Instead, you can have a deckbuilder that features a small, fixed decks of cards packaged in a single small box. That’s the case with small-press Pergamemnon, by Bernd Eisenstein’s ironGames — which also offers a lot of additions to the deckbuilding field as well.
In Pergamemnon, each player starts with a small set of cards appropriate for their peoples (Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Rome, or Persia), as well as a single point of stored charisma (the currency of the game).
On his turn, a player can attack another player or buy a card.
To attack someone, the player chooses a target (which is limited to prevent individuals from getting attacked too often), then chooses a type of attack (bows, swords, or spears). He plays an attack card of the appropriate type and the defender plays a defense card of the appropriate type, which are then simultaneously revealed. Somewhat complex rules allow the attacks to go back and forth, but eventually there’s either or a stalemate or one of the players wins.
In the case of a win, the winning player gets to take all of the cards the loser used. He can either add them to his discard pile (and thus, eventually, to his deck) or else he can store them away — to use them only as currency or victory points in the future.
That’s clearly a pretty unique sort of deckbuilding, that I’m going to talk about more.
Buying a card is more typical. You must spend some currency from your hand and some currency from your storage, then you buy something and add it to your deck.
I’ve omitted a lot in the game: both the complexities of the combat system and the way that turn order works. However, the core ideas of the deckbuilding should be obvious from the above, and that’s of course the point of this series of articles.
Unlike a lot of the deckbuilding games I’ve been looking at, I can’t really see the heritage of Pergamemnon. It uses core ideas of buying cards, and putting them into decks, but from there it’s pretty far from Dominion or anything that came before it.
Pergamemnon does quite a bit to expand the deckbbuilder genre by approaching things in new and innovative ways.
Pre-Built, Unique Decks. Each player gets his own pre-built deck of cards. These cards are different from the cards that any of the other players have, and many of them are also unique. I’ve played several games that have a few unique cards, but this is the first that I’ve seen that totally breaks the core deckbuilder paradigm of having multiple copies of just a few different cards and those cards being available to all players (A Few Acres of Snow comes the closest, since it has unique cards for all of its locations, but it still falls back on some general cards like ships and settlers — though in pretty low quantities).
Hand in hand with that, each player also has a unique power. One player can capture “fleeing” cards, another pays less for purchased cards, etc. Penny Arcade does something similar, in giving each player a character with powers, but it’s another rarity in the deckbuilder field.
All told, the unique decks, unique cards, and unique player powers give Pergamemnon some great theming. Generally, I feel like the deckbuilder genre has been a bit abstract, so it’s niced to see this, and I think it’s Pergamemnon’s biggest addition to the field. However, it also led to one of the game’s problems, which I’ll return to.
Conflict-Driven Purchase Method. Sure, you can buy cards from the middle of the table, but the majority of the time that you get a new card it’ll be because you stole it from someone else’s deck. The ability to take cards from other people is almost unknown in the deckbuilding genre (though there are a handful of cards here and there that sort of let you do this). A Few Acres of Snow is (again) one of the few exceptions; in that game, you can take a village from another player and then steal the card related to it.
Conflict-Driven Game. More generally, conflict is heavily built into Pergamemnon. Even if you choose to buy cards, you still have to pay part of the cost with stored cards — which come either from attacking other players (and storing your loot) or else successfully defending yourself. This is a totally different dynamic from any other deckbuilder out there (except, again, for A Few Acres of Snow).
Loss-Driven Filtering. Filtering is a very important aspect of deckbuilding games that was underplayed in Dominion, but has been used to good effect by other games since. However, deckbuilding filtering is almost always a very staid decision made by the deckbuilder. In Pergamemnon you instead filter cards out of your deck by losing them in a combat. This means that if you’re not careful you can lose good cards, but it also means that you can choose to throw a fight to dump bad cards out of your deck, changing a “loss” into a deckbuilding win. Making such a core deckbuilding mechanic into the result of another action rather than a choice on its own is a nice, innovative element — and in many ways the flip side of gaining cards by winning combats. However, together the two sides of conflict-based card acquisition and loss lead to another of Pergamemnon’s problems, which I’ll also return to.
Interesting Storage System. The fact that you can store stolen cards rather than placing them in your deck is interesting too, for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it represents a resource that you can store from round to round — yet it’s cleverly done using cards, rather than coins or some other component. Most deckbuilders are entirely tactical from round to round, while this mechanic pushes Pergamemnon into the ranks of deckbuilders that allow for strategic play other than just the deckbuilding itself. A Few Acres of Snow similarly allows card storage (and also has a coin resource which is stored from round to round), while Eminent Domain supports long-term strategy through the controlled discard of cards as does Nightfall.
Interesting Hand Ecology. However, the ability to store cards is just one part of Pergamemnon’s hand ecology. The game also offers a rather interesting mechanic where after winning a battle, a player can draw his hand back up and attack again. However after losing, a player can discard, then draw. This effectively makes a player’s hand worse and worse the more he wins, and shows off an interesting way that a deckbuilding game can mold a player’s hand to become the worst possible result given the constraints of his deck.
With that many innovations to the deckbuilding format, it’s not surprising that Pergamemnon takes some deckbuilding missteps. Here were the most obvious two:
The Poor Get Poorer. When you lose a battle in Pegamemnon, you lose some cards and you might lose your next turn (due to the innovative and funky turn method in the game). Sure, you might be able to use that loss to filter cards, but you also might have put up a good defense that you thought would win and thus have lost some of your best cards. This can easily snowball and shows off the potential problems of integrating a conflict into the acquisition or loss of cards in a deckbuilding game.
Possible Balance Issues. I haven’t played the game enough to say for sure, but the decks in Pergamemnon didn’t seem well balanced. In my game, the Persian deck just walked all over everyone else in battles. Other discussions on the ‘net seem to support this theory. In any case, this is a danger in offering up personal, tuned decks to each player in the game.
With that said, I personally feel like Pergamemnon had other problems that went beyond the deckbuilding issues. The biggest two were the fact that the English rules are quite bad and that the game seems badly developed — which I feel led to the issues like deck unbalance, the interesting but ineffective turn ordering, and the snowballing problems with losing cards through conflict. I’ve written elsewhere about how indie games can easily be worse for the fact that they weren’t developed by someone else independently, and I think that was the case here.
Which is too bad, as there’s some cool stuff here, and the game easily could have been a total winner like the same author’s Peloponnes — an innovative auction and resource management game that’s racked up 7 plays for me, even though I don’t own the game.
Pergamemnon adds some great things to the rapidly evolving deckbuilding genre — among the best being its well-themed, unique player decks and its conflict-driven deckbuilding. Sadly, the resulting game doesn’t work that great, at least for me. Still, it’s something that I think future deckbuilders would do well to look at.