Mark Chaplin
2 - 2
12 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Some game designers explore new genres and mechanics with every game. Others work with the same ones over and over, refining the product, until they have achieved perfection. Mark Chaplin is one of the latter breed. His chosen specialisation: asymmetric two-player card games. Okay, that’s not quite accurate, he has made a number of other games. But his most famous games to date are Revolver and its sequel Revolver 2, both asymmetric card games. And Invaders will further cement the reputation.

In Invaders, the two sides of the game are the monstrous alien invaders and the valiant last defenders of mankind. The year is 2127, and for exactly a year and a day earth has been at war. The war against the alien invaders is, for once, not centered on the USA but on Eurasia, with minor theaters in Africa and the Pacific Rim – that’s some US involvement there, at least. We’re not exactly sure why that is, but my two favourite theories is that a) Chaplin and White Goblin Games are European or b) the US were taken first because the aliens’ computer systems were incompatible with the virus. Bad Jeff Goldblum. No cookie.

Not technically appearing in this game
Not technically appearing in this game

In those three theaters of war, both players play their cards. Most cards are military in nature: tanks, planes and submarines on the human side and spiders, worms and tripedal walking creatures for the aliens. But getting those cards in place is not easy, because the really effective ones are prohibitively expensive. The price to get them into play is not paid with any sort of additional resource but with more cards. Different cards have two different methods of payment: either you discard a number of cards from your hand, given on the card you wish to play, or you drain your deck for a number of cards, meaning they go straight from your deck to the discard pile. In any given game, you will thus only get a fraction of your cards into play, most of them are simply discarded as payment. That makes every card you play a tough decision, you always have to consider the cards you might have played that now go to your discard pile. Sure, the alien ‘The Revenant’ Conqueror Beast is immensely powerful and hard to get rid off, but you discard eight other cards to get it on the board. Since you only draw two cards per round, that will leave you short on options for the next few turns, so you better make those big cards count.

When the alien player’s turn ends, he attacks. Humanity doesn’t, with one exception that we’ll get to in a bit. For each of the three zones, both players add up the strength of their cards, with a defensive bonus for mankind, and if the alien player comes out ahead, the human player drains the difference from his deck. Which is a bad thing, because the player who’s deck runs out loses the game. If humanity has more power, the alien player doesn’t drain anything. Come on, their mothership is in space, how are we going to destroy their resources again? But losing is still bad for the alien player, because every turn that he doesn’t drain any cards from the human deck, the Invasion Plot counter goes down, and when it reaches zero humanity wins. Why that is is not fully explained. Maybe the protests on the alien home world for getting them into yet another long, costly war grow too large just before the elections, or the Galactic Senate has declared mankind a sentient species against all evidence of the opposite and the extermination has to be cancelled. We’ll never know, but the alien player still loses when the counter goes to zero.

Man's Big Badaboom
Man’s Big Badaboom

Plain military power is not all those cards are good for, however. Even the military ones often have an additional effect, either when played or as long as they are in play, and can destroy opposing cards, or put +1 or -1 markers to modify a cards strength. But both sides have other cards in their decks, too. The aliens are a bit more into brute strength, but they have iconic evil alien plots: Alien Abduction to move human cards where they don’t want to go, or Black Goo that negates mankinds defensive bonus in one area, to name just two.

Mankind is more into special cards. They have many locations in their deck with special effects, which are harder to get rid of than the military cards. Some locations are especially vexing for the alien player because they absorb drain damage: even if you did damage, you’re not technically draining cards, so down the counter goes. (Many of those locations are in the US, so I what they are doing in this game, but I guess you can’t have a decent alien invasion without at least one shot of the Statue of Liberty in it.) Mankind also has Nukes in his deck. Plural. They go boom and can destroy most alien cards. And if they are not enough, there is still the Antimatter bomb, for more boom, or the ECM bomb (whatever that may be) for a big boom unless your opponent pays the targeted card’s price again. The aliens aren’t completely helpless, their Nanobot Kill-Swarms can take out most human cards, but humanity seems to be stronger on the card removal. And talking about special cards, mankind has its own deck of specials: the Heroes of the Resistance. Those great heroes of earth lead the fight against the aliens, and each of them can heroically sacrifice their life to help mankind’s cause. Only once, obviously. But once the last Hero is dead, mankind loses the game, so you might want to cut down on the heroics.

Mankind's Biggest Gun
Mankind’s Biggest Gun

But easily the most evil card in mankind’s arsenal is the ‘Black Narcissus’ Weapons Array. It is, literally, a game changer. With this card in play, mankind can shoot back, attack the alien mothership way out in space and drain their deck. That’s bad for the alien player for multiple reasons. First, the zone’s defensive bonus applies to this return attack as well, so the human player has a starting advantage. Second, the aliens don’t have ways to avoid drain damage like mankind does. And third, the damn thing is almost impossible to get rid of. It’s a technology card, nothing targets those specifically, so the invader has to use one of their rare “remove any card” effects. If that thing stays in play for too long, the Invader is in trouble.

But fortunately nothing in Invaders is without a counter. Sure, some things are hard to counter, but in all our test games I never had the feeling that there was nothing I could do. Most games had a very close end, always a good thing. After the first two games, it seemed that mankind had an advantage due to the time limit the alien player faces in the Invasion Plot track, but after a few more games the odds were more level. Mankind seems easier to play when you don’t know your cards, but they are not really more powerful. Of course there is always the luck of the draw. It’s a significant factor here, you can end up draining all your really good cards as payment for mediocre ones. But the winner is still mostly determined by superior tactics. The decisions you make count. Deciding which cards to play and with which to pay is never easy. And then there’s each factions special strategies, once-per-game powers that can really make a difference, but are also costly to activate. No decision is ever easy. So did Mark Chaplin achieve perfection in asymmetric card games? I’m not sure about perfection. Come on, if I say it’s perfect he might not give it another try. But I can say that Invaders is a very good entry in the genre.