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Subject: Codex - A Detailed Mechanical Review rss

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Stephen Keller
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Full Disclosure
I am a huge fan of David Sirlin's game designs and have done volunteer work for him in the past in terms of doing some writing, community management, and media relations. However I'm not being paid to write this; it represents my honest opinion. Nobody at Sirlin Games has read this review in advance or had any idea I was writing it. I contribute to Sirlin's Patreon each month and am happy to do so (so really this is the opposite of getting paid). I'm going into this as a pretty big fan, but I hope the review should make it clear that you should also be a big fan.

In a nutshell...
Codex may be my favorite game ever. Do you like CCGs or LCGs? How about deckbuilders? How about real-time strategy videogames? Or maybe just 2-player competitive games that are deep, balanced, and full of gameplay? Then you need to try Codex. It's kinda sorta like a lot of other games but also a unique experience. If you read this review or others you'll find lots of comparisons to other games (Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, Netrunner, Dominion, Puzzle Strike, Warcraft 3, StarCraft, Mage Wars, etc.) because Codex has a lot of elements that are reminiscent of other games.

When you play it, however, it is a bit like eating a gourmet meal -- if you focus you can taste the individual flavors, but the whole experience is so much more than the sum of the ingredients. Like you'd expect from a great chef, there's a few things in it that are completely new and surprising. And much like eating is hard to put into words, the experience of playing Codex is also hard to describe. Though that won't stop me from spending several thousand words trying.

But just in case it's not clear, Codex offers a fresh competitive gameplay experience that's unmatched by any other card game I've ever played.

The Question
If you just want to know about how the game works, skip down or read some other reviews. I'm not going to spend time talking about components either, as this is based on print-and-play and prototypes I've playtested so I haven't seen the final components (I have every reason they'll be of very high quality based on previous games published by Sirlin Games). I've played probably around 50 matches which might be a lot for most games but feels like I'm barely scratching the surface of this one. I'd love to play more but that's been limited by my time (young children make gaming tough) and I'm so excited by the fact that the game is finally close to release so finding opponents will be easier in the future. Still, I think I have enough experience with it to speak accurately about how much I love it.

This game matters a lot to me, and I believe that Codex is important and worth your time for its ideas as much as anything else. And explaining what's special about those ideas is going to take some time, and it's going to mean that I focus almost exclusively on mechanics.

Codex is a game that David Sirlin (Puzzle Strike, Yomi, Flash Duel) has been developing for more than a decade. I first played a playtest version back in August 2012 and though the game has changed considerably since then the core concepts have remained. It was actually reading Sirlin's writing about Codex and his design philosophy that first made me really want to check out his games.

To help you understand the appeal of this design philosophy on a personal level, let me take a detour. I was around for the CCG-mania that dominated the hobby in the mid '90s after the success of Magic. I was 12 when I got into MtG back in 1994 and was obsessed with the game for a few years. Organized play was much less organized then than it is now, but I played regularly with friends and in non-sanctioned tournaments at my FLGS.

I spent every cent I had on cards, and not just for Magic. Name a CCG released between '94 and '97 and I probably bought at least a starter pack (I remember trying hard to sell my friends on the notion that the Sim City CCG was totally rad! Look at these long cards!). After a while, I burned out. It wasn't just the crappy CCGs; even MtG which I still loved playing began to feel a little weird to me.

In particular, I began to wonder why I had to keep buying tons of new cards. It wasn't the expense in itself I minded necessarily, as I was happy to spend all my cash on something I loved, but the fact that just as soon as I started feeling like I understood all the combinations of cards and decks everything changed with a new influx of cards as new sets came out. I was still having fun with the old cards! To make matters worse, the dominant tournament format (then called "Type II" and now just called "Standard") basically just said "you can't play with your old cards at all."

I understand that this makes sense. The basic business model is built around selling you lots of new cards, and from a design perspective it's just impossible to allow players access to thousands (or tens of thousands) of possible cards to use all at once in making their decks. So the solution is to phase out older cards over time, because otherwise it would be totally inaccessible to new players and probably too complex for even most veterans.

But I really wanted a game that would let me play with cards I liked for a long time. If you have a deck you love, why shouldn't you be able to play it for years? Chess doesn't need to add new pieces every year but people have played it for a long time. Go is even simpler and still produces deep gameplay. I wanted a game that offered that kind of depth with the sort of gameplay and deckbuilding decisions I loved about CCGs. I had to ask myself, "Why isn't there a game that's fun like a CCG but lets me keep my cards?"

The result was I sort of drifted away from CCGs. I'd pop in every now and then but the magic was gone. I played more video games and discovered Eurogames and RPGs and got into the boom of great tabletop games we've had over the last 10-15 years. My CCG question was sort of there in the back of my mind but I didn't really think about it too much.

It turns out somebody else asked that same question, and that somebody else was game designer David Sirlin. And instead of just ignoring the question like I did, he spent a decade figuring out how to answer it. It took me about 20 years to get the answer to that question I had.

Codex is that game.


It looks like a CCG. It feels like a CCG. But it's something new.

The Problem
CCGs (and their more recent offspring, LCGs) have a few qualities that work against the goal of "being deep without adding new cards" that I didn't realize were problems until I read some of Sirlin's old blog posts about the development of Codex. One of the fundamental issues is they way they offer asymmetry: each player builds a deck (usually around 60 cards) before the match starts. Deckbuilding is largely unconstrained; players can combine cards in almost any way they want.

This sounds great at first, and was one of the things that made CCGs popular in the first place. But the problem is that almost unlimited choice is a trap. Very quickly you find that you make the Rock Deck which always crushes Scissors Deck but gets smothered by Paper Deck. Knowing what sorts of decks you're likely to see at any given time (Scissors is really popular, so I need to bring Rock to the tournament this week) gives rise to a metagame that means you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what your opponents might do before the match starts.

In fact it turns out that the metagame starts eclipsing the game itself. At high-level play, the universe of endless deck choices collapses into a small number of viable decks, and your deck better be able to stand up against the most popular ones. It also means you'll frequently play boring matches where one side is greatly favored over the other which isn't really that fun for either player. And because deckbuilding happens entirely outside of live play, it means the optimal way to play is just to go online and find decklists put together by top players -- meaning that as an intermediate player who takes the game seriously you're basically just playing matches that don't have a ton of interesting decisions in them.

And if a particular deck is really good compared to others? Well, that's ok, because the next release of cards in a few weeks may totally obsolete it anyway!

Modern "deckbuilders" (like Dominion) have dealt with this problem by moving the deckbuilding metagame into the game itself. Instead of being stuck with a deck you selected before the match, you start with a minimal deck of cards that you can customize in response to your opponent's moves. This is really fun, and Sirlin has made a great fun game in this style called Puzzle Strike, but deckbuilders are really a different style of game than a CCG. The deckbuilding is usually almost the entire game, getting rid of the tactical and strategic decisions (valuation, tempo, card advantage) that a combat-oriented CCG like MtG or Hearthstone has.

The Solution
With Codex, these two styles are merged more closely than I would've thought possible in an unexpected metaphor: real-time strategy videogames. In a game like StarCraft, you pick your faction and then make buildings which let you produce units and other buildings. You have access to a wide variety of buildings and units, but in any given match you'll just build a small number of them. The order in which you construct buildings shapes your whole gameplan, and the metagame becomes about knowing the various build orders for each faction and trying to predict -- and counter -- what your opponent does based on what you see them building. It's a dynamic metagame with tons of opportunities for bluffs, deception, and other fun strategic play. In fact, the dynamics of RTS (focused on build order within a game rather than deckbuilding before) mapped onto a card game neatly fix a bunch of the issues in CCGs.

So Codex follows that metaphor by asking you to pick 3 heroes from a pool of 20, each of which comes with a deck of 12 unique cards. This is akin to picking your faction in StarCraft as the cards associated with each hero form your in-game "codex," a deck of 36 unique cards that you keep in a binder. Heroes are color coded into 7 colors (red, green, blue, black, white, purple, and brown) and you'll pick a 10-card starting deck that matches the colors of one of your heroes.


Your heroes dictate the makeup of your codex, and then as the game goes on you add cards from your codex into your active deck

This means that the entire gigantic deckbuilding metagame of a normal CCG (which may mean picking 20 unique cards from a pool of hundreds) is compressed to four decisions: three heroes and a starting deck. If you really want to simplify things, you get a bonus for playing heroes of the same color, so it's trivial to just say "I want the three green heroes and the green starting deck."

I've taught the game to about 15 people at this point, and this alone makes it vastly easier to teach than your average CCG. I just show a new player the colors and tell them to pick whichever one they like; later on we can worry about mixing and matching. There is also a starter mode where you each just pick one hero, though personally I've found I'm able to teach the 3 hero mode just fine. If you and your opponent are both brand new, though, it's probably the best place to start.

Getting Started
OK, you've got 3 heroes, a 36-card Codex (actually you have two copies of each card so it's 64 cards total in your Codex and 36 unique cards), and a 10-card starting deck. Each player shuffles their starting deck, draws 5 cards, and the game begins.

The first thing you're likely to do is play a worker. Workers form your resource pool in Codex; each turn you get 1 gold for each worker you have in play. Cards from your hand usually cost gold to play, so they're roughly analogous to lands in MtG (and very analogous to workers in an RTS game like Warcraft). The first player starts with 4 workers and the second player with 5.

But aside from those initial worker cards which you place when setting up the game, there are no dedicated resource cards. Instead, to add a worker to your resource pool, you spend 1 gold and play any card from your hand face down. This has a few really neat consequences:

1. You're guaranteed to get a worker each turn if you want (no mana screw)!

2. The cost of 1 gold and a card to build a worker is a real opportunity cost which forces you to weigh investment in long-term economic advantage against spending money on units or heroes who might be of more immediate help.

3. Cards that you turn into workers are removed from your deck, allowing you to make your deck thinner and more efficient as you cycle through it.

4. Those removed cards? They're played face down, meaning your opponent just lost information about your deck. They don't know what you played as a worker, so they have less knowledge about your capabilities than they did a second ago.

You see that from the very start a decision that might be automatic in another game -- yeah, really gotta debate whether I want to play this swamp or not -- offers you real, meaningful choice in Codex. Conversely, when an opponent doesn't play a worker on turn one, they're telegraphing a ton of information to you (probably that they're going to invest in military units and you better get your defenses ready) and it's up to you to figure out how to respond.

Making Choices
Most of the turn proceeds in a way that should be a little bit familiar to CCG and/or RTS players. You spend gold to play cards from your hand or to summon your heroes (who start off to the side in a "command zone" waiting to be hired). You can spend gold to level up summoned heroes, giving them better stats and abilities. If you have at least 6 workers (so player 2 can do this on turn 1 if they want), you may spend gold to build a tech building that will allow you to produce better units later on.

Notice again the careful and meaningful game design that dictates the options you have at this stage of the game:

1. You drew 5 cards to start from your 10-card starter deck. That means you've seen half your deck and you will likely draw the rest of the deck at the end of your turn. The luck of the opening draw can dictate a huge part of a gameplan in an average CCG, but here that variance is minimized by the small deck size.

2. Even if, for whatever reason, you don't like any of your options in your hand, you can always summon a hero and spend gold on it.

3. If you do like your hand, you can totally ignore your heroes and just get units or other cards from your hand. You can also play cards from your hand and spend gold on heroes.

4. And because you start with 4 or 5 workers and thus 4 or 5 gold, you have the resources to actually make some real choices on your first turn. You don't have to just play the only 1-drop you drew like in other CCGs.

5. Still not happy? Then ok, you can also save your gold (up to a maximum of 20), so if you'd prefer to incur some immediate risk for a later payoff you have that option. Note: don't do this unless you have a really good reason, as if you get killed with gold in your bank, you still get killed.

Combat
This is a lot of decision making before you've even, you know, attacked your opponent! Most units and heroes have summoning sickness so they can't do much attacking on the turn you play them, but cards with Haste can attack right away. Mechanically, combat uses tried and true CCG mechanics: heroes and units have attack and health ratings and deal damage. If a card's health drops to 0 or lower, it dies (units go to your discard pile and heroes go to your command zone where you must wait a turn to rehire them).


The patrol zone is one of the major innovations in the game; attackers must first deal with patrollers before attacking other targets

Once you're done with your turn you have two final steps. First, you can assign units or heroes to your "patrol zone," which is a neat innovation that allows Codex to have some of the deep tactical considerations Magic does in allowing defending players to assign blockers, while still allowing for faster-paced asynchronous gameplay that doesn't have to worry about timing rules and an associated stack. Before you pass to your opponent, you can assign units or heroes into patrol slots, each of which carries a special bonus on your opponent's turn: the Squad Leader gets a point of armor that negates the first damage they'd otherwise take, the Elite gets +1 attack, the Scavenger gives its owner 1 gold if it gets killed, etc.

When you attack the enemy, you have to first attack patrollers (starting with the Squad Leader if one exists). You might really want to attack their juicy tech building to stop them from building advanced units, but first you have to burn valuable attacks killing off 1/1 skeleton tokens who are in the patrol zone -- and you may be giving the opponent cards and gold in doing so! It also creates another interesting game system for cards to interact with: abilities can sideline patrollers (moving them out of the patrol zone), or sneak past them with stealth, or bypass them with flying (though watch out for anti-air units).

Deckbuilding Revisited
The final thing you do is to discard your hand and draw a new one. The number of cards you draw depends on the number of cards you discarded (the more you discard, the more you draw). This allows the concept of "card advantage" from CCGs to remain in Codex (cards in hand are a valuable resource so you don't want to run out of them) while also allowing for constant cycling that's needed to make deckbuilding work. If you run out of cards and need to draw more, you'll shuffle your discard pile and draw from that (limited to once per main phase of your turn to prevent weird endless draw engines).

This actually brings us to the final final part of your turn, though technically it kind of happens after your opponent's turn. Basically the last thing you do is take 2 cards from your codex and place them facedown in your discard pile. You don't have to lock in your choices until your opponent finishes their turn, so you can react to what they do, but as a practical matter you can get your cards ready while they take their turn. This helps keep the game moving along pretty quickly.

By "teching" 2 cards from your codex each turn (you can stop when you have 10 workers), you're building your deck as you play. It's just like your build order in an RTS: you have 36 possible cards you can choose from, but in any given game you're just going to select a subset of them. Those choices will be influenced by your and your opponent's actions earlier in the game and you're not locked into a deck selection you thought of last week.

This is the heart and soul of codex, the ability to bring asymmetric "decks" or codexes to the table (probably you and your opponent have different heroes) but not be stuck with totally broken matchups. Let's say you're playing the three blue heroes and want to go with a heavy control deck emphasized by the "Law" spec in blue, but your opponent shows early aggression. You can, by making good tech choices, pivot from pure control to the illusion-oriented "Truth" spec instead and get access to a bunch of a cheap illusions that can allow you to stall for time a bit until your superior economy allows you to win.

Of course your opponent may realize you're doing this and choose instead to pivot from their strategy to something else. Heck, maybe their early aggression was a feint to get you to overcommit to illusions. It's almost like playing a CCG where you can just switch decks midstream! (A more accurate but less fun comparison I've seen Sirlin make is to a CCG where you have a small deck and a giant sideboard.)

There's something real subtle about the constrained deckbuilding that's really important to call out: you can't make a crappy deck. You're not allowed to mix and match cards freely to make up your codex. You have to pick heroes and combine their specs together. Each spec is designed to stand on its own and have a variety of tools. Even in the 1-hero starter mode, you'll never tech every card from your hero's 12-card spec into your active deck, so you always have more options than you'll use. This guarantees that you always have a lot of options against your opponent no matter what cards they start with in their codex or which cards they tech during the game.

And it's ultimately this that answers the question I first asked myself 20 years ago: how can we have a CCG that's fun for a long time without new cards? Codex demonstrates rather powerfully that the answer relies around making sure each player has diversity of options at the start of the game with the ability to adjust their current deck as the game goes on.


Surprise! It's a shark!

Wrapping Up
So that's basically the core of the gameplay. Get gold, play workers, summon and level heroes, play cards, construct buildings so you can play more powerful cards, attack stuff, assign patrollers, discard & draw, and tech. This review is ridiculously long and there's tons of great stuff I haven't even touched on, like the fact that each hero and their associated spec has a distinct personality (from silly stuff like the anarchist Zane's surprise sharks to the deadly serious Vandy Androse, Queen of Demons, and her powerful units that can work against their owner as much as their opponent). Or that there's a really interesting tension between teching units or teching spells (which require heroes to cast and thus can temporarily become dead cards if your opponent can defeat your heroes in battle, sending them back to the command zone). Or the fact that Codex doesn't make you gamble for good cards by spending huge sums of cash on random packs. Or the fact that the totally asynch gameplay means it's great for play by post/forum. Or or or...

I think probably I've written enough. I didn't mean to, but I started writing and the words kept coming. I love this game! It's full of interesting, fun, decisions. It has balanced gameplay that doesn't automatically favor one player over the other. It has depth and choice and variety.

It's a game I've been waiting 20 years for somebody to make.
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John DeLuxe
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Wow, that was long. But a surprisingly easy read.

You touched on something that I'd hope would turn a lot of people on to Codex - it completely eliminates netdecking. A lot of people (including me) love constructing decks, but feel frustrated that to be competitive, the best option is to take a decklist from the web. And, as you say, that takes a lot of the skill out of a CCG - there's a reason that most MtG articles are about decklists rather than play decisions.

I imagine that Codex strategy will be a lot more like Starcraft: you'll have half a dozen "build orders" that you're familiar with, but after the first few turns you'll be into the midgame and adapting on the fly.
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Dan Bradshaw
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Stephen, thanks for the best explanation I've found about Codex. I love Yomi and Puzzle Strike (though I'll admit to not playing them seriously) and it's clear that Codex looks like an amazing experience. I'm sold.
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Stephen Keller
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beakachu wrote:
You touched on something that I'd hope would turn a lot of people on to Codex - it completely eliminates netdecking.


It's definitely a cool feature. I was just talking to a friend the other day who's way into Hearthstone lately and he was saying his favorite part is deckbuilding. I was lamenting that I long ago gave up on that because I just know that the optimal play is to go look at decklists put together by better players. If I'm not doing that I feel like I'm not playing correctly.

Quote:
I imagine that Codex strategy will be a lot more like Starcraft: you'll have half a dozen "build orders" that you're familiar with, but after the first few turns you'll be into the midgame and adapting on the fly.


Exactly! I've practiced tons of build orders in StarCraft and despite finding good advice on when to build things, it's more like a foundation than an exact list of things to do as soon as you've left the early game.
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Stephen Keller
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Thanks Dan, glad it was helpful. I'm not great at games myself so while I've played a fair amount of Yomi/PS I'm maybe an intermediate player at best. What I really appreciate about Sirlin's games is they work really well if you're a serious player even if you're not a good one. They support lots of analysis and discussion which I love reading even if I'm not personally going to play at that level.
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Alan Kwan
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Quote:
It's a game I've been waiting 20 years for somebody to make.


Me too, have been on the watch for games which fix M:tG all these years. Jyhad/Vampire and Netrunner were academically interesting designs, but practically too niche. Had fun with a few CCGs, especially inexpensive electronic versions, but never bought much beyond starter decks physically and just couldn't see anything really worth investing into.
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