Video gamers often bemoan familiar settings and situations in the titles we play. It’s easy to get fed up with World War II shooters, swords and sorcery, or modern-day action games. Thankfully, plenty of developers are consciously moving their work into more original territory. If you don’t mind jumping ship to the tabletop scene, you’ll find a wealth of interesting settings being explored. One of my favorites is Flying Frog Productions’ A Touch of Evil, this month’s Top of the Table pick. Read on to decide if this 19th century horror game is right for you and your group.

Getting Started

A Touch of Evil is a highly flexible game, allowing two to eight players to engage in a fast-moving investigation and confrontation against a supernatural threat facing the unfortunate 19th century town of Shadowbrook. Players choose which rules to play with, keeping things simple or making them more complex as desired. The basic version of the game has players each working independently and competing to bring down the big baddie, but equally fun is the included cooperative play option that lets everyone work together against an even more powerful version of the foe. Advanced rules allow more experienced groups to add new layers, like the possibility of players becoming werewolves themselves, competitive team options, and more complex interactions with the villain’s minions. 

Setup is straightforward thanks to an included picture in the instructions that shows you where everything goes (see below).  The game has plenty of components, so it’s a good idea to keep some small bowls or cups on the table to hold everything rather than scatter everything out in a mess. 

As you lay those components out for the first time, you’ll be struck by the incredible production quality on display in everything from the card stock to the game figure pieces, which all have gorgeous but unpainted sculpts. The board looks like an old parchment map showing the town and its surrounding points of interest. Characters in highly stylized costumes are depicted by a gorgeous but unusual amalgam of photography and art overlay, with a result that recalls early- to mid-20th century horror filmmaking. Monsters are half scary/half campy, reminiscent of the vampire from 1922’s Nosferatu and Boris Karloff’s monster from The Bride of Frankenstein. The exaggerated, anachronistic art style may take a bit to get used to; for my part, I loved the callback to the cinematic roots of horror.  

Turns move  quickly, especially in comparison with many other storytelling adventure games. This keeps all the players engaged in the action, especially during the cooperative scenarios in which everyone plots together to succeed. However, game length is highly variable based on number of players. My early games with smaller groups took a couple of hours and sped up as we learned the games. If planning to play with a larger group, my experience suggests you budget at least two to three hours. 

Theme and Story

A Touch of Evil basks in its rich, cinematic heritage, and unfolds the 19th century horror theme in all sorts of cool ways. Each player takes on an iconic character role, like the big-city Inspector Cooke, Katarina the sexy outlaw, or buttoned-up school teacher Anne Marie. Each character has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and a special ability that speaks to their unique talents. 

While the town of Shadowbrook remains the same, each game brings a different villain into play – the four included in the base game are the vampire, werewolf, spectral horseman, and scarecrow. My personal favorite is undoubtedly the homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; the spectral horseman appears during his scenario from time to time, taking swipes at characters as he gallops past. 

The horror theme pervades the story-based events and locations you visit, which call to mind familiar horror clichés like a secret passages in the old manor and horrible beasts hidden in the dark of the abandoned windmill. 

Some of the biggest thematic game elements, secrecy and betrayal, are communicated through the inclusion of six town elders who each harbor some mysterious secret. Over the course of the game, players uncover these secrets – which might be the innocuous discovery that one of them is a drunk, or could reveal that they are in fact working for the villain. Their cards flip, and they take on sinister (often amusing) alter-ego personas.

The cinematic arc at the core of the gameplay reaches a climax as the hero (or heroes if playing cooperatively) hunt down the villain’s lair and engage in a final showdown. The mechanic makes for a great endgame, rather than allowing the game to simply run out of steam in the final turns. 

Taken together, each playthrough ends up feeling like it has its own story arc. In my experience, most players began to craft their own stories about the good and bad fortunes of their characters, and who got along with whom. I also love the randomized idiosyncrasies of the town elders and the way each villain adds its own special tone.

[Next up: How is the game played?]