5 4 3012
Yes, this article’s title is a rebus for “Five for 3012,” and yes, I thought it was clever when I thought it up. Before you leave, I’ll confess that I’m no good at the art of article naming — for instance, I realized only the other day that my Spec Ops article from way back in June should have been entitled “Spec Oops.” Dang it, that would have brought me the journalistic fame (and integrity-challenging freebies) that I so clearly deserve. Ah well, live and learn. At any rate, bygones shouldn’t distract us from talking about 3012, the new deck-building game from Cryptozoic Entertainment. After the jump, I’ve got five reasons why 3012 is excellent, and a few about why I didn’t expect it to be.
I’m not the biggest fan of deck-building games. Mage Knight is an exception because its deck-building mechanics are the foundation for a vast cathedral of exploration and adventure; I’m also known to play Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer on the iPad as a mindless distraction. Dominion is alright but suffers from a traumatic theme-gameplay disconnect, and most DBGs (the street name for deck-building games) feel so derivative of its vanilla genius that I can hardly stand to glance in their general direction.
So why did I even pick up 3012, you ask? That’s… a really great question.
The answer is sort of embarrassing. I… I may have entirely missed the prominent “Deck-Building Game” subtitle on the game box. Ahem. I brought 3012 home from my friendly local board game store, saw the subtitle, said a swear, took an angry nap, and thought long and hard about returning it. After some thought, I decided the Mesoamerican art style was appealing, if only because it wasn’t another generic fantasy or space setting, and that there wasn’t any harm in taking a peek at the manual. Unfortunately, this is what I saw:
Of course I had no intention of reading two solid pages of narrative to introduce the theme of a deck-building game. Other than brief synopses, maybe 200 words or less, I don’t think I’ve ever read a board game’s story. Oh, maybe for Mansions of Madness or Mice and Mystics, games in which the story is the experience, but this is something else entirely. What do you do with this? Do you read it to your friends before you actually teach them the game? I mean, it could be wonderful (my sister actually read it all, and assures me it is not), but it feels like a big waste of time for a game that’s advertised as taking 45 to 60 minutes to play.
Anyway, no big deal. I’m sure the rules start on the next page—
Oh dear. At least the last couple sentences of the final paragraph would have made a great short version: “As the clans war amongst themselves over resources, religious supremacy, and the favor of the jungle gods, alliances are often brief, and treachery is expected. The world has turned feral. It is 3012.”
My heart, it is beating. As always. But right now a little harder, in anticipation. The world is feral, alliances are shifty, jungle gods, check. Awesome stuff.
And other than one unexplained and useless component, 3012 is awesome.
Anyway, enough ragging on some of the game’s sillier design choices. Let’s talk about what makes 3012 great, and why it’s a worthwhile evolution of the deck-building game.
In 3012 you play as a warrior determined to become the best champion of all time (I think. I didn’t read the story because it was like four thousand words long). You’ll accomplish this by learning new tactics, gaining allies, buying weapons, and taking out scary threats. Oh, and either helping or hindering other champions while they try to do the same. Once a player becomes “exalted,” everyone reveals how much renown they’ve amassed for themselves through heroic deeds or smart purchasing — though the latter is less common — and whoever is the baddest beast becomes the top dog of the post-apocalyptic jungle.
On your turn, there are five phases.
In the Replenish Phase, you fill your hand up to 4 cards and replace any empty slots on the board.
The Assembly Phase is the “setting the scene” part of your turn. You play your cards now (usually all of them, unless you’re holding back a surprise). There are two action decks in the center of the board, one filled with weak cheap actions and one with powerful expensive actions, and during this phase you also reveal one action card from each. These cards act like “events” that modify your turn, and you may employ their text bonuses. They aren’t yours permanently, though you can purchase them later to add them to your deck.
Then you can opt to conduct the Combat Phase, which is the most complicated bit. In it, you declare which of four threat decks you plan to encounter, each one more difficult than the last but filled with higher-renown rewards. If other players happen to be holding a Scout card in their hands, they can play it to either assist or block you. Total up your combat value, including plus- and minus-ones from those assists and blocks, and if you’ve met or exceeded the threat’s defense (and passed its text, which can sometimes modify the fight), you win, split the experience with everyone who aided you, and put the threat card into your discard pile where it will gunk up your deck but provide renown at the end of the game. If you lose, you lose hard — you dump your stored cash, and anyone who blocked gets experience for being a dick.
In the Acquisition Phase you can spend gold (both gold on your cards and gold tokens that you’ve saved up over previous turns) to buy cards, including the revealed action cards that modified your turn. You can also use a gold token to “reserve” an action card for later purchase, with the restriction that you must have a gold token handy and you can only have one card reserved at any time. Then other players can choose to reserve any action card you didn’t purchase or reserve. At the end of this phase, if you didn’t spend all of your bonus gold (the gold on cards, not your gold tokens), you gain one gold token.
And finally, in the End Phase, you do the usual deck-building stuff — discard all the cards you played and all cards left in your hand, and draw 4 cards. If at any time your draw pile is empty, you shuffle your discard pile to make a new draw pile.
It’s a bit more complicated than most deck-builders, and it takes a few rounds for everyone to pick it up, but here are five things that set it apart:
In 3012, your starting hand consists of four scouts. These stand out as possibly the most useful starting cards in any deck-building game ever, and, unlike Ascension’s militia and apprentices or Dominion’s coppers and estates, they’re cards you probably won’t want to trash (which means to remove from your deck permanently for those of you not down with DBGs. In 3012 it’s called “sacrificing.” Theme!). There are ways to get rid of them if that’s how you want to design your deck, but since they allow you to jump into your opponents’ turns by assisting or blocking their combat attempts (and very possibly earn you some juicy experience points in the process), they never go out of style. One of the reasons most DBGs don’t appeal to me is their lack of real player interaction, and scouts are one of 3012’s answers to that problem. Since there’s no easy way to stop scouts from swooping in to sour your victory by sharing it, you might think that they sound a bit overpowered. Not so! In practice, they balance themselves marvelously, since at the beginning of the game they find themselves into everyone’s hands basically all the time, so players can keep each other in check, while at the end of the game they’re much rarer as decks become more and more diluted with other possibilities.
#2: Banking Gold
The ability to bank gold tokens for use in later turns is a stroke of genius, because it largely negates the frustration of constantly getting a bad hand — such as a first-turn militia in Ascension or a couple estates in Dominion. If you ever have a turn in which everything on the board is too expensive to afford with your current economy, just make sure to leave some of your bonus gold (the gold printed on your cards) unspent each turn, and soon enough you’ll have a sizable amount tucked away. This lets the game put some very expensive but very attractive cards out on the board without placing them too far out of reach.
The restrictions on this mechanic keep it from running away. You can’t ever gain more than 1 gold token per turn (through normal means, anyway), so there’s little threat of overpowered boom economies, and losing combat will also cause you to lose any banked gold tokens, so when you’re saving up, you’re less likely to chase threats.
#3: Reserving Cards
I mentioned earlier that you can reserve action cards with a gold token, putting money down and keeping other players from getting their grubby mitts on them. This is another way that you can play during your opponents’ turns, since you’ll be watching those two action cards in the middle of the board like a hawk. Since players must have a free gold token in their stash (they can’t use gold from their cards for this), and can’t have more than one card reserved, this rarely slows down the game, and it’s a great way to get everyone involved with the randomness of the revealed action cards.
That randomness is a sub-perk, by the way. Not only are the action cards random (as are the other types of cards, which we’ll discuss in a moment), but some cards, including many threats, have random outcomes that rely on a die roll. I’m a big fan of my games having at least some element of chance to them, and the slight extra randomization of 3012 is a welcome addition in my book.
#4: Purchase Options
Ultimately, deck-building games are shopping simulators, if the crap that you bought were to generate more money so you could buy more crap, and eventually defeat the mall cops. Okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor. Still, deck-builders rely on a providing a wealth of purchasing opportunities. And 3012 has them in spades.
First there are the two action cards that both act as events and can later be added to your deck. These are constantly changing.
There are also allies and weapons. These offerings are more static, only changing when purchased or if an action card forces new ones out. These tend to be expensive. They’re usually worth the price.
Weapons can be given to allies or your champion (not scouts though), and allies help out in a variety of ways. There are even match-ups to consider — you can recruit any type of ally, and purchase any type of weapon, but both allies and weapons will confer bonuses if used with the right champion. These are usually minor — +1 attack and such — but added up they can make a real difference. This means that the Jaguar Clan will be keeping its eyes peeled for swords and the shark-riding Gar will want tridents. You might also be wary of weapons and allies to keep away from strong opponents.
These elements add together to create a dynamic marketplace that’s always shifting, filled with both short- and long-term considerations.
In the end, victory is won by having the most renown. While there are a few action cards that increase this, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and fight at some point if you intend to win.
This balances nicely against the other game mechanics. For instance, you can spend the entire game leeching experience from other players with your scouts. This is a good thing to do, of course, since having more experience increases your hero’s natural damage value. But it’s possible to end the game by becoming “exalted” in experience, and still only having a scant amount of renown to your name. It’s also possible to construct a beautiful machine of a deck or amass a filthy fortune, but neither will help you get any closer to victory if you aren’t willing to take a chance and face some threats — and, by extension, face opponents willing to undermine you with actions and scouts of their own.
My main complaint with 3012 is that it requires a lot of reading blocks of very small text, which usually translates to four players leaning over the two constantly-changing action cards in the middle of the table. This of course stops being a problem with time and everyone learns the cards, but I wish the designers had figured out a better way to convey information.
My final score is that all these bits add together to make something fun and dynamic. 3012 is the first pure deck-building game to really grab me. It’s thematic, beautiful, easy to play, and fiercely competitive.