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Codex: Card-Time Strategy – Deluxe Set» Forums » Reviews

Subject: A comparative mechanical review rss

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Alan Kwan
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In this article, I'll be focusing on the game mechanisms. I have only played a few games with the starter set, so I don't have much to say about the different colors and specs, nor the standard 3 vs. 3 format. This is actually more a preview than a true review, because most of the opinions here were formed from reading the rules, before playing my first game. The session didn't change my opinions much; I'll talk about the actual experience at the end. I'm assuming that the reader has some knowledge of the game rules, or otherwise can look them up from the official source. I'm doing lots of comparisons with other games, and might even talk about other games more than Codex itself.

Often we see a game with some innovative or neat mechanism, but alongside that the game also has problem areas, issues which hinder the playing experience and render the game only good or OK, instead of being really great. Personally, I have a soft spot for games which well address those issues of a previous game. While I value innovation, I also value solid, sound mechanisms, and I believe that this is a staple part of the process through which we get better and better games.

For example, I gave Trains an early favorable review because it addressed a problem in Dominion, namely its uni-dimensional winning condition (of raising 7G to buy 6VP cards). I called Favor of the Pharaoh a 'miraculous improvement' over its predecessor, To Court the King, for addressing its many issues. So how about Codex? This game, as I see it, addresses many issues in so many different games all at once that it isn't funny. Many things which other games did wrong, Codex does it right. Many things that other games did well, Codex does it even better. It's even a scary thing that any game ever accomplishes that. Codex is not a miracle. It is many miracles in one.

The three obvious roots of Codex are CCGs (starting from Magic: the Gathering), deckbuilding games (Dominion started it all), and computer real-time strategy games. When M:tG first came out, many were fascinated by the customizable concept, which was indeed a neat concept, I agree. But I also quickly saw some deep problems in that game's play mechanisms, so I was never a fan. One was "mana screw": in order to cast anything, you need mana, and you need spells. Both mana (land) and spells come from your draw deck, so it's a matter of luck whether you draw the right amount of mana vs. spell so that you can play things. Excess mana or excess spells (without enough mana to cast them) you draw become dead cards.

Even though Garfield himself dropped mana cards in his following works, Jyhad/Vampire and Netrunner (which are noteworthy games in their own rights), many CCGs blindly followed M:tG down the path of the mana screw. One okay approach which some games used is to abolish mana cards as a card type, and allow any card to be played as a mana card. This same approach is also being used in Codex, yet here it is better because playing a "worker" is a more involved decision: you also need to pay one gold (which is a tight resource), and the worker card is thereby taken out of your recycling deck (deckbuiler aspect). So both "should I play a worker?" and "what card to use as the worker?" are meaningful and often difficult decisions.

Mana screw is bad because, before you can play any interesting and fun combo effects, you need to draw the right combo of cards to meet the prerequisites in order to play anything at all. It brings in a pointless luck element which displaces the player's skill. Many CCGs, outside the mana cost, also have prerequisites for playing many cards (especially the stronger ones) in the form of certain cards you need to draw. For example, in Pokemon TCG, you need to draw the base Pokemon in order to play the evolved versions; in Cardfight Vanguard, you need to draw the cards of each grade in order to have a 'smooth ride' ("ride accidents" in that game was so bad a problem, that they eventually had to add a clumsy rule called "G assist" to help the unlucky player); in Yu-gi-oh (a very bad CCG), you need to sacrifice several low-rarity monsters in order to play a high-rarity one. Those games are so luck-screwy. How about Codex? This game does have prerequisites for playing cards, namely, you need your hero to play spells, and you need tech buildings to play units. The good thing is, neither heroes nor tech buildings come from your draw deck. They are always available, and you just pay the gold cost to play them. But, there is one major exception case where the hero or tech building becomes not so available for a little while. And that is when the thing gets blown up by your opponent's attacks. So Codex fixes the luck screwage and replaces it with direct player interaction screwage. Any gamer worth his salt knows that this is sweet; this is what a game (at least a 2-player one) should be!

One aspect which aggravates the mana screw problem in M:tG is card flow. In Magic, you draw one card per turn, and can draw more only with specific spell effects. Because you have both mana and spells in your deck, this means you're drawing an average of less than one playable spell per turn. This just sucks. (It is worth noting that Garfield himself totally reversed this aspect in his next game, Jyhad, by letting the player draw a card immediately for every card he plays.) Card count becomes the supreme defining resource, and mana is largely excessive and irrelevant as long as you have enough to play the largest spell in your hand. Also, the early cards were so broken that they quickly had to add deck construction restrictions. They forced the player to use an over-sized deck with many different cards, so that they cannot reliably draw their broken combos. The broken combos were still there; they were just masked by the luck of the draw. In other words, they tried to dilute brokeness by injecting more brokeness.

As a consequence, most CCGs after Magic also tend to have excessive luck of the draw. A few games go the other extreme, by giving the player access to his entire deck all the time. Codex is sweet because it gives you just the right dose of luck, by adopting Dominion's deckbuilding format. One typically draws a half or a third of his deck every turn, so it feels just right. Another nice point (which other reviewers have also mentioned) is that your small deck contains mostly the cards good for the current phase of the game: in the early game, the late game powerhouses (which are yet unplayable) are not in your deck yet, while in the late game, most weak starting cards would have been taken out of your deck, into the worker pile. So your draw is usually good.

Codex's card draw is good in many other ways, despite the simplicity of the rule, namely that at the end of your turn, you discard your entire hand, and draw back the same number of cards plus 2, up to a maximum hand of 5. The player usually wants to maintain the full hand size to maximize his card flow, so often one would play just one card out of the 5, while making another a worker. The rest are discarded and recycled. This means several things. First, there is often a real choice as to which card to play (in many CCGs it's often automatic to just play everything you can). This aspect is similar to Race for the Galaxy, which is a fine game I appreciate much, but Codex does it better because the deck is customized and tighter. Second, this system encourages the player to try more situational cards, because a dead card is not that big of a deal, as it can be readily recycled (if not used as a worker). A game with more situational plays is naturally more varied and fun than a game in which everyone has to play the staple sound-value cards all the time, you know. Third, in a pinch one can spend more cards (sacrificing his future card flow). This aspect is interestingly similar to a Japanese CRPG called Bravely Default. In that game, a character in battle can "brave" to borrow a future turn to do more things now. I've long burned out on JCRPGs and found Bravely Default rather boring when playing the trial version, and couldn't feel excited or inspired to play the full versions. Yet I find Codex highly inspiring and exciting (evidently). In this sense, Codex is Bravely Default done right (by being an exciting CCG rather than a boring JCRPG). Fourth, since you can replenish your hand size only by 2 each turn, card count (card advantage) is a factor, but it is not overly dominating, because after all you do draw and cycle more cards than 2. This factor also contributes to making the play of a worker a tight decision.

One (initial) design aim of M:tG was to make the game playable with just the cards alone, so the need for other tokens and markers was avoided. For this reason, mana usage was tracked by "tapping" the land cards, and unspent mana would be lost at the end of the turn. Unfortunately, this system tends to aggravate the luck of the draw: if you don't draw the right cards to play, your mana just goes to waste. Hearthstone follows this same system (with fixed mana growth instead of land cards), and uses it in a good way to restrict late-game powerhouse cards from being played too early, but it does make the luck of the draw feel rather heavy. Codex rightfully allows the player to accumulate unspent gold from turn to turn; the timing of late-game units is handled by the requirement that you need a certain number of workers to build the tech buildings. Mind you, this system serves more to give you fair value for your spare change (you have 6 gold and pay 5 to play cards, so you have 1 gold left over) than really allowing you to horde gold, since underplaying a turn and having a weak on-board presence can often be dangerous. The card draw and deckbuild system gives you good draws, so you usually have good plays in the cards you draw - unless your hero or tech building just got smoked (which is often dangerous). Also, the players begin the game with 4 or 5 workers instead of 1, so the game is a tight affair right from the start. Your gold serves to limit how many things you can do, rather than dictating what you can and cannot play, unlike the mana restrictions in Magic and Hearthstone.

M:tG also introduced a creature combat system which seemed simple and neat (a functional combat system without requiring a mapboard), but ultimately badly flawed in several ways. The basic system is that, when the attackers come rushing at your body/face, you can designate your creatures to "block" their attacks. This allows one to defend with his creatures. However, with this system, the defender effectively chooses all the match-ups, which tends to give him too big an advantage when both sides have several units, especially since non-fatal damage on creatures are automatically healed at the end of the turn (again, to avoid the need to use tokens). This discourages attacking unless one has clear creature superiority, and sometimes leads to large creature stalemates, until someone plays some spell to wipe the board. Sirlin has mentioned another issue, that while such system might be easy to explain, it is a pain to play, because the defender can choose too many different match-ups for the attacker to functionally evaluate the possible results of his attacking choices. Also because each defender, no matter how big it is, can block only one attacker, "weenie rush" (making lots of cheap creatures so that your opponent cannot block them all) tends to be too strong.

Creature combat turned out to be a weak aspect of M:tG. Many later games which use a similar combat system make significant changes to avoid its problems. For example, in some games the ability to block at all is limited to a small subset of creatures. Hearthstone goes the other extreme by allowing the attacker to designate all match-ups, and the defender can protect himself only if he has a "Taunt" creature. Thus in Hearthstone rushing is rather strong, and also it is hard to come back when one falls behind in "board control" (such as due to bad luck in card draws) because the opponent can probably trade advantageously with anything one puts down. Some designers, such as former M:tG champion Nakamura Satoshi, just use entirely different systems in their designs.

M:tG's system does have a few good points. One is that, when one summons a creature, it can block immediately on the following opponent's turn, yet the creatures the opponent newly summons cannot attack immediately. This gives defense a suitable tempo advantage; the problem is that in M:tG the defender gets other advantages too, and they add up to too much, so nobody wants to attack. Another advantage is the important decision of how much force to save for blocking vs. how much to attack with (as long as the board does not get into the 'stalemate' state). Sirlin labored long and hard to find the right combat system. He also wants an asynchronous system, one in which the player does not have to wait for his opponent to make any decisions during his turn, to facilitate online games. The solution he found is the patrol zone. The attackers must attack things in the patrol zone first, and only if they manage to wipe out the patrollers can remaining attackers go for the defender's buildings or other things. This system just does everything right. 1. The defender can defend with as much as he wants, just by putting things in the patrol zone. 2. The defender can protect whatever he wants by leaving them outside the patrol zone, provided that his patrol zone is tanky enough. 3. The attacker still picks the match-ups after all, giving aggression a suitable advantage and appropriate flavor. Also, the attacker can easily predict the results of his attacks, so it is very smooth to play. 4. Each space in the patrol zone grants the defender some small advantage, either an extra point of armor or attack, or a gold or card resource when the defender dies. This helps to balance against the attacker's advantage, and also the extra resource helps one to come back from behind. 5. The system is entirely asynchronous, as the defender has already made all his patrolling decisions on his own turn.

I've perhaps been talking too much about M:tG and CCGs; let's move on to deckbuilding games. When Dominion first came out, many gamers were very excited. Some even hailed Dominion as the next M:tG. But a large portion of the initial excitement cooled down rather quickly (including mine). It was because, while being a "deckbuilding" game, Dominion is not really "customizable"; while an okay game of its own right, Dominion does not offer the 'things' which a CCG offers. In typical CCGs, one can more or less freely choose cards of various power levels to include in his deck, while the play of powerful cards is regulated by the game's resource system (such as mana). Dominion does it the opposite way: in order to put cards into your deck, you need to buy them with gold, and once you have them, you can pretty much play them for free each time you draw them, and they provide benefits of various power levels for you (including more gold production) free of charge. So you need to get gold to buy better cards to make more gold. It doesn't help that the game's victory condition is primarily getting enough gold to buy those decisive 6VP cards; this makes the game very one-dimensional. The game tries to provide variability by giving the players a different selection of cards available for purchase each game. So, the game is really about looking at the market tableau, figuring out the most efficient purchase plan with that tableau, and trying to execute it. It's more about solving a different puzzle each game than about creating a 'customized' deck. That's an okay kind of game (would have been better if the goals were not so one-dimensional), but it does not have that CCG magic.

Yet Dominion did introduce the concept of putting together your deck while playing the game instead of before, though its other mechanisms failed to capitalize fully on that concept. Unfortunately, being the pioneer of the genre, most, if not all, of the other deckbuilding games followed it blindly. Until Codex sets it straight. Codex is the deckbuilding game done right.

Dominion's starting deck includes small 1G coins and several 1VP cards; these are weak or dead cards which the player usually wants to get rid of. But the ability to expel cards from your deck is limited to certain cards, and those cards may or may not be available in the current game. In contrast, Codex gives the player a starting deck of 10 unique cards, some of them with quite interesting effects. Plus there is a default mechanism for expelling cards, namely workers. It is not hard to see which makes for a more interesting game.

The most crucial difference all of the above big and little points make together is that, while most CCGs and deckbuilders are played largely on auto-pilot, with few non-trivial, meaningful decisions beyond the prepare-to-play or game-start respectively, Codex involves plenty of tight and meaningful decisions every turn. You're choosing what to play from a handful of good cards (because you chose what to put in your deck), but you can't play them all - oh wait, you can actually "brave" and play more ... The decisions are not only in the deckbuilding, they're in the playing too.

Codex calls itself "card-time strategy", meaning that it is a real-time strategy game played in card-game format. This description feels rather accurate: Codex includes many of the fun strategy elements of a real-time strategy game, so that players who dread mouse-click-fests and excessive micro-management (such as myself) can enjoy the good bits of that genre, and with card-time leisure rather than under real-time pressure, too. To such players, Codex is real-time strategy done right.

I played a few games with the print-and-play starter set. I normally hate to do print-and-play, preferring to buy a real commercial copy instead. But I just wanted to try out Codex now, so I had no choice but to sit down and do the craft.

It turned out that my first game gave me a headache, because I haven't played an offline M:tG-like game for a long time, and there was almost too much jousting with ATK/HP manipulation. But the second game went smoother when I had better familiarity with the cards. My friend felt that the game was too fiddly with too many chits; I though about it, and realized that I don't really need all those hero level chits:



I can also try this when something gets too many buffs:



This is not a very easy game, and one single playing might not do it justice.
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Big Sixer
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With your method, how do you distinguish between Troq level 4 or 6 for example?
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Alan Kwan
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Troq level 4: clip at top band (to represent "level 1"), and place "level 3" chit on him

Troq level 6: clip at middle band (to represent "level 5"), and place "level 1" chit on him
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Edouard Lorenceau
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Other suggestion: d8s. No hero goes over lvl 8.
I also think someone should make a file for a sort of "decoder ring"-style health+levels tracker
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Alan Kwan
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The very nice thing with the clip is that, it tells you at a glance what ATK/HP stats to look at for the hero. (That's why it's on the right side of the card, instead of the left.) The d8 handily replaces the chits, but doesn't provide this benefit.

You might not notice the benefit, but it's really helpful to CCG novices, or those spoiled by online games (such as Hearthstone).
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Nicolas Daoust
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Alan Kwan wrote:
Many things which other games did wrong, Codex does it right. Many things that other games did well, Codex does it even better.

I, too had that feeling just reading the rules. Your article is a fascinating dissection of why we both felt so.
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Ben Kyo
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Forward 1, Forward 2, Forward 3... siege attack 5?
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Why for this life there's no man smart enough, life's too short for learning every trick and bluff.
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It honestly just sounds like you rewrote all the talking points that Sirlin himself writes up. Despite all the talk, I think it can only be proven through play, so I'll probably PnP the starter set myself.
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Niccolò Ricchio
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besides the fact that i've been hugely delighted by every sirlin game i tried, the mere fact that the author could identify and explain all these design problems so easily gives me faith in the game.
 
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Alan Kwan
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Benkyo wrote:
It honestly just sounds like you rewrote all the talking points that Sirlin himself writes up. Despite all the talk, I think it can only be proven through play, so I'll probably PnP the starter set myself.


Honestly, I did read a few of Sirlin's articles, but not most of them. I had not been following his forums, etc. for years. I got informed (e-mail?) a week ago that Sirlin has Codex on Kickstarter, so I checked out the Kickstarter page, read the sales pitch, read the game rules, and then went on and read a few of his design articles (mostly the recent ones). The older ones I stumbled upon were not easy reads for me, because they talked about previous forms of the game which I don't know about.
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K
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Benkyo wrote:
It honestly just sounds like you rewrote all the talking points that Sirlin himself writes up. Despite all the talk, I think it can only be proven through play, so I'll probably PnP the starter set myself.


I don't agree, I've read most of the stuff Sirlin's put out about the game and this review brings up some good points that I wasn't consciously aware of and I found it a good read. I didn't think of many of the advantages of the design decisions pointed out here and comparisons to MtG, and I never saw Sirlin write about them in such detail either (even if he's aware of them)
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Alan Kwan
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Well, regardless of whether Sirlin is consciously aware of these comparisons, he couldn't have been spelling out all the comparisons too explicitly (naming all those games being compared against), because that's bad form for his position as game designer. As a reviewer, it's fit for me to say all these things.

If our points are too similar, it's probably because "great minds think alike".
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Kris Verbeeck
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Thank you for the good read.

I think you mean brokenness instead of brokeness

Dominion : It is 8 VP for 6 gold instead of 7. It is not as uni dimensional as you make it out to be. Some card combinations are low on income and the game end is triggered because of depleting 3 stacks.
I like trains a lot because it has a map. The map offers some space for confrontation. But to me they are different games that scratch different itches.

I am happy with your end paragraph because up at that point it was rather "uni dimensional". and it almost read as an advert.

I decided to go all in allthough I don't play a lot of 2 players.
Because by reading the rules I am pretty much convinced that the different heroes and the codex itself allows for a wealth of different games even if the matchup appears the same.
The only thing missing (for me) is a codex timer. I don't want my heroes to be bored to death by slow players.

codex might break away from the matchups and metagame because if Mr Sirlin is right it is enormously balanced.
I mean with that that it is no given who will win if you see a certain matchup.
Alas that is often the case in hearthstone matchups. and i am not talking about 6-4 win ratios...

 
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Alan Kwan
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KrisVerbeeck wrote:
I think you mean brokenness instead of brokeness

Oh yeah. I wasn't careful enough when checking the dictionary, and hastily concluded that it is not a dictionary word, so I left it at that.

Quote:
Dominion : It is 8 VP for 6 gold instead of 7. It is not as uni dimensional as you make it out to be. Some card combinations are low on income and the game end is triggered because of depleting 3 stacks.

Even in such case, can't somebody win by ignoring the action cards and just buying gold to get the Provinces? Unless there is some better VP card available.

Quote:
Because by reading the rules I am pretty much convinced that the different heroes and the codex itself allows for a wealth of different games even if the matchup appears the same.

I think the fog of war pretty much ensures that you can't keep playing the same build, at least not when your opponent knows your habits.

Quote:
The only thing missing (for me) is a codex timer. I don't want my heroes to be bored to death by slow players.

That's one advantage of an asynchronous game: you can just use a regular chess clock.

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Ulrik Bøe
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Alan Kwan wrote:
Even in such case, can't somebody win by ignoring the action cards and just buying gold to get the Provinces? Unless there is some better VP card available.


That's the default strategy in dominion. It's easily beaten by buying a couple of cards of (the right) action cards and the rest in money. Then the real trick is to analyze the kingdom cards at the start to see if there's a multi-card strategy that beats the money strat.

Or always, like I do, go for the combo because big money is boring.
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1. Where can I view the Sirlin articles referenced above?
2. How has NO ONE mentioned the fact that Dominion has literally ZERO player interaction. I've played it with 2 3 and 4 players and honestly it didn't matter at ALL . It's a single player puzzle game where whoever solves the puzzle "1st" wins....BORRRRRIIIINNNNGGGGG.
 
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Key Bounce
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In my games with Dominion (warning: I haven't seen almost all of the expansions), the 3-pile empty game-over condition was the rule.

No player interaction? The one card that changed how we played was witch. It seemed weak, until some of us ignored it, and the ones that didn't flooded us with curse cards. Sure, they were wimpy cards -- BUT THEY WERE CARDS. We drew Junk.

After that, Witch was a high priority buy. So yes, there are some cards where players interact.

Beyond that? There's the time factor. Yes, you might have a good solution, but if someone else is emptying stacks before you can implement your solution, it doesn't matter. If some players are going for long solutions, and someone else is going for fast solutions, there's interactions. If two or three different people are going for the same pile, it empties faster. Etc.
 
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