Year Published: 2016
Designer: Herschel Hoffmeyer
Publisher: Die Hard Games
Playtime: 1-3 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: Just try not to hum the Jurassic Park music while thumbing through the cards…
Note: Some images depict cards from expansions as examples due to upgrade pack production error/delay.
Getting noticed is probably one of the most difficult aspects of producing a game, especially if it’s on Kickstarter and you’re depending on that attention to publish. Apex Theropod The Deck Building Game had little trouble doing that last year theming a deckbuilding game around dinosaurs, blasting past its funding goal and overwhelming the creator in the process. The game eventually delivered to most backers, but really represented a mixed bag as far as quality and the gameplay itself. You can read my full review of the first edition here, but suffice to say the game had great art and theme, but suffered from an atrocious rulebook, lack of player interaction, and a number of mechanical deficiencies that, while still making for an enjoyable experience overall with some player variants added in, clearly indicated the game needed more development time and more widespread, blind playtesting.
Apex TDBG’s second edition, which has been delivering to backers and is now available at retail, is an overhauled version of that first attempt, including a streamlined rulebook, revamped game mechanics, and new components. No longer claiming to seat eight players, the new edition seats a more reasonable six while coming in at about 30 minutes per person. That’s still a long deckbuilder if you’re playing with a full table, and other than tracking where other players’ Alphas are in their decks there’s still not much for you to do in-between turns. That being the case I maintain my original assessment that Apex is best with four players or less, and a max of five. An updated turn order that passes the first player marker the opposite way as the turn order at least alleviates the most major downtime issue suffered by the first edition, and gives you two turns in a row at some points to help you better plan and initiate attacks against other players.
That Player vs. Player aspect is the largest change to Apex from the first edition
That Player vs. Player aspect is the largest change to Apex from the first edition, which had you largely playing a solitaire game that could be lost if any of your competitors randomly got boss pulls instead of you. Bosses still exist but are relegated to the solo variant (which is a very enjoyable way to experience the game), and have been replaced with a species-unique spread of three Alpha dinosaur cards for each person. This Alpha is the leader of your species, and starts the game in its juvenile form; you now upgrade/grow your Alpha throughout the game, in addition to deckbuilding your entire species, with the final goal of placing your Alpha into ambush with other dinosaurs in order to attack and kill everyone else’s Alphas.
If this makes you worried about player elimination, Apex offers some small comfort. The game itself is hard enough that actually saving up and springing the cards to attack is pretty difficult, and you must discard an Apex card from your attack after each round of combat. That attrition makes it very difficult to win against another player the longer a battle lasts, meaning timing is crucial, and you also run the risk of losing a round of combat which lets the opposing player eliminate from the game one of the cards you used. It’s even possible to commit suicide this way and eliminate yourself entirely. So…you know…be careful. Even so, eliminating a player and having them sit on the sidelines for an hour is a definite possibility, and that’s something pretty hard to justify in modern game design for anything of this length. More than likely, however, you’re going to end up in a Battle Royale situation at the end of the game to decide the winner. More on that later.
The rest of the basics of Apex remain more-or-less the same. Setup time still clocks in at about 10ish minutes due to the randomization of the various decks, and because if you’ve got any of the expansions that added cards to existing species then you’ll also need to pare down your Apex Deck to 20 cards.
Things are greatly helped, however, by the addition of a central play board and individual player tableaus that keep everything organized and in its proper place. You’re also still able to adjust the difficulty of Apex by including one to three Emergence Environment cards at the top of the Environment Deck’s normal seven. This deck cycles at the end of each full round to move the game along, and keeps each game dynamic by producing different effects each round that influence subsequent turns in different ways.
Individual turns start with having to play Alert cards from your hand of six if you’ve acquired any during previous turns, and then deciding whether you’d like to place any cards into ambush. Ambushing lets you carry over Apex dinosaur cards into future turns, and is essential for not only hunting higher value dinosaurs on the Game Trail to start with, but is the only way you can actually attack other players.
You can place 1-3 cards into ambush per turn, but generally must take an Alert card and put it into your discard pile. Alert cards expose any dinosaurs you’ve laid in ambush on the future turn they’re drawn, and activate the alert abilities of dinosaurs in the Game Trail. In a worthwhile move, however, many of the Alpha cards, and some of the updated Apex cards from expansions, have an ability that lets you place them into the Ambush Point without having to draw an Alert.
Furthermore, the new Intimidation mechanic gives you the option of playing your ambush cards face-up, and attempting to intimidate another player into discarding a card at random if their combined hand/ambush Hunt value is less than your face-up cards. That not only lets you reduce their cards for their next turn, but it might help you identify whether their Alpha is in their hand or not. Once that’s done you’re free to hunt dinosaurs in the Game Trail, which range from easy Prey that aren’t worth many Evolution Points, to hulking Titans worth bucketloads. You’ll also have to contend with fiesty Menace and Predator dinosaurs that often eat other game on the trail, or even try to eat you.
Afterwards, you may spend Evolution Points from Carcass cards in your hand, or combine them with Evolution Points from dinosaurs you’ve previously killed, in order to buy Evolve cards or any Apex cards you hatched using eggs. Whereas Apex cards are the brawn of your deck, Evolve cards keep you in business and let you grow your species by providing eggs to hatch new dinosaurs and draw cards, ways to counter Afflictions or other negative effects, or buff your Apex cards in other ways.
Once your turn is over you discard your hand back to six, replenish the Game Trail for the next player, and things continue until the end of the round when a new Environment card is flipped, and the last card in each trail is recycled. If the round was the final Extinction Event and more than one player is left, then the game proceeds into a Battle Royale where players discard everything except the Affliction and Apex cards from their decks, and prepare for combat.
Now…if you’re familiar with the first edition or read my review of it, you’ve probably heard about the multitude of issues with the rulebook. Sections were out of place, repeated word-for-word, and there was a general lack of clarity. The new rulebook is head and shoulders above the first edition: it looks nice, has tons of pictures, is organized nicely in color-coded sections, and for the most part is pretty clear. I stress that last bit because the one part of the rulebook that gives me nightmarish flashbacks to the original is the Battle Royale section, and although you can overcome it with some trial-and-error and careful reading and re-reading, it’s way more confusing that it needs to be.
The new rulebook is head and shoulders above the first edition
As far as I’ve been able to decipher, all the Carcass cards in the game are stacked as the new Hunt deck, and one is dealt out each round to determine the number of actions each person gets to perform (either one or three). Your draw deck is reduced to only Affliction and Apex cards, and your Alpha along with two Apex cards are put into your ambush point before drawing three cards as your starting hand. Actions are taken simultaneously: you may play an Apex card from your Ambush Point face down, add a card from your hand to the Ambush Point and draw a card, or discard one card from your hand to draw another. Your Alpha can be deployed forward as a free action, so you can technically send two cards out to fight initially if one is your Alpha, and it can also be used to trick your opponents into thinking your Alpha is not one of the ones attacking if there were three actions and you made it look like you only took two.
Combat is then performed by flipping all the cards and comparing their strengths, and having the option of bringing one of your cards out from ambush to assist. Losers all destroy one of the Apex cards they used to fight, or are eliminated if only their Alpha was deployed. Otherwise, anyone remaining in play who lost the battle takes an Affliction card, and the winner gains the Carcass card for the round which can be used to heal Afflictions, or take extra actions. If the Affliction cards in your play area ever equal the health of your Alpha, you’re dead. For the survivors, it’s not clear at this point whether you draw three new cards or simply move on with another round of actions, though according to the distributor it’s the former.
So, have all these new features made Apex Theropod TDBG a better game? In short, kind of: it’s a very different experience from the original and has therefore really shifted who it might cater to, and although those changes fixed some existing issues I also think they’ve spawned some new ones, and left one completely untouched.
The solitaire variant is essentially the old multiplayer version, so if you really preferred the original you can just play the solitaire rules, but add in one Boss and its Minions for each player and construct the Hunt deck accordingly. Playing with a victory variant that stresses the points each card is worth over simple boss kill tallies alleviates another problem with the first edition, and implementing the new player order takes care of some of the excessive downtime. Either way, though, I still believe it’s a serious design issue to have the primary means of building your deck (egg cards) solely reliant on random draws from the Evolve Pool and a single starter card; it would make way more sense to me to have them in a separate deck and always available for purchase, or at least a variation of them that doesn’t include the added card draw text.
For my part, I don’t necessarily prefer the PvP version over the old PvE flavor or vice-versa. The revamped rules definitely streamline some of the original mechanisms and shore up some gameplay issues, but the added direct conflict still just doesn’t make me feel like I’m overly engaged with other players during most points of the game. The Intimidation mechanic is a nice thought and works well with trying to plan your timing for attacks, and the Infiltrate ability on some cards that lets you deal an Affliction to other players is a good start, but so far I’ve found the Infiltrate ability doesn’t come up enough to be very noticeable, and contending with the game itself to build my species makes it rare I want to take the risk to fight other players before the end.
The revamped rules definitely streamline some of the original mechanisms and shore up some gameplay issues, but the added direct conflict still just doesn’t make me feel like I’m overly engaged…due to the time limit imposed by the Environment Deck, and the accompanying difficulty of actually building your deck which hasn’t really changed from the first edition’s PvE focus.
In effect, the new PvP mechanics feel much more like the looming possibility of interaction, rather than constant engagement. A cat-and-mouse game, if you will, where you’ll only really want to pursue sure things. I guess that’s thematic in some sense, but the second edition is still not overwhelmingly interactive on its own. Rather than any large fault in the PvP mechanics, however, upon reflection I really think it’s due to the time limit imposed by the Environment Deck, combined with the difficulty and pacing of actually building your deck, which haven’t really changed from the first edition’s PvE focus. The necessary PvP elements are all there: ways to potentially track Alphas, some take-that elements to affect other people (especially with expansion content), and direct battles with consequences, yet your focus will invariably fall to simply trying to keep up. Environment effects constantly wear you down, and you’re completely at the mercy of the randomness of the Game Trail and Evolve Pool to get the cards that will let you add abilities to your deck, or hatch cards from your Apex Deck to gain combat strength; there are no cheaper, always-available cards that could still improve your situation during turns when you can’t afford to do much else, and although the ambush mechanic lets you carry over cards with Hunt value, that still puts you down an entire round in a game that only gives you eight to ten turns. It’s a tough sell to spend a turn trying to attack someone when that may well mean you not only lose a hard-earned Apex card, but in effect have wasted all your ambush attack value on a fruitless attempt that could have been used instead to kill a Titan on the Game Trail and prepare for the Battle Royale.
Fundamentally I’d say it’s an issue with deckbuilding pacing given the other elements involved now, and that’s really not something easily solved without major changes to either the time limit, which is 100% necessary to keep Apex from devolving into a Cold War situation that takes place over an entire afternoon, or to how quickly and reliably people are able to build their strength which would require a total re-balancing of everything in the game. But to be clear, I’m not saying the game is completely broken- rather, I’m saying the PvP interaction during the normal game is not implemented within a framework that’s very conducive to this implementation of direct conflict. If you don’t mind that and instead want to approach the game as a buildup to the Battle Royale, then you’re “cookin’ with gas,” as they say.
If you don’t mind that and instead want to approach the game as a buildup to the Battle Royale, then you’re “cookin’ with gas,” as they say.
I’m also fairly torn about the components. The art is, once again, stunning…if you like dinosaurs I’d tell you to buy the game just for the art, because you’re going to sit and look at this game for hours. The box, the rules, the cards, and the individual player mats and central board are all gorgeous. And, best of all, they’re all very functional in terms of layout. However, I have concerns about the main board’s ability to hold together over time: it’s composed of three panels, and the connecting strips feel rather flimsy to the point where if you’re not careful you could accidentally bend it the completely opposite way it’s meant to before realizing it’s not right. The player mats also have a satin finish that looks and feels very nice, but scuffs extremely easily.
Furthermore, like with the first edition you’re probably going to want to sleeve the cards because they feel thin and crease easily, but doing so is going to cause you some headache with the box’s insert. Although it functions perfectly without sleeves, if you use pro-matte sleeves or anything similar you’re going to have to crush the sides of the insert to get the cards to sit correctly without bending them; you’ll also find the dividers aren’t tall enough to fully accommodate the sleeved cards, so you’ll need to pull them up a bit to see them. The good news is there’s plenty of room for the base game, all expansions, and the extra species from the Exotic Predators edition, in addition to the plastic insert for the impressively large and heavy first player T-Rex marker. Again, though, mixed bag…people are reporting their T-Rexs broken upon arrival, and my own Rex snapped itself off at the ankles after about 5 minutes outside of the box with only very careful handling.
My review here is of the second edition core game, but my own copy has the Stomping Grounds expansion, as well as the three other expansions from the Kickstarter (not Promethean Wars), and the Peachstate Hobby Distribution exclusive Suchomimus species. I want to mention here that each of these expansions adds a great deal of variety to basically all of Apex’s elements, and do actually build on a couple of the shortcomings I’ve brought up. The Stomping Grounds expansion, for example, adds new Apex cards for existing species that let you directly affect other players just by using the cards normally, and one of the expansions adds an Evolve card that lets you hatch four cards from your Apex Deck. All of the expansions provide additional cards for existing Apex Decks to add some of the new abilities to core species, as well as variations on Afflictions for more interesting wounds. While I don’t want to say you should buy as many expansions as possible if you’re getting the base game, get them as soon as possible afterwards if you’re enjoying yourself.
COG Takeaway: Apex Theropod’s second edition makes a lot of very worthwhile changes that streamline learning and gameplay, and shore up some of the first edition’s mechanical issues. The essence of the core game has changed to a PvP-focused multiplayer experience in an effort to add some player interaction to what was previously something everyone sort of played in a vacuum, and as a result the type of person Apex might appeal to is also somewhat different. Still, variants exist to implement some of the new features with the old rules if you want a much improved version of the original, and the added player boards from the second edition, and the extra cards you’ll get from invariably buying the small expansions for the game, are all very worthwhile additions. For newcomers, I still maintain Apex Theropod is a mixed bag: a generally fun experience with some great art and well-integrated theme, especially if you like dinosaurs even a little bit, but one that still doesn’t feel like it’s living up to its full potential mechanically. If you like deck builders in general, though, especially the Legendary series, Apex is something to at least consider, and if you’re looking for something with solo play the solitaire variant here is solid.
Read our review of the first edition for additional context and some commentary on variants to consider if you want to try mixing some of the improved elements of the second edition with the first edition’s core gameplay.