Wednesday, June 1, 2016

GJJG Game Reviews - Emergents: Genesis - by Urban Island Games

Emergents: Genesis
Designers: Anthony Conta,
Brian David-Marshall, Matthew Wang
Publisher: Urban Island Games, LLC
GJJG Game Reviews - Emergents: Genesis - by Urban Island Games


Game Overview:
In December 2014 a new deck-building game about superheroes hit Kickstarter.  You might think that with games out there like Marvel Legendary and DC Deck-building Game that there wouldn't really be room for another.  And with Sentinels of the Multiverse having a pretty firm hold on the non-DC/Marvel superhero market, can another set of characters be compelling enough to garner attention?  Well, Emergents: Genesis rose to that challenge and was successfully funded by nearly 140%.  Now, a year and a half later the game has been out for a while, holds a respectable 7.88 rating on Board Game Geek, and is ready for retail.  But is the game ready to take on the established superheroes?  Let's find out.

Emergents: Genesis is a superhero deck-builder for two to four players age 10+. It plays in about an hour and is available from the Urban Island Games website for $39.99.  In Emergents: Genesis each player takes on the role of an Emergent and does battle with the other players' characters.  So, what is an 'Emergent'?
Emergents: Genesis comes with 225 cards.
In this game's super hero filled universe there are people, called Emergents, that have newly discovered super abilities, like strength, speed, telepathy, or control of the elements.  Four of these Emergents were once brought together by Aloysius Zeroth and formed the Genesis Squadron to defeat an alien invasion.  Shortly thereafter they defeated the first villainous Emergent named Phaeton (one of the four Genesis Squadron members' son).  After this battle, Zeroth and the members of the Genesis Squadron formed the Phaeton Project, a school where they could train other Emergents to use their powers for good.  Zeroth, along with Helios (Phaeton's father), Moxie, Billy Stopless, and The Abyss, began to search for, recruit, and teach other Emergents at this academy.  

This sounds a lot like the X-Men, however the back story is really superfluous to the gameplay.  In fact, it's even somewhat contradictory.  Each player takes on the role of one of these Emergents, learning and developing their abilities.  But instead of working together to defeat bad guys, or go on cooperative training missions, or anything that even remotely fits with the story, each player is trying to defeat their opponents.  It's not explained anywhere why the Emergents are battling each other.  But let's look past the weird story inconsistency and see if the rest of the game is any good.

Components & Packaging:
The components in Emergents: Genesis are just average.  The artwork is excellent, but the card quality is a bit lower than most games, particularly for a deck-builder.  They are fairly thin and the printing was scratching off a little bit on a few cards before I even played the game.  You'll definitely want to sleeve these cards if you intend on playing a lot.  Overall though they were fine, but not excellent.
With the black borders on the cards and thin, white core cardstock, the edges are going to get dinged up pretty quickly.
You may want to consider sleeving these.
The box is good and sturdy.  Not the best box I've seen, but far from the worst.  The box comes with an insert to hold the cards in two separate stacks.  The box is quite a bit bigger than is necessary though.  There's a lot of empty space.  Also, the artwork on the box is in landscape format, which, while I personally prefer landscape for games of this size, isn't very retailer friendly.  Retailers like to see smaller boxes with the artwork in a portrait layout so that they take up less shelf space.
The artwork on the box, like the cards and rulebook, is really top notch!
I do have a few bigger issues with the components though.  First is a matter of the graphic design.  Overall, the artwork is fantastic.  But there could have been a few tweaks that would have made everything just a bit better.  There are several types of cards in the game.  Since this is a deck-builder most of the cards need to have the same backs.  But there are a number of character cards that players have each game.  These aren't shuffled with the rest of the cards, but they still have the same backs.  It would have been nice if they had a different back to differentiate them easily.  The card fronts have a similar issue.  Most of the cards used in the game are shuffled into the main deck, called the 'Book'.  These get shuffled and become available for purchase from the marketplace, or 'Page', throughout the game.  But there are four smaller decks, called the 'Panel' that are always available.  Each of these decks contains fourteen copies of one card.  Like the cards from the Book, cards from the Panel will get purchased and shuffled into the decks throughout the game, but the problem comes at the end of the game when you have to sort out all the different types of cards again.  There is no quick way to see which cards are from the Panel compared to the cards from the Book.  It's a minor issue, and once you get familiar with the game and know the four card names it's not too bad sorting them out, but having an icon or some kind of graphical indicator to make the cards easy to identify would be nice.  Both of these issues are minor, though, compared to my biggest complaint.
The four cards on the top are Panel cards and must be separated out at the end of the game.
The bottom four are cards from the Book.  It would be great if there was a fast way to tell them apart for easier cleanup.
There are components missing from Emergents: Genesis.  That's right, you need to add some of your own components to play the game.  The game includes health tracking cards, but no tokens or clips to use on the cards.  I ended up using plastic clips that I had, but you could also use cubes, coins, or any other little markers, or even a score keeping app.  You really shouldn't ever be required to add stuff to a game just to play, but I might make an exception if it was just a means to track HP.  But those aren't the only missing bits.  Several cards in the game (including the Moxie character's special ability) mention 'Willpower Tokens'.  Nowhere in the rules are these mentioned (aside from a picture of the Moxie character card).  But it is obvious from the description of the tokens' benefit described on the cards that you do need a physical bit to use in the game.  I used centimeter cubes I had, and coins or peanuts would work just as well, but it's annoying that nothing was included with the game.  A few plastic cubes or cardboard chits would have solved both missing component problems.
Instead of providing clips with the game you'll have to find your own way of tracking HP.
I had these plastic clips lying around and they work fine, but so would cubes or paperclips.
A few of the cards reference Willpower Tokens, however there are none included in the game and they're never
mentioned in the rules.  Basically, if you pay a Willpower Token it'll Charge your next attack +1.
I used centimeter cubes I had lying around to stand in for the missing Willpower Tokens.
Score: 5/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Emergents: Genesis is a fairly typical deck-builder.  So if you've played deck-builders before you'll be up and playing in no time.  The combat mechanics are a little different, but nothing complex.  I was able to explain both the concept of deck-building and the rules of the game in just a few minutes to a friend that had never played a deck-builder before.  Overall, the rule book was very well laid out, had good graphics, and covered just about everything, except the aforementioned Willpower Tokens, although their function is clearly explained on the cards.
The rulebook looks like a comic book and is colorful, easy to follow, and well laid out.
Setup, on the other hand, isn't quite as easy.  It's not very difficult, but you do have a number of different sets of cards to sort and prepare.  First there are the health tracking cards - each player gets one, along with whatever bits you add to the game to track the health.  Then there are the character cards that must be passed out.  If a player is Professor Helios they get five special Construct cards that they'll use throughout the game.  Then the starting decks must be created for each player - three Punch and nine Focus cards.  Then four decks of cards (fourteen each of four cards) are set up to become the Panel.  Finally the remaining cards are shuffled and become the Book and six of those laid out to become the Page.  If everything is sorted ahead of time, setup isn't too bad, but all the sorting has to be done at some point. Usually during cleanup, but whenever it gets done it's a  bit longer than many games.  Not much more than Dominion though, and less than Marvel Legendary , but this isn't a quick, two minute setup (or cleanup).
Cards become the Panel, Page, Book, and Gutter (for the Erased cards).  There are a lot of separate piles,
but it's an average setup for a deck-builder.
Score: 6/10 x2

Playing Emergents: Genesis is where the game really shines though.  At first the game may seem like any other superhero deck-builder, particularly Marvel Legendary - there are two resources, Skill let's you buy more cards and Attack let's you fight opponents.  The core of the gameplay is mostly typical for a deck builder (draw cards, play cards for effects, buy cards, and so on), but combat is where things get interesting.

In Emergents: Genesis you play Attack cards one at a time.  They generally do one or two damage, but occasionally more.  Then you decide which opponent to direct the attack at.  The opponent then has the opportunity to react to the attack by playing one card, if they can.  This is called a Tactic and not all cards have a Tactic ability.  Tactics can either Defend or Counter against a certain amount of damage.  Defend just negates that amount of damage, but Counter both negates that amount of damage and does that damage back to the attacker (who then has the opportunity to use a Tactic in response, if possible).  The health tracker for each player is used to tally the resulting damage after combat.  You start with 30 HP, and when you get reduced to 0 you are eliminated.
The battles seemed pretty well balanced overall, but the player elimination aspect
of the game results in a bit of a ganging up on the loser strategy.
Because of the focus on combat and reacting to attacks there is very little downtime between turns.  It feels like you always have to be interacting with the other players.  And when you do have a few moments where you aren't involved in combat you'll be trying to plan your own strategy with the cards in your hand.  Because you play one card at a time the order you play them in can have major and lasting effects.  So you'll want to plan each move carefully.  With the pace of the game your turn will come around quickly, and while there is quite a bit of depth to the game I didn't find analysis-paralysis to be a problem.

You are being attacked by an opponent.  Do you want to keep this card for it's Flurry ability to heal you on your turn?
Or use it to defend against this attack and a potential future attack as well?
There are a number of other card effects that let you do all sorts of super heroey things, like heal, charge your attacks so they are more effective, look at opponents' cards, etc.  One of the coolest effects is Spread, which let's you attack all of your opponents at once.  In a two player game this is pretty much a standard attack, but in a multiplayer game it is a powerful, yet risky move.  There is also a Flurry ability, which lets you perform an action once for each card value you play in a turn, which is pretty fun.  Throughout the game you can also Erase cards, which is essentially trashing them, to either refine your deck or prevent opponents from gaining cards.  There is also an ability called Forge that gives you benefits that increase if you Erase cards in a turn.  
Even the basic Panel cards have cool abilities and don't feel like a wasted purchase.
There are also Gear cards that, like bases in Star Realms, constructs in Ascension, or locations in DC Deck-builder, remain in play after a player's turn, until opponents manage to destroy them.  Each player also has a special character ability that is unique to the character they are playing for the game (there are 13 different characters available).
Gear cards stay in play after your turn and provide ongoing abilities.
Overall I found the card interactions very interesting and engaging.  Nothing felt overpowered on its own, but there were definitely some very powerful combinations.  Like most deck builders, the more you understand these interactions and synergies the better you will be at building effective decks.  I found the game very fun and interesting to play and look forward to getting it to the table a whole lot more.
Card interactions allow for some pretty awesome combos.
I think the only complaint I have with the gameplay is the player elimination aspect.  It's not an issue with two players (although with two players you lose the awesomeness of a Spread attack), but with three or four players, getting eliminated is kind of a bummer.  The game can easily go on for 15, 20, or more minutes after someone is eliminated.  That's just not very fun.  I'd recommend playing until one player is eliminated and then declare a winner based on who has more HP left.  This would discourage gaining up on the loser and end the game at the same time for everyone.  There is no official variant, for this, but the designer acknowledged that it is fine to play that way if players prefer no elimination.
Once you are down to zero health you are eliminated and must watc the other players duke it out.
A simple solution is to just play until one player is eliminated.
Score: 8/10 x3

This is a really fun game with lots of different character combinations.  I am definitely interested in playing a lot more.  The card interactions are interesting and should provide a lot of strategic options to explore.  The theme is one that should interest most gamers and many non-gamers as well, and with the fairly simple rules it should be pretty easy to get to the table.  I think Emergents: Genesis should have quite a bit of replayability.
13 different playable heroes, each with a unique ability, add to the replayability.
Score: 8/10 x1

General Fun:
Overall I had a lot of fun playing Emergents: Genesis.  I really enjoyed the player interaction, card synergies, and depth of strategy combined with the simple rules.   The artwork on the cards is great and the overall comic book theme is fun (in keeping with the comic book theme, areas of play are called the Book, Panel, and Page).  
Everyone agreed that the game was fun and they'd be willing to play again.
The only thematic issue I have is with why I'm battling the other players at all.  In the story-line we are all supposed to be on the same team, just learning about and developing our powers.  So why we are fighting each other is beyond me.  But that doesn't really change the gameplay and enjoyable time I had playing.
Why is Billy Stopless battling The Accelerant?  Isn't he supposed to be her teacher?  Oh well, Attack for 3 Damage!
Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
You can buy Emergents: Genesis from the Urban Island Games website for $39.99, plus shipping.  That seems a bit expensive for what you get, especially with the few missing components.  I really did enjoy the game and think it brings some interesting gameplay, but for only cards, $40 seems steep.  DC Deck Building Game has about the same number of cards and has an MSRP of $40, but can be found just about everywhere for under $30. To be fair, Emergents: Genesis is available on Cool Stuff Inc for just $27, but that's the only third party site I was able to find it at for a discount.   So while the game is fun, it loses a few points for overall value because of the price.  But as distribution increases you should be able to find this at actual prices comparable to similar games.
The MSRP is comparable to similar games, like DC Deck Building Game, but the DC Deck Building Game
can be found for a lot cheaper pretty much everywhere.  And with Emergents: Genesis missing a few components $40 seems a bit steep.
Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Emergents: Genesis is definitely a contender in the genre of super hero themed card games.  It holds it's own against the big Marvel, DC, and Sentinels games.  The Emergents characters are well thought out, the artwork is fantastic, and the universe story works well, even if it is very similar to the X-Men and feels at odds with the gameplay.  There is a lot of room for expansion material, other games, and other media set in the Emergents universe, and some real compelling characters and stories. 
Fantastic artwork, tons of cool abilities, deep card synergies, and very interactive gameplay
will keep me coming back to Emergents: Genesis.
There are just a few things that keep this game from being great (although it does squeak into a top tier): the missing components, a few poor graphic design choices, and a high price.  The story of Emergents banding together being at odds with the gameplay mechanic is also awkward.  But none of these ultimately affected my enjoyment of the game.  If these issues don't bother you then you'll find Emergents: Genesis to be a fun, interactive, fairly strategic foray into the super hero genre.  Hopefully a second edition someday can fix these minor issues.  I look forward to seeing expansions and more stories to come in the Emergents universe.

Overall Score: 71/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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