Year Published: 2015
Designer: Herschel Hoffmeyer
Publisher: Die-Hard Games LLC
Playtime: 45-290 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: If you see ripples in the water, don’t worry…it’s probably just you.
LOOKING FOR A REVIEW OF THE SECOND EDITION? CLICK HERE (or read this first for additional context)
Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game is a Player versus Environment card game for 1-8 players where each person plays a unique apex predator dinosaur species. Starting with a small deck of basic cards, players work throughout the game to acquire more mature and powerful versions of their dinosaurs’ species, and evolution cards that will help them take down larger prey dinosaurs or even gigantic titans like Alamosaurus. Although each dinosaur successfully hunted on the ever-changing game trail is worth points, the real challenges for players are the boss dinosaurs and their minions interspersed throughout the other animals. Possessing unique abilities and requiring multiple rounds of fighting to beat, these boss cards are the ultimate test of players’ dinosaur species, and the one who beats the most bosses before the extinction event is the winner.
Apex’s rulebook is, quite frankly, poorly executed even though it looks nice. A nice section up front details the various playable species and their strategic difficulty levels, but that’s followed by 14 pages of card details, explanations, and rules tidbits completely outside of the context of playing the game. There are some useful diagrams of the commons area setup(Hunting Grounds) and player areas(Nesting Grounds), but they’re presented before any information is given regarding game setup so you’re forced to flip back-and-forth once you actually do get to the setup instructions on page 21. The rules explanation from that point on is fairly clear with the exception of boss battles which take some intuition to figure out, but would have benefited from integration with the various card diagrams etc. included earlier in the book. There are also multiple sections that repeat themselves nearly word-for-word which further speaks to some of the organizational issues with the book.
Setup for Apex Theropod is longer than most deck-building games you’re probably used to, and I’d say groups of players can expect a full setup to take 10-15 minutes. This is mostly due to the various decks that must be constructed before play can begin. First, each player chooses which apex species they’ll play and takes the appropriate deck of cards. From those cards they take 1 starting egg card, 4 prey carcass cards, 1 titan carcass, 5 hatchlings of their dinosaur, and 1 juvenile, and shuffle those cards together to form their starting deck. The rest of their cards are shuffled and set to the far left of their Nesting Ground as their Apex Deck.
The Hunt Deck that spawns all the dinosaurs for players to hunt or fight is constructed based on the number of participants, with each card type getting separated out and shuffled individually beforehand. Then, the following numbers of cards are drawn from each respective pile per player: 5 prey, 5 big game, 2 titan, 2 menace, 1 predator, and 1 boss along with all of its minion cards. Extra cards are placed back into the box, and the drawn cards are all shuffled together and placed in the Hunt Deck space in the Hunting Grounds. 4 cards are then drawn and placed into the Game Trail beside the deck.
To complete setup the entire Evolve Deck is shuffled and placed below the Hunt Deck(4 cards are laid out next to the deck as purchase options), and the Affliction Deck is shuffled and placed at the top of the Hunting Grounds along with the alert cards, stance cards, and disaster area cards. Finally, players determine which difficulty of game they’d like by choosing to add 0-3 emergence cards to the Environment Deck(emergence cards are drawn first and act as a buffer to give players more time to build their decks before certain effects come into play), then shuffling the rest of the Environment cards and placing those emergence cards on top, and the extinction event on the bottom. Games last between 9-12 rounds depending on the difficulty of the game, translating into an average playtime of 2 hours for 3 players.
The game proceeds in player order with each person taking their turn in full before the next round starts. At the start of a completely new round, the last card in the Game Trail and Evolve Pool is recycled to the bottom of its respective deck, and a new Environment card is flipped over and its effect resolved immediately. The active player then begins their turn by repopulating the Game Trail and Evolve Pool back to 4 cards, resolving any “ambush” abilities from predator, menace, and minion dinosaurs that may show up. Whereas menace cards usually hunt other dinosaurs on the Game Trail and simulate the natural cycling of animals on the trail, predator and minion cards represent larger threats that may attack the active player.
Next, if the player has an alert card in their hand it’s immediately played and all “alert” abilities on dinosaurs on the Game Trail are activated. These range from simply running away, to some of the more formidable game receiving defensive boosts for the remainder of their time on the trail. If the player had any cards waiting in ambush, those cards are immediately discarded. The alert card is discarded afterwards regardless.
If no alert card is activated and there is not a boss in the game trail(which immediately scares all the other creatures and potentially starts a boss battle), the player has the option of setting an ambush by placing up to 3 apex cards from their hand off to the side of their play area. These dinosaurs remain in ambush until they’re revealed by an alert card, or until the player decides to activate them during a subsequent turn. When that happens the cards are taken back into the player’s hand and are played normally, thereby providing increased hunting power for the turn. After placing the cards in ambush, the player immediately gains an alert card that goes into their discard pile.
Once a decision is made regarding whether to stage an ambush, the player may choose to “boost” their hand by playing any number of egg or evolve cards they possess. Evolve cards generally add to the player’s attack value for the turn or let them avoid certain penalties, while eggs allow the player to draw a card as well as flip a card over from their Apex Deck into the Hatchery which will be available for purchase at the end of the turn.
After boosts are squared away, it’s time for the hunt. Of the dinosaurs in the trail, prey, big game, and titan cards all represent increasingly large herbivores which will provide the player with evolution points (represented by the DNA chain on each card) to spend on evolution or apex cards if the player is able to successfully kill them. Prey cards are generally not worth very many points but take far fewer hunt value (number in top right corner) to bring down, whereas the larger dinosaurs are worth many evolution and victory points but can potentially add affliction cards to the player’s deck that are wasted draws when they come back up. The menace, predator, and minion cards described previously have varying strengths and values that are usually not as attractive as those provided by the different prey, but taking those animals out of the game so they don’t come back up can be a boon for everyone involved.
Players are allowed to hunt as many animals as they’re able with the hunt value on their apex cards, though hunt values on one apex dinosaur may not be split among different Game Trail victims. If a player can meet or exceed the hunt value on a card, they kill it and add the card to their “Hoard” stack. These cards can then be used to purchase new apex cards from the Hatchery, or new evolution and egg cards from the Evolve Pool during the following purchase phase of the turn. They may be combined with the evolve values of the carcass cards that continually cycle through the player’s draw deck, but unlike those cards once a dinosaur in the Hoard is spent it’s turned over and is no longer usable. Once the purchase phase is completed the active player plays any remaining cards in their hand even if they’d have no effect, any un-purchased cards in the Hatchery are recycled to the bottom of that deck, and the player draws a new hand of six cards before the turn passes to the next player.
The point of purchasing new cards and strengthening your deck turn-after-turn is to prepare for the impending approach of powerful boss dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex or Utahraptor that cycle through the Hunt Deck with the rest of the dinosaurs. When one of these cards is drawn the active player has the choice of either fleeing, which immediately recycles the boss to the bottom of the Hunt Deck and ends the player’s turn, or of initiating a fight. If the player fights, they play out the normal boost/hunt phase of their turn and try to achieve the highest tier of hunt value possible depicted on the boss card itself. If the player manages to hit one of the higher tiers, it’s likely they’ll do damage to the boss without suffering any injuries. However, low hunt values will result in the player having to draw affliction cards, and in some cases may even end the boss battle prematurely. If the player has not inflicted enough damage to defeat the boss at the end of the phase, they can choose to either end the combat and run, or they can draw a new hand of cards and go again. The battle proceeds that way until the player decides to call it quits and ends their turn, or the boss dies at which point the player would take the boss card and set it next to their Hoard.
The player with the most boss kills once the Environment Deck is depleted is the winner.
Once the game actually gets going it all flows fairly well despite the organizational difficulties with the rulebook. Keeping track of which cards to bring out and which to recycle and when is all fairly easy to do, and the rest just really boils down to following the instructions on various cards. The play area itself ends up being quite large when taking into account the commons area and various spaces each person needs for their Nesting Grounds, and this is one of the few deck builders I’d actually consider buying official play-mats for now that I’ve played the game. In addition to helping keep the various stacks of cards organized, I can really see the mats adding to the overall flavor and theme of the game.
Aside from my issues with how egg cards are acquired, which I’ll go into later, and (in my opinion) some missed opportunities to add individual dinosaur growth elements in place of simply acquiring more mature apex dinosaurs, Apex Theropod does a good job of distilling various elements of the obviously complex processes involved in dinosaur survival and development. The affliction cards that are added to each player’s deck as they encounter other predators or try to tackle well-defended prey have different levels of severity, and add a thematic risk/reward system to the game that fits perfectly within the scope of a deck builder. I also found the game trail mechanic quite solid in simulating movement of animals over time, particularly with the inclusion of alert abilities and other carnivores. Alert cards act as another thematic risk/reward system which helps players potentially tackle larger or more dangerous beasts through ambushes, but may actually scare off their quarry if things aren’t timed well. Menace cards, which effectively hunt other dinosaurs on the Game Trail, and predator/minion cards which potentially do the same but may also negatively impact the player, are likewise excellent thematic additions to Apex that not only help to cycle the Game Trail in unique ways each game as prey is killed, but add to the strategy of how each player approaches the hunt and which cards they choose to go after.
Variety is also one of Apex Theropod’s strong points. Each of the game’s 9 bosses poses a different challenge with its different abilities and unique minions, and each of the base game’s 7 playable classes presents players with varied deck building strategies and tactics. This was evident even during my first playthrough of the game, and my friend Matt and I had a long conversation afterwards about how obvious the differences were between the approach his Velociraptor deck encouraged vs. my Carnotaurus deck. The Exotic Predators Edition adds 2 additional playable species, Sarcosuchus and Quetzalcoatlus, both of which give players even more options for more challenging plays. Additionally, the Hunt Deck varies significantly in its makeup at the start of each game thanks to the randomization of prey, big game, titan, menace, and predator cards, all of which draw from a total pool of 36 unique dinosaurs. Each play therefore takes on a feel of its own, which is then further modified throughout the game by player hunting patterns.
Although Apex Theropod is a competitive game, it’s really devoid of any player interaction other than card denial which generally presents itself through the limited cards available in the Evolution Deck. Once those cards are gone, they’re gone, so players must be expedient and proactive when making Evolve Pool purchases as useful cards come up. While that mechanic does create some tension, it also has the potential to completely handicap players if they receive unlucky draws and are not able to get egg cards(primary way of drawing extra cards in a turn and of turning over new Apex cards to purchase), or have what few egg cards they’re able to get their hands on destroyed by events in the Environment Deck. While that may do a good job of simulating the hardships and randomness of survival, it’s problematic to have that degree of randomness in a deck-builder that makes players so commonly dependent on one particular card type.
Players in shorter games may be able to shrug off the bad luck and figure they’ll get another chance again next game, but that’s significantly harder to do in Apex which plays at 30+ minutes per player. My 3-player games have generally come in at around 2 hours playing on the easiest difficulty that adds a few extra rounds, and although the time would decrease somewhat given player experience and harder difficulties that still means someone who is unable to build their egg numbers effectively early on will have quite a bit of game left to sit through while suffering from disadvantages when strengthening their deck and facing bosses if they come up. 5-player games you’re looking at roughly 3 hours of PvE gameplay, and although it’s somewhat relaxing to play a competitive game without having to worry about other players’ actions, it’s hard to stay engaged for that long in such a cloistered environment. That isn’t helped by the player rotation, which passes the first player clockwise at the start of each round; that means the old Player One has to sit through everyone else’s turn twice before they get to go again. Even with a speedy group of 5 players at a few minutes per turn, that means the previous Player One will have sat there for 20 minutes doing nothing before the turn order comes back around.
It’s for the above reasoning that I strongly recommend never playing Apex Theropod with more than 5 people. The Apex species decks are there and you’re technically able to do it, but the game lacks the player interaction and engagement to make me want to drag it out even longer, especially given the player order rotation mechanic. Furthermore, the Evolve Deck issues I outlined previously are amplified with more players since more Evolve cards aren’t added to the deck to accommodate the increased player numbers; it runs out of eggs much more quickly and potentially leaves multiple players in significantly weakened positions. I’ve heard a rumor there may be a package available at a later date that adds some extra Evolve cards and other things to better accommodate more players, but I still can’t see myself enjoying that experience given the added length.
The normal game’s victory condition also tends towards haphazardly random endings. There are an equal number of bosses in the deck to players which actually balances the number of times a boss appears very well, but the fact that they’re drawn randomly means that, once again, players are at the mercy of the shuffle. I’ve been in multiple games where the initial boss cards that came up were skipped because the active player was not strong enough to defeat them, but then they were all subsequently drawn by one person on different turns effectively giving that player a monopoly over the victory points since, at that point, they were strong enough to defeat those boss dinosaurs. If everyone but one player has defeated a boss and another player who has already killed a boss draws one, there’s also very little incentive for them to not continue battling even if they’re taking affliction-after-affliction so-long-as they don’t do so badly it triggers the end-combat condition on the boss dinosaur; if they win the battle, there’s no way for anyone else to equal them in boss card count and you might as well just pack things up.
As a result, I’d highly recommend playing with a variant victory condition that emphasizes the point values depicted on each card(normally only used in a tie), rather than total boss kills. The boss cards are still worth a pretty meaty amount of points compared to other cards, and if you want to give even more weight to boss kills you could make each one worth 1 1/2 times its depicted amount, or even give a flat bonus in addition to their points for each boss killed, or for having more boss kills than other players. That takes a significant amount of the randomness out of winning and enhances the strategic value of what you’re actually hunting in the game trail throughout the rest of the game, but still maintains the importance of finding and defeating bosses with a well-developed deck.
As far as the game’s components, you’re getting a lot of cards in the box. 600, in fact, which you’ll want to sort into their respective decks ahead of your first playthrough, and keep them organized after each play to expedite setup during future games. Towards that end Apex Theropod conveniently comes with pre-labeled dividers which are slightly over-sized to make seeing the labels easier when trying to find specific cards. I chose to organize my box with all of the playable dinosaur species on the right, and the remainder of the cards on the left, but that made the fit on the right side extremely snug with the game’s insert boxes still in. I’m not sure there’s room for me to move one entire species over to the left without encountering the same issue there, so be aware you’ll likely need to take some care getting cards out of one side if you’ve got the Exotic Predators edition.
Another nice feature of the box is that the insert boxes at either end are individually removable, so if you decide to sleeve your cards they’ll actually all still fit in the box perfectly fine. It’s refreshing to see a designer take potential sleeving into account, especially for a deck building game where cards see a lot of shuffling and more players are likely to purchase sleeves to protect their investment. The cards are of decent enough quality that I don’t think sleeving is 100% necessary, though they’re certainly not the sturdiest cards I’ve played with so I’d completely understand people wanting a bit more support. The box itself is thick, so you can group Apex in with the growing number of successful Kickstarters that have better box quality than many large publishers.
The game’s art is what initially drew me into the kickstarter page, and while the style completely changed from the campaign to the finished product I don’t think anyone can accuse Herschel of being a poor artist. Although there are a couple of cards here-and-there I think look odd compared to the others (like the image to the left which is obviously trying to capture movement through motion blur but, to me, ends up looking off), the art is top-notch. The backgrounds were largely borrowed from other artists, but the dinosaurs are all Herschel’s work and came out looking pretty outstanding. Each differently named card has entirely unique artwork, so players should find the scope of what’s included art-wise pretty impressive.
I also appreciate the time and detail that was taken to accurately render, as close as we can given the latest scientific thinking, anyway, all of the animals in the game. The forms and musculature are exquisitely rendered on most of the cards, and the texture detail on some of the renders is pretty astonishing. The color palette of the art is vibrant yet realistic, matching some of the latest finds of fossilized dinosaur skin that suggest many sported brighter colors than many of us grew up imagining, and that some even had feathers. Aficionados will also be happy to see that Velociraptor has been drawn to match the actual animal, rather than the Jurassic Park version which more closely resembled Deinonychus (also included in Apex).
COG Takeaway: Despite the shortcomings I highlighted with some of the game’s mechanisms, and some opportunities I think were missed to further tie the game’s theme in with its mechanics, I have enjoyed playing Apex Theropod with the victory variant I outlined and am glad I backed the game. The finished product is of good overall quality with amazing art, but for the game experience itself I think purchasing decisions should largely come down to whether you love the theme. Apex Theropod can be an extremely long game for what it is, and with its Player vs. Environment focus the majority of people who enjoy competitive deck builders will likely find the game less engaging than they’d prefer. If I had to liken the experience to something, I’d say it’s akin to playing a PC game of Civilization on a huge map with only the Victory Point winning condition enabled; over the course of the game you develop independently of others without much regard for what they’re doing since you probably won’t ever find them to interact with, and a few hours down the line the game clock runs out and you find out whether you developed better than the others. Sometimes that’s exactly what I feel like doing, so Apex Theropod scratches that itch with a very well done dinosaur motif, but if you want a dinosaur game with direct conflict where the biggest threats come from other players, rather than from the game itself, you’ll have to find your dino fix elsewhere.