The Critic and the Card Game
Posted by Dan Thurot
If I’m being honest, I know nothing about The Girl and the Robot. The action-adventure video game, I mean. Initially I assumed it was an anime, another topic about which I know very little. But no, The Girl and the Robot was a video game years before it morphed into a card game. Don’t expect a blow-by-blow comparison. The card game is all I know.
And hey, it’s cute. Along with everything that word entails.
The Girl and the Robot’s rulebook isn’t a rulebook. It’s a lorebook. A lorebook complete with The Story Thus Far, illustrations from the card artwork, and also, by happenstance, the rules to the game, tucked away on the last couple pages. Apparently there is a girl. Also there is a queen. The queen has captured the girl. The queen also has evil robots. Good thing the girl has a magical pendant that turns one of the robots to her side. Now she’s trying to escape from the castle, except the countryside is haunted by loads of demons. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
If that sounds delightfully whimsical, go ahead and put everything I just told you out of mind. The Girl and the Robot — the card game this time — does indeed feature a girl, a robot, a queen, a bad robot, and even some demons. As for escapes and lineages and pendants, these snippets of narrative might appear on cards, but they’re contrivances. Titles. Words, often divorced from the action they’re connected to. As the girl there is no escaping from the queen. As the queen there is no chasing the girl. Pretty much, you’re just trying to kill each other.
Not that there’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, the game’s approach to murder and teamwork is refreshingly unburdened.
Murder and teamwork. If there’s anything I appreciate about The Girl and the Robot, it’s how it handles those two details.
Let’s chat about murder. Unlike other dueling games, there’s no whacking away at hit points. Instead, everybody draws a card from a shared deck at the end of their turn. If you draw a demon, you die. Logical. I’ve never met a demon, which is probably why I’m still here today. As real-life advice, “avoid demons” seems sound. As a game system, it’s perhaps more mercurial. Your first draw could be a demon. Yes, that means you would die after your very first turn. Boo, says the demon. Boo, says you.
Except you have weapons. Instead of dealing damage to your opponent — remember, there’s no such thing as “damage” in this game — you can discard one of your equipped weapons to frighten away the demon. Then you take its unhallowed card and place it anywhere in the deck. And when I say anywhere, I mean anywhere. The very top? Sure. Two cards down? Yep. All the way at the bottom? Look, buddy, you clearly aren’t grasping what anywhere means. The point is, you can absolutely seed the deck so that the demon will reappear at an inopportune moment. You even place the demon face-up so your rivals can see their death coming. Unless one of the remaining hidden demons gets them first.
That probably sounds simple. It is simple. It’s also surprisingly effective. There are three kinds of cards, a nice variety, but the thing they have in common is that they’re all focused on keeping you alive. Action cards usually manipulate the deck or the turn order. Sometimes they even mess with your opponent’s ability to defend themselves. Ability points unlock your character’s abilities. Weapons… well, you already know what weapons are for.
Point is, what originally seems totally capricious is actually a relatively tight game. Demons first appear at random. After that, though, they’re tools. Bombs to be flung at your opponents. Daggers unsheathed in the dark. Landmines accidentally laid one card too late, right underfoot instead of in somebody else’s path.
While it’s functional as a duel, The Girl and the Robot is best played as a team game. There are additional ways to bounce cards off each other — and nicely, you’re permitted to inspect each other’s hands — but that’s only the half of it. More importantly, each character comes with a pair of innate abilities that trigger when you play skill cards. The real focus is on the way they complement one another: so while the robot has pricey but powerful abilities, like replacing a card (including a demon!) or choosing who plays next, the girl can use his cards or even his abilities for much cheaper. And if ever you’re defeated, you flip your card to its “alone” side, gaining a boost until you can land a comeback against your opponents. Or perhaps bring your teammate back from the brink of death.
Like I said, it’s cute. And although cute is often meant as a pejorative, a dismissal, a statement of a game’s twee nature or simplicity or downright empty-headedness, I’m only halfway using it that way. Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it’s faintly quaint. Yes, it’s probably too light for many players. But it also has more depth than it first appears. I mean, don’t go assuming it’s properly deep. More like a curbside puddle you’ve severely misjudged and soaked yourself to the shin.
The Girl and the Robot is a pleasant surprise, and not only because I didn’t have to watch an anime. As a game about setting and defusing traps, it carries itself with a certain breezy novelty. There are moments of muted cleverness to discover, and instances where one player will foil another, and surprise demons springing out at you while preoccupied with solving the conundrum laid at your feet by a rival. As a duel, it’s ho-hum. As a quick team game, it’s rather nice, a reminder that not every game needs to break the mold to be worthy of half an hour.
Not bad. Not great, either. But the not bad part seems more relevant.
A complimentary copy was provided.
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