Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Check this out: a card game you don't need a table to play on. Oddball Aeronauts (Prototype) Review

I was contacted by maverick:muse back near the end of 2013 and asked if I wanted to check out a new game they were working on. This new game was a two player card game that simulated a fantasy airship battle. The most unique part about the game was that it was played "in hand". This meant that it didn't need a surface to play on. That game is Oddball Aeronauts.

I checked out some of the links Nigel Pyne, the game's designer, provided and I was blown away. First by the artwork and then by the way he made the whole surface-less thing work. I really liked the look of Oddball Aeronauts and jumped at this chance to check it out before the kickstarter goes live in February. My prototype copy showed up a couple weeks ago.

Since getting the prototype I played a few games with my wife. I also brought it out to one of the Windsor Gaming Resource events and showed the game off to a few people. I figured I've given the game enough of a shot now to write up a formal review:

Oddball Aeronauts Overview

The prototype box I received is a bit thicker than an old Magic the Gathering starter set. Inside were a couple pages of instructions and 54 cards. The cards are split into two 24 card decks and there are 6 additional encounter cards. I will admit the instructions were currently a bit rough. I communicated my questions and concerns to Nigel and he assures me that they will be fixed in the final version of the game. You can check them out yourself here: Oddball Aeronauts Beta Rules V2D

The back of the cards showing the two factions airships
The theme of the game is an aerial airship duel between two factions: Pirates and Pendragons. These factions and characters come from something maverick:muse is calling the Oddball Realms. The art for this realm has a steampunk anthropomophic slightly anime look to it that I really dig.

To start the game each player chooses one of the factions. Each faction has it's own 24 card deck. To that deck each player adds three encounter cards that are randomly selected. You then hand your deck to your opponent who shuffles it and then hands it back to you face down. When both players are ready you flip your decks and begin.

Holding your deck of cards eliminates the need for a table
All of the stats for the for the cards are located on the left hand side with the artwork taking up more than half of the card on the right. There's a reason for this. They way you play is that you slide the cards out to the left so that you see three cards at a time (as shown there on the left). I thought this was particularly well done and is one of the main ways that the game eliminates the need for a surface.

Each card has three statistics on it. Each statistic has two numbers: a rank shown as a number and a bonus shown as a number with a plus. In addition every card ha a special ability which is located below the stats. Only the special ability of the top card is used each turn. The skills going in order from top to bottom are: Sails, Guns and Boarding. There is an exception to this: events. Event cards do not have skill numbers.

Example of an event: here the Pirates would recover 1 card
Once both players have their top three cards showing, both players check for an event. If both players have an event they are both discarded. If only one player does then the event happens. Events generally have players comparing one of their respective skills on the top crew card shown. Some events check for the lowest skill others look for the highest. Once the event is resolved it is discarded.

The way you discard cards in Oddball Aeronauts is the other way that this game keeps the cards in your hand instead of on the table. When you have to discard something you just flip the card over and put it at the back of your deck. Sometimes you will be told to recover a card, when that happens you look through your deck and find the first card that is face down and flip it face up. I thought this was also brilliant. The game ends when one player's entire deck has been discarded aka flipped over and in that case the other player wins.

Now that there's no events in either players hand we can get to the meat of the game. The active player is going to look at his top three cards and pick one of the three skills to attack with. The opposing player then chooses which skill they want to defend with. Now here's where it gets interesting: both players then decide how many cards they want to use for support. Player simultaneously hold up either one, two or three fingers (We found using a rock paper scissors like pumping motion and counting "one" "two" "three" and revealing worked well) to indicate how many cards they will use. 

Here comes the math bit: now each player adds the skill on their top card to the bonus of any other cards they decided to use. Note this can be one, both or none of their support cards. The player with the highest total wins the round.

Example Pendragon cards
Both players now have to discard the cards they used. Then, based on what skill was used by the winner, players recover or discard cards. If Sails were chosen the winner gets to recover two cards. If Guns were chosen the looser must discard two more cards. If Boarding were used, the winner gets to recover a card and the looser must discard a card. This resolution system adds a nice level of strategy to the game and gives a valid reason to not always just go with your highest combo. 

Sounds simple enough right? Well there's just a bit more to it. Remember I mentioned those special abilities on the cards? These mess with the basic system and modify games in a variety of ways. Most of the special abilities give you a bonus based on what skill your opponent chooses. Stuff like "you get +2 guns if your opponent chooses Sails or Boarding" (note it's not that verbose, it's all done with symbols on the cards.

Other special abilities will let you recover cards or they can modify the next round in some way. These next round modifications are handled in a very interesting way. Any modification for the next round is added to the top right of the back of the card. When you discard the card you leave it sticking up just a bit to remind you of this rule in play next round. Something I've never seen before in a game and it works really well. 

So that's basically it. The winner of the round becomes the active player for next round and you rinse and repeat until one players deck has been completely discarded. All this without a single card having to touch a table.

Final Thoughts:

Okay I will admit I was a skeptic when I first read about this whole "card game that doesn't need a surface" thing. I just couldn't imagine how it would work. How do you 'play your cards'? How do you discard your cards? Heck, what do you do with your deck after you shuffle it? Now I know, and I really dig it. Oddball Aeronauts managed to pull off the game you play 'in hand' brilliantly. 

Example Pirate cards
This means that my wife and I can play it anywhere. The last time I actually played a game was standing in front of the cash at Hugin & Munin, showing the store owner how to play as I played against one of the other patrons. Next time my wife and I head out to our favourite coffee shop I'll have her toss the deck in her purse. 

Not only is the game uber portable and playable almost anywhere, more importantly it's actually fun. Sure it's not the most strategic game I own and sure it's not the most engaging two player experience I've had, but it's a solid little game. It very strongly reminds me of the old Citadel Combat Cards from Games Workshop but it takes the basic mechanic (I pick a stat, you pick a stat, whoever is higher wins) and improves on it quite a bit. There are some real tactical choices to be made here. Using more cards to win the round means you are eating through your deck quicker. The different attack types mean that you may not always want to go with your highest skills. There are even ways to combo your special abilities if you can manage your attacks properly (If I use one card now and my opponent is using boarding that will mean that my third card will be on top, which means...).

Overall I really dig this and I want to thank Nigel and maverick:muse for giving me a chance to check this out. The kickstarter isn't launching until February but when it does I recommend anyone who's looking for a fun two player game that can be played anywhere to back this one.

A Bonus for Windsor Gaming Resource Readers

As noted above the Kickstarter for Oddball Aeronauts goes live next month in February. Watch this blog when it does because I've made a deal with Nigel that I think is rather cool. We will be hosting a give away here with a pretty unique prize:
One of the 'Event' cards will be 'Bounty Hunter'. We're proposing that the winner designs the character for this card. They would work with Lloyd to develop the card art, choose a name for the character that will appear on the card, would receive the original artwork and be credited in the rulebook as co-designer of that card.
In addition, once the game is in production we will be getting a couple copies to give away at WGR events as well as hosting another give away here on the blog.

Update: The contest is live:

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