A game by Gordon Calleja
Three in the morning and no one out in the streets except him and a stray dog sniffing around a dumpster.
Shadowman steps out into the light and looks around the corner of the alley at the old printing shop. A nondescript building in a dilapidated neighborhood, hollowed out by redlining and neglect after white folks lit out for the suburbs. Nothing but abandoned warehouses and junkie squats and the occasional gang hideout. Griffon Printing, reads a weather-beaten sign hanging from a pole. Creaking in the wind. Newspaper blowing across the street like tumbleweed.
Storm blowing in. Coming for Roxy Kween and her empire of dirt.
The dog limps down the alley in search of scraps. Startled to see him, it skitters back and yips a bark of warning.
Shadowman grins. The dog didn’t expect to see him waiting in the shadows.
But it’s where Shadowman does his best work.
He lifts a hand to the side of his head. The pain flaring up for a moment. He sees the apparition of Roxy Kween swimming before his vision, dots of static resolving into her leering features before they disappear, back into the murk of night. He must be losing his mind.
Then he remembers her goons holding him down, his arms wrenched cruelly behind his back. The oily rag stuffed in his mouth. The drill to his temple. The agony, blinding in its clarity. The sight of her gold medallion, flecked with his blood, swinging before his eyes as he lost consciousness.
He shouldn’t have been alive. The Lordz gang flung him out with the trash, leaving him for dead among the banana peels and rotting cabbage. He only woke up because a rat was beginning to nibble at his arm.
But Doc Santos fixed him up good. He spent a week, maybe more, recovering in a morphine haze in a dingy storeroom behind a vet clinic. His days and nights were filled with the howls and whimpers of fearful dogs and the smell of blood-soaked bandages.
And nightmares of the Kween.
At some point, he woke up. Weak and starving but stitched back together by the wonders of modern medicine and the song of revenge in his blood.
And it is his thirst for vengeance that helps him find the printing place. He remembers what his old sensei used to say: it’s the journey that teaches you about your destination. In his case, it is literal, he thinks with a sad grin: he has no idea where the Kween is holed up. This is hard-earned knowledge unwillingly given up by members of the Lordz gang: Bandaboi and Sisifuz, who have their own beefs with him. A crew of grunts whom he dispatches with no mercy. Even a random gang boss, Kaiser, who is of no use to him. None of them are; their cold corpses are merely for climbing over to get to the Kween.
And now he is ready. Watching and waiting in the shadows so he knows what to expect:
Two grunts and a henchman in the first storeroom.
A henchman and a gunman in the second storeroom.
An empty reception room.
Then the office.
Where the Kween counted her money.
Where he would find her.
Where he will exact his vengeance.
Shadowman has only three chances. Three rolls of the dice. He needs to make them all count.
Getting into the reception room will be crucial. He can’t let the minions slow him down. He will take care of them later.
But first, the Kween.
He dashes into the storeroom. His eyes darting towards the reception room entrance in the corner.
Before the grunts have any time to react, a henchman in a suit rushes forward and slashes away at Shadowman. He winces as a knife bites into his wrist.
Shadowman sprints nimbly across the room, stabbing the henchman in the side, to the surprise of the two grunts. He slips into the reception room and slams the door behind him, but not before the gunman in the adjacent room wings him in the thigh.
There is silence. All he can hear are the screams of pain from behind the door.
And behind the other door: the Kween.
He’s bleeding. Blood runs down his leg and his arm but there is no pain. There is no time to feel pain. Should he rush into the room? If Roxy Kween gets the jump on him then he’d get hurt twice and it’ll be all over. And guns in close quarters wasn’t going to work.
So he waits. Opens the door a crack.
And there she is. The Kween. Bundles of money on the tables next to her. The blinds cutting the halogen glow of the street lamps outside into strips of light. She stands with her back to the door, the loud buzzing sound of her drill filling the office.
She’s playing with the drill, Shadowman thinks. And it’s why she can’t hear me.
Shadowman pulls out his pistol and shoots. The bullet catches her in the right shoulder. She drops the drill from her hand, the instrument clattering on the floor.
Shadowman vaults over the desk. Learned this in his parkour days. Coffee mug and papers spill onto the floor.
He rolls into a ball and propels his lithe body into the Kween’s den.
Pulls out his knife and before she can react—
—Shadowman stabs one, two, three times.
It’s overkill. Doesn’t matter.
Her Majesty bleeds out on the floor. No time to inspect his handiwork. He sprints into the next room.
One bullet. He has to make it count. But it won’t be enough to take them all down.
He shoots through the door into the next room and hears a scream. One grunt down, another to go.
But he is out of bullets.
In the room with Shadowman is a gunman and a grunt. Shadowman doesn’t hesitate. He flicks his knife open and stabs the gunman twice in the throat, wheeling to his right before sinking the knife twice into the grunt’s stomach. Both flap on the floor like gutted fish.
But he is out of time.
Shadowman runs out of the printing press’s door. The remaining member of the Lordz gang appears from behind a pallet and half-heartedly rabbit-punches him, like a parting insult, as he exits.
He does not stop running until he is out of breath, then he runs some more. He collapses, gasping, and leans against a wall for support.
I wanted to take them all down, he thinks to his regret. But the Kween is dead.
He wills his heart to slow down. He waits for something, some sense of relief or satisfaction, something to fill the void still gnawing at him.
But there is none.
He pulls his hood over his head and walks into the night. It has started to rain.
What the game is about
Vengeance can be summed up in five words: John Wick, the board game. It’s a loving tribute to revenge action movies, translated into cardboard.
In the game you play a character who seeks, uh, vengeance, after criminals have inflicted depredations on your body and mind. You can be Johnny Silver, grizzly punk guitarist whose music memorabilia is stolen by the Yakuza (a movie I’d love to see if it hasn’t been made already); Runa Bolt, an ice hockey player, complete with bloody hockey stick, whose father is beaten by gang members; even a Kurdish grandmother who turns out to be a double sword-wielding former special forces assassin. Your enemies are a mess of cliches—Japanese gangsters, bikers, Eastern Europeans—but I figure any generic action movie would have them too, and it could have been much worse.
The game starts with the “wronging” phase at setup: it’s the scene when the hero spits out blood and teeth and smiles defiantly at the villain through missing incisors. Your characters begin the game already beaten within an inch of their lives, where you’re forced to choose between an appallingly creative variety of physical and mental torments.
Next is the montage phase. You know what that looks like: it’s the scene, usually without dialogue and shown in quick cuts, when the protagonist cases the gang lair and the members’ comings and goings. It’s the scene when John Wick literally digs up his past to bring up his killing gear from under the floor boards: there will be blood. It’s when the getaway car’s gas tank is filled up, duffel bags full of weaponry are packed away, and fake mustaches are pressed on.
In Vengeance, the montage phase is thematically similar: you draw cards to heal yourself, or do some reconnaissance, or gain special abilities that let you change the outcome of die rolls—say, two knife attacks into a sprint. These special ability tokens don’t quite have a cinematic analogue; not even John Wick can “convert” a gun into a knife. (On second thought, he probably could.) There’s a point allocation mechanism that works well, and leads to interesting decisions to make: do you prioritize acquiring the ability tokens to help with the combat dice rolls, or will you try to get rid of your mental stress—and in so doing increase your montage dice in the next round?
And then comes combat time. Vividly illustrated boards that represent the gang dens—a garage, a laundromat, a hotel lobby—with detailed plastic miniatures that represent the boss and her or his minions: a henchman with special powers, tough guys with more health, a gunman that can shoot into adjacent rooms, a regular grunt. You get the idea.
Your hero waits outside, bat or rifle or katana in hand. Ready for vengeance.
A word of caution, though: like Mage Knight (see my earlier post), Vengeance does throw you out from your immersive experience to remind you that it’s a game. The game isn’t complex, but there’s a little fiddliness in the rules (mostly having to do with the sequence of actions), and iconography I occasionally forget. The montage phase isn’t the most straightforward process. You purchase vengeance cards in one phase, but you have to use them in another. The same goes for recon tokens, where purchase and action are separated. This is understandable for multiplayer, because different players have to wait their turn, but in solo mode, the flow isn’t quite intuitive, and I found myself reversing some actions because I had missed the order (though, to the game’s defense, the sequence is written out on the player boards). Either way, I still have to take a peek at the rulebook.
As a solo gamer, the components are a bit overkill. I only have to populate a room with minions one at a time, so there’s no need for the whole mess of plastic henchmen; it’s why the game comes in such a big box.
Vengeance is a dice chucker, and so may not be for everyone. This may be a surprise to non-board gamers familiar only with Monopoly, but there are board gamers who dislike dice—in short, who don’t like randomness. I didn’t understand this when I was first starting out with modern board games; just about every game I played when I was growing up involved dice, including Dungeons and Dragons! But one person’s sense of drama is for another player a lack of control. In a resource management / economic strategy game like the classic Agricola, the player knows the action space cards to be drawn next, allowing one to strategize. But with dice, well, it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes you need a movement die to get to the next room, but all you have are weapons. Or you’re finally face to face with the gang boss, with no weapons and a sadistic glint in the boss’s eye as he prepares to stab you.
It is so much fun though. Vengeance—like the action film genre from which it takes inspiration—is so interestingly adherent to form. In the same manner that Vengeance uses the structure of an action movie screenplay, the game also breaks down a fight sequence into its constituent parts: running, shooting, stabbing. Chaining together combinations like this as a result of the fight dice is one of the most appealing elements of Vengeance. You are the fight choreographer. And I’m not talking about a 3-second Michael Bay frenzy of cutting, where you can barely make out what’s happening; I’m talking about a ballet of bullets, John Woo-style, filmed with one camera. I’m talking Jackie Chan, using all corners of the film frame to propel himself against a crowd of enemies. In Vengeance you imagine your character going into a stabbing frenzy, leaving nothing but bodies lying around a pool table, and finish your turn with a bullet to a gunman’s head in the adjoining bedroom. Or you bust into a room, guns blazing, ignoring a stab wound just so you can take a shot at the boss who wronged you at the start of the game.
I love games that pull you into its world. It should be obvious from my “session report” above that this game is just dripping with theme, which is also nicely woven into its mechanics. If you love mindless action flicks as I do, it’s a no-brainer.