Welcome to A Touch of Evil: the Supernatural Game by Flying Frog Productions - or, for the TL:DR fanbase, “Sleepy Hollow: the Boardgame”!
A Touch of Evil pits between two and eight players in a period horror adventure to defeat the supernatural evil that has been terrorizing the early 19th century village of Shadowbrook. This RPG-in-a-box sees our heroes working either competively or cooperatively to investigate the mysteries unfolding in the surrounding area, visiting the village centre or outlying spaces like the Abandoned Keep or Old Woods to search for clues and obtain equipment, allies and special event cards to help in their quest, before finally tracking down the villain to its lair and confronting it in an epic showdown to rid the village of its peril! But while the heroes are at work, the forces of darkness advance too - and players are in a race against the Shadow Track countdown; when that counter reaches zero, evil has triumphed and all of the players lose.
I need a Hero!
The heroes and villains available are typical gothic horror tropes. Players can choose to be a veteran Soldier, aloof Noble Woman, logical Inspector, strange Drifter and so forth, and in the base game can choose to confront the evil of a Vampire, a Werewolf, a possessed Scarecrow or the Spectral (headless) Horseman. Each hero has four numerical Skills - Combat, Cunning, Spirit and Honor - which specifies how many (six-sided) dice they roll to attempt the various skill challenges and defeat the villain’s minions that appear throughout the game, earning them Investigation points which are the game’s currency. Investigation points can be spent in several ways during the heroes actions, from buying equipment, healing wounds, discovering the Villain’s lair and revealing the secrets of Town Elders, key allies who can help (or hinder!) the heroes during the final showdown.
Doing the Rounds
Each game round starts with each hero taking their turn in order, and after all of the heroes have acted there is a Mystery Phase when bad events happen, usually resulting in the Shadow Track counter falling closer to zero or the villain and their forces appearing to attack players or lurk on various board locations. Each hero turn involves the hero moving (or lingering in the same space), fighting any face-up minions on their destination space, and then taking various actions if the space is clear of enemies. Moving is handled by simply rolling one die and moving up to that many spaces or until they encounter a face-up minion. Roll and move is a much despised mechanic these days but such pitfalls are minimized by the fact that a roll of a 1 allows the hero to draw a new Event card which are always beneficial, and a roll of 2 or higher is almost always sufficient to move a hero from one main encounter space to another, so there are fewer dead turns than you might expect.
Action Men (and Women)
After moving and defeating face-up minions, a player can take their choice of many actions, most of which they can do several times. They can pay Investigation points to heal their wounds and buy equipment or try to train and improve their skills if on the relevant board spaces. They can also buy Lair cards to determine where the villain is hiding and the final showdown will be held. But most regularly, they will take the action to encounter the space they are on: allowable only once per turn and usually resulting in drawing a location card of specific decks for the main corner spaces - Abandoned Keep, the Manor, the Old Woods and the Windmill, or in other town centre or dangerous named locations, drawing an Event card. The location cards will reveal free equipment or allies, or skill tests to make to gain Investigation or advance their Skill ratings, or lead to an ambush or attack from a dark force. Skill tests and combat involve rolling a number of dice equal to your skill score (with bonus dice from equipment and allies) and rolls of a certain number or higher (usually 5) are successes, causing one wound each to a monster or gaining one Investigation each normally.
Respect your Elders
Another action heroes can take is to examine the secrets of the Town Elders, such the Lord, the Doctor and the Reverend. These six key figures of the town have special abilities that can be used during the final showdown to help confront the villain and each have a number of hidden traits as drawn by the Secrets deck. Some of these secrets are inconsequential to the game, some give the Town Elder an extra bonus during the showdown, but some reveal the Town Elder to be in league with darkness, sending them to fight alongside the villain immediately.
It’s a Mystery!
After all of the heroes have completed their turns, the Mystery Phase occurs, during which any mortally wounded heroes are revived, the villain heals some wounds from aborted showdowns and a Mystery card is drawn. These are almost always bad events for the heroes, such as moving the Shadow Track closer to zero or placing minions on the board to be defeated or to impede movement. Some Mystery cards reveal immediate or permanent game effects too, increasing the combat score of minions, reducing hero movement or adding extra Secrets to Town Elders - and sometimes even killing an Elder off! In cooperative games, an additional chart is used to add to the difficulty, by forcing the heroes to collectively sacrifice their health in wounds to prevent the Shadow Track falling towards darkness, or by spawning new minions or Investigation counters on the board.
No Business like Showdown Business
Once the heroes feel ready to confront the malevolent evil, are as equipped and prepared as they wish to be and have a Lair card in hand, they can initiate the showdown: a fight to the death (usually) between the hero(es) and the villain. A hunting party of multiple hunters and Town Elders can be formed and combat ensues, until ended by cards or the heroic forces escaping. When the villain suffers the last of their wounds, they are defeated and the victorious hero wins! But if the showdown ends early due to an escape or the heroes suffering mortal wounds, the game continues until the hero(es) finally win a showdown.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The base game comes with eight heroes, each with their own skill rankings and special abilities, and four villains who each have their own unique powers and minion forces too. There is a set of both basic and advanced rules, plus rules for team play, cooperative play (all working together against the villain) and some optional rules too to add to the difficulty and complexity as you get more familiar with the game. I have only played this solo but cooperatively playing between two and four heroes, but I expect at more than four heroes the game play might drag between hero turns. The box suggests a playing time of 60 to 120 minutes and that seems about right to me, although more often when playing solo I find the quicker end of that range using two heroes is preferable.
Production quality is very good overall. The board looks a little like an old hand-drawn parchment map but could have used a little colour, especially as the rest of the cardboard components, counters, cards and hero/villain boards are vibrantly coloured and with lovely photo imagery (similar to Flying Frog’s other titles). Some of the photos can be a bit macabre and almost unsettling to delicate souls though, so the age recommendation of 12+ is possibly as much for the imagery and the complexity of the rules. The rulebook is pretty well laid out and the rules pretty clear to follow and understand, allowing an easy progression to start with the basic game and build from there, or even just tack on the advanced and additional rules for the first playthrough. Each of the eight heroes has their own grey plastic miniature of reasonable quality and the box includes sixteen six-sided dice too which seem a touch small to me but not a major issue. The game also comes with a soundtrack CD which, honestly, I have never played but hopefully for some it may add to the mood and atmosphere of the game. The box itself is nicely designed too and a standard game size too, but with space for at least the base game and one of the main expansions, possibly two. All this for $60 US for the base game, or there is the 10 year anniversary edition for $100 US with a few rule tweaks and some extra (albeit uneccesary) minis.
Something Wicked for the Weekend?
There are two main expansions to the base game: “Something Wicked” and “The Coast”, which add a handful of extra heroes and villains each, some optional rules and cards for the base game decks plus another game board which expands the initial Shadowbrook village board, providing extra special locations and location decks for those too. Those two expansions are $40 US each. There are other smaller expansions too, some for sale and some freely available for download, providing extra villains and minions or cards for the many decks.
Do you need any of these expansions? Not really, given the variety in the base game. Some of the free download villains were fun and easy to incorporate, and although I only have the “Something Wicked” expansion, the extra board mostly made the game longer rather than better - but that expansion does come with the Unspeakable Horror villain and their cultist minions for the Lovecraft fans among us. I can see playing with both main expansions might require six feet plus of table length and take too long - not necessarily in elapsed playing time but the desire to visit all the board spaces to acquire supplies might lead to the Shadow Track reaching zero well before the players feel ready to face the villain.
Haven’t I played you somewhere before?
Those same Lovecraft fans might spot a similarity between this game and Eldritch Horror (or maybe Arkham Horror although I have not played that) with its horror theme, map traversing, item acquisition and skill challenges. It plays quicker than Eldritch Horror too and with more combat rather than clue hunting, although generally the nature of the threats are smaller in scale which allows for more physical confrontation. And while the theme and era might suggest something similar to The Fury of Dracula, the game play is different as everyone plays a hunter, whether they wish to work together or not.
Mechanically this game plays most similarly to other Flying Frog titles, particularly Fortune and Glory and, to some degree, Last Night on Earth and Invasion from Outer Space. The main difference for me is that the roll and move feature does not harm the game play as severely or regularly as in those other titles because the key board spaces are closer together so you won’t spend many turns hopping between empty filler spaces. Of these, it gets the most table time for me too: I do slightly prefer the Fortune and Glory theme but setup for that especially with the solo/cooperative advanced game can take significantly longer so reducing the chance I will get it out.
And finally …
Personally, I love A Touch of Evil. Fondness of the theme really helps, invoking the sense of “Sleepy Hollow”, “Salem”, “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and the “Hammer Horror” films to various degree, largely depending on the villain you are facing. It has a nice amount of complexity but speed along with it so you are not bogged down during your turns. I like the artwork and design and feel involved with the development of the characters and story the game can create, whether it’s the school teacher increasing her combat strength by carrying two more books, or discovering the honourable Magistrate has been in league with the darkness all along, but we didn’t have time to examine his secrets even though we knew he’d prove useful in a showdown against that particular villain. I can get very bored with some games too so the variety adds enough to keep games fresh, as each villain and minion can pose different challenges to different heroes.
But. But. But. But. But. But. BUT!
Cards on the table: I have only ever played A Touch of Evil solo, and as cooperative heroes. Since buying it (even though that was over 10 years ago!) I have not been able to play it in person with anyone, so I cannot say with certainty how it would go with multiple players, whether in competition, cooperation or in teams. Playing solo, your time is always occupied but especially in larger games with multiple players (above four), I could see the wait between turns dragging on, especially if you are unlucky enough to be hopping on empty spaces while others are having encounters, fighting minions or in long showdown combats. I do recommend it as a great thematic solo RPG-in-a-box, and one I think would play equally well with a small group into the same theme.