These words conclude the story introduction to the card game Genegrafter, an introduction that promises a tense standoff between various factions of genetically enhanced superhumans. Set in a futuristic cyberpunk world where these supers are starting to take over, Genegrafter gives you the opportunity to build your own faction of combatants and attempt to wipe out your opponents.
Does it succeed?
How it Works
Genegrafter is a simple card game featuring the aforementioned genetically modified people. Each player has a hand of cards, drawn from a central deck. There are Characters, Abilities, and Events.
Each character features an attack value, a defense value, a super power, and a number of genetic markers.
On a player’s turn, they draw 1 card. If they draw an Event or a DNA card, it is played immediately. Events have some effect, such as forcing everyone to destroy one of their characters, or switching score piles between players with the highest and lowest scores. DNA cards do nothing, until the 3rd one is revealed, at which point the game ends. Otherwise, if the card is an Ability or Character, it goes into the player’s hand.
The player must then must play at least one character if possible (and no more than 3). Characters stay in play until defeated.
After playing their character(s) the player may then attack other players’ characters, if there are any other characters in play. Each character may only attack once and be attacked once per turn, so no one can take 3 characters and gang up on one. Also, you can only attack each other player (not character) once per turn.
Attack is simple. The current player declares their attack, and then players take turns playing additional cards on their character or taking a token from their player board and adding it to their character. Each ability card added may have one of a few different effects – either adding 1 to the attack/defense value (or 2 if the power on the Ability matches the power on the character), or allows the player to re-roll or double a single die roll. Each token adds 1 to the attack/defense value as well, but players have only 3 of each (attack and defense) and once used, they’re gone for the rest of the game.
Once players are done adding cards and tokens and adding up attack and defense values, they roll a number of dice equal to the appropriate value. Rolls are totaled and whoever has the highest value wins, destroys the other character, and adds the destroyed character to their gene pool (worth points at the end of the game!).
Then, play passes to the next player. Continue until the game ends when the 3rd DNA strand is revealed, at which point the player with the most DNA strands (killed characters) in their gene pool is the winner.
There are many types of games in this universe. There are games designed to be tightly packed competitions with streamlined mechanisms and tough decisions; there are games designed to tell stories; there are games designed to simply be silly. There are long games, short games, filler games, deep euros, complex war-games, and party games. And then there are games that aren’t so much games as they are a system of rules that sort of works to create an experience somewhat close to, but not quite, playing a game. Unfortunately, Genegrafter is one of those types of games.
The concept is interesting. Genetically enhanced humans in a dystopian future fighting to create the strongest gene pool? Sounds cool to me. That’s what caught my attention in the first place. Unfortunately, the game creates nothing even close to an experience that reflects this story. There certainly is no gene grafting of any kind, and the genetic enhancement itself is barely present, and certainly not in a creative way.
Games can do this kind of thing (i.e. ignore the theme) and still succeed (See: Eurogames), but those sorts of games have interesting, well designed mechanisms that are the central focus. Genegrafter just so happens to lack any of this.
In fact, what Genegrafter feels like more than anything else, is half a game (or less). What you have in the box is a deck of 54 cards. According to the rulebook, there are 18 different superpowers. Only one of those superpowers actually has a special rule (regeneration) which is actually sort of broken – there is no way to actually score the card (even though it has 2 points on it). The deck breaks down into about 2-3 cards available per superpower, and ability cards are the only thing that make powers different – even though most ability cards do the same thing (add more dice to roll). One power – Flight – doesn’t even have an ability card tied to it, making the power itself meaningless.
All this means there is very little you can do that is interesting with the combination of abilities and characters – if you’re lucky enough to draw a matching character and ability , you just use it one time. There’s no reason to save it, since you’ll likely lose the matching character quickly if you don’t. Regardless, it’s nearly impossible to collect decent combinations, since you only draw 1 card per turn and you often play more than 1 card, which causes your hand size to slowly dwindle. Characters rarely survive more than 1 round, so you’re constantly running out of cards until all you have in your hand are modifiers, which leave you with nothing to do. You can’t save up anything or hold back to unleashed a well-planned assault. All you do is play the cards with the best numbers on them.
Powers do not interact, since they do nothing aside from align with ability cards, and Abilities do little more than add extra dice to roll. Only a few modifiers do anything remotely interesting – double a die roll and force re-rolls – but there’s only one of each (and both tied to the same power – Luck). The only other unique Ability card is healing, which provides a rather useless bonus when tied to the correct power – the ability to heal 2 heroes instead of 1 – useless because 90% of the time you’ll only have 1 hero wounded at one time.
The combat resolution, while simple, suffers from being too simple. There is no ‘twist’ – no ‘hook’. You just roll a bunch of dice and whoever rolls higher wins. Again, no interaction with superpowers, no interesting way to adjust your dice, not even a “number of successes” system which would be far less swingy than simple totals. Winning and losing is completely random.
Speaking of swingy, the event cards included are absolutely terrible. They are the definition of “not fun.” Some cards force everyone to discard a character; this really just hurts the current player if they hope to attack anyone, and it also hurts the losing players more than the winner. But don’t worry, there’s another event card – one that literally switches the “gene pools” (also known as the score) of the highest and lowest players. In the games I played, the winner was never the one who killed the most opposing characters, it was the player who happened to be in last place when that event card was drawn the last time. (Unless you’re tied for last; there are no rules for what happens when players are tied at that point). The card might as well read “everything you do is meaningless.”
It’s kind of sad, because it seems there is a lot of potential in the concept. If modifiers did more interesting things than just add dice, there could be clever ways of combining the different genetic modifications to enhance your attacks and have more control over rolls. If “killing” a character allowed you to claim some benefit, some extra gene modifications or something, it could back up the “gene grafter”/”evolve or perish” theme. If there were fewer powers overall, there could be a more interesting risk/reward system of hand management.
Instead you have a mishmash of cards that don’t mix, questionable powers, and empty promises. I couldn’t find rules for the white die pictured below, although after some research I found some ideas for it in the brainstorming stage on the kickstarter page. There are promises of “equipment” cards to allow further customization; in fact, there are promises from the designer that there will be plenty of expansion in the future. Maybe these expansions will fix it, but for now, half the game is missing.
As a reviewer is it always more challenging to write a negative review. It’s easy to rave about a game that excites me. But when a game is negative, I have to question my assumptions. I check and re-check rules. I have to decide whether or not I want to even post a review of the game; why give a small publisher who needs good publicity to grow the exact opposite of what will be helpful? But ultimately, it is important to post the negative reviews, if only to serve as a cautionary tale.
So let this review be a cautionary tale for gamers looking to spend their hard-earned money. Consider this a warning for kickstarters. If you are a designer or publisher, especially an independent one, this is an alert to watch out for careless, incomplete designs. See, the thing is, the rules “work”. You can “play,” score points, roll dice, and get to the end of the game without problems. So, as a beginning designer, that can be pretty fun. It is fun to create things; to create a system that functions. But to have a valid game, you need something that is fun to play, not just fun because you created it. Kickstarter backers, you need to vet games before you back them. Reading the rulebook is not always enough; rulebooks can give a hint, but in this case the rulebook seemed well enough. It was the content of the cards that failed to provide any sort of meaningful entertainment. Seek out previews, example play videos, sample content. Read carefully, thick through what is there. Of course, you do have the issue of this stage featuring content mostly controlled by the publisher, so the information out there might not be reliable.
The only redeeming quality this game has is the art; for an independent game, the illustrations on the cards are rather well done, and are entertaining to look at. But, at a $29.99 price tag, there are significantly better places to put your money.
iSlaytheDragon was provided a review copy of Genegrafter by Albino Dragon Games.