Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How Deck-builders won me over

Now, I'm not a complex man. Like any hot-blooded American I like red meat, cold beer, and boardgames that involve warriors battling it out for gold and glory. But I also like a little complexity to my warriors, and prefer a boardgame where the characters level up over the course of game. So you'd think games like Talisman would always fit the bill perfectly. In Talisman you travel around the map, battle monsters, pick up gold and magic items, gain Strength and Craft, and eventually make your way to the inner circle through the Valley of Fire. There you try and win the Crown of Command so you can rule the land of Talisman under an Iron Fist for the rest of time. What's not to like?
Now Ramond Cameron is a hobbyist who knows how to adventure. 3-D Talisman! Check Ray's stuff out here.

However, there's a lot of die-related randomness with Talisman, which makes the game less fun with each playthrough. A little randomness is good in a game of mighty adventurers, but the problem lies where the game becomes less fun for a player or multiple players when they feel like they just can't advance at all because of random movement on a 6-sided die. Usually its because of something silly, like not being able to land on the one spot they need to over multiple turns, either because they want to pick up some free Craft from a Pool of Wisdom, or they're ready to take on the Portal of Power, but keep racing back-and-forth by it each time they randomly move. It doesn't matter how shrewd of a player you are, if you're playing a warrior and can't land on the Market space you're never going to be able to buy that Sword you need. Missing the space one or two times in a row is okay, missing it sixteen times in a row is just ridiculous. And without a basic Sword you're going to have a hard time fighting monsters and leveling up.

All those expansions, and you still can't land on the Oasis when you need to.

In the last few years deck-builder board games have appeared. Initially I was completely turned off by these games in the store, because I immediately associated them with CCG card-floppers, like Magic: The Hassling, or Yu-Gi-Oh. I've played a bit of those, but I just can't get into building my own deck. I don't want to always play the same Green/Black or Blue/White power deck every time I game, I like to mix it up. Plus it never feels like you're 'leveling' while you play, even though you draw more land or resources with each turn, you really feel like you're just catching up to the power level your deck was built (bought?) for, not that you're earning new skills.

Not really my cup of tea. Where's the showmanship? The majesty? The adventure?

However, I've come to learn that deck-builder games can be very different from CCGs (Collectible Card Games) like Magic. In Shadowrun:Crossfire, for example, you start with a simple basic deck and as you gain money in the game you can buy better cards from the Black Market. However the deck size is kept pretty low, so each purchased card for your deck is an important decision. You cycle through your cards a lot in that game, since the starting deck is so small, but every additional card added to your deck means each individual card will come up fewer and fewer times. So forethought in your approach to ensure high value cards come up more often than not usually benefits you better than having a lot of diverse low-power cards in your deck. There's still randomness in what monsters jump out at you and so on, but there's not silly randomness, like poor movement rules that prevent you from ever getting to the Black Market to buy a card in the first place. The Black Market is always there in the center line, for any player who is willing to spend the money (earned from defeating challenges) on a new card. So your character feels like they're 'leveling up' in that their built deck gets stronger by the end of the game. Its like a character who levels up, except you had a lot more involvement with how that went than just getting a higher number on a d6 and comparing combat scores. (Now there is a separate between-game XP system to Shadowrun that allows you to get minor benefits between games, but that's not what intrigues me about its deck-building system).

Other than the card art, deckbuilder gameplay layouts still aren't that visually appealing.

I've found that a deck built during a game feels more like a package of skills that you've earned, compared to bringing a pre-built deck to a game of Magic. Other deck-builders I've played, like the Warhammer Quest and Pathfinder card games, do this as slow deck-build well, with even fewer cards in your deck. But they have a major 'experience' system that needs to be built from game-to-game, and you buy cards between games, which means it takes multiple games of increasing difficulty to build your deck. Which is great for a campaign system, but means in each individual game you're only going to add two or three cards to your deck at most. For busy folks with a lot of adult responsibilities(tm), obtaining time for multiple playthroughs of such a game can be a daunting challenge. Ideally therefore, I prefer my boardgame sessions to be completely self-contained (and use that rare time for multi-game sessions for D&D).

Don't get me wrong, the game is fun, and excellently co-op.

I believe these games above keep the deck build mechanic limited because in those games there's so few ways to actually thin out your deck once you add a card to it. That's a mechanic that could be added that I'm very interested in. If you can destroy your weak cards at the same time as you build your deck with strong cards, then you can have an even greater impact on how powerful your character is from turn-to-turn. This is because your strong cards will get cycled through the deck more often, and would allow for more card interaction/building each turn in the game, as well as more granularity in how an individual player builds their deck/character. This is an idea we've been working with through the development of our new boardgame: Ravingspire. But that is for a future post.

All in all, if you were like me and you are turned off by deck-builder games just by looking at them, I recommend you give them a try. The excitement is very different than how it appears on the back of the box (which is usually just a picture of six cards laid out in a line), and even for a visually-demanding boardgame-art and miniature-painter like me, the lack of a pretty board or minis in games like Shadowrun or Legendary turns out not to detract from them at all. They're a lot of fun (and cleanup is a snap)!

Build on!
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