I frequently receive requests to write about games. More often than not, they start off with something to the effect of “I am a big fan of Clever Game Reference, I think your audience would be interested in learning more about (insert project name)” I must admit, I am impressed with your solid grasp on what my five readers’ interests are. However, you kinda tipped your hand a little when you told me you’re a fan of the URL and not actually the name of the blog. Now while it’s true that the most common trait among my “fans” is being thoroughly oblivious to my doings, I can still tell the difference between their intentional ignorance and your coincidental ignorance. My reaction to most of these emails is to roll my eyes, briefly look over them, decide the world does not need another Cards Against Humanity clone, and delete. Enter Jonathon Ruland, whose email started “Hello Pretty Sneaky, Sis!” Oh, Jonathon. You had me at hello.
A few correspondences later, and a prototype is on its way to me. I want to state this upfront, this is a prototype copy, and I can assume that there will be a lot of changes made to the finished product, so I am going to focus more on the gameplay and less with the issues I had with templating, rules, etc. To that end, I didn’t include pics because it’s possible the game will look much different at the end.
Guardians? Sweet! I loved Chris Pratt in Parks & Rec! Tell me more!
Wrong Guardians, but stick around a bit. The theme was one of the first things that grabbed me about this game. It focuses around a group of kids who play at swords and sorcery during Spring Break. As a kid who has imagined all manners of sticks as weapons and who has slain many invisible monsters, why wouldn’t I like this? It’s something that a lot of geeky kids can relate to. Except that this time, the Monsters are real and the kids have to save the town of Arthursburg. This is honestly one of my very few quibbles about the game, I would prefer to think that everything is still imaginary, but on a larger more grand scale. Despite what a lot of YA books will tell you, any average kid who takes up arms against the kinds of Monsters capable of taking over a town are quickly going to be ground into burger. But I digress, here’s the way this goes down.
The Guardians: Explore is described by the designer as a “deck refinement” game, which I found to be an interesting take on the more familiar deckbuilding mechanic. During set up, each player is given 5 Practice Swings and 1 Explore. Think of these as your starting deck. They are also given 2 “Super” cards at random. These cards are so powerful that they will strongly influence what cards you choose to add to your deck during the Warm Up Phase.
In the Warm Up Phase, the Guardian deck (filled with Skills, Items and Familiars) is shuffled and 7 cards are dealt to each player. You keep one of these cards, passing the rest to the left, and repeating this drafting process until you are out of cards. Then you get another new hand of 7, this time drafting to the right. When both rounds of drafting are done, you return 1 of the Super cards to the box. You then shuffle your one remaining Super card, your Practice Swings and Explore and your 14 Guardian cards together and you have your deck. There will be multiple opportunities to add and remove cards from the deck as the game progresses.
There are 2 currencies on cards in The Guardians: Explore. Energy ( which you use to put cards with costs into play) and Attack (which you use to beat up on monsters). It is important during the draft to keep these things both in mind, that you will need cards that create Energy to pay for the more powerful cards, and you will need those more powerful cards to really get far against the monsters. Additionally, there are plenty of synergies to consider as well. Dire Wolf is a decent enough Familiar, but it’s considerably more effective when paired with a Wolf Pup.
Once decks are constructed and the Warm Up phase completed, you move into the Battle phase, where the real meat of the game is. During the Battle Phase, you have the ability to activate abilities on locations you’ve secured from Monsters, then play/activate cards in your hand; then go forth to fight bad guys. Defeating the bad guys will give you trophies (VP) to determine the winner at the end. After several cycles of Battle and Clean Up phases, the first of two Boss Monsters appears. These are particularly nasty customers it will take teamwork to fight. If the players win, some may win additional point awards commensurate with the amount of damage they brought to the fight. If the players lose, all of them suffer some sort of penalty. If the players lose and you didn’t choose to fight the boss, there are additional penalties suffered. While the game is competitive, it splashes in some cooperative elements here. After the first boss is resolved for better or for worse, the invading Monsters ramp up in difficulty. Wash, rinse and repeat til the second Boss is resolved, then final scoring occurs.
Things What I Like About The Guardians: Explore
Mechanics Fusion – I like that the game plays like a deckbuilder, but that the actual “building” part of the game is handled through drafting rather than purchasing over the course of the game. You’ll still have plenty of opportunities to add and remove cards from your deck (which you should, because at the start of the game you will still have some mediocre starting cards in your deck), but when the game starts, you can be ready to come out swinging (provided you drafted at least somewhat intelligently). This makes the game flow pretty smoothly.
Lots of little synergies – Many of the cards in the game have little interactions with each other. Some gain bonuses from being paired with cards of the same type, which are obvious, and some are a little more subtle; for example, Tiger Cub and Sabretooth Tiger both get bonuses when attacking Wounded things. If you’re going first in the turn and there’s nothing wounded, you may feel like your cards are being hindered by circumstance, but there are some archery type cards that allow you to assign damage to places before committing your hero there to clean up.
You’re All In This Together – for the most part, the game is competitive, though there will be parts where you have to work together. Be it tag-teaming certain types of Monsters so that their bad effects don’t hit everyone, or the boss fights where it is super unlikely that one player will ever be able to solo a boss (I haven’t laid all the cards out to see what the maximum possible damage one player can do in a single turn…yet). Outside of these scenarios, it’s still a competitive game, and there are a few opportunities for “take that!” manuevers.
Doesn’t overstay its welcome. Once you establish the rhythm, the game play is pretty smooth. There may be times when your deck absolutely chokes and you can’t do anything with a turn, but this is true of most games that follow the deckbuilding game style of play. Turns go reasonably quickly, and before you know it, you’re counting points. Truth be told, I think it runs a teensy bit short, which is probably a good thing to turn up the pressure as opposed to taking longer and giving you more time to build your unstoppable doomsday device.
The Theme Comes Through: From the art style, to some of the Monsters and their flavor text; from the locations (like Candy Store, which gives you Energy) to the idea of Blanket Forts providing safe havens, the game toes the line between fighting Monsters to save the town and remembering that we’re talking about kids.
Things What I Am Less Jazzed About:
Choices Could Be More Difficult – There are many decisions during the Warm Up phase that are made for you. If you take this Super Card that is augmented by these other cards, you’re going to draft those other cards, else your Super Card becomes a lot less Super. Many of the other cards have that issue too, like “gain this bonus if (X) is present”. Now, while building combos is good and fun and rewarding, I didn’t feel like there was much incentive for me to stray from that path and experiment.
All Men Are Created Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others – Your drafting choices are going to be largely dictated by A) your Super card and B) what you have already drafted (referring back to point A). This is all well and good, but some combo pairings seem simply better than others. To be fair, I haven’t played the game hundreds of times, so your mileage may vary.
My thoughts as a Designer
I’ll be honest, after my first game, I thought “Well, my review is going to have one line taken out of context to be used on the campaign page with no link to the review because I don’t have a lot of good things to say about it”. However, after my second game (having a MUCH better understanding of the game flow) completely turned my feelings around on this. There are a lot of really cool things going on here, and I have honestly tossed around ideas of a similar game in my head. Some things I would do differently include
- Double sided location tiles. This creates a different town every time with different abilities, limiting players’ abilities to “solve” the game, and adding replay value.
- Some cross-style cards. Maybe a Knight skill that gets two different bonuses, one from pairing with another Knight skill, and another from pairing with a Wizard skill. This will encourage different drafting choices.
- A little more disruption. Right now, there are precious few ways to hinder other players, and they aren’t even that strong. If a runaway leader establishes themselves, the extra card given to people lagging behind is unlikely to change that. It’s a competitive game with co-operative elements, but in my estimation, there need to be more ways to mess with other players. Be it actively hampering them, or things that make it so that the things that they do provide a smaller benefit to you, making them think twice about whether or not it’s worth it. More choices are often more betterer, and there aren’t enough here to really risk AP.
- More Cool Stuff: You get special rewards for doing the most damage to a Boss. Those special rewards are…More Points. Odds are, if you’re in the place to be doing the most damage, your deck is already doing fine in the Points Department, or you lucked out. In the case of the former, this reward is “win more”. I think this would be a cool opportunity to get some unique cards, like a deck of treasures you can pull from. The card you get will definitely be powerful, but may or may not synergize with your current strategy. No matter what though, it’s a more satisfying feeling than…more points.
- Limited Movement: I think that being only able to move to adjacent locations would add strategic elements to both placement of Blanket Forts (which render a location safe from Monsters) and to planning. If you have to plan going somewhere a few turns ahead to get a specific ability, I think that is neater than the ability to go anywhere at any time. I could be wrong on this though.
The Guardians: Explore takes familiar themes and familiar mechanics and gives them juuuuuust enough twist to make them feel fresh. There was drafting before 7 Wonders, but 7 Wonders made drafting a THING. Dominion fathered a genre that has since seen many evolutions (and a few evolutionary regressions). This game feels to me like one of the good evolutions of these mechanics, and a solid hybrid. It played at about the right length of time, and the more I played it, the more I enjoyed it. Admittedly, some of this pleasure was speculating how the game could evolve. The Guardians: Explore is rife with expansion potential (new Guardian cards, new locations, new bosses and monsters, etc.) but it can’t really do that without taking its first baby steps, like oh, you know…getting published. I do feel that this game has a place in both existence and on the shelves of many gamers who like these themes and mechanics, so I encourage gamers to back it. The Kickstarter campaign for The Guardians: Explore is live right now, go check it out and help a good game get to your shelf!