Friday, 9 April 2010

Card Sharp

I’ve recently been cataloguing my old Star Trek CCG cards ready to sell, and had some thoughts on the subject to share. It turns out I had a lot of thoughts, and a game review, so I hope that you’re sitting comfortably...

Back in the day, when I was a fledgling gamer, I picked up a box of Star Trek: The Next Generation Customisable Card Game. This was dangerous. I’d never heard of Magic: The Gathering, or any other CCG, at this time, and I thought it would be a fun game to play with my cousins.

Some years later, and many more expansion packs down the line, we’d still not completed a single set.st2eb

For those who are not in ‘the know’ – a CCG is a Collectable or Customisable Card Game. You buy packs of cards with a random contents, and use these to construct a deck. Your opponent will choose his own cards. In theory, this is a gaming heaven – it allows for endless variation in games, as you each have different cards to choose from, and can combine useful cards together to make powerful strategies.

Unfortunately, not all cards are created equally. Some cards, you will have a dozen copies of. Others, you may never ever see. The only ‘complete’ sets I ever managed to get were ones I bought on eBay, ready-collected.

This randomness can also cause problems in tournaments. Star Trek CCG remains the only game that I have played in a tournament – a monthly affair run by a Friendly Local Game Store that may not even exist now. It certainly hasn’t run ST:CCG tournaments in a long time. Because you need lots of money to ensure you get more different cards (and piles of duplicates stacked up beside it), you’ll be in a better position than someone who has a limited disposable income. For this reason, I would name any CCG with the standard randomisation model as an enemy of the Frugal Gamer.

On the other hand, there is a variation on the CCG that seems to bring all the benefits, but designed for a Frugal Gamer. It is the Living Card Game, as developed by Fantasy Flight Games, and works differently. When you buy an expansion for an LCG, you get all the cards in that expansion. They come in different quantities, but these are set and not random. If you buy one of every pack, you’ll have one of every card in the game. The plus-point of the basic CCG – the Customisable point – is still present, in that you tailor a deck out of the cards you have available. There’s no scrounging around for that one rare card that might or might not be in the pack you’ve just bought, you can guarantee that the box you buy has the card you want.

Personally, I’ve been experimenting with Warhammer Invasion: The Card Game from FFG.

warhammerinvasion I would definitely recommend the core game, although it obviously has extra appeal to those familiar with the Warhammer world. It can be played in about an hour, but the draft format rules can easily take as much time as the rest of the game (if you’re an indecisive person, especially). These are not necessary to the game itself, only if you want to introduce a semi-random deck construction into your games. There is a balance involved in defending each of your zones, generating resources and drawing cards, and attacking your opponent. Getting that balance while being attacked yourself is a fun part of the game.

The basic setup of the game allows for lots of variation – even using the same decks over and over, I’ve found very different tactics for each side depending on which cards are drawn. Each different faction has it’s own flavour, and can be mixed along the broad ideological lines of the Warhammer world (Order vs. Destruction) to open up the options even further.

The rules are quite simple, and can be taught to new players fairly quickly. Working out how to best use their cards may take a while longer, but that’s a matter of practice with any new game. I have found that some of the rules didn’t quite fit at first, compared to games I am used to. The method of assigning damage, then taking actions, and finally applying the damage can open up a range of new, devious tactics but it also takes some getting used to. In the same vein, I have made assumptions about how some cards work and been quite wrong. The best example is that if something says ‘Destroy all units’ it means to destroy all units, for all players.

As far as memorable moments go, a few nights ago my wife was ready to destroy me with two Great Unclean Ones when I decided it was the perfect time for a ‘Destroy all units’ card – the board was effectively reset, and I just had to deal out damage before she finished me off. That one card saved me, and gave me a victory! Before that, I’d never been sure about cards that wipe out your own forces.

The quality of the components is very high – it might seem slightly pedantic to notice this, but even the damage/resource markers are sturdy, thick pieces that look like they’ll last a while. The cards themselves are printed right out to the edges, with no borders, and this looks much better than other systems with a border – in the case of my first CCG, Star Trek, sometimes the borders were of different colours for collector’s sakes!

My gripe would be, however, that the core game doesn’t offer enough in the way of effective themes beyond the main factions. There’s no real purpose to adding Chaos cards to an Orc deck, they would only interfere with each other’s themes. Dwarfs and High Elves will go together slightly better, with one healing units and the other healing your zones, but it’s a fairly weak mix (there are few Elf cards in the core game, let alone those on the theme).

The expansions add to the mix, expand the themes, and offer more options but the rub there is that although the first themed expansion set (‘The Corruption Cycle’) adds the Skaven as a sub-faction, it does so spread across all six expansions in the set. As each expansion costs between £5 and £8 (depending on where you find them), to get a full range of Skaven cards – each of which assists the others with thematic synergy – will set you back a fair bit of money. For serious tournament players, you may need to triple the cost to get the maximum number of cards, but I think of serious tournament players as being less than frugal in games of this sort. The best bet for regular gamers who want to compete at that level is to share with your friends and enter with two different decks. Quick note: Fantasy Flight Games are revising their expansion format, so they cost a little more and contain three copies of each card – which eliminates the need for multiple purchases, and works out at the same or less per card. This won’t take effect till later this year, and won’t be back-dated to the packs already released.

Overall, I think the Living Card Game format is a very welcome successor to the original CCG format and although I’ve griped about the overall cost of a linked expansion set, you still get significantly more cards for the same money as a CCG set – and with less risk in the purchase, too. In this particular case, the game is quick, fun, easy to learn and has enough variety in the core box to keep you playing for a while. Also, while it describes itself as a two-player game and has no specific rules for multiplayer variants, several cards say ‘one target opponent’ and ‘each opponent’ so I believe it wouldn’t be hard to play a multiplayer game and move the options out even further. Since you can choose your level of involvement as it comes to expansion packs, I’d call this a good game and a frugal pick!

6 comments:

BigLee said...

I was into the Babylon 5 CCG at one point. The whole group played and we enjoyed many great games. But one player got a little 'addicted' and literally spent hundreds of pounds hunting elusive rare cards. The problem was none of us could afford the arms race and we eventually lost interest and moved on to other games.

BigLee said...

I meant to add... Although B5CCG was an enjoyable game the collectable aspect eventually killed it for the rest of us. I now treat all games with the word 'Collectable' in the title with a very large amount of caution.

pete the pagan-gerbil said...

Same here, I kept my interest in Star Trek alive for a long time but it eventually died at about the same time I realised jsut how many Magic cards you could fit in my flatmate's tea chest...

...and how many more he didn't have!

Frugal Dave said...

Great review Pete, it sounds like a really good game. I've managed to avoid CCGs in the past, but my heart goes out to those that have suffered... ;)

Ruarigh said...

Great review and a good read. Thanks. My favourite CCG was and still is Over the Edge. I always liked the fact that you could play a perfectly good game with just a starter box each. They also produced a tournament/league format where each person played with only one starter deck and the only way to improve was to win cards from your enemies. It saved a lot of money did that format.

Von said...

Nice review, Pete-san.

I really like what Fantasy Flight are doing with the Warhammer setting. They're not afraid to push the envelope here and there and shift away from established ways of doing things, whether that involves taking the Collectable out of the Collectable Card Game or producing big box RPGs that feel almost like board games for the amateur theatre crowd.

I think the prevalence of mono-faction decks (what you said about the Orc and Chaos cards not playing well together) is probably a nod to the tabletop Warhammer crowd, who haven't enjoyed the perks of an Allies system for many years and may perhaps have never known that the people of the Warhammer World didn't always hate each other all the time. The Order/Destruction thing is straight out of Warhammer Online, which seems like a sop to people coming in from that direction... which is all very nice and accessible.