I find myself approaching the review of Flying Frog Productions’ latest game A TOUCH OF EVIL almost more from the perspective of a life-long fan of classic horror than as a board gamer. Out of the box, I will say that A TOUCH OF EVIL more than earns its place among great horror board games such as FURY OF DRACULA and ARKHAM HORROR despite an awful lot of borrowed mechanics, almost cliched adventure game tropes, and an embarrassingly awful visual style that calls to mind photographs from an amateur DARK SHADOWS costume party.
But there also isn’t any other game on the market that has such a novel setting (the post-colonial America of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne) But that’s kind of how it is with horror in any medium—sometimes you have to overlook deficiencies in quality, literacy, and narrative cohesion to get at those golden moments when the genre totally works and even if for just a view minutes you’re totally immersed and that supernatural something almost- fleetingly- feels tangibly real.
The adventure board game is another genre that thrives on repetition and lives and breathes by those magical moments where the collective narrative created by the players and in-game situations transcends the base mechanics to become something great, and this is a quality that really shows in A TOUCH OF EVIL. Between the desperate race that the characters must undertake to track down the chief villain (who may be a Scarecrow, a Spectral Horseman, a Vampire, or a Werewolf), the evocative flavor text on the cards, the hugely thematic presence of a council of six Town Elders who all harbor secrets and directly affect play, and the suggestive and spooky encounters the players face as they explore the lonely, haunted village of Shadowbrook and its environs the game succeeds like few others in terms of creating a sense of a living game world, of completely contextualizing the game’s events and player interactions. It’s an element that really differentiates A TOUCH OF EVIL from any other game where players draw adventure cards, roll dice, and gather items.
You’ve practically played this game before and the last thing I care to do in this review is give the reader a comprehensive recap of the mechanics because for one thing, they aren’t very original and for another I think they’re totally secondary to the theme, narrative, and atmosphere the game offers. To sum it up, two to eight players all get a character with special abilities and unique attributes and on your turn you roll a die, move to space, and encounter whatever is there in terms of minions or printed-on-the-board events.
Hit points, stat boosts, and all the other trappings of RPG-style adventure board games are present and handled in a simple, accessible fashion. The game offers competitive, cooperative, and team-based play with automated systems handling the antagonist and his affiliates, such as a per-turn “Mystery Card” draw, unique Minion charts for each of the villains, and an ever-advancing Shadow Track which ends the game in player loss if it runs out. The die system is a simple pool-based mechanic where you roll X number of dice where X is your skill rating, looking for fives and sixes to count as successes. There is a currency in the game which strangely abstracts both information (like the clue tokens in ARKHAM HORROR) and money. Anyone who has played any adventure game published in the last thirty years could almost play A TOUCH OF EVIL without reading the rules.
However, for good horror- and good adventure board games- to be successful in terms of staking out the things that make it unique, different, and modern it has to offer something new and fortunately A TOUCH OF EVIL has a couple of twists up its sleeve that keep it from being overly derivative. The Town Elder concept is absolutely genius and really speaks to the attention to theme this game features; players have the opportunity throughout the game to investigate the randomly-assigned secrets of the ruling class and may reveal that they’re drunks, cowards, voyeurs, or even in league with the villain themselves. Or they could turn out to be the villain. There are also Mystery Cards that cause living Elders to interact and interfere with other game elements- the town Reverend can burn all the books in play out of panic or the Magistrate can confiscate all the guns in the Town market deck.
The chief function of the Elders is to give the players a little extra muscle when it comes time to track down the villain to his lair for the final showdown- players get to pick two to accompany them so it pays off to know ahead of time if they’re going to wind up running back to town. The other really ingenious and highly thematic mechanical concept is Lair cards, which must be purchased by the players using the investigation tokens they’ve gathered during play.
Early in the game, they’re prohibitively expensive but as the villain shows its hand more and more and the Shadow Track advances they become less expensive. It adds an interesting time pressure element not only due to the fact that players lose the game if the Shadow Track runs out, but in competitive and team play games there is a definite race to the final showdown that demands attention. With a lair card in hand, the player can march his character out to the Abandoned Keep, the Covered Bridge, or wherever the monster might be hiding, pay another fee to find them at home in their lair, and a fight-to-the-death showdown commences. All that’s missing is a burning windmill, pitchforks, and torches.
This all happens within about fifteen minutes per player—a four player competitive game with attentive players can wrap up in an hour. Compared to the three hour plus minimum of a game like ARKHAM HORROR this increases its playability and accessibility tremendously. Much like the fatally flawed but popularly beloved BETRAYAL AT THE HOUSE ON THE HILL a couple of years ago, there is an immediacy and appeal to the game that even the most gaming adverse are going to be drawn to, particularly during this time of the year when ghouls and ghosts are on most people’s minds.
A TOUCH OF EVIL, above all horror board games, is the one that I would set up for a mixed crowd of gamers and non-gamers. Anybody can play this game and its appeal goes far beyond the technical qualities that most hobby gamers look for. I believe the game almost completely nails the autumnal, early American horror theme, probably because designer Jason Hill wisely chose to emphasize the storytelling and atmospheric potential of the setting, characters, and events over structural contrivances and unconvincingly idiosyncratic mechanics.
I do think it is disappointing that the game’s mechanics are by and large unoriginal. I totally understand that appropriation, influence, and simple borrowing of ideas is necessary to create something new but in A TOUCH OF EVIL there are a few too many times where seasoned gamers are going to point out that something is just like something else in another game. Even a perfunctory, hobby-aware gamer can see that the investigation tokens are really just ARKHAM HORROR’s clue tokens or that the Mystery Deck is just like the evil black deck in SHADOWS OVER CAMELOT. It’s hard to fault Mr. Hill for reusing some of these ideas since they worked well enough in the first place, but so much of the game feels unique that the places where it isn’t are more egregious.
After several games, I do find myself wondering if the game is going to have much longevity once players have experienced the competitive, cooperative, and team games against the four included villains. The different “modes” each have a distinctly different feel; there is a sameness that starts to creep in around the fourth or fifth game that is more a function of the limitations of the production than anything else. By then, everybody knows that there are two muskets in the Abandoned Keep deck. An expansion is already hinted at both in the rulebook (SOMETHING WICKED) and by a road trailing off the game board, and I think it already kind of needs it if the game is going to see sustained play. There just isn’t the enormous, almost infinite variety of items, spells, monsters, encounters, and events in ARKHAM HORROR and there isn’t the one-against-all psychology and subterfuge that makes every game of FURY OF DRACULA different.
A TOUCH OF EVIL is markedly better, all things considered, than Flying Frog’s 2007 zombie game LAST NIGHT ON EARTH. Some game concepts in the newer title definitely feel recycled or refined from the earlier game but A TOUCH OF EVIL is by far the more accomplished, complete, and fun-to-play game.
Visually, I think the game falls into exactly the same bad taste traps that LAST NIGHT ON EARTH did and although I think the decision to effectively “brand” A TOUCH OF EVIL as a Flying Frog Production game with the heavily processed photographic art was sensible, it’s a terrible shame that such a good game has to be saddled with cheesy, awkward-looking images of real “actors” and “actresses” dressed up in costumes that at best evoke a high school stage play and at worst suggest an after-Halloween clearance at Party City.
The images look inauthentic, crude, and amateurish no matter how many Photoshop filters have been applied to them. The box art is dominated by some poor sap made up to look like the worst Max Schreck impersonator ever and a female sexpot pirate’s gleaming white breasts sticking out from under a tricorn hat. The effect is more corny than cool and I think it’s an almost total failure that is unfortunately carried through to every card in the game. The rest of the game’s production is extremely high, with nice typesetting, clear layouts, and a simulated hand-drawn map of Shadowbrook serving as the board. It’s all rendered in black ink on brown parchment and I would have loved to have seen the whole game done in such a period-appropriate and highly atmospheric pen-and-ink style despite usability concerns.
A word does have to be said about the other element with which Flying Frog has effectively branded their games. There is a CD soundtrack included with the game, just as there was with LAST NIGHT ON EARTH, and once again it is filled with practically unlistenable amateur piano tinkling and supposedly atmospheric melodies that are more laughably bad than anything else. It’s a silly, gimmicky addition to A TOUCH OF EVIL just like it was in the previous game and once again I find myself questioning whether the expense of packing a professionally manufactured (if not composed or performed) CD in each box has resulted in an extra $5-10 added to the retail price or if that capital could have been spent improving component quality elsewhere- there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the cost of the CD is undoubtedly rolled into the cost of the game. I literally threw mine away after listening to it.
I appreciate the idea of it at least. Mr. Hill clearly has his heart set on making games that have fullness and a richness of theme that too many of today’s popular hobby games do not and more than that he is really trying to create a total, immersive package. This is a concept that horror games definitely need if someone is ever going to figure out how to make a board game as frightening, disturbing, or scary as a film can be. The CD, the photographic artwork, and little touches like character biographies, and well-written flavor text tell me that Mr. Hill really wants to make horror pictures—or at least make horror board games more like horror pictures. He’s still wearing his influences on his sleeve, experimenting with ideas a little, and like a lot of horror filmmakers you kind of have to take the good with the bad. But when the game’s narrative clicks, like when you throw your torch at the Scarecrow in a last-ditch, suicidal attack to save Shadowbrook, it’s almost something special and unique no matter what its shortcomings may be.