Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Not for vegetarians


Apex: Therapod Deck-Building Game is a game about dinosaurs eating other dinosaurs, designed with a very specific audience in mind: solo gamers. It's not exclusively a solitaire game (it can be played with as many as 8), but there is very little direct player interaction, and the game is essentially a race to see who can take down the most fearsome dinosaurs before the inevitable asteroid strike.

That said, it is an immensely enjoyable and challenging game, with mechanics that, while fairly complex, run pretty smoothly and fit the theme extremely well. And the artwork on the cards is fantastic.

Each player chooses a species of carnivorous dinosaur to play, with choices ranging from classic favorites like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor to lesser known beasts such as Sarcosuchus (a giant prehistoric crocodile). Each species plays somewhat differently, with their own strategies, strengths and weaknesses. Like most deck building games, each player starts with a relatively weak deck of cards, in this case eggs, hatchlings, and carcasses. Each player has their own unique Apex deck of stronger versions of their particular dinosaur species, cards which must be purchased over the course of the game.

The game starts with a row of cards called the game trail representing prey, and another representing evolutionary advances. Game play consists of playing out cards to hunt prey from the prey deck, and then spending the points gained to buy better cards for your deck, either general evolutionary advances from the table, or specific apex cards from your apex deck, which are made available by playing egg cards. The goal is to populate your deck with stronger cards, enabling you to hunt larger prey and eventually fight the boss dinosaurs and their minions, that are shuffled into the hunt deck.

At the start of the game, a certain number of boss dinosaurs and their minions are shuffled into the deck of prey, so that they appear randomly throughout the game. When a boss appears, all the other prey scatter (are discarded), and the clash of the titans commences. You have to play a lot of high-value cards over multiple rounds to have a hope of beating a boss, and failure results in trauma cards which are added to your deck and produce negative effects when drawn.

Much like the age of the dinosaurs, Apex has a built-in time limit in the form of a deck of environment cards representing tropical storms, droughts, dinosaur stampedes, and the Asteroid Strike and Extinction cards that signal the end of the game. Players score points based on the amount of prey they have consumed, but no player can win the game unless they've defeated at least one boss monster.

There is a lot going on, but it stops short of being overly complicated. The flow of turns and rounds is pretty smooth once you get accustomed to it. There's a brilliant press-your-luck ambush mechanic that allows you to set aside cards from your hand for later use, but forces you to place an Alert card in your discard pile where it will eventually get reshuffled into your deck. If you draw the Alert before you've played your ambush cards, they are discarded without effect and certain effects on cards in the game trail will trigger. It's a great idea that really translates the idea of an ambush predator coldly observing its prey before striking.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An extremely well-designed game with a lot of deep, complex, and thematic game play, and gorgeous artwork.

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