It’s unfortunate that I’ve lost interest in the “wait for someone else to do math” dynamic of Small World, because Small World is a brilliant concept: take two things and jam them together to make a third thing. In this case, an adjective and a fantasy race. Berserk elves. Wealthy giants. Heroic trolls. Dragon master skeletons. Okay, dragon master isn’t really an adjective, but mastering dragons is so cool it doesn’t matter. The combinatorial possibilities make Small World an unlimited game. All that lurking synergy.
After the jump, smaller than small world
This is the foundation for the snappy card-battling game, Fantasy Epic PvP. It’s not a deck-builder. The box calls it a “shufflebuilding game”. Take a deck of 20 cards for a race: high elf, dwarf, human, or goblin. Take a deck of 20 cards for your class: paladin, rogue, ranger, druid. Shuffle them into a 40-card deck and pit them against another 40-card deck. Goblin druid vs. human rogue. Fight!
As with Small World, it’s a solid idea. As with Small World, it’s a bit problematic beyond that. The first issue is the stingy business model. The basic set gets you four races, four classes, and a half-empty box. Oh, look, there are two expansions available, each adding two more races and two more classes. So that’s what the empty half of the box is for. Even with both add-ons, take a look at the available classes: the aforementioned paladin, rogue, ranger, and druid, plus the expansions’ barbarian, cleric, dark knight, and monk. Notice anything missing? What kind of game with the name “fantasy” in the title doesn’t have a wizard? The kind of game that just wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign for Epic PvP: Magic. Oh, look, a whole mess of mages.
Another issue is arguably one of its strength. This is a sleek little system. A match takes about fifteen minutes, tops. It’s the usual attack/block back-and-forth we’ve all been playing since Magic the Gathering. But it does three things that I really like. Because cards all have the same back, some abilities involve stealing and giving cards. The halfling, cat folk, and rogue get to take an opponent’s cards to use against him. The death knight has a card that corrupts the other player by going into his deck and then wounding him when it’s drawn. Pretty clever, but also pretty rare.
The second thing I really like is how your deck represents your stamina. Each player sets aside a few cards to represent his hit points. From four to six, depending on race. Most races get four. The dwarf gets six. I call dibbs on the dwarf. When you’ve cycled through your deck, reshuffle your discard pile and take a point of damage to represent fatigue. Cycling the cards to find the one you want is a classic card game strategy. Here it’s offset by getting that much closer to fatigue damage in a game where every point matters. Unless you’re a hardy little dwarf who has a couple of hit points to spare.
The third thing I really like is the way you get cards into your hand each turn: you don’t. Instead, you take one card each turn, lining them up in front of you. As these cards accumulate, they are the points you have to spend each turn. Like Hearthstone, each player’s “economy” grows at the same rate. On turn one, you have one power. On turn two, you have two power. On turn three, you have three power. And so on. This is how you play the cards from your starting hand.
But since you’re not drawing cards each turn, what happens when you’ve used your starting hand? Or what happens if you don’t like the cards in your starting hand? Before playing cards, you can declare you’re drawing any number of cards from the line in front of you. You’ll have that much less power to play cards, but now you have more cards to play. It gives every match an ebb and flow as players’ spending power grows and diminishes in inverse portion to the cards they can play.
But because it’s a sleek little system, there aren’t many ways to express the different races and classes. There just aren’t that many “verbs” here. Attacking and blocking. Drawing and discarding. Damaging a player’s hit points or power points. That’s pretty much the sum total of Epic PvP’s mechanics. It’s the opposite of epic. There are plenty of persnickety rules about moving cards around, and obviously a lot of variety in terms of cost and effectiveness. Each deck has two free cards, which can be a real boon. Some cards are “permanents” that sit off to one side to confer a bonus or a one-shot ability. But the small pool of gameplay verbs makes it hard to tell why any race or class does what it does. A lot of Epic PvP is reading the text on each other’s cards and wondering what it has to do with the name of the card.
“So if I block this attack with a card that costs more than three power, you get the card back?”
“No, that was the other card.”
“What was that one called?”
“I don’t remember. Hold on, let me look in my discard pile. Whirling Blades. That was Whirling Blades. This one says that you can only block it with a basic strike. Special moves don’t work.”
“What’s that card called?”
“That’s the barbarian’s War Cry.”
“What’s war cry about that?”
“It has a picture of a barbarian yelling. War cry.”
I appreciate the attempts to wring theme out of the game’s verbs with card names, but it can be awfully random. Why does a ranger’s Arrow Fall give him an extra draw if he doesn’t have many cards? Why does the cat folk’s Steel Fur let him take a card from his opponent? Why does the barbarian’s Throwing Axe flip up a card from his deck and maybe block an attack depending on the card? Why does the druid’s Call of the Wild attack get a strength bonus if the other player draws cards? There are some exceptions, but they’re exceptions.
I’m also skeptical about how well Epic PvP is tuned. In Small World, some combos are more effective than others. But anyone can get his hands on any combo. The less effective ones are incentivized with extra victory points as they’re passed over. What’s more, each player will use multiple adjective/race combos during any given game. What fun would it be to play the farming humans for the whole game when the other player gets dragon master skeletons? Small World smartly balances the overpowered combos with the meh combos.
But there’s nothing like this in Epic PvP. All the rules say about set-up is that “each player chooses a race and a class for themselves [sic]”. But in what order? Do I get to see what the other guy picks first? Can I just call dibbs on the dwarf and cleric decks? What if he wants them? This is especially an issue with so few choices in the base game. But does a beer-and-pretzels fifteen-minute-match really need to be tuned? Because for numerous reasons including lack of trying, Netrunner this ain’t.
Epic PvP: Fantasy
Make a character by choosing a Class Deck, a Race Deck, and shuffling them together. Shufflebuilding! Then battle in this fast paced card game while pretending you're doing stuff that Class and Race would do!