Designed by Mark Wootton. Original design by David Williams. Additional development by Eric Jome, Konstantinos Thoukydidis, and Steven Martino. Published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). Released in 2014. For 2+ players ages 14+. Plays in 25-30 minutes. Copy provided for review by AEG.
The 90s Collectible Card Game craze saw the rise and fall of some pretty obscure games, and with rare exception only a select few survived more than a year. Doomtown, based on the late 90s weird western roleplaying game Deadlands, survived for a few years – and many have fond memories of it. Now comes Doomtown: Reloaded, a reissue of the original game by AEG in their expandable card game format, where expansions and sets include a full playable set of each card included – so there’s no element of randomization to collecting and playing the decks you want.
At its heart, Doomtown is a game of positioning and control. Over the course of the game, players build a town and maneuver their gang of cowboys around that town in an attempt to establish control over it. Unlike games such as Magic: The Gathering, and more like Android: Netrunner, the positional element of Doomtown really twists how players think about and play the game. It’s a harrowing experience that begs players to push their luck, attempt interesting plays, coming back to the game again and again. It scales remarkably well into three or four player multiplayer game experiences. Add to that the interesting battle mechanics involving poker hands, and the formula for a unique and fun game quickly emerges. Sadly, Doomtown‘s complexity and the steep learning curve before playing against another player becomes fun works against both new players wanting to pick it up and experienced players who want to get deeper into the game.
The world of Deadlands, which Doomtown in habits, is a weird western setting where cowboys and mad scientists exist alongside summoned demons, zombies, and magical coal called Ghost Rock that shrieks with the howls of the damned when burned. There are four factions in the core set of Doomtown, each representing a powerful group within Gomorra, the frontier boomtown where the game is set. The Law Dogs are the loyal and upright citizens, the sheriff, and his deputies, whose deck focuses on picking strategic battles and punishing opponents for cheating. The Sloane Gang are outlaws led by the the deadeye Sloane; Her gang of ruffians focus on outshooting and overwhelming their opponents. The Morgan Cattle Company are a crew of mad scientists who’re richer than their opponents, surprising them with fast horses, steam-powered gatling pistols, and flamethrowers. Finally there’s The Fourth Ring, a circus crew who dabble in evil magic and demon summoning, destroying their enemies with potent combinations of weird spells, unkillable undead, and clowns.
Every card has a few values – five or six in the case of the Dudes who represent your crew. The graphic design and layout is pretty good, though the plethora of values will often confuse new players. The art is lovingly painted or rendered, and there are very few pieces that are bad or utterly lacking in charm. Likewise, the tokens that represent game values like your available Ghost Rock supply and bonuses are made of a sturdy cardboard stock. The other key feature of every card is that it has a traditional playing card value in the upper corner, allowing any given draw from your deck to serve as a poker hand to resolve various events in the game – from shootouts to spellcasting.
In any given round of Doomtown you’ll ante up some Ghost Rock, then draw a hand of lowball poker, to establish which player goes first – and thereby gets the extra income – that round. Afterwards, the game goes into turns, where each player takes a single action with either their dudes already in town or by playing a new card from their hand, often Booting those dudes and making them ineligible for more actions. As players pay to place new locations – called Deeds – from their hands they gain control over those deeds, which usually have an income value for their controller and give a number of Control Points. Those deeds don’t exclusively belong to that player, though, and if another player has dudes with a higher Influence value on the location they take control of it.
Players’ dudes maneuver around the town using a system of movement rules, allowing them to move from their home base to the open town square and to their own player and other players’ properties. Dudes can also kick off Shootouts with groups of other players’ dudes, resolving them with poker hands depending on the number and kinds of dudes involved. The number of dudes knocked out in a shootout depends on the difference in hand rank between two players, and casualties have to be paid for by either putting a dude in your discard to cover a single casualty or Acing them into Boot Hill to cover two casualties. When a dude goes into boot hill, the player can’t play any cards with that name for the rest of the game – the dude is well and truly dead. Players continue to take actions until everyone passes consecutively, then the game enters a Sundown phase where everyone draws more cards and goes into an upkeep phase for the next round.
If it sounds like a sprawling, loose game structure where a lot of strategies are viable, well, it is. Doomtown is a remarkably open-ended game where you’re rewarded for doing the unexpected and thinking about how to simultaneously harry your opponent and shore up your own holdings. That’s not to say that’s the only strategy – some Morgan Cattle Company, decks, for example, specialize in playing defensively until the player can confidently take the whole board in one sweeping maneuver. It’s a game full of surprising twists, where a lucky draw hand can mean a shootout that was a slaughter turns into a desperate last stand, or a card that kicks off a shootout when your opponent was least expecting it can wreck carefully laid plans. With a four player game taking about an hour once everyone knows how to play, and a two player game taking 20-30 minutes, any given crew of cowpokes can find time for it. You’ll hedge bets and take calculated risks, exposing your crew to fire but keeping a reserve of dudes to take advantage of your opponent overextending themselves in the face of a perceived threat. Near the end of most games you’ll see yourself going down and take a risky play – throw everything at a firefight or three – and come out the better for it, turning the game around. Or you’ll crash and burn, going out in a blaze of desperate glory.
It’s worth noting again that the game scales remarkably well into a multiplayer experience – in fact, it seems nearly purpose built for it. Much like playing a game of Magic: The Gathering in the Commander or EDH formats, there are more than a few glorious moments to be had when playing Doomtown in a group, and those groups that play card games exclusively in a crew will find themselves having a remarkably good time with it.
There’s one big concern: Doomtown has a shockingly complicated metagame. Aside being generally difficult to learn – you’ll have questions about rules well into your second play – there are a few underlying issues. An understanding of how your opponent’s deck works during the game often doesn’t come until you’ve already lost. Especially during your early games, what a winning strategy looks like can be confusing and frustrating, leaving many players to say that the game isn’t for them very quickly – and indeed, this game isn’t for many people. There are a lot of exception-based rules: You boot your dude while moving unless you’re moving them from their home to an adjacent location or the town square or from the town square to any other location unless it’s your home – not to mention the absolutely byzantine rules for when a dude can join a posse to go on a specific kind of shootout called a Job. There’s also the plethora of jargon sprinkled throughout the game – you can see that, as I’ve bolded it throughout this review. Alderac have done their best with online guides for the game and the game itself comes packaged and sorted for an instant tutorial – a clever trick – but teaching the game to new friends is going to be the biggest hurdle you face in getting to play.
Deckbuilding is another avenue of metagame that’s difficult to understand for what is, ostensibly, a game where eventually you’ll want to customize your own deck. Simultaneously intimidating and exciting, you want to understand how to do it, but the sheer possibilities boggle your mind. Do you build with a low card variety so you can stack your shootout hands with five-of-a-kinds and full houses, or do you just include the best cards you can in hopes of winning lowball every round and then chancing shootouts to lucky pulls? There are multiple routes to understanding your deckbuilding in this game, but for many players that’s going to be too complex. I expect that many groups will have a single savant, someone who collects the game and builds all the decks, while other players just enjoy it and show up for a seat at the table and a few hours of fun games. For all its complexity, once those few extra players learn how to play they don’t have to learn much more. That the expandable card game format makes playing without a deep buy in for every player so possible without breaking the bank is a real reason to praise Doomtown: Reloaded, its value for money, and how future expansions will be sold.
Bottom Line: Doomtown: Reloaded is a deviously complex card game with a lot to recommend it, but will be rather too finicky for more casual players.
Recommendation: Card game aficionados owe it to themselves to see what Doomtown has to offer, as do those who think the theme is intriguing.[rating=4]