not an epiphany a designer should be looking to make inevitable.
If you were more focused on progressing the quest your attention might not linger on the core game mechanisms. One of the reasons XCOM succeeds as a game is that it doesn’t give you a lot of time to dwell on what’s actually happening. It manages to be fun through an act of misdirected attention. Don’t look at what I’m doing with my left hand, follow the right hand. Buffy doesn’t accomplish that though – it seems perversely determined to make sure you understand its fractured gameplay. It clamps your eyes open and forces you to observe until you understand. A kind of ludicovico technique.
And the knowledge when you understand is devastating – nothing you do in Buffy is really all that interesting. The board is so open in terms of where players and baddies can move that there’s nothing equivalent to a critical choke-point that needs defended. Thus no benefit to come from deeply considering the distribution of enemies, and thus little impact of position. The actions and special effects that trigger at each location are relatively flavourful but not particularly worthwhile except when you’re specifically looking for a particular item. In those cases all they do is serve as a way to limit some of the crushing randomness of drawing items from the deck. Fighting and moving is dictated not by strategic thinking but by immediate necessity. More often than not decisions are made based on physical throughput rather than any deeper consideration. You save the townie at Angelus’ Mansion because the one at Sunnydale High requires one more action than you can’t afford. It’s like being a super-hero working entirely from a spreadsheet of their budget.
It’s a shame because a lot of Buffy is done relatively well. The plot related systems are interesting. They’re also filled with a kind of unreached potential because you spend so much time searching and tidying up that you never really get to enjoy the unfolding narrative. It doesn’t build up to a climax – the punctuated frustration of advancement just has the effect of stretching out the excitement so that it’s a thin, unsatisfying gruel.
Fundamentally the game of Buffy is boring, and it’s boring because it has sacrificed any meaningful sense of pacing and escalation. You’re fighting a series of timers every round but none of them work to give you any moment of horror or alarm. I mentioned Pandemic earlier in the review and it’s relevant here too… there is no equivalent in Buffy where you draw an epidemic card and get away with minimal problems only to draw another the next round. Things get worse in a linear fashion in Buffy, they never reach a crescendo. If you are stuck in impossible scenario it’s because you permitted that to creep up on you. Big moments are never thrust your way. If the Buffy board game were a season of the show, it would be one made up of nothing but filler episodes.
In our recent review of Discworld: Ankh Morpork I talked a bit about the importance of honouring a theme, and in the Buffy board game I think we have a great counter-example. There is so much from the show that could have been incorporated here, even if only to leaven the experience with a bit of thematic set dressing. Simply changing the townies to be bit-characters from the series rather than faceless generics would have been great. A little bit of description to brighten up the event decks would have been lovely. It’s a game based entirely on recognition of the source material, but only employs it sparsely. It seems borderline reluctant to actually show off much of the lore behind the episodes. You won’t be surprised to know then that there’s even less effort shown with regard to considering how that material should work in a context. Sure, Buffy fights well and Willow can do magic. That’s not exactly digging deep to find an application of intellectual property to game mechanisms. That’s like what happens when you take the original design from an idle post-it note and say ‘Screw it, that’ll do’.
Worse, it feels like a game that hasn’t realised that games about a franchise should be about the franchise and not about the fandom. All the framings in Buffy are intensely targeted to the jargon and language of the fanbase, rather than the language and stylings of the show. The ‘big bad’, the ‘monster of the week’, the ‘townies’. It’s all part of the metatextual terminology of the fans and I find that off-putting. Ironically, this could have been a fantastic feature of the game because the television show was nothing if not knowing. It understood the ridiculousness of some of its conceits and played with them. It was self-aware of its own tropes and not afraid to make fun of them. It was cheerfully irreverent of its own mythology and that was one its most genuinely endearing elements. Here we have that laudable feature, but applied in entirely the wrong direction. It’s not fan service. It’s fan fan service. It’s one level too far removed from what would make this element extraordinarily effective. It’s bit like a Buffy game designed by a Pandemic fan that only knew the show through the conventions of its wiki.
I loved the television show. And there are bits of the design of the Buffy board game that demonstrate that this wasn’t a simple cash-in or idle grab for some low-hanging IP. There’s some cleverness in here and even some awareness of how to apply a theme well. It’s all just directed in the wrong ways and in the wrong contexts. A game like this should either lean into to its chaos or lean away. A game about mathematically balancing the bandwidth of your capability is absolutely okay. It becomes a problem when a coin-flip can derail that process entirely. Likewise a game about running around and rolling dice can be perfectly good. But the consequences of bad luck better be something either trivial or possible to mitigate with good play. Buffy: The Board Game doesn’t seem to be willing to make a stand on which kind of game it wants to be and the end result is something that I can’t recommend to anyone. I can’t even recommend it to Buffy fans, unless their entire understanding of the show is to be found in the fandom.com comment sections.