Dracula’s America vs Dead Man’s Hand

Here are 2 relatively recent sets of rules with some similarity in approach and theatre.  Both are far away from the old ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ theme with its scores of weapon types, modifiers and degrees of success.  They are designed for gangs of 6-10 28mm models on tables about 3′ square.  Neither features a host of weapon types but about half of each basic gang should be pistol armed.

Dracula’s America includes rules for Gothic creatures but can be used for the regular Wild West.  Dead Man’s Hand in the core book is for pure Wild West but ‘Curse of Dead Man’s Hand’ brings in zombies and nether creatures.  Neither game is restricted to cowboys and sandy streets.  They could be used for any Victorian or Gothic setting from the introduction of reliable firearms to just before machine guns become commonplace.  Alternatively a generic system such as 7TV or ‘In Her Majesty’s Name’ could be used for the same settings and models.  One would hope that a bespoke ruleset would involve less player customisation and more period flavour.

From a literary point of view Dead Man’s Hand wins the rules are clearly and logically laid out and there are not many of them.  A lot of the book consists of commentary and explanations which are easy to identify.  Dracula’s America presents rules for historical gaming, supernatural rules and campaigns together with the fluff.  This can make tracking down a specific rule tricky as it could be in one of several sections within the rule book.

The aim here is not to review both rules but to see what they have in common and what advantage might be gained from sampling both.  On the combat front Dead Man’s Hand uses D20s with modifiers to the final score. An 11+ is needed for any effect and 20+ for a kill.  Stacking up +4 in modifiers is pretty hard so just about any shot will have a 25% chance of failure.  This would be at ranges and conditions where outside films and pulp gaming it would be close to impossible to miss.  Dracula’s America employs D6s, D8s and D10s with modifiers changing the number of dice rolled, in all cases a 5+ is a success.   The target has a limited save and the degree of failure sets the severity of the hit.   This should see more conclusive shooting as a veteran would roll 3D8 in average circumstances looking for 5s (1 1/2 hits expected) a rookie would save on 5+ with 1D6.  3/2 * 1/3 = 3/6, a 50% chance of getting some sort of effect.

In Dead Man’s Hand a hit can be fatal or stack up 1-4 ‘under fire’ markers.  These inhibit other actions but can be recovered from.  Dracula’s America has shaken or down as a prelude to a casualty result.  Shaken needs supernatural intervention to remove and severly restricts other abilities.  Down depends on a dice roll to be converted to Shaken.  Neither game system worries about where a hit lands nor its specific effect.  You are either spooked a bit, unharmed or off for an early bath.

Activation is trivial in Dracula’s America although this does facilitate multi-player games.  The players pick a playing card from their limited hand and the high score chooses who activates first, 1 model having 2 actions or 2 taking 1 each.  Each player needs a deck and on the unlikely event of both choosing exactly the same card a random event occurs.  This system could easily be replaced by drawing tokens from a bag Bolt Action style.  This would rule out the random events occuring when 2 players draw exactly the same card.  The chance of matching 1 card (with 2 Jokers) is 1/54,  the next match would be 1/53 and so on.  If both players have hands of 5 cards in a turn the odds of a random event would approach 1/10, easily modelled with a D10 roll.

Alternatively activation could borrow from Dead Man’s Hand.  Here activation depends on a special deck of cards shared between the players.  The cards have the usual pip markings but also have event text.  Each player draws 1 card and assigns that to a model then another is drawn blindly for every model in play.  The models activate in order of card pip, Ace is high, Joker low.  The players also have a hand of 5 cards drawn from the same deck that can be played for in-game events.  The cards are supplied with the rules and can be bought separately and used straight off the bat for Dracula’s America.  Any minor game effect differences would be easily adapted.  An alternative is to buy mini playing cards and use these.  Event card effects could be made up or the event part of the game ignored.  Mini playing cards have the advantage of being even smaller than the official Dead Man’s Hand cards so will be less intrusive on the table.  A minor issue is the card backs, they are what you get.  Cute puppies and princesses are amongst those currently available to on-line auction buyers.  Both games have limited overwatch or interrupt mechanisms to act against poor activation draws.

The marketing strategy of both systems is quite different.  Dracula’s America is the most vendor neutral.  There are 3 books so far, all published by Osprey hence often available at a favourable price.  The additional books bring in more supernatural gangs and creatures.  The ‘Kin‘ gang is not in any of the books but is available as a download from Osprey.  There are recommended figures from North Star but anything close enough will work.  Great Escape Games sell supplements for zombies (Curse), Australia (Down Under) and a campaign system (Legend of Dead Man’s Hand).  A strength of Dracula’s America is that a rudimentary campaign is built into the base book.  Dead Man’s Hand is supported by figures for the 4 basic gang types, the additional gangs in the expansion books and figures that are not in the books.  The expansion figure sets include rules and cards for using them in regular games.  Without finding a review it is not possible to tell how much effect any additional cards or rules would have on game play.  Where a single expansion figure is sold with a card it is possible that card would never be drawn into a player’s hand unless they are given the option to start a game with it ready to play.  In Dracula’s America the rules are in the books not tied to buying the specific figures.

Both games include scenarios although those in the core Dracula’s America book are restricted to the usual, kill it, capture it and count up points variety.  There is some more effort to create a theme to each game in Dead Man’s Hand with sets of 3 scenarios or scenes building up a story.  Even so these themes are pretty light.  For these sets of rules the emphasis is more on combat than role play.

The scene gamed here is a no-where hamlet hoping to get into the cattle town business with new buildings springing up but still some older log cabins.  Cattle pens have been laid out but business has still to pick up.  We can assume the river is wide enough for boat traffic and that a dock is close by but off-board.

The town buildings are TT Combat, 4 buildings and a gallows for £20.  All except the bank share the same shape frame and went together reasonably well.  The bank has a dividing wall and did not appear to have 2 equal sets of 2 walls, one wall being slightly off size to the other 3.  Some cutting and forcing was required to get a workable shape.  The log cabin buildings are Pegasus and are closer to 20mm scale than 28mm.  The waggon is TT and frankly a mess, the wooden hoops only joining to the main frame with a small connection point.  The crates are also TT, the smaller crates being useful scatter but the big rifle cases at top left are massively oversized.  The mat is made up of childrens’s play foam tiles, Eva Foam, £5 on eBay.  A handy outline marker for 90cm square and dirt cheap if lacking in gaming surface detail.

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Here are the good guys for Dead Man’s Hand.  Leader, shootist and 5 regulars for 21 points.

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The same line up and points outfit for the bad guys.

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Turn 1 with the cards showing initiative but adding gaming clutter to the play area.  A building with a closed roof is unoccupied (bad guys are black cards, good guys red).

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The end of turn 1.  No one is out of play.  The bad guys have 2 under fire markers (one behind the tree at right of image) and the good guys 1 (in the log cabin).  Shots were fired with the targets ducking into cover in nearly every case.  This burned the target’s activation but decreased the already slim chance of getting a hit.  The best tactic seemed to be shoot and force the target to react then aim and shoot with another shooter.  Even getting up real close as seen at the bottom of the image and by the log cabin has had little effect.

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Hoping to get some results the guys move into crazy close range and even try out close combat.  That involves a roll off on D10s with a +1 for charging in and each under fire marker on the opposition.  The target could react and shoot on the way in if they have not already activated.  The head baddy has gone down in hand to hand.  The guy at the top of the image is out of ammo.

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Another turn of point blank mayhem and hand to hand sees the following line up on the injury bench.  3 baddies and 2 good guys.

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Another couple of turns see the pattern continue.  The baddies are 4 down including their boss but pass their morale.  The following turn with the boss and head gunslinger off for an early bath the baddies bottle out.  The end game is shown below:

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The single D20 mechanism had the disadvantage of a hefty swing of fate.  The relatively few modifiers meant that in most of the shots the result could be guessed without needing to work it out.  The crown cards had the ability to influence the game when they came up.  Most of the event cards drawn were pip cards, adding some flavour and uncertainty but not strongly bending game play.

To best reflect Dracula’s America some subs are brought in.  The central pair below will lead the crossroads cult. The guy in the waistcoat can fly as (obviously) can the winged dude.  The chaps on the flank can ony enter play by summoning.  The baddies will become vampires using the same models but upgrading 2 to full bloodsuckers.  This enables them to recover from shaken, become harder to kill and discombobulate their enemies.  They do not, however, get to summon any fancy stuff.

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The terrain is unchanged.  The crossroads cult moved up from the bottom left corner and the vampires started in the bottom right.  The 3 buildings, sheriff, saloon, store were set as objectives; 3 VP to the player with sole units within 3″ of each.  The first 3 turns see both sides running up to gain ground.  The cult keep their casters back and summon away.   The vampires run their 2 blood suckers forward.

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Turn 4 sees the beginning of the action.  The vampires are controlling 2 buildings.  The barkeep is getting out of dodge as is the store owner.  A vampire supporter has captured a female bystander to use as a human shield.  The cultists have summoned and dispatched a demon dog to take on the vampire outside the saloon.

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A rifle shot knocks down the vampire at top right.  The melee with the dog is indecisive although pooch is shaken.  The red guy with wings finally manifests and heads into the action.

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The dog is down, but the cult summons another one.  The red demon should go through the vampire supporter like butter but whiffs it.   The vampires control 2 buildings, the cult one.

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Amazingly the red demon is dispatched but the vampires suffer badly from rifle fire.  The demon dog finishes off one of the downed vampire cult.  A cultist attempts to contest the saloon.

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The vampires make short work of the saloon cultist and now control 2 buildings.

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After 8 turns the vampires have 6 VPs from buildings but 6 more from enemy kills.  All but 1 of these kill points earned by dispatching demons.  The cultists stand on 4 VPs a clear victory for the blood suckers.  The lesson learnt here is that demons are a mixed blessing.  Their loss is temporary as they can come back and when summoned increase the gang size but not the number of available activations.  The dog is a D6 demon so not too hard to send back to where it came from, churning out kill points for the enemy.  The winged devil is a D10, meaty but 3 points for the kill, which the vampires managed to achieve.   Despite Dracula’s America being the more deadly in terms of maths the body count of this game was lower, partly due to less of the risky hand to hand combat atking place.

The game took less than an hour and saw a deal more purposeful combat results than the Dead Man’s Hand playthrough.   The suggested game length is 8 turns on a 3′ square table.  This seemed to be too little time or too much space.  In Dead Man’s Hand a model could move 3 times a turn for 12″ so would cover the board width in 3 turns if necessary.  Dracula’s America also has a 4″ move but a model can activate to move once or twice a turn.  There are not enough activations for all models to take 2 actions so some will only move once or not at all.  Assuming 1 move a turn and starting 8″ in a model will get 8 + (8*4) = 40″, in a game.  That would cover the board but not allow for shooting and tactical positioning.  The effect that is with the standard board and timings some models are going to be restricted to shuffling and long range shooting rather than taking an active part in tactical decisions.  Dracula’s America does favour multiple players and with 4 or more gangs on the same table there would be more interaction.  Alternatively for smaller games a smaller table would be better or to have gangs start further in.  Looking at the board used here having the gangs deploy anywhere within the 90cm square corner boards should work.

Running through the campaign progression saw the vampires come out ahead with 2 new D8 (veteran) recruits and 3 new skills for the gang.  The cult brought in 3 D6 (novice) recruits and 2 new skills.  The campaign is scored on infamy.  After the first match the vampires stand at 15 and the cult 11.  Running the same terrain again with the loot scenario results in a draw but after campaign rolls the vampires are on 14 infamy and the cult 18.  This was due to the vampires losing a guy and some lucky advancement rolls together with the underdog bonus for the cult.   This hints that there is as much luck as skill in doing well in the campaign.

Concluding by comparing the rules, Dracula’s America does have more options in the main rulebook and plays faster.  The cards from Dead Man’s Hand provide an interesting option and can be bought separately although having the rules does open up more scenario outlines.  Going the other way spells cast in a similar option to shooting so could be moved into Dead Man’s Hand.  The games ought to be seen as a compliment rather than an ‘either or’ choice.