PAX Unplugged: Indie TCGs

Two interesting indie TCG’s from PAX Unplugged this year were Genesis and Gem Blenders. Here’s my general thoughts on the two.

TCGs are a complex subject. There’s the supply chain. There’s the fact that printing booster packs is expensive. There’s the fact that the space of trading card games has been dominated by the big three (Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh) for years on end. There’s an argument about whether or not these games are effectively lottery tickets with a better consolation prize. There’s the impacts that TCGs have on smaller game stores, and a billion other factors revolving around them. There’s the question how many lifestyle games the market can support.

I will be addressing exactly zero of these topics in this writeup. Instead, I’ll be looking at two indie TCGs I saw at PAX Unplugged: Genesis and Gem Blenders.

Genesis: Battle of Champions

Genesis is a 2-4 player independent TCG. Unlike many other TCGs I’ve played, Genesis is actually played on a board: a large 5×6 grid. Each player starts with a hero out, and you win by being the last hero standing.

Heroes define a few important elements of the game including your starting health, and also the cards and archetypes you can include in your deck. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to the deck construction or color archetypes as I only played one game of Genesis, and it was with preconstructed decks.

Anyway, back to the gameplay. There’s a few interesting things about Genesis that I want call out. First, you start with your full mana pool, and it doesn’t regenerate during the game. For example, my character started with about 125 mana, and was down to 10 by the time the game finished. This means that you can drop your most powerful cards on turn one if you wish.

Mana is the most common limitation in existing TCGs. But in Genesis, it felt like I was limited by cards in hand, and space on the board. Many of the monsters felt a bit fragile in the large scheme of things, usually taking only 2/3 hits to kill.

Two other things I want to mention. The game has a stack for resolving actions that was a little difficult to parse during my demo, but I’m sure would be fine once I got used to it, and direction matters. One of the primary things you do is rotate cards to face various directions, indicating where they can attack.

Overall, Genesis was interesting. I was curious enough to pick up some preconstructed decks, but that was primarily as samples to add to my board game collection. I’m not hugely in the market for another TCG at the moment, and I wouldn’t say I was really grabbed by the art or world building in my incredibly brief exposure to it.

If you want to learn more about the game, or find yourself curious, you can check it out here.

Gem Blenders

Most Indie TCGs tend to end up mimicking on of the big three in at least some small way. For most of them, this ends up being reminiscent of Magic’s land/non-land system. You have cards that generate resources, but are very hard to remove, and cards that are used to move toward your victory condition, but are easier to remove.

Gem Blenders flips that, and uses something that will probably be more familiar to players of the Pokemon TCG: You start with a set of 4 blenders out, and you put Gems onto them. Blenders can then “Blend” into higher tier blenders with better stats once they have the prerequisite gems attached to them.

Unlike Pokemon, Blenders don’t get knocked out, so the game is mostly about playing your gem per turn, and slowly trying to build advantageous board state. I also got crushed by the individual demoing it at the show. So it can join Mythic Mischief in that category.

The one other interesting thing to me was Gem Blenders’ action system. There’s no limit on the number of action cards you can play per turn, but you can only play a max of 5 total in a game.

Side note: It was interesting to me that both Gem Blenders and Genesis had these mechanics where you started with a full set of resources, and spent it as the game went on.

Gem Blenders was more appealing to me and I actually got a chance to sit down with the creator. We chatted for a bit about his longer term goals for Gem Blenders, what he sees as important for an indie TCG, and why he wants Gem Blenders to be a TCG in the first place.

It was a really interesting chat, and I hope to get a chance to transcribe it and put it up on the site. It’s been a busy last few months.

If you’re curious about Gem Blenders, and would like to learn more, you can find the game’s site here.

Wrap Up

Overall, I liked my limited time with Gem Blenders a bit more than Genesis. A large portion of that is just personal taste. I found Gem Blenders’ weird art style to be appealing, and I like games where I build up forces overall a bit more than games where I just shred stuff down.

I still think both of these are neat games, and I picked up starter sets for both. Will I play them as full TCGs? Unlikely. Magic and Pokemon already occupy most of my interest for the time being. But I’m happy to see some indie TCGs that really seem to be trying to be solid card games, and not FOMO messes.

PAX Unplugged – Mythic Mischief and Klask

Mythic Mischief and Klask don’t really have anything in common with each other. It’s not even like they had booths next to each other or something. Mythic Mischief is an action economy and movement-based game with victory points that almost reminds me of Chess. Klask is a skill-based dexterity game that feels like miniature air hockey.

So why am I covering them together? Because I don’t have enough to say about them separately to fill writeup! Anyway, let’s get to it.

Mythic Mischief

Mythic Mischief is an asymmetric grid-based movement game, designed by Max Anderson, Zac Dixon, Austin Harrison, and published by IV Games.

The best summary I can offer is that you and your opponents both control 3 miniatures on a 5v5 grid. Alternating turns, you attempt to spend your actions and use your abilities to place your opponent’s units in the path or directly on an NPC unit called the Tome Keeper.

Editor’s Note: Tome Keeper not to be confused with Dome Keeper

At the end of a player’s turn, the Tome Keeper moves towards specific locations. If there are units in its way, the Tome Keeper knocks them out, and the player who didn’t control those units scores points. Units that get knocked out can be replaced at the start of the next player’s turn.

There’s a fair amount to the movement and action system, and how it plays with the game’s upgrade choices that I don’t think I can summarize effectively, so I won’t try. It’s a perfectly fine system, but I would not describe it as “Sparking Joy,” at least for me.

It is worth noting that each player will be playing a different faction, with unique abilities and so keeping track of what your opponent can do is necessary to succeed.

I only played one game of Mythic Mischief, and it was a combination of a demo and an ass beating. I wouldn’t say that I hugely enjoyed it. That might have been because I lost, and because I get salty easily. But I also struggled with two other factors.

First up, just because of how the game works with scoring, it felt very difficult to make any sort of comeback once I fell behind. Secondly, the game reminded me of Chess in that it felt like a game of trying to find the “Correct” moves, and like a puzzle of chaining things together. That’s just not something I find very fun.

So yeah, if you do like deterministic movement games, or things like Chess, maybe you’ll get more out of Mythic Mischief than I did.

Klask

Klask is a manual dexterity game by Mikkel Bertelsen.

Honestly, it feels weird to be reviewing Klask here. It’s as if for some reason I felt compelled to write a review of Skeeball, or Soccer. The closest games I can think of as a comparison to Klask would be Air Hockey or maybe Foosball.

Those chips look really good.

All of this to say that the “Manual Dexterity” part of the game is absolutely not optional. Klask is played in an elevated square wooden box with sides. Each player has a magnet with a stick in the end that they hold under the box, and a pawn they place on top. The top pawn is moved by dragging it with the magnet from under the box.

The pawn and stick aren’t the only magnetic pieces, though. Klask also has 3 small plastic beads with magnets in the center that are placed equidistant in the middle of the playfield at the start of a point. These beads will jump and stick to your pawn if you get too close, and if 2 of the 3 stick to a player’s pawn, their opponent gets a point.

Points can also be scored by a player hitting the ball into the goal indent on the board, or if a player messes up and gets their pawn stuck in the indent.

The interesting part of Klask for me is how the tiny white beads open up strategy. Without them, the game is pretty much just air hockey with a marble. But with the beads, you can do interesting stuff like hitting them towards your opponent in order to close off parts of the board.

Overall, I like Klask. I just don’t like it enough to really want to buy it. That said, if someone asked me if I’d play, my response would be a semi-enthusiastic “Sure!”

Conclusion

I don’t think there’s any meaningful conclusion you can take out of things like both Klask and Mythic Mischief being present at PAX Unplugged. Maybe there’s some sort of testament to the diversity of mechanics and games present. Maybe there’s something to be said for the sorts of games you’d play if someone else is footing the bill.

And maybe there’s nothing. Maybe there is no purpose. Maybe the real journey was the friends we made along the way.

If you want more nonsense and to be notified whenever I write new stuff, maybe consider following me on Twitter? The site still seems to be up and functioning, at least for now.

PAX Unplugged 2022: The Adaptations

I don’t have anything good to put in this opening paragraph. Maybe I should just talk about how good the food is in Philadelphia? It’s really tasty. Reading Terminal is delicious, even if PAX Unplugged does pack it to the brim. Even if it can take 40 minutes for someone to get you an egg and cheese on a roll.

Anyway, enough about sandwiches. Let’s talk about board games. Today I’ll be covering the board games at the show that are either adapted from, or licensed from video games. It’s an arbitrary category, but one with a fair number of entries. Also, interestingly enough, all of them are based off games I’ve played.

Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels

I want to open this part of the writeup by noting that I love Shovel Knight the video game. I did a writeup on it where I said as much. Which makes it a bit hard to say the next bit.

Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels feels like the literal definition of overproduced Kickstarter Ameritrash.

That’s kind of a bold claim, so let me make some observations to back it up. From a mechanical standpoint, the game is incredibly uninspired. The goal is to get the most victory points. You do this by defeating enemies, and clearing out a boss. This, in turn, is done by moving across a board.

You have three actions per turn: moving, attacking, and jumping. Of those actions, only moving doesn’t require you to roll dice. You can’t just move your way to victory, because the board is covered in spikes. You’ll need to roll to jump over those. And if you fail? Fall into a pit, and lose half your victory points. You want to attack something? Roll dice, and hope you get enough successes to do something valuable. Because if you don’t, you might die, and lose half of your victory points.

Should you manage to survive long enough to get to a shop tile, you can spend your victory points to buy a completely random upgrade. It could be +1 dice to all your rolls! It could be the ability to make ranged attacks. It could be a worse item for a slot you already have filled, because it’s a random draw from a deck. Upgrades are frequently utterly worthless and get thrown away immediately.

Of course, dying doesn’t knock you out of the game. You’ll get to replace your wonderfully crafted miniature at the start of the next round on the far side of the board. And that’s good, because aside from the aforementioned falling into pits by missing a jump, or just taking enough damage to die, you can also get pushed back into pits by enemies if they damage you.

Now, this can’t happen during the boss fight. Instead, if you get knocked off the board during a boss fight, your character goes prone, and has to spend an action to get back up. If you get unlucky, the boss can do this to you before you even get to take a turn. And yes, someone in my demo was on the receiving end of this.

These are all the mechanical reasons I have for calling Shovel Knight: Dungeon Duels “Ameritrash.” The game is incredibly random with a focus on dice rolls for resolving most meaningful interactions. You have minimal capacity to make meaningful choices around upgrading or building your character.

This game was Kickstarted. It has 44 miniatures. And they are very nice minis! I like these characters so much from playing the video games, that I was and am still tempted by them because of how much fun they would be to paint. But those minis are also probably a large portion of why this game costs $125. It has a 58 page rulebook, apparently? It has custom dice, and tokens, and lots of playable characters.

My personal verdict: cut down on the minis and include a fun game. Or even keep the minis and include a fun game! Or, scratch that, screw the game, just let me buy the minis from you directly. Because they’re the best part about what I played here.

SolForge Fusion

Continuing a trend of writing things that guarantee I will never end up on a press list for prerelease copies of anything, let’s talk about SolForge Fusion. Like with Dungeon Duels, I really liked SolForge Fusion’s parent game, SolForge. Also like with Dungeon Duels, I really don’t like SolForge Fusion. It’s for a very different set of reasons though, and to explain them, we need to talk about SolForge briefly.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about what SolForge was. You see, SolForge is dead. And unlike many games that I’ve written about in my end of year wrap-ups, SolForge didn’t really do anything to deserve to die. It just didn’t make enough money for the company to continue supporting it. Which honestly kind of sucks, because SolForge was one of the best digital CCG’s to exist.

The key word in that sentence, and the root of a lot of problems we’re going to be talking about, is “digital.” SolForge’s key mechanic was digital-only, and it worked like this: whenever you play a card, an upgraded version of the card is added to your discarded cards. When you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle your discarded cards back into a new deck, and continue the game, now with some of your more powerful cards. It also had a reliance on triggered effects. Also damage and buffs on creatures didn’t wear off between turns.

All of these were good and interesting designs that worked well digitally. The computer could manage resolving triggered effects, tracking stats, and upgrading your cards. Because all of these were handled by the computer, games were quick, fun, and could allow for ridiculous numbers and scaling.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this.

Works great with a single digitally managed card. Works less great when it’s 3 physical cards that have to be swapped out.

You see, all of these mechanics technically could work in a paper card game. Each paper deck would need to have three times the cards, forcing you to keep track of which ones you played. And because damage and buffs don’t wear off, you’d have to have a billion tokens for keeping track of damage. And you’d need to manually track all triggered effects, and also manually resolve the full combat step for the board.

This is all technically possible in the same way that it is technically possible eat an entire card board box. You can do it, but I don’t know why you would, and it probably wouldn’t be a good time.

All of this is to say that SolForge Fusion is effectively a port of the aforementioned mechanics to tabletop. It’s not a straight port by any means, with many cards being heavily changed around, and the numbers having been rescaled a fair amount. But it’s still a port!

Anyway, as if this wasn’t funny enough, two days ago I got this in an email:

So yeah. They’re planning to make a digital version of a physical card game based off the mechanics off a digital game that was shut down for ultimately just… not really making enough money.

It would be cool if this went well, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. And again, the digital version doesn’t exist yet. Until it exists, SolForge Fusion requires playing a set of decent mechanics that are fundamentally flawed in meat-space.

Storybook Brawl Unnamed Deckbuilder

I’ve debated whether to put Storybook Brawl’s unnamed deckbuilder here with the other video game adaptations, or with a later page on games I played in the Unpub hall. Ultimately I decided to place it here.

I’ve written about Storybook Brawl before, but you don’t need to read that writeup now. Unlike the other games on this list, this board game is its own game. It’s also in the rawest state, if the fact that it doesn’t even have a real name wasn’t enough of indicator.

Unlike Storybook Brawl, instead of building a set of characters that you play out onto a single large map, it’s much closer to a deck builder with simultaneous play competitive elements. And while it maintains some mechanics (such as the idea of tripling, and playing a single spell per turn), this unnamed deckbuilder mostly puts its own twists on the video game’s mechanics.

I wouldn’t say that I love this as-of-yet-unnamed game. But given that it’s still an alpha, there’s both time to improve and tweak things, and also to refine the game as a whole. Despite its flaws, Storybook Brawl’s unnamed deckbuilder is probably the most interesting of the three games on this list, despite not being a full game yet.

So in summary…

What have we learned today? Well, mostly that Panda Cult and Stone Blade Entertainment are incredibly unlikely to send me review copies for any reason whatsoever in the future. And the same is probably true for Storybook Brawl, if for no other reason than the fact that their parent company lost $16 billion dollars.

On a less sarcastic note, I think the main takeaway should be that if you’re going to adapt anything, it’s probably a better idea to try to work with the strengths of the target format than to just try to port things straight across.

More PAX Unplugged writeups in the week(s) to come! And in the meantime, why not follow us on Twitter, assuming it hasn’t burnt to the ground yet.