Review by AKwan
Monopoly meets Magic: the Gathering - with improved card balance and such
Many of the most interesting and innovative games have been created by merging together two very non-similar games. When Culdcept was released on the Sega Saturn, years ago and in Japanese only, it already caught my attention. The game merged together Monopoly and Magic: the Gathering. Or rather, it merged together Itadaki Street and Magic. Itadaki Street was a Japanese console Monopoly-like game with stocks, complex maps (with branching routes and check-points which the player must pass through in order to collect their "salary" from the bank), and a different victory condition (you don't need to bankrupt other players to win, instead you win when your total assets reach a certain value). Culdcept has inherited many rules from Itadaki Street, and has even improved on some rules which have not been implemented so well. It has also borrowed some card ideas from Momotarou Dentetsu, another Japanese console board game of property investment. (Because Magic is not a board game, so it does not have movement cards and such.)
Like Magic, each player has a deck of cards, from which he draws one card at the beginning of his turn to add to his hand. And like Monopoly/Itadaki Street, the player moves around the board by rolling a die. How the two are joined together is that, when you land on an empty land, you play a creature card from your hand to summon a creature onto it. The land is now yours, and other players will have to pay you "toll" (rent) when they land on it. Except that before he pays, he also has a chance to summon a creature to battle yours, and if he wins, he takes the land from you! There are also item cards which aid creatures in combat, and spell cards which do a variety of things outside battle (from giving you some extra cash to directly blasting enemy creatures). Overall, the game was designed quite well, and the game was very engrossing. The game isn't as short and simple as the best German games (or German-style NDS games such as Suujin Taisen and Kunitori Nobunaga) I've played, but it has the good taste of a more involved board game and a serious trading-card game.
I enjoyed the Saturn game for a while, but then eventually grew tired of it. Why? Because in my opinion (and contrary to the concepts of kiddie card games such as Yu-gi-oh), the soul of a trading card game is the card balance, and because the first Culdcept was quite a breakthrough, it couldn't be playtested enough to find the right balance. The designers made some marginal efforts at it, but it wasn't really enough: power cards emerged and dominated every deck and every game, and there were many useless cards which were too weak or specialized to ever bother with (they might have slightly cheaper player cost, but the power cards were also cheap enough ...) With the power cards dominating the game, the game quickly became monotonous, with most decks falling into one of a few meta-types; any fine-tuning would make little difference, because after all it's the power cards which mattered.
In the years between, Omiya Soft continued to publish several versions of Culdcept on various consoles, but for some reason I did not feel compelled to try any of them. This was until when Culdcept DS was eventually published, and I got a chance to try the game on a borrowed copy. After playing for a while, I liked it so much that I went out and bought my own copy.
What drove my purchase was the improved card balance and rules. Through the years, they have been working on card balance, with big and small tweaks here and there in each newer version, but in this NDS remake of the first Culdcept game, they have totally revised the entire card set. Power cards are not only given higher costs (they are still great inclusions in your deck, but to fill your entire deck with power cards would become prohibitively costly), but also new weaknesses; weak cards have been given new uses, and now most cards seem to be useful somewhere. Now it really feels like a card game with over 300 cards to make many different decks with, instead of a short-lived game of merely figuring out which 30 or so of the cards are really powerful or useful, and filling your deck with them.
Also, they have really struck the sweet spot between preserving the rules in the original game and adopting refinements from later versions. For example, while the concept of creature "races" was preserved, the ability to use different types of equipment is detached from the race, and is now an attribute listed on every creature. This has allowed them to refine the game balance, and rule out broken combos (such as the Decoy wielding a weapon, or the Gremlin casting a scroll). Another rule taken from later sequels is the "fort bonus": instead of paying the salary in one lump sum when one passes the castle (bank), part of it is split and paid when you pass each fort (check-point). This change alleviates the damage done unfairly by spells such as Drain Magic and Judgement, so that while it is profitable to play Drain Magic on the evil landlord who has just extracted a big toll from some poor soul, it is not so screwy in the early game when one is mostly living on his salary income.
The NDS version is the first one on a portable console, and this game really benefits from portability. You can play wireless with your friends on a bus or ship, or alone on a plane; you can do some deck-building during short breaks. Both the mid-game save function and the sleep function are very useful for those whose life include things other than games. The WiFi is implemented very well, enabling you to play friends (via friend codes) or strangers. It has even implemented a manner system, where rude disconnectors are marked by a "bad weather" icon, and by being matched automatically with fellow offenders, are kept away from those players with good sportsmanship. The makers have really taken care to make a game which is really enjoyable both off-line and on-line.
The graphics are in nice 2D, similar to the Saturn version that I remembered. Honestly, for this kind of game I'd prefer nice 2D graphics to messy 3D, which tends to obstruct the game play. The card art consists of nice paintings, some old and some new. The dual screen is used quite well, with most action taking place on the upper screen, while the lower screen is used to display some useful information. Touch screen controls are appropriately minimum (for example, for conveniently typing in a name for the player or a deck); most of the game is button-controlled.
The game is targeted at more mature gamers, so the Japanese version uses a fair amount of kanji. I could not comment on the "import friendliness" of this game, since I myself cannot feel any difficulty with my level of language proficiency, but I would definitely say that, for western players who love board games and trading card games, the English version should be well worth longing (and lobbying!) for.
Product Release: Culdcept DS (JP, 10/16/08)
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