I’m Fighting Tooth & Nail
Back in August, I talked about a pair of exciting two-player card duelers from Small Box Games — Hemloch and Omen: A Reign of War — and mentioned that I would be reviewing their newest game, Tooth & Nail: Factions, as well. And then, total silence.
What a mystery! Find out why this writeup has taken me so long below the jump.
Just to prolong the mystery a moment, let’s cut to The Board Game Box Review!
Once again, Small Box Games earns its name by putting the game into a small box. This is nice, since it takes up so little space, and is well-suited for travel (or at least, better suited for travel than most games). Unfortunately, there’s just enough open space inside the box both above and to the sides of the cards to allow for rattling, bending, or scuffing. And unlike Hemloch or Omen, which both had a similar storage problem, there are too many cards to comfortably fit into deckboxes, so there isn’t an easy solution. Which means that our final score must be ★½ — which isn’t horrible. But it isn’t good either.
And that’s basically the tone of this entire review, sadly.
I hope I didn’t just spoil the mystery.
Look, I really liked the first two games. And I feel rotten talking negatively about a designer I like so much. Which is why I’m going to post a couple blurbs here, just so you can focus on how good Small Box Games’ other two products are:
[Hemloch is] a thematic brain-twister of a game that crams ambition and disappointment and relief and bated breath into less than half an hour… a compact engine designed to churn out excruciating decisions that don’t come paired with obvious solutions.
— Dan, from this review
[Omen contains] loads of tough decisions and white-knuckle moments… Excellent!… an utter joy.
— Thurot, from this review
I feel a bit better. If you want to try some great games — and I mean that, they’re truly fantastic — I recommend those. But Tooth & Nail: Factions… okay, let’s stop there. It’s an awkward title, isn’t it? I’m not the biggest fan of colons in titles in general, but it gives off the impression that it’s just one installment in a larger series, and the half-beat pause from the colon makes it kind of hard to pronounce.
“What game are you playing?” my basement-friend asks, having wandered upstairs in a fruitless search for wine.
“Tooth and Nail…” I say.
“Oh, that sounds int—”
That awkwardness is sadly indicative of the entire game. It feels highly mechanical, there’s very little logic to the actions you can perform, and although it plays quickly, I’ve yet to see anyone get invested in it, despite the theme and art being top-notch.
When the game starts, you pick one of six factions, each of which represents a cool cross-section of the Animal Kingdom. So you might pick the mystical Red Claw Tribe and its lizard rain-dancers, or the Borg-like owls and birds of prey found in the Ostra Vultura, or The Pride’s savannah union of lions and gazelles and elephants, or the commando rats of Enrodenta. In addition to getting a deck of 30 cards, which means you’re getting five copies of six different troop types from each deck, you get a command card that shows the extra abilities of your faction.
Already you’re presented with a wealth of information, but none of it is especially complicated. Your troop cards consist of their faction symbol, strength value (usually 1, though a few troops have 2), troop “type” (either arcane or tech), and a command ability. The command cards have two parts to them: the first is the criteria and bonus for making a formation attack (in the above image, the Ostra Vultura formation attack requires one tech and one arcane troop, and forces the opposing player to discard a card once pulled off) and a special ability you can perform with the troops in your Command Zone.
The combination of these abilities not only makes each of the factions richly drawn and deeply flavorful, but gives them a unique route to victory, which occurs when one player drains their opponent’s deck. So far so awesome, except that you’ll quickly discover that these factions aren’t exactly balanced. This is mitigated somewhat by the “Alliance” alternate ruleset, in which both players play with a combination of two factions, although unfortunately this doesn’t help with any of the game’s other problems.
Once both sides have a faction, you begin play, which is fairly simple.
You can see the play area above. You have two “zones” that you can put troops into: the top “War Zone,” which can accommodate up to six troops and is where you’ll be making attacks from, and the bottom “Command Zone,” which can hold three troops and allows you to use those troops’ command abilities and the faction command ability on your faction command card (to my chagrin, I could figure no other way to write this sentence). On the right is your faction command card, your draw deck, and your discard pile.
The game is played in two steps. During the Recharge Step you refresh any drained (tapped) troops in your Command Zone and one troop in your War Zone, then draw one card from your deck and get one action point card (this is something I like about the game. Your action points are represented by cards, each of which has a full list of all the actions you can take on it. This is a superb idea, since it cuts out the need for a separate reference sheet and action tokens), plus an extra action or card for each troop in your Command Zone. So in the above picture, you’d draw one card and get one action, and then you could choose twice between another card or action.
The Action Step is the meat of the game, letting you attack or play cards or use abilities. This gets a little confusing, and feels a bit arbitrary and illogical, since there is a strange gulf between which actions require action points and which do not. For instance, playing a troop into your War Zone or Command Zone, or attacking with one card or a formation of cards, costs an action. Using the command ability of one of your troops in your Command Zone doesn’t, nor does using your faction command ability, and I cannot for the life of me discern why not, especially since actions aren’t generally in short supply.
Along with a wealth of details comes a wealth of problems. One of the first oddities is that attacks cannot be blocked. If your opponent deals you 3 damage, you take three cards off the top of your deck and put them on top of your discard pile, regardless of how many troops you have in your War Zone, which leads me to believe that the battlefield is a great Escherian wheel in which neither army ever collides and is perpetually besieging the other’s main stronghold. When attacking, you can either make a non-formation attack, meaning you attack with a single card, or a formation attack, in which you drain multiple troops in accordance to the criteria and bonuses laid on on your faction card. If you attack with just one troop, you can “boost” the attack by discarding a card from your hand of the same type (arcane or tech) to deal one extra damage — which, yes, means you’re discarding one card to make your opponent discard one card from the top of their deck in a usually-pointless zero-sum exchange.
The command abilities of your troops in the Command Zone are similarly discouraged, as whenever they’re activated you either need to discard that troop or discard an identical one from your hand, so you probably won’t see them activated all that often in a game.
Additionally, since you can only refresh a single troop in your War Zone per turn, unless you’re one of the factions lucky enough to come with a command ability to refresh those troops in greater numbers, you’ll need to constantly play more troops in order to deal your opponent more damage per turn than they’re dealing you, and then you’ll often have a fair number of perpetually drained troops just sitting around. Or, heaven forbid, if you’ve reached and drained your maximum number of six troops in your War Zone, there might be nothing you can do at all, since there isn’t any provision for disbanding troops or getting rid of your own guys, unless again you were lucky enough to have one of the rare factions with that type of ability.
I’m not saying that Tooth & Nail: Factions is a game devoid of strategy. I’m saying it’s woefully rare. Both Hemloch and Omen were games that let me feel like a genius ten times per game, pulling off interesting and fun card combos that left my opponent reeling and chomping at the bit for revenge. T&N:F allows brilliant moves now and then, though the general feeling was that I didn’t have much control over the proceedings.
Here’s one example that highlights how mechanical T&N:F feels.
There are a few abilities that allow you to move one or more cards from your discard pile back to your draw pile, thus “healing” you. These are underwhelming, and often require you to discard a card in order to gain a card, but okay, let’s run with it. In response, there are a number of abilities that, rather than forcing your opponent to discard cards, instruct you to “remove them from the game.” Nothing too strange about that.
But then there are abilities that let you return a card to the game, meaning that those cards were never actually removed, just placed in a second, deeper discard pile. Why these piles are not therefore called the “discard” and “graveyard,” or some other random thematic name, I don’t get. It only really serves to throw back the curtain to reveal that you aren’t really a walrus commander leading an army of alpine marauders, you’re some dude sitting at a folding table trying to figure out why the game is telling you to remove a card only to return it to the game later. Simply awkward.
Look, despite all those problems, I really don’t think it’s horrible. There are lots of good ideas in here, such as using troops as either soldiers or commanders, or having the action points double as reference cards. Unfortunately, those good ideas could benefit from being part of a better game, and I just don’t see any way to recommend it when there are so many great two-player card games out there, including the two from Small Box Games that I talked about in August. Both of those give the player more variety, more options, and better streamlined and logical gameplay.
Sorry, Tooth & Nail: Factions. I wanted you to be better too.