Anyway… it’s fair to say I’m a bit of Transformers geek. Not like I’m stacked to the ceiling with G1 toys, but I do love them: I’m typing this wearing Autobot socks (as my wife notes, “you’re Transforming them into fluff”). In fact my first reviewing gig, and indeed first official #legit quote, was on IDW’s Transformers.
So when a new Transformers Trading Card Game comes around, it’s going to get my attention, despite having long sworn off TCGs, CCGs, LCGs and ECGs (wait, that’s something entirely different) – especially when you throw in a first expansion set based around those mighty beasts, the Combiners (no, not Beast Wars, that never happened, shush).
The Starter Set retails for £15.99, with a 4-strong force of oversized (and very shiny) Autobots and a 40-card battle deck. This is a standard-sized team and deck, and properly playable out of the box as a two-player intro experience, albeit one that is over pretty quickly.
Interestingly, although a fast-play version is included, the full rulebook is not, but rather accessed through the online portal for the game. Though I was initially wary, my kids found this perfectly natural (kids today, eh? tsk) and my younger son in particular liked being able to zoom in on the text to settle arguments with his big brother.
In the starter you get Bumblebee, Ironhide, Red Alert and (of course) Optimus Prime – or at least a version of them. This being a TCG, there are different versions available of differing rarities. Personally, I like that immediately recognisable core characters are there, even if the Super-rare chase versions of them are frighteningly powerful by comparison (more on that later).
With 3 or 4 £4 booster packs, you have (in theory) enough Transformers for 2 teams, but given that decks are 40 cards, you really need 6 to get started properly. That being said, it’s still a cheap buy-in, relatively speaking. Alternatively, there is a Metroplex starter available, which comes with Scamper, Six Gun, Slammer and of course the big (very, very big and even more oversized card) fella himself, which at £20 RRP gives you another complete team and deck, along with a printed rulebook if, like me, you like such things.
In addition to the first expansion, Rise of the Combiners (due March 1st), brings with it a Decepticon starter (due end of March), specifically based around those legends the Constructions – Prepare to Bear Witness to the Might of DEVASTATOR!
Aesthetically, this game looks glorious, a riot of G1 goodness with later IDW stylings thrown in for good measure. It ticks all the right boxes of nostalgia and nerdiness, and really looks the part. With card flipping to switch between alt mode and robot mode a core mechanic, you’ll find it impossible to not make grinding-clicking-whirring noises of transformation (admit it, you just did it in your head), whilst the battle cards really capture the spirit of the TV and comic stories.
All ‘bots have a star rating, typically from 5 to 13, reflecting their power level, with a team comprising no more than 25* total. In additional, the two modes have different Attack and Defence ratings, with all bots starting in Alt Mode.
The core game mechanics are decept(icon)ively simple. Each turn you draw a card, can flip a character between modes, play up to one each of an action (for example, to draw more cards, get some quick damage on an opponent’s bot, get an extra transform, etc) and Upgrade (weapons, armour or utility – equipment, essentially). Once you’re geared up, you can attack, using the now-customary tapping (rotate 90 degrees) mechanic, though you can only attack an opponent’s tapped characters (unless they’re all untapped) Then, you flip cards over from the top of your battle deck (usually 2) in an attempt to damage an opponent’s bot.
Almost all battle cards have coloured dots (typically one): orange add damage, blue add defense, white let you flip two more cards and green (introduced in Rise) can be swapped for a card in hand. Because your deck reshuffles when you draw it out, you have an interesting cycling mechanic built into the combat side of things. Whilst all card games run on draw, it’s rare to successfully integrate it into the combat mechanic (anyone remember Young Jedi? nope…) and Transformers does so extremely well. It’s possible to build decks that run on a limited mix of colours, or a rainbow, and some thriving on a solid wall of blue or orange. Add to this the fact that you’re limited to only attacking tapped characters, there’s a great deal of cat and mouse.
One of the strengths is the relative lack of obscure keywords, making the game quick to get the hang of, but with enough variety to mix things up: Tough gives you extra flips on the Defence, Bold on the Attack. Pierce is the outlier, giving you a minimum attack damage that stacks but can’t exceed your damage stat. It’s fairly situational, but it’s definitely viable to build a deck around. In addition, bots themselves have keywords, often (but not always) depending on which mode they’re in: so the alt mode will be car, truck, plane, Insecticon, Dinobot (yup) etc. as appropriate, plus some that allow Action or Upgrade based bonuses (Melee, Ranged, Specialist, Leader). Again some of these are quite situational, but it’s perfectly viable to build an all Dinobot or Insecticon team, for example, and have effects that trigger off one another.
Wave 2 introduces a few new mechanics. I’ll get to the Combiners in a mo, but whilst we’re on the subject of keywords, we now gain Brave (must be attacked), Stealth (can’t be attacked) and Plan (allows you to place cards on top of your deck). Again, not an over-abundance, but enough to keep things varied. It remains to be seen if this goes down the MTG route with thematic keywords rotation thorough different sets; certainly, Brave and Stealth have definite impact from the first turn of the game, as it limits your opponent’s choices and potential first turn advantage. Wave 2 also includes battle cards with star ratings (so they add to your team’s maximum) and the ability to pull cards from outside of the game – which is… odd, and I’m not entirely convinced by (at least for battle cards).
But for some of the Combiners, at least, it’s a necessity, as it’s how the 25* limit is worked around. Layout-wise, the cards look great, with alt and bot mode on one side, and part of the Combiner form on the other. There’s a strange sort of joy in arranging them, like collecting stickers in an album as a kid, and it’s a clever device for conveying the sheer scale of them. Most of the 5-bot Combiners are only 5 stars, of course (Stunticons, Aerialbots, Predacons) and are all commons, although needing the correct “Enigma” battle card to combine also; Optimus Maximus (6 uncommons) and Volcanicus (Dinobot combiner, all rares) pull cards into your KO pile from outside of the game to enable you to built teams that don’t break the 25* rule.
This is actually rather neat, and the fact that the various Sentinels (OptiMax components) can be flipped for in-game effects whilst KO’d means that this an interesting extension of the design space as a whole. There’s also 2 common combiners that don’t need an enigma, to form Dreadwing, so you can still get your fix; also, it’s worth mentioning that many of the individual Cominbers have plenty of wider utility, so pretty much any single given Combiner is a playable addition to a team.
So the game has an easy buy-in, simple mechanics, and enough strategic depth to keep the most hardcore card gamer satisfied… what’s the catch?
Well, the catch – if you can call it that – is the same one as any TCG: the money game. The rarer characters are generally more powerful, notably the chase Super Rare Optimus and Nemesis Prime. And because – for now – Autobots and Decepticons can be played on the same team, the competitive game is driven by the wallet. That being said, Rise seems to be addressing this: whilst 2 of the 4 chase Super rares are Triple Changers (damn, but I want a Springer!) they are not by any stretch all-powerful, game-breaking, must-haves. Then again, to build the Combiner of your dreams will take a lot of packs of cardboard crack. Like any new game, it’ll take time to bed in, and it’ll be interesting to see what sort of competitive scene emerges.
Alongside the game, there is also a companion app which, though by no means essential, allows you to browse at leisure through the rules, all the cards, record your collection, build teams and even track health totals in-game. This last part is a bit fiddly and gimmicky, though the rest of the tools are genuinely useful. There are also intro videos included, again really useful for the novice. Now add in a soundboard for it, please, so we can add in-game noises (or just to make my phone blare out The Touch) and we’re talking!
In the meantime, however, this a great, all-ages game whether for casual play or serious Cybertronian intensity. I’d say that its success is that it really feels like an epic battle of Transformers – unlike, say, Pokémon which is more of a skin to hang a game off; it continues to bemuse my kids (and me) that the key to playing Pokémon TCG isn’t the Pokémon, and certainly not evolving them. This is not to say that Transformers TCG doesn’t have some interesting and complex mechanics, but it absolutely feels like an all-or-nothing War for Cybertron, with the Allspark at stake with every flip of your deck. Maybe it’s because I’m more invested in the IP, but I far prefer this as a game to any of the other TCGs that are rattling around my house / gaming community at the moment.
It’s an excellent game, overall, and we’re early enough in its evolution to be getting in at the ground level rather than being overwhelmed by a paralysing and bewildering amount of choice. What can I say except … Roll Out!
As mentioned, we were lucky enough to get some goodies from Hasbro for this review. The Autobot starter set will be up for grabs in a giveaway (details below), but before we get to that, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the packs of ‘Rise of the Combiners’ we were able to open.
From 15 boosters – half a box – we pulled 2 Rare, 6 Uncommon and 7 Common Transformers, with one duplicate (an Uncommon, oddly) of the 46 available (10 rare, 4 super rare, 16 uncommon, 16 common). Not a bad ratio by any means, if this is the same rare distribution as Wave 1 (3 rares per box of 30, 1 super-rare per 80 boosters). What is stated on the packs is that Combiners are roughly 1:2, which was borne out by our pulls (10 from 15 boosters).
Anyway enough about us – you want to win something? Well, we’ve got a starter deck for you, and if that’s not enough, we’ll even throw in a bunch of Decepticons for you too! Because really, who doesn’t want Megatron and the gang to beat down on Optimus?
Right then, to enter, here’s what you need to do:
1) Follow Big Comic Page on Facebook
2) Follow Transformers Trading Card Game on Facebook.
3) Comment on on this Facebook post with your favourite Transformer – and tell us why they’re your favourite!
What’s more, you can also nab yourself a bonus entry (twice the chance to win!) by liking and sharing this Facebook post.
We’ll aim for a pretty quick turnaround on this, with the winner revealed next week in our review of the new kids’ D&D card game, Dungeon Mayhem (#spoileralert – it’s hilarious and great family fun)!