Monday, August 24, 2009
Board Game Review - Hunter: Deadly Prey
My friends are never going to believe me any more. They'll call me crazy, or stupid, or both. Because when I played Hunter: Deadly Prey at GenCon, I hated it. They did, too. One of them got up from the game and started playing something else, because he hated the game that much.
They're not going to believe me, because I have to tell them we were all wrong. This game is really fun. It has a few flaws, which I'll discuss in excruciating detail, but if you play it right, Hunter: Deadly Prey is intense, exciting and knee-deep in theme.
No, really guys, I swear. It's good. See, we played it wrong. And I don't mean we glossed a few inconsequential rules. I mean we played it completely wrong.
Hunter: Deadly Prey is a semi-cooperative game where everyone is competing against everyone else. One player is the monster, and everyone else is a hunter out to get the monster. The monster is appropriately dark for a White Wolf game - a necromancer, or a body snatcher, or a horrific night stalker, for instance. Every monster has a special ability, like the avenging spirit's ability to negate the penalties for acting by day, or the mad scientist's ability to use his science to aggravate the hunters more than normal, or the werewolf's ability to pee on the carpet and chew up red pens on the sofa (I may be confusing that particular monster with my own dog).
The hunters do not have special powers - but there are more of them, and they get stronger over time. By the end of the game, it can be really tough for the monster to do much more than slow them down a little, because they'll have some grit. Facing down a school full of orphans will toughen up anyone. They have to explore the city and get clues as to the location and weaknesses of the monster, so that they can face it down and kill it.
And that's the first place we screwed up at GenCon (there were many places we screwed up, in case you were wondering). The city is abstracted by a pyramid of cards. Not like a vertical pyramid that will fall down if you shake the table - that would be stupid (that's not what we did wrong. We were drunk, not retarded). Just a bunch of cards laid out flat, with six at the bottom and one at the top. Each city card represents a challenge for the hunters, and also a resource they can exploit, or clue they can follow, if they defeat that challenge. The hunters build a chain of cards from the bottom to the top, and when they get to the top, they fight the monster, and if the monster is lucky and smart, he eats their faces.
We didn't get this part. We didn't understand that these cards represented clues and challenges and resources. We thought we would flip a card and get to stab somebody. All the violence in the game is completely abstracted - even when you fight a minion, you don't roll to hit him, you just sort of test the encounter and try to come out ahead. This bored a room full of guys who were up too late after killing a couple cases of beer, and we didn't bother to build the theme around the cards.
When I played with my kids, though (don't worry, they're teenagers - I would never play this with children who could have nightmares afterward), we were able to put it together and build a story. The soldier ran down some clues at the dockyards, which lead him to a discarded cell phone, which in turn lead him to a contact at the city park. The doctor, on the other hand, asked around and offered her help at the homeless shelter, which lead her to a book of apocryphal scriptures that offered clues to how she could cure the werewolf's curse. Sure, we could have said that my son flipped the four-point general card, traced a path to the five-point general card, and then took the seven-point general card, but that would be ludicrously boring. It would also be exactly what we did in an Indianapolis hotel room at two in the morning.
As the hunters collect clues and close in on the monster, the monster is in turn messing with the hunters. If they only act by day, they're pretty safe, but they may run out of time and let the fiend slip away. But if they act at night, the monster can totally mess with them - and it's awesome. This is another place we screwed up - the monster just sort of watched the hunters flip over cards. It was dull and stupid. It was like we could have renamed the game Hunter: Real Estate Agent.
But if you do it right, this is spectacular. The werewolf found out that the soldier was talking to the contact at the park - and he attacked the park, burned it to the ground, and killed the contact. And he made no less than four attempts to destroy that damned apocryphal scripture, but I'll be dipped in werewolf poop if the doctor didn't block every single attack. I almost got it twice, but she just kept reinforcing it and protecting it, and in the end, that's what did me in.
The exciting theme isn't the only reason this is a fun game. Every city card has a calling, a certain skill most applicable to it. For instance, the planetarium is associated with scientific study, while the white magic coven is linked to occult knowledge. In the final confrontation, you count the cards you control that match the monster's hideout, and if your total strength in those cards is higher than the monster's, you beat him. And if it's not, he uses your kidney as a croquet ball.
This means that you have to control cards that match the top card - but the monster is most likely to attack those cards, because he knows you have to control those cards. Only he can't afford to blow all his strength attacking those cards, because he still has to have some power left if the heroes make it to his hideout. So he sneaks around, sends his minions to attack, and tries to swap out the cards in the city with other cards, to ruin the hunters' chances of beating him.
There's so much more strategy than we saw when we were sitting around tipping back Shiner Bocks and listening to the pinball machine (yes, there was a pinball machine in the hotel room. No, I'm not explaining that). You have to keep some points in reserve, time your plays, weigh the consequences of risky actions, and sometimes just be lucky. The soldier put together an amazing string of brilliant plays to break through to the last card and confront the monster, and he persuaded the doctor to help. If he had not broken off an exceptionally impressive chain of killer maneuvers, I would have chewed his legs off and used them as coat hangers. Instead the soldier shot me, then the doctor lifted my curse, so that I ended up dying, but I was redeemed. The whole thing ended up playing out like a horror movie with a happy ending (but one of those angst-filled horror movies where everyone defeats personal demons and feels bad about themselves).
And the ironic thing about that ending is that by getting the doctor to join him, the soldier lost the game. The doctor had more points, and getting the points for beating the werewolf put her ahead by a wide margin. After he spent the whole game poaching her resources, sabotaging her efforts and tagging on her coat tails, he ended up in a position where he could only stop the monster by giving the game to his opponent. Which he did, because in the end, the game is more about the experience than it is about the win. The soldier and the doctor were at odds the whole game, but in the end, they put aside their differences to defeat the monster. Forget the score, this game was about the story.
So my GenCon buddies are not going to believe this, but I really enjoyed Hunter: Deadly Prey, and would definitely play it again. However, they will still bust my chops if I don't point out the problems with the game. And honestly, I like this part.
Let's start with the art. I would say I don't know when I've seen art this bad, except that I do know when I've seen art this bad, because it was when I used to review White Wolf RPG books. There's a picture on the cover of the box that looks like someone just took a photograph of a goth emo kid and smushed his head in Photoshop. That's on the cover, for God's sake. What the hell were they thinking?
The card art is, in places, unforgivably hilarious, and often has nothing whatsoever to do with the text. Like the soothing demeanor card that shows a picture of a guy with a wrench (I suppose being concussed by a pipe wrench might be soothing, until you woke up). Or the lucky charm, with a picture of a girl about to be crushed to death by an industrial accident (bad news on the lucky charm, sister). Or the wrench in the works card, which shows a girl with a humungous butt wearing cut-off shorts and shooting a gibbering Lovecraft beast in the gaping maw (why she's got her ass stuck out that far is beyond me). But my favorite is spoilsport tactics, which bears a picture of what looks to be an asshole - not like a mean guy, but like an actual poop-chute. You're not doing your game any favors when your monsters look like close-ups of bungholes.
Another huge problem is that if you walk into this thinking you're playing a kick-ass game of monster bashing, you're going to be disappointed. And since it's freaking called Deadly Prey, I figured there would be a little mortal danger now and then. But no, the worst that can happen is you have to take a hardship and find out your bank account is empty. That's not Deadly Prey, that's Hunter: Credit Card Fraud. The only time anyone might die is if the hunters get to the top of the pyramid and actually face the monster, and that normally only happens once a game - unless the monster is particularly clever and not too unlucky, and gets the chance to run away before anyone has to get hurt. Anyone for a rousing game of Hunter: Prey Who Just Wants To Be Left Alone?
So I grant you, there are some problems, and the problems are the reason that a bunch of guys who had spent several days playing games where people got crushed under boulders or blasted by asteroids thought that a game where you establish rapport with foster kids to learn what they know about the church was a little lame. And I'm telling you, friends who are reading this review, we did it wrong. It's almost a roleplaying game, and if you fill in the gaps as you play, this really ends up feeling like an interesting story. If you do it wrong, though, it feels like you're playing the world's worst Monopoly clone.
I absolutely promise that I was completely prepared to destroy this game in the review. I mean, I really thought it sucked, and I couldn't wait to compare it to freezer burn on rotten dog food. But I'm glad I played it again (after reading the rules again and finding out the several dozen rules we missed the first time), and I'm glad to report that not only can I recommend Hunter: Deadly Prey, but I'm sticking it into the part of my game collection that I intend to keep around a while. It's not a fast game of monster brawls, as the name would suggest, but it is a really fun game for anyone willing to pour themselves into it.
Some incredibly deep strategy that you may not even see the first time through
The opportunity for an unfolding, epic story
Lots of tough decisions and careful card play
Enough different monsters, city cards and hunters that you won't play the same story twice
Not at all hard to screw up (even sober - the rulebook is long)
Some hilariously bad art
The name is not exactly truth in advertising
Can be a little slow
I really enjoyed Hunter: Deadly Prey. If you can deal with a game that requires lots of cerebral interaction and a bucket of imagination, you might dig it, too. You can get it here:
Posted by Matt Drake at 8:21 PM