Deckbuilding games are a dime a dozen. Heck, I just wrote about one last week and again last month, and yet a third time about a dungeon delving deckbuilder.
The ancestor of all the dungeony deckbuilders is probably Thunderstone, which came to market in 2009, not long after Grandpa Dominion. So if a publisher releases another roguelike shuffler, it needs to bring something fresh and new to the table. I mean, if you already own and enjoy Aeon’s End or Mage Tower, for example, why would you go out and buy another different game just like it?
And so we come to Draconis Invasion, designed by Jonathan Lai and published this year by Keji Inc. What does it bring to the table?
The components are superb: the artwork is great (if a bit dark-toned and hard to see) and the box comes with sturdy innards and handy dividers. The meat of the game will be very familiar to anyone who has played a deckbuilder before, but there are tweaks:
- Players start the game at a randomly-different Threat level which affects the number of Terror and Treasure (gold) cards players have in their decks. Terror cards are not only useless but also trigger nasty Events when enough of them cycle through your decks. There’s no real way to get them out of your deck once they’re lodged in there. So there’s a lot of tension as Terror ratchets up.
- After playing out all your available actions, you must choose to either buy a card, draw two campaign (ie bonus scoring) cards, defeat a beastie, or trash a card from your hand. After doing one of those things, you can put one excess coin card back on your deck for next turn. This means interesting decisions on every turn; on the downside, however, it means you rarely execute any cool multi-card combos, because there just isn’t time enough.
- Defenders (cards you buy to fight bad guys) not only cost money to purchase but also to play if you want them to fight for you. This makes deck-tuning tricky because the best-fighting cards are also expensive to deploy, which means you need to buy big money cards and delete your low-money cards to increase the chances of drawing an effective hand; in practice, because you can only do one thing on your turn, you often don’t have time to do both.
- You can play Draconis as a quasi-campaign in a series of Battle Stages, with different cards available in the market each Battle Stage. This is a very neat concept, and works well, but there’s no rhyme or reason given for why particular cards are being used for one Battle Stage and not another. It’s a little modular and dry.
- The game also comes with solo, 2-player, and team versus modes, which makes it flexible for many configurations. The base version works fine, but the solo game is all but unplayable because you barely have enough time to power up your deck before you cycle through your Terror cards and all the bad things happen. I haven’t tried the team mode; it does look interesting.
I think by now you can deduce what I think of the game, but I’ll make it clear: Draconis Invasion makes an honest attempt to elbow its way into a very crowded field, but none of the changes it makes to gameplay radically alter the experience the way a game like Clank! does. Each of the design decisions has been well-implemented and well-explained, but the overall effect is still kind of bland, and often you feel like you’re fighting the game system instead of the game because you only really get to do one think on your turn, when you’re used to running chains of combos together.
Draconis Invasion is a perfectly fine game, but with so many new designs coming out every week, a game needs more than good-looking components and a sturdy set of rules to differentiate it from the pack.