Being the second half of a roundup of the various deckbuilding games you can buy these days. First half here.
This half of the piece was supposed to segue straight into A Few Acres Of Snow and Thunderstone, but in the light of a recent horrifying experience I had I’d like to amend today’s agenda. Before we talk about the good deck builders I’d just like to devote a few column inches to a Five Minutes’ Hate of a game I had the misfortune to play last weekend called Quarriors.
Quarriors is what you’d get if some sick mad scientist – Dr Moreau, perhaps, or maybe Krieger from Archer — looked at Dominion and decided that it’d be a much better game if only the central gameplay mechanic revolved around random dice rolling instead of cards. I’m not inherently opposed to dice games. I really enjoy both Roll Through The Ages and Blood Bowl for the risk-management aspect that their dice-rolling provide. But adding dice to Dominion is possibly the only way you could have made it worse. The appeal of Dominion, to me, is that while the cards you get on a hand-to-hand basis are fairly unpredictable what you get over the course of the deck is entirely predictable. If you have ten money, then you are guaranteed to get ten money during one run-through of the deck; you just don’t know when. This is the key element that allows a certain element of planning and strategy in Dominion, and it is this key element that Quarriors crumples up and throws in the incinerator.
In Quarriors you buy dice instead of cards. The range of dice you can buy is randomised in the same way that the range of cards you can buy in Dominion is randomised, but once you’ve bought a dice you’re not guaranteed to get the effect of that dice. Each dice is split into a range of outcomes; usually two money, two normal monsters, and two good monsters. You need to play monsters and keep them alive to score, which makes it just a little bit irritating when the expensive cost-seven dice you bought continually comes up with a money result rather than a powerful monster that could win you the game. And by irritating I mean that if somebody says “Play Quarriors again or we murder your family,” I swear to god I’m actually going to have to think about that one for a minute for two. Even if you have a fetish for the click-clack of rolling dice you should avoid this piece of crap; there’s nothing you can get from Quarriors that you can’t get from a few moments spent smashing your knuckles repeatedly with a claw hammer.
Right, now that that’s out of the way: A Few Acres Of Snow.
A Few Acres Of Snow is a two-player game set in the French and Indian War of the 1750’s, so it automatically gets points from me for picking that as a setting rather than “Outer Space” or “World War Two” or any one of a hundred overdone fantasy/sci-fi clichés. Acres is a deck-builder with a twist: you actually have a game board with a map of Canada and North America on it that you build settlements and towns on using your deck. This adds a properly strategic element to it: which way do you expand? Is it worth grabbing the victory points there, or are you just making yourself vulnerable to Indian raids from your opponent? It gives what you’re doing with your deck some much-needed context and it works very, very well. The starting areas for each player (the French have the region around Quebec, while the British start out from the built-up New York area) are asymmetric requiring different strategies to make the most of them, which is good because the cards each player can add to their decks are asymmetric as well.
Each side gets a deck of “Empire” cards. These are a selection of cards that can sifted through at any time and, if a player finds one which they like, bought as one of the turn’s actions. All the cards are available from the start of the game provided a player has the cash to pay for them, but the French and British Empire decks are slightly different in ways which reflect the different playstyle each side has. The French, for example, start with a fur trader – since their economic engine mostly relies on settling provinces with furs and then selling them off – and a bateaux card they can use to travel the rivers and lakes of Canada and settle nearby areas. By contrast the British get more ship and settler cards, reflecting their need to expand along the coastline and send trade convoys back home for money.
As ever with deck builders the efficiency question comes into it as well. Each territory can only be settled if you have a territory – and thus a territory card – linking to it by ship, boat or wagon. Settling a new territory gets you the card for that territory. However, many of these territory cards are useless other than as stepping-stones for settling further-flung areas; once you’ve done that they just sit there clogging up your deck. Gobbling up a lot of territory may score points but it’ll also give you this enormous, unwieldy deck stuffed with awful cards. Players need to keep an eye on what they’re settling and where, and they need to use the Governor card each side gets to get rid of useless cards every single time it comes up otherwise they’ll lose the efficiency game.
That being said, it’s not absolutely essential that they do this. I was the French in the first game of Acres I ever played. I played it very, very badly, not even buying a Governor until the mid-game and expanding way too fast into too much non-scoring territory. My British opponent played extremely efficiently and had a lean, mean deck of only the best cards available to him. However, I still won the game. This was partly because I had invested in a military and my opponent – because he was going for efficiency – had not. Partly it was down to my reshuffling my draw deck on the very last turn of the game and getting exactly what I needed to win a siege I was prosecuting. Sadly, though, it was also down to the fact that the asymmetry in A Few Acres Of Snow, while making it a very interesting game with a lot of replayability, has come at the cost of making the game genuinely unbalanced in favour of the French. They start with fewer victory point scoring locations available to them, but they don’t need them because they’re sitting on top of Quebec which scores as much as New York and Boston combined. The VP locations they can get to do not need settler cards to capture; this means the French player is free to develop his cities and forts while the British player has to scrabble through his deck looking for settler cards just to maintain parity with the French scoreline.
Still, that the game is a little unbalanced doesn’t diminish the fact that Acres is excellent, as far as deck-builders go. As long as the players go into it knowing about the French advantage (the weaker player should play the French, obviously) it’s still possible to have an evenly-matched, thrilling game where the winner is never clear until the points have been tallied up at the very end. I definitely recommend it.
Finally, there is the king, the messiah, the game that restored my faith in the deck-builder as a viable boardgaming medium: Thunderstone.
At first glance Thunderstone looks very much like Dominion. Indeed, it pretty much is – you have a set starting hand, you have a supply of cards in the centre of the table which you can buy and add to your deck, and there’s a row of victory point cards along the top you’ll need to win the game. The key difference lies in the way you acquire those victory point cards: every single one is a monster that lives in a dungeon. The cards in your hand represent a typical RPG party of heroes and their equipment that can be sent down the dungeon to kill the monsters. Despite being essentially the same game, Thunderstone is far, far better than Dominion because of the way it effectively connects with its theme and weaves it into its gameplay.
Of course it’s not quite as simple as that two line description. Your starting cards are mostly junk, consisting of six militia – useless except in very, very specific circumstances – some rations and some torches. The militia can be upgraded to real grown-up heroes, but this costs a disproportionate amount of XP that is better spent upgrading the heroes themselves (which can be bought as-is from the village) so one of the first things you want to do in Thunderstone is kill every single militia card you have so that it’s not gumming up your deck. Even then it won’t be totally efficient; every monster slain is also added to your deck, and while the monsters are often worth gold and victory points they have no utility whatsoever when you take their rotting, foetid corpses down into the dungeon with you. This provides a fairly nice counterbalancing mechanic as well as a strategic consideration similar to that of A Few Acres Of Snow: killing a lot of low-to-mid value monsters can get a lot of points for little outlay, but it’ll also make your future dungeon forays far less effective since your hands will now mostly be composed of those monster cards. The player in the lead is also at a disadvantage as he has more of them than anyone else. It’s nice and elegant and provides players with the risk/reward element that’s sorely missing from Dominion, which all too often devolves into everyone ignoring the one and three point victory cards and concentrating solely on the high-value six pointers in order to preserve deck efficiency.
There are other factors that keep the game interesting. Some monsters are only vulnerable to magic attacks. Some monsters are immune to it. Some monsters inflict nasty status effects on the heroes fighting them, up to and including autokilling them if they’re of the wrong type and they don’t have the right items. Fighting a monster that lives deeper in the dungeon without enough light (in the form of torches and other items) will incur a hefty combat penalty. And every time a monster gets to the front row of the dungeon they can inflict a Breaching effect on every player in the game; only a few monsters have these, but they’re all genuinely nasty and cause players to prioritise and kill the breaching monsters before they reach the front of the dungeon queue.
It’s all nicely set up so that there’s lots to do, the game never gets boring, and even players who are doing badly can amuse themselves by playing to the RPG theme. Thunderstone is not immune from the persistent plague of expansionitis that afflicts deck-builders, but even this is ameliorated by the number of bullshit mechanics introduced to the game being kept to a minimum. Most of what the expansions do is what expansions should do: add more cards – and thus more variety – to the game while keeping any other crap the developers might want to add purely optional. The upshot of all this is that I have yet to get tired of Thunderstone in spite of having played it just as much as – if not more so – than Dominion. It’s probably the safest suggestion anyone can make during the what-game-shall-we-play game my boardgaming group has to go through every Wednesday evening, as while we’d rather be playing something new, of the games we’ve already played to death Thunderstone has aged by far the least and is far lighter and more accessible than something like Agricola. It’s something that excels at what the deck-builder is supposed to be: light, disposable fun that is over in forty-five minutes. And that’s all I ever asked from the genre, really.
EDIT: In response to popular demand: