Saturday, 13 January 2018

Wargame Review – Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West

Dracula's America: Shadows of the WestBy Jonathan Haythornthwaite

Published by Osprey Games

It is 1875, and Count Dracula is President of the United States of America.

In the wake of the Civil War, with the country struggling to regain its balance, Dracula seized power. The Count's thralls assassinated President Lincoln and his entire administration in a single night and, in the ensuing chaos, their master made his move. Dominating the Senate, he declared himself President-for-Life, and now rules the Union with fear and an iron fist. His vampiric progeny, the Coven of the Red Hand, infest every strata of society, and enforce Dracula's will with ruthless efficiency.

Drawn by the shadows gathering across the nation, secretive cults and evil creatures emerge from their lairs to thrive in the darkness of the new regime. Fleeing from the oppression and menace of the East, hordes of pioneers head to the West, hoping for a new life.

Dracula's greed, however, knows no bounds, and his reach is long…

Dracula's America: Shadows of the West is a skirmish game of gothic horror set in an alternate Old West. Secret wars rage across the country - from bustling boom-towns to the most remote wilderness - as cults and secret societies fight for power and survival. Players will throw their support behind one of these factions, and will lead a Posse in fast-paced, cinematic battles for dominance and survival.

I like my alternative histories, the idea that if something was done differently or if a certain side won a conflict they originally lost could change the course of history, and how the repercussions of that would echo throughout the ages. The power of a ‘what if?’ story can be quite an eye-opener.

But when someone puts a wargame rulebook in your hands and says ‘Yeah, it’s the wild west but Dracula took over America and it’s all a bit gothic’, it’s something of a surprise. It certainly wasn’t the first thing that went through my head when I thought of alternative realities, so how do you make that work in tabletop skirmish wargame?

The book is a 140-page hardback and is really well presented. An evocative cover and some really nice interior art by RU-MOR sets the atmosphere and the mood of the game, and the layout is crisp, easy on the eye and simple to follow. It’s a great quality rulebook that you can leave open on whatever page you require without fear of the pages falling out or rolling over onto the wrong page.

The writing is sharp and to the point – sometimes rulebooks can be filled with flowery descriptions and filler material, but this game gets to the point in the first four pages with little preamble; this is the game, this is what it’s about and here’s what’s expected of you. I like that, it gets me into the very reason I have the book in the first place; to play tabletop battles.

You’ll need three kinds of dice for this game – the D6, D8 and the D10, which can also be halved to be used as D3s, D4s and D5s. You’ll also need a deck of normal playing cards, which is a nice touch because there’s always been a connection between westerns and poker.

Image result for Dracula's America: Shadows of the West
Image from rulebook

The game mechanic is quite simple. A game is divided into eight game turns, and each game turn is split into four phases; the Draw Phase, where each player draws cards that help decide the order of play. The Action Phase where cards are played, models are activated and they perform their actions. The NPC Phase where all non-player models take their turn, and the Recovery Phase where models are reset for the next round.

Each model can use dice depending on their skill; Novices use the D6, Veterans use the D8 and Heroes use the D10. These have different costs when putting together a Posse, a player’s team of between 6 and 8 miniatures, and the die used determines their skill. You roll a number of dice and aim for a target number of 5. 5 or better is a success and 4 or less is a failure, and the number of successes determines the outcome of the test.

A posse can be chosen from different factions; The Twilight Order,The Red Hand Coven, The Skinwalker Tribes, The Crossroads Cult, The Congregation, and The Dark Confederacy. These give your posse a selection of powers and abilities you can use and abuse during a game. Each of these factions help to realise the atmosphere of a supernatural gothic wild west, but you can also use the game as a straight forward western skirmish game if you drop the insane reality of the setting. In fact, we played out our first game that way to get used to the rules, just kept it simple, and then used the supernatural elements and the advanced rules in the book to fill the game out. We found it much easier that way, as there are plenty of options and it might be a little overwhelming if you played it as it is straight out of the book.

There’s a nice section on campaigns in there, too, so there’s a great framework for an ongoing battle against – or for - the darkness, and the seven scenarios included give a nice cross section as to what you can do with different situations. With arcane powers, insane supernatural events and some unnerving monsters, the game is filled to the brim with ideas and opportunities to create some really interesting encounters.

So, how did we get on with it?

We started with two simple Posses; the Plonkertons, a team of six private agents had a shootout with the Messy Wales Gang. We had no dedicated miniatures for this game – these can be purchased form and - so we used some 28mm figures from a sci-fi range for the first game and some random wild west printable figures for further ones. It was good fun; we didn’t take it too seriously and it was a great way to shake down the rules.

As we progressed and introduced new elements, got into our chosen factions and used the powers on offer the game dynamic changed. The setting didn’t play much of a role in the game itself, to be honest; the whole ‘Dracula takes America’ story was fascinating and adds depth for those looking for extra levels to their gaming experience, but with only a few pages dedicated to the actual events that led to the installation of the big D into the Whitehouse there’s little to go on. However, the story is a means to an end, and we get all kinds of gloriously cool and cruel powers and monsters to play with in the game itself. Hopefully, further expansions to the game will help grow the mythology of the setting, but right now what you have here is exactly what the game offers; dark and bloody conflicts in a strange, twisted, untamed land.

In fact, we seemed to play two kinds of game here; there was the straight-forward shootout game, a fun and fast-paced western skirmish wargame where we could quote Clint Eastwood, look at each other with narrowed eyes for few seconds before rolling dice and shout ‘Yeehah!’ as we rode into battle, and then there was the darker supernatural game, where we could really sink our teeth into playing out a dark, twisted nightmare of a setting.

One thing we did notice was that the miniatures we were using really pulled us out of the game, and there were only so many times we could play out in the wild as we had no model buildings. What this game really calls out for is immersion, and there are some lovely photographs in the book of well-painted miniatures in some amazing surroundings, like towns and wildlands. If you had the right miniatures and could put them onto a game board that gave you the main street of a wild west town, with saloons and general stores and the like, the game would be amazing. Alas, we had some paper cutouts and some cardboard with hastily drawn shop fronts and small boxes as buildings. Hey, it worked and we had fun, but modellers will have a field day recreating the world to get the full experience. It just takes a bit of dedication.

This is a really good, fun and entertaining system that will benefit from further books to flesh out the lore, the setting and playing options.  Longevity will come from mixing things up and having a love of the wild west as a whole, but overall the matches were satisfying and, if you take the options in the book one at a time and build up the experience, it’s a very rewarding game.


Image result for Dracula's America: Shadows of the West art

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