Usher in the New Millennium

Good to see you again, old friend — er, old nemesis.

I’ve always wanted to play a collectible card game in a competitive environment. There’s something about watching a deck take shape over weeks and months, toying with ideas and builds whenever new cards are released, and then testing the mettle of your creation in the crucible of a tournament. And when that’s done, you do it all over again, learning from your mistakes and capitalizing on your successes. Unfortunately, I simply lack the time that I’d need to invest in such an endeavor. I’d say, “Maybe if I were younger,” but I didn’t have all that much free time when I was a kid either. Maybe when I’m older.

Good thing Millennium Blades is finally here, because it satisfies my hunger with one of the most rollicking fun games I’ve ever played.

Look how tidy! Like an OCD man's closet.

The card market — the clean version.

Preamble: Money Money Money

There are any number of ways I could introduce Millennium Blades. I could talk about how, like many of the best games from Level 99, there’s a staggering amount of stuff in the box to play with — not only in terms of quantity, but in variety too, all decked out with slick art and none-too-subtle references. Or I could talk about how it’s an innovative game, blending the thrill of opening a booster pack, the panic of realizing that a mid-season tournament begins in just a few minutes and your deck list hasn’t been finalized, and the tension of hoping that your opponent’s next play doesn’t send your precarious matchstick house of card combos tumbling to the floor.

Instead, let’s talk about money.

Paper money gets a bad rap in games for some reason. Probably because of Monopoly, though perhaps it’s because they’re sort of a pain to count out, all those bills sliding off of one another, the occasional five getting mixed in with all the ones. For whatever reason, you mention that a game has paper money, and people go, “Ew, ugh, paper money.” You might as well be using blankets infected with smallpox for currency.

So let’s get out in front of this scandal: Millennium Blades uses paper money. But once again, that’s selling it short. Because here, you aren’t playing with single bills. You’re playing with fat stacks of sticker-bound cash, every purchase made by plopping down a huge wad of dough. It even makes that sound when you toss it into the bank: plop.

Sure, playing with stacks of cash rather than single bills does occasionally come across as an unintentional meta-commentary on just how much money some companies are milking out of their customers through “lifestyle” games that require periodic buy-ins to stay competitive. But leaving that aside, it also feels so damn cool, and effortlessly gets across the point that Millennium Blades is set in a world where everybody plays high-stakes collectible card games. In this parallel universe, people value brains over brawn. They also value an obsessive-compulsive eye for combo-building over pretty much anything else. You aren’t some kid buying boosters with spare change pilfered from the family vacation jar. You’re a professional, paying professional amounts of money to earn professional prizes. In Millennium Blades, you’ll never need to hide your binder of cards from the “cool” kids.

Okay, so let’s talk about the game itself.

"Like your closet!" —Dan's Mom, who has not seen his closet in ten years.

How the market actually looks five minutes into the game.

Part One: Before the Tournament

The focus of each game of Millennium Blades is a season of three tournaments and the days leading up to them. In practice, this means you spend about twenty minutes getting ready to play in each tournament. Now, it’s possible that getting ready to play in a tournament doesn’t sound like much fun — and who could blame you? At first blush, it sounds boring. Should there be a game about high-powered corporate business where half your time is wasted on shining your shoes? Or a game about appeasing a medieval lord where you basically shuttle clay between pit and kiln the entire time? If we were to draft a Bill of Boardgaming Rights, the first item would be that our time should never be wasted.

Fortunately, that’s a rule Millennium Blades understands intimately. Rather than filling the minutes leading up to each tournament with nothing but gas, they’re often the most interesting and infuriating minutes of the entire game. For one thing, the space between each tournament is played out in real-time. You have a handful of minutes on the clock, and nothing is going to add more. Have a friend who suffers from Analysis Paralysis? Need just that one extra card? Too bad. Make it work anyway. Making matters even trickier, take-backs and redos and mulligans aren’t welcome here. Your mistakes are permanent, and can only be erased by playing better from here on out. This is even laid out explicitly in the rules, so if you’ve got a friend who loves going, “No, wait, what I meant to do is this…” then prepare to enjoy the catharsis of shutting him down hard.

There are also about a hundred things to consider within that narrow frame of time. The main thing, of course, is that you’ve got a deck to prepare, which comes to mean more and more as the game progresses. At first you just need a workable deck with a few cards that build off each other. By the second or third tournament, you’ll also be wanting a deck that both riffs on your established strategies and messes with whatever your opponents packed to the previous tournament. In one game, I set up a deck that was deeply confrontational, flipping opposing cards face-down and robbing them of their value, clashing with opponents (a “clash” being a semi-random contest that pits cards against each other), and defending against attacks. By the end of the first tournament, half my opponent’s cards were worthless and I won by a healthy margin. In preparing for the next tournament, I figured nobody would be able to trump my previous strategy. I made some refinements and added some newly-acquired cards into the mix, but left the overall approach largely untouched — then watched in horror as one of my opponents revealed a deck that thrived on getting beaten up. Her cards earned points when flipped down, gained bonuses when clashes were lost, and picked up a bunch of zombie points for having nothing but dead cards at the end of the tournament. I lost by a mile.

And that’s just a portion of what needs to be considered during the pre-tournament phase. There are collections to build, sets of cards that can be turned in for huge wads of points. There are trades to make between players, an aftermarket for used cards to peruse, and even super-powerful “fusion” cards that can only be earned by burning stacks of other cards — though this is the perfect way to swap some accumulated junk for something that could fit into a late-game deck.

Best of all, this is liable to cause serious anxiety. One moment you’ll buy a few cheap boosters to maybe turn into a fusion card, only to realize that some of them are perfect for your deck. So you’ll start looking into which cards you can cut, sell a few to the aftermarket and swap some with other players to round out your collection. Right when all your cards are in complete disarray, the last warning bell will sound and you’ll realize that your deck is in shambles, you aren’t sure which direction to go with your collection, the card you were thinking of nabbing from the aftermarket has been snapped up by a competitor, and the only thing for sale is a bunch of crummy commons. Best of luck, because the tournament is just around the corner.

It's a moldy one from way back in the 18th century, but my favorite cameo thus far is Evil Beethoven.

References abound.

Part Two: Time to Fight

With so much going on, you’d think Millennium Blades would be complicated. It isn’t. In fact, it’s dead simple:

Play a card. Maybe take an action. And that’s it.

Most of the time, anyway. A solid strategy comes down to any number of factors. Often, the order you’ll play your cards in is set before a tournament even begins, just one of the many considerations undertaken during the pre-tourney phase. But it pays to be flexible by taking a couple extra tricks along and refusing to rely too much on any one card staying face-up. A clever opponent can trigger clashes to earn points or disrupt your growing tableau. In one game, I used a single card that forced everybody to play their cards randomly for a single round. Since it was my first card, many of my opponents found their card orders thrown into disarray and had to scramble to arrange new combos on the fly. In another game, it became apparent that my ongoing strategy wasn’t going to score enough points, but I hadn’t brought any combative cards to try and whittle down everyone else.

The tournament phase tends to be much shorter than the portion of the game where you build your decks, but that’s only appropriate. After so much planning, the tournament itself is almost perfunctory at times. There’s still room enough to make adjustments and toy around with the evolving state of what everyone else is playing, but you’re only allowed to bring so many cards with you. After twenty minutes of sweating the little stuff, the tournament is sort of like the resolution half of a game of Space Alert, quick and hard-hitting and to the point. Nothing is spared. Decks are torn to tatters and discarded in disgust or rise to the occasion. It’s glorious stuff, highlighting both the thrill of success and the stomach-wrenching disappointment of failure.

And all because one little robot named Evil Doctor PSI ruined all her plans.

The deck that made Somerset very upset at me just last weekend.

Millennium Blades is an incredible game. It isn’t necessarily balanced or fair or “tight,” in the sense that everything is perfectly fine-tuned and everyone is given equal opportunities. Sometimes, one player will buy amazing cards and totally sweep a tournament with hardly any trouble at all. Sometimes you’ll fuse nine cards for a single promo only to discover it doesn’t do jack for your deck.

The thing is, none of that matters, because start to finish Millennium Blades provides some of the most fun I’ve ever seen in a board game. It’s about the anticipation of finding out what you got in a booster pack, the minutiae of assembling a deck and then putting it through its paces, the possibility of losing a fight and bouncing back to win the next one. Best of all, it’s about the very human moments that arise from its gameplay.

Like the time Somerset earned a card for winning a tournament. Even though it didn’t do anything for her, she refused to sell it off because it represented the tourney in which she hammered me in clash after clash.

Or when I proposed a trade to a friend, one that would have rounded out both of our collections, but he flatly refused — because even though it would have helped him out, there was no way he was going to do anything for me at that point in the game.

Or the time I realized I had literally one more minute to put together a working deck. I didn’t win that tournament, but I didn’t lose either. And to me, that was success enough.

Or when we laughed about the Evil Beethoven card, or Walsh from the Lightning Bug set, or that silly Battle Pope.

Or when Somerset got super mad at me for screwing up her cards that one time. I mean, she was pissed.

Millennium Blades is a game about a game, one of the most meta things I’ve ever played, not to mention utterly magical in how it transports its players to a simpler time, when a rare foil card might be the highlight of the week and cards were freely traded between friends. For those who love games and the people who play them, I cannot recommend it enough.

Posted on March 25, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. So crazy hyped for this game and I’m really glad that you liked it as much as you did!

    How did you feel about the different player counts?

    • I actually have an answer for you, Gutock!

      So, as you might expect, it’s a lot of fun with higher numbers of players. With four or five, all those abilities bouncing off each other can result in utter madness. In our game last night, at one point we had Mark blocking abilities (and earning points every time he canceled anything), me flipping everyone’s cards down and earning points from necromancer-style cards, Somerset abusing the aftermarket even during the tournament, and Geoff… doing something or other (he lost), but sometimes battling people to great success. And over the course of the game, we watched as decks were refined or even ditched in favor of designs that might fit the evolving meta better. It was sublime.

      Now, I haven’t played the final release with only two people, but I did play the preview release from a year ago with just Somerset and myself. Some cards find themselves balanced differently in that situation; for example, last night I had a deck box that gave me points for every face-down card in every tableau, so I was naturally trying to flip everyone’s cards and then earning reputation for all of them. With only two, that deck box wouldn’t have been able to earn as many points. That might sound negative, but in our two-player games we simply found that some cards became more or less worthwhile. Cards that might have defined a deck in a five-man game were fodder for fusion or the aftermarket, while some we might have passed over were suddenly more valuable.

      So: I prefer it with four or five, but I’m happy to say it works great with two.

  2. I’ve been anticipating this one since you previewed it last year, but now I am firmly hyped. Holy cow. It looks fantastic.

    • Our tournament series last night was agonizingly close. Three people were all within just a few points of each other, so there was no telling who would win until the very last handful of points were tallied. Such a good time.

      • There’s still a part of me that wants to see Level 99 turn BattleCON into a persistent dojo-management game. But for the time being I’ll settle for Millennium Blades!

      • You know, I’ve thought about that discussion from my Millennium Blades preview a year ago, and I think L99 has a couple games that would work well with metagames built around individual matches. BattleCON the way you’re proposing it, of course, but also a Pixel Tactics type of game where you travel around recruiting individual leaders and fighters, then organize them into warbands to battle over special artifacts and the like.

      • It almost sounds like the thing one might build onto the game in their free time. Sigh. One day.

  3. Such a relief that the final product lives up to Level 99 Games’s high standard of quality! I hope it’s good enough that I’ll be playing it ten years from now.

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