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Special Power Card Games of 2011

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
2011 is widely considered to have been a great year for games. It has been particularly lauded, by fans of ameritrash (AT)*, for which it is arguably the best year since 2005, but what I found to be particularly exceptional about the year is how it is perhaps the best year yet for special power card games (SPCG) which, after years of releasing a relatively sparse selection of titles since they first began to regularly appear on to the board game scene in 2004, finally have about as many titles in the Top 20 ranked games of 2011** as there are Ameritrash titles and Eurogame titles.

This is the culmination of a gradual trend in the increase of the number of well received SPCG. While the historic roots of these games extend back to Magic the Gathering and earlier, the first modern game to begin to establish current trends was San Juan in 2004. 2005, with Glory to Rome, and 2006, with Through the Ages, also featured well-received games, but it was not until 2007, with Race For The Galaxy, and 2008, with Dominion, where SPCG really achieved some level of momentum and prominence.

In fact, it could be argued that much of the current momentum for SPCG can be attributed to Dominion, and while this is almost certainly true, with 5 of the 13 most well-received SPCG since 2008 being deck-building games, what we are seeing is a much broader push, with a large number of rather distinct designs. From my perspective, it seems that some of the most interesting, and perhaps innovative, games of the last two years have been SPCG, where eurogames and AT have not seen quite as much.

My investigation of the SPCG released in the last ten years has happened concurrently with my exploration of my dissatisfaction with most sub-90 minute games, and I suspect that a large part of my dissatisfaction stems from my enjoyment of these SPCG. These games typically provide a level of interplay variability and opportunity for creative play that many games in this time frame lack, and it has difficult to convince myself to play other games in this category unless, like Hansa Teutonica, they also feature some of these strengths.

I have played six of the top eight SPCG of 2011 enough that I feel that I can effectively present why I like them. The seventh, A Few Acres of Snow, I have only played once but I have studied enough that I think I can discuss what is particularly interesting about the design. The last one, The Lords of the Rings: Card Game I have also played only once, but I think what makes it particularly special is obvious, even to someone who has not played it extensively. If I am wrong about it, I am sure someone will let me know.

Mage Knight the Board Game

My selection of Mage Knight the Board Game as a SPCG might end up being mildly controversial, but its biggest emphasis is on deck and hand management, with the board being merely an expression of how the player uses their cards. I have played it 34 times to date, and if I have my way I will push that number up to 50 by the end of the year. It is perhaps the best game in a year of very good games, and is in the running for my favorite game of all time.

In most deck building games, players use their cards to generate one of several currencies and use those currencies in order to move towards achieving the victory conditions. Dominion has money for victory points; Thunderstone has money which buys cards and then attack power which is used to get victory points; Ascension has money for cards, which are worth victory points, and power to defeat monsters for victory points. Mage Knight also uses cards to generate one of four different currencies, but rather than these currencies being direct avenues to victory points, they are instead used to translate into action on the board which can then be used to generate victory points. This additional level of separation between the player’s actions and victory points, and the shift in focus that it results in, is probably Mage Knight’s most important innovation and is one that I personally find to be very satisfying.

The other major shift between Mage Knight and other deck building games is its slightly decreased focus on deck building itself. Generally, the cards you have at the beginning of the game will still be important parts of your strategy at the end of the game, where in many other deck building games, getting rid of your initial cards is extremely important. Additionally, you will typically only reshuffle your deck anywhere between two and five times over the course of a game of Mage Knight, meaning that any individual card you acquire, which is always put on the top of your draw deck, will only be used between one and six times over the course of the game. These combined factors put a strong focus on hand management over deck building, which is a nice shift considering how many deck-buildings leave their most important decisions in the deck building phase rather than in the card play phase.

A Few Acres of Snow

Though slightly controversial due to the broken Halifax Hammer strategy, A Few Acres of Snow has introduced some interesting innovations, which I expect will be utilized in future designs, including Martin Wallace’s own. I have only played A Few Acres of Snow once, but I am familiar enough with the game that I can discuss its particular characteristics.

A Few Acres of Snow is closer to a traditional deck builder than Mage Knight the Board Game. Both cycling your deck and deck thinning are helpful, and ideally you will go through your deck a plethora of times before the game ends. It provides a typical two currency model, but also introduces a level of permanence by having it so both currencies continue to persist beyond the individual rounds in which they are introduced. This is interesting, but is not what I consider to be the most interesting thing that A Few Acres of Snow does. Instead it is how different board locations work in relation to each other.

A Few Acres of Snow’s board features a series of networked points, with adjacency not so much determined by where they are in relation to each other on the board, though this is an important factor, but where individual location cards say these adjacencies exist. So in order for you to accomplish most actions related to board play, you need to not only be in a position on the map where you have an adjacency to the appropriate location, but also have the card that serves as the bridge to get there. This serves as a way to tie a feeling of “place” directly into the deck building and hand management aspects of the game. The deck represents not only resources you have access to but also where you are, which is something I find to be both effective and intriguing.

The Lords of the Rings: Card Game

I am less familiar with The Lords of the Rings: Card Game, and really most of FFG’s Living Card Game catalog, than any other item on this list. I played it once, probably incorrectly, a year ago and what I saw was not interesting enough for me to come back. However, despite this inexperience I can still appreciate how it was able to effectively combine cooperative games with SPCG, and I think that alone is probably worthy of note.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager

Blood Bowl: Team Manager’s greatest achievements are in the realm of simulation. Intended to serve to simulate a series of games of Blood Bowl, it effectively provides the feeling of managing a team on the rise, as it gets additional staffing and star players while accumulating fans throughout the season.

Each turn features a set of “highlights” which represent the key moments during matches throughout the season. Each highlight can have up to two players assign their team members to it, and each one provides special benefits both to the players who assign their team members to it as well as whomever wins the match. In many ways, the game feels almost like a trick taking game, with each of your players having a numeric value that determines how effective they are at winning the particular trick/highlight, but the layers of special abilities events that are added to the cards safely prevent the game from being anywhere close to a typical trick taking game’s level of abstraction. The game is actually quite effective at getting across the feel of managing a team across a season, and while I am not that familiar with Blood Bowl, I am fairly familiar with various team sports, and the game effectively gets across the feel of a bloody and more vicious form of head to head sport with some parallels to American football.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager does feature some amount of deck building, in that up to five star players may be added to each players deck over the course of a game, but this deck building is relatively insignificant in the games overall mechanical whole and I would be skeptical of anyone categorizing it as a deck building game. Blood Bowl: Team Manager feels fairly innovative as a whole, but that may simply be because there aren’t any other card games out there quite like it. I have quite enjoyed it so far, and have played it 7 times in the past two weeks, and with six different teams and a plethora of acquirable special powers, I see the replay value as being pretty high. The game appears to have both variability and depth and I can see playing it a lot more even if it never gets an expansion.


Yomi was released at the very beginning of 2011, and dominated my plays during that period. I have played it 87 times since my acquisition, and I still remain rather fascinated it, despite the kerfuffles regarding Dave Sirlin. At its basic level it is simply a variation of paper-rock-scissors, but the game adds so much more on top of that basic level that deeply engaging game play emerges.

Each card features an attack, a block, a dodge, or a throw, and each combination of these modes has different interactions with the others. In the case where identical offensive modes are used, then whoever is successful is determined by speed. The end result of most of these modes is damage to the opponent, though blocks serve as a way to avoid damage while replenishing your hand size, and in the case of a successful attack you can potentially set yourself up for a combo attack, which allows you to unleash a large amount of damage at the cost of depleting your hand. Each decision rewards an understanding of the capabilities of your own and your opponent’s deck and an ability to read patterns in your opponent’s behavior.

Each Yomi character features cards that match the numbering system and suits of a traditional deck of cards. While this is in no way required for the design, it is a helpful tool for both learning and structuring the game; low numbered cards end up being faster but weaker, while higher value ones end up being slower but stronger, and face cards feature special attacks or defenses that are unique to the character. The exact combination of modes featured on the cards varies based on the character used, and this differentiation creates an enticing variety of possible experiences across the available characters.

Eminent Domain

Eminent Domain is the third of the four big deck builders in 2011, but it is just as mechanically distinct from previous titles as the other deck builders on the list. Where many deck builders prior to 2011 built upon the basic structural model established by Dominion, Eminent Domain diverges significantly, combining features of Glory to Rome with some its own ideas in order to create its own, unique, experience.

Unlike most deck builders, which feature turns where a number of currencies in a range of quantities are generated by various cards in order to purchase further cards or victory points, Eminent Domain’s currencies are the cards themselves. There are six available roles, with each role’s strength is determined by the number of cards of that type that are in a player’s hand. As a player selects a role, then a card associated with that role is added to the player’s deck, meaning that a player’s deck is altered directly by their role selection choices rather than card purchases. The technology role breaks this rule slightly by allowing players to acquire distinct special power cards, but on the whole, how the deck building occurs is enough to separate Eminent Domain from the rest of the pack.

If I have one big complaint about Eminent Domain at this point it is that the lack of distinction between the majority of the cards, leaves the game a bit samey with slightly less room for creative play. At 15 plays I am largely done with the game, but I enjoyed those 15 plays, and I do greatly respect the design’s particularly unique takes on deck building.

Core Worlds

Core Worlds is the last of the big deck builders of 2011, and is just as unique feeling as the others. I only recently tried Core Worlds, with 5 plays over the course of 2 days, but I came away from the game with a grudging respect.

Core Worlds, like many deck building games, is focused on building an economic snowball. This snowball has three parts: energy, ground forces, and space forces. Each of these are acquired throughout the game, with ground forces and space forces used to conquer planets, which produce energy, which are used to purchase more ground forces and space forces. What allows Core Worlds to distinguish itself are the sorts of breaks that are placed on to the snowball. A limited, non-expandable pool of actions are used to limit what a player can do in a turn, and actions are required to purchase cards, add them to your tableau, or conquer a planet. Whenever you spend an action to acquire a planet, you are forced to discard cards that have strength, forcing you to both consider the cost for bringing them into play again as well as the negative impact on efficiency of reintroducing these cards into your deck. You are forced to make a lot of tough decisions regarding whether it is worth it to conquer a planet and thus deal with a non-streamlined deck that increases the risk you will not be able to deal with the hard to conquer worlds in the later or stages or risk not conquering it and thus get behind both in energy income and in victory points.

This tension is what really drives the game and what has kept me interested so far. Rather than having a pure economic snowball game, or having to deal with slight but required bouts of inefficiency, the games is filled with these decisions which can have a fairly dramatic effect on whether you do well or poorly. That being said, I have no idea if the decisions based around these tradeoffs will remain interesting to me in the long term, as historically pure snowball games have lost my interest once I figured them out. However, even if it does not work for me in the long term, it does have my attention for the time being.

Sentinels of the Multiverse

While The Lords of the Rings Card Game has been smashingly successful both critically and commercially, in the small realm of cooperative SPCG I have found the smaller and pluckier Sentinels of the Multiverse more effective at catching my attention.

Part of this is simply my greater interest in a game based on super heroes than one based on The Lords of the Rings, as super heroes are much less thoroughly explored theme. Another thing that I also greatly appreciate is the sheer modularity of the design. By having a large selection of heroes, villains, and environments, all of which are available to be used interchangeably, the game creates both interesting variation in how the component parts interact with each other and allows players to establish new challenges for themselves by specifically establishing situations that are suboptimal for the particular skill sets of the utilized heroes.

Sentinels is also structured very efficiently, with a fairly simple structure providing with a vast amount of different decisions based on the combination of various exceptions introduced by individual cards. This allows play to move along fairly swiftly even when dealing with fairly complex game state situations. However, the number of different modifiers, and situational effects can be overwhelming for those who are used to more constrained games. I find the nuance provided by this complexity to be thrilling whoever, and greatly appreciate how the game simulates various narrative states through information.

My enjoyment of Sentinels, which flies in the face of my normal disregard for cooperative games, actually has increased my curiosity about The Lords of the Rings Card Game. Perhaps my usual aversion to cooperative games blinded me to The Lords of the Rings Card Game’s strengths. Of course, I am not sure I really want more than a single short cooperative game, but I am much more willing to try it again than I was even a few months ago.

2011 was impressive not only in the number of different quality SPCG released but also in the sheer variety of their implementations. I do wonder if perhaps this year will represent the peak of these sorts of games. There do not seem to be that many coming out this year, and it may be that we will soon go back to the trickle of one or two good ones per year. I think I would largely be okay with that, despite my appreciation for this type of game, simply because of how much more there is to explore in each and every one of them. These card games are what really make 2011 a standout year for me, and I expect to be exploring many of them for years to come.

*I am not particularly fond of the terms AT and Euro because of their imprecision, but they are commonly accepted enough that I will continue to use them for the time being.
**The Top 20 Games of 2011 (excluding games that are effectively expansions or reimplementations and probably should not even be in the rankings):
Spoiler (click to reveal)
1) Eclipse (AT)
2) Ora et Labora (E)
3) Mage Knight (SPCG)
4) The Castles of Burgundy (E)
5) A Few Acres of Snow (SPCG)
6) The Lords of the Rings Card Game (SPCG)
7) Mansions of Madness (AT)
8) Trajan (E)
9) Blood Bowl – Team Manager (SPCG)
10) Dungeon Petz (E)
11) Risk Legacy (AT)
12) Letters to Whitechapel (E)
13) Yomi (SPCG)
14) Gears of War: The Board Game (AT)
15) Star Trek: Fleet Captains (AT)
16) Lancaster (E)
17) King of Tokyo (AT)
18) Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon (AT)
19) Flash Point: Fire Rescue (E)
20) Eminent Domain (SPCG)

Looking at the list, and the lists I compiled for previous years, the big loser appears to be wargames, for which there are no examples in the Top 20. This compares to at least 1 title from every other year since 2002. I suspect this may simply be due to the slow rising nature of wargames, however, and it would not surprise me if Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and Space Empires 4X end up in the Top 20 of 2011 after some time spent building ratings.
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