Riding high on the tremendous success of Pandemic Legacy, Rob Daviau has now crafted an entirely new game about a deadly infection, the globetrotting team bent on curing it, and vampires. It’s called V-Wars, and it features a map of the planet (complete with cities located one galling inch away from their real-world positions), a disease that pops up according to the whims of an uncaring event deck, and vampires. If it sounds a lot like Pandemic plus vampires, well, you aren’t wrong. In a way, it feels like Daviau had a few great ideas left over that he couldn’t quite squeeze into Pandemic Legacy, so he made V-Wars. And now it exists.
If I sound cynical about V-Wars, it probably has to do with the fact that my group recently completed Pandemic Legacy. It was a great experience, we forged some lasting memories — but it also became a little stressful somewhere around the halfway point, not to mention we were all pretty sick of bouncing around the planet doing largely the same thing a dozen times over. So when V-Wars first unfolded on my table, I just stared. More Pandemic. Pandemic forever. Pandemic until I drop.
Thankfully, V-Wars is nothing like Pandemic. Or at least, not much like it.
Here’s the scene: melting polar ice has unleashed a virus that turns people into vampires. Does it make sense? Absolutely not. Is it based on a comic? Absolutely yes. Is it a heavy-handed parable for modern equal rights movements and man’s inhumanity to un-man? I have no idea, but the synopsis sort of sounded that way. Turns out, being a vampire doesn’t necessarily mean you, y’know, eat people. Maybe you just nibble. Or maybe you can control your cravings. Either way, there are at least a handful of vampires who look upon humanity with the forlorn hunger of a basset hound when you spill an entire frying pan of bacon, and plenty of regular humies (vamp-speak for “humans”) would rather see this whole vampirism fad just shush up and go away.
That’s the set dressing. The meat of the game — or perhaps “the blood of the game” would be more appropriate phrasing — is that at least one of the people working to put down the vampiric uprising may be batting for the other team.
And so it goes. While everyone is jetting around the globe, suppressing outbreaks and deploying peacekeepers and tampering with one of the many region decks (more on those in a moment), you’ve also got somebody trying to bring the whole house of cards tumbling to the ground. Worse, some of your human teammates might be carrying the vampire strain without having yet turned, meaning they could be loyal companions one minute and blood-curious the next. As the human team, you start out as the barely-contested masters of your domain. There are a few vampire uprisings here and there, the occasional riot that doesn’t turn out how you wanted, but you’re doing alright. You’re keeping it together. By the end of the game, however, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be outnumbered, your former friends transformed into your worst enemies.
The best thing about V-Wars is that all this uncertainty over one’s ultimate loyalties creates a palpable atmosphere of paranoia. What starts as a single leak quickly turns into a ship that can’t seem to reach the bottom of the ocean fast enough. In one recent game, one of our infected players wasn’t sure which side to support. She was human for the time being, but until the vampire player made himself known and started hunting for teammates, there was no telling which side she would be rooting for. So rather than take sides, she played against everyone. When an outbreak occurred, she’d come up with a reason to position herself somewhere else. When it came time to add cards to one of the region decks, she would assess the situation and add cards for whichever side she thought was doing poorly there. The result was widespread confusion about who was on which side, as the trail of evidence left in her wake pointed in both directions.
Just briefly, let’s talk about those region decks. See, much like a few other classic traitor games like Battlestar Galactica, Homeland, and Dead of Winter, the conclusion of each turn revolves around a crisis. In this case, a city begins rioting over the issue of vampire rights versus human safety. When that happens, you draw that region’s deck of cards and begin flipping them over one by one. Some of the time, the resulting tally simply hands one side the victory, but there are a few interesting subtleties at play that set V-Wars apart from its cousins. For one thing, cards can kill off any enemy troops positioned in that city, tiny soldiers and dancing zombies dying off but also negating whatever card was responsible for their demise. This means that even a single troop can sacrifice himself to wipe out a high-strength opposing card, giving you a strong incentive to blanket the map with your team’s forces. Secondly, open war hasn’t yet broken out between humans and vampires. This is a hearts-and-minds affair. Thus, you want to win these checks by a painfully narrow margin, enough to win control of the city but not so much that your side massacres the enemy. Do that and sympathy will move in favor of your opponent, basically shoving your side that much farther from victory.
Managing all those region decks can be difficult — even cluttered — especially since they aren’t reset at the conclusion of a riot. Instead, one of the cards is secretly discarded and play continues, each region largely bearing the same sympathies as it did before. This makes it possible to invest in a region to satisfy multiple conflicts, or just keep in mind that South America will probably vote one way while Europe will go another.
This is seriously clever stuff, and in some ways feels like the crisis system of games past taken to the next level. Loyalties are never entirely certain, regions vacillate between pro- and anti-vampire, and even the traitor must be alert in order to figure out which humans she might be able to flip to her side. At its best, it provides an incredibly tense experience, one filled with mistrust and second-guesses.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always at its best. Leaving aside the absolutely shoddy production values — a board with nearly indistinguishable regions, cards that fray at the edges after only a couple plays — there’s also the issue of the sheer clutter of the thing. Keeping track of eight region decks is hard enough, but when you take into account some of the game’s necessarily subtler strategies, like using low cards to avoid triggering massacres, hiding infected players in quarantined cities, and making proper use of your team’s soldiers, this is not the sort of game that flows smoothly until your group has a few plays under their belt. Even then, the game occasionally slumps under the weight of its own cleverness, and at times it feels like the Vampire’s best play is to simply reveal themselves immediately before its prey has any cities under martial law to hide in.
Even so, V-Wars is a whole lot of fun — provided that you’ve invested the time in understanding its systems. Awakening an infected player to the vampire side can put the entire table into conniptions, while using your junk cards to push an enemy victory over the edge to a massacre feels brilliant. It packs serious chills, thrills, and groans of disappointment as secret loyalties are unveiled, riots don’t go the way you expected, and your spouse turns out to be a bloodthirsty maniac.