Year Published: TBD
Designer: David Sirlin
Publisher: Sirlin Games
Playtime: 30-60 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: A Trading Card Game (TCG), Deck Builder, and a Real Time Strategy (RTS) video game walk into a bar…
Sirlin Games has a reputation for publishing colorful, well-balanced titles that are widely accessible while offering enough depth to keep more serious players coming back for more. They’ve seen extraordinary success with their fighting card game Yomi, and the quick-playing Puzzle Strike which gives a deck building experience using chips instead of cards, and a unique gem combination/”crashing” system for combination attacks and defense.
Codex: Card-Time Strategy (currently on Kickstarter) builds on Sirlin Games’s lineup of successful titles by combining the core aspects of deck builders and TCGs to create a competitive dueling game that also includes base building and tech elements from RTS video games. A combined TCG/deck builder may seem like a bit of a misnomer, but by doing away with the random collecting and locked-in, pre-constructed decks of a TCG, and the in-game randomness of building out of a shared deck or tableau of cards from a deck builder, that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished.
Players in Codex: Card-Time Strategy each organize a binder of cards ahead-of-time that forms their own personal pool of cards during play. The starter set comes with two neutral heroes and accompanying cards which are meant to help players get their bearings and therefore don’t offer anything in the way of deeper customized play, but you can really start to see the possibilities once you break open the core set’s Blood Anarchs and Moss Sentinels factions and start learning the 3-hero rules, so that’s what we’ll focus on here. For these decks, players each have three different heroes with varying abilities available for recruitment throughout the game, and three different specialties of cards to choose from within their faction binder. As the game progresses you’re able to add cards from your binder into your deck, customizing it from your pre-chosen pool of cards depending on what the game situation calls for. It’s a system that really takes the best of both worlds of a deck builder and TCG, giving you an individual, pre-constructed set of cards to pull from which you’ve designed for potential synergies and counters ahead of time, while actually letting you adapt your in-play deck depending on the needs of the match. Multi-faction decks may be a little harder to pull off in Codex than in a TCG due to how Specs work, which I’ll cover later, but for enterprising duelists the option does still exist to really theorycraft and come up with completely custom binders if you invest in the multitude of additional faction expansions that have been unlocked so far for the Kickstarter, and will be available at retail (already available as Print and Plays from the Sirlin Games website).
I found the rulebook could use more work in terms of organization and clarity, having some pretty significant rules subtleties buried in weird places, but the rules themselves are actually pretty light and streamlined once you’ve got a play under your belt. There’s a lot going on in the play area you’ll need to keep track of, including a patrol zone for defense, a building and tech area, and a worker pool, but the the game’s included game boards have a clear layout to help with that. Even so, I’d highly recommend the optional individual player mats; they’re of good quality, have a clean layout, and are large enough that I never actually felt pressed for space in my card deployment area even when all my cards were exhausted (turned sideways).
In addition to a pre-determined set of 10 starting cards for your faction, you’ll start the game with a worker card in your worker area on either its 4x or 5x side depending on whether you’re the starting player or not, the shared health tracker for your bases set at 20, and any necessary tokens, Spec cards, and your game binders close-by. In terms of setup that’s it, so you’re off and running very quickly.
Starting hands are five cards, and you receive the amount of gold equivalent to the number of workers in your worker area. You can gain an extra worker once per turn by spending a gold and placing a card from your hand face down into the worker area, thereby not only increasing your ability to field more and better cards each turn and upgrade your base(which requires you to have a certain number of workers for each Tech level), but also letting you cycle less useful or obsolete cards out of your deck. For anyone familiar with deck builders, that is a huge change to the cycling mechanisms in other titles which usually make you take up space in your deck with more cards that specifically let you get rid of cards you no longer need. Codex’s system keeps the burden that accompanies having unwanted cards in your deck, but gives you a way to get rid of them that doesn’t require additional investment (i.e. wasted space and time) while actually accomplishing something productive that forwards your efforts in the process.
On your turn you can also take the following actions in any order: play cards from your hand (either recruiting minions or playing spells if you have a hero in play), recruit a hero from your command zone, level a hero, upgrade your tech level or build a building, or attack.
Having at least one hero summoned if you don’t already is probably one of the first things you’ll do since the hero units are not only powerful, but actually enable you to cast spell cards, culminating in being able to cast an ultimate spell at their maximum level. Different heroes have varying max levels, powers, and specialties, but each costs the same one gold per level-up which can be done as many times as you’d like in a turn. Each time you level a hero into a new range they heal back to full and gain stats, so you’ll have to decide whether getting them up to max quickly is more important than maximizing use of that full heal to deny your opponent the two free levels one of their own heroes would gain by killing yours.
Certain cards have other prerequisites to consider in addition to having a hero of the right faction and/or specialty in play. First is Tech Level, of which there are four counting your starting basic Tech level; you can’t play a card unless you’ve met its indicated Tech level. Tech levels are gained in sequence by having a certain number of workers and paying a minimal fee in gold, and once acquired will let you use any cards from that Tech level starting the turn after you’ve researched the upgrade. Enemy players can target your Tech levels, however, which can pose a serious risk of disruption and deal two damage to your base if you don’t effectively defend them at the end of each turn.
The second prerequisite to consider is Spec, which you choose once you’ve achieved Tech Level 2. Each faction’s cards are divided into three specialties, and the Spec permanently restricts the type of Tech 2 and 3 cards you can use to that one subdivision; think of it in terms of an RTS and deciding whether to research your technologies heavily into economy-based techs, or those with more direct military applications. You can still use Tech 1 cards from any Spec, but while this particular mechanic fits the goal of adding some Real Time Strategy elements into a card game I actually think it’s somewhat at odds with providing players a customizable experience throughout the entire game. Instead, you’ve got a very significant strategic choice to make once you’ve upgraded to Tech 2 that will determine and restrict your deck building options for the rest of the game.
As a caveat to above, and to Codex’s credit, the game does give you an out through its base Add-On aspect if you want to maintain your expanded deck building choices. You’ve got the option of constructing one Add-On building for your base which will provide a special bonus, letting you have extra heroes in play, dealing a damage to attackers and letting you spot hidden units once per turn, or in the case of the Tech Lab unlocking an additional Spec slot. Similar to Techs, Add-Ons each have minimal hit points and need protection or you’ll risk having to rebuild them and having two damage dealt to your base in the process. Base-building is huge in RTS video games -arguably the most important aspect, in fact-, and I love the idea of implementing that in a card game by having persistent structures that give you special abilities but provide an indirect way to deal immediate damage to another player’s base. That said, I really would have liked to have seen this idea play an even greater role in Codex outside of the limited capability of having a lone Add-On structure, providing deeper strategy to this particular element while simultaneously bolstering the RTS-on-a-table feeling of the game. It’s something I could certainly see ample room for fleshing out more fully in a future base-building expansion, perhaps even having them become part of your card binder.
All of this leads into the main thrust of the game which is, as with any dueling card game, to get rough-and-tumble with your neighbor by bringing out unit cards and casting spells by paying their gold cost. Units have different abilities that may help them sneak past enemy patrols, provide you immediate benefits like drawing a card, or maybe even dealing direct damage to an enemy unit, as well as an attack and health stat that determine how much staying power and combat utility they have. To attack you simply exhaust the card you’d like to use as long as you controlled it at the beginning of your turn, and declare your target: if your opponent has any cards in their patrol area, you must engage those cards first and take them out before targeting any of their other cards, or their base/building/tech. If there are no patrols you’re free to wreak havoc on the rest of their setup, taking out cards in their play area or targeting their infrastructure and disrupting their ability to bring out higher Tech level units. The RTS aspirations for Codex really shine through in this raiding-style combat, giving the feel of whittling away at an enemy’s capabilities, rather than always striving to deliver direct hits to an opponent’s life points.
Once you’re done taking actions the actions portion of your turn ends by moving any readied (not exhausted) cards you’d like from your play area to zones in your patrol area and locking them in, so you can’t defend with cards you’ve already used to attack. That’s not uncommon in dueling games, but Codex’s positional element of defense provides an additional layer of strategy and RTS feel; each space in your patrol zone gives a different bonus that applies during other players’ turns, granting additional attack power, allowing you to draw a card if the unit dies, or in the case of the leader acting a bit like a tank by agroing any incoming attacks before they can hit other patrolling units, and giving the leader a small damage soak ability.
To finish off your turn you discard your entire hand and draw the number of cards you discarded plus two, up to a maximum of five. That means if you had an overly productive turn in terms of bringing out new cards, that it’s going to take you a few slower turns to rebuild back to a full hand. Depending on how you prefer your dueling games this can be either a good or bad thing: it stops blitzkrieg-style strategies or huge swings of momentum in matches without the player getting a chance to respond, but it also means there’s no hidden carryover between turns and you’re relying on random draws to get the right card combinations for what you want to do if it involves spells.
Finally, as your opponent starts to take their turn you’re able to select two cards from your codex and add them into your face-down discard pile, which will become part of your new deck once the discard pile is refreshed. You must take two cards during this step until you hit 10 workers, but after that you’re free to take anywhere from 0-2 cards depending on your needs. You’ll probably find this part of the game bogs things down slightly your first couple of plays as you familiarize yourself with what’s in your binder, but once you’ve got a good idea of what your options are it doesn’t take long to pick the two you want to add.
COG Takeaway: Codex: Card-Time Strategy fits in well with Sirlin Games’s current lineup of colorful titles, maintaining accessibility while providing good strategy through its fresh combination of two genres that both garner a lot of love and hate for various elements. Codex does away with the biggest potentially frustrating ingredients of each, shedding the purely random chance deck building aspect of that genre, and the completely locked-in, pre-constructed nature of collectible card games, but keeping their major draws; giving each player their own custom pool of cards to build from maintains the individual, pre-match theorycrafting of a TCG, and allowing players to customize their actual in-play decks during the game preserves the adaptability found in deck builders. The game purports to include elements from RTS video games, and although I would have liked to have seen the base development aspect fleshed out in a more substantial way, the positional defense, fog-of-war style deck buildup, Tech levels, and raiding-style combat all do lend Codex a Real Time Strategy feel. Overall, if you’re a fan of Sirlin Games’s other products, or if you enjoy dueling games or deck builders and want to try an accessible new combination of those genres, I’d recommend checking out Codex: Card-Time Strategy. (Visit the campaign page)