Sadly, I was past the age of childish enjoyment in 1984 to be totally stoked (ha) about the appearance of toy vehicles that transformed into giant robot mechs… and the less said about the visually stunning but utterly vapid Michael Bay Transformers films the better. So for those of you who are fans of what may be one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time (when you count all the toys, animated shows, comic books, video games, and movies) – I’m sorry. What follows is going to focus on how well this newest game works without a lot of reference to the nerd-y background content that I typically bring to my writing about board & card games.
However, just like a Transformer switching from alt form to bot form, I’m more than happy to give you an overview of this particular twist on the deck-building game genre. It’s not simply a re-skinned copy of Dominion (the All-Spark of deck-building games). After four plays – two as competitive 2 player games and two solo games – here’s a peek at the design ideas that inform Matt Hyra and Dan Blanchett’s take on the deck-building.
“Use The Power Of The Matrix”
The flow of the Transformers DBG is similar to many deck-builders:
- Get a starter deck of ten cards – each starter deck is identical.
- Use your hand of five cards to perform various actions and purchase cards to add to your deck.
- There are ways to cull (remove) cards from your deck to make it leaner & meaner.
- When your turn is finished, discard both played and unused cards to your own discard pile.
- Draw five cards – shuffling your discard pile and making those cards your new draw deck when your original draw deck runs out.
- Repeat until victory is won (yeah!) or you suffer the agony of defeat (boo!).
However, instead of a set mix of cards to buy from (like Dominion or Arctic Scavengers) or a “river” of cards (like Ascension, Clank!, or the DC Deck-Building Game), cards for purchase or combat are found in The Matrix, the layout of cards in the middle of the table that form both the gameboard and the “river” that players interact with. (The size of The Matrix varies with the number of players in the game.)
You can see in the picture that each player has an Autobot marker (yes, they’ve promised that there will be playable Decepticons in future expansions) as well as a large Autobot card that denotes whether they are in their alt (read: looks like a car or truck) form or autobot (read: giant freakin’ mecha robot thingee) form. (The markers are simply there to help remembering what you have or haven’t spent in movement or power on your turn.)
The grid of face-down cards in the middle of the table is The Matrix – players pay movement points generated by their cards and the alt form of their Autobot to move from card to card and to flip cards face-up. If it’s a Decepticon, the player is ambushed (which is resolved by turning over the top card of the Encounter deck)… and then their turn continues.
The two face up decks to the right of The Matrix are a card that is always available for purchase (‘Transform & Roll Out’) and Damage cards which are held by players face-up in their tableau & not included in their deck.
Multiple players can be on the same card (aka “space”) in The Matrix – and, as you’ll see in a minute if you keep reading, there are some distinct advantages for players to have other Autobots nearby when fighting Decepticons.
There are a number of different types of cards in The Matrix:
- Cards that can be purchased to ramp up your deck
- Cards that can be purchased and are immediately put into play in front of you
- Cards that remain in The Matrix and give some benefit to interact with them
- Cards that you must deal with in order to continue on with the game or receive some benefit
- Decepticon Schemes
- Cooperative Schemes
- Cards that are – no surprise here – the “big bad”
- Decepticon Bosses
Removing a card from The Matrix – either by buying it for your deck or defeating/resolving it – means a new card from the main deck will replace it at the end of your turn. If the main deck runs out, the game ends. (I promise we’ll get back to that whole “how the game ends” thing in a minute – only one of my four games ended due to main deck exhaustion.)
“There’s A Thin Line Between Being A Hero, And Being A Memory”
Players are each assigned (or pick) an Autobot – and the large double-sided card shows the various powers and liabilities each Autobot has in each mode.
In Alt form an Autobot has movement (denoted by a number next to arrow) which can be spent to move and reveal cards in The Matrix. In Autobot form they have no movement points – but they do have powers that can be activated by spending Energon.
“Now, All We Need Is A Little Energon And A Lot Of Luck!”
Energon cubes are the pixie dust of the Transformer universe – represented in the Transformers DBG by pink translucent markers. Players start with two Energon and have various ways to harvest more of it through card play, interaction with Sites in The Matrix, and defeating Decepticons.
Energon can power various special abilities on a player’s Autobot form card as well as many of the cards acquired from the main deck. In addition, every five (5) Energon held at the end of the game is worth a point.
“I Will Never Stop Fighting For Our Freedom”
Both purchasing cards and fighting adversaries involves the use of Power (denoted on cards by a lightning bolt next to a number). Power can be used on the card your Autobot is standing on… and, if you have enough cards with the appropriate Range (denoted on cards by a targeting symbol next to a number) can be used on cards within range.
Note: all movement, purchasing, and combat are orthogonal – unless you have a card that designates “Flight” as an ability which allows diagonal movement, purchases, and attacks.
Combat itself is relatively straightforward – until you have to battle a Decepticon Boss. So, let’s start with the simple stuff.
- Generate Power at the appropriate range to your target and activate any non-Confront Energon powers.
- If you have any Damage cards, other players who are in range to your target may place a card face-down in front of them to Assist you.
- If no one chooses to assist you, you can abort the combat attempt and spend the Power elsewhere.
- Resolve a number of Assist cards from other players equal to the amount of Damage you have.
- You choose which players – but without knowing how much they’ll assist you.
- If the amount of Power generated equals or exceeds the “cost” of the Decepticon card, you win.
- You receive the rewards at the bottom of the card and then place it in your Vault (storage for defeated Decepticons, Schemes, and Relics).
- Every player whose card you chose to assist you also receives the rewards at the bottom of the card, but only you get the Decepticon to place in your Vault.
- Discard all cards played up to that point in the turn – including used and unused Assist cards played by your opponents.
Confrontation (aka – when you attack a Decepticon Boss) adds a few wrinkles to the battles. Now, other players can Assist you even if you don’t have any Damage.
As well, the Encounter deck is shuffled after players lay down their Assist cards and the top Encounter card is used to resolve a Confrontation – often this will make the Boss stronger or you and your friends weaker.
In a Confrontation, you choose Assist cards one at a time until you reach the threshold you need. You also have the opportunity to exploit (pay for) Confront powers on your cards using Energon – as do other players who are Assisting you – if the total amount of Power from Assists is insufficient.
Finally, Confronting a Boss, successfully or not, ends your turn.
“Until That Day, Til’ All Are One”
The game ends when either
- The three Decepticon Bosses seeded into the main deck have been defeated OR
- The Main Deck does not have enough cards to fill all the empty spaces in the Matrix
At that point, players score based on the following:
- The victory points you’ve earned (tracked with small tokens) over the course of the game.
- The total cost of the adversaries in your Vault divided by 5 (and rounded down).
- 1 victory point for every 5 Energon you have left over.
- Any victory points for stored Relics and/or Schemes.
- Lose 1 victory point for every two (2) Damage cards you control.
You will not be flabbergasted to find out that the person with the most victory points wins the competitive version of the game.
“Even If You Defeat Me, Megatron… Others Will Rise To Defeat Your Tyranny”
There is also a cooperative version of the game – where players work together to defeat the Decepticons. (This same set of rules changes is used for solo games.)
- You don’t use victory points – instead, any reference to victory points in card rewards is converted to Energon. (In order to increase the difficulty of the cooperative/solo game, you can simply treat victory point awards as meaningless.)
- You can’t attack a Boss unless the rest of The Matrix has no face-up Decepticons.
- Cooperative Schemes are added to the deck and Relics are removed.
- You lose if any one Autobot take 5 Damage cards OR if the Main Deck runs out of cards.
As you can probably guess from my not totally-complete description of the rules of Transformers DBG, there’s a lot to take in for your first play, even if you’re experienced at most deckbuilders. (Note: I’m a big fan of deck-building games as well as games that use deck-building as a part of a larger game… two of my favorite designs from this last year both fit in this group: Dune Imperium and Imperium Classics/Legends.) We found that our first game for each player ran substantially longer than later plays – once you get the feel of the movement system and the value of various cards in building up Power and Energon for battles, the game runs pretty well.
The rulebook is complete (for the most part) but is organized in a way that makes it slightly more difficult to learn and/or find what you’re looking for when rules questions come up. I think this would have benefited from some outside folks taking a shot at editing before it went to the publisher. I’m also aware that certain cards are likely to be reprinted/changed in subsequent editions for better clarity – which is not a surprise in deck-builders ripe for expansions.
As someone who does a lot of solo game play, it’s a solid system that feels similar to the base game and doesn’t require an automata or extensive changes to the game. My first solo game felt like a cakewalk; my second game was a nail-biter that wasn’t resolved until the final card was drawn from the main deck. If you’re a fan of the theme and deck-builders, this look like a game that will really appeal to you.
Our two 2 player games both saw the player who figured out how to purchase cards that meshed well with the Autobot powers and the previous cards purchased had the most success. Another key takeaway was avoiding battles until you are ready to win them. Leeching by playing Assist cards also had a major role in the victories.
I’d really like to try this with more players – though I think it would lengthen the game (which already pushes 50-60 minutes for two players), I do think that the greater number of players being able to Assist would make for some interesting decisions.
As I said earlier about the solo game, I think folks who fit into the Venn diagram of “Transformer fans” and “deck-building fans” will find a lot to like here… but I’d strongly suggest giving it a couple of plays close in proximity to get the rules straight in your heads so you can get to the fun of the game.
All pictures in this first impressions article are from the Renegade Game Studios website – who also provided the review copy of this game.