Playing With Myself - Transformers Deck-Building Game
Some of you may have been around the site long enough to remember our Game Night segments. Sadly, thanks to the pandemic, those have fallen by the wayside. Okay, that and the fact that I’m antisocial and as much as I need to make actual friends, well…that’s not in the cards for the time being! Still, I keep buying tabletop games, be they card or board…or cardboard, and I probably ought to getting around to playing some of them. So, in the spirit of Game Night, I offer ‘Playing With Myself’ where I’ll highlight games with solo modes and give ‘em the usual review treatment.
And for a Transformers fan like me, what better way to start than Renegade Game Studios’ recent release: The Transformers Deck-Building Game.
This deck-builder for 1 to 5 players has some common elements shared within the genre, and we’ll get to that in a bit, but it does offer some unique aspects to the gameplay as well. Replacing the line-up is The Matrix, where cards have to be discovered before they are purchased…and not all of these discoveries are good. As any Autobot would expect, the Decepticons are lurking, waiting to spring out and ambush players. Roam The Matrix to recruit fellow Autobots and Allies, discover new technologies or learn new maneuvers as you seek to stop the evil schemes of three Decepticon bosses before time runs out.
While the Matrix upon which all the action takes place is likely the first thing to pop out to experienced deck-builder players as being unusual, the core concepts of both movement and transformation also really help to make this a more unique experience. The player really does need to consider what mode they want to be in at which times as, logically, vehicles move around easier but do not fight terribly well! This does help lend a significant feeling of theme to the game, after all, it wouldn’t be Transformers if you didn’t have to think of which mode you should be in. While it may be present in other deck-builders, this is the first time I’ve encountered a staged main deck, meaning that when forming said deck, you break it up into 4 pieces, a piece for each Decepticon boss and then a final segment that signifies the ticking clock, because once the main deck runs out, it’s game over.
Let’s cut in for a second to provide the win/lose conditions:
Win – Defeat all 3 Decepticon Bosses.
Lose – Take 5 Damage.
Lose – The Main Deck runs out of cards and cannot refill a blank spot in the Matrix.
Lose – Someone flips over the table ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ style, but that’s how a lot of games end around here!
For those of you who have played the DC Deck-Building Game from Cryptozooic, there are some aspects of this game that are going to feel familiar…and as well they should as Matt Hyra had a hand in both. [Ha…hand. I see what you did there. Don’t do it again. – Ed.] At the start of the game, you choose an oversized character card (one side has your bot mode, the other your alternate form) and this character’s attributes are going to influence your strategy in the game. For example, in robot mode, Optimus Prime gets +1 power for each additional Autobot he plays, so naturally, any player with him as their character is going to be hunting The Matrix for Autobot cards to purchase. Another similar feel to DC is the presence of the always purchasable ‘Transform and Roll Out’ cards, akin to the ‘Kick’ cards found in the older game. They’re nothing stellar, but they help fill out your deck in the early rounds as you start to make your way toward more expensive purchases.
Since I mentioned a +1 power in the previous paragraph, I suppose this is as good a time as any to go into the currencies you’ll be using throughout the game. Power will be the statistic used to purchase cards in The Matrix as well as battle any Decepticons that pop up. Move points are used to, unsurprisingly, move your bot from space to space within The Matrix, but these are also used in revealing Matrix cards as well. An important fact to keep in mind, when you switch to vehicle mode, you’re given a set value of Moves that can then be augmented by cards within your deck. Conversely, Robot mode depends solely on deck cards for movement. Lastly, we have Energon cubes which can serve to unlock special abilities for your character as well as for some cards. They can also be used by your character to switch between modes.
The point of the game is to hunt for and to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons. As they pop up, the Encounter cards do a well enough job of making sure that no ‘Con is a straight-up pushover but these cards really come into their own once a Boss hits the table, making what would already be a challenging fight borderline unwinnable. I say borderline because the game does give you one or two ways to make sure you can tackle any foe. If you’ve got a table of friends, then whether you’re playing in Co-Op or Competitive modes, you can still call for an assist from other ‘Bots. As mentioned above, having a storehouse of Energon cubes can also get you out of trouble! For example, if Optimus Prime spends an Energon Cube, he can draw a card. [Or in my case, he can spend several cubes and draw several cards…take that Megatron! – Ed.]
Now, what I’ve outlined above is gonna cover about 70-80% of gameplay. But there are nuances. For example, there are Decepticon Schemes that can pop up in The Matrix but in my two playthroughs, I’ve yet to encounter one. More on that later, as it touches on what I feel to be one of the biggest flaws of the game. Unfortunately, for that remaining 20-30% nuance, the rulebook isn’t really much help. This ends up being a shame because it can be for small things (“Do I play the ally the instant I pick him up?”) to kind of big things (“Okay, Thundercracker is revealed thanks to my Recon card, so if I land on him in a couple of turns, does he still get to ambush me or what?”)…and the book really is crap for answering these questions. The answers are in there, but there may only be a phrase or a single sentence to answer your question…and the way the rulebook is set up, it’s not exactly conducive to you finding that magic bullet phrase! Your best bet to learn the game is to watch someone on YouTube play it. I watched Dale the Casual Gamer go through it a couple of times before I felt like I had a good handle on it.
Let’s shift our attention to The Matrix next. Now, my first playthrough, there was no issue whatsoever. The game practically flew by and was a lot of fun. The second, however, highlighted not only the flaw present in any deck-builder, that of the woefully bad shuffle, but also The Matrix getting clogged. For example, once discovered, Sites stay put in The Matrix…although a few, like the Energon Mine, do have a means to be destroyed. If you end up getting a board that has a fair number of Sites or cards no one is interested in buying (Allies, I’m looking at you…) things can get logjammed in a hurry. Additionally, depending on the size of your group, you’re going to be playing with a different number of cards, both in the main deck and in The Matrix itself. If, in your initial setup, you fall prey to the woefully horrible shuffle, there may end up being a bunch of useful cards that will never end up entering play and, depending on your character and thus chosen strategy, might just torpedo a player right out of the gate. On the bright side, I feel like this can probably be solved with a ‘house rule’ or something (I’ll tweet a solution should I come up with one!), but as it stands, this main deck construction phase definitely needs a tweak or two.
All of this culminates in the final flaw of the game: There’s A LOT to keep track of, especially if you’re in the thick of it with, say, Decepticons, a Boss and a Scheme on the board. Just from the board, we have reveal attacks, drawing Encounter cards, start of turn and ongoing effects (from both enemies and Allies). For those not familiar with the aforementioned DC game, now you’ve got to keep track of any character-specific effects or bonuses and then, finally, the effects from the cards you play and all the currencies that this racks up. Plus, too many Damage cards could mean that you’ve gotta get help before you tackle a ‘Con. And don’t forget about your Energon. My recommendation is to take your time with your first playthrough and, more than likely, you should probably do that solo. Maybe even the first two. In every video I’ve watched on this game so far, someone has forgotten something. Sometimes they catch it and throw up a subtitle or insert video of them fixing the problem, sometimes they don’t. And I can’t blame them. To quote one of my favorite movies, “It’s a lot of strands to keep in the ol’ Duder’s head.”
So given those flaws, do they end up being dealbreakers? Not really…although the steep learning curve and number of things to keep track of will prove a heck of a hurdle for most beginner players or players more accustomed to simpler games. One way to mitigate that is to make sure your playgroup has a healthy dose of Transformers fans, as interest in the theme and source material should prove to be enough motivation to push through. As for any Matrix issues, sure, any game is eventually going to have a stinker session, but I think this can likely be remedied by some house rules regarding Main Deck construction. I toyed around with that on my third playthrough and while not quite perfect, it was a significant improvement from my second session. Still, I feel it needs to be said that with each playthrough, I really did feel like this would be fun with fellow Transformers fans and I’d be curious how this game is fairing on the recently restarted convention circuit such as TF Con.
One of the main criticisms I’ve heard levied at this game is that it feels more like an unfinished idea for a game than a game itself, and I can’t say I agree with that. It’s got enough in terms of mechanics and nuance to be a game on its own (even though the rulebook isn’t much help at times) but it also has so much room for expansion, such as Decepticons (which an expansion has already been announced) as well as all the play-patterns and themes that go with the Transformers franchise, from Headmasters and Targetmasters to Beast Wars!
If you’re a fan of deck-building games, Transformers offers enough of the familiar as well as enough new concepts to warrant adding to your collection, especially if you’re a fan of Hyra’s earlier DC Deck-Building Game, as there are shared elements. If you’re a Transformers fan looking to get into tabletop gaming, this might be a little complicated at first, but with time, practice and maybe a few pointers from YouTube, you’ll be able to gather fellow fans around the table and have a good time out of it. It’s not perfect, given the rulebook and main deck issues highlighted above, but the solid core mechanics and focus on thematic elements such as movement and transformation definitely earn this our Happy Cat rating as we certainly look forward to what Renegade has in the pipeline for my favorite Robots in Disguise!