Deck-Building Game Reviews: Core Worlds, For the Crown, and Puzzle Strike

I talk about deck-building games fairly often, usually to complain that they copy Dominion while missing the point. There have been some clever twists, but only one real success so far. However, these days Dominion is a well-established part of the board gaming scene, and we’re seeing more and more innovation.

Here are reviews of a few other games I’ve been trying out. Admittedly, each one is at least a year old, so they prove that this innovation has been growing for a while. However, I’m heartened by both the successes and failures here. Even when these have problems, it’s not that they misunderstand the game they’re copying. I think that the most exciting times for the deck-building mechanic may be just ahead.

Core Worlds box

Core Worlds

Core Worlds

In Andrew Parks’ Core Worlds, you are spacefaring barbarians competing to conquer the most worlds. The game takes place over a set number of rounds, with ever-more-powerful cards offered. You’ll need to build your deck (representing military strength) to keep up with the targets that also increase in strength. The “core worlds” are the final planets, well-defended in the heart of civilization, and worth a lot of points to anyone strong enough to defeat them.

The differences from Dominion are obvious. Offered cards (both planets to conquer and resources to buy) are dealt to the middle of the table and effectively drafted on your turn. It’s possible to build attack forces over several moves, as you deploy them to a “warzone” in front of you, and they remain there without being discarded until needed for an attack. Outside of battles, the main resources are a number of action points (which grows slowly throughout the game) and energy (used to buy and deploy cards, and that is regenerated every turn by the planets in your empire). Though the central element of deck-building is there, Dominion’s “Buys” and “Actions” are gone, along with the need to deal with only the cards you’ve drawn this turn. It gives the game a very different flow.

Core Worlds play

Of course, there are also various elements that synergize with each other, so that a good deck can be built in different ways. Attack power is measured in both ground and fleet strength, and you may focus on either. Otherwise, the main tactic is to use cards with the same keywords: Robots help each other, you may get a bonus for having Star Cruisers, and so on.

Core Worlds is reminiscent of Ascension in that every card is mixed singly into the game supply, rather than choosing specific sets of cards like Dominion. That means that a lot of the strategy is just in hoping for cards that fit your strengths rather than an opponent’s. However, this game does at least sort the cards so that they slowly grow in power, which feels thematic and balanced. Also, the Core Worlds at the end are the same in every game, so you can plan to have the strength to conquer the specific ones that give bonus points for the items your deck is strongest in. That makes it a little arbitrary, but not bad.

The other annoyance for me is that you’ll probably cycle through your deck only five or six times over the course of the game. With the limited number of rounds, and not many opportunities for trashing or drawing extra cards, you just won’t get to use those cool late-game cards more than a couple times. There is enough going on in this game that a limited focus on your deck isn’t a disaster, but it still makes me less invested in my army’s progression. Core Worlds is balanced and well-designed, but between the unpredictability of what cards will go in my deck, and the few times I’ll get to use each one anyway, it doesn’t hold my attention.

Grade: C+

For the Crown cover

For the Crown

For the Crown

Jeremy Lennert’s For the Crown is an interesting game: It features deck-building almost identical to Dominion’s, but rather than trying to buy victory point cards, the goal is to use your cards to manipulate a Chess-like board. Each turn, you’re granted one move on the Chess board in addition to your card actions, but it’s those cards that let you add pieces to the board and sometimes take more powerful moves.

What For the Crown does right, it does very right. Not only does it need to use deck-building mechanics appropriately, but it also has to meet the very different expectations of a Chess match. It does a very good job of making sure that the actions each player can take are predictable, without chaotic surprises. All special moves are known to each player ahead of time, but none are overly powerful. If you get to move a Knight multiple times, for example, it won’t be allowed to capture on any of the moves. Further, even if you earn extra “Orders”, each one has to be given to a different unit. So you can’t even set up a combo that lets you move that Knight extra times and then capture with a separate action.

You start the game with a single undefended King, and new units are added by trashing the appropriate card. Since every card has a choice of two abilities, and the best units come from expensive cards that also have a good secondary action, there’s a real tension between choosing to keep the card or add the unit. The balance between deck management and board management is interesting. (Also, don’t worry about the unbalancing effect of adding a new unit in the middle of the fray. They are initially put in a “Barracks” space to the side, and must be placed later as a separate action, so the opponent can plan for the threat of that piece.)

For the Crown playUnfortunately, For the Crown has some big failings as well. I have a couple issues with the gameplay: The special units that are available in only certain games are hard to keep track of, and also the losing player can often draw out the endgame for a long time by continually adding sacrificial units to the board. My big gripe, though, is with the quality of the components. This is sold by Victory Point Games, a tiny publisher whose production quality is literally worse than most prototypes I’ve played. The cards are a standard paper stock that won’t survive a single game if you don’t sleeve them first, and the units are cardboard chits that are so hard to punch out of the packaging that I needed to interrupt my first game to get an X-Acto knife. (A few still got torn.) The board is a flimsy piece of paperboard, folded in thirds and bowed to fit it into the tight plastic bag that everything ships in, so all the pieces will slide off of it if anyone bumps the table. The cards are also difficult to read, being very small and having to explain two actions each.

(I should note that since I bought my copy, a second print run with different production has been made. From what I hear, though, that just adds its own problems. The units are now laser-cut in a process that will cause soot to rub off onto your fingers even after several plays!)

I really wanted to like For the Crown, even if I worry that the gameplay issues I ran into might ruin it. I can’t tell for sure, though, because its physical quality makes it so difficult to play. I am very impressed by the care and clever ideas that went into designing this ChessDominion hybrid. I just wish that the same care had gone into its production.

Grade: D+

Puzzle Strike box

Puzzle Strike

Puzzle Strike: Bag of Chips (Third Edition)

David Sirlin, who once worked on video games like Street Fighter, now tries to bring the same flow of battle, with combos and unique personalities, to tabletop games. It may sound ridiculous, and the results don’t feel literally like a video game, but they do have a unique style that I haven’t seen anywhere else. They really are fun and balanced, too, and he’s managed to make the first Dominion-like game that honestly feels nothing like Dominion.

The idea is that you’re playing a puzzle game against someone, like the various head-to-head versions of Tetris that were popular a while ago. You send “gems” to each other’s boards, with the goal of filling up their play area before yours. The game plays with cardboard “chips” instead of cards, which are mixed up in a bag. Unlike the dice of Quarriors!, though, there’s no gameplay difference. It does give the game a distinctive feeling, though, and adds to the impression that these gems are items being thrown back and forth. In addition to the deck management of other games, an important part of this one is managing those gems and merging them into higher-numbered ones to lob across more efficiently.

Like the other games discussed here, Puzzle Strike starts with Dominion’s standard elements, but modifies them in appropriate ways. The emphasis is on actions to attack each other, so Buys are unlimited (but you’ll take a “Wound” if you focus so much on actions that you can’t buy anything), and opportunities for extra Actions are common but more expensive. Actions each have an associated color, and usually chips that grant extra ones specify the colors they must be. This adds a lot of strategy and forces you to plan carefully for which chips you’ll buy. When it works right, it feels like a “combo” attack just like Sirlin intended.

Puzzle Strike play

Technically, Puzzle Strike allows up to four players, but with directed attacks being such an important part of the game, it only feels balanced with two. Fortunately, that two-player experience is enough to justify the whole game. And it is balanced that way, even though each player gets three chips unique to the “character” they’re playing. These add a lot of personality to the game, with some characters being defensive, others favoring certain colors, and others damaging themselves to perform powerful actions.

My only major complaint about the game is its packaging. Puzzle Strike comes in a large box, but it’s mostly filled with a plastic insert. That insert is needed to keep the chips sorted, and I don’t have a good alternate solution to that, but that leaves a lot of wasted space. The extra boards and bags that come with it can’t even fit inside the box unless they’re put under the plastic, but the insert fits so tightly that I can’t keep taking it out without damaging the box. It keeps me from buying an expansion, because there would be no good way to consolidate all the chips into a box that’s practical for transport.

Despite that, Puzzle Strike is a game every deck-building fan needs to try. It finally proves that a game can be Dominion-like without feeling like Dominion, as it has a rhythm I’ve never seen before. If anything, I worry that I may be selling it a little short because I don’t fully appreciate its subtleties yet. But right now, it’s a fun game that I’m glad to own and look forward to playing more, so that’s how I’m rating it.

Grade: B

(Core Worlds images from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the originals and photographer credits.)

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