Game Buzzworthiness: Stack & Attack

Time for another review.  This time, it’s

image by BGG user egragame
image by BGG user egragame

Stack & Attack is a new game from Egra Games and designer Jeremy Burnham.  It’s a 3-4 player card game where players are Neanderthals trying to build the biggest tower.  It’s a fairly light game that’s primarily targeted at casual, or even non-gamers.  I should mention that this was sent to me by the designer as a review copy.  So, with that disclaimer out of the way, on with the review.

First, here’s an overview of how the game plays.  Each player begins with a deck of ten rock cards – 3 small flat rocks, 3 small round rocks, 1 medium flat rock, 1 medium round rock, 1 big flat rock, and 1 big round rock.  This deck is shuffled, and you draw a hand of three cards.  On your turn, you have four action points to spend.  These APs can be spent to buy new rocks or special cards, build your tower, or throw rocks at your opponents’ towers.  Small rocks always cost 1 AP, medium rocks always cost 2 AP, and big rocks always cost 3 AP.

To buy, take a rock or special card from one of the five cards revealed in the quarry.  Special cards can be bought at a cost printed on the card, but don’t cost anything to use.  They can increase your attack or defense strength, give you more AP, get rocks back, or throw rocks higher than usual.

To build, add a rock to your tower.  Each has a different height (1-2-3 arms).  Big rocks can’t be built over height 7, and medium rocks can’t be built at 12.

To throw, take a rock from your hand and pick a target on an opponent’s tower.  Big rocks can’t be thrown over 7, and medium rocks can’t be thrown over 12 (unless you have a catapult).  Your rock has an attack strength, and your opponent’s rock has a defense strength that is boosted by the defense strength of rocks on top of it.  Each player can then choose to reveal 0-2 cards from their deck, and add the respective attack/defense strengths.  If the attack is successful (totals more or equal to the defense), both rocks are destroyed and rocks on top go to the defense discard pile.  If the attack misses, the thrown rock goes into the defensive player’s discard pile (hey look, free rock).

At the end of your turn, you reshuffle your discard pile and hand back into your deck and draw a new hand of three.  You can add a card to your draw when your tower reaches 5.  You also get an extra AP when your tower reaches 9, and you can hold a card in your hand instead of discarding everything if your tower reaches 12.  The game ends when someone reaches a height of 15, or when the quarry deck runs out.

COMPONENTS: This game comes with 80 cards and 4 folding boards.  The boards are there to mark the height of your tower.  The rocks on the cards all have a height of 1-2-3 “arms”, and they fit in perfectly into the lines marked on the board.  The edge of the board is marked with some reminders about the bonuses you get at height 5, 9, and 12, as well as the numbers for each level.  Height restrictions are marked on the board, and this is one of the biggest complaints people I played with had about the game.  When building your tower, the reminders (no big rocks over 7, no medium rocks over 12) get covered up by the cards.  I mentioned this to Jeremy in our correspondence, and he said that they were either going to widen the board or add some symbols to the edge in the second printing.

The cards are nicely illustrated, and the rocks are designed so they fit perfectly into the lines on the board.  The card stock is kind of flimsy, but everything is very clearly laid out.  The cost, attack, and defense value of each card is printed on the bottom so it is visible when you stack them on the tower.  There’s even some flavor text on the cards to add to the entertainment value.  The only other complaint I might have about the components is that there’s no way to track your action points.  However, this is easily fixed – go get some rocks from the garden, and use them to track APs.  It’s thematic!

THEME: It’s a simple theme – stack rocks to build towers, and throw rocks at your friends.  I asked Jeremy if the theme or mechanics came first when designing the game:

“The theme. We had a very short window for designing or game, and our first few ideas were way too complex and cumbersome. During one of our brainstorming sessions we were having a heated debate when one of our team members jokingly said “why don’t we just make a game where people throw rocks at each other?” Amazingly, we all rallied around the idea and ended up making a game about cavemen stacking rocks and trying to knock over each other’s towers.”

The theme works well within the context of the game.  You’re not thinking so much about being a caveman as you are about building your tower of rocks, but it provides a nice framing for the experience.

MECHANICS: I’ve been describing this game as “sort of” a deck-building game.  It shares some ideas with traditional deck-builders – particularly, the act of buying new cards from the quarry – but it differs in that using a card, either in the tower or throwing, removes it from your deck.  Another difference is the act of reshuffling your discards into your deck after every single turn.  Because of the combat mechanism, you may be collecting cards in your discard during other player turns, and because you only reshuffle at the end of your own turn, you may end up with no deck from which to draw during attacks.

The act of reshuffling also creates an interesting dilemma – namely, you never know exactly when the cards you want will come out.  This is true in other DBGs, but you are guaranteed that those cards will come out sometime in those.  Because you’re constantly reshuffling, you may never see a card you want.  This adds some push-your-luck elements to the combat.  It also means that you don’t want too many cards in your deck.  Thinning is a prominent strategy in games like Dominion, but here, you don’t want to thin too much because it’s very easy to find yourself with nothing to defend yourself or attack with.

In addition to the deck-building elements, there’s also a very simple form of action point allowance.  There’s no complicated cheat sheet needed, telling what costs what.  It’s simple – small rocks always cost one, medium rocks always cost two, large rocks always cost three, special cards cost what is printed on the card and only when you buy.  Keeping track of your points can be confusing, particularly when engaging in combat or mixing actions.  Still, it’s a very basic form of the mechanism, and one that can be good to introduce it to non-gamers.  You know, before dumping something like Through the Ages or Tikal into their lap.

I asked Jeremy if there were any specific inspirations for the mechanisms in the game.  His response:

“We wanted a game that was similar in characters – box size, components, complexity, play time – to Bohnanza. I’ve always liked the idea of a deck-building game where you get to “create your own luck”, beyond just the cards played from your hand. When I was young I played the Star Wars CCG and they did a good job of this with “destiny” values. The stacking mechanism ultimately came from our desire to avoid using wooden cubes or other physical pieces in addition to the cards than drive the game. Game like Le Havre have cards that can be stacked while still revealing significant information. Lastly, we stuck with the direct attack/race-to-the-top mechanism, over some type of “score your tower whenever you want” rule because we wanted an experience less like a typical Eurogame and more like the game “Risk”, with players forming unsteady alliances and constantly trying to convince each other how harmless they are. “

In our first correspondence, Jeremy also talked about a possible Kingmaker effect in the game, where you can really take someone out of the running with a well placed throw.  He acknowledged it, but said that it was a good thing because it encouraged people to buy defensively, build defensively, and create some opportunities for epic tower collapses.  After playing, I can see what he means.  At one point in one of our games, every card in the quarry was a big flat rock.  I was the only one who seemed to want to buy them, as everyone else thought they were a little useless since their towers were too tall and they aren’t good for throwing.  I, on the other hand, thought they’d be good as defensive cards for draws (I never got to test that as they didn’t come up when I needed them).  A suggestion I heard was to include some way to wipe the slate clean.  It’s a possible house rule, I guess, though I kind of like that the quarry can get clogged up.

Overall, I think the mechanics are pretty solid for what they are.  It moves pretty quickly (unless you’re constantly being interrupted by a four-year old or are playing with someone that has severe AP…both of which afflicted my first play of the game), and everything makes sense as to why you’re doing it.  The mechanics match the theme, and that’s always a good thing.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Let’s come right out and say it – people looking for a deep strategic experience are not going to find it here.  There’s a little too much luck involved, and if that’s going to be an issue for you, you might want to look elsewhere.  That’s not to say there’s no strategy – you have to decide what to buy, what to stack, what to throw, who to throw at, and most importantly, try to keep the balance of a deck that is not too big and not too small.  It’s this last part that interests me the most – when I play DBGs, I often can’t keep myself from making a big, diversified deck.  That’s not a good thing here.  Nor is a thin deck – as I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have enough cards, you run the risk of not being able to boost your defense.  So, while the cards you get are going to be random, it’s not just mindless rock stacking.

ACCESSIBILITY: Stack and Attack is a game that is aimed at non-gamers/casual gamers.  The rules are simple, the gameplay is fast, and it’s got a pretty fun theme.  At the same time, there are a number of mechanisms that will be unfamiliar to people who haven’t played hobby games, so I’d definitely suggest a patient experienced teacher for the game.  I think lots of people could get the hang of it, and possibly even younger than the 12+ age range.  For gamers, I think it definitely fits into the 30-minute filler category.

REPLAYABILITY: There’s not a whole lot of variety in the game.  You get the same rocks every time, and there are only 5 types of special cards (2 of each).  The replayability comes from the randomness, and the strategy of the players.  I don’t think it’s a game that will get a lot of repeat plays – I doubt I’ll be pulling it out at every game night.  But it is a fun little game, and doesn’t tax your brain, so there’s value there.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 3-4 players only.  I asked Jeremy why not 2:

“We decided fairly early during playtesting that we either needed to make a 2 player game or a 3-4 player game. I’ve seen a lot of games that have a solid ruleset for 3-4 player but try to stretch the rules to accommodate 1-6 players; It is very hard to pull off. We went with 3-4 players because we liked the big ups and downs, and the broader variety of strategies and player interactions, that this format allowed. That being said, we do plan on coming up with a 2 player rule variation in the future.”

I’ve only played with 4, and I felt the length was just fine (well, except for the 4 year old and AP mentioned earlier).  I imagine that 3 players would be a quicker game, though possibly a little more brutal.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? For what it is, I’d say Stack and Attack is a good game.  It’s not aspiring to deep strategy or an involved game.  It’s attempting to engage people in a casual experience, and I’d say it succeeds at that.  I don’t think it will be a game for everyone (what game is?), but I do think you should give it a look.

Thanks again to Jeremy Burnham and the folks at Egra Games for sending me this review copy, and thanks to you for reading!

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