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Review: Penny Arcade: Gamers Vs. Evil

Something I’ll try to do occasionally on this site, when the product is interesting enough, will be to review various things that come across my desk. My first victim will be the Penny Arcade Game: Gamer’s Vs Evil. Obviously this is a game based on the great webcomic Penny-Arcade.

I picked this game up from my friendly local game store Games and Stuff last week and had a chance to try it out over the weekend with some friends. I had not heard about this game before seeing the announcement for it on the Penny-Arcade website but was immediately interested since I am a long-time PA fan as well as fan of this type of game. Someday I’ll do a post about my custom built carrying-case for my Dominion collection.

Game Overview:

For the last several years, starting with the release of Dominion, the first and still largest game in this genre, deck-building games have been a swiftly growing part of the ‘board’ game universe and have found there way onto many gamer’s shelves. However, if you’re new to the genre I’ll outline the basic concepts and then the very interesting additions that PA:GvE makes to the genre.

In a deck building game each player starts with a collection of cards, they use those cards on their turn to generate a resource (or multiple resources) and use those resources to, usually, buy more and better cards for their collection. As play goes on, your collection gets better and better at generating resources, eventually getting to point where you can buy victory points or some in some way use those resources to achieve the game objectives. Each player is (typically) buying cards from the same pool as all the other players from turn to turn. In order to provide long-term value to these games the designers typically include more variations of ‘pool’ cards than you can use in any given game, and for many players, including myself, a significant part of the fun of these games is discovering the effective card combinations or acquisition strategies given a novel set of pool cards. In PA:GvE there are 16 pool cards for each game, of which four will be the same for every game, 10 will be choosen randomly from a set of over 20 potential cards and two will be “Bosses” with special cards called “Loot”. The bosses represent the single most interesting innovation in this game, and I’ll discuss them more later. For each pool card there are 6-8 copies available for purchase by the players and there typically (though it is random) will be a range of acquisition prices for the cards.

A selection cards for games of Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil

PA:GvE takes the basic formula and does some interesting things to twist it so that it presents a new but comfortable and familiar gameplay experience.

* There are two resources (Power and Tokens) to acquire, and while not strictly opposed, you will often have to choose to focus on one at the expense of the other. Power is used to acquire red “Evil” cards and tokens are used to acquire green “Gamer” cards. Generally speaking green cards will provide tokens and red cards will provide power allowing you to specialize your deck for one resource or the other.
* Instead of purchasing victory points as effectively a third resource only useful when the game is over, PA:GvE has you accumulate victory points throughout the game as you acquire action cards from the pool, both regular actions and the super actions called “Loot”.

The two biggest changes to the formula however are:

* Each game features two bosses, one “Gamer” boss and one “Evil” boss. Each boss has a stack of eight cards that are unique to them and in a random sequence each game, these are the “Loot” Cards. This is instead of the stack of 6-8 identical cards for every other pool card available. Boss cards are more expensive than regular pool cards, starting at eight resources to acquire, while other cards max out at six. Additionally, Boss cards are worth a large number of victory points each, and acquiring them will be the key to victory in most cases. they are not just victory points however, each boss loot card is very powerful, and worth extra resources, or allows you to take extra actions etc. The green loot cards have the added bonus of a random element, when you play them from your hand you roll a d20 and have the potential to get a super-powerful critical effect or a fumble that provides a bonus to your opponents. There are two other interesting wrinkles to Boss cards: first, as their stack is depleted by player’s purchasing cards the cards get more expensive, requiring you to constantly balance the need to acquire boss cards with the need to build up your deck to keep pace with their price inflation; second, once one boss stack is completely depleted, the game ends. There are other game-end conditions, but in my games we always ended by running out of boss cards.

* Each player plays a unique ‘character’ from the Penny Arcade universe, which is a great tie-in to the comic and provides an opportunity for a lot more replay-ability. Each character comes with their own special power or unique card, and each character starts with a different number and proportion of the starting cards, making them play very differently. In this respect PA:GvE is similar to another deck builder called Puzzle Strike, and uses this feature to similar effect, in that game however you simply started with unique cards and didn’t have permanent powers.

A selection of character cards for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil.

Product Overview:

I was really impressed by the quality of the product, but I was not surprised by it. Cryptozoic, the makers of this game, the World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game and apparently some additional upcoming Penny Arcade licensed games has developed into a first rate production studio. There are a lot of cards included in the base game, they are of a really nice cardstock and very glossy and they have selected very nice, though admittedly not-original Penny Arcade artwork to illustrate the cards. I think there is new art on some of the resource cards however.

The box, with Mike Krahulik’s distinctive style on the cover is very eye-catching, though you’d have to be a fan of Penny Arcade to recognize it, and the cartoon style might not appeal to all buyers. The game comes with the standard elements for a game of this type: a rule book explaining specific corner-case card interactions (we encountered none we needed to look up in our three plays), randomizer cards with a unique colored back to aid in selecting pool cards for your game, and a box insert to help organize your cards after you open the box. It also comes with a d20 for the green boss card effect, though I can’t imagine any buyer of this game not having a sack of d20s lying around.

Box Insert and Organization for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil

One place where Cryptozoic has done a nice job is in the box insert. There are clearly labelled areas in the insert tray for each type of card and space for what I can only assume are planned expansions. Because of the extra room in the box insert it should be possible to sleeve the cards for this game and continue to use the real box, something you can’t do with Dominion because of how the insert is designed. My only complaint is there is not a place to put the large format character cards other than just on top of the others in the box and you may need to use your own dividers to keep your pool cards all organized into separate stacks if you’re OCD like me. I have played with the game 4 times since last week and I am already noticing some slight damage to card edges, as you would expect from a game involving a lot of shuffling and card handling, so I will be sleeving this game soon, the cards should fit standard card sleeves, and not require the European size sleeved like Dominion or Fantasy Flight Game cards.

Penny Arcade is known for having a ribald sense of humor and this game does not shy away from that aspect of the license, with cards like “TouchWeiners” and “Scrotuum” as well as references to a murderous Santa Claus this is a game that revels in the off-color pun. It’s also full of in-jokes for the true Penny-Arcade enthusiast with characters like Annarchy, The Cardboard Tube Samurai and even newer characters from other Penny Arcade projects like Lookouts. Basically, if you think Penny Arcade is funny this game will tickle your fancy in that regard, if you like your games with a few dirty puns you’ll be amused, but if you don’t, or if you’re playing with young folks you might want to be a little selective about which cards you use to play. This is hardly a crippling problem for the game though, and frankly, if you have a young player that likes fart jokes and violent humor they’ll be a lot to like in Penny Arcade generally and in this game.

Gameplay:

I played this game with folks new to the deck building genre and with my regular Dominion play-group and both groups were able to pick it up easily. I think deck-builders have a fairly low intensity learning curve generally so that helps with teaching new players. We agreed though that the added features of this design will make learning optimal strategies more interesting since there are a number of dimensions you don’t find in a game like Dominion.

Games took between 30 and 45 minutes, which is typical for this genre, if a little fast. Unfortunately as is typical for this genre there is little player interaction, but the addition of the boss cards, and their very limited availability does mean you can disrupt your opponent’s strategy buy buying cards and increasing the price, or by buying some of the very limited attack cards that are available (mostly on the “Power” side of the resource equation). There are deck-building games that feature a lot of player interaction, the best one in my opinion is Puzzle Strike (Amazon Link), developed and sold by Sirlin Games.

Ultimately the fun of the game is the balance between the resources, either focusing on one to the exclusion of the other, as some characters are designed to support, or going for a balanced strategy supported by some of the other characters. I did not notice any glaring balance problems, for instance if Power was always the optimal resource, and certainly you could get a random draw of pool cards that shifts strategies to one resource or another.

Some specific cards were particularly well designed and solve some reductive strategies from other deckbuilders, which was nice to see. The most obvious example of this was the card, “Chaos World Smasher” which would normally put one “Pax Pox” or negative victory point card, into each opponent’s deck when you played it.

Chaos World Smasher for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs. Evil

In Dominion this is equivalent to the “Witch” from the base set. Unlike the Witch though, which can only be prevented if certain pool cards are available for purchase, the Chaos World Smasher can be countered by already having a Pax Pox in hand. Strategically this means that in Dominion you can have strategies when the Witch is in play but not the counter where you can flood an opponent with negative points without repercussion but in this game the flood provides its own negative feedback and diminishing returns, making the strategy more dynamic and interesting. We actually discussed house ruling this feature into Dominion since we liked it so much.

Red cards all had victory point values, like the boss loots and so at first glance a “Power” heavy deck might seem advantageous, but the benefits of red cards in play were reduced relative to green cards at the same price, providing a nice balance. There were also cards that generated the opposite resource (red cards worth tokens and vis a versa), though again, the green cards tended to be better for the same price.

Another interesting card was the “Deep Crow” which had no effect but to be worth additional victory points (almost the same as a boss loot) but it made you pick up a Pax Pox when acquired, effectively reducing its value. However, as in many deck builders there are cards that let you permanently remove cards from your collection, called “deleting” in this game, and a multi-card strategy using this feature could be very powerful.

Final Verdict:

Our games were fast, light and fun, and we enjoyed both the twists to the deck building design as well as the license. For the price there was a lot of value for a fan of the deck building genre in the box, and any fan of Penny Arcade should be entertained even if they are new to the genre of game or a new gamer overall. This is a much stronger outing for Penny Arcade than their last card game design, leveraging the popularity of the genre as well as the very high production and design skills of their new partners Cryptozoic.

One good thing I heard was that they are already planning an expansion, “Gamers vs. Cthulhu” which should be interesting and hopefully expands the design in interesting ways.

I would recommend this game to anybody who enjoyed Dominion or Puzzle Strike, or any long-time fan of Penny Arcade. A definite 5/5 for those players, and a 4/5 for players new to either the genre or the license.

Look for more reviews on this site in the future and please comment or ask questions for more detail.

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