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Double, Double, Toil and Deconstructing the Troubles of a Deckbuilder

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A Look at the Unique Mechanics in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

A guest post by Kylo Glen

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Deck builders have been around for eight years or so now. Their origins trace back to the original Dominion by Donald X. Vaccarino, who took the pre-setup deck construction portion of collectible games like Magic: The Gathering, and made it into a game. Those games require you to show up with a deck that you have finely tuned to do battle with, but a deck-building game is a game that mirrors that process of adding strong cards, removing weak cards, and ultimately building synergies on the fly.

In the immediate aftermath of Dominion, deck-building games exploded as their own genre. Every intellectual property seemed to be adapted into a deck builder. Tweaks and innovations came along the way: adding multiple currencies, not including points as dead cards in the deck, multi-deck co-ops, player versus player, deck-building-driven board games, and so on.

But at a point, there really seemed to be less and less innovation, or at least less exciting innovation, to where it felt more like rearranging furniture rather than remodeling, or even cynically, like slapping a poor paint job over top. It’s been said in some review circles that deck builders are “over”—others have said things like “the only thing worse than a deck builder is a co-op deck builder.” While these scathing comments might be brutal, they highlight a candid feeling: we’ve hit a saturation point. Gone are the days and excitement that Dominion and others captured.

Then again, I want to suggest that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle looks at the irritating aspects of deck builders and innovates around them; it also invites new players to take a gander at these things for the first time.

This isn’t a review. I will dip into review-esque language, but this is more meant to highlight things that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (HPHB) does that break up and shake up the norm of deck builders. I don’t think it’s the best deck builder, but it does make design choices I don’t think others have contemplated yet, and it does so (in my opinion) to serve the broad audience that Harry Potter has.

1. Onboarding, or You’re a Wizard, Player 1

When you open the box, you’re confronted with a pretty display of 7+ boxes — like your seven books from the Harry Potter series. It says, “Hey, if you’re a deck-building vet, go ahead and skip the first couple games.” The first couple games are meant specifically to get you familiar with the idea of deck building: you face one villain at a time, you don’t have any superpowers for playing any particular character, and you have your thin Ron, Hermione, Neville, or Harry deck.

As you progress through the game, you progress in complexity. You gain special powers for being a particular hero, and you gain specializations. Additionally, as you’ve learned how the game works, you face more villains at once who synergize with abilities that bounce off of one another.

This allows folks who are learning to ease into the game and ultimately become a pro; for veterans, it creates modules which work as a smaller campaign (which, while not brand new, is still awesome).

2. Token Generation, or Multiplayer Non-Solo and the Mind Game of Buying Cards

Cards in HPHB generate (in effect) two currencies: Resources and Fight (not unlike Ascension or Star Realms). Uniquely, it does so by having you put tokens in front of you each time you play a card from your hand. This initially can feel redundant to a veteran gamer. However, it manages to solve a potential issue to new players while creating unique opportunities for design.

First, let’s be honest: how weird is the head game of trying to figure out your particular important numbers? When I play cards in Dominion, I have to remember how much coin and how many buys, on top of having additional draw. Not to mention the other things brought on by expansions along the way. It’s similar in most deck builders. If I’m playing on a digital platform, there’s a running tab so I don’t have to do the mental math, but if I’m at the table, it can always run the risk of being confusing.

HPHB seems to address this for a broader audience by simply saying, “The card says you get one resource; put a resource token in front of you.” Math averted. As I said, this can seem redundant, and in fact, when we first started playing, we ignored this aspect entirely. But this allows for new design space.

Deck builders all run the risk of being some degree of multiplayer solitaire. That is, be they cooperative or competitive, at times everyone is playing a weird game by themselves. Often when we say a deck builder is cooperative, we’re mostly just saying that we all have the same goal or that we’re attacking the game AI as opposed to fighting each other. HPHB, in adding the token system, allows for a new, unique cooperative experience where my cards and other in-game effects can add tokens to other players’ pools, giving them added benefits along the way. Further, these effects can lead to more traditional cooperative experiences by chaining effects.

For example, Ron Weasley has the ability that when he places 3 Fight tokens on a villain, he may give one player Health. This in turn leads to players intentionally choosing cards that add Fight tokens to other players’ pools so as to double down on Ron’s ability. It also leads to interesting conversations between players, like one saying, “Can someone give Hermione resources so she can grab the Elder Wand? It would be fantastic for her.” While these conversations are not absent entirely from other cooperative deck builders, it does increase the interactivity. It goes beyond merely asking, “Can anyone beat up that enemy?”

3. Trashing Trashing, or The Art of Embracing Randomness

There is no getting around it: HPHB has a lot of randomness.

This is the part where you might expect that I will assuage your fears and say, “But it has these ways of mitigating randomness”–but it doesn’t, really. What it does do, however, is try to find unique ways of making you okay with the randomness. It does so because it forgoes a fundamental concept of deck building: there is no trashing.

That’s right, probably the more important mechanic after card draw in a deck builder is trashing. Trashing allows you to take your initial weak cards, ditch them, and thereby increase the frequency with which you see the newer, better cards. The result is a svelte deck ready to deliver a punishing laser beam of focused awesome cards. HPHB doesn’t play that game.

Instead, it incentivizes your starting cards and at times punishes you for having more expensive cards. So there are Villain cards that fire at the top of each turn and offer a reprieve if you reveal a zero-cost card (starting cards are the only zero-cost cards) off the top of your deck. I think this is an interesting way of both managing power level and avoiding what can be an otherwise odd aspect of deck building to novices.

4. Conclusion.

Once again, I want to be clear that this is not meant as a review. Though it can be incredibly difficult to avoid review territory when talking about games in any fashion, my goal was really to highlight things I’d never seen before: tokens replacing head math and how that lends itself to better cooperative mechanics, the campaign and on-boarding of new players, and no trashing but that not being the worst thing ever.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle does things I’ve never seen in a deck builder before. In fact, in the true spirit of deck-building games, it takes something that is nothing (or even something that is problematic) and makes it into something. Where once there was a sometimes tedious process, like building a CCG deck, someone saw a game, and from there, someone managed to find odds and ends that needed tightening and streamlining to make a successful game for a more general audience.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. There is still room in the deck building genre for innovation, and it’s good to see this game attempting some. But you are correct in that bringing out something that is just another deck building game won’t be enough; any new ones will have to bring something else to the table as well.

  2. My wife is super excited about this game. I keep hearing about randomness in it… and that scares me to some degree, but it may not be bad for a light co-op style play. I like the sound of the token system.

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