Elegy: The Oxidation Struggle
One of the oft-unacknowledged talents of designer John Clowdus is his ability to evoke a complete world in the most compact format possible. I’m not only talking about Omen: A Reign of War, although my affection for that card game has been documented and documented again. Clowdus is also responsible for the messy prehistory of Neolithic, the undying carnival that is Hemloch, the collapsing Bronze Age, and, more recently, the chilly The North. His games are transportations in miniature, showing a cross-section of a world that stretches far beyond the limitations of the small boxes he crams them into.
The same is true of Dirge: The Rust Wars. Returning to Aaron Nakahara’s dilapidated style from The North — with additional contributions by Liz Lahner of Bronze Age — Dirge evokes biomechanical vultures picking over the last scraps of bone in a world that’s fallen apart and won’t be put back together again.
The first surprise of Dirge is that it isn’t only a card game. Oh, it is, in the sense that the only components are cards. What I mean, though, is that had it been designed by one of those companies that specializes in depleting the world’s strategic supply of plastic on Kickstarter, it would have been full of detailed sculpts and reconfigurable terrain. Instead, the miniatures are also cards, albeit smaller cards that are placed atop larger cards as they traverse the battlefield. Like Summoner Wars, it’s a hybrid of tactical miniatures and combo-heavy card play, although it eschews the more expensive components that would signal its hybridhood.
As such, every fight begins with unit selection. Both sides pick two, chosen from three classes with three units apiece, each with their own ability and attendant card. These are mixed together with a few starting cards to create your opening deck. Yes, this is a deck-builder as well, making it a crossbreed thrice over.
What follows is an engrossing mashup of different styles. Even contrasting styles. Even competing styles. When it works, the result is a smooth ride that makes one wonder why this type of hybrid isn’t attempted more often. The rest of the time, the seams between mechanical genres have just enough grit between them as to become abrasive on the fingers.
Like many of Clowdus’s most notable designs, Dirge revels in letting players create combos that upset the balance of power. This is often rewarded explicitly; your goal is to hit twelve points before your opponent, and one of the game’s four criteria for earning a point is playing a second card on your turn, something that’s only possible with the right cards and the right sequence of plays.
Dirge goes one step further. There are combos aplenty, but there’s also a relentless tempo to turn toward your favor. Every turn revolves around one of three action cards, which activates either infantry, cavalry, or engines, the game’s three unit types. In what will undoubtedly seem odd the first couple of plays, your turn is also a turning point, broken into one portion for yourself and another for your opponent. Crucially, each turn therefore follows up on the back half of the turn before it. Someone takes a turn, their opponent responds, their opponent takes their turn, and then the someone responds.
In practice, this behaves as a repeatedly evolving call and response, giving each player room to flex their powers a bit, but always under withering constraints. The only time you can earn that bonus point for playing a second card, for example, is on your turn, when your main choice is whether to move and attack with one of your units or to play a single card. On your off-turn, you’re often to two cards of the indicated unit type — a powerful opportunity, but only if you’ve prepped your hand, and with less opportunity for a scoring payout. I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything quite like it, and picking through its oblique structure is both thrilling and, well, oblique.
By the end of the game, your hand will contain a huge array of cards, drafted one at a time from the pool of unselected units beside the battlefield. Which means there’s yet another layer of consideration, since you’re always on the lookout for cards that will complement your plans. This has the effect of making even the minutest of decisions ripple through the rest of the design. Every pick, every movement, every attack, every combo. It’s common to find yourself wondering why you moved there, or why you picked this card.
Mind you, the result is more interesting than enjoyable. There’s a handful of reasons for that. One of them lies in the card selection itself. Since every card is drafted every game, multiple plays tend to blur together, especially when you’re relying more on the combos chaining from your hand rather than on the abilities of your actual units on the battlefield. By the same token, nearly every unit is useful, but only nearly. Where most cards can be made to work in your favor, one in particular is basically a handful of tar. And then there’s the tendency of Clowdus to design games that lean too heavily on phases and steps. Dirge is no different in that regard, especially in light of those peculiar action-and-reaction turns. Wrestling with the particulars of the turn order as much as wrestling with an opponent is one of the delights of these games, but even I sometimes find it off-putting when the mood isn’t right.
Mood. I think that speaks to the way Clowdus’s games are best experienced. With a few exceptions, these aren’t games I play to master. Instead, they’re delectable morsels, meant to be examined, savored in the mouth, ruminated upon, and then passed along — although in this case, that means handing them off to another player rather than digesting them.
Dirge is an enthusiast’s game because it tinkers with hybridization, with the shape of a “turn,” with how a map made of cards can express a geography. It’s the sort of game I wish more designers would play, if only to see what’s possible when one’s assumptions are defenestrated. As an experiment, it works perfectly. As a plaything, it’s merely palatable.
A complimentary copy was provided.