July 10, 2013

For the Love of the Decktet

This past father’s day a little package arrived in the mail, which contained the official Decktet book. I’ve owned a copy of the Decktet cards for about two years – and was mostly relying on the Decktet wiki to look up rules for games I heard about and wanted to try. But having the book itself has made all the difference in the world – and has somehow magnified my appreciation and love for the Decktet.

This post will reflect a little on the Decktet and some of the games I’ve played (and enjoyed). In addition, I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight a Decktet game I’m creating – one that is attempting to create a 4X / Civ style game using the Decktet; a tall order for a little deck of 45 cards.

The Curious Case of the Decktet

For those who are not familiar, the Decktet is a set of cards following the pattern of a traditional card deck (with suits and ranks) – but with two key differences. First, the deck contains six suits instead of the usual 4; these being moons, suns, waves, knots, leaves, and wyrms. Second, the 2-9 Rank cards are all double suited cards, which is where the heart of the system lies and is what makes Decktet games refreshing and unique compared to many traditional card games.

Coupled with the inherent intrigue of the card system, the Decktet’s artwork is wonderful. It evokes a sense of otherworldliness in a profoundly familiar yet at the same time fantastical and curiously ambiguous way. Having read most of the Decktet book now, the mystique and sense of history about the deck, its origins, and the places/people/events it represents is even more intriguing. For instance, I love maps, and I was delighted to see one in the back of the Decktet book. And I smiled at the arrow pointing across the sea to the “Land of Purple and Red” – colors not represented into the Decktet’s six suits.

Clever Games in Six Suits

The Decktet is slowly becoming one of my favorite overall “games” – despite being a system that allows you to play many different games on it. The added complexity in the dual suited nature of the cards gives both more opportunities for compelling/interesting decisions in many games and also provides far greater flexibility when it comes to designing games over a traditional card game. Coupled with a few dozen suit tokens (or cubes) – there is a shocking amount of different ways the cards can be used to create different types games.

In addition, I’ve become increasingly enamored with shorter, low rule overhead games that nonetheless pack a punch when it comes to strategy and depth. I’ve never been fond of overly complex games that require players to clamber through a jungle gym obstacle course to get where they want to go. Such games, I feel, often sideline the interaction between players (on the board or above the above) – as playing it requires so much attention be paid to solitary-focused mechanics.

As for the Decktet games themselves, I’ve been playing more of those lately. Here's a run down on some of them:

The preeminent game, at least by the BGG rankings, is Magnate. Magnate is a 2-player dual / area majority game in the same territory as Battle Line; so players are playing cards across five districts in an attempt to have the most control of each. The player that controls a majority of the districts when the game ends is the winner. Driving the card play is a clever resource system, with hints of Settlers of Catan, in that you roll dice to determine which cards will produce resources.

What makes the game really sing is that players have a great deal of latitude to assemble their resource engine in a high risk or low risk due to how the mechanics work for placing cards. So there is almost two games going on at once – one is building your resource engine and the second is plotting out where you place cards to try and control the districts. Can’t say enough great stuff about Magnate.

Next on the cue is Emu Ranchers, which is another 2-player card game, where players are famers raising Emu’s. This one draws its roots heavily from Lost Cities. Like Lost Cities, players are individual building sequences of cards in front of them that share a suit (these sequences representing a growing Emu). Also like Lost Cities, there is a base cost that must be paid at the end of the game for each Emu you have going – so the whole game hinges around a risk-reward proposition of when to start an Emu depending on whether you think you’ll get enough to cover the base cost.

At first I was a little skeptical of Emu Ranchers in comparison to Lost Cities (a game I quite like) – but after 30 or so plays I’m finding it a much more interesting a varied game. Lost Cities, after probably 100 plays, has turned into a bit of an autopilot affair – with all the games playing out in mostly the same pattern. Emu Ranchers, true to many decktet games, gives players a lot of flexibility, and I find the dual suited nature of the cards providing nail-biting decisions throughout the entire game. So this one’s a keeper for sure.

As for others, I’ve played a few rounds of Goblin Market – an interesting market/auction/bidding game. I admit that I’m not the best with this genre of mechanics, and I was a little mystified playing it (although it’s possible I botched the rules). Goblin Market gets a lot of accolades, so I do want to try it more when I get the right group together.

Jacynth is a tile (card) placement game where are trying to form districts. It’s a bit of a Carcassonne inspired game, particularly in that districts can only be occupied by one player, although you can letter “break in” to someone’s district by connecting to it later on. I’ve only played it solo so far.

Adaman is a solo game of hand management and tableau building where you are trying to capture the “personality” cards in deck by using other cards as resources to purchase the personalities. I’ve played half a dozen games and still haven’t won. It’s tricky and engaging, and sucks you in.

Gongor Whist – this is another solo game (that I also still haven’t won!). It is a trick taking game and plays a bit like Wizard in that you bid on how many tricks (exactly) you are going to win. You play against a dummy hand and have the ability to cycle through trump cards. It’s really tricky and fun to play – and really challenges you to keep track of which cards have been played (or not). Struggling to win this game, with the ever increasing tension as the number of trick bid choices diminishes, has made this one of the more memorable and engaging solo games I’ve ever played. I love it.

Emissary: Civ-Lite / 4X Comes to the Decktet

Admiring the Decktet as I do, I couldn’t help trying my hand at designing a game for the system. I was curious about whether I could design an incredibly light “4X” empire building / civilization style game using the decktet. The “In-a-tin / Express PnP Design Contest” provided the right kick-in-the-pants to get me going. So after a long 4th of July weekend at the lake cottage, I worked out a playable ruleset for a Decktet game called Emissary.

I’ve written up some additional notes on the design over on the Emissary WIP Thread for the curious. Or you can take a look at the current rules. I’d love for the Dectket aficionados to give it a try and let me know if they have feedback/thoughts on the gameplay.

Suffice to say – I’m impressed that the design using the Decktet came so easily – a testament I think to the flexibility provided by the card system. As a sort of Hegemonic Express, Emissary has players exploring a map of cards, expanding their influence onto those cards, exploiting resources (to fuel further expansion) and endeavoring to exterminate your opponent’s influence. It’s all premised, thematically, on some Great Empires of the Decktet mythos sending their political agents abroad to win control over and unify unruly (and distant) city states.

The scoring system combines ideas from Magnate and Jacynth, as well as Glen More in a way. Districts are formed across the cards in the map where adjacent cards share common suits. At the end of the game, players earn points for their relative level of influence they have in each district, multiplied by the total size of the district. What’s interesting is that, like in Glen More, the influence part of the scoring equation is based on the difference between your level of influence and the player with the least influence in that district.

I’ve only played 2 and 3-player games solo at this point. The game works and provides interesting choices throughout – but it clearly needs more refinement. If interested in providing feedback, feel free to do so here on in the WIP thread.

Thanks – and if you don’t have a Decktet – the time is right to pick one up. Cheers!

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