Card Games That Dared: Part 2 – Oligarchy

For the 2nd installment of our series on 2 player card games that buck the trend, we uncover yet another indie CCG that should have received more time in the light. Enter Oligarchy.

Oligarchy was an indie CCG set in a slightly more dystopian reality than our own. If Paul Verhoeven wrote and directed a film about 2020, you’d be pretty close to where this game is aiming. As the name suggests, you are a powerful (possibly evil) oligarch and it is your ambition to crush all who oppose you on your way to complete world subjugation. Like any oligarch worth their salt, your power base is derived from (at least) 1 of 8 types of societal institutions; criminal, governmental, ecological, religious, the media, corporate, the military and the Illuminati.

Oligarchy follows the ‘Magic The Gathering’ formulae pretty closely, insofar as, you play unit and spell cards onto a battlefield area and try to reduce each others life points to zero, but of course Oligarchy’s naming conventions change to ‘characters’, ‘items’, ‘resources’, ‘incidents’ and so on. But, the main area where Oligarchy differs from the norm is with it’s economy system. Oligarchy uses the same 2 types of economy cards, irrespective of faction; namely Affluence and Influence cards. Depending on which factions form your power base, you’ll likely rely on one of these types of currency more than the other as your card engine starts to kick into gear. Going further off the beaten track, these resources don’t disappear at the end of your turn, instead you keep track of how much AP & IP you accumulate with a neat little spinner dial.

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A turn (known as a Sphere) is also ‘Magic-esque’ in Oligarchy. A sphere is broken down into carefully structured but seamlessly flowing phases, beginning with the draw phase, I.E. you draw a card from your “Life Pile” (more in-game jargon), followed by the development phase where you play an Affluence or Influence card and start building your empire, which then takes you straight into the deploy phase (does what it says on the tin), and finally a turn crescendos with the ‘power struggle’ phase where you use abilities and attack your opponents Power base with characters you have in play.

Another twist in the tale comes in the form of the ‘power base’ itself, AKA your life points. Your power base represents how much respect you command within a particular faction. You may utilise as many factions as you like, as long as your total power base tallies up to 12 (which is also kept track of with handy spinner dials). Characters usually have a passive or active ability you can trigger as long as you have enough of a power base with that characters faction. So for example, if you want to use ‘Bruiser Bills’ ability, you’ll have to have a minimum of 2 power base with the crime faction.

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Combat is as straight forward as you’d expect, with the active player choosing attackers and your opponent deciding if they want to throw their bodies at you in defence. However, that’s usually just the end result of a long war of attrition. The game does a really great job of showcasing the different factions areas of expertise. The base starter set comes complete with 4 different decks with variations of faction makeups. The Crime/Corporate deck uses deeply underhanded tactics; Eco/Religion deck distracts you with passive units; Military/Government has excellent fighting capabilities, while the Illuminati/Media deck controls and mills you to death.

I feel like Oligarchy had a lot of potential to grow but didn’t get it’s fair shake. It landed just as Fantasy Flight Games LCG poster child ‘Netrunner’ imploded and was prime to fill the cyber-noir gap for discerning card gamers. It even had a small competitive scene for a time! The dystopian near future is a surprisingly unused theme in the card game genre, particularly when it’s less focused on out-and-out guns blazing action, and for better or worse, card games that veer off the Tolkien path tend to be viewed with ED-209 levels of scrutiny. Oligarchy’s vision was appealing enough for some to take a chance, but for many, it’s just not a safe enough bet to start wading through the murky depths of the CCG model.

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Distribution models aside, our games of Oligarchy always lead to fantastic moments. When we started to see the synergies between cards pop, we couldn’t help but instantly drop our faux poker faces and let out audible “Ohs!” And although the game has a slightly higher than average learning curve (mostly due to wrapping our heads around the games jargon) it’s also a very streamlined experience when you get down to it, with cards referencing when they can be used all along the way. So you know exactly when you missed an opportunity to play something.

All in all, Oligarchy is a decent slice of dark fun. The game dares to depict a satirical world view where there are no white knights, which is a stark contrast to the cliched narrative of most fantasy games. You’ll look at the cards in your hand and think to yourself, “You’re a bad guy huh?” And then realise the game is entirely made up of maniac Illuminati chefs, corrupt cops and car bombs. Even Netrunner posited the idea that hackers are a rebellion against evil corporations. Oligarchy just goes, “Nah. Screw em!”, and proceeds to set your house on fire with the dog locked inside. There’s an almost Charlie Brooker level of gleefully sinister social commentary about the game. If you’re a MTG fan that’s sick of the Fantasy shtick, or if you never liked MTG but want a game with a unique theme, you can’t go wrong with Oligarchy. And remember….

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Card Games That Dared: Part 1 – Xi

Today we kick off a new series of mini(ish) reviews about 2 player card games that may have fallen between the cracks but deserve another…err…crack! First up is a lovely indie game from a few years back called Xi!

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Publisher: Xi Cards Ltd

Designer: Chris Nonweiler

Players: 2

Xi is a fantasy card game that was originally designed as a CCG way back in 2011 but lacked the bottomless pit of money necessary to remain sustainable under that model. It’s also probably one of the most criminally underrated 2 player card games of the last decade.

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Xi released properly in 2013 as a single set of 200 cards, sold as 4 pre-constructed decks; Stone, Wind, Ember and Aqua. In a game of Xi, you’ll command one of these powerful elemental castes and duel against the other houses to restore equilibrium to the world.

The format of Xi mirrors many other 2 player card games, I.E. you’ll summon units to the battlefield, cast spells that deal damage or buff units and otherwise attack your opponents life points until one of you is dead. Yes, these are hats that have been worn to death before, but instead of reinventing the wheel, Xi kind of fixed it.

For starters, Xi sets itself apart from its competitors with it’s main in-game resource: ‘time’. There’s no economy generating cards in Xi, instead you simply have a limited amount of time to spend from the beginning of your turn. It costs time to draw a card; it costs time to play a card; and it even costs time to save time. Indeed, you can ‘bank’ time to use on later turns, which becomes an incredibly important when you’re holding a world destroying card that costs way more than you can currently afford.

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The learning curve in Xi is similarly simplified. Even if you’re completely new to the genre, you’ll master Xi’s nuances within your first game. The amount of times I’ve tried to teach ‘Magic The Gathering’, only to see the hazy look of utter confusion in my opponents eyes is staggering. Explaining phases and windows of opportunity to a new player is not only a nightmare, but it also vampires the fun out of learning a game.

Xi on the other hand, has no rigid turn structure. There’s no phases guiding your hand, telling you to perform specific actions in designated safe spaces. Much like the forces of nature Xi is themed around, reckless abandon is the new world order here. You can attack, draw a card, play a card, attack again, bank some time, draw another card or do anything you bloody like on your turn. Your only limitation is time. And crucially, Xi doesn’t waste any of yours. For example, unlike ‘Magic the Gathering’ and other games of its ilk, there’s no ‘summoning sickness’ or rule that prevents you from using a unit the moment you commit it to the battlefield. Once a card hits the mat, it’s ready to go to work. Xi is a fast, high impact, card game that leaves little room for analysis paralysis, but also gives players the freedom to express themselves with virtually endless strategic avenues.

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If you’re looking for a thematic experience, you won’t be disappointed either. Each of the elemental castes have very distinct themes and play completely different from one another. Ember is all about aggression and engulfing the land in fire; Stone blocks an opponents path while building huge threats; Aqua is as fluid as the ebb and flow of ocean and can quickly shift strategic gears; Wind is as you’d expect all about trickery and making your opponent go left when they should have gone right. Again, these are very well established themes in the card game genre, but Xi adds a slight twist to the mix. Each element has advantage over another and does double damage, which is not huge deal in the basic game, but in more advanced games when you mix up your decks, this becomes yet another layer of strategic goodness you can sink your teeth into.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but Xi is definitely an exception to the rule. The artwork is absolutely stunning. Its nothing like the airbrushed perfection you see stacked along the shelves of game shops today. Xi’s art style courtesy of Jordan Saia, has a distinct rawness which gives the game an authentic grass roots feel. Heck, the art alone is reason enough to check this game out.

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Xi is a perfect fit for anyone looking to test the waters of the 2 player card game genre. It’s the very definition of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, which not only makes it an excellent gateway game, but also, if it’s the only game you ever purchase you’ll have plenty to mull over for years to come. If you really do get tired of the 4 core decks, you can always experiment by building new ones. And when you’re done with that, you might consider buying more packs or the expansion ‘Xi Advanced’. We have yet to try it since we’re quite happy with single copies of the core decks, but ultimately, there is virtually no limits to how far you can push this game. We’re big fans of games that come in a small package but hit like a truck and Xi is tremendous bang for your buck.

Perhaps Xi never made a splash in the 2 player market because it relied too heavily on a form and theme that veterans of hobby gaming have seen time and time again, but beyond that familiar veneer, lies an incredibly¬† fun and heartfelt card game that lets you tinker, twist and turn like someone learning how to wield a sword properly. As of the time of this post, you can still find copies of the core decks floating around online and they’re usually very cheap. If Xi ever comes up in your searches and you’re looking for an exciting kitchen table card game, we think it’s worth a shot.

1066, Tears To Many Mothers

‘1066, Tears To Many Mothers’ may sound like an album by a Doom Metal band from Yorkshire, but it also happens to be one of the most exciting 2 player card games to be churned out of the board game mill in a good long while

Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions

Designer: Tristan Hall

Players: 1-2

‘Tears To Many Mothers’ takes players on a tour through the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Normans invaded the English isles to claim their throne and change the DNA of ol’ Blighty forever. Personally, I find wrapping my head around medieval politics more challenging than unwinding Christmas lights while nursing a vodka hangover, but some context is useful for those of us who didn’t learn about this historic battle in primary school.

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The childless King Edward the Confessor, was without an heir and had supposedly promised the throne to a distant Norman cousin, William the Conqueror. Of course this didn’t jive too well with the Saxon nobles, who had been in power since Roman times. Together, the Lords of the land started rallying behind the next most powerful person in England at the time, Harold Godwinson the Earl of Wessex. Eventually under mounting pressure from the English nobility, Harold usurped the throne upon the death of King Edward, thereby breaking the oath that was made to the Normans. And we all know what happens to oath breakers in the times of honour and destiny.

In ‘1066…’ you play either as the defending Saxons, commanded by Harold Godwinson, or the invading Normans lead by William ‘The Conqueror’. You build your army up by committing units into three formations called ‘wedges’, creating rows of steely-eyed knights, ready to crash into your foes shield wall or cavalry charge alike. However, the only thing certain in ‘1066…’ is a cruel death in a cold muddy field. Units will inevitably succumb to the constant attacks from archers and berserker axe-men, forcing a row to shift and filling the space of fallen heroes. “Once more unto the breach” as they say.

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Committing cards to the battlefield is as simple as discarding a number of cards equal to the cost of the one you want to play. That might seem like you can burn through your hand very quickly, but fortunately, buried in your deck are units that generate resources while they’re in play. The more resource generating cards you have out on the field, the more efficiently you can catapult hulking knights into the fray.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. So far the game sounds like your standard 2 player card game with players taking turns, one after another, until one of you is dead. However, the most interesting thing about ‘1066…’ is that for the bulk of it, you don’t actually fight anyone. Not one single arrow finds another mans eye for the most of the game.

Instead the game takes you through the most notable events that occurred before the battle, by way of an objective deck. Beginning with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, to William gathering support and gaining the Popes blessing, through to the Invasion of Sussex and the eventual final clash in Hastings. The game abstracts your progress through these events by measuring the strength of your units on the board. Each unit has a might and zeal value, and every round you check if you’ve amassed enough to progress to the next chapter. Eventually both sides will reach Hastings and finally meet face to face on the battlefield on that frosty October morning. THEN you fight! And oh Nelly, what a glorious fight it is. Both sides crash against each other in a melee of blood and steel, dealing damage to their respective wedges. The first side to deal 10 damage to a wedge claims it, and if 2 wedges are claimed, the game is over and a victor is crowned.

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It took me a few goes to settle into this games intended rhythm. The discard a card to play a card mechanic felt sluggish at first, as I struggled to hold more than one card for most turns before passing several times just to refill my hand, only to play one more card. Not to mention that because the majority of the game is about preparing for the final fight, I found myself feeling frustrated with it’s pacing. But I quickly learned this was less of an issue with the game and more me trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

After years of playing 1 vs. 1 card games, I realised I needed to re-programme my thinking for ‘1066..’. I made the joke earlier likening this game to a Doom Metal album, but in all honesty, ‘1066…’ really does follow a narrative structure similar to a Black Sabbath song like ‘War Pigs’. It’s a slow but steady slog in the early parts, but as the energy swells and gains momentum, its starts to take shape, then suddenly it explodes into frantic, panic inducing violence. The Wedge you’d been fortifying the whole game is neck and neck with your foe, but that means you weren’t focusing on the others, and you scramble to rescue the soldiers you assigned so carelessly. Their lives are in your hands, so don’t make their deaths meaningless.

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Tension is a persistent feature of ‘1066…; as it constantly asks you to make difficult choices with your hand. To an extent, the card play reminded me of Poker, insofar as the game wants you to play aggressively with your hand. You’ll often have to discard strong cards that are unplayable at that time in favour of making smaller gains, thus sewing the seeds for a long term strategy. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be agonising over which axe wielding barbarian I’d have to sacrifice to counter those damn Norman archers!

While the tension in the 2 player game is so thick you could cut the air with a knife, the solo variant is equally nerve wracking. The AI foe is often 2 steps ahead of you thanks to the games solo system which deploys units on the battlefield with relative ease. In fact, the solo system in this game is a veritable work of art, that is if you’re like me and enjoy a well designed flow chart, and let’s face it, who doesn’t like a good flow chart? The solo game in ‘1066…’ gives you a dynamic living puzzle to solve in every game, and contrary to other AI board games systems, you’re far less concerned with it behaving like another human player and instead relish the way it reveals the puzzle one piece at a time.

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Medieval war games are always an intriguing prospect for me, as they invoke imagery of muddy battlefields, drenched in blood, with sword wielding knights astride great armoured steads, charging into battle. In the age of digital perfection and constant social and economic strife, the appeal of games that take you back to a simpler time when the sky was big and life was short, is perhaps at their peak right now. However most war games in this genre are either huge complicated efforts that try to simulate every aspect of medieval life or are too simplistic and lack any narrative backbone. ‘1066…’ proves a happy medium with just enough weight and complexity to scratch any armour clad players strtegic itch while capturing all the grandeur of it’s theme with 2 simple but beautiful decks. Everywhere you look in ‘1066…’ is steeped in charm and historic context, as if every card serves as the final epitaph of those depicted in the artwork. You’ll actually pause as you play, just to admire the games vision of that frosty morning in October of 1066. Luckily, Hall or Nothing games is soon to release it’s sequel ‘1565, St. Elmos Pay’ which depicts the siege of Malta, and is fully compatible with ‘1066…’ if you wanted to pit both eras against each other in some mad historical mash up. We certainly look forward to more settings from this system and will keep a very close watch.