A Deckbuilding Look at Witches of the Revolution

Witches of the Revolution (2017) is the newest game to combine deckbuilding and cooperative play. Rune Age (2011) is the oldest game I know in this duo-genre, but it used the tack of taking an existing game and offering cooperative gameplay as a variant, and the results were somewhat lack-luster. We’ll have to see if Star Realms (2014) and Hero Realms (2016) do better, as they both have cooperative scenarios on the way. However, Aeon’s End (2016) offered a different methodology: a pure co-op build on the deckbuilding mechanic. Witches of the Revolution continues that trend.


The Game

In Witches of the Revolution the object is to resolve events before too many pile up, ending your game prematurely. You do so by playing cards, each of which has two or more icons on it. When you put together a large-enough set of icons, you resolve the event card. There’s an important second step: whenever you remove an event card, you also get to remove a matching chit from one of your four objectives. If you manage to finish up all four of your objectives before you’re killed by events, you win.

However, those cards are multi-purpose, and that’s where the deckbuilding comes in. Instead of using a card to help with events, you can instead use it to buy cards. These go into your draw pile and will help you on future turns.

Because I’m looking at the deckbuilding aspect of the game, I’m only going to note the co-op play as it interrelates with the deckbuilding; focusing on the co-op itself would be a whole different article.

So what does Witches’ deckbuilding do, that’s interesting or troublesome?

The Good

A Queue that Moves. From Ascension (2010) onward, numerous deckbuilding games have offered random cards for sale in face-up purchase rows. To keep things from clogging, they’ve usually also included ways to remove cards from that row — sometimes randomly, sometimes by choice. Witches of the Revolution similarly has random cards for sale, but it puts them in a queue, causing them to very quickly drop off if they’re not purchased. Copycat (2012) is one of the few deckbuilders to use a similar methodology, but where Copycat used its queue to create a Dutch auction, Witches of the Revolution instead uses it as a cooperative punishment: buy not the good cards and they will disappear!

Permanent Cost for Purchases. We all know how the deckbuilding drill works by now: you temporarily expend cards to permanently add new ones to your deck. It’s how your deck improves. Except, that’s not how Witches of the Revolution works at all; instead you have to permanently expend cards to make new purchases! This works because there are some ways to discount your purchases. It also creates a very different dynamic, where it feels like you’re leveling up your cards when you make purchases, because you’re simultaneously filtering out an old card and replacing it with something (slightly) better. It’s a nice demonstration of how we can become set in our design ways … and how you can rebel against them to create new perspectives.

Intriguing Cost for Shuffling. One of the most interesting aspects of Witches’ deckbuilding play is that you’re punished for shuffling your deck (by the co-op aspect of the game becoming harder). This seems almost anathema to the genre of deckbuilding, but Witches actually isn’t the first game to go in this direction. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) has your character die if you run through your deck! Of course, to make this sort of thing work, you have to other mechanisms that support it. In the case of PACG there’s a whole menu of actions that allow you to shuffle, reshuffle, and otherwise reuse your deck. Witches keeps it simple: new cards go on the top of your deck instead of into the discard. Overall, this demonstrates another way that a deckbuilder can shake up the expectations for deckbuilding play, to its benefit.

Strong Integration of Deckbuilding and Co-op Play. As I’ve written before, many third-generation deckbuilder games use deckbuilding as a singular mechanic in a larger, interconnected game system. That’s very much the case in Witches, where it’s a harmonious part of a greater whole. That begins with the core tactical choice of the game: do you use a card to remove an event (fueling the co-op play) or to buy a new card (fueling the deckbuilder play)? However the fact that shuffling your deck advances the co-op’s challenge system shows another tight integration. In order for this style of more integrated play to work, the deckbuilding mechanics need to be minimized, and that’s certainly the case in Witches, though it may be too much …

The Bad

Very Simplistic Cards. In fact, the simplicity of the deckbuilding cards is the biggest limitation of Witches of the Revolution. Each card tends to have a purchase value and icons representing its ability to remove events … and that’s almost it. There are special powers on the cards, but they’re used much less frequently than the simplistic icons and costs, and they’re drawn from a very limited palette. As a result, it feels like you have just a handful of meaningfully different powers, and that goes against the core design of deckbuilder games, where power variability tends to be the main thing that keeps the game fresh.

Limited Deckbuilding. The deckbuilding itself also feels somewhat minimalistic, as has often been the case in integrated deckbuilding games. Because of the need to counter events, you don’t acquire cards every turn, and you almost never acquire more than one card in a turnl. Further, because of the slow leveling up that results from you turning in cards to gain new cards, you rarely see large changes in your deck This feeling of sameness is accentuated by the general similarities in the cards. In other words, you don’t deckbuild as much as you’d expect to in a deckbuilding game, and when you do the increases are incremental … and may feel like even less.

Summary

Witches of the Revolution does a great job of rethinking the core precepts of deckbuilding play and reinventing them. There are no sacred cows here: Witches is willing to reconsider even core mechanics like card purchasing and deck shuffling, which is what’s needed to create new innovations in any gaming category. It also really nicely integrates its deckbuilding as a single system in a larger machine. However that’s its biggest deficit as well: by doing so it’s simplified and minimized the deckbuilding to the point where it sort of fades into the background.

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