I felt a wave of suspicion wash over me as I picked up the starter deck to Dragon Ball Super Card Game. It looked pretty, had nice art, sturdy cards, but I am used to seeing all the frills and visual appeal and watching cards get dumped even weeks after a games release. Developing a successful Collectable Card Game (CCG) or Trading Card Game (TCG) can be among the most profitable endeavours in the table top hobby. Success, however, is a rarity in the CCG and TCG sector of gaming. CCG’s often arrive with a lot of hype and then die away suddenly and there are several possible reasons for this. Firstly they are often abstract in their use of game play with deck areas, grave yards or discard zones, out of play zones, priorities, effects of monsters vs effect, or magic/ spell cards (depending on what name they could legally use), how effects interact with priorities, in turn, and out of turn abilities, and so much more. Even the most simple implementations get complex rather quickly. The other major hurdle is collecting the cards. If you want to join in competitive play you will often need the strongest deck, and that means money. These barriers are only a couple that can cause a new CCG to fail.
Developing a great CCG means cultivating an engaged and active community. Many new CCG’s that hit the market try to jump start this process by adopting a strong intellectual property, yet even this is not a guarantee. The greatest test for any new CCG is surviving comparison to the big three, Yugioh, Pokemon, and of course, Magic the Gathering. This may seem unfair to compare games to each other, but considering the world wide appeal and longevity of the big three, it is a natural comparison to make. This is particularly true when you factor in the sort of investment a CCG takes from the player both in terms of expense and time.
Dragon Ball Super Card Game looks good when you flick through the decks. One of the biggest issues with any card game is formatting and design. Getting this right is essential if you want people to look at your cards for any length of time. Dragon Ball Super has adapted enough from other cards games to look and feel intuitive but added enough of their own elements to generate a unique flavour. The art work is front and centre with all necessary elements easy to read. These cards look good and feel good. I am mentioning this first among all other elements because many people will play a new CCG based on these elements alone. This is no small issue and a big hurdle that many new games fail to get right when launching their product.
As a former competitive CCG player, my next concern was learning the rules. Many CCG’s look easy to learn but often this dissolves into confusion and stagnation as players try to work out the timing on cards, placement of cards, and how abilities interact. Learning the rules to this game made me think that I was not getting all that I needed to play. These rules were far too simple, even for a starter deck rules list. I suspected that our first game would take a while as my partner was also an ex-CCG player and contentions over card text would be scrutinised more thoroughly. This proved true for one rule, a rule that we still want further clarification on. However, despite that one rule the game proved to be as simple as it looked. A great deal of thought has gone into trimming back this game to eliminate complexity without finishing depth of play. I could not believe how eager I was to play my second game after we finished our first.
Dragon Ball Super uses a leader mechanic where the life total is dependant on attacks to the leader only. The leaders, unlike some other leader mechanics I have played, is a fully capable attacker and defender on their own. The leaders have some pretty good abilities though their power is rather average.
In Pokemon when you knock out a player's active Pokemon you take a card netting you some hand advantage. In Dragon Ball Super, life totals of leaders are determined by 8 face-down cards from your deck. When you successfully hit an opponent’s leader your opponent picks up one of the cards from their life area adding it to their hand. If they are forced to pick up the 8th card you win. This is a wonderful turn around on the Pokemon mechanic. In Pokemon, the advantage is paid to the player that KO’s their opponent’s Pokemon. In Dragon Ball, card advantage is given to the player being hit. This is important for two reasons. Firstly it is often the case that if your leader is successfully being attacked you are likely behind in cards or struggling to get the cards you need to defend your leader. This card advantage provides a catch-up mechanic that does not over power your opponent but does help even out the playing field. It also adds the tension of strategically allowing yourself to be hit. It takes you quickly towards defeat, but it may just net you enough advantage to turn the tables on your opponent. This risk/reward in balancing life total with card advantage is great. Often you want to be taking hits as they get you more cards, but can you ensure you can hold off your opponent from finishing you suddenly? However, this is not the only reason you would want to get hit.
Like any great Dragon Ball episode the longer the fight goes on the more powerful the character becomes. When you get down to 4 cards in your leader’s life total you can Awaken by drawing two cards and flipping your leader card. Awakening your leader will give you a powered up version of your leader with an attack bonus and even better powers. The game really gets exciting as your leader becomes a powerhouse. This bonus to your leader is great, but it also represents that you are closer to being KO’d. There mechanic provides visceral excitement and makes for an exciting conclusion to every game.
As leaders only lose life when they are hit, the attack total is not as important as it is in other CCG’s. You only need to calculate which characters attack is stronger and whoever is weaker loses a card. This means no combo’s that result in one turn kills or even first turn kills (a beloved deck type in Yugioh). Everyone has a fighting chance and is in it for more than one turn.
To support your leader you will be recruiting characters. Magic the Gathering (MtG) uses a mana row to establish how much you can spend on each turn to recruit monsters. Dragon Ball Super has a similar mechanic but, in my opinion, fixes all the problems that Magic is stuck with. The mana mechanic means there is a curve and build up to games. No super powered hits from the first turn that ends games before they begin. But the balance in decks is so hard to get right and many games can end with the person being mana screwed, which is either too much manner with no monsters, or too many monsters with no mana. In Dragon Ball Super every card has the potential to be an energy card in addition to its normal type. The energy required to summon the card is the same energy it can provide your energy area. This means no matter what you always have monsters and you always have energy. This made for faster and more curve friendly games. It was such a good feeling to know I always had options.
Finally Dragon Ball Super has created a simple effect stacking system that any novice to the CCG market could understand. Some of the biggest arguments among players, regardless of experience, is over who has priority on an effect or abilities. These rules in CCG’s are often the most complex to learn and a headache to judges during tournaments. Yet here they are simplified to a beautiful system. Each turn you start by charging your forces. You place an energy if you wish. Then there is a single main phase in which you may play a card, summon a monster, or attack in any order. I can summon, attack, and then summon and attack again. This is a welcome change to main phases broken into multiple parts, or even trying to remember which monster has summoning sickness. The only time your opponent will need to concern themselves with playing cards is when an attack is declared.
When I declare an attack I am provided one opportunity to combo cards that increase my attack level. My opponent then has an opportunity to do the same and nothing else. That’s it! The Attacking player plays her cards first and the defending player second. This provides some strategic advantage to the defending player, but this is mitigated by the fact that attackers have the advantage on draws. Unlike Mtg and Yugioh, if the attacks are of equal strength the attacking player wins. This is a powerful advantage that encourages more aggressive play. But the one time only combo mechanic means there is never an argument about who has priority on activating effects and combos. It makes for a simple clear play that trims the issues other CCG’s have and allows the action to flow naturally.
Dragon Ball Super has certainly learned the lessons of the past and not allowed itself to get bogged down in the issues that even the best CCG’s are stuck with. This is a huge advantage to the game as it makes the game play fun for old hats at this genre, as well as being accessible to a whole new audience. Amazingly the starter decks give a full experience of the game without holding back on the action. You get a feel for genuine strategy in the game and start making combos first game. This is huge bonus where the player feels like they have a strong competitive deck from the get go. Carrying the Dragon Ball name will prove a seductive advantage as well meaning that out of all the new CCG’s I have seen hit the market in the last ten years, I think this one is set to explode. It will be crucial, however, how they build this community and deal with competitive tournaments. If they release too much too soon or depower their cards too early they will risk losing their audience and market. If they play it right and keep these starter cards combative while adding to the game without over complicating it, I can see this game being around for years to come. I could go on about Dragon Ball Super Card Game, but I think I should stop now before I write another 1800 words. I genuinely had a fun time playing this game and highly recommend the starter decks, especially if you want a perfect place to jump into a great CCG experience.