Friday, August 21, 2015

How I learned to stop worrying and love the DC Comics Deck Building Game

The first time I tried the DC Comics Deck Building Game was at a game convention in 2013, and I didn't really like it all that much. I thought it was overly simple and not very interesting.

This was about a year and a half after DC Comics launched the "New 52," a complete reboot of all their comic book titles. I had been an avid DC Comics reader since the 1980s, but I didn't really care for the changes they made to their characters and storylines with the New 52, so I wasn't really very happy with DC at all, and my dissatisfaction was probably leaking through and interfering with my enjoyment of the game.

A friend reintroduced me to the game in January of this year, and this time I enjoyed it quite a bit. Maybe it was the fact that I was playing it with friends instead of convention demo staff, or maybe my irritation with DC Comics had subsided. Maybe it's just that I got to play as my favorite DC character (Superman). In any case, I did like the game enough to pick up a copy of the base game and the Heroes Unite and  Forever Evil expansions.

I still think it's a simple game, but I don't see that as a negative. As deck building games go, this one is about as easy to play as it gets: Each player chooses a hero with a unique game ability to play, and starts with a deck of basic Punch and Weakness cards. The main deck is shuffled, and five cards are played out, which represent heroic allies, villainous opponents, equipment, and super powers, all of which are bought by playing cards from your hand for their power value (just like any deck building game). The object of the game is to use the cards in your hand to buy better cards for your deck.

Additionally, there is a stack of super-villains, each of which must be defeated, again by playing cards from your hand. The super-villains tend to cost a lot more power than cards from the deck, and as each new super-villain card is revealed, it attacks all the players with a negative game effect. I particularly like the super-villain stack idea, as it gives the players something to work towards (building up higher-power cards to defeat the super-villain) and it gives the game a time limit, as the game ends when the last super-villain is defeated.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not a complex game by any means, but it's great for casual play with non-gamers, or as a light warm-up before settling in for something more involved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

World conquest, Cthulhu style

Cthulhu Wars is the brain child of veteran game designer Sandy Petersen (creator of Call of Cthulhu), and it really shows off his lifetime of experience with games in general, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. It did over two million dollars on Kickstarter, largely due, I'm sure, to the game's incredible array of miniatures. However, credit is also due to the incredibly smooth and well thought out game design, a fact that was made very clear in the months Petersen spent demoing the game all over the country, in advance of the Kickstarter campaign launch.

One of the biggest problems with area control games like Cthulhu Wars is that once you start losing, it can be difficult to recover. Couple that with the fact that area control games tend to be elimination games that only end when one player knocks everyone else out of the game, and you often have a game where the early leader will run roughshod over the other players, who wind up just wishing the game were over.

Sandy Petersen must have been aware of this problem, because a lot of the game play in Cthulhu Wars addresses it, and for the most part eliminates it. All the players are in the game until the bitter end, and there is a built in time limit to keep the game from going on for too long.

Rather than playing as intrepid investigators on the verge of madness, as with most Lovecraft-inspired games such as Arkham Horror, players of Cthulhu Wars get to be the bad guys. Each player takes command of an ancient, god-like horror such as Hastur, Nyarlathotep, or even Great Cthulhu himself, along with an army of monsters and cultists. Cultists open gates which allow your monsters, and eventually your ancient one, to enter play, and the monsters guard your territory and attack the other players.

Each turn, players earn power based on the number of cultists and gates they have in play, and spend it to move their pieces around the board, summon new monsters and cultists, launch attacks, and eventually bring their ancient ones into play. One nice bit of balance here is that you always earn at least half as much power as the strongest player, so you can't really fall too far behind, even if you get completely wiped off the board.

 Players start the game with a stack of six spell book tokens specific to the ancient one they are playing, each with a unique ability. They have to earn these by accomplishing certain goals, also specific to their ancient one, such as occupying a certain amount of territory, bringing a certain number of creatures into play, or destroying so many enemy units in battle. A player can't win the game unless they've earned all six of their spellbooks. I particularly like this aspect of the game, as it gives each player a plan for what they need to do over the course of the game, and the different requirements and abilities serve to make the player factions even more different from each other.

The game play is deceptively and refreshingly straightforward, and I find that when we play we rarely need to refer to the rule book for anything more that a quick refresher, which is unusual for a game of this scale and complexity. The game round is divided up in such a way that you're never waiting long for it to be your turn to do something, which is also nice and definitely feeds into the idea that every player is there for the entire game, with very little down time.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A very immersive game with a lot of strategic depth, and smooth, intuitive rules. The only real down side is its high cost ($200 retail for the base 4-player game). The miniatures alone are worth it though.