Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Cowboys and monsters

The combination of the wild west and supernatural horror seems obvious now, but it was a fairly unique idea in 1996 when the Deadlands role playing game was first unleashed on an unsuspecting gaming public. Its setting, which populates the lawless American west of the 1870s with spell-slinging sorcerers and slavering monsters, was unique and very well developed, and was a natural to get the collectible card game treatment during the CCG boom at the end of the 1990s.

Deadlands: Doomtown revolves around the power struggle over a fictional California mining town that just happens to be sitting on the world's largest deposit of Ghost Rock, the mineral that powers magic in the Deadlands world. Players construct decks around the different factions vying for control of the town, from the greedy Sweetrock Mining Company to the sinister Whateley family to the Law Dogs, who had the unfortunate and probably hopeless job of maintaining law and order.

One of the things that made Deadlands: Doomtown unique was its strong story line, which progressed over the course of the game's expansions and revealed itself through text on the cards and changes to the characters in the game. The game's publishers even used the results of national tournaments to steer the story, with factions that didn't perform well being weakened or even eliminated from the game.

The most unique thing about the game, though, is its poker-based combat system. Each card in the game is printed with a poker suit and value, so when two players get into a shootout, they draw cards based on the strength of their respective posses, and the winner is the one who can make the best five-card poker hand using standard poker rules (with the exception that the legendary Dead Man's Hand of two black aces, two black eights and a Jack of Diamonds will beat even a royal flush).

Unlike most CCGs, Deadlands: Doomtown works best as a multiplayer game. Over the course of the game, players play location cards ("deeds") that provide either income or control (sometimes both). Income is used to pay for locations, weapons and characters ("dudes"), who provide influence. A player wins if he has more control points than any other single player has influence, so the game's balance relies on the players identifying who is in the lead and keeping that player in check. A two player game can end abruptly over a lucky (or unlucky) card draw.

In order to experience the game's superior multiplayer environment, we invited some of our friends over to play. We had a nice range of factions represented in our game:
  • The Collegium, a group of mad scientists who need ghost rock to power their bizarre steampunk gadgets;
  • The Whateleys, an inbred family of sorcerers straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror;
  • The Black Jacks, a gang of outlaws;
  • The Agency, government spooks from back east who are trying to keep a lid on things.

Our two friends hadn't played Deadlands: Doomtown before, but they are both experienced gamers and picked it up pretty quickly. We had a good time exploring the game's unique mechanics and setting, but the game did take several hours to play and we identified two major flaws in an otherwise well-designed game.

The rules governing how characters move from place to place are confusing and counter-intuitive (even to those of us who have been playing the game for years).

More critically, conflict in the game doesn't always come naturally. It's too easy for players to just have their characters hide out at their high-control locations, and it often takes a player just wanting to stir things up to get some action going.

However, the great things about Deadlands: Doomtown such as the unique poker-based combat system, the intriguing setting, and the colorful cast of characters, far outweigh the flaws in the game's design. It's a game I really wish we had the opportunity to play more often, and I would love to see an enterprising publisher pick it up and do something with it.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Deadlands: Doomtown is an incredibly immersive game, even by collectible card game standards. Unfortunately its nature as a collectible game makes it difficult to find players willing to get into it, and it really needs at least 3 or 4 players for a satisfying game.

Date played: December 27, 2013

UPDATE: Alderac Entertainment Group recently announced that they will be bringing Doomtown back, using the Living Card Game format made popular by Fantasy Flight Games with Call of Cthulhu, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Netrunner, and others. More information on Doomtown Reloaded can be found here.

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