ACT I: A conclave of darkness
They call him Simon. By day, Simon is a regular guy. Every morning he wakes up, grabs coffee, and gets on with life. He has a job, a family, kids to take to the park. By day, there’s nothing unusual about Simon.
But Simon has a nocturnal secret. Once a week, behind shuttered windows, he quietly plots furious revolution. His tendrils have reached deep into the Council of Five, an elite gathering of the brightest minds on the planet. Two of the members are untouchable; paragons of virtue intent on a bright, glorious future for humanity. But the others? The others can be turned. A new day is coming, and it will be born in blood.
The goriest part is the comic
And that’s V-Wars for you; a game of treachery, deceit and… well, vampires. It’s based on IDW’s comic of the same name, and draws heavily on the lore of that universe. In the V-Wars world, vampires exist alongside humanity, the product of a rogue gene that lies dormant in much of the population. This has led to open political struggle. On one hand, we have the vampires; a vocal minority who see themselves as underdogs, refugees on their own planet. On the other, there are humans, terrified that they will be usurped by the newcomers. And, complicating matters, there are the Infected. These are humans who need only an encouraging bite to activate dormant vampire DNA. In this world, nobody feels safe, nobody trusts their neighbour, and civil unrest has turned the streets into a battlefield. It’s an interesting setting for a game.
In practice, V-Wars is a game of medium complexity for 3-5 players, and a typical game will take around an hour. The chaos of the universe is reflected in a hidden-role mechanic; at the beginning of the game, some players will secretly be assigned the role of incorruptible humans, and it’s their job to control the vampire menace. Depending on the number of players, others may get the role of the Infected; these start with the same agenda as humans, but can be forcibly switched to the vampire cause. Finally, there will always be one vampire. Outwardly human, the vampire secretly plots the ruination of mankind. And, in our first game, it turned out to be Simon.
ACT II: The components of chaos
A boxful of horror
As you’d expect from a big-box boardgame from a major publisher, V-Wars is simply dripping with theme. That’s not to say that the game outsteps the boundaries of its 14+ age-rating; beyond the obvious sanguinary references, the gameplay is more of a geopolitical power struggle than a full-on gorefest. Accordingly, the main component of the game is a map of the world itself. And it’s a whopper.
Make no mistake: if you buy V-Wars, you’ll need a large table to house it on. We played in a friend’s sumptuous gothic mansion and, by the time we’d set up the board, card decks and player aids, there was hardly room for the servants to squeeze past. That said, the board does a very good job of organizing the card decks that drive the main gameplay, so what could have been a messy multi-deck experience becomes a breeze to play. Less good, however, is the design of the map itself. It’s divided into regions which are finished in various shades of blood-red. So, as well as a large table, you’re going to need excellent colour vision if you’re going to get the most from this one.
Another major component comes in the form of plastic vampire and human figures which are used, Risk-style, to influence the armed struggles which break out on the board. Additionally, the players themselves are represented by beautifully-illustrated cardboard standees which scoot around the map to perform various actions. Together, these pieces are great to look at, but can easily clutter up the smaller regions by midpoint of the game. Similarly, the various card decks look great, but are printed on thin, glossy cardstock which is all too easily damaged. It’s a shame, as these minor drawbacks really do have an influence; with a tiny map redesign and slightly thicker cards, the game would be much more satisfying to play.
Rounding off the box contents are a supply of good-quality tokens, a prequel edition of the V-Wars comic, and a well-written rulebook. But do you want to hear how it plays? Sure you do…
ACT III: A walk through the night
Shirt not included
A typical game of V-Wars kicks off with the random allocation of roles. There’ll always be one vampire player, 2 human players, and a variable number of Infected. The roles are kept hidden, so it’s entirely up to the vampire when (or if) they reveal themselves. Until that point, everyone acts as if they’re human.
Once players have chosen an avatar, along with any special abilities which that brings, the game begins. There are five phases to each player’s turn, and they all get completed before the turn passes along. It’s a fairly swift process so, after the first few turns, the game moves quickly with minimal downtime.
The first phase only applies to the vampire player: if they choose, they can publicly reveal their true nature. This brings a few restrictions – bloodsuckers aren’t welcome in human cities, for example – but it opens up a far wider choice of actions and allows the vampire to openly oppose the other players. On the whole, it’s a powerful option.
Next, the active player takes up to four actions. They can move their avatar around the world, place troops in the city they’re in, or assassinate opposing troops. Until the vampire reveals themselves, they act as if they’re human, even if this means killing their own kind to keep up the pretence.
Even sneakier is the ‘play a card’ action. Each region of the map has its own deck, consisting of numerical cards which aid either the human or vampire cause. As an action, the active player secretly plays a card from their hand to stack the deck in their favour – so, for example, a wholly human player will tend to play high-value human cards wherever possible. Unfortunately, human players (and unrevealed vampires) must nominate another player to also secretly seed the deck, so it’s important to quickly work out who your friends are.
The final two actions are quite fun: a publicly-revealed vampire can bite any other player in the city they’re in, causing them to switch sides if they’re Infected. Additionally, all players have a one-use only Investigate token which lets them guess who the vampire is.
Next up is a political phase, which either spawns troops on the board, or introduces new rules to add spice to the game. After that, we get to the heart of the thing: Riots. Each turn, armed conflict will break out in a pre-notified city somewhere on the board. Using a combination of troop presence and the seeded decks, these struggles strongly influence the eventual outcome of the game. The winner of a Riot will usually take control of the city, but brutal suppression of revolt can also lead to a massacre, influencing the sympathy that the world feels for the vampire cause.
The vampires win through a combination of holding cities and increasing public sympathy for their plight, while the humans only need to take six cities (or reduce public sympathy to zero) for victory. And that’s a game turn in a nutshell.
ACT IV: A stake through the heart
You may have gathered that there’s nothing quite like V-Wars. It’s one part Pandemic, two parts Risk and a little bit of Blackjack, with a twist of Battlestar Galactica on the side. Each of these elements come together to create an identity that feels fresh and unique. Originality certainly isn’t a problem.
Emily had a rough night
Where our group did have an issue, however, was with the whole hidden-identity mechanic. A revealed vampire simply has better options than an unrevealed one so, in all our games, there was a strong tendency for the vampire to come out on the first turn. After that, what you’re left with is a fairly well-balanced, political wargame. It’s fun, but playing this way seems to rob the game of its key purpose. In the end, our verdict was as split as the world of V-Wars itself: two players enjoyed it, two were so-so, and one disliked the secret-roles element intensely.
V-Wars brings a good deal of originality to the gaming table, but in many respects its ambition outstrips its execution. Fans of the comic shouldn’t hesitate to pick up a copy, and casual strategy gamers will also find much to like in the struggle to gain sympathy and control. But if your name is Simon, and all you want to do is stab your friends in the back, there are better options out there.
Want to see more? Click here to check out V-Wars on the GamesQuest site.
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