Resident Evil Deck Building Game | Designer: Tylar Allinder | Artist: Jak L. Hueng | Publisher: Bandai Namco Games | Category: Deck-building Card Game | Players: 2-5 | Year: 2010
Whereas the idea of a licensed video game inspires a wary and thoroughly deserved sense of dread, the idea of licensed board game is a more inviting prospect that has only gotten more so with the hobby’s renewed popularity over the past decade. Resident Evil Deck Building Game is nowhere close to being the first board game to take advantage of the video game theme of course, but if memory serves correctly, it was the first deck-building game to be based on a video game property.
Like World of Tanks: Rush, Resident Evil Deck Building Game is a competitive card game where players acquire weapons and special tactics in order to defeat infected monsters and gain points in the form of ‘decorations’. It’s a highly thematic affair with players selecting their own unique character card representing one of the many characters from Capcom’s Resident Evil universe. From series regulars Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine to more obscure figures such as Alyssa Ashcroft and Hunk, the chances that your favourite character is featured somewhere is almost certain.
The “Premier” set of Resident Evil Deck Building Game was released two years after Donald X. Vaccarino invented the subgenre with Dominion and only one year after that same game won the highly prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2009. With such close ties to Dominion, Resident Evil Deck Building Game shares not only the same basic mechanic of collecting cards, but also the structure in how those cards are purchased and managed as sessions plays out.
A player’s starting deck consists of several basic cards including the lowly knife and pistol weapons as well as an assortment of basic ammunition cards that provide both bullets for guns and gold to spend in the shop. Over the course of the game’s default Story mode, players will strengthen their deck or “inventory” by adding in more powerful weapons in order to explore a Mansion deck chock full of Infected horrors plucked straight from the various Resident Evil video games.
Although the thematic setup here is a million miles away from Dominion’s fantasy world of competing land barons, the basic idea of using currency cards (in this case ammunition) to purchase other more powerful cards is alive and well. Many of the action cards in Resident Evil Deck Building Game even share an exact same effect with their counterparts from Dominion; Item Management works like a Mine, Escape From the Dead City functions as a Village and so on.
The addition of exploration gives Resident Evil a niche of its own. It’s always tense watching a player flip over the top card of the Mansion deck only to see them hopelessly outgunned against the enemy they’ve just revealed. The character cards are another shrewd inclusion that add a lot to the game’s appeal because of their special abilities that activate once a certain number of decorations have been attained.
However, as more and more expansions were released for Resident Evil Deck Building Game, it soon became clear that the designers were struggling to adequately balance their expanding roster. With such a range of character abilities comes the unfortunate side-effect of some being much better than others and so it’s usually wise to keep a house rule aside for players who don’t like the character they get dealt during setup.
Speaking of setup; this is very much a traditional engine-orientated deckbuilding game that’s aimed at serious fans of the genre. Almost every mechanic is in some way card-driven (no easy or automatic trashing rules here!) and there are times where finding the perfect combination of shop cards is a balancing act in and of itself. This is an easier task in the tightly-designed Premier Set, but the bloat of material you get when the expansions are added can muddy things, especially when you factor in the designer’s unfortunate fondness for quirky or mode-specific cards.
Resident Evil Deck Building Game can be hard going for players who are new to the genre. Story mode sessions end after a boss is defeated and finding the right combo of weapons and action chains that will accomplish the latter feat is going to be difficult for beginners. The five card hands present a noticeable learning curve when it comes to maintaining your deck’s balance and there are times when sessions will drag on as players search for the ideal draw that will allow them to safely explore the mansion.
It hardly helped matters that the Core Set rulebook was such a dreary mess upon release. To this day, the latest version of the rules present botched guidelines for the PvP mode and it still insists on a clunky ‘multi-explore’ rule that just confuses matters every time it comes up. Wound markers were absent for the longest time, thus forcing players to keep track of health values with a notepad and the storage box, with its abrasive plastic insert, had problems of its own too.
The game continued to grow in complexity as Bandai Namco released expansions. As well as the usual array of extra cards and characters, each expansion also introduced new ways of playing in an attempt to keep things fresh.
The first expansion titled Alliance introduced a fun Partner mode that allowed players to use two characters at once, Outbreak brought a vicious PvP variant that turned players into Infected themselves, and the Nightmare set added treasure cards to the Mansion deck as well as a slew of more general items and unseen characters. Although the Outbreak and Nightmare sets were a tad underwhelming compared to the new ground forged in Alliance, the later sets would do well to introduce better box control, tidier rulebooks, and even dividers so that players could keep track of the cards in their collection.
The final release titled Mercenaries would end up being the finest product in the whole line. This standalone expansion really took the game back to formula by redesigning the starting cards in order to help players get into the game faster. With just a few small changes to the behaviour of the starting weapons and ammunition cards, players would be slaying enemies and buying overpowered shotguns in no time and the improvements didn’t stop there.
The new skill system allowed players to further customize their game by drafting special cards that could assist them with everything from combat, healing, or munitions procurement once enough XP points had been placed on them. Skills are a fantastic addition as they make the game faster and more variable whilst also allowing players to balance out some of the characters who are considered to be too weak.
The graphic design in Resident Evil Deck Building Game had always been quite crisp with easily digestible text, but Mercenaries again sought to improve on things by “borrowing” more of Bandai Namco’s official artwork in order to replace the grainy card art and screenshot-quality pictures that had plagued so much of Outbreak and Nightmare. The printing errors that had befallen Nightmare were not repeated either and overall Mercenaries looked to be a more professional production in a product line that had at times come across as a bit trashy and amateurish.
If there is one major failing of Mercenaries then it’s the fact that the set doesn’t include the necessary bonus cards in order to play the actual Mercenaries mode! This style of play which had existed since the Premier release attempts to distil sessions down to the very basics in order to present a faster and less confrontational experience.
Many of the strong enemies from the Mansion deck are removed for this mode with several bonus time and scoring cards inserted in their place. Similar to the Resident Evil video games, the Mercenaries mode here takes on a score attack framework as players frantically rush to grab the most points and combo multipliers before the time limit expires.
The fact that these bonus cards are missing is certainly an oversight when you consider that Mercenaries was advertised as a standalone product and it’s a fact that’s only made more galling by the obvious design choices that the creators made when cooking up the set’s cheaper and more accessible cards that are a perfect fit for the mode in question.
Regardless of its flaws though, Resident Evil Deck Building Game once enjoyed an enthusiastic community and its official forums (which are now defunct) quickly became host to many fan-made cards, custom variants, and superb tier lists.
Bandai Namco were also very active when it came to organising tournaments and promotional materials. Any potential collectors today will have their hands full should they try to acquire all of the playmats, promo cards, and rare foils that do the rounds on eBay. Indeed, getting your hands on anything to do with this game nowadays is likely going to be a challenge as the seemingly short production run has seen reseller prices soar to ridiculous heights.
That the licence should expire at a point when the producers had finally gotten their act together is a shame, but at least the series is lean enough to not feel too bloated and the fact that it was never tarnished by the rancid stain of Resident Evil 6 is something we can all be very thankful for too. As it stands, Resident Evil Deck Building Game could never claim to be the most cherished son of Dominion, but it’s still a remarkably pure deck-builder that fans of Capcom’s series will surely adore, assuming they can still find a copy!