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Origins 2011: Fighting monsters through deckbuilding

DeckbuildingAs I wrote earlier, I hadn’t attended the Origins Game Fair (or any tabletop-focused game expo) since 2006, so I suspect that my shouting Holy grog, so many deck-building games! will sound a year or two out of sync with the forefront of game news. But I’m shouting it anyway. To my eye, Dominion-style deckbuilders seemed far and away the most prominent genre represented among new-and-newish games on display last month in Columbus.

I played no fewer than four new (or at least new-to-me) deckbuilders, and that still left a handful unplayed. The unifying theme among the whole field seems to be “Gee, Dominion doesn’t have any hit points or leveling up or monster-killin’, so clearly we can compete with it by adding all that stuff, because it’s awesome.” I’d argue that that’s rather missing the point of Dominion’s delicious rules elegance, and after playing a few, I find myself standing by that notion.

Which is not at all to say that these newer games are not worth playing. Allow me to now inevitably and at great length share my impressions of them with you!

The most charming is Quarriors, a dice-based game that Wiz Kids will release later this year. The rules are actually quite similar to Dominion’s, but with an additional axis of luck: not only do you randomly draw a hand of different dice from your “deck” (a dice-bag, actually) every turn, but you then throw it, resulting in unpredictable effects.

Quarriors’ monster-slaying and hit points and so on comes courtesy a creature-summoning mechanic reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Most of the dice you buy represent creatures. You summon them if you can roll the proper faces of their respective dice, so long as other dice you rolled display enough “quiddity” (buying power) to pay their summoning cost. (A creature die’s other faces instead provide quiddity, or trigger other effects.) Once summoned, creatures deterministically fight other players’ creatures. If they can stay on the table for a full go-round, they score points, and allow their player to tune their deck by removing one of their dice from play (usually one the initial, Copper-from-Dominion-analogue-dice).

In my experience, a throw rarely resulted in any decisions to make; you’d carry out all the creature-summoning and special effects that your throw allowed, then buy the most expensive die that your quiddity faces let you afford, then pass on your turn. And yet I had a good time! The dice are very pretty, and somehow a looser, less thinky adaptation of Dominion feels just fine when implemented with dice. I’ll be looking at this one again when it goes on sale.

The game I’d most like to try again is Resident Evil, a deckbuilding adaptation of the videogame. Of the new deckbuilders I tried, it’s also the most focused on monster-bashing. Players’ decks come to resemble the inventory screen of a Resident Evil character, filled up almost entirely with a variety of weapons, ammo, and health potions. A properly tuned deck will provide a narsty and fully-loaded boomstick on most draws, which players can then apply to the nearest bloodthirsty revenant to win victory points.

Resident Evil’s fighting mechanic comes directly from Munchkin: players can, if sufficiently emboldened by their hand, flip over a card from the table’s face-down “mansion deck” to reveal a gooey shambling survival-horror baddie. (Or, rarely, a groovy powerup; but don’t count on that.) If their hand contains enough firepower to properly perforate the monster, they collect its head for VPs, and with enough VPs they’ll level up and gain more powers. A weak hand against a monster makes the player instead lose some hit points. Losing all your hit points forces you to miss a turn, and if you make a habit of it you’re dropped from play entirely — not a bad way to give the action a videogamey vibe, evoking respawn penalties and limited lives.

The point I’m most skeptical about are the single monster deck, which makes it equally likely that you’ll encounter either a 98-pound milquetoast zombie or the toughest creature in the game on your first flip. My immediate desire is to split the monster deck should into halves or thirds, with each sub-deck representing a dungeon floor. By requiring players to clean out one deck before moving to the next, you’ll guarantee a smooth power increase as the players delve deeper and find tougher baddies, which strikes me as a good expression of a typical combat-adventure videogame’s spirit.

Gunther Schmidl informs me that I’m not the first to think of this, but suggests that the game is perfectly fine as-is. And to be fair, due to a rules misread, I spent most of our one play feeling more sour about the game than it deserved. My mood improved when we figured out how to play properly, and while the game still has a lot of oddity around it, it kindled my curiosity enough to want another go at it sometime.

I’ve already written about Ascension here lately, and so has Andy. While I did play through a demonstration of the card game’s inevitable first expansion set, learning about the original game’s then-nascent iOS adaptation piqued my interest the most. Since it appeared in the App Store only days later, it’s safe to say that this game among all the Origins deckbuilders has remained active in my mind the most.

And while it’s another deckbuilder-with-monsters, somehow Ascension manages to seem less, hm, egregious about it. Maybe it’s because the base rules are sufficiently different from Dominion that the presence of monsters feels less tacked on.

Taking a begging-your-pardon card from Race for the Galaxy, Ascension replaces Dominion’s stacks of randomly determined purchasable card stacks with a single drawpile, the same one every time (though shuffled, of course). At all times, the table features six face-up cards, a mix of killable monsters and cards you can add to your deck; picking up either kind of card results in its immediate replacement from the drawpile.

Gaining cards happens much as in Dominion, except that you may buy as many cards as you can afford, and the currency comes in two flavors: white for picking up deck-cards, and red for zapping monsters. Since monster cards are removed from play as soon as you pay their cost, their printed effects take effect at that moment. A skillful player will dispatch monsters in ways that maximize their short-term buying or killing power even beyond what their hands allow, letting them make some impressive purchases.

Ascension plays fast: the deck lacks pure no-op cards, like Dominion’s VPs or Curses, so even terrible draws let you do something with your turn. This doesn’t necessarily make me like the game more than games that allow you to draw a do-nothing hand, but I appreciate the intentionality that went into the design to avoid this phenomenon while remaining a perfectly playable deckbuilding game.

Really, my main disappointment with Ascension is that the official rules are not the house rules that my friends and I prefer when we’re playing the game’s cardboard edition, which we all agree make for a much more interestingly strategic game. That’s a post for another time, though.

By the time I got to Thunderstone, I’m afraid, I was so saturated with examples of the Dominion-plus-monsters meme that the game seemed like parody. Looking at it uncharitably, one imagines the game appearing by way of someone playing Dominion for the first time and thinking, “I don’t understand; why isn’t this game literally Dungeons & Dragons?”

And so you have a game where the cards represent hirelings in a classic D&D setting, each of whom has inventory slots and classes and levels and so on. Each turn, you can either “visit the town” to add equipment or goons to your deck, or hit the dungeon, represented by a tableaux of face-up monster cards.

I can’t say much else about it because the whole experience passed straight through me. I had learned simply too many different new deckbuilding rulesets in one day at this point, and simply had no appetite left for more of the same, except with shuffled-in second-level clerics wearing gauntlets of strength, and thieves who added +1 to your hand’s light-source level. I look forward to playing it again sometime with a clean palate.

What can I conclude from this? Well, in one sense, I have nothing to complain about: I actually rather love deckbuilding games, and absolutely welcome more variants to come to my table in an attempt to show Dominion how it’s really done. And because the circles of “tabletop game designers” and “nerds” have an awful lot of Venn-diagram overlap, I can’t express much surprise that the first wave or two of contenders appear to be attempts to jam standard RPG elements into the core concept, starting with monster-slaying.

So I definitely look forward to seeing what the future holds for this sub-genre of card game. Until then, I’ll be over here with my seven Coppers and three Estates, ready to once again make my grandparents (on my mother’s side) proud.

(Present at Origins, but not played by me: Nightfall and The Ares Project, even though both were recommended to me by various other game-fans at the Expo. I just didn’t manage to cross paths with them that weekend, so I don’t know how monstery they are. Perhaps the second wave of Dominion reactions is already here…? I’d love to hear some thoughts on them.)

Image: Original photo illustration combining Deck Building by Reuben Cleetus and Evil Cat by Jason Bran-Cinaed. Both are CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Jmac will be at Origins 2011

Let this serve as my public announcement that I plan to attend the 2011 Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio from June 22nd through the 26th. I’ll be acting a little bit as a blogger, a little as an indie game producer, and a little as a courier (helping to lug a publisher friend’s sellable goods cross-country). But mostly I plan to arrive as player and lover of games. This will be my fourth Origins, but the first where that’s my primary role.

I last attended in 2006 along with the rest of the Volity team, and we were so full of agenda, weighed down with hurriedly-printed flyers and a will to introduce ourselves to every single company on the show floor — never mind that we only vaguely knew what we were selling.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t sell anything, but we did surprise ourselves with how easy it is to network, saying hello to strangers in a self-selecting setting, and quickly exploring common business interests in friendly conversation. It felt immediately fun and rewarding, even if we didn’t earn a dime right then. Learning to push back against our shy-nerd instincts like this proved an important step for both Zarf and myself and our subsequent, individual indie-game pursuits.

Didn’t leave a whole lot of room for actually playing any games, though, so we went home educated but also exhausted and impoverished, with the company wobbling to an effective stop a few months later. Thus it may have taken me a few years to reconnect Origins with, you know, having any fun.

In 2002 and 2004, I attended Origins less as a game-player than as a fan. At the turn of the millenium, Looney Labs declared Origins to be the home of its annual Big Experiment, its very own con-within-a-con. Every year the Looneys reserve a large room across from the main expo hall, turning it into a weekend-long event in its own right, with its own schedule full of panels, tutorials, and tournaments.

(The Big Experiment provided a model for the annual World IF Summit that has operated within PAX East since last year. So if you were wondering why the IF Suite gives away Origins-style ribbons, even though they don’t quite fit the portrait-orientation PAX badges, there you have it.)

A decade ago I was very much a rabid Mad Lab Rabbit, as Looney Labs called its club of trufans at the time, and came to Origins with a gaggle of fellow fans from Boston expressly because of the Big Experiment. And thus did I spend the greater part of Origins hard at work in the “lab,” dedicated to spreading the Looney gospel to visitors, mainly in the form of game demonstrations. Visiting the rest of the show and playing “off-brand” games was dessert, something to do after-hours.

I look forward to seeing the Looneys and my old friends from that fandom again, and there’s a nonzero chance I’ll don a coat for old times’ sake and play a round or two of Fluxx with a curious visitor, but I don’t plan to spend six hours intensely touring passers-by through the Looney canon. My trufan days are behind me; I’m far more interested today in exploring as much as I can of what other people are doing in the world of tabletop games.

If you plan on joining me in this exploration, do track me down at the show and say hi! This is going to be fun.

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