Worldbreakers: Netrunning the Phoenixborn

What if you combined the economy of Netrunner with the creature-based combat of traditional collectible or living card games?  You’d get Worldbreakers: Advent of the Khanate that’s what would happen.  This debut design by Elli Amir is familiar in many ways, but combines elements from prior strategy card games in a novel way that stands on its own and is worth checking out.  I’ve played Worldbreakers four times with a review copy provided by the designer, and I’m looking forward to playing more and seeing what comes of the game space.

Magic: The Gathering is of course the starting point for a game like this in which players duel by taking turns playing events and units that engage in combat.  The first of several clever things that Worldbreakers does is turn Magic on its head by putting inexpensive smaller units on a more level playing field with their beefy brethren.  This is because the game is not a race to reduce your opponent’s health to zero, but rather to increase your power to ten.  And how do you get power?  Simply by attacking with any creature that goes unblocked, regardless of the creature’s size.  Obviously other card games like Magic, Star Wars: The Card Game, and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn have all tried to make small units appealing in various ways to give players interesting decisions.  But the fundamental structure of Worldbreakers does that work for the game and influences all of your decisions from thereon.

I’ve skipped past the most salient part of the game though, which is its action menu.  The action menu is so clearly inspired by Netrunner with the ability to draw a card at will or to “click for a credit” (I mean spend an action to gain one mythium of course).  But that’s not a bad thing because the Netrunner action menu and economy is phenomenal, and not enough card games empower players with the flexibility to overcome suboptimal draws and the opportunity to shape their turns with such precision control.  The novel thing here is bolting the Netrunner economy onto a more traditional unit-based combat card game.  That feels fresh and new, and it confronts you with tough, wrenching decision points over and over again.

While I started with Magic, the gameplay actually feels more reminiscent of 2015 release Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn to me.  There’s something about the rapid-fire back-and-forth gameplay and the way that the board state can turn on a dime with how attackers and blockers are declared that gives me Ashes vibes.  That’s also not a bad thing because Ashes is another excellent design.  I’m just not sure that I’ve ever had such strong feelings while playing of a game being a real hybrid before.  Then again, the way that these elements are recombined in a new way seems unprecedented to me.

It’s time to talk about the action threading.  Unlike Netrunner or Magic, players do not take large-scale turns in Worldbreakers.  Instead, you do a single action (almost like a Mac Gerdts rondel game with its super quick small turns).  You go back-and-forth until each player has done four actions.  This structure has pros and cons.  It definitely ratchets up the interactivity, making players constantly able to react to each other.  And it means you’re never idle for more than a matter of seconds.  On the other hand, it adds slightly to the overall gametime when you introduce more decision points rather than letting a player perform several actions in a row.  And when you do know that you want to do X followed by Y followed by Z, you have to remember that and sit through your opponent’s thinking and actions.  Then again, you probably shouldn’t plan too far out since the game gives you an opportunity to adjust, and you’re often served well by seizing that opportunity.  The interwoven actions are also what reminds me of the Ashes turn structure, I suppose.

But the biggest gameplay impact of the interwoven actions is that the start player changes each round, which means that the player who took the final action in one round will take the first action in the subsequent round.  These back-to-back opportunities are powerful and setting yourself up to capitalize on them is perhaps one of the keys to victory.  I think that I like that irregular cadence that keeps alternating those potentially powerful double turns, but it’s something that the card design will need to continuously consider and account for.

I haven’t even talked about the location cards or the guild standing economy (with the clever “migrate” keyword).  There are only three card types: Follower, Event, and Location (aside from your Leader, who starts in play and gives you a unique ability).  The events and followers (think creatures) are self-explanatory, but the locations are key and they remind me of the objective cards in the highly underrated Star Wars: The Card Game.  They are powerful locations that can turn the tide of the game, but are vulnerable to attack and need to be protected.  I mentioned above that attacking with an unblocked creature gets you one of the ten power tokens that you need to win, but the other big way to earn power is by playing and protecting locations.  This is because you can use a location card in your play area to gain all sorts of money, cards, and power tokens – as long as it’s not beat up by your opponent in the meantime.

The game comes with four different pre-built decks (and you can also engage in deck construction and drafting, which I have not yet had the opportunity to do).  I’ve played all of the pre-built decks, and they are certainly very different.  Two of them are rather location heavy, whereas the other two are more unit heavy.  I expect that it will be interesting to see how the meta evolves to favor or disfavor unit-based victory paths versus location-based paths.  Ultimately, both are necessary of course, but if you can minimally protect your locations then a single one can quickly net you literally over half of the power that you need to win.  Indigo Grotto, I’m looking at you!  I suppose that could just mean that you need followers at the ready to pounce on any high-value location that your opponent might drop.

I’m thinking about the game hours after playing it, which is always a good sign.  It’s a very promising and impressive design that draws on various predecessors (and probably some card games that I’m not thinking of or don’t know about), and recombines familiar elements in an unfamiliar way.  I never knew that I wanted to be making Netrunner-style economic calculations while making Magic-style combat decisions.  Elli knew and made it a reality.

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