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Friday 23 February 2018

To Be Mercenary About It...

Published by Colin & Ryan Pearson Games, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is a card driven, deck building game of dungeon exploration and combat. It is set in the fantasy kingdom of Berelt, long after a war which has left a tradition of mercenary groups undertaking minor missions that the kingdom’s tiny army cannot or will not, such as clearing out an abandoned mansion of goblins or striking down an Orc champion and his demon dog. The members of these groups, the mercenaries, are exactly that, mercenary and sometimes of questionable morals, and if not exactly honourable, then they will at least get the job done and take the money. Nevertheless, mercenaries do live by a code—they cannot strike another, but they can use trickery, steal kills, steal weapons, distract or lie to others, or in fact, do anything that will put them ahead in the competition to be top mercenary! 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game can be played co-operatively or semi-co-operatively in competitive mode. The mercenaries fight through room after room, facing monster after monster, the aim being to defeat all of the monsters in an adventure and have at least one mercenary on zero or more Health. In a competitive game, the mercenary with the most ‘MVPs’—acquired from striking, and especially, killing monsters—is determined to be the ‘Most Valuable Player’ and thus wins the game. In a co-operative game, everyone either lives and wins or everyone dies and loses. Since the players are essentially playing against the game, Mercenaries can be played solo, much like the co-operative game and the rules do include alternative player set-ups, such as a two-player game with each player controlling two mercenaries and even a five-player game with four mercenaries and a Deck Master. The latter player gets to play all of the monsters and wins by defeating the mercenaries. 

Designed for between two and four players, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game takes between ninety and one-hundred-and-twenty minutes to play. The game does not suggest an age limit, but twelve plus would not be an unreasonable guide. 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game comes in a large, square, black box. Behind the engaging, almost children’s fantasy book-like cover can be found the ten-page Rule Book, twenty-four-page Adventure Book, four play mats and four score pads, one-hundred-and-forty condition tokens, thirty-six grid cards, one twenty-sided die, and some six hundred or more cards, divided into over eighty different types. The Rule Book contains the rules, using the first adventure in the Adventure Book as a guide and the Adventure Book contains four adventures, plus descriptions of the game’s cards. The play mats have spaces for a mercenary’s deck, discard pile, acquired cards, and so on, including the score pads for recording a mercenary’s current Health and Experience Points. (The score pads can easily be replaced by gaming tokens or counters, which may be easier for some groups to keep track of their mercenaries’ Health and Experience Points.) The various tokens are used to mark if a mercenary has acted, been poisoned or webbed, and so on as well as how many wounds a monster had taken. The grid cards are plain—even bland—and used to mark out the battle area which forms each counter. 

The cards in Mercenaries really fall into four categories. These are Area Feature cards, Skill cards, Ability cards, and Monster cards. The Area Feature cards describe the locations where the mercenaries will be fighting and any possible special effects. For example, the Dart Trap always attacks the First Player for damage and prevents their attacking that turn, whilst in the Dwarven Tavern, all Dwarven monsters have better Health and Melee Attack Values, but worse Defence Values. Skill cards provide the mercenaries’ actions. They start with Basic Melee Attack, Basic Ranged Attack, and Basic Blocking, which plus a Healing Potion, are what each mercenary’s starting deck consists of. Each of these basic cards inflict or stop a point of damage, but a mercenary can play multiple cards of the same type to inflict or stop more damage. In play, the basic Skill cards can be upgraded to advanced versions which inflict or stop more damage, the basic versions of the card being discarded in the process. Depending upon the adventure played, other Skill cards become available, such as Shield Bash or Chain Gauntlet. Ability cards provide other benefits, for example, a Healing Potion restores two Health, a Charge Attack provides extra movement and allows a mercenary to expend cards with Defence Value to increase the damage he does, and Search the Body lets a mercenary scavenge dead monsters to add cards to his deck. Both Skill and Ability cards have an Experience Point cost to purchase. 

The Monster cards range from Goblins and Orcs to Dwarf Gunners and Tiny Spiders. Each has a Health value (how much damage they can take), a Melee Attack Value (how much damage they inflict), a Defence Value (how much damage they stop), an Experience Point value (how much Experience Points they grant to whomever delivered the killing blow), and MVP value (how many MVP they award for being killed). Some also have special abilities, given on their cards and in the Adventure Book. For example, a Spider’s Melee Attack inflicts poison on a mercenary, whilst a Giant Spider’s attacks—both melee and ranged—immobilise a mercenary in a web.

To play the game, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game requires some set up. This require a player to build separate decks for the Area Feature and Acquisition cards as well as the Monster cards. Each adventure lists the requirements for all three. The Monster card deck requires careful attention as some monsters go into the top half and some into the bottom half. The number of monsters will also vary according to the number of players and the type of game—co-operative or competitive. Lastly, each player receives the same set of starting Skill cards. 

Play takes place on the six-by-six Battle Grid, which represents the battle space for each area. This grid does not vary in shape or size, except for the effects of one or two Area cards. The mercenaries will always start the fight at one end of the grid, the monsters at the other, the monsters with ranged attacks always behind those with melee attacks. At the start of each encounter, an Area Feature card is drawn and its effects applied to the encounter. Between three and five monsters—the number varying according to the number of players and the game type—are drawn and placed, and then the mercenaries are placed. Each player draws six cards from his deck. 

Beginning with the First Player—this changes from one encounter to the next—each player can act. Movement is fairly simple, but does not require cards, whereas attacks, healing, and so on, require the playing of cards. Basic skill cards do damage equal to the number of cards played and net a mercenary an Experience Point for a successful attack as well a retaliatory strike from the monster if it was a melee attack. Damage can be blocked using Blocking cards, again on a one-for-one basis. The advanced versions of these cards inflict or block more damage, whilst Ability cards provide other effects. Played cards go into a player’s discard pile and will be shuffled back into his deck once it has been emptied. Once all of the players have acted, the monsters can move towards the mercenaries and attack. Again, if a player has any Blocking cards, he can use those to reduce damage. After the players have acted, the monsters act. The turn then ends, each player discards any cards he has in his hand and draws six fresh cards. Play then resumes. 

As an encounter progresses and monsters are hit and killed, the mercenaries will acquire Experience Points. Once per turn, a player can use these to purchase a new card. This might be to gain an advanced version of a basic Skill card, in which case, the mercenary must have used the basic Skill to be able to purchase the advanced version. This restriction does not apply to the Ability cards, but it is a nice touch and will push a player to specialise his mercenary in a particular skill set. Play continues like this until all of the monsters have been defeated, all Experience Points have been collected, and a new encounter is prepared with a new Area Feature card. Play continues like this until all of the monsters in a deck have been defeated and the players are successful or the mercenaries are reduced to minus Health and lose the game. 

In play, from one turn to the next, there is no impetus for the players to push towards completing a room. What drives them is the question, “What is the best that I can get out of this round with the cards in my hand?” The players will need to think tactically to optimise their moves. Knowing when to attack, block, back up (out of damage range), or wait becomes an important issue. Should a mercenary simply rush in to strike a monster, but not kill him and so gain an Experience Point, knowing that the monster can retaliate against which the mercenary has little in the way of Blocking cards? Or should he hang back, use a Healing Potion, and wait for a better hand on his next turn? Or should take advantage of the damage already done to a monster by his fellow mercenaries to slip forward, deliver the killing blow, and reap the glory of ‘MVPs’ (and extra Experience Points)? 

Of course, letting a mercenary get ahead of his rivals in terms of ‘MVPs’ and Experience Points is problematic because it both allows the mercenary to improve himself and bring him closer to his being the Most Valuable Player. This is countered by the fact that just a single new card can be added to a player’s deck each turn, but nevertheless, rival mercenaries still may still want to grab as much Experience Points as they can from a monster before someone kills it and takes the prize. In co-operative mode though, play is slightly different since it is driven by the acquisition of Experience Points for all and the chance to upgrade mercenaries rather simply acquiring ‘MVPs’. Here the players will be wanting to balance their Experience Point acquisition rather than simply being mercenary about it. 

Another factor countering a runaway player is that killing monsters and collecting their Experience Points also means adding the monster cards to a player’s deck. As with other deck builders, for example, Waste in Trains, monster cards clog up a player’s deck and when drawn, reduce the number of actions his mercenary can take on a turn. On the one hand, this limits his actions and can act as a balancing mechanism to allow the other players to catch up, but on the other hand, it slows play down in general because there may be whole turns when a player cannot act. Unfortunately, there is no way to move a dead monster from a player’s deck into a victory pile, only the means to bypass it. In effect, as an adventure progresses and more monsters are killed, the game play will slow down, even stall on occasion. 

In terms of adventures, the four given adventures showcase how different adventures play and how they can be designed. Key to this are the Area Feature cards which essentially flavour and detail each encounter, but not sufficiently enough because this is countered by the abstract nature of the battle grid which sort of flattens the feel of the game. Although some Area Feature cards do possess terrain effects, the game never quite escapes the feel of playing on the grid. Another is that although the design of Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game lends itself to some flexibility and customisation beyond the four adventures—of which four is not quite enough, either in terms of replay value or long-term play—this is not addressed in the game. There is no advice on creating further adventures or indeed on customising mercenaries, so that one mercenary might start out as a ranged combat specialist with Advanced Range Attacks, another a defensive with Advanced Blocking, and so on. Plus, there are no rules for carrying over Experience Points or purchased cards from one adventure to the next. There is nothing to stop a player from doing this, but the rules do not say that you can either. 

In terms of production values, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is nicely put together. The Rule Book and Adventure Book are plainly presented, but readable and the play mats, the tokens, and the battle area cards are all done in thick cardboard. The cards themselves are clear and simple and illustrated with some reasonable, if unspectacular artwork. Although the rules are generally well written—they look more complex than they are and anyway, a lot of specific elements of the game are on the cards—their presentation could have been better broken up with some examples of play. 

One obvious issue with the game before even the box is cracked open, is the lack of a blurb on the rear of the box. Without that, the potential player will have no idea what the game is about. Also, the score pads do feel superfluous and essentially could have been better replaced with some counters to put on the play mats. One thing that could have been included with the game is a quick reference guide for each player to what to do on his turn and when. 

Fundamentally, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is a game which has not realised its full potential. The obvious flexibility and customisation present in the game is left undeveloped and whilst experienced gamers will be able to design adventures and customise their mercenaries, anyone with less experience will find this a challenge given the lack of guidelines. The lack of roleplaying present in the game means that Mercenaries does not live up to its tag line of ‘RPG Deck Building Game’, essentially all four mercenaries feel the same, their abilities do not carry over from one adventure to the next, and the focus is on the battle grid rather than dungeon or location exploration, combat rather interaction, and so on. Perhaps some personality cards and associated special abilities would have fulfilled the RPG aspect of the game, as otherwise, ‘Tactical Deck Building Game’ would be a more apt tag line. What it feels like is as if the game is missing an extra book—the Advanced Rulebook—which would have covered all of this. 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game feels like it should offer something more, but there is sound game play at its core and as an introductory deck building game, it works well enough. Further development may well see Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game realise its full potential and become the game that the designers intended.

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