Written by Whistler 31st July 2016
In today’s world where everything is moving so fast and online gaming absolutely dominates playing with friends it’s rare that I ever get the chance to indulge in some old school tabletop gaming. Even now I occasionally feel honor bound to turn in my Geek status given I have never sat down to some D&D (despite several attempts to organize such an endeavour). So while there been some falling outs and only one or two abruptly ended Skype calls I’m more than glad that three friends and myself decided to invest in a humble little piece of software called Tabletop Simulator.
Tabletop Sim is a great tool for of course playing the likes of Monopoly, Betrayal on the House at the Hill, Cards Against Humanity and such. However what I found most appealing was its capabilities that allow users to create, import and share their own tabletop games (as well as some sneaky unlicensed titles). What I didn’t expect was a fully functional (and highly enjoyable) tabletop representation of the rather famous Castlevania series. Crafted by one Brandon McCool, Castlevania: Nocturne of the Tabletop sees one to eight players attempt to battle Dracula’s minions before the curse takes full dominion and slay Dracula once and for all.
There’s a an almost psychotic attention to detail throughout the game’s various event, monster, item and boss cards along with the twenty something heroes to choose from. Whether you want to take on Dracula yourself or with a party of eight you can pick from several notable characters from the series including most of the Belmont family members, Nathan Graves, Soma and even Alucard from Symphony of Night. Each character is represented fairly well with individual skills, weapons and special abilities from their respective titles that cater to different playstyles. While some special rules apply to certain characters, most can equip an upgradeable primary weapon, a range of sub weapons and sub abilities that can be swapped out at the start of their turn to allow them to adapt to future scenarios.
The board is split into several stages where players take turns to roll dice to move and determine if they will encounter events/monsters as they make their way towards each Stage’s boss room. When they encounter an event a card is drawn from the corresponding deck and the following scenario plays out, these can be simple things like a minion or items to more interesting situations. Some include scenarios such as discovering a breakable wall that with a blunt weapon can gain the player a random item, level up, or even more dreaded events such as a trap door or the infamous curse clock. Combat is determined from a separate collection of dice that does away with simple number marks and simplifies the scenario with both the player’s and monster’s attack represented in a single roll. Combat, while easy to carry out can still become a rather complex game of maths; monster elemental weaknesses need to be taken into account as do player’s total damage output and special rolls such as Julius’s Flail which allows him to roll any sword dice for an additional 3 damage per die. While it takes a bit of learning (as does any tabletop game really) Castlevania’s strength is in how fast it is to get rolling and to keep rolling. The action can slow down once you start having to work out the logistics of sharing exp, items etc but you never feel like you’ve waited a century for it to become your turn again. While session’s can end rather quickly in defeat due to the game’s RNG nature, there’s rarely any down time that plays to it’s strength to keep Castlevania fresh and interesting each turn.
To throw a wrench into the player’s quest they must also combat against time where once a full cycle of player turns has been completed the Stage Clock will turn one step closer to seven; at the end of the last player’s turn once it’s hit seven then the dreaded Curse Clock will begin to count up. Each player’s turn thereafter will advance the Curse Clock until the current Stage’s boss is defeated. It’s a terrible night for a curse and in true Castlevania fashion should the player’s be unsuccessful in defeating the boss before the clock hand reaches XII they’ll succumb to Dracula’s Curse and the game will end. While a seemingly small mechanic the addition of the ever counting down Curse Clock adds a great amount of tension to gameplay that ramps up the adrenaline as you and your companions desperately fight against time. However for the uninitiated and smaller team sizes it can feel almost unbeatable as you’re almost punished for backtracking (a Metroidvania mechanic that feels unthought out) and rolls of the dice can spell your doom as early as the first stage. While my friends and myself have certainly had our grievances with the Curse Clock (including dying to the curse a mere turn away from Dracula’s throne room), it’s still a great, granted clunky, mechanic that helps drive home that cooperative adrenaline rush you expect from D&D like games.
“What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets! But enough talk! Have at you!”
Dracula himself has some secrets up his sleeves also; once you have ignited all the collected pieces of Dracula in his throne room you’ll face the dark lord himself. Starting with whatever form is randomly selected from the deck of (almost) all of Dracula’s iterations, players must do battle with the prince of darkness and defeat each subsequent form should Dracula revive. When one form is defeated players roll the attack dice, should they roll one scythe then Dracula resurrects and they must continue fighting his next form with each resurrection requiring an extra scythe. While it could mean ultimately mean getting utterly destroyed on his first form or losing purely to attrition, the anticipation for whatever form he pulls out next always ramps up enjoyment. It’s such a simple mechanic the rush of excitement to be had from the random nature helps keep the final battle fresh and exciting. One time we managed to have Julius Belmont, Shanoa, and Eric Lecarde reach and defeated two forms of Dracula by the skin of our teeth only to have him revive as Chaos (arguably the hardest boss in the tabletop). We had almost no chance of even cutting down a quarter of his health so our Shanoa had to sacrifice herself to effectively nuke the boss. We were luckily saved from dealing with a 5th form and we emerged victorious.
It must be said however while there’s a great amount of variety available and the roster isn’t completely unbalanced, but if there was tier list it would be clear as daylight which characters are leagues above the rest. Most characters are viable (at least in medium to large sized groups) but characters such as Julius and Juste prove to be capable of handling various threats with strong power ramps who just utterly dwarf the others (nor fall off late game). Certain characters such as Soma and Nathan Graves have potential to rival them but are in turn limited by their individual mechanics. Nathan for example can apply unlocked elements to either his Mercury or Neptune card in order to buff his weapon or armour granting him a elemental damage buff or immunity. However he can only apply one element to either card and is limited by the equipping items before movement and not during combat rules effectively gimping his potential to adapt due to the RNG nature of monster encounters (especially in solo or small group endeavours).
These issues aren’t helped considering the vagueness of certain character mechanics. Hector being a prime example who can summon unlockable monsters to help him in battle at the cost of his heart pool. However it wasn’t until we contacted the creator that we could get a defined understanding of how long these creatures could be summoned for. These summoned creatures can only be summoned for the current battle which given the increasingly expensive costs required for his mid to endgame summons quickly negates the benefits and potential for his character.
It’s an issue laiden throughout a large chunk of the roster where some characters don’t seem to grow properly as they level up and some just feel outright unplayable or unenjoyable.
But in spite of the niggling issues with the character roster or the rather punishing Curse Clock and RNG issues that can crop up, Castlevania: Nocturne of the Tabletop is a fantastic game. For a fan made project it feels as close as we would ever get for a true Castlevania boardgame that captures the wonder and excitement (along with a dread for difficulty) the series has been known for. Its main issue for accessibility is a vagueness for certain rules or scenarios but with the creator ever diligently putting together new content as well as addressing these issues, I can confidently say that Castlevania: Nocturne of the Tabletop is a gem of find.
If you like to play Castlevania games then I highly recommend it, to nab it yourself you can play it on the aforementioned Tabletop Simulator and if you head over to the website you can get the assets to print out your own physical copy!