Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Showdown: Icons; A Non-Collectible Card Game From Wyrd

It's always nice when we manage to get our hands on a new release (it makes us feel like we're actually keeping on top of things for a few minutes!), especially when it's from a company who have generally found their way into our good books.  So it was with a great deal of excitement that we cracked open our copy of Showdown: Icons from Wyrd Miniatures over the past weekend and started playtesting!
Showdown: Icons is a competitive, non-collectible card game for 2 players.  This means that unlike games like, for example, Magic: The Gathering, you only need to buy the initial Showdown: Icons box and you'll have everything you ever need to play the game.  Much like the time we backed WarFields on Kickstarter, this was the initial appeal which had us leaping on the game.  We do enjoy card games here at Games & Tea, but aren't such big fans of the long, drawn-out and expensive deck-building process, which often negates the need for gameplay itself, with the winner often being decided well before the first card is even played.  Any card game where both players face off with a balanced deck and need to rely on skill (with perhaps a smattering of luck) to bring home the victory usually makes a good first impression here.
The first thing which you can't help but to notice about Showdown: Icons is that it's small.  Really small.  So small we actually almost looked straight past it on the shelves of our FLGS, Titan Games.  On the one hand this is does help to make the game nice and portable, and credit does have to be given to Wyrd for their maddenly efficient packaging in this respect.  On the other hand, it does leave you with an initial feeling of "Is this it?", as you sit there holding a fist-sized box for which you've just been parted from your hard-earned cash.
If we did a "Box Contents" entry for Showdown: Icons, this would be it.
Upon opening the box you'll be greeted by the sight of five decks of cards and a double-sided rules leaflet.  Now anyone who has experienced Wyrd's tabletop systems in the past will know that they have an affinity for basing their cards on a standard 54-card (including Jokers) poker deck, and they haven't broken with tradition with Showdown: Icons.  Admittedly this did lead to a minor rage outburst at first, having paid through the nose for what initially seemed to be a set of 5 poker decks.  However, it did turn out on closer inspection that there was more to Showdown: Icons than this.
Each deck is themed after a suit and a character from a standard playing card deck, and the boxes are decorated with some rather lavish artwork to depict these characters.  From left to right in the picture above, the decks are The Jokers, The Ace of Spades, The King of Clubs, The Queen of Hearts, and The Jack of Diamonds.  In each deck (aside from The Jokers), the cards of the chosen suit have special abilities which can turn the tide of battle, whereas the remaining three suits are very nearly standard playing cards (with one exception, to be explained below).  The decks do have different themes, meaning that players have to treat them very differently if they want to pull off effective combos, but still maintaining the balance needed for any non-collectible card game to be competitive and enjoyable.
So what's the aim of the game, and how does it actually work?  Well it's time to find out...
We paid extra for the limited "Kryptonite-infused" edition.
Like most combat-based card games, the aim of Showdown: Icons is to defeat your opponent by reducing their health down to zero.  With the decks being based on poker decks, the life of each player is represented by the deck's four aces, which are removed at the beginning of the game before the decks are shuffled.
Now we were quite impressed at how Wyrd had set up this health system, as at first glance it may seem as though this is gearing up to be a very short-lived game; after all, how tactical can a game be when each player only has four points of health each?  Well each of the aces come with a number of benefits, and these benefits only start to take effect as the players take damage.  This means that the closer you are to defeat, the more formidable opponent you become.  This did remind us of Wyrd's tabletop/board game Puppet Wars, in which player's individual troops became tougher as their army dwindled, and they've succeeded in bringing that mechanic to life once again here.  Some aces allow you to prevent further damage, some to tamper with your opponent's hand, and so on.  It's a system which has left all of our games of Showdown: Icons going right down to the wire, rather than one player ever claiming a sweeping victory over the other.
The other two cards to be removed from the deck before beginning the game are the Red and Black Jokers.  Again, those familiar with Wyrd will know that they like to attach special functions to the Jokers in their decks, and Showdown: Icons is no exception.  In this instance the Black Joker is a card which players can re-use during any round of combat they wish, whereas the Red Joker effectively represents the player's character themselves, explaining each of their abilities which can trigger at the end of combat, granting bonuses to themselves or penalties to their unfortunate opponent.
Once these six cards have been separated from the decks, the remaining 48 cards are shuffled, each player draws a hand of 5 cards, the first player is decided at random (by a good old-fashioned cutting of decks), and the game is ready to begin.
The combat system in Showdown: Icons is very simple, but incredibly devious.  Each player (starting with the first player) places a card face-up in the centre of the table.  These cards are the players' Feints.  Once the Feints are played, each player plays a face-down card beside it, and these cards are each player's Strike.  The Strikes are then flipped face-up, the numerical values added to those of the Feints, and then all manner of wonderful things can happen, all depending on the cards' Disciplines...
Each card in the game has one of three Disciplines, as shown along the short-edge of the card.  These can be Physical, Intellect, or Cunning.  If the Disciplines on the two players Strike cards are different, then the highest total wins the combat for the round, if the two Disciplines are identical, then the player with the lowest total wins the combat.  At this point this may still sound like a game of chance, right?  Well this is where it gets interesting, and turns Showdown: Icons into a game of bluffing and insidious mind-games.  If the Strike and Feint cards of the player who wins the combat are  of the same Discipline, then that Discipline triggers, and the effect on the player's Red Joker card takes place.
For example, in the photo up above showing the Red Joker, the Physical trigger is "Heal one damage", so if that player won the combat for the round with a pair of Physical cards then they get to restore one of their health points.
This leads to very interesting combat rounds, especially when both players are running low on health.  If your opponent plays a Cunning card as a Feint, are they planning to try and activate their Cunning trigger, in which case you may want to play a Cunning card of a lower value to win the combat?  Or are they bluffing to try and get you to play a Cunning card so that they can romp home with a high-value card of another Discipline?  Or are they double-bluffing with every intention of playing that second Cunning card after all?  If you've ever seen the film The Princess Bride then you'll find combat rounds to be comparable to the famous Battle of Wits...
"Where was I?" "Australia."
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the chosen suit of each deck also comes with an array of special abilities; Actions, Combats and Reacts.
Combat cards can usually be played as either Feints or Strikes, granting the player extra bonuses if they manage to win the round.  Actions are played at the beginning of the round, and can bestow all manner of advantages from modifying the effects of Triggers, to altering the face-values of various suits and Disciplines.  Reacts tend to be played after the combat round is over, and can nullify Combat effects or prevent Triggers from going off, so can be used to buy some more precious time to turn the tide of battle.
These cards, really, are where the different decks actually start to come into their own.  Up until this point the decks are very similar, with just minor differences in the Jokers separating them.  With the effect cards, the decks each adopt their own theme, meaning that players will have to adapt their play styles to accommodate them.  The King of Clubs, for example, is largely about restoration - healing damage and returning the player's best discarded cards to their hands.  The Jack of Diamonds is about disrupting your opponent's best-laid plans, allowing you to change your Feint card at the last moment, or even switch yours with your opponent's.
After enough games with each deck, players will inevitably start to favour the theme of a particular deck to suit their play-style, and an encounter between two experience players fielding their preferred decks is certain to be a masterclass in deception and mind-games!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Showdown: Icons in a nutshell!  The game continues with the first-player role passing back and forth until one player takes a hit to their final ace, granting victory to their opponent.
The Good Points
  • Showdown: Icons is entirely balanced.  There's no way to embellish the decks, and so it entirely becomes a game of skill.
  • As has become Wyrd's habit, the cards are actually made of plastic, so will be able to withstand a tremendous deal of gameplay with very little wear and tear.
  • The selection of 5 different decks introduces the variety to the game which would otherwise be denied by its non-collectible nature.
  • The health system, wherein a player gets stronger as they take more damage, allows for a competitive game right to the finish.
  • It's compact enough to carry around in a shoulder-bag, and quick enough to play opportunistically.
The Bad Points
  • Showdown: Icons is quite expensive, considering the fairly basic contents of the box.
  • It is very much a game of bluffing and mind-games, so if you're not a fan of trying to get into the head of your opponent then you probably won't enjoy this.
  • Sometimes the combat rounds can become quite complex, and at the end of the turn it's easy to forget who was the first player.  The addition to the box of a First Player token would have solved this basic issue.
  • Due to the workings of the game, Showdown: Icons is impossible to play with more than 2 players.
 Recommended Number of Players: 2 (no other option)
Showdown: Icons can only be played with 2 players.  We did try to work out a way to have a 3 player free-for-all, but bearing in mind the way the Disciplines determine whether the highest or lowest total wins the combat, the system simply wouldn't work.  Of course if anyone does figure out a way to play this game with more than 2 players whilst retaining its balance then we'd love to hear about how you did it!
Average Game Time: 15-20 minutes
Showdown: Icons is a bit of an odd one, in that it has the short play time typically associated with casual party games, but requires some deep, thoughtful gameplay.  It's nice that it takes such a short amount of time, however, as it allows players to squeeze in a quick opportunistic game, or play best-of-three matches to extend the experience.
Replayability: Medium
Whilst it is a fairly neat little game, there isn't a great deal to extend Showdown: Icons' shelf-life.  It's short play time will make it a good start-up game for gaming groups, and the 5 decks give it a degree of variety, but there's not a great deal to make it stand the test of time.
The Future: Dim
From the looks of it, Showdown: Icons appears to be a standalone game.  A balanced game like this certainly isn't one which would benefit from booster packs or anything similar, but at the same time it does leave it with a very limited lifespan.  Once it reaches the point where all players in a gaming group are no longer getting a kick out of playing the game, there won't be anything new with which to refresh it.
Price: £30
It's hard to gauge whether you're getting good value for money with Showdown: Icons.  When broken down, it's only £6 per deck, which doesn't seem quite so bad, but when looking at the big picture it feels like a lot of buck is granting you very little bang.  If bluffing games are your thing, however, and you do with to invest, then it should be easily available, being a new release from one of the larger tabletop gaming companies.
Tea consumed during this review: Twinings Every Day/Green Tea Blend with milk and 2 sweeteners.  Brew rating: 10/10.
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