3012, a rare original property from Cryptozoic – a publisher more known for creating licensed games, suggests that in the millennia following the return of the ancient gods during the Mayan apocalypse humanity has devolved into clans, their biology mutated to resemble the animal gods they worship – bat, snake, monkey, jaguar and shark. These clans seem to fill their days with battling the local flora and fauna, giving their offspring unpronounceable names and generally getting on the nerves of their neighbours.
Theme aside 3012 offers a genuinely interesting take on the deck building genre, which was created by Donald X. Vaccarino way back in 2008 in the form of Dominion, and has since spawned many variants (Thunderstone, Ascension, Core Worlds), has been merged with other genres in myriad interesting ways (A Few Acres of Snow, City of Remnants), and has generally had a huge impact on the hobby. Deck building fundamentally differs from collectable card games (like Magic the Gathering) in that instead of a pre-built deck, each player begins with a handful of basic cards and throughout the course of the game drafts new cards and culls useless ones. Building the deck IS the game, with the winner usually the one who creates the most efficient combinations on the fly.
When Vaccarino created Dominion he was accused of making a pure gameplay mechanic, whilst forgetting to add the game. Dominion’s earliest offspring was Mike Elliot’s long running Thunderstone, which sought to remedy this by giving you a thematic purpose to buying cards other than creating a self contained synergy. In Thunderstone you buy weapons, heroes and magical items in the village, before assembling your war band and embarking into the dungeon to slay monsters. Whilst Thunderstone is arguably less mechanically elegant, its fantasy theme attracted many and to this day you can determine where someone sits on the theme/mechanics fence based on which of the two they would rather play.
3012, designed by Charles Tyson (whose only previous credit is as co-designer of WizKids poorly received The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul), builds on Thunderstone’s systems by introducing a good deal of player interaction, an element missing in almost every entry into the genre, and largely succeeds. It’s also a peculiarly American take on the genre as the developers seem to have decided that what deck building needed was some good old fashioned dice rolling. This may be a step too far for many players who prefer their games as luck free as possible, but I felt that the dice rolling was just enough to add an element of tension to proceedings, and is a refreshing addition to a genre that is in danger of stagnating.
Starting with a scant hand of 4 scout cards your turn will consist of turning up a card on two action card piles, deciding whether you want to face a monster and then having an opportunity to buy either of those cards or any allies and weapons on display using gold values printed on your cards (while the action cards are neutral the allies and weapons each work better with specific decks). The twist is that even before buying them you have the opportunity to use the two revealed action cards as though they were part of your hand, which like the community cards in poker allows your opponents to have some idea of your strength. This, as you will see, is an important point.
The monsters you fight come from four facedown decks, each offering greater rewards in the form of victory points and experience. You select a pile based on the attack strength you feel you can reach, but before revealing the encounter each of your opponents has the opportunity to play one of their scouts to either aid or block you, decreasing or increasing the difficulty by one respectively. If the player wins he adds the card to his deck and gains the victory points at the end of the game, but everyone who helped him will split the experience. If he fails the monster goes to the bottom of the deck and everyone who blocked him will split it instead. You can play cards from your hand before or after opponents play their scouts, allowing you to sway their decision by showing your strength, although some monsters have abilities that will punish you for doing so. Bluffing is encouraged.
As you gain xp, you move your hero along an experience track by the board, every few squares increasing its base strength. If a player hits the end of the track he becomes exalted and triggers the end of the game, but this does not mean he has won. A player can easily speed along the track by managing to keep the xp of small kills to himself, or by aiding other players and will have to guess whether he has enough points to trigger the end of the game, or whether he needs to hold back, making the decision to support opponents all the more crucial (one game i played ended with me triggering the end game with only 4 points, whilst the winner had 17). It might also be in your interest to let your opponents clog up their decks with the corpses of many weak, low scoring creatures whilst you save your strength for the stronger game winning beasts.
Like the recent Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, players have a stake in every combat so there is very little downtime between turns. Even buying cards involves your rivals, because anything you don’t purchase can be reserved by them if they have a gold coin. This surprisingly deep sub game of bluffing and divided loyalties is 3012′s most brilliant contribution to the genre. It’s clear that the designer has taken care to introduce player interaction on every level of the game, from its base mechanics to its card interactions.
Whilst in Thunderstone your decisions often seem obvious, every decision in 3012 is a tense cocktail of risk and reward, and short term vs long term gains. 3012 is certainly not without its faults – it seems to take a long time to get started and often ends before you know it (although it never outstays its welcome), it sometimes feels very difficult to actually kill anything (games tend to be low scoring), and whist all the cards in the game are interesting in their own right, some of them are much better than others – but it has managed to innovate within a well worn genre, offering a refreshingly tense, if somewhat luck dependent experience.
Innovative take on the deck builder with lots of player interaction.
Tense action with very little downtime between turns.
The difference between xp and renown makes for some interesting decisions.
An excellent board keeps the play area organised.
A larger amount of luck than most deck builders.
The game can seem quite mean spirited if players are not used to conflict.
Superficial, derivative theme.
Card text can be hard to read.