Arena Review: Penny-Arcade: the Game – Gamers Versus Evil

There are few brands that I truly trust. I am fiercely loyal to King Arthur flour and would give LEGO a kidney if they asked, but in the realm of gaming there really isn’t anyone more trustworthy than Gabe and Tycho of Penny-Arcade. Sure, they have had a few missteps over the years like the whole Spider-Man 3 debacle (which honestly, none of us saw coming) or there was the whole thing with the Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness which ended when they finally admitted they’re much better commenting on games than making them.

But for those few mistakes, they usually lead you in the right direction. My love of Puzzle Quest? That was them, same with my adoration of Torchlight and Minecraft. And is there any better gaming experience than PAX itself?

So when Penny-Arcade said they were releasing their own card game, I immediately ordered a copy to see what it is all about.

Welcome to the world of Penny Arcade! As the top webcomic for all things gaming, whether it’s video games or tabletop, it’s only fitting that Penny Arcade get its own deckbuilding game. Players will select cards featuring classic Penny Arcade characters from a communal pool. You’ve followed the way of the warrior through the story of the Cardboard Tube Samurai. You’ve sent your dollar-a-day to support Baby Ninja with smoke bombs and magic scrolls . Now rally them together to build your perfect deck.

Players select a hero card. Pick from Gabe, Tycho, and others straight from the Penny Arcade comic. Purchase Gamer cards with your gold. Yes, put that Merch in your deck! CONSUME! If you’d prefer to battle, wield the Cardboard Tube and attack one of the Evil cards. Dodge PAX Pox, make friends with a Werewolf With a Top Hat, ally with Cardboard Tube Samurai, PvP with your opponents, and skewer Dark Tycho for his epic loot. Build your perfect deck and win the battle of Gamers vs. Evil.

Suggested Ages: 15+
Suggested Players: 2 to 4 players
Playing time: 30 minutes
Contents: 412 game cards, 1 rulebook, 1 d20
Retail price: $44.99 available at Amazon.com and the Penny-Arcade Store

At its core, Penny-Arcade: the Game – Gamers Versus Evil is a deck building game akin to Dominion and Ascension. But some little changes (beyond the cosmetic) really mix up how the game is played. But let me make this clear, if you dislike deck building games, this one won’t change your mind. Players can use Cardboard Tubes and Quarters to earn Power and Tokens respective, each of which are used a currency to acquire cards. Red cards are purchased with Power and Green cards are purchased with tokens. It makes for some interesting decisions because each player begins the game with slightly different decks.

Unlike Dominion where everyone starts with the same amount of Copper and Estates, in Penny-Arcade your initial deck make up is based on your Character Card. Twelve oversized Character Cards are included and remind me a lot of Vanguard cards from Magic. These cards give everyone a different ability, like Gabe gives you one free token each turn and makes your starting deck 7 Quarters and 5 Tubes, while Tycho is the opposite and grants you one extra power per turn and a deck of 5 Quarters and 7 Tubes. Some other characters provide additional changes, like Annarchy who includes the Bal’leth (+2 power, draw a card) or Catsby who comes with Twisp (allows you to copy one card you’ve played already). It’s an interesting twist that either does almost nothing or completely overpowers someone depending on the board.

Like Dominion, there are a multitude of different card stacks you can use when playing, along with a Randomizer deck. But there isn’t a help list of starting layouts beyond “use this half for your first game, use the other half for your second… then you’re on your own.” It makes the game feel a touch unfinished, like production was rushed to meet a certain deadline.

What is most interesting and of questionable balance is the scoring system. Like Ascension and Dominion, the winner is the one with the most points when the game ends. But in P-A:TG-GvE, half the cards in the game are worth points – all of the red ones. At the end of the game, all but 8 of the green cards have any value which just feels… clunky, especially when some characters are more driven towards Green decks.

But there is a single exception that also happens to be the most redeeming attribute of this game: Bosses. Like any good videogame-inspired product, four bosses are included for battle – two green and two red. On the side of red are Evil Tycho and Satan himself, while the Cardboard Tube Samurai and Santa Claus defend green.

Boss loot cards are random – and powerful, cards that can drastically change how the game works. Players acquire them like other cards – only they’re much more expensive and as you buy more, their price goes up effectively “leveling” them up as you defeat them. Once the level one version of a boss has his four loot cards taken away, the next level is brought out which increases their cost by 3. The game ends when either boss is defeated at level 3 (or when 10 stacks are depleted).

But the Boss Loot cards go into your deck like any other card you acquire. The Red ones are worth 5 points, while the Green ones are worth 7 (and making them the only green cards worth anything at the end of the game).

They’re powerful effects but there is something very off putting about them – they all have the same art! The CTS cards like Spirituality and Valor have the EXACT same image – same with all of Evil Tycho’s, which is even weirder since one of them is about facial hair. It’s not like Penny-Arcade doesn’t have an archive that dates back to 1998 filled with artwork, right?

But there is one little thing about the green boss loots that is amazing – they require the roll of a d20. Yes, it’s devastating when you roll a 1 and miss with a boss, but when you role a critical, it’s so much more fun. Maybe I just really like rolling dice, but when only the green boss loot cards use the die, it feels like a missed opportunity. What is also weird is that the d20 included just feels cheap. The edges are rounded and the die just feels wrong – I strongly suggest using a Critical Hit d20 in its place.

For Dominion players, you’ll notice many similarities. Attack cards are now renamed PVP Attack, while Reactions are just PVP Defense. Cursed were turned into PAX Pox and trash has been renamed to delete.

The box claims that the game works for 2-4 players, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. One on one, it’s fun and works well (provided the choices are balanced and the characters work), but after playing a 5-person game, it just became unfair. Regularly people who skip their entire turn because of multiple PVP attacks that forced them to discard. Cards like Baby Ninja are great at blocking a single PVP attack, but unlike Moat, you have to discard them to block! It means attack cards are way too powerful.

Another issue we encountered is the difficulty of converting the currencies. If you end up with a Red heavy board or vice versa, it can be a challenge to covert tokens to power especially when the randomizer deck fails you.

But you can’t talk about Penny-Arcade without talking about the humor. If you like Penny-Arcade, you’ll love the idea of summoning Div or the Winter King to aid you. But if you don’t know anything about PA, then yelling “Touch Weiners” or dealing with a Pickle Recognition Engine will feel off. What I found to be oddest were some of the card names chosen, but it was probably because Penny-Arcade was trying to avoid commentary on too many other properties.

But seriously, they felt Canid deserved a card while the Watch didn’t? I don’t get it.

Another oddity about the art is that some cards include word balloons while others don’t. I think they missed a grand opportunity to use flavor text, like with the Werewolf in a Top Hat.

Continuing the trend of disappointment, the Fruit Fucker is left out – unless you happen to pre-order the game from Cryptozoic themselves. Fruit Fucker Prime is an additional boss that I would absolutely love to have but sadly there isn’t a way for me to get him right now. When I asked why I didn’t get one, I was told “we simply do not have a large enough quantity of these promo cards to provide an amount to every hobby store that stocks our products.” So thanks for buying the game, but not really?

From a construction standpoint, the game is fairly well done but has a few issues. The d20 included just feels cheap and the tray in the box is next to useless. You know how Dominion has that fantastic divider for every single card? Yeah, this game doesn’t have that. And there’s no place for the Character Cards.

At least the cards are the same size as Magic cards, making the set extremely easy to sleeve.

In the end, Penny-Arcade: the Game – Gamers versus Evil isn’t a bad game. It takes elements from both Dominion and Ascension and adds in some new and creative mechanics. The boss element alone is something I really enjoy, but the game still feels like it needed another month or two before getting released. The next expansion will either redeem this game or be the final straw, I really can’t tell which. If you like deck building and Penny-Arcade, you’ll probably like this game, but if you only like one of the two, this won’t change your mind. And if you don’t like either, why are you still reading this?

Pros
Boss loots great in flavor and execution
Green Boss loot is even better
Character Cards add some extra flavor
Standard-sized cards means easy to sleeve
A solid blend of Ascension and Dominion
Penny-Arcade humor oozes out of it

Cons
Some weird references feel out of place already
Bad d20!
Same art on all bosses just feels cheap
Awkward tray design
Impossible to obtain Fruit Fucker promo