Thursday, September 13, 2012

Unplugged - Penny Arcade: The Game: Gamers vs. Evil and Rumble in R'lyeh

A great game that might not be worth the price of entry.

  As a big Penny Arcade fan, it's hard not to jump at the chance for a game made by them. The duo of Gabe and Tycho know games inside and out from both the creative and the player side of things. I know I can expect interesting things from their unique brand of know-how and humor. Penny Arcade: The Game and it's stand-alone sequel/add-on is a distinct opportunity for them to draw from a rich history with their comic to combine fan-service with a unique deck-building game. I just don't know if you really get your money's worth for it.

  Penny Arcade: The Game: Gamers vs. Evil is a fairly simple game. Each player chooses a hero card from an assortment of Penny Arcade characters, including the dysfunctional duo themselves, as well as all your favorites like Carl from "Automata" and Tycho's niece, Anarchy. Everybody then starts off with only a handful of quarters and cardboard tubes that they then must use to buy or defeat enemies, to build up a deck that they can use against the bosses. Each enemy can usually only be bought or defeated with a cardboard tube, so you've got your green and red decks to reflect that. There are bosses that can be defeated, which is the best way to win, but it's not the only way. Most enemies that are fought with cardboard tubes yield Victory Points, so if you focus enough on them, you might be able to win without ever touching a boss. The bosses give loot with a large chunk of Victory Points, but they're harder to defeat. Also, if you overdraw from the enemy decks, the game is immediately over and the player with the most Victory Points wins. This makes a unique strategy that keeps all players balancing the rush to down the bosses, while making sure their enemies aren't just trying to end the game with a lot of little victories.

  It feels like the instructions do a very poor job of explaining this premise to you. They feel like they're explaining the game out of order and from the perspective of somebody who doesn't know how to give very good demonstrations at a convention. It's not until you actually start playing, so you can reference the different sections of the manual out of order, that you get a sense for how to actually play the game step-by-step. And when you're looking at the cards, it's hard to immediately discern what cards do what. The boss loot shares the same picture as the boss cards, but they look like monster cards, and each monster stack has a red-backed version of itself that goes in a completely separate deck for randomizing what monsters you fight that game... It all works when you finally manage to piece it together, but there really feels like a lack of clarity that could have been fixed with some additional card border colors, or clearer markings, and a much more well-thought out instruction manual. Once you're actually into the game, however, it's actually an incredibly easy to play, yet subtly strategic game.

  There's a lot going on in terms of what you can do. Each turn, you draw 6 cards, and by the end of your turn you'll discard them all. This urges players to play fast and hard by spending everything they can on buying and defeating monsters (with coins and cardboard tubes, respectively). By purchasing or defeating your enemies (which is the same thing, really, just with different types of cards), you put them into your own discard pile. This assimilates them into the deck for further use, allowing you to do more complex maneuvers, as each type of monster card has it's own abilities. Some make you add Pax Pox cards to your opponent's deck, which are essentially drawing dead weight cards that have no effect whatsoever, while others allow you to spend more tokens or cardboard tubes than you normally would be able to. Once your deck is exhausted, you shuffle up your discard pile and keep going with all your new gains. It's really quite exhilarating, but also makes for a more fast-paced affair than something like a Catan or a Munchkin.

  Penny Arcade: The Game: Rumble in R'lyeh adds more of everything in the first game, while itself containing enough to be it's own title. More monsters, more hero cards, and more bosses can be mixed in with the original, or played off to the side, but it also comes with a unique Gold Card mechanic. A third row of cards that are almost boss cards themselves, requiring a divide of quarters and tubes to defeat, but also yielding higher rewards. The best thing about it is that it allows you to play with even more variety in your randomly-generated games.

  Overall, I'd say this game is an absolute blast to play (for up to 4 players), but the package falls short when you start talking contents versus price. When you open the box one one of these, there's a great deal of emptiness that gives a knee-jerk "I just paid for this?" reaction. It's easy to see that their goal was to allow expansions to be added in, so they made a bigger box with a lot of free room for exactly that. Throw in the knowledge that the second game would be stand-alone, but could also be mixed in, and it makes sense that they'd come in equally big boxes so you can combine them if you want. But it doesn't defeat the fact that opening that box for the first time is a bit disheartening.

Remember: this is two-games put together.

  At $45 each, what you see above is $90 (plus tax!) worth of goods. Comparatively, it's not up to snuff with the contents of a $25 dollar game of Munchkin, or even a $60 dollar game of Arkham Horror. Arkham may have a high investment capital, but there's a ton of cards, pieces, and a giant board, all intricately designed and all very high quality. It's hardly worth it even compared to the original Penny Arcade: The Card Game that Fantasy Flight published, which itself was just recycled art and mechanics from the Penny Arcade decks from the Vs TCG. 

  I would rank the cards for this game, which mind you are the only things you get other than a d20, are among the cheapest cards I've ever played with in a game. Knowing Cryptozoic, the game's publisher, has done some fine work the World of Warcraft card game, I was let down by the lack of quality out of this package. It's mostly recycled Penny Arcade comic artwork, the 'interface' of the cards feels wholly undeveloped, and there's none of Tycho's distinct writing (outside of any text that may appear from the comic.) Nothing about this game feels like the Penny Arcade team had any work to do for it other than designing the (admittedly awesome) box covers. There's not a lot of "Wow!" in this box beyond "I remember Rex Ready... those were pretty funny comics." So just what am I paying $45 a box for? I hope I'm wrong in thinking that it might be solely for the fact that this has Penny Arcade in the name.

  What you have is a great core game, and some appreciative fanboy happy-sauce, but overall I just can't get over the fact that it feels cheap and unfinished. For $45 I can get Cards Against Humanity and it's two expansions, which at least has the excuse of feeling cheap because it was a Kickstarter project that was made as cheaply as possible so that it could exist at all. I never have a problem paying a lot for a game, but I need to feel like there's a reason I paid that price. As much as I like this game, I just don't get that feeling.

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