Tomb Raider CCG | Designer: David Hewitt | Publisher: Precedence Publishing | Category: Adventure, CCG | Players: 1-4 | Year: 1999
The long defunct Tomb Raider Collectible Card Game was originally released in 1999 to a hobbyist market that was still reeling from the CCG craze incited by Magic: The Gathering several years prior. At this point Magic had been dominating the scene for six straight years and whilst it was now abundantly clear that nothing could ever unseat Richard Garfield’s juggernaut from being the #1 card game on the planet, Precedence Publishing believed a niche still existed for licensed CCGs to thrive.
The Tomb Raider Collectible Card Game was one of the company’s more decorated ventures, but even then only three card sets were ever created for it before the publisher went out of business shortly after. Despite its commercial failure, Tomb Raider CCG did enjoy a cult following and today it remains one of the most thematic translations of a video game into the card game space, even if the game system itself wasn’t very elegant.
Inspired by Core Design’s famous franchise (in which Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was the most current entry at the time), this CCG sees players take on the role of an adventurer as they hunt for treasure in a fully customizable ‘level’ made up of location cards. Players construct their own personal deck of cards that help them traverse the level and move their playing piece deeper and deeper inside until the treasure room is discovered.
Players need a character card to get started first though and it only makes sense that the vast majority of such cards feature Lara Croft herself. Tomb Raider isn’t known for its deep well of supporting characters and thus the CCG allows all players to be Lara if they so choose, but one can also play as one of her many rivals.
The first two sets for Tomb Raider CCG had their own generous starter packs called “quest decks” that featured the basic materials a player needed to get started including a Lara Croft character card, the rulebook, playing pieces, dice, and a pre-made inventory of cards. Also thrown in there was a booster pack so players could get a taste of the new cards available through collecting.
In terms of the game itself, Tomb Raider CCG is a strange beast because it incorporates gameplay elements more suited to a board game (cards placed as room tiles, dice, and player pawns) than a typical collectible card game.
A player’s inventory primarily consists of action cards and discoveries. Action cards can usually be played at any time and confer bonuses and conditions that can help or hinder a targetted player. These cards are essential for players at all points in the game because relying solely on die rolls to pass challenges and win fights is usually a pretty bad idea. Discovery cards are different in that they can only be used once a player searches for them in the level. These cards range from triggers such as hidden doors and switches that usually have a global effect on the level itself or item cards such as weapons or medical kits that enter a player’s own personal play area.
Arguably the biggest draw of Tomb Raider CCG is the level deck. Each location card is essentially a room that features directional arrows that show the exits a player has available as well as a potential obstacle that must be encountered once a player’s pawn enters the area. The level setup determines the size and shape of where location cards must be placed with the default setup usually being a 3×6 grid that sees players travel forwards in a vertical fashion. The unique mechanic here is that each ascending row of locations cards is assigned a depth numbered from 1 (the entrance) to 6, 9, or even 12 depending on how deep the players want the level to go.
Because each room will be randomized before play begins, there really are no limits to the sorts of levels that players can create other than the cards they have physically collected by purchasing boosters. Players could decide to keep things simple and play one of the basic quest deck levels or create their own sinister tombs featuring jungle, aquatic, or even Atlantean environments.
The deeper a player goes into a level the more dangerous it becomes as their opponents have the ability to play obstacle cards from their hands as long as an obstacle’s danger level meets the danger level of a location card. Obstacles range from deadly pit traps or crumbling ledges to creatures such as lowly bats and overpowering bears and even dinosaurs. Overcoming an obstacle is usually a simple case of rolling a number of dice according to your Tomb Raider’s attribute scores and trying to meet or beat the challenge rating.
Tomb Raider CCG is primarily driven by such attribute tests and as such there is quite a lot of dice rolling involved in a typical session. In the beginning, before a player has managed to improve their character via upgrade cards, overcoming challenges can be extremely difficult and unsatisfyingly random. Action cards are the biggest help towards early success, but even with the generous hand limits and discard rules, you will still receive unhelpful draws and dying early to a trap is not uncommon.
As mentioned before, the video game theme that ties these mechanics together is extremely noticeable. Dying in the level requires your character to “reset” at the last place where you “saved” your game. Just like the video game, there are save crystals dotted on locations and discovery cards that allow a player to create a checkpoint to restart from should death occur. Similarly, any items that a player collects will be lost upon death unless they are also present during a “save”.
The game isn’t afraid to make the video game connection clear (as the action card named “Cheat Codes” helpfully illustrates) with the entire Premier set of cards drawing their inspiration from the very first Tomb Raider game released in 1996. It’s here that a problem begins to surface, however, as in an effort to maintain that video game flavour, the designers chose to use screenshot artwork for practically every card in the set.
This facet does create a sense of consistency for the most part, but with 3D graphics being so basic by today’s standards, the CCG’s look hasn’t aged well at all. Character cards have inconsistent and sometimes plain ugly illustrations and there are times where card text is almost completely illegible on them too. The visual design is certainly in-keeping with the franchise and it will delight fans to revisit familiar locations and set pieces in cardboard form, but the overall feel is still quite inconsistent compared to Magic: The Gathering.
The overall flow of the game is also too inconsistent. Sometimes a session can end too quickly as a player lucks into finding the treasure room early thus rendering the latter part of a level completely redundant. Other times one player can get an early upgrade or two and surge past obstacles and threats with their inflated dice pools that make them all but invincible.
Things can also drag on too long if the location cards come out in an order where their exits don’t line up deeper into the level. In this instance the game becomes completely reliant on players using their action and discovery cards in order to spawn new exits and if no-one chooses to do so or can’t do so, then you’ve actually got a game with no end at all! Luckily there are setups specifically created in the rulebook to avoid this situation, but it does spoil the otherwise exciting randomized nature of the level deck.
The rulebook highlights two primary methods of play with several different setups dependant on the location cards that the players have managed to collect between themselves. One way to play the game is completely by yourself as a solitaire experience; quite the oddity for any CCG printed before or since. Sadly there’s no real incentive to do this outside of a tutorial because the rule set only makes recommendations on how the challenge should be approached and it ends up feeling more like a sandbox time-waster than a proper game.
The danger level requirement on certain obstacle cards is also somewhat suspect. Low danger cards such as bats or dart traps are so easy for players to overcome that it’s a complete waste of time even putting them into your deck in the first place. The situation is similar for the more expensive item cards and obstacles that rely on some extremely lucky dice rolls or danger ratings in order to play to the table. The balance always feels a little off regardless of your setup and it’s uncommon that your assembled decks won’t need to be ruthlessly tweaked before a session begins.
It’s a shame because the actual deckbuilding elements of Tomb Raider CCG are surprisingly good. The Premier Set has plenty of unique strategies that canny players can exploit and the two expansion sets, Slippery When Wet and – the now absurdly rare – Big Guns, were excellent steps forward in terms of expanding the variety and complexity of the game system.
The Slippery When Wet expansion is especially notable for introducing “Wet” location cards that encourage players to gear up with aquatic equipment before exploring the depths of the Pacific Ocean and Neptune’s mythical sanctuary. Granted, keeping track of your raider’s oxygen supply is fiddly, but the threat of getting stuck in a Wet location and unceremoniously drowning adds suspense to an otherwise fairly rigid phase-driven game.
Today Tomb Raider CCG is an easy enough game is revisit for those who are curious. The Premier set was clearly manufactured in huge numbers and its cards and quest decks can be bought second hand at reasonable prices. Slippery When Wet and Big Guns are another matter entirely, however, with booster packs of the latter set reaching truly ridiculous prices due to its short print run.
Is it worth revisiting? Most CCGs need a group of like-minded players in order to function, but Tomb Raider doesn’t necessarily suffer from that problem. The game system works fine for a single player if you’re willing to partially create your own rules and the Premier Set is still surprisingly accessible despite being over fifteen years old at this point.
Tomb Raider CCG is an interesting curio from a time where bland CCGs were the norm. There’s no doubt that it has a lot more personality and fun ideas than some card games of that era, though today most would agree that the game is better off inside a collector’s binder than on a gaming table.