Scrolls Have Never Looked More Obsolete
Whether it was the first-century legend of Si-Osire saving Egypt from an Ethiopian magician or Ajani Goldmane whomping on Jace Beleren (confession: I had to look up those last two names), wizards with twenty hit points have been throwing down since hit points were wearing cloth diapers. And so it shall be again and forever, all this has happened before and will happen again, the wheel has turned once more, et cetera.
In some ways, Codex is no different. Sure, victory means razing the enemy base rather than pummeling a wizard, but one only has to spend about five minutes in its presence before realizing that this is yet another take on those irascible Dueling Wizards. That’s five minutes if you’re a bit slow. Everyone else will note the similarities in under forty seconds.
And yet, Codex is one of the most wonderfully slick games I’ve played all year. Nothing about it is strictly new, but every last brass button has been polished to perfection. And in this case, it’s all about tempo. Tempo, tempo, tempo. Say it until it means nothing. Only then will it mean anything again. Tempo.
Before anything else, let’s get this out of our system: Codex is a deck-building game.
Ugh. That’s right. Another one of those.
The thing is, everything in Codex feels so confidently choreographed that it never once feels like the same old song and dance. For example, merely consider the way cards are drawn. Like many other games of this type, you start off with five cards in your hand, each representing different fighters, structures, or spells. Nothing too peculiar about that. But when you draw your next hand, its size will depend on how many cards you discarded — that is, the stuff you didn’t use. Dump about half your cards and you’ll draw a regular quantity of new cards; use more and you’ll only get to pick up two or three cards at the end of the turn.
Even more importantly, there’s no shared pool of cards to draw from. Instead, each player brings their own codex to the table. This is a collection of three heroes and all their spells and units, bound together in a folder for easy selection. Unlike the overwhelming spellbooks of Mage Wars, which were so overloaded with pre-game options that it was a bit like filling up water balloons for a birthday party by using a fire hose, Codex’s approach is comfortingly straightforward. Here, you only have to make three easy decisions if you want to play with a custom setup. If you desire a mashup that can eventually field a Tyrannosaurus Rex, tax your opponent with fiddly restrictions, and sneak ninjas past their defenses, there’s nothing preventing you from combining Balance, Law, and Ninjato heroes, and they’ll bring all their toys along for the ride.
Adding cards from your codex to your deck is about as easy as it gets, since you just add two cards in between each of your turns. What this really means is that you’re never disengaged from the action. While your opponent muses about the best way to batter past your defenders, you’re perusing the pages of your folder like a mail-order catalog of death-dealing and power-ups. It’s Boys’ Life for wizards, where in place of pen telescopes and ant farms, you’ve got slow-time generators and porcupines who kill anything they touch.
In spite of this constant infusion of new cards, decks tend to stay lean and mean. As new stuff is added, other units will deploy to your field and stay there until they’re beaten to a pulp, while your weakest stuff is demoted to gold-farmer status. It’s brilliant that winnowing out the chaff is bolted right onto the system, no need for special cards to play the middleman in keeping your deck tight.
Added together, these systems lend the game a particular rhythm. Like the real-time strategy games it draws inspiration from, there’s a big difference between turtling to tech up and marching out as many troops as you can in order to light the enemy base aflame. More powerful troops only become available at higher tech levels, prompting you to invest money in upgrading tech buildings and specialize as you level up — but focus too much on these and you’ll leave yourself open to counterattack, or even watch as your precious tech centers are razed to the ground. Similarly, swarming your opponent with low-level pawns is an entirely viable strategy, buts runs the risk of seeing your deck-cycling slow to a crawl or eventually being outpaced by superior forces.
Meanwhile, you’ve got heroes to level up, each of them becoming more powerful with invested coins until they reach the point where they can cast your ultimate spells, and a patrol zone to staff with defensive soldiery. This latter system lets you set up a solid defense without letting you use every single card in a turn — it isn’t ever possible to gum up the works with nothing but a pack of 1/1 wimps, for instance. Instead, you have five defensive slots, each sporting its own bonus, like an extra point of attack or even the ability to gain a coin or card when that slot’s patroller is wiped out. Clever players will put together ways of slipping past their opponent’s patrol line, just as they’ll figure out ways to shore up their own defenses.
As I mentioned earlier, Codex is a game about tempo, and balancing all these elements — your card draws, your tech level, your offensive and patrolling units, your heroes and their spells — is what makes it one of the best Dueling Wizards games of all time. Figuring out a way to hurt your opponent’s hand or reset their tech level can do lasting damage.
Here’s an example. In one recent match, I was facing off against Somerset, fielding a boring Demonology/Disease/Necromancy trio, and doing my damnedest to pull off a rush strategy. For the time being, I was up thanks to a Pestering Haunt who could glide past her defenses unhindered and some easily-summoned Skeletons who gleefully charged into her defenders only to pop back together the very next round. This had put some hurt on her main base, but she was starting to gain momentum.
To cut her off, I decided to invest in some Twilight Barons from my codex. These are powerful for their tech level, but make it impossible to play higher-tech units while they’re alive. No problem, I figured. They’d deal some damage, die, and I’d turn them into gold-diggers in time for my bigger monsters to roll out.
Unfortunately for me, Somerset was playing with the heroes who manipulate time itself. For the most part this had worked to my advantage, since some of her powerful stuff had to catch up to our timeline for a few turns. So I brought out my Twilight Barons and attacked, damaging her base severely — only for her to cast one of her spells that prevented my guys from refreshing next round. Just like that, I went from having a solid army to having no army at all, at least not for the time being. My hand was full of high-tech stuff that I couldn’t use thanks to the dark pacts of my Twilight Barons, while Somerset’s time-delayed troops were getting closer to popping into existence.
This being Codex, that wasn’t the end of the game, just the end of that approach. I pivoted away from Demonology and towards Necromancy, leveling up my hero as fast as cash would spend. A couple of turns later, he was ready to cast some of my most powerful spells, ranging from Death Rites, which would kill one of Somerset’s expensive troops every time I lost one of my rinky-dink Skeletons, to Lich’s Bargain, a ditty that wrecked my own base each time I cast it, but also summoned a horde of expendable troops. With them out, she couldn’t hurt me without hurting herself. It wasn’t long before her base was in ruins, trampled under the bare calcanei of my undead hordes.
That was the only match I’ve won against Somerset, though that’s just the first reason I share it as an example. The second reason is that it was an exemplar of why Codex is one of the deepest two-person dueling games of the year. Crud, of the past few years. From start to finish, it was one brisk battle of strategy and counter-strategy, of burning cards to get ahead only to reap the penalty when we slowed down over the next few turns, of using wild abilities to transform our weaknesses into strengths.
Also tempo. Seriously, Codex is fantastic about how it measures each action, weighing the cost of every spent card or coin. The final product is as brilliant as it is deep, whether offered one set at a time or in the plus-sized deluxe box, providing something that ranks alongside one of the best customizable card games while streamlining the usual hours of pre-game meditation on power combos and card synergies into quick-fire decisions that set the stage for an unrelenting duel of wits. Brilliant.