It is 1875, and Count Dracula is president of the United States of America
Boy, what a tagline! For this very special Halloween review I’m taking a look at what might be one the best skirmish games out there. Written in 2017, this is one of the more recent additions to wild west skirmish rulesets. It’s a perfect period to game with a handful of models, either historically, or full-on Hollywood style.
With a title like Dracula’s America, you’d think you’re fairly set in the fantastic, but there are actually two (very rewarding) ways to play and campaign while wearing a big hat. you can go full Weird West with Draculas, skinwalkers and voodoo shenanigans, or you can skip the supernatural stuff and have a straight up old-school shoot out. Both modes are supported by campaign play, and every book (the original rulebook is followed up by Hunting Grounds and Forbidden Power) has an overarching campaign you can play in order, and affects later games.
In that sense it gives you the option on how you want to play. I’ve organized a “vanilla” campaign in my FLGS, and the ease of entry and solid rules really made it a fun experience. We’re now making plans to set up both a “regular” and “weird” version of the campaign, so people can pick and choose. The regular version is very cinematic, so if you want to retry a historical scenario it might falter a bit.
The rules are part of Osprey’s wargame rules, and like Frostgrave the first volume is in hardcover, and a stunningly illustrated piece of work. The rules are clearly laid out and easy to follow, and there’s a smattering of cool, unique, art throughout the book. The book is divvied up in different sections, going over the core and advanced rules, campaign play, and background of the different factions you’re able to play. The follow-up books add more factions and new modes of play, and advance the fluff a bit as well. Either way of play is improved by picking these up.
Aces over eights
To gunfight Draculas, you’ll need:
- 5-10 suitable models per side
- A gaming area of at least 2×2 feet. 3×3 is the standard size, though a 4×4 (or larger) might be best if you’re playing with more than 4 people
- A deck of cards per player
- D6s, D8s and D10s. Five or six of each are ideal
- Something that measures inches
- Plenty of scenery
- Some tokens or markers in different colours
- About an hour to play if you’ve got the table set up and a couple of games under your belt
The most important thing is the scenery, this game is plenty deadly and cover is very much needed. You’ll also be climbing on top of buildings. You can jump into a saddle from a rooftop, and dive through windows. A nice western town is the ideal way to play this, but probably not in everyone’s collection. I’ll come back to this when I go over models and such, but a woodland game is perfectly viable!
When bullets start to fly
Fun, fast, and furious. This is one of those games that you’ll be able to play without leafing through a rulebook after the first game, and the most pertinent info is found on a quick reference sheet, which you should properly laminate. There are two big mechanics that drive the action:
- A deck of cards for each player, to activate the models
- The different dice for each rank of shooter: rookie, veteran, or hero
After shuffling, you draw as many cards as half of your guys that are still alive on the table. So if you have a gang of seven, you take 4 cards (3.5 rounded up), adding one for your leader if he’s still in play, so you have 5 cards in total to choose from. The round proceeds by everyone picking a card and revealing it (throwing it down like you’re in a high-stakes saloon poker game, preferably). Black cards go first, if both cards are black or red you follow the suits. The person who has the best card activates first. This gets really intense after the first round, especially if you’re playing with multiple people! A lot hinges on proper activation, especially late game.
When you activate, you can either give 2 models 1 action, or activate 1 model twice. This means that sometimes you have tough choices, but it gives interesting tactical flexibility. You always have to guess what your opponent will do. Play proceeds until you run out of cards (even if not every model has been activated), or when every model has had an action.
A thing that also happens when you both reveal the exact same card: a random event! You roll on a table and maybe you step on a rattlesnake, or a jackalope scoots out of its burrow. This comes up once in a while, usually adding something interesting. Like the townsfolk who had enough of the gang fight and started shooting at my guys last game.
Fill your hands, you sonuvabitch
The different actions you can take give plenty of leeway to do cinematic stuff. You can shoot, punch, jump, climb, or dive-through-windows your way to victory. The actual meat of shooting and punching uses a Grit Die system. Every character is either a rookie chump who rolls D6’s, a veteran who gets the respectable D8’s, or a hero that blazes through most situations using D10’s. The target number you have to roll over is 5+. It’s important to note that this number is never modified. You roll more dice, fewer dice, or different dice, but a 5+ is always a hit.
If you’re trying to shoot someone from a rooftop for example, you first pick which weapon you want to use. Clancy is a vet who only has a pistol, and wants to get at that varmint Dean down there in the street. So Clancy starts out with 3D8’s. Fortunately, Dean is at close range, so he adds another D8. Since he’s on the 2nd floor and elevated, a second dice is added. Dean has no situational awareness and has his back turned to Clancy, so another die is added for perfidious back shooting!
Clancy now has a dice pool of 6D8’s, and rolls 4 hits – a 5, 5, 6 and 8 – a very good result! Because he rolled the maximum of 8 on his D8, he also gets to re-roll one of his misses, but gets a 3. Now Dean has a chance to save against these hits and rolls only ONE Grit Die. He’s a rookie, and rolls a 4.
This is the bit that throws people for a loop the first time. It’s not the number of hits that counts, it’s the difference between the target number of the saving throw, and how much the saving throw failed. So for four hits, our friend Dean has to roll a target number of 8+. Regardless of the fact that he can’t possibly make that save, he still has to roll. You subtract the roll from the save and that number gives you the result: in this case, downed!
That’s a whole lot of words for something that is really easy to use on the tabletop, and is about the extent of math you have to perform. Add dice to your roll, save, subtract, check result. You can either be unharmed, shaken (messes with your Grit die, gets taken down a notch), downed (you can crawl, and that’s about it, unless you recover) or dead (removed from the tabletop).
I can’t overstate how deadly this is, and you’ll be scooting from cover to cover to use that -1 die bonus by cowering behind a drinking trough. Bodies pile up, and in a campaign you’ll be offering exciting opportunities to new, fresh-faced recruits, because the previous guy lost most of his chest to a shotgun blast at short range.
Gunpowder and fangs
The Dracula’s America Cinematic Universe uses every available weird west cliché and smooshes it into a ball of fun. There are 12 factions to choose from to spice up your games! Although you still have the regular Grit Die to work with, the factions each have their own flavour. Stats are changed, faction-specific skills are added, zombies are dug up to fight in your ranks, the usual things.
The background is explained in a concise timeline, and added to in the narrative campaign and faction descriptions. There’s not a lot of it, but it works to set the stage and gives plenty of opportunity to flesh out your own story.
Although one-off games are fun, the campaign really adds a lot that you don’t want to miss out on. There are things that come back in every campaign game, so let’s take a look at that. You’ve got:
- Post-game clean-up: see who’s won, what stuff they get, and see who died
- Check if you need to hire new blood or buy a fancy new shootin’ iron and send out folks to play poker, forage or find income in another way
- Add skills and equipment to individual gang members
Now, the main difference between the vanilla and weird variant is that in Dracula’s timeline you can find more and weirder guns for hire, have access to magic, and a slightly different skill tree. The regular old west gives you plenty to choose from though, so you can make a dedicated sharpshooter or close combat monster either way. In the end, yes, it’s rolling on tables, and without an app that randomizes stuff there’s no easy way around it, but it works. This becomes a step to look forward to, and random events still happen if you roll a certain way.
One of the highlights of a previous campaign was a guy who got shot, survived, but with a limp, and due to random events got trampled to death by a stampede. If you don’t picture that poor asshole limping away from a storming herd while his friends dive into cover, this may not be the game for you.
Welcome to Deadwood
Finding models shouldn’t be too hard. There’s an official North Star line that covers every faction and spooky monsters and legends. Sculpts are good, I personally like the style but there are plenty of miniature makers on both sides of the ocean that have you covered in 28 or even 15mm. On the classic side you’ll find Wargames Foundry, and Black Scorpion has some amazing resin 32mm figures.
For buildings I personally chose from 4Ground’s range, because I had a bit of a panic-buy before Brexit. The buildings are great and have a ton of character, but are also expensive. On the cheaper side of the unpainted MDF you’ll find TTcombat, who are renewing their wild west range (check out this entire street for £28), and Sarissa has a ton of stuff too, including some stunning steamboats. Most games on a 3×3 should be plenty full, so ideally you’ll need about 7 or so buildings to get a main street going. Plenty of scatter like boxes, barrels or fences, and some dense bits of forest, can go a long way if you’re on a budget.
The biggest downside (although I consider this a plus) is the fact that building and collecting wild west scenery is kind of limiting. You can use it in a fantasy or grimdark setting if you use the power of imagination I guess, or aren’t too bothered about that sort of thing.
Sentence: hanging by the neck until dead
This review only barely covers everything this game has to offer. There are a ton of skills, scenarios, horses and factions to choose from. The game mechanics are really solid, and the game length is perfect for playing a game or two in an evening. Multiplayer has no real downtime, and is a ton of fun. If you strip away the western bits, the core is maybe one of the best skirmish games I played, and I’ve never had someone who didn’t consider starting after a demo game. Above all, it oozes atmosphere, and the games feel very cinematic.
Just play a game. I mean that, grab some scenery and a couple of dice, take a 6 man crew with 3 rookies, two vets and a hero leader and get going. Use marines and a mechanicum board, or some necromunda gangers, it doesn’t matter. The Quick Reference Sheet has all the info you need to get a quick and dirty game in, so shuffle some cards and get gun slinging!
If you feel inspired and want to get cracking on painting some Draculas and other monsters, Goonhammer has you covered.