Philip Hartten
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Resident Evil DBG: Mercenaries (2012)

Note: I always find it useful when other reviewers provide a sense of their game preferences, so I will do the same. I am an avid Magic: the Gathering player who enjoys deck-building/card games, including Thunderstone, Ascension, Dominion, and Race for the Galaxy. I also love resource management games and general strategy games that play in under an hour, such as Carcasonne, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride. Having played various Resident Evil video games multiple times over, I will unabashedly acknowledge that I am familiar with all the characters, monsters, etc. in the deck building game and enjoy its survival-horror flavor.

Introduction
Evil never dies, it would seem, and this is good news to the legions of zombie hunters who have spent nearly a year restlessly awaiting what they hoped would be the fifth installment of Bandai's Resident Evil Deck Building Game (DBG). Was it worth the wait?

I certainly hoped so. Since the release of the Premiere edition in Fall 2010, I have played well over 200 games of Resident Evil DBG with its various expansions (Alliance, Outbreak, Nightmare) and numerous modes of play. My preference at this time is single-character story mode and mercenary mode, although I do occasionally enjoy the partner or outbreak modification.

Although I did not review Nightmare at the time of its release, I believed then that the series continued to show substantial improvement in its design and component production. Gameplay was more varied and exciting, but still rather slow and character imbalances remained. Could Mercenaries address these issues?


Components and Setup
Mercenaries comes with 272 cards in a two-column storage box with foam inserts and card dividers for about $35. If there is one thing that every expandable card game needs, it is a good box capable of organizing and storing sleeved cards, and this one certainly qualifies. The cards themselves seem to be printed on a slightly thicker and higher quality stock than previous expansions. This does not adversely affect gameplay or mark the cards, but those who like to sleeve their cards will notice a more snug fit.

The rulebook provides a variety of scenarios for setting up the 18 resource piles for one of three modes (Story, Mercenary, and the new "Speed Mini-Game"). It does not, however, provide details for other existing gameplay modes/modifications, such as Partner, Outbreak, and Versus. This results in a somewhat jumbled presentation, with images and scenarios referencing cards, mechanics, and modes that are nowhere to be seen within Mercenaries. Ironically, the game also does not include the "bonus" cards needed to play Mercenary Mode. Huh? And where are those fantastic life pips that came with Nightmare?


Gameplay: Resource Piles
From a design standpoint, one of the primary goals of Mercenaries was to speed up the pace of the game and promote interactive gameplay. Both of these are achieved in this release. New players will approach the six new basic resources without having known any others, but experienced players will rejoice in the extraordinary differences that these retooled cards bring to the game. New ammunition and starting weapons get players into the mansion more quickly and provide countless ways to leverage skill in deck design and execution.

The weapons and actions are exactly what you'd expect from a game that has matured in its design. All of these cards are efficient, fun, and well constructed, making Mercenaries the best stand alone version of Resident Evil DBG to date. Speciality weapons have been removed from piles to promote consistency. Favorite cards include the Custom Lightning Hawk, Custom Pump-Action Shotgun, Resuscitate, and Fight or Flight.


Gameplay: Characters and Skills
With the exception of Barry Burton, the eight characters included with Mercenaries are probably the least interesting component of the set. All have only one ability, and most of these are just variations on previously existing character abilities. But I'm willing to let character flavor slide a few pegs for the opportunity to use 30 unique skills with them.

The new skill cards are every bit as exciting as previews would suggest. These have three dramatic effects on gameplay that can be summarized as follows:

1) Improved character balance
2) Accelerated mansion exploration
3) Added strategic depth through drafting

Let's look briefly at each of these. One of the longstanding gripes with characters was that some were inherently overpowered because others had terrible or mode specific abilities that did nothing with most set-ups. Although the rulebook only suggests drafting five (and using three) skills per character with one ability, the real possibilities for character balancing are much greater. A "vanilla" character with two useless abilities from a previous set could be allocated four skills so it can fight fair with a Mercenaries character with one strong ability. The rich get richer among characters, too (I'm looking at you Premiere Leon S. Kennedy), but the weak benefit substantially as well. How players choose to balance characters is entirely up to them, but having this possibility is worth its weight in gold.

Designers and players had also observed that gameplay bogged down because players would sit around fiddling with their decks instead of exploring the mansion. Skills introduce a reason to explore and risk getting your knuckles bloodied: XP. You earn one XP point each time your character explores; this XP is required in different quantities to activate skills that provide offensive, defensive, and resource management bonuses. The end result is an environment that gets the guns blazing earlier and with greater purpose, leading to a more enjoyable and suspenseful game.

Character skills also introduce an additional drafting component to set-up that enables players to exploit synergies and explore new gameplay strategies with their characters. Many of these skills provide unique effects that vary in strength from game to game, making for a dynamic set-up every time. Some are oddly costed or boast deceptively powerful abilities, but they are on the whole a fairly balanced set. The additional time required for drafting skills is negligible compared to the benefits reaped from having them on the table.


Gameplay: Monsters
Mercenaries comes equipped with not one, but three, highly interactive mansion set-ups that alter player strategies in different ways. Previous mansions contained a scattering of infected with intriguing or nasty interactive effects, but this set has more such monsters than the four previous sets combined.

The Los Illuminados/Los Ganados mansion provides surprising late game resistance despite the low damage of most infected, while the Majani focused mansions attack the resource piles and pollute players' decks with useless ammunition cards. And don't even get me started on the Red Executioner and his ability to decimate your score pile! Between the mansion effects and various interactive actions, players are forced to remain alert during every turn, and that goes a long way to keeping the game moving along at a steady pace.


Effects on Previous Sets
In addition to the aforementioned improvements to character balance, the acceleration provided by the new basic resources and the powerful abilities of skills significantly alters the experience of playing a single character game using the outbreak modification. At the time of its release, this mod was considered brutally harsh and somewhat flawed in its design. Issues remain, of course, but players can now get out of the gates faster and achieve deck consistency more fluidly. Weapons, actions, and strategies have also improved significantly since the release of Outbreak. Give it another shot if you had written it off previously. It may still not be your cup of tea, but it undoubtedly tastes a bit better.


Positives:
-new basic resources and skills are amazing and add tremendous depth
-faster, more interactive, and customized gameplay
-mansions are flavorful and dynamic
-storage box and components are improved

Negatives:
-skills and XP add more time to set-up and turns
-characters are fairly non-descript
-rulebook improved, but needs to better describe/organize various modes of play
-omission of bonus cards needed for Mercenary Mode and life pips

The Verdict
Resident Evil: Mercenaries reboots the series very much in the way that Thunderstone Advance did for its respective product line. It is well designed, highly interactive, and adds strategic depth through new basic resources and skills.

8.5/10
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Anders Pedersen
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Nice review.
Now I am considering revisiting the series...
If I only own the first two games released, which one would you suggest to buy next?
 
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Philip Hartten
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dbc- wrote:
Nice review.
Now I am considering revisiting the series...
If I only own the first two games released, which one would you suggest to buy next?


I would purchase Mercenaries, because the new basic resources and skills will make playing with the older sets that much more enjoyable. Once you've played with these cards, you'll probably never look back at the original basic resources ever again.
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Edward Calabig
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Kirkland
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I agree.

The new basic resources are great and change the game dramatically (for the better).

My only issue with mercenaries is that the mansion decks' themes are from RE5 -_-
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Ryan S
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Plano
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What!? I finally get my very own video game, but it's a mobile game?!
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Great Review!

I agree with you on all accounts. I've only played one game of Mercenaries so far, but I really enjoyed it. I would say Nightmare and Mercenaries are the best sets so far, but I own all of them. I look forward to trying out the new Mercenaries cards with my custom game mode, Resident Evil Escalation (shameless plug).
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Byron Campbell
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Santa Clarita
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This game will be arriving to me later this week. I understand from your review that, although it's generally an improvement over previous sets, it does not include the cards needed to play one of the three modes described in the game's own rulebook. That sounds pretty dumb to me, especially since this is supposed to be a standalone set. Since I don't have any of the other sets to play with, is there a way for me to use some sort of stand-in to substitute for the "bonus" cards so that I can try Mercenaries mode? Also, what do you suggest for keeping track of health with just the stuff in this set?

EDIT: forgot to compliment you on your review. It was an enjoyable read, and helped me decide on my purchase. Thanks!
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Davi Kretzmann
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Jundiaí
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The Outbreak set has life counters, but until it arrives to me, i take notes of the characters health with paper and pen. One player take all the notes and it has worked so far.

Is ironic that the Mercenaries Set doesn't have the Combo cards for Mercenaries Mode. xD To improvise this, note that those cards are Mansion Cards, then you'll need to take unused Mansion cards as this Combo Cards (i read some previews about Merc Set and i thought that it have some different Mansions, leaving some cards away). If you use sleeved cards, this could be easiest: just put some notes into the sleeves in front of the cards, marking them.

o/
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Philip Hartten
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Glad you enjoyed the review. Mercenaries includes the card "Melee", which provides a time extension effect for Mercenaries Mode in addition to its normal effects. If that card pile is bought out and used, it can add almost the same amount of turns as the "time" bonus cards from previous mansions.

Having had time to digest the set now, I think cards like "Melee" are a superior way to add turns to Mercenary mode anyway, because they don't have the lousy side effect of being a completely blank explore like the bonus cards. I'm OK with this change in direction; I just wish this had been articulated by the designers prior to release. This new set has no equivalent for the "combo" bonus cards, though one could argue that the Chicken sort of fulfills this role.

As for keeping track of health, I'd just go the pen and paper route or pick up Outbreak for the life pips (and other cards, of course). You'll probably want some dice or glass counters to mark XP though.
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Tunguska's CPA
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Nice review!

I'm glad you mentioned the difference in the card dimensions, as I thought I was going crazy when they were a bit harder to sleeve that I remembered.

Have you noticed any ill effects on the cards from the tighter fit?

EDIT:
On XP and health, being avid gamers, we used 2 d10s to track health (a percentile set), another d10 to track xp on the character, and d6s to track XP on skills.
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Byron Campbell
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I had seen that effect on Melee, and hadn't thought about it replacing the bonus cards, but it's very thematic. I'll try it in a game and see how it works.

Wish the rulebook was better. For instance, Story Mode says "1-4 players" but there's no indication of how you're supposed to change the goal or deal with the more interactive cards in single player. For that reason, and for the life pips and better-themed cards, I'll be picking up Outbreak at some point, perhaps right after Xmas. For now, I'm going oldschool and tracking health with pennies, XP with dimes. I figured out how to do it with half as many pennies by having them each represent 10 health. When you lose health, you move it from one side of your character card to the other, and when you die, you remove 2 pennies from the game before resetting your health. If your total health ends with a 5, move one penny below your character card to show it's halfway depleted. Seems less fiddly than pen and paper and easier to track maximum health than dice.

Since I'm here, I wanted to ask how you handled XP. It's not clear, at least to me, whether you "spend" XP to activate a skill (you've moved the XP to that skill, then you discard the amount listed on the card each time you activate the skill) or whether you "learn" the skill and can then use it as often as you want. I'm thinking that the latter is correct, but the former sounds more strategic to me, since XP is so easy to come by (if you had three level 1 skills, you could learn them all by turn 3).
 
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Tunguska's CPA
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You move XP from your character to your skills. When a given skill has as much (or more) XP than it's requirement (top right) it's activated and/or useable. Certain skills then require you to remove XP from them, which could make them unusable after one activation, until you earn more XP.

Other skills require no XP expenditure at all.
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Marcus Paco
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Should I get this (Mercenaries), or the Orig./Base game?
 
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Marcus Lau
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macredblue wrote:
Should I get this (Mercenaries), or the Orig./Base game?


Here's the thing. The original base game contains the mercenaries mode time cards which weren't provided in mercenaries. You will need them to play mercenaries mode. I would suggest getting base game, mercenaries and nightmare as they are considered the best sets out of the 5.

However, I've got all of them.
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James Champagne
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Great review!

I'm not a Resident Evil fan, but I have played Mercenaries and the base game, and I found this set to be a vast improvement over the base set, largely because of the skills.

I do have one ongoing gripe with the series, though. The fact that monster cards do not get shuffled into a player's deck means that there is a real runaway leader problem. Once a player gets to the point where they become an Unstoppable Engine of Death, there's really no way for other players to catch up. I'd welcome some variant that addresses this. It would be nice if monster cards just slowed the leader down (flavor-wise, this could translate to physical exertion taking its toll over time). Unfortunately, the fact that most guns and weapons are useless without ammo makes this solution unworkable. Perhaps defeated monsters could get shuffled in and then be worth 10 ammo when drawn? Perhaps they could be worth ten ammo per commendation?

Whatever the case, the runaway leader problem can lead to some really unexciting games near the end. In my last game, I ended up with FAR more commendations than could be obtained by killing every monster in the mansion. At that point, the correct play appeared to be for me to never explore again and simply wait for one player to defeat the boss or all other players to die. We ended up just calling the game without the boss being defeated, and that's really not the desired outcome.
 
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