The first four games from TableStar are unique in the fact that they all have the same basic "HeroCard" engine - a card dueling game that becomes the backbone for four very different board games. This is an intriguing idea, and I was very pleased to see the good quality of components from this new company - especially the themes of each game. I've played three of the games: Rise of the Shogun (samurai), Galaxy (space), and HeroCard: Champion of New Olympia (TableStar Games, 2006 - Ray Long). Of the three, Champion of New Olympia was the most intriguing to me, since I enjoy superheroes in entertainment; and there is a dearth of good games on the subject.
Champion of New Olympia certainly looks like it popped right out of the comics, starting from the box art, to the crimes committed, and more. It uses the Herocard engine, which I greatly enjoy; although the board game actually dilutes it to the point where it is slightly less enjoyable. Champion is actually an okay game but one that is more on the level of children than adults, as it is very simple and easy. The decks are interesting in their own right, and playing the game simply as a "duel" seems to be the best way. This isn't the ultimate superhero game (still waiting on it), but it does nicely layer the theme on top of some interesting mechanics.
Before I talk about the game, let me explain the HeroCard engine. Each player takes a deck of cards to represent their hero. Interestingly, players can use decks from the other games (i.e. I can use a Space Race deck in the Champion of New Olympia game); and other than some theme clashing, they work fairly well. Three Attribute cards are included with each deck to represent the player's Body, Mind, and Attribute "X". These cards have a number on them that ranges from "3" to "10", showing the character's strength in those skills. The rest of the cards in a deck are "Action" cards and are associated with one of the three types of skills. Cards are Fast (play whenever you want); Restricted (play on your own turn); and Exclusive (play on your turn - limit of one.) Players arrange their attribute cards and prepare for the duel.
In a duel, a player has four phases. They first discard as many cards as they want to from their hand, then draw up to three more - not exceeding seven. After this, players "clear" up to three cards that they've played on the table, placing them in their discard pile. At this point, the player takes their one exclusive action and as many restricted actions as they can.
Most exclusive actions are attacks. The player must play one "Base" attack card and as many attack modifiers as they wish. However, each card played has a cost in one of the three attribute types. As a player plays a card, they place it on the table, where it stays until cleared. The total cost of all cards on the table cannot exceed the number of the attribute. Therefore, players who play many cards have fewer options available to them on turns. The player being attacked then may play one "Base" block and as many Block modifiers as they have room for, still making sure they stay within their attribute limits. Both players may continue to add modifiers until they have no more or decide to play no more. If the attacker's total is higher, then they "hit" the opponent; otherwise, play passes to the next player.
Now, to combine this with the main game: Several tiles are placed on the board to create the city of New Olympia. The board is broken up into different sections, representing small neighborhoods and larger street areas. Some areas are named - "Daily Mercury", "Liberman Museum", etc. - areas that are possibilities for crimes. Players place their Base token on one of the neighborhoods of one of the four "base" tiles. A number of contact tokens are placed on the board (number depends on the amount of players). These contact tokens are shuffled face down and dealt to each player, who then place them face down on contact symbols spread across the city. A Power card deck is shuffled and placed near the board, as is a Plot deck (split into two different piles). The Plot cards have two sides - the backs, which show one of the various named locations around the city, and the fronts, which show a crime that is occurring there. Each player picks a hero (Deva and To'a King come with the basic game; Ferrion and Talon are expansions) and takes the deck and pawn associated with that hero. Pawns are placed on the bases, and players each draw seven cards from their deck - the game is ready to begin.
On a player's turn, they first discard, draw, and clear cards in the same manner as a duel. They then may move their hero pawn up to three spaces, entering the Action Phases. In this phase, a player may take one of the following actions:
- Consult Contact: If a player is in the same space as that of a Contact token, they may flip it over. If the token shows the symbol of the player, they may draw the top Plot card of either deck. If the token shows the symbol of another player, they must fight the contact in a duel. However, the player playing the contact may play only one base or special block card. If this attack succeeds, the player draws one Plot card; otherwise, they return to their base. Contacts that yield Plot cards are removed from the board; when all contacts are off the board, they are added again like at the beginning of the game.
- Crime Busting: If a player is at location to which they have a Plot card, they may attempt to stop the crime. The player reveals the Plot card to the other players, showing the crime and the difficulty rating ("1" through "3"). This number is the number of cards that another player can play in a duel to see if the crime is foiled or not. The player playing the part of "crime" decides whether to attack or defend; and if they succeed, the crime busting player must discard the Plot card to a Crime Wave pile. If the crime busting player succeeds, however, they may draw a number of Power cards equal to the crime's difficulty and also earn one "medal" if the crime was a "2" or "3" difficulty.
- Battle Other Heroes: A player may attack an adjacent Hero in an attempt to steal one of their Fame Medals.
The Power cards, of which a player can have only three in play at one time, enhance a player's abilities - allowing them to move quickly, have enhanced stats, a sidekick who can take or deal a quick blow, etc. Players must also keep an eye on the Crime Wave; because if there are ever five cards there, everyone loses! Otherwise, the first player to gain three medals is declared the winner and becomes the Champion of New Olympia!
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: The artwork that is on the city blocks, the plot cards, and the action cards as well as the box is very "comic book" oriented and really brings a high level of theme to the game. Some of it is really not to my taste, and some of it is simply zany, but you can't deny it's thematic. The heroes are a nice plastic, and the cards are of high quality. My biggest gripe with the game is the city tiles themselves. While they are fine quality-wise and have a nice "top down" view of the city, they are shaped like small crosses and only fit together in an odd fashion. I had to look at the book to make the basic setup, as it's almost like a puzzle to get them together. I'm not sure why they just didn't make squares or diamonds; it would have been more intuitive and easier to make custom cities.
2.) Rules: The twenty-eight page rulebook is split into three sections: a Quick start section, the rules for the actual board game, and a section that simply goes over the Duel rules. There are several examples and full color illustrations, and I thought the entire thing was rather well laid out. When teaching the game, I find it easiest to simply play a duel with new players first - just so they understand that - then move onto the board game. Duels are very easy, and the game is just a step up above that - easy for teenagers and adults alike.
3.) Duels: Since the duels are an integral part of the game, they better be good; and I'm happy to report that they are quite fun. If a player overextends themselves on an attack, they will have little leeway to defend against an attack; so one must be careful. You can clear three cards each turn, which is a great number, because it's useful; but a player isn't always able to get rid of the cards they want to. The decks seem to be extremely well balanced; although I haven't tried the space and hero decks in the game, it would be too big of a breach of theme for me. I did notice that the decks for the Champion game are a bit more basic than the more nuanced decks of the other two games, which is probably just as well, considering the tone of the game.
4.) Game Duels: The major problem I had with the game (the thing that keeps it from becoming very deep) is that duels are frankly difficult to lose. The only time a duel is difficult is when a player goes head to head with another player. The most difficult crime only allows the opposing player to play three cards, which really isn't that hard to stop. So the game really becomes a race to get the medals as fast as you can. The player who is winning this race, who has the most medals, can expect to be attacked by the other players; and that's really the most interesting part of the game.
5.) Strategy: As much as the game can be enjoyable, there really aren't that many options. A player should head to the contacts that are their own - why waste time fighting enemy contacts if you don't need to? They should then head to a low level crime to power up then fight the higher crimes to get medals. This leads to a simplistic strategy - one that kids will enjoy, but I found a bit mundane.
6.) Time and Players: Heroes works best as a four player game, which means that you'll need to purchase both expansions; but if you are simply playing a two player game, I don't think I would bother, as the decks aren't really that unique or different - other than artwork and color. The game does play fairly quickly (thirty to forty-five minutes) and has little downtime.
7.) Fun Factor: Some players I played the game with had a real problem with heroes attacking each other; in their words, "It's just wrong", and I can sympathize with that view. Unfortunately, that's probably the most important part of the game; so if it doesn't appeal to you, then I wouldn't play Champions. Also, if the Crime Wave is filled, the game ends in a bit of an unsatisfactory way. Why try to stop someone from foiling a crime if it causes the end of the game? These two problems brought the game down from "great" to merely "okay" for me.
TableStar Games has really done a unique thing here, making their games compatible with one another, yet giving each a distinct, unique feel. Champions isn't as strategic and fulfilling as the other games, especially Shogun, but is a decent representation of a superhero world. I think it would be a fine fit for kids and those seeking very light games. Those who want a bit of a punch behind their games might want to pass, as the strategy is straightforward and can be a bit annoying at times. You too, can be the Champion of New Olympia, beating the other heroes up as you go!
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for Herocard: Champion of New Olympia