Over the past year or so, I’ve become slowly more interested in embarking on a Personal Journey to try my hand at a tournament-style card game. I was too late to be competitive in Netrunner, and Summoner Wars, although a game I’ve always enjoyed, doesn’t have a big enough tournament scene for my tastes. To that end, at GenCon 2014 I picked up three collectible-style card games: The Spoils, Doomtown: Reloaded, and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, with the idea that I’d play the hell out of each of them and then pick the best one as my tourney game, and review all three in order from worst to best.
The Spoils is the first one I’m covering. If you’re a smart cookie, you can guess what that means.
I Just Insinuated That The Spoils Is a Bad Game, But I Don’t Mean It Like That
Just to get it out of the way, I am not saying that The Spoils is a bad game. This isn’t that sort of review, or even really a review at all in the classic sense of the word. This is a Personal Journey, more like the rambling stream of consciousness you’d uncover upon stealing my Ultra Secret Diary (Keep Out!) from beneath my pillow.
My lack of interest (and no small degree of consternation) with The Spoils basically boils down down to one thing: it’s trying desperately to be Magic: The Gathering without being Magic: The Gathering.
This has three consequences:
(1) Since I’m ambivalent towards Magic: The Gathering, it’s inevitable that I’m ambivalent towards The Spoils.
(2) The Spoils comes across like a revised version of Magic, but without Magic’s twenty-plus years of hard-earned experience and balance.
(3) Because it isn’t Magic, The Spoils is free to shake up the MtG formula in a couple interesting ways.
Let’s talk about those last two points while keeping the first in mind, because I’m hardly an expert on this one. Playing The Spoils with a real-life Magic: The Gathering player did help me form a marginally better outline of its virtues — though even if he’d fallen to his knees and proclaimed his everlasting love for The Spoils, it’s still close enough to Magic that I wouldn’t have bothered with it again. Just so you know where I’m coming from.
Most of the good things in The Spoils feel like direct responses to perceived shortcomings in Magic. For example, where Magic lets you draw one card and play one resource at the start of your turn, The Spoils asks you to make a choice, either playing a resource or drawing a card. What’s more, in addition to your usual staple resources, any card can be played facedown as a sort of “colorless” resource. This is a cool idea, meaning you’re never faced with a mana screw situation where you don’t draw enough resources to pay for your stuff, while still relying on enough staple resources to pay the color-specific costs of each card.
So it goes, with other similar minor improvements on the Magic formula making their appearance. The mulligan is improved. Turtling is reduced. You can spend resources to draw cards or play additional resources during your turn, meaning you’re never faced with a dead moment. Combat has a touch more depth, each unit given a “speed” rating that affects when they can attack, so strong slow units might not get a chance to attack after being nettled to death by a handful of swift units. Lastly, the turns are more free-wheeling, allowing you to attack as many times as you’d like — and attack either an opponent’s main faction card to whittle down their “influence” points or attack another location that they’ve deployed — giving it a bit more freedom that Magic’s relatively constrictive turn structure.
On the other hand, my real-life Magic: The Gathering fan of a friend wasn’t too taken with it, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that he’s very happy with (and very invested in) Magic. Frankly, that’s going to be a major hurdle for any Magic-like game at this point. Magic is drawing on an immense card pool, a fanatically loyal fanbase, and literal decades of experience and polish and balance and refinement. It’s got the tournaments set up and it’s selling packs in every game store. It’s a juggernaut, for better and for worse.
And really, any game that wants to compete with Magic is going to have to work their tail off — and even then, chances are 99% that it will still fail. In fact, The Spoils has already died one such death under Tenacious Games, only to be resurrected by Arcane Tinmen.
As for my friend’s feelings on the matter, he found most of the set’s pre-built factions uninteresting, the colors drab, and the art too mature-but-with-doubt-quotes for his tastes. The Spoils is clearly going for a somewhat more humorous take than Magic, but most of its attempts fell flat. Overall, whether the alterations in The Spoils appeal to you is going to come down to how happy you are with Magic, and for my friend’s part, he wasn’t particularly impressed.
And my opinion? It was fine. Didn’t hate it, didn’t love it.
Problem is, this Personal Journey needs me to love the game I’m playing, otherwise why bother with a tournament-style card game at all? Next time, the search continues with Doomtown: Reloaded.