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Decipher’s Fight Klub Part 2: Gameplay

March 25, 2009 2 comments

Note: this is part two of a two-part review of Decipher’s Fight Klub game. Part one can be found here. I am not trying to sell it to you, but write an objective review.

After all that I have said about the marketing of the game last week, it’s time to dive into the gameplay. (Incidentally, a lot of the negative aspects I mentioned in last week’s post are slowly being de-emphasized in the official forums. Turns out the multi-level marketing turns potential players off.) This is actually pretty straightforward, and a lot of things, past the deckbuilding, can be introduced in similarities to other games–it’s not so much the “revolutionary” game they were hoping for. That said, let’s actually get into things, starting with deckbuilding.

The primary problem with CCG/TCGs, as Decipher seems to see it, is the cost involved in playing. In Magic: The Gathering, for example, you have a 60-card (usually) deck, with a four-per-unique-card limit, regardless of rarity or power level. (Casually, that is. Tournament Magic is an entirely different beast.) Some of those cards can fetch extremely high prices, depending on supply/demand and power level. But with Fight Klub, you play with a 40-card deck, and have a 1-3-3 limit on rares, uncommons, and commons, respectively. This, in theory, lowers the cost of individual cards, because fewer are necessary to complete a “playset”–the maximum number of cards you could conceivably put it your deck. This also lowers the amount of product you have to purchase in order to “naturally” open a full playset.

But past this 1-3-3 rule are a couple of other rules. Your 40-card deck actually includes two fixed cards, your character card and The Drop, which I will discuss later. It also contains a twelve-card “Fight Stack” which consists of your twelve fight cards, randomized into a separate draw deck. Therefore, your remaining 26 cards become you draw deck, which contains the types instant, condition, gear, and effect.

For those inclined to math, that means that a full playset of a particular common/uncommon in your draw deck as an 11.5% chance of showing up on any given draw, compared to 6.6% in Magic. However, a rare only has a 3.8% chance of showing up in Fight Klub, making it significantly less reliable than a given rare in Magic, which is still that 6.6% This, depending on the power level of the rares in the game, could make Fight Klub both highly variable and extremely swingy. High-level gamers hate variance. This is why they play the percentages in poker. It’s why they play chess and not flipping coins. It’s why they play Risk and not Candy Land.

(Aside: the preceding paragraph is extremely simplistic probability. The numbers change depending on how many cards you draw, what cards you’ve already drawn, etc. But from a purely “off the top of the deck” sense, the above numbers are correct. Increasing the complexity of the math only makes the differences more apparent.)

The card types are as follows:

  • Characters – These are the meat of the game. Each has a life total, a hand limit, and what’s called a “hold” limit. Life is how much damage they can take, hand is what they draw up to, and hold is what they discard down to during the “cooldown” phase. Additionally, each character generates “energy” of different colors, which I’ll get to in a bit, has their own signature fight cards, and usually has a relevant game ability. Characters come in Heroes and Villains flavors, but so far that has little, if any impact on gameplay, as faction or side is irrespective of whether or not the characters can battle. (This is akin to Light/Dark in Star Wars or Alliance/Horde in the World of Warcraft TCG.)
  • Fights – This is where the action happens. Each fight has three numbers at the top, and damage at the bottom. A signature fight card has the image of its respective character on it, making it easy to tell what deck the card can go in. Some fights have a gold icon, which is a further deckbuilding restriction: you can only have three gold icons TOTAL in your deck, regardless of the 1-3-3 rule.
  • Instant – These aren’t instants in the Magic sense: you are only allowed to play them during certain phases of the game, and you aren’t allowed to play them in response to other people’s actions. They are marked as to what phase you can use them in, and you can’t play them outside of that phase. These are generally short-term actions; they have their effect and are then discarded.
  • Condition – These are most analogous to enchantments in Magic. They play on your table during the setup phase and stay there until you use them.
  • Gear – Similar to equipment in Magic, they give a boost to a fight and (usually) remain in play for re-use later.
  • Effect – This last type is probably the most important type in the draw deck. Effects are only playable during the fight phase. They give a one-time enhancement to a fight and are discarded at the end of the fight.

The cost system in the game is most like Magic’s mana system. There are three colors of energy that are used to pay costs on cards by “burning” the energy produced by a character’s card or other effects. Those colors are yellow, blue, and green. There is, however, an alternate system used on many cards, called “spotting”, in which you cand play a card if you meet certain conditions on the board, like having a certain card type in play, or having two green “latent” energy, which is energy printed on characters and The Drop. Sometimes spot costs are in addition to energy costs.

A word about The Drop. First of all, I have no fucking clue where they came up with the name for this card. The person with The Drop essentially has the initiative and momentum in the turn: they decide what order fights are resolved in, they decide who takes actions first, and, most importantly, they have an three extra latent energy, one of each color. For this reason, having The Drop is extremely important and can cause a turn to be extraordinarily one-sided. The unfortunate thing is that The Drop passes between players at the end of the turn. So you might be kicking ass now, but your opponent will have the drop on the next turn.

The turn structure is simple: setup, fight, fight, fight, cooldown. During setup you add energy to your pool (which never dissipates until you use it to pay costs), and make two setup actions, ie, playing a condition, gear, or instant-setup, or using a setup action on a card already in play. Each fight step is the same: both players remove their top three fight cards, align them one-on-one, then reveal them. The person with the drop then decides the order in which to resolve them. To do so, each player gets ONE enhance action (playing an effect, using a gear card, playing an instant-enhance, or other enhance actions on cards in play) and then they compare the numbers at the top of the fight card. Each number is called a “skirmish”, and whoever wins the most skirmishes wins the fight card, and deals its damage to the opponent. Winning a skirmish or a fight can have other effects as well, like generating energy. All three fight phases are like this. In the event that a fight is a tie (all three skirmishes tie, etc), then the fight goes to “raise the stakes”, and the winner of the next fight gets to score all “raise the stakes” fights. Finally, the cooldown phase happens. Again, the player with the drop determines who will act first, playing any cooldown actions (Instant-Cooldown or any cooldown actions on cards in play), discarding down to their character’s hold limit, and drawing up to their hand limit. Then control of The Drop switches players, and the whole process starts again.

The strategy involved is less involved with card advantage (a term most Magic players are familiar with) because of the hold/hand limits. Even if you draw a bunch of extra cards, if you don’t use them by the end of the turn, they’re gone, discarded. And the hand and hold limits are generally low, so you can expect that you won’t be holding over cards for a perfect turn or instant-win combo. The strategy may, one day, end up being deck manipulation cards, filtering which cards come up when, and reordering the fights. I say this because much of the variance stems from and strategy is stifled by the fact that you’re playing two seperate decks–the draw and the fight–and are therefore at the mercy of both. The strategy in the game is one of a simplified version of a Magic combat step–knowing which fights to sacrifice to play your better cards, and using your energy resources to their fullest extent.

Unfortunately, right now the game doesn’t seem terribly deep. There are relatively few ways to interact with your opponent directly. Sure, there’s discard effects, but when everyone draws up at the end of turn, they don’t really matter. Sure, you can work on condition denial, but they could still win on the back of a good fight flop or some lucky topdecking from their draw deck. You can’t directly damage your opponent, you’re required to go through fights. There’s little interaction, period, due to the the limitations imposed by the rules (ie, two setup actions, one enhance action per fight, one cooldown action), and often the game seems more random than it probably ought to be.

Granted, this is coming from a tournament Magic player, and its directed at a game that is claimed to take fifteen minutes to play. But… so does Magic. It’s meant to be a placeholder/time killer between other games. Just like Magic was. I think if the game is going to be serious, it needs to be serious about the complexity level, as well as the interaction level. There isn’t long-term planning in a game of Fight Klub, because it’s designed to not have any. You often just play your hand, rather than play the game. Really, right now it’s nothing more than War or Top Trumps with a cost system attached.

And with a less cohesive theme.

So with that, I have the following points as criticism:

Get a theme. By which, I mean get a good, solid, visible license. Every (literally every) property that’s been optioned by Decipher for the game is of “cult” status at this point–even Terminator 2–and has little, if anything, to do with the other properties. While this may be a functioning point of the business plan, this appeal to the cult-movie kids, it won’t help the game expand past the culture of game-playing movie freak hobbyists. Furthermore, the game seems to glorify violence and gore in the extreme. All of the licenses optioned are violent gore-fests, suspense/horrors, or campy action flicks. Sure, this is part of the “flavor” of the game, but it’s a bad image to sell to kids.

Don’t let players design the cards. Players aren’t designers. High-level players? Sure. But even players who design good cards in Magic, winners of the Invitational, design ridiculously broken cards. If you’re looking for balance and fun in the game, leave it to the designers… and hire some new ones. A company as small as Decipher is now can produce some fun games, but it will become pretty inbred after a while.

Expand past the fight phase. Allow players to interact with each other, and make card advantage work in a real way. Not just raw advantage (drawing and discard), either, but virtual advantage, two-for-ones, and actual strategic play.

Ease off or drop the 10% kickback. Most players I’ve talked to are turned off by the pyramid-like structure of the marketing of the game, it attracts the wrong kind of player, and it makes it very hard to get a clear, unbiased opinion of the game for people looking for information. Furthermore, it introduces a very negative element to a gaming culture, that of the capitalist bastard, who’s only shilling the game to make money. This goes in hand with the fact that you need a credit card to post to the forums or to help with the game’s direction by voting for new properties to license.

These are just the most obvious quibbles in that are coming to by brain right now. I’m sure there are more. The game is still very young (indeed, there are only something like 6 people in my metro signed up to the site, and who knows if they actually play… in an area of half a million people) and it has a lot of room to grow. If it does, and makes itself more accessible to interested parties–e.g., no credit card barriers, and no invite-only scheme–then maybe it could take off. But right now it doesn’t seem like the game is being taken seriously by the designers, and therefore the community won’t, either. I know I don’t.

Addendum: I failed to mention in part one the “community” aspect of the game. Decipher is sponsoring thirteen “gangs” to which you can belong to (for LIFE, you can’t get out of them) to purchase memorabilia and gear with your gang’s symbols, etc, on them. This is all sorts of stupid, because it sends entirely the wrong message about the game. Think about it: gangs, distributing kilos, with mentors, playing with The Drop.

Also, Decipher is allowing the community to suggest properties to license, cards to print, and opening playtesting to the players. While this is a nice bit of gladhanding, it’s not a good idea for the game. The licensing thing I can get behind, but players, by and large, make terrible cards. Furthermore, it’s outsourcing the design of the game to people that aren’t getting paid to do it. It’s cheap and somewhat shady business practice, in my mind.

Finally, the active community on the boards (that I can see) isn’t what I’d call the best minds in gaming. I’ll just leave it at that.

If you really want to check out the game and the community and download the demo decks, go to Decipher and put rickiep00h (those are zeros) into the “Who Sent You?” field. I don’t care if you buy anything, because I’m probably not going to buy anything, either. But it will save you the pain of having to dig through the internet to find someone else, who probably is trying to sell you something, let you in.

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Decipher’s Fight Klub Part 1: Marketing

March 20, 2009 2 comments

Note: I am not trying to sell you on Decipher’s Fight Klub game. The reason I have to give you this disclaimer is stated later. You can find part two of this review here.

So, it finally came down to this: I didn’t know how to approach this review.

On one hand, I’m excited that a studio that has produced some of my favorite games has produced another game. On the other, aside from the way said studio has handled their previous ventures from a business side, I’m pretty leery. But in the end, I’ve decided to split this into two parts. For now, part one.

Yes, Decipher has produced a new trading card game. Decipher, as you may know, produced the original Star Wars Customizable Card Game, the Star Trek game, and the Lord of the Rings. They’re intellectual property fiends. Star Wars was widely considered the best non-Magic: The Gathering trading card game ever made. With Star Trek they created a game well-suited to its universe–kind of bland, but full of strategy deep down. (The second edition of the game seemed an attempt to combat its naysayers more than expand upon the game.) Lord of the Rings was, quite possibly, the most original card game I’ve played since the original CCG/TCG boom in the early 1990s.

But, oh, for those properties and licenses. Without the Lucasfilm blessing, the Star Wars game morphed into Wars, with the same mechanics. (Wizards of the Coast, the recipient of the new Lucasfilm license, squandered it and ultimately put out a game that was organized die-rolling, and removed any complexity and strategy. I consider it a flop, despite how many cards they may have printed and/or sold.) Star Trek had a good, long run, both in the first edition and second. But a lot of the problems of the show filtered down into the game: once you get past the sexy fun action, there’s not much to latch onto in a game setting. In the end, both versions seem to be more like board games than card games. And Lord of the Rings… well… with licensing for the movies, there’s not much you can do when you run out of movie to make into cardboard.

Now, however, Decipher introduces Fight Klub. Aside from having the stupidest name ever (changed to avoid legal issues relating to the movie, as well as the book) the game suffers, in my mind, from a lack of focus. This, of course, is inherent in the premise of the game. That premise? If you could have any two characters fight each other, who would win? Who would win in a fight between Magneto and Rambo? Jack Ryan and Doc Brown? MechaGodzilla and Pippi Longstocking? Ad nauseam.

The problem is the aforementioned lack of focus. The game tries to juggle many, many properties, balance them, make them cool, and make an interesting, affordable game. But… well… let’s look at the list of properties optioned so far:

  • Rambo
  • Tank Girl
  • Fargo
  • Species
  • Terminator 2
  • The Devil’s Rejects
  • Crank
  • Army of Darkness
  • Friday the 13th
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Saw II
  • The Lost Boys
  • The Delta Force*
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Platoon
  • Robocop

What does this look like? A mess of B-movies that no one really cares about enough to give their own games, let alone actually buy product from. Now, I love a lot of those movies. Do I want games featuring their characters? Not so much. The fact that Army of Darkness is on this list is probably the kiss of death. I’ve never once played a game with Ash in it that was actually fun, balanced, or interesting.

But let’s skip all that. Maybe they can make an interesting game out of so very many disparate parts.

But before we get to a gameplay review, I have to talk about the so-called revolutionary aspects of the game.

I had to give that disclaimer at the beginning because of the way the game is marketed. To put it generally, the game is being sold in a pyramid, or at the very least multi-level, scheme. The game is only available from Decipher. That cuts out the “middleman” at the game store. You can only gain access to the site through someone who already plays the game. Once you’re in and you buy product, 10% of that price goes to whomever let you in. This is so subversive to the game that, in the nearly six hours I spent researching the game outside of Decipher’s site (which, again, I had to use someone else’s word to get into), I found maybe three sites that had reviews or message board threads that weren’t rife with people shilling the game. This is not a good face to put on a game. In fact, I was tempted to not even write this because I was so turned off by the marketing. Furthermore, Decipher is attempting a viral campaign with the game, encouraging people to use whatever means they have to get more people running into the site.

In short, the marketing is the single biggest thing the game has going against it. As soon as someone finds out you’ll be getting 10% of their purchases, they’re going to get a little annoyed. A lot annoyed, in fact.

After that plank, the main marketing platform Decipher is banking on is that it is, in theory, significantly cheaper than other CCG/TCGs to play. Magic is constantly pushing the boundaries of affordability, and Star Wars, back in the day, could fetch some pretty ridiculous sums. A lot of this is due to, in Decipher’s eyes, as the four-per-deck rule that the former has, and the unlimited-number rule that the latter had. So for Fight Klub, Decipher introduced a 1-3-3 rule: one of any given rare, three of any given uncommon, three of any common. Cards are not sold in traditional randomized boosters, but in what they’re calling “kilos”, 120-card packs for each set, consisting of ten random rares, one of each uncommon, and two of every common.

Decipher claims that, spending $29.95 per kilo, buying three kilos of each set should net you a full playset of commons and uncommons from the set, plus a likelihood of getting a full playset of rares, thus minimizing both the amount you need to spend for each expansion, and the amount of trading you’ll need to do in order to remain competitive and up-to-date. So for about $100, you’ll get pretty much a whole expansion, in a fully-playable assortment, as opposed to, say, Magic, which will get you maybe a playset of commons, a set of uncommons, and about a third to a half of the rares in any given set (depending on size).

For this, Decipher is taking a big, big gamble. Since Magic is distributed in stores, they have a greater possibility of impulse buyers picking up the game. It also has the benefit of having chase rares (or other cards) in a completely randomized 15-card pack. The number of boosters you have to buy to get a given rare, especially in quantities, is staggering. Decipher says that, with Fight Klub, you have a reasonable shot to collect the total number of relevent cards fairly easily.

Furthermore, and the final part of the distribution, is that Decipher has claimed they will reprint any expansion set, given enough customer demand. Essentially, they have removed the collectability of the game and replaced it with “customer service”. This cuts down on the profitablity, I think, but does a lot for the image of being “service-oriented”.

And this seems to be what Decipher is aiming for. Rather than being focused on acceptance by the general public, they’re aiming to make a hardcore base. This seems to be the biggest place where they diverge from Wizards of the Coast, especially with WotC’s big push toward “acquisition” of new players. Unfortunately, I think the odd licensing decisions and pyramid-like marketing structure will hurt more than they help in the long run.

Of course, the other major thing that will make a difference will be how the game plays. I expect to have a gameplay review up early next week, as my wife and I will take this weekend to learn the (admittedly simplistic) rules, and play a couple games with the downloadable demo decks.

I’ll reserve my shilling until then.

*Chuck Norris is not enough to make me buy into this game. Sorry, Decipher.