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Originality is Overrated, Part Two - Tyrants of the Underdark and Deckbuilders with a Map - a Derivative (but Wonderful) Sub-genre

Anthony Faber
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In part one of this series, I discussed how 'originality' is considered by reviewers and veteran gamers as the ultimate compliment for a game, while 'stale' and 'derivative' are the kiss of death.

I took on the proposition that subtle innovations in 'derivative games' are often more useful forms of originality that grand new designs or mechanisms, and I examined Islebound in particular and Ryan Laukat's games in general as great examples of 'subtle originality' in derivative designs.

In part two, I'm going to dissect and praise another derivative game: Tyrants of the Underdark. If part one was a bit of a love letter to Ryan Laukat's games, part two is in praise of entire subgenre of games: the deckbuilder (or poolbuilder) with a map.

In 2008, Dominion created an entirely new genre by having players create a personal deck of cards that changed and improved over the course of the game, with each player's deck evolving to become more unique and powerful over the course of the game. Deckbuilders give a satisfying engine building experience in a much faster play experience than most euros can deliver, in that the entire engine is built into the deck.

In arguing here for the superiority of derivative designs, I'm arguing here that deckbuilders that give the added dimension of a map or board to manipulate give a huge new decision space for these games without adding much complexity, and add more player interaction into what can sometimes be a solitary genre.

'Pure' Deckbuilders


Let me be frank regarding my personal opinion of pure deckbuilders: I think they're a little dull. Don't get me wrong: I think the mechanism is one of the greatest mechanisms ever introduced into the board gaming world in allowing engine building with a high ratio of depth to complexity. But a great mechanism alone does not necessarily a great game make.

Because in the pure deckbuilder, the deckbuilding mechanism is literally the whole game, they can become repetitive after multiple plays once you know the card pool. Even the addition of additional resources like military power or buildings you can buy only prolong the novelty of the deckbuilding experience a little bit once the card pool is known and you've explored its possibilities.

This is why successful deckbuilders, always, without fail, have expansions. Dominion has survived and thrived for eight years because it's churned out expansions with regularity to keep the card pool and the decision space (because in a pure deckbuilder, the card pool IS the decision space) fresh.

Even with expansions, I've noticed what I call 'deckbuilder burnout'. You play a deckbuilder a whole bunch of times and it's really addictive, and then you suddenly reach a point where you say enough - it's not doing anything for you any more. The decisions, limited in dimension as they are, have become repetitive and stale once you are fully familiar with the card pool.

Here's the point in the form of a metaphor: deckbuilding is like sugar. It's sweet and addicitive, but by itself, ultimately unfulfilling. After you eat pure cane sugar straight out the bag for a while, the novelty wears off.

However, sugar can be used to make all sorts of wonderful tasty treats that take sweetness and texture and give them all kinds of extra depth and dimension in cookies, pies, cakes, brownies and so on.

Deckbuilders with a map

Which is where the deckbuilder with a board or map comes in. Deckbuilders, like any card game, lack a spatial component, and often (though not always) are a somewhat solitary experience - the person with the best engine wins. Even in combat oriented deckbuilders like Star Realms, the interaction tends to be at best linear. Counter what they are doing or die. Get the best cards before the other player.

With a multiplayer board, the possibilities multiply almost endlessly. Before we get to our feature title, here are some other examples deckbuilders with a board or map that use the gameplay mechanisms provided by the map to create something new.

Orleans is perhaps the best known and most highly regarded of these titles, and yet perhaps the one least likely to come to mind in that it's not a card game. 'Bag builders' do the same thing without a deck of cards, and Orleans is a bag builder that allows you to interact with other players to compete for resources and towns to put guildhalls out on a map. There are other boards where you compete with other players as well, a technology point multiplier track that gives bonuses to the first player to reach certain milestones, and other tracks that give bonuses for the first player to get a certain number of workers of a given type.

Thus the workers in your bag, your 'deck', are in essence your resources for competing in a point salad euro game. If you like point salad euro games and you like deckbuilders, this game is your dream, in that it scratches both itches and multiplies the possibilities of each.

Trains is a 'map deckbuilder' that hews close to the Dominion formula, using the same fixed card pools that change each game. The map allows you to play cards that build connected train tracks or stations, with stations in cities awarding a large share of the game's points, but you can only build stations by linking tracks to the city. Interaction comes from the high cost of building a track or a station where someone else has already built their own track or station.

Clank is a deckbuilder where the map is that of a dungeon - the hybrid here is deckbuilding + dungeon crawl + push your luck to get out with the most treasure before a dragon kills you. It pushes the formula even further by bringing in even more varied mechanisms into the deckbuilding world (or the other way around).

There are many more examples of the deckbuilder with a map mashup. Automobiles combines bag building with racing cars around a track. A Few Acres of Snow brings deckbuilding to the two player conflict genre. Super Motherload combines deckbuilding with tile laying to collect resources and meet common objectives. Hyperborea combines bag building with a map to allow exploration, war, trade, etc.

While all of these games are derivative designs that have added a map or board to a deckbuilder, all of them feel very different to play. All of them have enough of what I'm calling 'subtle innovations' to feel like their entirely their own game.

Fight for the Underdark

Let's focus in on Tyrants of the Underdark. Like Trains, this game combines deckbuilding with chaining pieces of your color to control areas. Unlike Trains, the game has actual conflict. You aren't just paying more to go where another player has pieces - you actually have to kill other players' pieces before you can place your own there. Set in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms unviverse, each player is the ruler of a Drow house that is scheming to take over the Underdark, which is a fitting theme for a cutthroat area control game.

It uses Ascension style, random market card buying to give you cards that have that familiar buying power/combat power split - buying power for more cards, and combat power now is for board manipulation. Each point of combat power allows you to place a troop, and three points of power allows you to kill an enemy troop.

Text specific card powers allow you to kill more troops, move enemy troops, place troops, devour cards (trash them), give insane outcasts (think wounds from Legendary or Trash from Train - useless cards you don't want) or 'promote' cards out the game. This final mechanism is like entombment in Valley of the Kings, in that promoted cards are worth a lot more points, but by promoting a high value card for a lot of endgame points you are taking one of your most useful cards out of the game.

You'll notice that most of the elements I've mentioned above are not new - this is clearly a derivative design that borrows shamelessly from other popular deckbuilders.

However, beyond the simple combination of deckbuilding with direct area control conflict on a map, there are a number of what I call 'subtle innovations' - rules twists that don't wow you at first glance, but create a lot of opportunities for unique decisions:

1) There are neutral troops that serve as patsies and early game obstacles that players must eliminate in order to get points for many territories. This enhances the decision space in that there are cards that you can buy that are very effective at removing these neutral troops, and early in the game, they will give you a strong leg up in controlling areas. However, late in the game, as most of the neutral troops are killed off, these cards start to become dead weight.

2) The game has a spy mechanism where some cards allow you to place spies in any area. Ordinarily you only kill enemy troops or place your own in locations where you've chained your troops to, but spies break this rule, allowing you to kill and place wherever you've placed the spy. Moreover, spies combo with some cards - there are effects where you can remove one or more of your own spies for a huge reward.

Beyond combo play, spies open up a way of impacting the action on any part of the board, rather than being limited to a static front.

3) While most locations are scored for control at the end of the game, some of them give you buy power and a point or two at the end of every turn if you control them. This gives a very focused objective to go after, and it also gives a very focused location for enemy aggression - players know if they go after these locations, opponents are likely to fight them there, since allowing someone to have these locations uncontested means they will rack up a ton of points (and buy power) over the long haul, and likely win the game, all things being equal.

By incentivizing these locations, both to control and prevent others from having control, it removes much of the effective randomness that can occur in multiplayer conflict games. Rational players won't be just attacking someone for the heck of it, they'll be attacking them to score immediate points, or prevent the other player from doing so. Players can then make interesting decisions on whether they want to fight for those points, or go for a more of a point buying or card promotion strategy.

While none of these little innovations sound extraordinary, they are completely absent from pure deckbuilders, since they all flow from the play on the board. And this is what the board does - it's not something mindblowing or new - it simply multiplies the possibilities and the decisions available.

When you're optimizing your Dominion deck, for instance, you are helped by a clear end goal - your deck is ultimately a vehicle to points, though it may sometimes take a circuitous route. In Tyrants, the optimal deck is less clear as this depends entirely on the board state and what you want it to accomplish. Pursuing card buys and promotion may be brilliant or terrible, depending on whether you have the freedom on the board to get away with it. In a pure deckbuilder, there is less interaction, so a deck's ultimate worth stands more on its own. The interactive board muddies the waters.

None of this is to say that Tyrants of the Underdark is a perfect game. The random market, like in any Ascension style deckbuilder, may favor one player and cause runaway leader problems, which feel worse because losers are being hammered on a board and not just abstractly via point counting at the end. Even with the fun of the board, the four decks included are limited enough that the game doesn't escape the deckbuilder need for expansions. And finally, the ho hum graphic design and relatively high price point may prevent it becoming a commercial hit.

However, none of these deficiencies have anything to do with its lack of originality. And the game makes up for them with ease of play, balance, and pure vicious fun that fits the Drow theme. It's clear that relentless playtesting went into this design, which while not sexy or original, has served to take most of the bumps out of the gameplay. It's not surprising that Tyrants' design team also produced Lords of Waterdeep, a similarly playable and yet 'unoriginal' design, in itself probably worthy of a chapter in this series.

And while derivative games like Tyrants of the Underdark may not get the pulses of critics or veteran BGGers racing the way more 'original' designs do, ordinary folks will play and love them, over and over again.

Next time we'll examine the opposite - some new, truly 'original' games that critics have raved about, and why they may not be entirely fun to play.

Notes

1) If you love Dominion and other pure deckbuilders that I've disparaged a bit for being one dimensional, more power to you. My main point isn't to knock these games, but to show that by adding another main gameplay mechanism - in this case, area control - new dimensions of play and decision making are introduced, in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way. Look, the deckbuilding in Dominion is considerably more intricate and enthralling than the deckbuilding in Tyrants, but Tyrants acquires new gameplay dimensions simply by combining it with a different mechanism.

2) There are of course many, many other deckbuilder hybrids beyond deckbuilding with a map. There are tableau builder/deckbuilder hybrids, co-op deckbuilders, and games that have deckbuilding as one of many game mechanisms, to the point that it's questionable whether it's appropriate to call these games 'deckbuilders' any more. If you like some other hybrid breed of deckbuilders better, wonderful. The deckbuilder/map hybrid merely provides an easy way of talking about the benefits of derivative, evolutionary design.
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