Fury of Dracula (3rd/4th edition) Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 120-180 Minutes
It didn’t take long for Fury of Dracula (FoD) to follow in Scotland Yard’s footsteps. The first edition of FoD came out in 1987. The game is currently on its 3rd/4th edition, which are largely the same, plus or minus some small rules and component tweaks.
Chronologically, FoD came second, but thematically, it’s further from Scotland Yard than a couple others that exist on the same spectrum: Letters From Whitechapel and Whitehall Mystery. Whitehall is the closest successor to Scotland Yard in its scope and mechanics, and is the genre close to its most distilled form. Whitechapel adds a bit of length and complexity…but not as much as FoD.
All of these somewhat explicitly borrowed from Scotland Yard and one another. There are even notes of how you can incorporate elements of Whitehall and Whitechapel together. The designers and publishers aren’t hiding from their historical influences; they’re directly leaning into them.
To step back for a moment, each of these games features a single player in a “villain” role, and one or more other players attempting to track down the villain through a series of clues and actions, with point-to-point movement along the game’s numerous paths.
On a scale of complexity, it goes something like: Scotland = Whitehall < Whitechapel < Fury of Dracula, with FoD being the most complex.
Separating Itself in Hidden Movement Games
It’s a busy genre. And I’m not even considering other well-regarded titles like Mr. Jack in my comparisons. So what separates Fury of Dracula?
The answer is combat. This isn’t the ONLY difference, of course, but it’s the big one. “Whitechapel, but with a lot of punching” is how I described it to a friend, and no one present who had played both objected to that simplification.
You’re deducing where Dracula is, but that’s where most games of this type end. Here, you have to eliminate him once he’s found. Dracula can lay traps for you in cities he’s visited, and will end up with a slew of nasty tricks to escape danger or hinder those hunting him. Similarly, you’ll be collecting items and power for an eventual showdown with the titular vampire.
So it’s hidden movement with a little bit of adventure gaming thrown in. I’ll move on a map, for example, but then trade you my pistol for your ability to rapidly move through the sea, then I’ll trigger my special ability to force Dracula to give me some information. And so on through similar turns.
Pacing in Board Games: Why Dracula Bites
This hurts to write, because I love hidden movement games, and the evocation of the theme is viscerally present in this game. I want to be invested in Fury of Dracula so badly.
Further, many of the ability cards, items, encounters and moments can be inventive and exciting. There are some truly good ideas in this game.
…you can feel the turn coming, can’t you? I can too. Let’s rip the band-aid off, shall we?
The issue—perhaps the game’s only big issue—is pacing. But it’s a big issue in this case.
I’m going to get at my point with a few examples below. These are anecdotes, but they’re the types of things that are almost destined to happen in your sessions with the game if you play enough.
Scenario #1: Dracula spends the first week of the game in England, then takes to the sea just long enough to throw off the trail, then returns to England. The player who spent ⅓ of the game exploring Eastern Europe is distraught to discover where Dracula is. They make their way toward England, but the game ends before they contribute to the outcome.
Scenario #2: A player draws the card where they can guess Drac’s location. They get it right, and a pile-on ensues before Dracula has time to set traps or collect ability cards to be able to fight back. The game is over in 20-30 minutes and the outcome is never in doubt. [Author’s Note: This exact scenario happened in a session I was in, on the first action of the game!]
Scenario #3: Dracula plays cleverly, and players spend over an hour of real-life time wandering around Europe before anything actionable is discovered. On several individual turns (mainly night phase actions), players will have a full hand of cards, train tickets, and either have nothing at all to do, or nothing purposeful to do. Several tension-less turns are spent this way just sort of shuffling through actions, hoping for some marginally better train ticket or ability that moves things forward.
These aren’t rare occurrences. In fact, I’ve never played a session of Fury that didn’t feature some variation on one or more of the examples above.
In a game that’s shorter, some of these wouldn’t be issues. But this game can take—wait for it—THREE HOURS to play.
Imagine never having a meaningful turn in a three-hour game. I’ve seen several such instances.
Another friend who has played frequently summed it up well, saying that for there to be a good chance of everyone having a good time, Dracula often has to take unnecessary risks. As in, sub-par play needs to be present to create a better experience. That’s not good.
In my most recent session, for example, a buddy had a fast movement card that helped him move two spaces instead of one a couple times. But he never managed to even get near Dracula. At the end of the game, I mentioned that the ability helped him when we were discussing what happened, and he responded “helped me do what, exactly?” I had no good response.
Will this happen in every session? No, probably not. But, for emphasis, any game where you could stick your thumb up your ass for three hours and not do any worse than if you’d played the game, will not receive an endorsement from me. The fact that it’s even possible is problematic. But the fact that I’ve experienced it far too often is the damning nail in the coffin, or stake in the heart if we want to remain thematic.
I get that some of this may harken back to its 1980s roots, where imbalances of this nature were a bit more commonplace. But it’s not a mismatch of era. Some of my favorite games are the goofy, imbalanced nonsense from the 70s and 80s. By comparison, Fury of Dracula is just disjointed and frustrating.
Oh Yeah, Combat
Notice that I didn’t mention the combat mechanics in any of that? The encounters themselves are good, using an easily discernible rock-paper-scissors style combat system. The issue is that there are a touch too many ways for Dracula to simply slip out of them, in the hopes of disappearing and resetting the map-level chase.
The best combats are intense psychological battles. But when at least Dracula is usually incentivized to get out of them, you have at least one opponent whose foot is already out the door before combat begins. The satisfying payoffs in combat, when they come, almost feel accidental instead of intentional results of how the mechanics are set up.
For more-or-less being the only differentiating factor for this game from others like Whitechapel, you’d think a bigger portion of the game would be spent contemplating combats and coordinating strategies. Instead, it’s moving one step closer on the map in the hopes of ever having even a single epic combat before the game ends. Cruelly, or perhaps mercifully, many sessions will end with many players never having tasted the sweetness of even a temporary win over Dracula, or the agony of defeat at getting your rear end kicked in by him.
Throw Your Vampire a Bone
Again, this is painful for me to admit, because I stare at the board, theme, mechanics and components and want to sink my teeth deeply into this game (pun intended).
I also adore most of the other games I mentioned in the intro. They’re not without marginal faults of their own, but I count them among my favorites, and as of writing this, I own Whitehall Mystery. And to pile on a bit further, it’s usually when a game intelligently adds combative mechanics to well-oiled Euro-gaming mechanics that I’m having the most fun. Many of my absolute favorites fall in this intersection. On paper, Fury of Dracula should be a top 10 game for me.
Instead, it falls flat because I’ve literally never played a session of this where someone wasn’t having a really bad time. And the reasons for them having a bad time were completely legitimate.
Am I the victim of bad luck in my sessions? Maybe. I’ve played enough that I doubt it, but I’ll concede the possibility. And someone is out there with an epic session report to counter my review here. But again, even the possibility of a 2-3 hour game where one or more players never do something meaningful is a horribly damning risk, one that I’m not willing to take when there are more consistently solid games out there.
The best moments of Fury Dracula are spectacular. But they’re often only spectacular for one player, not the entire group. Tricking the players as Dracula will feel great, for example, but in that same scenario, players will spend a lot of turns wandering somewhat aimlessly, or pulling a train ticket from the ticket pool in the hopes of getting one that’s marginally better than the ones they already have, since they have no obviously better options. These are the moments that will dominate sessions, not harrowing battles with the lord of vampires.
I have to believe that there could be an iteration of these mechanics and ideas that balances the tension and pacing better and is a truly memorable—and just as importantly, repeatably memorable—experience. The ideas all seem like they’ll work well individually. They just don’t mesh well in context. So it’s close to some sort of greatness, but I don’t think it’s here as-is.