Deckbuilding game Tanto Cuore was first brought to market in 2009 … but only in Japan. It wasn’t widely available in the United States until this year, which has resulted in an unusual combination: a brand-new (to us) deckbuilding game that still feels very much like a one-and-a-halfth generation release, meaning that it’s very beholden to Dominion.
If the name Tanto Cuore doesn’t ring a bell, saying that it’s that-game-about-maids probably will. In particular Tanto Cuore is about animesque maids, some of whom are naughty and some of whom are nice (though to my surprise, there are only a couple of panty shots amidst all the cards, the designers apparently having shown great restraint when depicting the anime genre).
The mechanics are very (very) similar to Dominion. Each turn you draw a hand of cards. Some cards are love (money), valued 1-3, and some are actions. You can play one action card, then use your money to make one buy. Individuals cards can give you more money, more buys, more actions, or additional card draws.
When you add victory point cards to that money and those actions, you get three different types of cards that work pretty much the same as in Dominion. Love cards provide money and victory cards provide victory points. Action cards differ a little in that some provide victory points too.
Despite its similarity to Dominion (which probably even exceeds that of other 1.5th generation games likeThunderstone and Ascension), Tanto Cuore does still offer some interesting additions to the deckbuilding subgenre of games. Most of them good.
Great Icons. I’ve always found it very sad that Dominion uses icons so poorly. You’ve got totally standard powers like buys, draws, and actions, but Dominion notes them only in text, making it that much harder to quickly read and assess cards. Money’s the only thing presented iconically. Sadly, most other games have followed right in Dominion‘s footsteps. Tanto Cuore instead acts like it has learned graphical lessons from the euro movement. It’s easy to see at a glance what standard powers a card has because buys, draws, actions, and money not only have standard icons, but they also appear in standard places on a card.
Interesting VP Storage Mechanic. Ever since Dominion, deckbuilding games have fought over what to do with victory cards. Dominion mixes them into the deck, making the management of these otherwise useless cards part of the game, but other games have been more reluctant to go that route. Thunderstone offered one of the common alternatives: victory point cards there are also worth gold or sometimes even have powers. Ascension offered two other major possibilities: all cards are worth some VPs, rewarding your deckbuilding engine implicitly; and pure VP cards never go into your deck, instead giving you victory point tokens (red crystals).
At the beginning of the game, Tanto Cuore uses the Dominion VP methodology, putting the cards into your deck, but from there it differs with its “private chamber” mechanism. By expending one or more actions, a player can move a VP card from his hand to his “private chamber”, where it won’t be mixed back into the deck. However, this also can be dangerous, as maids in the private chamber can be targeted by other players. It overall offers a great mix of resource management (those actions) and risk-reward — making it, in my mind, at least as strong of a system as the simple card management found in Dominion.
Variant VPs. Most deckbuilding games have had pretty staid VPs, worth 1 point, 3 points, 6 points, or whatever. Tanto Cuore has some of that, but also some variant forms. One VP card gives a majority-control VP bonus to whomever has the most of that (low-value) card. Another gives VPs for collecting pairs of cards while still another offers a geometrically increasing value for a set of cards. To a certain extent, this all feels a bit slap-dash — like Tanto Cuore tosses in any VP variants that the designer considered — but it also shows an interesting way to expand deckbuilding games (basically, by bringing in other sorts of mechanics to the VP scoring).
Unique Cards. One deck of Tanto Cuore cards containing the “private maids” features totally unique cards. There’s only one of each, and thus you get a lot more variety in your game based on which private maids show up. Tanto Cuore isn’t the only game to do this — Ascension features a few uniques among its totally random deck and even Dominion added some uniques with its “tournament” card in Cornucopia — but it’s nonetheless another good direction that deckbuilding games can go.
Unfortunately, Tanto Cuore also has some problems that might keep it from hitting the table.
Offensive Theming. This is the biggest problem. The game is about collecting maids, who are usually depicting as young and sexy women in scanty attire. It’s a theme that will be offensive to some, while others might be embarrassed to place it on the table for the same reason. (When I played it recently, I heard several apologies made to women, though most of the women seemed to consider it funny, which might just bespeak the open-mindedness of the folks at my regular game store.)
Individual Cards Not Named Well for Gaming. In this game you’ll encounter cards with names like Safran Virginie, Claire Saint-Juste, and Sainsbury Lockwood — none of which gives you the least idea of what they do. Some titles like “all-purpose maid” occasionally provide genuine information, but they’re printed so tiny that you probably won’t even notice them during the game. Yes, all the deckbuilding games are somewhat abstract in connecting up card name and power, but in Tanto Cuore that’s taken to the extreme, where you’ll have zero idea what a card does based on its name.
Very Derivative. Though I noted several interesting additions that Tanto Cuore brings to the deckbuilding genre, it actually plays very, very (very) similarly to Dominion. It also doesn’t measure up well in that comparison, as Dominion has better variety among its cards (even in just one set), and (I suspect) better balance and design too. So, it’s hard to say why you’d want to pick up Tanto Cuore rather than the original.
Overall, Tanto Cuore is the deckbuilding game that I’ve played that’s the closest in design to Dominion itself. Though it has a few game elements that designers might find interesting, players will probably only be interested in it if the theme of maid collecting particularly excites them.