Friday, July 11, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Building the Better Deckbuilder

When Dominion first came out, my wife and I played a fair amount of it. It was an interesting and new mechanism and our daughter was still young at the time, so having a game that set up and played quickly was wonderful. We continued with the first expansion, Intrigue, which was okay. By the time Seaside came out, our interested waned. We only got maybe three plays of Dominion with Seaside before we moved on to new things. The expansions didn't revitalize Dominion for us. In fact, if anything, they did the opposite.

The Dominion expansions helped to point out one of the reasons why we stopped enjoying the game: there is no real connection between theme and mechanisms. Sure, Seaside had lots of cards with water in the background, but essentially every card's artwork could be broken down into a picture of some dark haired dude with perhaps a bit of facial hair holding his arms out in an awkward, unnatural pose as if he was doing something or wanted something and this was to represent that you got +1 Action and +1 Coin.

I like and appreciate clean mechanisms in a game, but what I enjoy most is a narrative theme. What draws me back to a game is the challenge and gameplay, but what really makes a game memorable is that narrative arc. I can still recall (and overload you with) many stories of Machiavellian traitorous moves in Battlestar Galactica or marvelous last moment breaches in Stronghold or terrible character slaughters in Arkham Horror. But I really don't have any grand stories of the triumph of drawing and chaining a bunch of Markets together or the tragedy of picking up a hand of Duchies and having to pass my turn.

So, I like the deckbuilding mechanism in a game, but I want to play something better and more thematic than Dominion. What are my options?

Thunderstone hit my collection right around when Dominion was wearing thin. It took Dominion's deckbuilding and incorporated more of a theme to it. You were buying cards and building up your deck, but with the goal of using a drawn hand of cards and deciding to either use it to visit the village (to buy more cards) or to encounter the dungeon (and fight monsters). Eventually the dungeon monsters (and traps) clear out to reveal the titular Thunderstone which can be obtained and ends the game.

The problem with Thunderstone was that it is clunky. Players needed certain amount of light from their cards to delve deeper into the dungeons and bad draws at the front of the dungeon deck can really clog up progress for a while forcing more time building up in the village than anyone wants.

We may have liked Thunderstone better if it had not been for the Dominion exhaustion when it arrived. Now, I have yet to play Thunderstone Advanced, so perhaps some of the clunkiness has been amended and fixed with the newest edition. But, as it stands, Thunderstone is still a much better implementation of theme into a deckbuilder than Dominion.

Trains is a bold attempt at a hybrid. I mean, the mere idea of taking the thematic presence of Dominion and adding it to the adrenaline churning excitement of laying cubes to make a railroad track is so bold that no one has ever thought of doing it before.

That's actually because both of those are boring and combining them is a bad idea.

The Deckbuilding portion of the game is plainly the same as Dominion, even to the victory point cards that clog your deck, and it has about the same level of thematic resonance. However, card play can also let you place stations on the map and lay rail to connect them. This ramps up the excitement of the deckbuilder theme by the exact level that you think picking up a wooden cube and putting it down would.

To be fair, the game is clean and clear and it works for what it is. There is slightly more thematic integration than Dominion by the fact that there is a map that you are expanding upon. However, drawing a hand that consists of a Holiday Timetable, Signals, an Information Central, a Viaduct, and a Mail Train is just plainly not exciting. I almost long for a guy in a floppy hat holding out his hand awkwardly as if wanting something from me in exchange for +1 Card and +1 Action.

I would also say that it has a terrible, boring name, but then there's...

DC Comics Deck-Building Game
DC Comics Deck-Building Game definitely wins the award for the most accurate naming of a game. I would have really liked something more exciting, however, from a comic book company whose characters consist of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, I suppose that I should expect nothing less than a very bland, but very accurate title.

(Fun fact: I write my reviews in Microsoft Office Word first, then transfer them to my review sites. Superman and Batman both cleared the spell-check, but Aquaman gets the red squiggle of shame under his name. Not even Microsoft respects Aquaman enough to include his name in their default vocabulary along with his fellow Justice Leaguers.)

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game has each player choose a signature Hero with their own special ability and starts them with low value buying cards and, unlike the previous games, cards are bought from a line-up instead of individual stacks (like Ascension). This creates a lot more randomness in what is available. Contrary to the theme, Aquaman can purchase Heat Vision and the Lasso of Truth and the Batmobile and use it to defeat Darkseid.

Despite the disjointed theme and the terrible, terrible, but accurate title, I happen to really enjoy the DC Comics Deck-Building Game. Unlike Marvel: Legendary, this game's design is much more crisp and clean. There is only one currency in the game. Legendary suffers from having two. In Legendary, you purchase cards with high buying power to afford cards with high attack, but then you are slowed as all of the high buy cards clutter your deck. With DC, there is one currency and even the high Victory Point cards do not clutter your deck, in fact, they are some of the better cards in the game in terms of ability. That does allow for some games to snowball with a runaway leader, but the simplicity and quickness of the game is still refreshing and fun even when the theme disconnects.

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game Heroes Unite stand-alone expansion offers much of the same. However, the deck seems a little more unbalanced with too many point synergies. The base game is definitely the stronger of the two in that regard.

Arctic Scavengers
In the genre of deckbuilders, Arctic Scavengers has proven to me to be the current pinnacle of what the genre cane be. The game is set in a post apocalyptic world where players are rival factions each trying to expand their resources to reach the only goal that really matters--population.

The game has stacks of each card available for purchase and, unlike many of its predecessors, there is no randomness or variety in the cards that are out. All of them are available in every game.

Now, other than thematic disconnect, the biggest complaint with deckbuilding games is "Why the fuck would you think that making train tracks with little wooden cubes would be an interesting or exciting addition to this genre?" But right after that, the next biggest complaint comes in the limited player interaction. Everyone plays multiplayer solitaire until one player hits the end game condition.

Arctic Scavengers, however, pits players against one another for the best resources in the game. After a couple of rounds of build up, players then compete for the top card of the Contested Resources deck, which are usually the strongest resources in the game. Only the first player gets to peek to see what it being fought over. Then, after a player spends some of his cards to buy more cards or take other actions, they get to hold back any remaining number of cards in their hand. Every player does this, and then, each player finally reveals their hand and the remaining cards are used to battle the other players for the resource card.

This opens up so much more to the game. There is the obvious direct interaction. But there is also bluffing. As the first player, I peek at the card. I could intentionally just keep a couple cards back to try to make others think it isn't that useful. Or I could hold my entire hand back even if I don't have good combat cards in hopes of intimidating the other players to use their cards to purchase instead, thinking that fighting is hopeless.

The theme and narrative works in Arctic Scavengers and you can try to lure engineers into your hand to help build buildings to fortify your position, but other players may suspect what you have and use a sniper to take down your engineer before he even starts.

Every complaint that I have ever heard about deckbuilders is countered in Arctic Scavengers. It really is a game that shows what level this genre is capable of.

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