Richard Garfield was already a legend in gaming for his creation of Magic: the Gathering, which, even though it’s not a board game, has influenced several generations of tabletop titles, creating the deckbuilding mechanic that was later refined by titles like Dominion while also setting up the field for dueling games like the subject of my last review, Riftforce. Then he moved into tabletop gaming, scoring another crossover hit with 2011’s King of Tokyo, one of the best family games out there, one where player elimination doesn’t ruin the whole thing for everyone.
Garfield is back with his first new title in three years, The Hunger, a real board game with a deckbuilding mechanic and press-your-luck play that has earned the game comparisons to Clank! (More on that in a moment.) Players in The Hunger play vampires who have 15 turns to leave the castle, work their way around the board, hunt for humans, and get back to the castle before the game ends, or else they’ll be burnt to a crisp by the rising sun.
Deckbuilders start every player with the same small deck of basic cards, and players will then buy cards over the course of the game to improve that deck—gaining more powerful cards, or maybe just gaining cards that let you discard (or even trash) less useful ones. In The Hunger, your starter cards mostly just give you movement power, with very little in the way of extra powers and no victory points. The real twist in The Hunger compared to most other deckbuilder games is that almost every card you’ll acquire during the game will make your deck worse. You hunt for cards by taking them from the Hunt track, and most of them are human cards worth points but without movement or added powers. That means the more you load up on high-calorie humans, the slower you move, and the harder it is to get back to the castle.
The board in The Hunger has a spiraling track that splits multiple times and spirals around the castle, moving through the Cemetery, the Plains, and the Forest, eventually stopping at the Labyrinth. Hunting humans in the Plains gets you an extra victory point per card, while doing so in the Forest gets you two more. If you reach the Labyrinth, you get a valuable, permanent Rose card that doesn’t go into your deck but stays in your play area for the remainder of the game.
On each turn, you’ll draw three cards from your deck and add up the Speed (movement) points in their upper left corners. You can move up to that number of spaces around the track, take the action of wherever you stop, and then use any remaining points to Hunt, taking one or more cards from a single space on the Hunt track. Many board spaces offer treasures with one-time bonuses. Some allow you to take a Mission card, most of which are worth extra points at game-end if you meet certain conditions. If you stop on a Well space, you get a bonus Hunt out of the rightmost (1 point) column. Any cards you get from the hunt, which mostly comprise humans but can be zero-point cards that provide some in-game benefits, go into your deck unless they are specifically labelled as permanent.
As your deck fills up with Humans, your chances of drawing one or even zero cards with Speed points start to increase. Every starter deck has a card that goes from 1 to 3 Speed points if you draw a Human in the same turn, and there are some cards that give you a bonus if you draw two humans (which would otherwise be a terrible hand), but in general your draws get worse as the game goes on, so if you’re too far from the castle you may find it impossible to get back in time to score. Cards on the Hunt track start out in the column with cost 3, but if they’re not purchased, they move to the cost 2 column, and then to the cost 1 column, where they stay and accumulate, so you can easily end up hunting three to five cards in one shot—potentially great near the end of the game if you’re close to the castle, but otherwise potentially deadly if you have a long way to go.
After 15 rounds, players in the Castle score normally, players in the Cemetery take a 5-point penalty, and everyone else is eliminated. If you’re not a sun-dried tomato, you also reveal and score all of your Mission cards, adding them to your total from Humans hunted and other in-game bonuses.
If you’ve played any of the Clank! games, this has to sound at least a little bit familiar. In Clank!, a press-your-luck dungeon crawl in a board game package, once one player has exited the dungeon, it’s a race for everyone else to get out. That creates a more competitive mechanic, and it may pay off for one player who’s behind in points to race to the surface and try to trap a competitor underground. In The Hunger, that doesn’t apply—you know how many turns you have, and you can start to count spaces and plan accordingly. That makes it easier to play for yourself, but does remove a competitive aspect, and there is very little player interaction here beyond the power to “push” another player’s token if you land on the same space.
The Hunger does offer some new twists for its style of game, although there are some aspects that could have been tidied up in playtesting. Some cards have interaction effects with other cards in the deck, but with all Human cards unique and the deck side over 100 cards, it’s just as likely that you’ll never see the other card you need to trigger that effect. The strategy of going for the Labyrinth to get a Rose card seems to be inferior to a straight Hunt-and-return strategy—it just takes so long to get to the end of the track, and you have to allow at least as much time, if not more, to get back, assuming you Hunt anything along the way home. I’d also like to see some more interaction among players, even something simple like laying traps to slow down anyone else on your track, to allow a player who’s a little behind to make it more competitive. As a sort of competitive solitaire game, though, it’s fun, with incredible artwork on the cards and the board, and the concept seems extensible enough that we might see some of those hiccups addressed in the future.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.