Co-designed by Jonny Hinkle and Billy Miller, Battle for the Universe: Slab City Beatdown is a two-player, competitive card game coming to Kickstarter on January 10, 2017 [UPDATE: The Kickstarter is live]. This superhero/villain themed card game, with art by Hinkle (and other artists to be determined though the Kickstarter), is envisioned as a non-collectible, expandable game in the same vein as Doomtown: Reloaded, Game of Thrones, and others. Hinkle and his collaborators are designing their first game campaign around producing a base set (the titular “Slab City Beatdown”) that will give backers at least four pre-constructed decks with which to learn (and possibly up to ten decks and more than 300 cards when stretch goals are included), as well as a variety of additional cards with which to customize decks. Due to the theme and genre, this game is certain to draw comparisons to the 2005 AEG collectible game City of Heroes and Sentinels of the Multiverse, yet this offering isn’t simply a straightforward slug-fest between players. Indeed, players have the ability to customize the Objective cards they include within their decks, changing their own win conditions to suit their style of play. This unique mechanic makes the endgame incredibly variable, and allows players to be as interactive as they see fit – letting you focus on destroying your enemies or collecting resources or controlling Locations (or some combination of these things!) in order to fulfill your Objective and win the game. However, if things don’t go your way, and your Objective seems to become impossible as the game develops, players always have the option to attempt to destroy their opponent’s Base as an alternative win condition. That’s right, players get to have their hero or villain operate out of a secret base that offers a unique mix of resources and abilities in order battle for control of Slab City, and eventually the universe. Does a competitive, superhero themed expandable card game with unique mechanics seem intriguing? Then this could be just the Kickstarter for you!
What’s in the Box?
This is a Kickstarter preview, so what will eventually be in the box is a little vague at the moment. That is to say, the version of Battle for the Universe that I’m previewing is a prototype (available to demo on Tabletopia), and the materials that will be shipped when the Kickstarter fulfills will be dependent on the success of the campaign. I haven’t had the opportunity to handle production quality components, but what I’ve seen so far in terms of the art and game design is promising. When the Kickstarter launches, a campaign pledge of at least $45 USD ($40 for Early Bird backers) will entitle a backer to a core set of at least four deck with the potential for stretch goals and the inclusion of playmats at higher backer levels (or possibly as an add-on). Even without the promised stretch goals, promos, and add-ons, you’re looking at a massive core set of cards that can get you up and running.
How to Play
I really want to give you a sense of what it’s like to play this game. In my reviews, the “How to Play” section is usually long, but this is going to be even more in depth. It’s my hope that this summary will give you a feel of what it’s like to set up and play, and then you can determine if this is they type of game you’d like to back on Kickstarter. Be prepared: here comes a wall of text!
Like most games in the CCG/TCG/LCG/ECG genre, Battle for the Universe will be as much about constructing your deck as it is playing the game. And like most of these games, players will build their decks following a strict set of rules. In this case, decks are designed by choosing 1 Objective card (describing your winning condition), 1 Base card, 12 Location cards (set aside in their own deck with no more than 2 copies of any one location), and a forty card main Play Deck comprised of Characters, Objects, and One-Shots (with no more than 3 copies of any one card). There are some other minor rules necessary for understanding deck construction, but for the most part this will get you ready to play. If deckbuilding isn’t for you, then the Slab City Beatdown core set being funded through the Kickstarter has got you covered and provides four fully playable and balanced pre-constructed decks right out of the box – but let’s be honest: you’re going to eventually want to build your own custom deck.
After constructing a deck with your Objective in mind (for instance, “Defeat 7 Characters” is the win condition on the “Vigilante Justice” Hero aligned Objective card), players will set up across from each other. To ready the play area, players will place their chosen Base card in the center of the table, with one face up Starter Location Card directly above the Base. Surrounding that face up Starter Location, players will place five face down Location Cards from their shuffled deck, in a clockwise fashion beginning to the left of their initial Location. Locations that share an edge are considered adjacent, and the top most row of one player’s Locations are adjacent to the top most row of their opponent’s Locations – and these should form a rough grid. Remaining Locations in the deck will be placed to the right, referred to as Blueprints. Next to your base, place your Objective face up. To the left of the base, place your shuffled 40 card Play Deck, leaving room further to the left for your discard pile, called the Landfill. Each player will draw 6 cards from their deck (with the option for a one time mulligan that sees you reshuffle and draw 6 new cards), and play begins!
Player alignment is important, and is determined by the alignment of your chosen Objective card (Hero or Villain). If there is one Villain player, she will begin as the active player. If there are two Heroes or two Villains, the first player is determined randomly. Each turn (called a Page, evoking the comic book theme) is divided into six phases (called Panels). In each Panel, the players alternate actions with the active player taking the first action, followed by their opponent and then back and forth until both players complete all of their desired actions for the Panel. Some Panels allow the players to take multiple actions, while other are limited to only one action each.
If you’ve ever played a game of this style before, many of the Panels will seem familiar. Panel 1 is the Refresh phase, where all players refresh (untap, straighten, stand, unboot, and so on) their exhausted (tapped, bowed, kneeling, booted) cards. That’s it. Pretty simple. After each player completes Panel 1, they move on to Panel 2 – Resources. One of the primary resources that players will collect throughout the course of the game is called Clout. To gather Clout, players will collect an amount equivalent to the Clout value that is visible on their Base and all locations they control. Clout can then be spent to recruit Characters, purchase Objects, and pay the costs of actions. Any unspent Clout is lost at the end of the Page. During Panel 2, players will have the opportunity to collect other resources – namely Money and Civilians. Each player will, in order, choose whether to collect Money or Civilians during this phase, and will collect the amount of that resource equivalent to the matching amount printed on their Base. Unlike Clout, these resources can be kept from turn to turn and may be carried over to pay for higher cost cards or to complete Objectives.
Panel 3 is the Recruit phase, and players may pay the costs of one Character card in their hand to place that card in their Base, exhausted. There are restrictions on this, however. Players may only ever have 3 Characters in play at a time, and the costs for Characters who do not match your Objective alignment (Hero or Villain) or team affiliation (as designated by the symbol on the leftmost banner) are increased by 3 Clout and/or 2 Money/Civilians respectively. Finally, there is also “The Law of One” – where a player may not recruit a Character that shares a name with a recruited Character they already have in play. So, for instance, a player may not recruit a “Commander Canada” card if they already have a copy of “Commander Canada” in play.
When players have finished recruiting characters, they move to the Action phase in Panel 4. Each player, beginning with the active player, may take an action printed on a card in their hand or on a Character, Location, or Base they control, paying all costs. Some actions cards are identified with the “Hero” or “Villain” alignment keyword, and require the player to control a matching Hero of Villain Character in order to play. Play in this phase continues until both players pass.
In addition to playing actions printed on cards, there are actions that are always available for players to take. Movement is one of these actions. Each Character that a player controls may normally move from one location to another adjacent location exactly once per Page by taking an action. Generally, a Character at a Player’s base may only move to their Starter Location directly above the base – though special powers may alter this. In most cases, the cost of moving a Character card from one Location to another is exhausting that card – though, again, a power can change this. In addition to moving one of their Characters, another action that a player may take is to attach an Object from their hand to a Character that they control, paying all costs. Characters may only have one Object of each type (weapon, armor, vehicle, etc.) attached to them at any time.
Instead of moving a Character or attaching an Object, a player may instead attempt to use a refreshed Character to secure a Location. If the Character is at a Location that is face down, it is flipped face up. The player may then choose to play the Clout cost printed on the Location card, gaining control of that card and reaping its Clout value in every subsequent Page while they control it. Alternatively, they may choose not to control the location and may instead compare their Character’s power to the defense value of the Location card – if their Character’s power value is greater, the player may choose to collect the Money or Civilians printed on the Location card. After this display of force, the Location card is then placed at the bottom of the owner’s Blueprint deck, and its position on the table is refilled with a new, face down Location. After a Character succeeds in controlling or defeating a Location, she is normally exhausted. If a player cannot or will not pay the Clout cost or overpower the defense value of a Location card after declaring an attempt to secure a Location, the Character is returned to their Base exhausted. Many Locations will have “Secure” abilities, which can be optionally activated whenever a player successfully secures that Location.
But what about fighting? This is a game about superheroes and villains after all. As an action, a player may use a Character to initiate a battle! The current player may choose a refreshed Character with which to declare an attack (becoming the Attacker), targeting an opposing Character in the same Location (the Defender). Each character, beginning with the Attacker, alternates Battle Actions (which may be printed on the Character, an Object, or a One-Shot Action card). There are additional actions that may be taken during a Battle, of note here is the “Call for Support” which allows players to bring additional Characters into the Battle from their hand (though they are discarded after the Battle), while activating any “Support” effects that are printed on these additional cards. After all actions have been taken, the cumulative Attacking power on any remaining refreshed Characters in the battle is compared to the cumulative remaining Defense values on the opposing side – and any remaining Characters with a lower Defense value than their opponent’s Power is returned to their owner’s Base exhausted. However, if the difference between the winner’s Power and the loser’s Defense is more than double, that Character is “Defeated” and it and all attached cards are discarded from play. After the battle, the Attacker is exhausted – though if the Attacker remains at the Battle Location, they may immediately attempt to secure that location even if they are exhausted.
In addition to declaring an attack against a Character at a shared Location, a player may also attempt to initiate a battle against their opponent’s Base by moving their Character to the Base and declaring an attack. If the defending player controls no Characters at their Base, the Attacker units’ power is compared against the Bases’ defense – if it is higher, the Attacker wins and destroys the base, winning the game. However, if the Defending player does control a Character at their base, they may declare a defender and a Battle would occur as normal. After the Battle, if the Attacker won, the difference between the attacking Power is compared to the remaining defender’s Defense value, including the Base’s Defense value – if the attacking value is higher, the attacking player destroys the base and wins the game.
So. That’s seems like a lot of stuff that can happen, and it’s only a taste of the actions that can be performed in Panel 4. It seems more complicated than it is, as you might expect in any game like this one. The fourth phase of the game is really where most of the meat of the game happens, with each player taking action after action. After each player has completed all of their desired actions, Panel 4 ends and Panel 5 begins. In Panel 5, both players draw at least one card, drawing to a minimum of 4 cards and discarding down to a maximum of 8. Finally, Panel 6, “Turn the Page,” ends the active player’s Page – and the active status moves to the next player. The new active player then begins the new Page at Panel 1.
And that’s the game in a nutshell. Players alternate actions within each panel, and alternate active status every Page while working towards completing the goal(s) on their Objective card and/or attempting to destroy their opponent’s Base. There’s a lot of description above, but the game is pretty straightforward, really.
Battling for Control of the Universe
Let’s talk nuts and bolts. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the final component quality for this game. At the time of this writing, a lot of the materials are still in prototype stage and much of the artwork is unfinished. However, what I’ve seen so far is promising. The Money and Civilian tokens look to be heavy cardboard chits, the playmats look to be a nicely printed neoprene, and the card artwork that’s available, as you can see in this preview, moves between professionally serviceable to downright awesome. Hinkle is a professional illustrators, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the artwork that’s available so far is generally good. The available rule book will need some tweaking before going to print, and I imagine that part of the campaign will be collecting feedback from the backer community to help with the clarity of some of the rule concepts. It’s my hope that some of the stretch goals will include improvements in high quality components (if they’re not already planned) – perhaps linen finished cards? A box insert that will fit sleeved cards? It’s tough to say what the designers have in store for backers, but in terms what will come in the box – this is definitely a card game to keep your eyes on.
So, time for the most important question for any game: is it fun? Yes, I really think so – but (and there’s always a but) with some caveats. As I mentioned earlier, I have only played a prototype of the game, and haven’t had the opportunity to get down to the nitty-gritty of deck construction and management. Building decks, finding combos, and working the metagame is where a game like this either shines or falls apart – and it’s unfortunate that we haven’t gotten to work with this aspect of the game yet. However, the preconstructed decks that I’ve seen work well and what was available for me to try was both fun and interesting. I was engaged the whole time. So, there’s that. As with almost any competitive card game, there’s a bit of a learning curve – the description of how to play should make that abundantly clear. But that is not to say that it’s too dense to get a feel for relatively quickly. It’s certainly not as complicated as something like Doomtown: Reloaded, which was notoriously difficult to learn and teach. Battle for the Universe feels like a game you already know – it combines a lot of mechanics that will be familiar to seasoned gamers, and these are put together in an interesting and somewhat innovative way. There’s nothing completely new here – though there are some really interesting innovations. The spatial movement aspect of the Locations is implemented a little differently here than in other games, and the randomness of the Location placement makes for an interesting addition. The “Support” mechanic is included in the card’s flavor text, and adds an extra element of theme to the already rich super-powered world. Finally, the Objective cards are, for my money, the most innovative aspect of this game. Each game will be different because players can alter their Victory conditions and no two games will necessarily be the same. This is a refreshing change of pace from most games that have a singular set of conditions that will lead to victory, and it adds to the replayability of the game. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the Legend of the Five Rings CCG (1995-2015), which had multiple paths to victory and some cards that could alter winning conditions – but having the core of the game focused on variable objectives takes that to a whole new level.
Ultimately, this game does exactly what it sets out to do, and there’s something to be said about that. It’s not complicated for the sake of being complicated, and it’s doing something that is both fresh and familiar. However, if you’re already burned out on the LCG/CCG genre, this almost certainly isn’t going to get your motor going. But if the prospect of an expandable game with a cool new theme, interesting mechanics, and fantastic replayability gets you revved up, this looks to be a great entry that does a good job differentiating itself in a pretty crowded marketplace.
Normally we end game reviews with a score out of ten, but since this is a Kickstarter preview we’re going to reserve judgement for now and revisit Battle for the Universe: Slab City Beatdown when it fulfills. If this sounds like a game that interests you, be sure to follow on Facebook and watch for the official launch of the campaign on January 10, 2017 – we’ll definitely be keeping our eyes on this one.