Board Game Review: Undead by Steve Jackson Games

Note: This is a revisit of a game I played in the 1980’s and it is no longer in print, though copies are still for sale on EBay. In The Day, it sold for about $6, came in a plastic 4.5”x7.5” pocket box with a paper map and cardboard counters that had to be cut out with scissors. Dice required but not included.

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Undead by Steve Jackson Games is based on the classic novel, Dracula by Bram Stoker. Skipping the first part of the story and picks up where Dracula has reached London with his fifty earth-filled coffins. He has killed Lucy and seeking more prey, but Van Helsing and his party are out to stop him once and for all.

In Undead, one player plays as Dracula, moving around and conducting sinister business at night, and the other players play cooperatively as Van Helsing and his party, hunting him down. Lastly, there must be a game master (GM) who is the neutral party and referee. (Note the game rules state the game can be played as a 2-player game without the GM. My experience with this mode is not very good and I do not recommend it.)

The game is played on a map of 1890’s London, separated into regions of movement. Counters representing Dracula’s coffins, dummy counters placing at least one in each area. These counters are upside down, so no player knows which the dummies are and which the coffins are, except for the Dracula Player and the GM.

The players take alternating turns, with the non-moving player(s) leaving the room. Dracula makes his moves and actions such as distributing some of his coffins to other areas, searching for a servant (Renfield), and bite a victim, and so on with the GM, and then leaves the room. The Vampire Hunters enter the room, make their move and actions, such as searching for coffins, investigating victims, and generally trying to find Dracula before he raises enough female vampires. The game proceeds like this until the Hunters and Dracula wind up at the same location, in which all players enter the room and combat is played out with dice on a smaller map, representing a single room. They can fight to the death, or one or more members may flee the room, escaping (unless it is day-time, which Dracula must stay).

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The game is over when one of the victory conditions is met, but usually this means Dracula and the Hunters wound up in the same place and fight until one of the parties is eliminated.

There are other options for the players as well. For Dracula – doing a day-move, hunting the Hunters, raising female vampires or shape-changing into a wolf, bat or mist. The Vampire Hunters can likewise do a night-move, perform a transfusion on a victim (to prevent them from turning into a vampire), and hold a vigil or death watch.

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The secret moves and hunting for the bad-guy mechanic, using a map with turned-over counters was the first game of its type that I played in the 80’s. Using a GM for a board game is unique as well, and I recall it morphing into some role-playing, particularly with the players faced each other.

Playing as Dracula is cool and sucks at the same time. It’s cool, because you are a powerful antagonist, deploying coffins and raising an undead army of female vampires, and hey. Who doesn’t want their own army of female vampires? But board-gaming is a social activity, and as Dracula, you never in the same room with the other players until there is combat. This can take hours before it happens.

The Vampire Hunters (assuming there is more than one person) at least have each other to interact with, during this time. And the GM, well he is the all-knowing, all-seeing, friend to all, enemy to no one, but he doesn’t get to play. He just oversees the play.

It’s a personal gripe, but I don’t like this lack of interaction between players. A main reason I enjoy board games is the conflict\collaboration with other people that occurs in playing a table top game.

Addressing the actual gameplay, there are enough variety to make it fun. Yes, Dracula will probably shuffle coffins around and bite someone during his turn, but he could try to do a day move, or hunt the hunters. Hunters might try a vigil or night move, and it’s when these big risks are taken that the game really takes off.

Still, there are typical actions that have no real strategy, such as randomly hunting for coffins. You get lucky and find coffins (or Dracula!), or you don’t. Regardless, it is luck-based. This can result in a game that lasts 30 minutes, or likewise, 4 hours. It just depends.

I loved everything about this game back in the 80’s. Now, seeing the game with fresh eyes, I rate it a little differently. Score is 1 to 5 with 5 being best.

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Ingenuity – 5 The game mechanic is unique, and play is unlike other games.

Strategy – 3 There is a lot of luck involved in this game, but there are also a lot of choices to make, and that helps offset the chance a bit.

Social – 3 There’s some isolation of players while playing, but even jibes as Dracula and Hunters pass in the doorway are fun.

Theme – 5 Dracula. This is classic, gothic horror and it does it very, very well.

Fun – 3 I still think this sort of game is fun, and while it can go on too long with turn after turn of no much happening, it has some incredibly tense moments that other games never provide.

Components – 2 Come on. A paper map with thin, cardboard counters I have cut out myself? No dice? What do you expect for  $6!! I’ve paid much, much more for a game with nicer components, but enjoyed a lot less. Still, speaking solely about the components, I have print and play games that look better.  Just sayin’.

Overall – 3.5 (rounded to the half) Better than playing a game of Risk, and probably will take less time.

Microgames are making a comeback, thanks to Kickstarter. Unfortunately, SJGames has made no announcements that indicate it will rerelease Undead, even as a Print and Play. That’s too bad, because the components make it an excellent candidate for the PnP model.

Regardless, the game held up for me. Through my nostalgic eyes, I miss the days of the cheap, SJG Pocket games. Hell, I recently paid $100 for the Designer Release of Ogre. Is this what it is coming to?

I’d be OK with that.

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