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Subject: A review of Draconis Invasion that doesn't talk about the art. rss

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Mark Iradian
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In 2008, a game called Dominion was released to the public. Published by Rio Grande Games and designed by Donald X. Vaccarino, this new “Deckbuilding” game enticed tabletop gamers into a genre where drafting wasn’t just part of the setup of a typical card game, but rather the entire game itself.

The popularity of Dominion was noticed by various publishers and as a way to get their foot into the tabletop industry, they have created their own deckbuilders. AEG had games like Thunderstone and Nightfall, while Upper Deck Entertainment created their Legendary series of games. In the digital format, mobile apps like Ascension and Star Realms have become the go-to games to kill ten minutes while retaining the excitement of building your deck from a pile of worthless cards to an engine that conquers the game’s objective.

However, despite the past 8 years of deckbuilding games, people still look at Dominion as the gold standard. With the release of Draconis Invasion, created by Jeff Lai, is this game worth pursuing or is it just another forgettable experience in a highly competitive genre?



Tale of Two Systems

The most popular deckbuilding games fall into two camps: Ascension’s “Middle Market” system and Dominion’s “Fixed Stack” system.

Ascension’s system is straightforward: You have a market deck and five random cards are dealt face up from that deck to form the “market”. On your turn, you can play and buy as many cards as you like. Each time you buy a card, it’s instantly replaced by another card from the Market Deck. There is also default fixed stacks for you to buy from if you don’t like anything on the table or don’t have enough resources.

It’s an easy system to setup, teach, and play. The major drawback with this system is the lack of agency. Because of the lack of limitations on what you can buy or play, the game feels like it’s on auto-pilot with the only meaningful decisions to consider is what cards to buy. On your turn, you simply play everything on your hand, do the effects, and buy. The general strategy behind these games is to get enough “cash” to buy bigger and better cards to continue the process of overcoming the objective.

On the other hand, Dominion’s system is a bit more interesting. Each game has a fixed stack of cards determined by either randomizer cards or preset scenarios that act as the game’s shop. The game’s only random element is what you draw, not what you can buy, thus giving the feeling of more control and trying to solve a puzzle with the list of available tools in front of you.

Usually, in this system, you are limited to only play one card and buy one card, thus forcing the player to create an engine to allow bigger combinations to occur. You are not only worried about buying specific cards, but what to do with those cards once they are in your hand. On some turns, you can do some crazy combos, while other hands might force limiting options. This continuous struggle is what makes this system more interesting than Ascension’s system.

Draconis Invasion follows Dominion’s system almost to the point where it feels like a borderline clone. Much like Dominion, it has fixed stacks with ten presets (or “Stages” as the game calls them) as well as randomizer cards to increase the replay value. However, there are just enough new mechanics in this game to stand itself out from other games that follow the Dominion format.

Instead of acquiring victory cards, you defeat Invaders that are randomly dealt face up similar to Ascension’s system to gain glory points. There are campaign cards which act as secret mission cards for the players to gain bonus points for going after specific Invaders and there is also Terror cards that take on the role as permanent junk cards in your deck. Finally, there are event cards that appear every few turns that tend to punish the player in the lead, thus forcing a “hot potato” meta into the mix.



A-BCD

Draconis Invasion’s core gameplay relies on a very simple system known as A-BCD. It stands for Action - Buy, Campaign, and Defeat. What this means is the first thing you do is, if you want, to play an Action card and do what the effect says. Much like other deckbuilding games similar to Dominion, you can buy cards that allow you to play more than one action card. After playing your action(s), you can choose one out of three available moves. Once you have completed your move, your turn is done.

The three moves are just as straightforward as they sound. Buy allows you to buy one card from the stacks, assuming you have enough gold in your hand, and add it to your discard pile. Campaign allow you to draw two campaign cards, either taking one of the three face up Campaign cards or blindly from the Campaign deck. The third move, and probably most important, is Defeat.

Besides your Gold cards and Action cards, you have Defender cards that is used to defeat the Invaders for Glory Points. These red cards have a cost, just like Action cards, and can deal a certain amount of damage to Invaders. The big change with this format though is in order to use these Defender cards, you need to have the necessary Gold to play them.

This mechanic isn’t original since it was first introduced in Resident Evil The Deck Building game with the use of Ammo cards to play Weapon cards, but it is a mechanic that not many deckbuilders have explored. Instead of just being concerned about the cost of these cards, you are also thinking of maintaining them and how to overcome that required cost to play them, thus continuously improving your deck. To say the least, Draconis Invasion having such a mechanic makes the optimization an interesting affair and ramps up the difficulty of the game to a reasonable level.

With all these mechanics in place, how does this play out? Simply put, the game is lightning quick. Because you aren’t doing a plethora of effects and your moves are limited, your turn doesn’t last very long. Action cards do not have any complicated effects and the three moves that you can do can be summed up in a sentence. Due to the simplicity of the entire system, while providing an acceptable level of depth, Draconis Invasion is a great deckbuilding game for those who are new to the genre yet gives enough meat for Dominion veterans to find some enjoyment out of the experience.




Terror cards and Terror die


One of the major mechanics that Jeff Lai has emphasized during his Kickstarter campaign was the Terror cards and the Terror die. As mentioned before, Terror cards act as permanent junk cards in your deck. They serve no purpose and can only be removed under extremely rare circumstances of luck. It is possible to get a Terror card at the start of the game, but the vast majority of your Terror card will be gained from defeating Invaders.

Every single time you defeat an Invader, you reveal the next one from the deck immediately. All Invaders in this game has some sort of effect when Revealed, which can range anything from gaining Terror cards to drawing 2 instead of 6 cards for your next turn. This creates another layer in the game that you must worry about: Risk management.

While the Reveal effects are random, you only encounter them under controlled circumstances. As stated, you are only impacted by them if you decide to defeat an Invader. This means that you are put into a position to either go for big meaty targets to take less revealed effects, or go for quick kills thus subjecting yourself to greater risk. The impact of effects is similar to the Attack cards in Dominion, with effects such as discarding 3 cards from your hand or trashing the top card on your deck.

I don't mind event cards that force you to discard or give you Terror card, thus slowing your progress, but the event cards that trash a card is a terrible idea. The main reason for this is you might trash either a useless card (such as another Terror card, +10 gold, or an Imperial guard) thus helping instead of hindering the player, or something valuable that leads to a frustrating experience. Fortunately, the game does come up with enough components to allow you to modify the event deck to a certain style if you don't like an event card or two.

At the very start of the game, the starting player rolls the Terror Die to see what the starting Threat level will be. Each starting level gives a different “benefit”, which be anything from the starting player only receives a Terror card, to everyone having a Terror card but also having a Gold Fortune card.

Each time you discard a Terror card from your hand (not your deck), you increase the value of the Terror Die by 1. Whenever that die hits 6, you give the top Event card to the player to your left and continue on with your turn. Once your turn done, the next player flips the card and reads the text.

These Event cards, much like the Reveal effects, have random effects but they are specifically targeting the player in the lead. To determine who is the leader, just look at how many creatures they have killed. If there is a tie, whoever killed the most gold Invaders (the tough ones) breaks the tie. If there is still a tie, all players who are tied are impacted by the Event.

The reason this Event system is in Draconis Invasion is to prevent runaway leaders and allow a catch-up mechanic. While this does sound artificial, it actually works quite well in the grand scheme of things. For starters, getting impacted by Reveal effects and Event cards is all done on a voluntary basis. If you are a target of an Event, it’s because of the decisions you have made, no one else's, going back to the risk management portion of the game. Another benefit of such a mechanic is it forces the leading player to continue to improve their deck, since there will never be a time in Draconis Invasion that your deck is “perfect” due to the deck constantly changing.

The Event cards also serve as the game’s timer. There are two ways to end the game: Defeat six Invaders, or the Event deck runs out of cards. This also makes the Terror cards an element you can work with instead of trying to intentionally avoid. In some of the games I’ve played, I’ve seen players who started focusing on skimming their deck and focus cycling through their deck quickly so they can accelerate the Event cards at a pace that didn’t mesh well with other players. This is a unique element that we don’t see in typical deckbuilders, where players can influence when the game will end.

Once that timer is hit, players add up their Glory Points by counting the defeated Invaders and any Campaign cards they have completed. Even this part of the game is an improvement since the calculations are quick, unlike Ascension’s system which requires going through the entire deck and counting the gems.



No, it’s not perfect

If you made this far, you would probably think that I believe Draconis Invasion is the perfect deckbuilder. While it is currently my favorite deckbuilder, and in some strange way, made me appreciate Dominion’s design more than Dominion itself, it isn't perfect. There are a few blemishes that need to be pointed out.

First and foremost, the solo play is not worth the price of admission. While there was an admirable attempt to have a difficulty setting and a campaign through the game’s ten stages, the issue with them is they are luck based and not given enough room to make an interesting deck. It feels that as soon as you get the gears going, the game ends.

The other issue is the two-player mode. When playing with two players, there is one specific condition: No Casualty of War. Casualty of War is the cheapest Action card in the game and the only one that allows you to freely choose to trash a card from your hand. In a game that is heavily focused on optimizing your deck, removing this vital tool from the game just doesn’t make any sense. From my understanding, Jeff Lai wanted to create a “unique” experience for two players. No doubt that it is unique, just like doing a bungee jump without any cord to pull you back is unique, but it doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Fortunately, this silly rule can be ignored.

The final one is the Action cards themselves. While there are some interesting cards, most of the cards in this game have very simple effects that seem a little too straightforward to pull off a long chain of combos. Even the first edition of Dominion had more fun abilities to play around with. However, I will say the balance of the game is quite well done as I didn’t find any cards to be underpowered or overpowered.

I do want to point out that Draconis Invasion does a team mode that surprisingly works. To keep it brief, teammates sit next to each other and can show each other their hands while having a shared campaign card pool. Teammates can also help each other actively by using their gold cards to help their teammates. This does add some interesting flexibility and variety into a deckbuilding game that we don’t typical see.

At the end of the day, Draconis Invasion is a surprise hit game for me. I’ve played numerous games such as Rune Age, Arctic Scavengers, Dominion, Legendary Encounters Firefly, and Nightfall. I have to say that this is the best deckbuilding game for me and even pushed Nightfall, a game that I had for five years and even bought sleeves for the 700+ cards, to the point where I decided to sell off Nightfall to cover the costs of Draconis Invasion.

Just because I say this, it doesn’t mean this game is for everyone. A big portion of Draconis Invasion is dealing with the Terror and Event cards, so if you don’t like the idea of being punished because you are doing so well, this game will likely annoy you. As for myself, I like constant struggles in my games and Draconis Invasion manages to mix the good hard decisions that I love about deckbuilding games while being extremely easy to teach for newcomers to the genre.

UPDATE: I've met Jeff Lai, designer of Draconis Invasion, face to face at an Extra Life charity event. I asked about why Casualty of War is taken out of two player mode.

He said the reason for it being taken out is the "blitz" strategy will often end up being the only viable strategy in a two player game. For those unaware, Blitz strategy means ending the game early before the other player(s) can build up their engine. In two players and only six event cards, thus very little Terror cards in the players' decks, I can understand his point about why Casualty of War would be taken out. However, I still say the best way to play this would be 3 or 4 players. 5 or 6 and the game can feel like it overstays it's welcome, but nothing game breaking.
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mark van der werf
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Worst deckbuilder i've ever played.

The writeup is fine, putting the deckbuilders into two categories etc.

I just think the mechanisms of this deckbuilder are the worst of any. The terror die and terror cards first of all are terrible, the terror cards make any sort of deckthinning, which is usually a core part of such games, not really effective. Your deck does not even improve much over time except getting greater variance (which is good often in a deckbuilder) because the terror cards get into your deck.

The catchup mechanism from the die is also ludicrous, early turns defeating an enemy is not even worth it because the events from the die will slap you hard. You can kill a weak enemy early on but it's worth few points and the terror you pick up from events punishes you way too much for it. A catchup mechanic in a game like this isn't needed, 1) everyone can do pretty much the same tactic so differences don't even tend to be big and 2) it's a short game, why bother with artificial catchup mechanic.

Finally the power your guys thing is really boring, it limits choices. You pretty much always have to set up money first, then buy guys, then use them to fight. There is no deviation like 'hmm I got a big money hand now, let's get a guy first as there are some nice critters to slay out'. No you can't even use a big creature slayer if you don't have consistent money for it. The money to activate system also makes the late turns super dull, you draw your dude, hope you have enough money for it and slay a creature.

All in all deckbuilders can be nice medium games. The ascension 'market' style of deckbuilders are fine but I agree that it's usually straightforwar: play every card and buy the best one available. The fixed stack system provides more nice combo possibilities and makes playing your hand a bit more interesting if you're constrained by actions and buys as well but has the problem that everyone can do the same thing.

One mildly interesting thing about this game is the objective cards or what they are called. They give a bit of an incentive to deviate and I think that concept could work well in something like Dominion, in a more interestin way though. Like one objective that rewards a big deck, or one that rewards many coppers, one that rewards certain cards etc.

Overall Draconis Invasion should be skipped by anyone, the only great thing is the one this review doesn't name: the art.
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Michael Johnson

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I'll also say that I enjoyed the game. I agree that games like Nightfall and Dominion definitely give you more room to create flashy and complex combos, but, as you've said, Draconis feels very balanced.

I wouldn't go as far to say that DI is the best deckbuilder I've played or my favorite (it's not)... but I would definitely say that DI feels like a very well-designed and polished game that is certainly enjoyable. It'll be hanging around my collection for awhile, and I hope we do get to see a standalone expansion that fills up all that room inside the box!
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Paul Bach
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First of all: I do enjoy the game.

One thing that has not become quite clear in this review is that the Campaign cards can have quite strong an effect on your strategy. Since the Campaigns for the weak Invaders are quite valuable, you may well consider taking the lead in kills (thus falling prey to the Event cards) if you can have 6 Glory Points with 2 easy kills.

A downside (in my opinion) is that defeating an Invader is a rather scarce thing to happen (the game ends after 6 Invaders defeated by one player), so if you buy a Defender card with a strong effect in the second half of the game (which is usually when you can afford the awesome ones), you usually profit from that effect only once or twice. :/

Due to the (often quite high) costs of having a Defender attack, it hardly ever happens that you have two Defenders attacking at the same time, save the case of having an additional weak Imperial Guard with your “strong” Defender card. When I backed the game, I expected some Defender-Defender interaction as you get in MTG (well, in a deckbuilder obviously not to the same extent). Not happening here, which is a pity.

All in all, I think it's a well-balanced game that was worth my Kickstarter pledge. It certainly has its flaws, but maybe I'll manage to houserule my way out of them, or they may be met with future expansions.

 
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Mark Iradian
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boldgamblinggnome wrote:
First of all: I do enjoy the game.

One thing that has not become quite clear in this review is that the Campaign cards can have quite strong an effect on your strategy. Since the Campaigns for the weak Invaders are quite valuable, you may well consider taking the lead in kills (thus falling prey to the Event cards) if you can have 6 Glory Points with 2 easy kills.



You're right, I should've pointed that out. I've probably played this game 8 times already, with about three games with the same group of players. Players realized how strong campaign cards could be and often defeat Invaders just to deny other player bonus Glory points. Terror cards? Ha, I just denied you 4 bonus points.

I think the first non-solo game I've played, I had a player who is a Dominion vet. I think her average gold per hand that she drew was above 60, and she kept using Valkyrie and Golems to defeat Invaders. At the end, she had 5 gold and 1 blue invaders. I had 4 blue and 1 gold.

She had 24 glory points and I had 21. Why? All of my Invaders had their Campaign fulfilled, and she only had a Royal Mission card filled. To say the least, we were surprised on how close the match was because I thought she would roll all over us but she never did take any campaign cards.

Her impression of the game was "It's like Thunderstone except you aren't thinking of suicide"
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