Time and Relative Dimensions in Card-Flopping

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The Doctor may be an interfering Time Lord, but he’s a useful bloke when the end of the world rolls around.

The Unauthorized Dr. Who CCG came to my attention a couple years ago while browsing a list on Boardgamegeek of Doctor Who-related games. It caught my attention mostly because I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of the show since the mid 90s. Not only was there a base set of cards, the author, Michel Albert, regularly released expansion blocks of cards fitting a given theme: companions, monsters, time travel and so on.

I also took pause because at the time, there didn’t seem any easy way to play the game. When it comes to games, I feel I’m very much a kinesthetic learner: I need to have the cards or tokens in hand and go through the motions of play a couple times before I really understand what’s happening. Reading the rulebook doesn’t do a whole lot for me if I can’t have the experience of playing the game as well. Being both unauthorized and a fan project, all the cards exist as JPG images on Michel’s site. To play the game, I’d need to collect and print all the images of the cards. That seemed a tedious enough task that I put it off for a very long time — years, in fact. A couple weeks ago, after a very long period of telling myself I’d get around to it, I decided the time had come to get around to it.

Preparation

So the first task was getting two decks together in a printable form. (If I’d done more research, I’d’ve learned that a Doctor Who plugin is now available for LackeyCCG, a software client for playing collectible card games online, but that still wouldn’t have satisfied my need to handle a game’s components as I learn to play it.) As it happens, the page for the base set of cards, which would analogize to the large set of basic play cards you find in any given edition of Magic: The Gathering, also includes two starter decks: pre-constructed lists of cards built around specific themes meant to help new players learn the rules without having to dive headfirst into the task of learning dozens of cards and their myriad abilities. With a starter deck, you can focus on learning the rules algorithms and particular quirks of that batch of cards. From there, building one’s own deck becomes somewhat less daunting — though it certainly still requires some investment of thought and headspace.

So I spent an evening saving and pasting the images for two decks: Daleks and Cybermen in word processing documents. A quick trip to a handy color printer yielded the batch of pages you see to the right. Another evening went up to slicing up the cards themselves into the right sized bits of paper. I borrowed the penny sleeves from Early American Chrononauts — yes, I am that much of a noodge when it comes to my Chrononauts cards — and used some of the Powerstorm cards that were literally given away by the box-full at OGC 2008 to lend some stiffness, making the print-outs feel more like cards than floppy bits of paper.

I wrestled with the decision to use penny sleeves. I really did. Once I decided to really do this, I was all gung ho to go out and buy some of the opaque backed sleeves you see the hardcore Magic player use, red for Daleks and blue for Cybermen. In the name of keeping my investment in an unproven game low, I restrained myself to reusing as many materials as possible, like the penny sleeves I already owned — and Early American Chrononauts doesn’t get much play, so it seemed a safe place from which to borrow them.

Play

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Rachel Jenson and a Dalek Trooper on the south side at different points in Earth’s history, while Cybermen gather on the north side.

My first play was against myself. I knew that in order to represent the game to whomever I could get to try it, I would need to have a firm grasp on what actually happens and when. Lacking an infinitely patient guinea pig, I had to act as my own opponent. To the right, you’ll see a snapshot of that test game early in its development.

The main play area is a timeline of places at various points in history. Each player contributes Space-Time cards to the mix. In the case of these two starter decks, that adds up to five places to attempt to reach and oppose Goals, which are the primary method of scoring victory points.

That threw me the first time I read through the rules: both players act as both heroes and villains. Enemies attempt to reach goals, which are usually things like End of the World or Destroy Unity. Heroes, particularly the Doctor and his assistants, want to oppose the goals of the other player. So each player wants their own enemies to achieve a goal while using their heroes to prevent the other player’s enemies from doing the same. In fact, neither side can win the game until both opposing and reaching at least one goal. Doing either usually involves accumulating a critical mass of attributes or traits, found on character cards; the player trying to reach the goal often has to sacrifice cards in hand as well.

In addition to the line of Space-Time cards and Goals, which are very reminiscent of Decipher’s Star Trek CCG, there are also characters, which you find in just about any collectible card game, particularly those based around a media property. TARDIS Characters include the incarnations of the Doctor and his companions. They start the game off to the side, traveling through time in the TARDIS. TARDIS Characters and Allies — incidental characters who play to locations, are the only characters who can oppose goals. On the flip side are Enemies, the characters who attempt to reach goals. These also play to space-time locations, so one of the considerations of deck-building is to match Enemies with compatible Goals, in terms of completion requirements and matching locations — the Cybermen in this starter deck only play in future locations, so it’s necessary to place Goals in those locations for them to achieve.

Play itself is easy enough. Each turn, a player has six points with which to play characters, goals and other such cards. Then they use those cards they’ve played and others already on the timeline to achieve or oppose goals. What I got hung up on in my solo test is how to win. The basic win condition is scoring ten points total, with at least some coming from both opposing and reaching different goals. In my play-through, I found two really big stumbling blocks.

First, if you lose your Time Lord, you have no way to move your TARDIS Characters through time to oppose Goals. The Fourth Doctor wound up getting cyber-converted in 2526, due to his hand not having a convenient Bang! card, as the instant counters are called. His deck also lacked the means to undo the damage, which meant his companion Sarah Jane was effectively stuck by herself, as all the deck’s Allies were native to earlier eras of Earth. Without that TARDIS, there was no way to get them to where the action was, if the opposing player had opted to cluster all their Goals in the future, as they would have to while playing Cybermen, who play only on future dates.

So that was an inevitable lose for the Dalek/Fourth Doctor deck, so far as I can see. In extended retrospect, there might have been shenanigans possible with a Time Corridor to get Allies into the future, but relying on a pair of cards to keep the game moving forward, particularly when there’s no reshuffle mechanic, as one often finds in CCGs, is troubling to me.

The second obstacle was getting enemies to move around. On the other side of the timeline, the Cybermen had the same problem as Sarah Jane: limited means of transportation. Unlike TARDIS Characters, Enemies don’t start with a way to travel. They rely on cards drawn during play for the opportunity. So Enemies need to be spread around multiple Goals, or the player needs to be ready with a means to get them from one place to another, even if it is in the same era. I remember playing a Rocket Ship to get the Cybermen from Earth to an interstellar freighter to begin their Hijack Ship goal.

Some of this I admit could have been simple rookie mistakes. Part of that is not understanding how a deck works until you really get to know the cards and understand their function. The Time Corridor would be a huge life-saver in getting Allies to the future to combat the Cybermen, but it’s also necessary to get the Daleks into the past, so maybe it’s wiser to play their goals on their starting location, instead of trying to emulate TV episodes like Remembrance of the Daleks by sending them to 1963.

But losing your Time Lord is, if not a game-killer in one’s first play, then at least a severe crimp in one’s efforts to oppose tyranny. And the rules say as much, too. So my critique would be there needed to be more options to prevent or undo that cyber-conversion, amusing as it is to think of the Doctor inadvertantly falling to such an ignominious fate. I could blame it on the deck choking, not giving me when a counter card when I desperately needed it, or it could have been I didn’t understand how important that counter card could be and threw it away, hoping to pull something more useful.

It was, all things considered, a rough play. For several hours afterward, I kept shaking my head and chuckling at how quickly one side’s deck was shut down by such a fast and seemingly unpreventable action. Now that I understand the basic motions of game play, I’m looking forward to finding some live guinea pigs willing to give the thing a try, probably at Tuesdays at Quarterstaff — or I could go out on a real limb and brave the waters of Monday night card games. Failing that, I may have to take this LackeyCCG program and trawl for online players. It wouldn’t be my ideal solution, but it would be a start.

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