— Mark Griffiths (@Marrrkusss) December 24, 2014
The big day is almost here, so I want to share with you one of my all-time favourite Christmas games – it’s a small web expansion for that old favourite, A Touch of Evil: it’s the Volgovian Nutcracker!
Ah, Christmas! It’s a time of fun and frivolity, lively laughter, good spirits – and evil nutcrackers. Of course it is! Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been further from the truth. When Christmas comes to Shadowbrook, only bad stuff entails…
I thought I’d share some rambling musings on this, my favourite of the pdf villains for A Touch of Evil (and, incidentally, my second-favourite villain of the entire game series so far), so that you can curl up with a cup of chocolate in the twinkling light of the tree and be terrified beyond your wildest dreams. Because there are evil nutcrackers out there…
Yes, my favourite of the web exclusives. FFP deserves so much credit for doing this. When game companies are willing to give you free stuff, it’s always good, but when said company is willing to give you free stuff that is just as good – if not better – than the product that has a price tag, I feel a massive rush of affection for them that usually leads to me spending more money on them. While I appreciate that FFP are of course widening their base with more games and supporting those, not to mention the resources that must go into these things, I still have all of my extremities crossed that there will be more pdfs appearing in due course.
But for now, I’ll uncross some of them to continue with this blog…
The Volgovian Nutcracker is like nothing we’ve seen before, entirely unique, with his own unique minions and mechanics. The first thing that I noticed when glancing through his sheets is that he never actually attacks you, until you get to the Showdown. Whereas you would expect the D6 roll of a 6 on the minion chart to be a villain attack event, instead there is a really nice effect that I’ll describe shortly. While it’s still possible to encounter the Nutcracker himself through Deadly Encounters, you otherwise won’t see the little wooden guy until the end.
There is something quite whimsical about this villain that has such undercurrents of darkness that it strongly reminds me of the circus folks in Batman Returns. The villain himself is a nutcracker, after all, and his minions are toys! Where’s the harm?! Well, have you seen how sinister those Stuffed Bears look?! The Christmas cheer is there, but it has such a wonderfully dangerous edge that it is the perfect marrying of theme in this game. (I’ll come back to this point later.)
First off, then, let’s have a look at the Basic Game. With Toy Soldiers and Toy Cannons, the Nutcracker seeks to strike. These Toy Soldiers have the nasty ability of being able to repair themselves at the end of each fight round on the roll of 4+, which makes them just that extra bit annoying. The Toy Cannons also do double damage on rolls of 6, so even though they’re only rolling 2 fight dice, they have the potential to knock you out in one round. The event that replaces the usual Villain Attack is called “Holiday Ball”, where you roll a die and consult a chart. Rolls of 2-5 are benign, in fact they’re quite helpful; roll a 6 and you might be getting some investigation, but you’re also spawning some Toy Soldiers. Rolls of 1 move the Shadow Track. The Nutcracker himself, sporting a 5 combat rating and 6 wounds, has a wonderful ability called ‘Crushing Bite’ where his rolls of 6 force you to discard an item or ally, or take an additional hit. Those powerful jaws, capable of crushing through the hardest of shells, or the closest of bonds between hero and ally…
But as usual, it’s the Advanced Game that I’m more interested in.
To start with, the Advanced Game adds two more movable bits to the game experience – the aforementioned creepy Stuffed Bears, and the delightfully whimsical Christmas Caravan – more on the latter in a minute! First of all, all these toys become a lot more deadly. The Soldiers still heal, but they also inch closer to the nearest hero at the beginning of the Mystery phase. The Cannons – well, watch out if they’re in any named space! If they’re at a corner location, they bombard that location’s deck, discarding D6 cards from the pile until there’s nothing left. If they run it down, that location is considered to be destroyed and it is treated like an unstable location instead, much like the Sunken mechanic did in Something Wicked, released a few months before the pdf went up. If the Cannons are left in Town spaces, they discard a random Town Item and move the Shadow Track each Mystery Phase. Combined with The Hour is Late, that can be a killer!
Ever thought Stuffed Bears were cute and cuddly? Well, think again! These little horrors are as dangerous as the Vampire’s Wolves, or the Werewolf’s Feral Kin, hitting on 4, 5 or 6! The good thing is they can only take two wounds. The Holiday Ball event is now transformed into something that I really like, too. If rolled, the heroes with a Party Invitation Event card move immediately to the Manor and gain D6 investigation – very handy! You then roll a die for each living Town Elder, the roll compared to each of their three attributes, triggering a different effect for whichever it matches. So, if it equals the Elder’s Honor, that Elder gains a Resolve Token (from the Something Wicked expansion – if you aren’t using this (gasp!), you can use this effect to remove a Mystery card that remains in play on the roll of 5 or 6); if it equals their Spirit, they gain a Secret card, and if it matches their Cunning you can place 2 Investigation at The Manor.
The Christmas Caravan also flits around the board, dropping investigation tokens wherever it goes, which can be very handy. The Caravan also takes on the little chart that the Basic Game used for the Holiday Ball event, so that if a hero encounters the Caravan during the course of the game he will roll on this chart to see what happens. There are some minor changes – rolls of 1 draw a Mystery Card instead of moving the Shadow Track, and you’ll place 2 Toy Soldier minions on the roll of a 6, but in essence it’s the same. Heroes encountering the Caravan can also buy Town Items here.
Collecting investigation from the board is made so much more difficult now, however, due to the Exploding Gifts ability. Yes, any tokens dropped by the Caravan, or otherwise placed through card effects, aren’t just clues lying around to be discovered to aid the heroes, but exploding presents from the Soulless Nutcracker! Muwahahaha! Heroes must pass the Cunning 5+ test to pick these tokens up, or else they blow up in your face and are removed from the board, leaving you with D3 wounds. Ouch!
The Nutcracker has a simply excellent ability that works off the “Murder!” Mystery card, too. ‘Tis the Season…for Murder! makes you roll a die and, on the roll of 4+, you place a Stuffed Bear minion at the same location as the 3 investigation. If you roll a 1, the Town Elder with the lowest Cunning is killed. The Villain’s rules sheet just cracks me up on this point, though – the Elder is considered to be “the victim of a deadly present”! I just love it! Those sinister Stuffed Bears have a lot to answer for…
Another really great, atmospheric ability the Nutcracker has is Winter Snowfall. When rolling for Lingering, you roll 2 dice and take the lower result. The effect is considered to be a permanent Weather card, any other such cards are merely discarded, which forces the Shadow Track to move one more inexorable step towards darkness. So if you’ve got Cannons in the Town, and haven’t yet managed to shift The Hour is Late, you’re in real trouble! Especially so, because the Nutcracker has yet another ability that kicks off from the Shadow Track crossing through stages closer to darkness. Assault of Darkness will place a random minion at 2 Random Locations whenever the Track moves into a new stage closer to darkness.
The Nutcracker also has some new keywords that work off existing cards from the core set, as well as not being forgotten by further expansions. So Magistrate Kroft will be able to lend his +2 fight dice ability against this demonic Construct, as will Sara the Bright Witch. However, the devious Nutcracker will have +1 Combat against you unless your Cunning is 4 or higher, so get ye to the Magistrate’s Office!
I just love this guy! he is definitely not the sort of Nutcracker that would transport you to a magical kingdom of sweets and sugarplum fairies, but instead will crush you betwixt his evil jaws and transport you to hell! The whimsy of fighting against toys like some demented child’s nightmare aside, I think the whole package is highly atmospheric and, through all of these little rules twists, creates an almost-entirely new game, moreso perhaps than any other villain. I also feel that, more than the other two web villains, his abilities feed off the Mystery card deck really very neatly, particularly with moving the Shadow Track. In a very unlucky game, you may only have as many as four rounds before you lose!
I cannot gush enough at just how much work must have gone into this creation. The other two web villains have always re-used previously-released content in their own way, but the Nutcracker has his own unique minions, to say nothing of the Christmas Caravan that is roaming the town dropping off sinister gifts. However, this does pose its own problem. If, like me, you don’t have access to the kind of thick cardstock that the regular FFP stuff is printed on, the Nutcracker experience does become a little fiddly, as minion counters are slid with care across Shadowbrook because of the card available. There is also the issue of how the minions are printed, the intention being that the six Cannons and the six Bears have Soldiers on the reverse. It isn’t exactly difficult to arrange the game so that, when you place a Cannon or a Bear, you remove a Soldier from play until that minion is defeated, but it can become a little bit fiddly. I’m not so craftsy that I can overcome this with ease (heck, I can’t even operate a laminator consistently!) However, these are less than minor quibbles – I’m just thrilled to have more content for the game that I love so much!
The Christmas Caravan is also a really great addition. All its abilities aside, I really like the fact that it doesn’t automatically move every turn, but only on the roll of 4+, so if you want to encounter it but find yourself on the other side of the board, you have a chance at least of getting there. It does tend to be tweaked when I play, though, so that you can’t buy Town Items there. I feel that, had this villain been released as part of a more mainstream expansion (Sinister Celebrations, perhaps, where we see a daemonic Thanksgiving Turkey, or somesuch?) the Christmas Caravan should have had its own deck of cards that you could buy from when you encounter it – candy canes that allow you to discard for +1 fight dice, as you jab them into the eyes of the Stuffed Bears, perhaps? Wrapping paper that you can discard to automatically defeat a Toy enemy, as you wrap it up. Or a massive walnut, which allows you to go first in the Showdown because you jam the jaws of the Nutcracker? Well, maybe that would be a step too whimsy. Anyway, I’m fine with encountering the Caravan and rolling on its little chart before it trots along to its next location, leaving those exploding gifts in its wake. I just feel that it’s a little bit weird that you can buy these items in town as well as out on the Crossroads. The town is the haven of the game, where you can go for good stuff and stuff that can help you – if the Caravan really has brought ‘a host of dark secrets and despair’, it’s enough for me that it drops investigation in its wake.
I said before that he was my second-favourite villain to play against, and the only thing keeping him from the top spot is the fact that I find him so Christmas-themed that it seems almost perverse to play against him at any other time of year. If you haven’t tried this villain yet, what the devil are you waiting for?!