AUSTIN, Texas—It should have been obvious. But when I approached the Mondo Games rep at Fantastic Fest about playing a round of —the recently released spin on deck battle board games—I quickly stood paralyzed by choice. Should I use the raptors? What about Alice of fame? Or maybe Robin Hood?
“You should definitely play Bruce Lee,” the rep suggested, directing me to a different board. And with that, our battle commenced: the greatest martial arts fighter of all time against… the mythical King Arthur? Huh?
When “deck battling” gets mentioned, most minds probably go to the classic collectible trading card games: , , , , etc. These games developed cult followings for their combinations of complex strategy, varying play styles, and multi-faceted gameplay. But they also alienated other gamers because the process of acquiring cards could get expensive—and building a successful deck required significant thought and time.
, a game created in partnership with Restoration Games, kinda-sorta tries to find a middle ground. It’s deck battling, but the decks have been premade. Players can still use varying play styles, but those styles have been attached to specific characters. (Bruce Lee ain’t here to dink and dunk you with range attacks; it’s melee time, folks.) Because of this, the setup and learning curve are greatly simplified (though options for expansive customization are, too).
Based on our Lee versus Arthur play through, however, this is one time where a half-measure might work. delivers plenty of strategy despite being accessible enough for a moderate gamer to pick up in a single play. And more importantly, beating down another legendary brawler is pretty engaging… especially when you’re doing it with Bruce Lee.
We’ll have a full review of the game once we’ve done some more playtesting, but our preview here should give you a taste of the game’s style—and its crazy matchups.
uses the oldest competitive premise in the book: beat your opponent in a fight. Each character has a number associated with its health, and the object is to reduce your opponent’s health to zero by using your deck of cards.
A sidebar on sidekicks
As another way to distinguish fighters and vary gameplay, some characters boast sidekicks. Everyone in the base set fits this description: Arthur has Merlin, Alice has The Jabberwock, Sinbad has The Porter, and Medusa has a trio of Harpies. Sidekicks can attack your opponent, sometimes in a different way than your main character (the Harpies thrive in melee combat while Medusa prefers range, for instance).
The only health meters that matter for ultimate victory belong to the central characters, so sidekicks are perhaps extraneous when determining which enemy to target with attacks. But functionally, sidekicks do have their own health meter, and having a sidekick take an action (attacking, for instance) uses up one of a player’s two actions per turn. Sidekicks do get to move whenever the central character moves, however, so leveraging your sidekick well might ensure an opponent can’t slither far when injured.
Every individual turn encompasses two actions from the following three options: you can move and/or draw a card, you can play a “scheme” card, or you can play an attack card. Those actions can be divvied up however a player would like (moving twice; attacking and then fleeing; etc.), while both the cards and a character’s special ability will often modify what a turn can encompass. Bruce Lee, for instance, has a deck where many attack cards come with a “Gain +1 action” modifier, mimicking Lee’s own ability to get a fury of fists in before an opponent reacts. And Lee’s special ability centers on movement; he gets the option of taking an extra space at the conclusion of a turn.
Speaking of cards and abilities, each character comes with a pre-built, character-specific deck. These decks all contain the same basic components—defense cards, attack cards, hybrid cards (you can attack or defend!), and scheme cards—tweaked slightly for each character’s style. Scheme cards typically impact the game without starting a battle: +1 to attacks for a given turn, the ability to sift through your discard for a type of card, direct damage dealt to an opponent, etc. Players start with five cards in hand and can carry up to seven before needing to discard. In the event that a game drags on, decks become something of a fuse—after you’ve used your entire deck once, every new card draw costs two health points. (So, technically, you can win by running from your opponent. Check out the full ruleset [PDF] if interested.)
When a player attacks, they simply choose a card to lay face down on the board. Their opponent gets a chance to defend by doing the same, then each player flips. The top left portion of these cards has a number denoting power, and the numeric difference between attack and defense gets applied to the target’s health count. (Ties go to the defender.)
Unlike most deck games, these battles take place on a traditional board. Boards vary depending on which set you start with (for instance, the one contains a raptor cage with only one road in and out), but the basics remain the same. For most characters to attack, you need to be in the space next to your opponent. But if a character—or a character’s sidekick—has range attack abilities, they simply need to be in the same colored zone in order to deliver damage.
The expanded universe
Back to the important matter at hand: who wins in a battle between King Arthur and Bruce Lee? In my fight, Arthur intimidated me. His base health was higher (18 to Lee’s 14), and he had a sidekick, Merlin. But Arthur quickly showed why hauling a giant sword around is a bad idea; his relative immobility (just two spaces at a time) gave Lee a real travel advantage.
As a few turns passed, I noticed another pattern: many of Lee’s attack cards give you an extra action. Instead of being able to attack twice per turn like normal characters, Lee can unleash three or four advances and deplete an opponents’ hand, forcing them to draw and move instead of counter. By the time Arthur did use Excalibur (a +6 value, the highest card I saw all day), Bruce had already worn him down. Plus, I had a healthy +4 hybrid card ready for defense (Arthur had a scheme card which allowed him to find the sword no matter if was in the deck or in the discard).
Ultimately, I deployed a strategy learned from side-scrolling arcade titles of my youth: focus attacks on the main opponent (Arthur), ignore the footmen (Merlin), and get to the finish line fast. Thanks to Bruce Lee’s fighting prowess, I took home my first victoryover a gaming company rep for Ars Cardboard. (How’s that for ease of learning?) Our one-on-one battle moved briskly and took around 30 minutes.
I left Fantastic Fest interested in sampling other characters to see what styles appealed to me most. But this is where can start to resemble other deck battlers; it costs some real money. The base set comes with a board and four players (Arthur, Alice, Sinbad, and Medusa) at an MSRP of $39.95, while a separate two-character starter pack (a board with Big Foot and Robin Hood) will set you back $24.99. The Bruce Lee expansion (cards only) is $15.99.
Restoration/Mondo have already announced a slew of other releases: the board, a Victorian-themed set with Sherlock Holmes, the Invisible Man, Dracula, and Jekyll & Hyde, and a expansion deck. So to get a board and have at least six character options for people to choose from will run you $65. And who can say what replay value will be if you don’t have a decent variety of character options on hand?
For now, I’m anxious to play again but holding off on my own purchase. Maybe a few friends will get a taste of and we can pool different sets for the greater gaming good. Here in Austin, I know that my local gaming cafe will eventually have each add-on ready and waiting (thank you for existing, Emerald Tavern).
But however it happens, I definitely plan to find out whether Bruce Lee can take down a trio of raptors.