The text to my wargaming group had a frantic quality to it which bled through the timbre-proof format.
“We have to play this, I mean it.”
The “this” was Dracula’s America, and yes, we did have to play it. I’d been thinking about it for months and never brought it up, because I figured nobody would go for it. We’d done so much Age of Sigmar that it was time for a change of pace, even if that would remain our main game, and all of us were casting about for a new hotness, something smaller scale and more intimate.
But why not Dracula’s America? Because it is a bonkers game, a work of fever dream levels of historical reinvention and throwing weird stuff into a brew to see how it tastes. My group doesn’t always go for the truly gonzo, the (excuse the pun) batty, or the surreal.
The central storyline of Dracula’s America is that the Count Dracula is dictator of the United States. He escaped Europe, becoming a close advisor to Abraham Lincoln in an alternative Civil War which dragged on past its historical end date. Then, because he’s Dracula, he helped assassinate Lincoln and installed himself as eternal undead overlord of the triumphant Union.
From that kernel of weirdness, all sorts of bizarre factions and situations spin out in Dracula’s America and its two supplements. The Catholic Church sends over angel summoning Inquisitors to ally with Ulysses Grant in his resistance campaign against President Dracula. Aleister Crowley’s dad forms a railroad company so he can build an intercontinental railway in arcane patterns for mysterious forces, while lycanthropic Native American tribes try to derail (don’t excuse this one) his satanic efforts.
There are freed slaves in the Deep South staving off a guerrilla war by zombie Confederates and the cursed remnants of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Escaped covens of witches from Salem, cannibalistic hillbillies, and Dagon worshipers duke it out on the Mississippi Delta. Spellcasters, summoned demons, maintous and wendigos, mutant pig farmers. It just goes on and on, a cascade of swirl of crazy stuff which maybe shouldn’t work together but oh my goodness it does.
You pick a posse from one of the factions and you go at it, with a default setting of the Old West and the Great Plains and Deep South added in the supplements. You fight over territory, bragging rights, and prestige, same as any other skirmish wargame. Its structure owes a lot to old Necromunda and Mordheim, right down to the way loot, posse-building, and injuries work–there’s an old school vibe underpinning Dracula’s America and it wears its influences on its sleeve.
Texas Hold ‘Em
But there’s a lot of nifty, modern mechanical doodads in the game to prevent it from being a reskin of older games. The most obvious is that unit activation is done by dealing a number of cards based on how many models you have on the table, then picking one and comparing with your opponent. Winner goes first, activating either two miniatures for one simple move apiece (e.g. move 4″, shoot, etc.) or one model twice.
When I watched videos ahead of our big test weekend, I thought it might be gimmicky, but in actual play it was highly tactical and flexible. Real questions arise over what order you do things and whether you want to burn cards on making individuals more effective via more actions or encircling the enemy. What’s better is that those questions keep popping up. They’re never resolved, only renewed each turn.
The other modern thing is that the core mechanic is distilled down to every model only having one statistic: Grit. This was another point of skepticism I had before actually playing which melted away: how granular can a game be if it only has one stat and where the heck is my 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle style rules grind?
As it turns out, the primacy of Grit rules. Grit doesn’t determine a dice pool size or anything like that, but what type of dice you roll. Fresh-faced cowboys and cowgirls roll simple D6s, three at a time, and you need a 5 or better to succeed at a test. Any test, so you’re rolling the same pool (determined by Grit) for shooting, fighting, or seeing whether you run away. But your veterans and heroes are rolling D8s and D10s, meaning they have better odds without rolling fistfuls of dice. I really like the tactile sensation of tons of dice, but this is novel and refreshing. It’s also really simple to pick up; after one game apiece, everyone was rolling through turns quickly, despite only one rulebook to share between us.
With that background of the game out of the way, I and the other three players in my regular wargaming group killed most of a Saturday shooting each other up. Things were a little less painted than normal, since half of us are in some sort of academic endeavor as our dayjobs and it’s the start of a new semester, but that didn’t change our enjoyment. We had a bunch of gorgeous MDF Old West buildings, two mats, and some trees for scenery, and we went to work.
My satanic cult, Pazuzu and Sons (we’re a railway concern working as a subsidiary of Crowley’s company, and we are in no way influenced by demons) acquitted themselves well, as did the vampiric federal agents roaming the hills. But it was the werewolves and (especially) the zombie Confederates who ruled the day. In the end, it was one of those weekends where it sincerely didn’t matter who was winning because everything was so fun, so nuts, so able to generate evocative stories out of pieces of lead and wood, that we barely remembered the standings.
Wave of the Future
A final word on the miniatures and the publisher, Osprey. The miniatures are made by North Star, who do a line of what you might consider the core of each faction, i.e. the weird stuff like cult leaders and vampires. They package those with some Old West miniatures from Artizan, and every posse starts with a scant, easy to pick up six figures. But it’s the Old West, meaning you can use any appropriate 28mm scale you like; I dipped into the gorgeous Black Scorpion Old West range and a couple Reaper figures to round out my posse. So go to town.
As for the publisher, Dracula’s America is part of Osprey’s still evolving, years-long reinvention of themselves as a games publisher. They’re admirably willing to take chances on odd, niche miniatures games, and it’s delivered some great stuff. I can’t separate Dracula’s America from Gaslands or Frostgrave in my mind, because they all feel like a specific approach to skirmish wargaming: cheap, inventive, fast, and fun. So kudos to Osprey for continuing to work in this subgenre.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, as it did to me, get Dracula’s America. It’s a nearly perfect blend of old and new, with a kitchen sink but in the good way approach to its background. We’re already planning at least a few more months of it. The Old West beckons, but this time it has fangs.
Into skirmish games? Tell us your favorites in the comments below!
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Image Credits: Osprey Games, Scott Rewerts, Ian Williams