Sunday, January 26, 2014

Losing Battle

A few weeks back, I wrote about my first exposure to Cards Against Humanity, the "adult Apples to Apples" that invites players to think in ways both crass and hilarious. It's really taken root among my friends; I've already played it more times this year than I did any single game in all of 2013. (And we still have 11 months to go, folks.)

From what I hear, Cards Against Humanity has similarly taken over as the go to party game any many gaming groups out there, so it's no surprise that there are other companies trying to get a piece of that pie. One such effort I recently sampled is "SUPERFIGHT!" (which I will refer to without the all-caps for the rest of this post, to save us all some eye strain).

Superfight is a card comparison game built around the premise: "who would beat who in a fight?" A deck of one color represents the potential combatants: Madonna, a sloth, a ninja, etc. A deck of another color represents characteristics: 10 stories tall, can breath fire, telekinesis, etc. When it's a player's turn to judge, he turns over random cards from the deck to construct an opponent; the other players then submit their own combinations of cards, suggesting what would be capable of defeating the opponent.

The premise is certainly fun enough at its core, and will likely find ardent fans among anyone who has ever had a passionate geek debate over "whether the Enterprise could beat a Star Destroyer" or "who would win if the Hulk fought Spider-man?" But as a game, the execution of Superfight is unfortunately flawed in a number of ways.

First, the decks are loaded with redundant cards. Not only are there multiple copies of certain characteristics, but many of the characteristics are too closely related to one another. You'll find cards for things 3, 10, and 100 stories tall, for instance. It feels like a distinct lack of creativity on the part of the designers, not to mention how it could easily imbalance the scales in any given round.

Second, the characteristic decks are loaded not only with beneficial abilities, but detrimental ones as well. There are cards for "can move only when the opponent moves," "is made of paper," and so forth. Certainly, when geeks choose to debate such weighty issues as "could Batman beat Superman," they'll inevitably start throwing such limitations into the equation ("Batman doesn't have access to kryptonite"). But in the context of a game, it just doesn't play well. A player's hand can easily become filled with negative traits that simply aren't fun to play, while the randomly constructed opponent of a given round can easily become a glass-jawed pushover (perhaps literally) that leaves little opportunity for discussion.

Third, the rules of the game itself are woefully incomplete and not fully functional. They call for each character in a fight to be played with two characteristic cards, sometimes resulting in contradictory or irrelevant card plays. They specify that all cards be played openly -- unworkable for a game if any players are the sort who must have objective rules to play fairly. They allow the judge to pick multiple winners in a round, or no winners at all. These are all choices that seem consistent with the simple "let's imagine who would win in a fight" roots of the idea, but all sabotaging the smooth play of an actual game.

So in the end, you have to give up on Superfight as a game, just go with the flow, and try to have fun with it. And if you're dryly thinking "oh no, you mean you have to just have fun playing a game?", you're missing my point. If Superfight doesn't function as a game, then who exactly is it for and what is it supposed to do? Is the target demographic "people who like to debate fights between fictional characters, but who aren't creative enough to imagine the match-ups themselves?" Is it "people who love nitpicking about possible boons and flaws of beloved heroes, but who don't nitpick enough to want actual rules governing how such a discussion might be conducted?" Anyway you slice it, I think this game is made for a rather small slice of people, and then fails to work in any way that those people would actually be satisfied by it.

However long it takes for a deck of Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity to "wear out" and need a refresher of expansion cards, I'd imagine a Superfight deck would expire far more quickly. Ultimately, it's a game that shows that even when making a party game, there is some true game design that needs to happen for a fun and satisfying experience. The fun idea salvages Superfight from being a total bust, but the amount of house rules you'd need to add to make anything out of it makes it a D at best.

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