Monday, December 1, 2014

DC Comics Deck-Building Game, by Matt Hyra

Who's your favorite? 
This is a guest post by Raoul Mowatt, proud Chicagoan and owner of many, many games! Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap other games in a single bound! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the DC Comics Deck-Building Game! I’d heartily recommend "DC Deckbuilder" to just about anyone. 

I’ve probably played it over a hundred times, and it still remains one of my favorites, which should tell you something about its replayability (or my easy-to-please nature, or both). It is a quick game that’s easy to pick up and play.

For those unfamiliar with deck-building games, here’s a quick overview: Each player starts off with the same basic deck as everyone else. People use the cards in that basic deck to pick up stronger cards for their individual decks. They each put cards that they pick up into their own discard piles. 

When players run out of cards in their decks, they shuffle their discard pile into a new deck and can start drawing and using their more powerful cards. Ideally, their decks evolve into a victory-point generating machine, getting better cards at a faster rate. The game ends when a player uses their deck to defeat the final Super-villain, and the player with the most victory points wins! 

In DC Comics Deck-Building, you play as one of the seven DC superheroes who make up the founding members of the Justice League in its current incarnation: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. The superhero you get will influence how you want to build your deck. (More on that in a bit).

Players start with decks that consist of seven Punches and three Vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities just exist to clog up your hand and make you sad. Playing a Punch card gives you one Power, which is the currency that allow you to buy cards to improve your deck. Get enough Power and you get to take one or more cards with the combined cost of that Power from the community cards and put it in your discard pile. So if you generate five power for your turn, you can get a card that costs 5, a card that costs 4, or a card that costs 3 and a card that costs 2, for example. Some of the cards simply give you power, anywhere from two to five, when you play them. Some of them draw you extra cards. Some have multiple effects.

Is he flying, or very tall? 
Let’s talk about the different kinds of cards you can buy. You can buy Heroes, Villains, Equipment, Super Powers, Locations and Super-Villains. Functionally, most of these different types of cards work the same way. They go in your discard when you buy them, and then get shuffled into your deck when you run out of cards. When you eventually play them, you follow the card text and then at the end of the turn, put the card in your discard.

Locations, however, get to stay out permanently after you play them and give you an ongoing bonus card draw if you have played a given type of card on your turn). Playing some Villains will unleash an Attack that affect all the other players in ways that range from making them discard cards to gaining Weaknesses. Not only do Weaknesses do nothing but clog up a player’s hand during game play, but they also each subtract a victory point at the end of the game. 

At the same time, other cards have Defense values that let you avoid such cowardly attacks. Some of the heroes key off the different types of cards. So for instance, Wonder Woman’s special ability is that she gets to draw a bonus card for each Villain she gains a turn. Superman likes Super Powers, so he gets one bonus Power for each differently named Super Power he plays in a turn. Batman likes to get wonderful toys, so he gets a bonus Power for each Equipment he plays on his turn.  

Most of the cards are shuffled together in one large stack, and then put in a five card line up. Super-Villains have their own stack of between eight and 12 evil-doers, such as Lex Luthor, the Joker, Darkseid and so forth. And as you probably expect, Super-Villains cost more than your typical card, generally between eight and 12 power. When you generate enough power to get them, they go into your deck like any other card, and you play them when you draw them. They are also worth more victory points and generally have a bigger impact when you play them. For instance, Lex Luthor lets you draw three cards.

Does more than just throw sharks! 
Moreover, when a new one flips, it can attack all the players in a major way. When Brainiac flips, for example, he makes all players who can’t defend from his attack put two of their cards in a common pool that gets randomized and redistributed. A player could end up losing a pretty sweet card that way. When someone who has defeated Brainiac gets to play him, the effect can also be brutal: he or she gets to play a card at random from each of the other players’ hands.

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game has a lot going for it. It’s relatively fast-paced and straightforward, once you get the basic concept of a deck-building game. Though the box recommends it for ages 15 and up, I bought it for my 10 year-old nephew and he seemed to grasp it fairly quickly, with a little help here and there.  

I think if you’re at all inclined to enjoy the DC Universe, you’ll appreciate the flavor. You might find, as in my play group, you’ll develop certain habits. Like meowing whenever Catwoman flips up. Or doing the musical cue from the Batman TV series when the Riddler does. Or taunting the Superman player when you take her Fortress of Solitude.

Unlike some deck-building games, it feels like it’s more about a shared experience than multiple people playing simultaneous solitaire. There are lots of combos to strive for. Robin is a Hero that (in addition to giving you one Power) lets you get a piece of Equipment from your discard and put it your hand. Bat-Signal is a piece of Equipment that (in addition to giving you one Power) lets you get a Hero from your discard and put it in your hand. 

You can see where I’m going with this, right? It’s also worth noting that Cryptozoic, the makers of this game, has made a number of other deck-building games and has others on the horizon that use the same basic mechanics. So eventually, you will be able to pit Cyborg’s deck against orcs from Lord of the Rings, M. Bison from Street Fighter and mix and mash to your tastes.

Why so serious? 
To be fair, DC also has a few issues. For instance, some of the Super Heroes are just not very balanced. Flash’s ability (getting to draw one bonus card the first time he has drawn an extra card on his turn) is particularly weak. Everyone is going to be looking for cards that allow extra card draws, so frequently that means the Flash player virtually does not have a super power at all. 

By contrast, Aquaman is one of the strongest Super Heroes (in what must be an attempt to compensate for no one ever typing such a sentence in any other context.) Aquaman lets you put cards you buy that cost five Power or less on top of your deck, which means you should be able to afford better cards much sooner than your rivals.

Some players are going to strongly prefer the type of deck-building game with a limited but fixed pool of cards one can buy for their deck, rather than the broader, changing pool that DC actually has. Their reasoning is that you can better strategize and you can minimize variance. Some might say DC is almost too straightforward, because some deck-builders have two or more currencies players spend to get victory points.

Finally, there is somewhat of a runaway leader problem. It’s possible for some players to luck into certain cards that are either very powerful in general or that have great synergy with their superhero. In such cases, it’s hard for the rest of the players to catch up. Some people might also question some of the logic behind the game. Why does Batman get to have Heat Vision? What would ever make Darkseid work for Aquaman?

To those sorts of points, I’d say, just roll with it. I think at the end of the day, this is less a game for the sort of player who wants to crush his opponents into submission by optimizing every move and more a game for people who are relatively laid-back and who are not going to take the game all that seriously. What it may lack for in complexity, it makes up for in sheer fun. After all, who doesn’t want to say in a growly voice, “I’m Batman!”

(but don't tell anybody)