Berserk Drives Me Berserk

RAWR vs STOIC. If you want to make your fantasy universe edgy, in place of confiscating all the ladies' shirts, maybe invert this stereotype? I literally weep at the injustices the elves deal out every day.

You might recognize Berserk: War of the Realms as the Russian card game that was on Kickstarter a while back, the one that generated some controversy over its inclusion of scantily-clad (or not-at-all-clad) mythological ladies. You know, the project that eventually included both the original non-clothed and new tiny-bra-wearing art in order to appease both the Artistic Integrity and Nudity Is Wrong crowds.

Or maybe you don’t recognize that at all, because board game controversies are almost always silly like that. It’s one of the things I love about the hobby.

Anyway, Berserk has been out for a little while now, and I’ve been playing it ever since its first release. And while there are still quite a few things I have to explore… hm, that sounds wrong. I’ve been playing with the non-nude cards, in case you were wondering.

Another stereotype, sadly. All the mermaids I've met have been rather prudish.

Controversial half-nude mermaids, what’s not to love?

Berserk: War for My Heart

At first glance, Berserk is so much my cup of tea I can almost smell the five tablespoons of sugar mixed in. It comes with seven themed decks, each with their own set of cool ideas. There’s the dwarves with their interlocking bonuses and rank cohesion, the swamp-mermaids and their rule-bending abilities and restrictions, the dragon-folk with their hardened scales that activate abilities after taking enough damage, or the undead with their ability to bring their cards back to life. The elves have lots of ranged abilities, as I’m sure you could surmise on your own. The neutral forces mostly exist to shore up the weaknesses in the other factions, since it’s possible to customize your decks (another perk!). I’m not sure what the orcs do, other than get massacred. Maybe that’s their faction theme.

Each deck of thirty has two broad flavors of cards, unique heroes and generic soldiery — though the heroes aren’t always necessarily more powerful than their rank-and-file brethren — and after drawing fifteen cards you spend points of gold (for the unique cards) and silver (for everything else) in order to cobble together the best army possible. If you have any gold left over, you can turn it into extra silver, so you don’t need to fret about being too exact. Then you lay your army out on a tight grid, reveal both sides at once, and go to battle until one side’s dead.

What’s more, everything I said above undersells the concept somewhat, because this is one of those games where the card abilities can get pretty crazy. For instance, there are flying creatures that flutter out of reach, swooping down to harass those spellcasters you hid behind your meatier soldiers, and because you didn’t bring any ranged troops there isn’t a dang thing you can do about it until you kill all of your opponent’s other creatures and forcibly ground that winged bastard. Or maybe your elves are suddenly disappointed that their dragon-kin enemies can’t be hit by ranged attacks at all after taking a few wounds. Ah well, don’t worry about it, since a game only takes about twenty minutes you can try a new approach in just a moment.

If it sounds awesome, it did to me too. It has a solid foundation, built on tried and trusted concepts. And hey, it’s supposedly more popular in Russia than antifreeze.

Because this is Berserk, that's a PHALLIC battering ram! No worries, in Russia they don't see phalluses the same way, stop being so western-centric.

Your armor is no match for my battering ram!

Berserk: War for the Comprehensible Rules

Unfortunately, there are two problems that quickly rear their ugly head and make Berserk crack a little. Or a lot, as the case may be.

The first is the rules. To say they suffer in translation would be putting it mildly. Not only are they translated so poorly that the cards and the rulebook will sometimes use different words to mean the same things, prompting constant returns to the rules in order to seek some sort of clarity, they’re also just… well, they’re simply bad rules. They hide away many essential tidbits in a glossary. They describe card types that are part of the broader game in Russia but don’t exist in this current incarnation at all. They aren’t particularly concerned with telling you the actual goal of the game — sure, your goal is to “defeat all opponents in battle,” but what does that mean? Do you painstakingly exterminate every last enemy monster off the board, or play to a certain number of gold/silver kills? In case you’re wondering, it’s the former, and it’s hidden away on page 12 of the rulebook.

Ultimately, this is a surmountable issue. It will take a few forum visits, some puzzling through the rulebook’s vague intentions, and maybe some agreed-upon interpretations by both players, but it’s doable. Unpleasant, tedious, and unnecessary, but doable.

Hm, not enough sexy stuff to joke about.

Some hapless orcs get brutalized by the undead/demonfolk.

Berserk: War for the Balance

The second problem isn’t quite as easy to address, as it’s the one that very nearly ruined the game for me.

Berserk is a customizable card game, meaning that once you reach a certain level of play, you’ll grow out of the pre-built sets and want to customize your own deck. There are certainly enough cards to appease the most diehard customizer, since in addition to its seven established factions, there are a ton of cross-realm cards you can make use of. And theoretically it all balances out, since having more realms on the board means you have fewer gold and silver points to spend, so you have to choose between the versatility of multiple realms or higher requisition points. You could, for instance, design a deck filled to the brim with every faction’s best cards, though the resultant army will probably be tiny compared to a better balanced deck.

For those who aren’t going to reach that level, or for anyone just trying to get a handle on Berserk, the game tells you that it’s possible to play with any of its pre-built decks. Y’know, so long as you discount the uncomfortable detail that those decks aren’t even close to balanced.

In the future, hire someone who actually speaks English to do your rules. Seriously.

Two custom armies square off.

Sometimes this isn’t an issue, like when both players are running a crappy deck. More often though, the instant both sides reveal their armies, you’ll have a fairly solid idea who will win. Which is a shame, because there are lots of cool ideas on display here, from the wild uniqueness of each faction to the interesting variable-damage system and the way you can have your monsters protect each other on your opponent’s turn. It’s just that some factions are more equal than others. The undead team, for instance, can bring their guys back to life, often for very little effort, and their prices don’t reflect their sheer awesomeness. Or there’s the mermaids and their silly-powerful abilities, like the one who deals damage to every enemy of a certain cost. It was pretty funny when my friend had an entire army of 6-cost units. I basically won that battle with one card. It was hilarious. He didn’t have much of a desire to play again though.

Nearly every time I sat down with a friend to learn the cards by playing with the base decks, the experience followed the same unfortunate outline. The army selection phase was fun and got us hyped for the experience, and then we’d settle in to act out a foregone conclusion based on nothing more than our decks. Now, I’ve seen a couple folks defend the game with the argument that it isn’t meant to be balanced. You’re intended to craft a custom deck, after all. Someone even mentioned how Magic: The Gathering isn’t balanced — despite the fact that M:tG is fastidiously balanced, and allows for all sorts of winning combinations, and sells pre-built decks that don’t absolutely put one another to shame. And anyway, the game says upfront that I can play with any deck, and while that shouldn’t necessarily imply that any deck is tournament-ready, it should at least mean that it can show me six or seven winning strategies.

Still, I mentioned above that this problem nearly ruined the game for me. I almost bent beneath the weight of imbalance, but in the end, Berserk mostly redeemed itself.

As Blerg, patron deity of the Berserk world, intended. Maybe. I didn't read the lore.

Drafting up an army.

Berserk: War of the Drafting

I was ready to write off Berserk as a box containing some great art, a few good ideas, and a lot of letdown, when Somerset recommended we try the drafting variant. We love drafting games, after all. And that way, she pointed out, we’d be playing with multi-realm custom decks without the need to learn all the cards or spend hours fine-tuning card synergies.

So we mixed everything together (sans the multi-realm cards, we aren’t quite ready for that), dealt out a few piles of cards, and began assembling two new decks from scratch. We each got a few broken-awesome cards, passed on the stinkers until we were eventually forced to incorporate them into our designs, and ended up with respectable multi-realm armies that were both more balanced and more interesting than anything we’d played before. The match that followed was tense, close, and bloody. Positioning mattered, as did decisions about when to activate our respective special abilities.

In short, it was everything I’d wanted from Berserk in the first place. Well, not everything. But close.

I’m still somewhat disappointed that Berserk is so poorly documented and apparently doesn’t think too much about balance, but after playing the drafting game, I recommend giving it a try — so long as you’re aware that this isn’t quite as perfect a package as it first appears, that is.

* * * * * * *

Some people love Berserk: A War of the Realms more than Dan did. Like all of Russia. And for all we know, maybe you’re one of those people. The only way to find out is by purchasing it on Amazon dot com, which gives money to Dan sometimes if you use this fancy link to do your shopping.

Posted on February 4, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I lived in Russia for a couple of years, and can attest to it’s popularity. The boosters and ads were just EVERYWHERE. Sadly, I never did get a chance to play it, draft or otherwise, because it really does sound fun and interesting.

    • Interesting, definitely. I should be clear that this was a review of this particular set, not the game in general, because as intriguing as Berserk is, this set is kind of a mess.

      I do enjoy the drafting game though. =)

  2. Excellent and balanced review, probably the first I’ve seen for this game. This reflects quite a bit of my experience with B:WotR as well. Considering its popularity, I was hoping for Magic: The Gathering: Russian Edition, with a bit more complexity and a board to move the units around on. Instead, when I first got my Kickstarter stuff, I was appalled at the complete lack of anything resembling balance. The Dark Realm (the undead) are absolutely unbeatable, at least until you play the Swamp (mermaids) and use some of their most abusive cards. Similarly, the Forest (elves) has very little chance against Fire (the dragons), just because everybody has that Scale ability. The others seem to have better balance, but still, to have three ubercharged teams out of a roster of six (seven if you count the neutral deck, which isn’t actually made for balanced play) just isn’t right.

    I’ve heard a ton about the Russian version’s robust metagame (just like Magic!), but this isn’t the Russian version. It’s pared-down of necessity, not to mention everything comes in one box, so we don’t really HAVE a metagame yet. Every time my group of pals bothered making our own decks, we just stacked them full of three realms’ worth of overpowered units and called it a day. Such a disappointment.

    I haven’t tried the drafting game yet, but I’ll give it a try in the next day or so and report back. I can see how it would fix a LOT of problems though, because the underlying game IS interesting.

  3. I second Sharpsley’s comment above. Very balanced review. So many of the comments and reviews on BGG are either fanboyish or full of hate, so it’s nice to see someone who has both likes and dislikes with the game.

  4. The need to support various play styles is so important to a CCG because it makes the game boring if you just have one dominant build. It saddens me that the only way to save it was true randomness.

  5. Daze McCloud

    I’ve only gotten to look at this game but haven’t actually played it. It does look super fun but I can see why you would be disappointed in the game if one deck were seriously overpowered. It’s funny because I came across this game while looking for a similar game called Conquest Tactics. Though it’s not as popular because of lack of fan support it involves tactical strategies and what not to win except each person has 4, ways that they can win depending on what faction they are playing. Check that out next time you review a game(Since i don’t know if you already did). It was also a Kickstarter game. Some friends and I really enjoyed it and were really hoping to see some tournament play but not enough people hopped on.

    • I actually do have a copy of Conquest Tactics that I picked up second-hand sometime last year, but the lukewarm reception kept me from ever checking it out. I take it you’d recommend it?

      • I do recommend it. Don’t let the reception fool you. Once you learn the mechanics, the game plays smoothly and is really fun. It addresses all of the problems (at least that I feel) competitive card games have. The only things that really killed it were that people didn’t really talk about the game and that it was advertised as a board game when it really should have been marketed to card gamers as well. It is one of the many games that just slipped under the radar of the masses

      • In that case, I’ll have to give the rulebook a once-over!

      • Not sure if you have the first print or second print of the game but the rule book does not tell you what the counters stand for. blue=1 white=5 red=10. When I played I also used the red to keep track of completed victory conditions. Other than that I think everything else is pretty straight forward.

  6. Hey, Did you ever get a chance to try Conquest Tactics? I was looking through the cards recently and remembered posting on here about it.

  7. Hey guys, could you recommend me some draft variant for 2 players? I´ve never played MtG before, so I don´t know much about drafts. I only know that for MtG there is quite a lot draft variants. Something well suited for Berserk.

    • I don’t know what anyone else does, but we follow the draft rules that (I think) were included in the rulebook. Basically, you shuffle everything together, then deal both players a hand of x cards. Take a card and swap hands, claiming cards back and forth, and probably creating another few pools at some point to draft from. Once you both have 30 cards, you begin playing.

      That might not be exactly how you do it, but it’s the gist.

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