Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Don't lose your head

Most collectible card games (the well-designed ones, at least) offer a tremendous amount of complexity and strategic depth. Players take on the roles of unseen masterminds in control of armies of creatures, fleets of starships or groups of intrepid heroes, fighting in epic battles with the fates of universes at stake. This approach works great for expansive settings like the fantasy world of Magic: the Gathering or the teeming galaxies of Star Trek or Star Wars.

Highlander: the Card Game, on the other hand, is a different story. The storyline in the Highlander television series and original film (we'll forget the bewildering sequel films for now), a tale of wandering immortals who must behead each other in sword duels until only one remains, has an "every man for himself" feeling that is at odds with the approach most CCGs take.

However, in the late 1990s pretty much every recognizable genre film, television and literary property was given the CCG treatment, and Highlander was no exception. Thankfully, the game designers understood that at its core, Highlander is a story about sword fights, so they made it into a game about sword fights.

Each player represents an immortal, out to win duels with other immortals. A player's deck consists primarily of fight moves: attacks and blocks to various areas, dodges and sidesteps, and specialized attacks and defenses such as slashes, parries and guards. Events and other special cards such as Head Shots and Bystanders give momentary advantages and add spice to the game.

If a player is lucky enough to possess one of the rare Persona cards featuring characters from the films and television series, they can use that character's Signature moves such as The Kurgan's Scare (which gets rid of bystanders) or Connor MacLeod's Slash (which is very difficult to block), but the game is just as exciting without them.

Each player starts with an Ability of 15, which is also that player's hand size. As the player takes damage from successful attacks, their Ability goes down, which means the more damage they take, the fewer cards they have access to each turn. A player's deck of cards is referred to as his Endurance, and if he draws his last card he gets to reshuffle, but loses five Ability, reflecting the exhaustion of the ongoing battle.

Each turn, a player plays a defense card to block or dodge his opponent's attack, followed by an attack of his own. Attack and defense cards are marked with a 3x3 grid of squares representing areas of attack: upper left, upper center, upper right, middle left, and so on. Attacks tend to target one square, while defenses cover a more general area of 3 or four squares. Dodges will counter any attack, but they usually prevent you from attacking in the turn you use them.

Players have the option to make Power Blows when they attack: they can double the damage they inflict if they discard 5 cards from the top of their deck to represent the energy being used on the strike. With the aid of a Head Shot card, they can even go for the win in one sword stroke.

The game's design is incredibly smooth, with the cards in a player's deck representing sword maneuvers and plot twists but also keeping track of the two variable game elements (Ability and Endurance) in a way that influences game play.

I used to play this game quite a bit when it was first published in 1996, but I didn't keep up with later expansions and hadn't played for years until I broke it out a few years ago for a friend who is a Magic player and a big Highlander fan. It struck me then, as it did when Katherine and I played recently, what a great, forgotten gem this game is.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not quite a game that we would play all the time, but a solid, enjoyable game that perfectly reflects its source material.

Dates played: February 7 and March 9, 2014

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