Penny Arcade has been released as two standalone deckbuilding games: Gamers vs Evil (2011) and Rumble in R’lyeh (2012). They’re both pretty basic deckbuilders, but they still offer some interesting ideas for the deckbuilding genre.
Though Penny Arcade is a much later release than most one-and-a-halfth generation deckbuilding games like Thunderstone (2009) and Tanto Cuore (2009), it nonetheless shares a lot of elements in common with Dominion. However, it also builds strongly on another deckbuilder, Ascension (2010), thus offering the first look at a third generation of deckbuilder games — which are influenced not just by Dominion, but also by other deckbuilder releases.
Much like Ascension, Penny Arcade has two different currencies (tokens and power) which are used to buy two different sorts of cards (gamer cards and evil cards). It’s the cards themselves that give the victory points in the game. Cards can also generate more tokens and more power, allow you to draw more cards, or offer up other special powers. There’s no limitation to playing cards with special actions, unlike in Dominion.
You can find out more about the game in my Review of Gamers vs. Evil. I’ll have a Rumble at R’lyeh review out there too, in another week.
So, what does Penny Arcade offer to the deckbuilding gestalt?
A Bare Bones Deckbuilder. Even more than Ascension — which would have won my previous prize — Penny Arcade is the most cut-down deckbuilder that I’ve seen. It uses just a few core assumptions (buying cards, shuffling them into your deck) and creates a simple game around that. As such, it’s not a bad starting point for designers thinking about deck builders, but not wanting to get caught up in many of the specifics of Dominion (with its ideas of 1 buy, 1 action, and more). Mind you, even as a bare bones game, Penny Arcade makes assumptions that aren’t required for a deck builder (like having to buy your cards or them being worth victory points).
An Excellent Gateway. Because of its simplicity, Penny Arcade is definitely one of the best contenders for a gateway game that could get non-gamers into the deckbuilding genre. In my mind, it’s still in contention for this title with Ascension. Penny Arcade is unequivocally simpler, but Ascension handily doesn’t require a new player to learn the powers of any more cards than the six that are out at any time.
Either way, Penny Arcade is one of the best of this type.
Strong Differentiation of Card Types. Penny Arcade has two sorts of cards, and they’re fairly different: Gamer cards tend to be stronger and tend to offer tokens, while Evil cards tend to be less strong, tend to be worth victory points, and tend to offer power. This is probably not as good as the strong differentiation of the three sorts of cards in Ascension, but it’s definitely a move in the same direction, and something that many deckbuilders could learn from.
Boss Cards Offer a Different Sort of Victory Point. Penny Arcade‘s biggest innovation is its “boss” card setup. These cards are essentially the victory point pile, but they’re unique in three ways.
First, the boss card are placed in a pile that includes three boss cards that mark an increase in the cost of buying the cards as the game goes on — with the cost ratcheting up after four cards have been bought, then again after another four. Thunderstone is the only other game I can think of that increases the cost of some of its cards over time (in the guise of Thunderstone‘s leveling-up heroes).
Second, the actual loot cards you get from the boss card stack when you defeat the boss are all unique. Resident Evil is a rare other deckbuilder that offer unique cards. Both games show the right way to do this: by using the same artwork, but with different (presumably related) abilities on different cards. In any case, this uniqueness is an interesting variation to the repetitive cards in most deckbuilders.
Third, these boss loot cards also have very strong effects. This is a big change from the standard set by Dominion where victory points actually weakened your hand. Instead, these victory points ramp you up notably, which can make the end of the game more fun (whereas Dominion can sometimes turn into a slog at the end).
Generally, these unique elements show that the assumptions you find in Dominion about victory points don’t need to kept in other deckbuilding games (though victory points have probably been changed more than anything else following Dominion, with Tanto Cuore being a rarity that mostly keeps Dominion‘s VP as they are).
Multiple Currencies. Like Ascension, Penny Arcade has two currencies. Unlike Ascensions these currencies are much more similar, producing similar results.
Multi-Currency Cards. Related to its dual currencies, the second Penny Arcade box, Rumble at R’lyeh, has some cards that require both currencies to purchase. This is based on the foundation of Penny Arcade‘s two currencies being so similar to each other — but it again suggests how far you can go from Dominion‘s assumptions about currencies.
The idea of multi-currency cards also can really shape how players build their decks. In a two-currency game, players will usually be pushed to specialize in one, so that their random draws are more useful. Multi-currency cards, if they’re powerful enough (and I think they are in Rumble in R’lyeh), will instead push players to balance their decks.
PvP Attacks Are Very Systematic. Of all the deckbuilding games I’ve played, Penny Arcade is the most systematic in its player-vs-player (PvP) attacks. Cards specifically have spaces for “PvP Attack:” and “PvP Defense:” to make it really obvious what can be used to block what. In addition, these attacks seem to be a bit more common than in other games, making confrontational interaction more likely to come up in every game of Penny Arcade.
Penny Arcade doesn’t make many missteps in the new elements it adds to the deckbuilding world, but that’s mainly because it’s very careful in staying close to the tried and true — which is its biggest issue.
Similar to Existing Games. I talked a lot about what Penny Arcade adds to the deckbuilder genre, but most of that is polish or repetition of earlier ideas. The game’s multi-currency cards and its boss card setup are its only true innovations — though its push toward PvP is at least an innovative emphasis. Mind you, I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with this; Penny Arcade is clearly its own game. However, players of Dominion, Ascension, and Tanto Cuore will probably get a sense of déjà vu.
Relatively Simple. The bare-bones system also results in a pretty simple game. I felt like Gamers vs. Evil was somewhat shallow, with most of the decisions being in the purchase of cards, not how they were used. I felt like there was more thoughtful play of cards in the second set, Rumble in R’lyeh, but it still doesn’t have the depth of a Dominion, particularly in its later expansion.
Though a lot of Penny Arcade is polish of existing deckbuilder ideas, it’s good polish and good simplification of those ideas. Designers could well learn something by looking at a deckbuilder stripped of complexities.
As for players, they’ll probably decide if they like Penny Arcade based on how they feel about a simpler game. I have no question that it’ll be a great entry-level game for new players, especially with its friendly theming. More experienced players may find their mileage varying. (Personally, I had fun playing it, as did my group, as much because of the funny theming as the simple mechanics, but see my actual review for more of that.)
If you’ve been enjoying my deckbuilding design articles, stay tuned. I’ve got two more scheduled for the near future: A Few Acres of Snow (probably in 2 weeks) and Pergamemnon (probably in 4 weeks). Meanwhile, I’ll be back here next week with something else entirely, as I’m trying to interleave my deckbuilding article with other discussions, so that the blog doesn’t become too focused on one part of the hobby.