Buzzworthiness: Millennium Blades

Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of Millennium Blades.

I like meta media.  When I say that, I mean stuff that is about itself.  I like books about books (such as the Thursday Next series or Misery), movies about movies (like The Player or Singin’ in the Rain), TV shows about TV shows (like Sports Night or 30 Rock), and so on.  So it stands to reason that I’d b very interested in a game about a game.  And here it is:

image by BGG user tehero22

Millennium Blades is a game designed by D. Brad Talton and published by his company, Level 99 Games.  In the world of the game, you are someone who plays the card game Millennium Blades, which is a CCG like Magic: The Gathering.  Like Magic, it is the most popular card game in the world, and there are all kinds of tournaments and different sets of cards to collect.  Your job is to enter three different tournaments and score enough points to win, claiming your title as Millennium Blades World Champion.

The game comes with five player boards and two central market boards.  Additionally, there are 6 starter decks of 9 cards each; a core set of 118 cards; 11 expansion sets of 12 cards each; 9 premium sets of 12 cards each; 8 master sets of 12 cards each; 4 bronze promo sets of 6 cards each; 3 silver promo sets of 6 cards each; 3 gold promo sets of 6 cards each; 6 character cards; 36 friendship cards; 6 pro player card sets of 5 cards each; and 2 meta card sets of 6 cards each. For those of you keeping count, that’s 652 cards.  You’ll also get 15 cubes, 10 venue cards, a punch sheet of counters, 80 money stickers, and 800 Millennium Dollar bills.  The bills will be stickered together into 80 money wads of 10 bills each.

To set up the game, you’ll choose 5 expansion sets, 4 premium sets, and 3 master sets.  These will be shuffled together with the core set to form an initial deck of 262 cards.  From this, nine cards are dealt to the market, face down.  You’ll also select bronze, silver, and gold promo sets to go in the fusion zones.  Another bronze and silver promo set will be set aside for prize support.  Each player will get a character card, six friendship cards, a starter deck, and a set of sell markers.  They will also be dealt three booster cards from the massive deck.

image by BGG user kalchio

Millennium Blades takes place over the course of three rounds.  Each round is divided into two phases – a deck building phase and a tournament phase.  For your first game, it is recommended that you skip the first deck building phase and move straight to a pre-release tournament.  This tournament will be played with only your starter deck, not the three booster cards you were dealt initially.

Teaching Note: You should definitely start with the pre-release tournament if playing with people who are new to the game.  You also shouldn’t even teach the deck building phase until that pre-release tournament is done.

In each deck building phase, you will be collecting cards that you will then take into the tournament with the intent of earning as many ranking points as you can.  The first thing that happens in the phase is that you’re dealt six more booster cards from the deck (don’t look at them yet).  Then you reveal the first meta card, which will tell you an extra way to score ranking points by having a certain symbol after the tournament ends.  Finally, you’ll start a seven minute timer (not included) and you’re off.

The deck building phase is played in real time, though it’s not a speed game like most real-time games are.  There are several things you could do.

  • You could buy from the market.  Simply pay money equal to the value on the card and take it.  You won’t know what it is until you buy it – this simulates buying a sealed pack of cards.  The image on the front of the card is supposed to be the one good card in the pack, while the rest are abstracted into deck boxes and accessories you might find.
  • You could sell to the aftermarket.  Put a card in an empty space and cover it with one of your sell markers.  You only have three of these to work with, so you can only have three cards in the aftermarket at a time.  When you sell it, take the money equal to the card’s star power from the bank immediately – you don’t have to wait for someone to buy it.
  • You could buy from the aftermarket.  Pay money equal to the card’s star value to the bank and return the sell marker to its owner.  The seller doesn’t get anymore money, but now has another sale they can make.  You can’t buy a card back that you previously sold.
  • You could perform a card fusion.  Take 5, 7, or 9 cards from the cards you have acquired and discard them.  These are not available for resale, they’re essentially out of the game.  Then, depending on how many you trashed, take a bronze, silver, or gold promo card.
  • You could trade cards with another player.  Cards traded must have equal star value, so you could trade a 5 for a 5, or a 5 for a 2 and a 3.  If one player is clearly getting the better end of the deal, they can sweeten the pot with a friendship card, which is worth 1-3 points at the end of the game.  Your friendship cards score nothing for you, they only score for other players if you hand them out.
  • You could build a collection.  This is a set of 2-8 cards that all share at least one symbol, and all have different star values.  These are worth increasing amounts of points – 2 for a 2-card collection, 21 for an 8-card collection.

When the seven minutes is up, deal everyone six more booster cards and flip the next meta card.  You’ll then start another seven-minute timer.  When that one is up, the aftermarket will close and no one will be able to sell any more cards.  After another six-minute period, the deck building phase ends and you move on to the tournament.  At this point, you should have everything finalized – you can only take eight cards (singles), one deck box, and two accessories into a tournament.  The rest should be in your binder, or in a collection (which scores now and is discarded before the tournament starts).

image by BGG user The Innocent

The tournament phase is played out on a turn-by-turn basis.  Beginning with the player who won the last tournament (or last player to have opened a booster pack at the start of the game), each player will take turns playing a single from their 8-card deck and resolving it.  Some cards have play effects that happen immediately.  Others have score effects that only occur at the end of the tournament.  Some require you to flip cards face down, and some have effects when they are flipped.  Some cards have ongoing effects, and some activate when you play your next card.  Some cards are reactions to what others do, and some give you actions that you can do separately from playing cards.  Some cards also cause you to clash with other players – you both compare the star power of your your top cards (most recently played face up cards), and each add a random booster card to your total, with the highest number winning.

Once all players have played six cards, the round ends and players count up the ranking points they earned (including anything scored from the meta cards revealed during deck building).  The high score in the tournament wins a bunch of points, and everyone else scores accordingly.  Players will also get prize support in the form of a random promo card from the sets chosen in the beginning of the game.  After the third tournament, the player with the highest victory point total wins the game.

image by BGG user The Innocent

COMPONENTS: There’s a lot of stuff in this game, but it really boils down to cards, boards, tokens, cubes, and paper money.  The cards are pretty good quality, and each one has a different back based on the set it belongs to.  The cards are very text-heavy, so non-English speakers are going to have problems.  But the powers of the cards are pretty well explained, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding them.  If you’re the kind of person who has to sleeve all their cards…all I can say is good luck.  There are a LOT of cards here.

The boards in the game are mostly there for storage and reference.  The central market has spaces for the for sale cards, the deck, and promo packs used for card fusions.  The aftermarket has 12 spaces for sold cards, as well as spaces for the meta decks.  The player boards are double-sided – the deck building side has spots for your collection, tournament deck, and binder; the tournament side has six slots for singles, a slot for your deck box, two slots for accessories, and three number tracks for ranking points (0-9, 00-90, 000-300).  Both sides give you a symbol reference for the game, and the deck building side summarizes what you can do in that phase.  They are made from thick card stock, and are all very well designed and functional for what they need to be.

Tokens and cubes – what can I say?  They’re tokens and cubes.

Paper money.  This is normally something that will send a seasoned gamer screaming from the room.  I understand why to use it – it really reduces the cost overhead to just use thin dollar bills, and that’s necessary in a game of this size.  I have to give Level 99 credit for coming up with a really novel way to approach it – the money wads are very satisfying to slap on the table.  They can be confusing for people if they only want to pay three dollars for something and find that they can’t take the wads apart – you have to understand that when something costs three, it’s three wads, not three dollars.  Also, the wads are very time consuming to assemble – my wife stickered ours while I sorted the money into the appropriate sized stacks.  I told her I’d include that fact in my review – it took her an hour, but she did a MUCH better job than I would do (stickers and I don’t get along).

A few more component things to mention.  First, the insert is cardboard and is fine as long as you don’t really care about sorting things out.  If you do want to keep everything really nicely organized, you’ll want to look into custom inserts (such as this one) or printing out your own dividers (which can be found at BGG).  Also, I have to give a round of applause to Fábio Fontes, the artist for this game (and many Level 99 titles).  I’m not a huge fan of anime style art, but Fábio has created a ton of different characters to put on these cards, as well as all the card backs.  I’m sure this was a huge project for him, and I wanted to definitely give him credit.  Finally, shout-outs to the graphic design team for their work on layouts and working the art into everything – the cards, the box, the money, even in the backgrounds of the boards.  The game looks great.

THEME: Here’s my history with Magic: The Gathering – I played it once while preparing for my blog post The ABCs of Gaming: M is for…, which was published way back in 2012.  I’m not one of those gamers that grew up in the CCG world, and I’ve never really had the desire to dive in.  I have been aware of the phenomenon for quite some time – I remember seeing people playing Magic in my high school cafeteria and wondering why it was so popular.  And then I steadfastly avoided it for nearly twenty years.  When I actually did get to play it, I wasn’t terribly blown away.  Granted, I was just using a starter deck, so I didn’t get the true Magic experience, but still, I didn’t really want to pursue it any further.

I speak of my CCG experience so you know where I’m coming from in talking about the theme of Millennium Blades, which is a game about playing a Magic-like CCG.  However, all the boring cards (lands, low level creatures and spells) have been abstracted out and you’re really just working with the rares.  For me, a non-CCGer, this is more what I wished CCGs would be.  All excitement, no boring stuff.  That’s not to say that every card you get will be super useful – a lot of it is situational, and really knowing how you want your deck to work is a big deal.  And from what I understand, that’s entirely thematic – CCGers get their main thrill from building the perfect deck, with different combinations that will hopefully achieve their goals.  So from the structure of the game (deck building and tournaments) to the cards themselves (especially with the backs made out to look like booster packs), this game seems entirely thematic to me.

MECHANICS: I’ve categorized this game into several individual mechanisms to talk about.

  • Variable player powers: This manifests itself in six different characters and six different starting decks, none of which is matched to each other.  Each character has a deck building power AND a tournament power, and each character has its own specialty.  The starting decks too have their own specialties, though there are several cards that are nearly identical in their execution in each.
  • Deck building: Deck building as an in-game genre came about with the release of Dominion in 2008.  But deck building as a overall mechanism traces its roots back to CCGs, where players would engage in deck building to customize what they were taking into matches and tournaments before actually playing the game.  Millennium Blades fuses the two by making deck-building a part of the game, but with an intent of customizing before the tournaments.  It’s pretty brilliant.
  • Commodity speculation: This is typically used in stock games where players are investing in different stocks hoping to pay big dividends later.  You can apply that same thought process here – you’re buying cards without knowing what they are in the hopes that you’ll be able to use them effectively with the cards you already have.  The good thing here is that you don’t have to keep bad cards.  There are several different ways to get rid of them – collections, fusions, selling, and even trading.  Fusions can also be considered commodity speculation, you’re just spending cards instead of cash.
  • Trading: While trading is something you can do, I honestly think it’s not something that is going to come into play very much.  Unless there’s a card you KNOW someone has that is the crucial linchpin to what you’re doing with your own deck, I don’t see trading being a thing.  There’s just too many other cards.  Maybe it comes up more when people really know the card sets.  I haven’t gotten to that point yet.
  • Set collection: Set collection is a crossover mechanism, occurring in both the deck building and tournament phases.  During deck building, it mostly occurs in the building of collections.  You’re making sets of cards with the same symbol and different star values, and you can score a lot of points from these.  I owe my victory in my first game to being the only one to build a collection – I won by one point after coming in dead last in the final tournament.  In the tournament phase, it’s more about making sure you have a symbol matching one on the meta cards so you’re not throwing away free points.
  • Hand management: A big part of the tournament phase is knowing what to play and when.  You’ll be forming your plan during deck building as you put together cards that will work well together, and including a couple of extra cards as back-ups in case plans come crashing down due to opponent effects.
  • Real-time vs. Turn-based: A lot of games out there are one or the other.  Millennium Blades does both.  The real-time is very different than a lot of games in that it’s not a speed game.  You have twenty minutes (split into three sections) to deck build.  You can go at whatever pace you want to, and if you’re in the middle of something when the time is up, you can finish it.  It’s kind of a laid back real-time element, and I like it.  The tournament element is turn-based, and it can drag a little bit if people don’t really have their plan set up, or if someone else has totally messed them up.
image by BGG user The Innocent

STRATEGY LEVEL: There is a lot of luck in this game.  I mean, there are 262 cards you’ll be drawing from.  A lot of them are duplicates, but you’re still not going to encounter every possible card.  There are just so many sets – 13 will be used in a single game.  The important thing is to try to go for good card synergies, and knowing what to get rid of.  You have twenty minutes to make a plan, and sometimes that plan is honestly going to be “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.”  However, the more you play, the more you’ll recognize where those synergies are most likely to pop up.  There are a lot of cards that reward diversification, and a lot that reward specialization.  Finding those combos, and then pulling them off, is a very satisfying part of the game.  So yes, luck plays a huge part, but there is a lot of skill in dealing with the hand you’ve been dealt.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not an easy game.  I’d say this is not something you’d want to bring to a casual family game night.  Level 99 does this great thing with many of their games, where they label it with a complexity level.  This one is labeled as “intense”, and I think that is very apt.  It’s not that it’s complicated, it’s just that there’s so much going on at once that it seems complex.

REPLAYABILITY: The replay value on this bad boy is extremely high.  You’ll be using different sets of cards every time, and you can rotate different characters and starting decks every time.  You almost never have problems with replay in a Level 99 game – they stuff their boxes full of everything.  If it all weren’t enough, there are also expansions – Set Rotation gives you more of everything AND a way to play co-op or solo, and there are six promo pack sets available now.

SCALABILITY: To be honest, I’ve only played this with four players.  It worked well at that player count.  The more players you have, the longer the tournament phases will be – they don’t scale based on the number of players.  The two-player mode seems to be a variant mode, so I’ll have to check that out in the future.  And if you want solo play, apparently you need to get Set Rotation.

INTERACTION: This is a very interactive game.  There’s lots of conversation in the deck building phase, and cards often have interactive effects (such as clashes or flips) during the tournament.

FOOTPRINT: As with other Level 99 big box games (I’m looking at you, Argent), this one is pretty much a table hog.  You need space for two central boards and a player board for each person.  They’re not small either.  Plus, you’ll want some space between you and the next player you you can spread some stuff out to look at it.  (Don’t worry about keeping stuff secret – everyone will be too busy looking at their own cards to be worried about yours.)  So you’ll need a good sized table for this game.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This game is amazing.  There’s a ton of cards, but it’s amazing how stuff comes together and makes for a really REALLY good game.  For a non-CCGer like me, I feel that it gives the experience of a CCG without having to drop hundreds of dollars on booster packs that may or may not be useful.  And that is its strongest point – everything you need is in the box, and there’s a lot of it.

image by BGG user exqcme

Thanks again to Level 99 Games for providing the review copy of Millennium Blades, and thanks to you for reading!

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