It would appear that the quell of microgames on the market has no desire to slow down. Using only a small amount of cards and components, I’m always amazed at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of game designers when they willingly limit themselves. Certainly there’s an economic appeal to designing and producing small games, but if done poorly it comes across as a poor attempt to make a quick buck. Ironmark Games is loading up the proverbial pistol and readies themselves to take a shot at the genre with The Duel: Point of Honor.
In The Duel: Point of Honor, two players act as robotic fighters that square off for a duel. Not a duel to the death, as it were, but one for honor and prestige and victory points. These machines are pre-loaded with a number of basic tactics and attacks, but as the game progresses they can learn from their mistakes and become more formidable opponents.
The game is played over the course of a number of three part rounds in which players alternate setting the speed of their attack to determine initiative and then playing a card to represent their physical move. This is accomplished with a small deck of cards that have a descriptions of actions as well as a number representing the speed of the attack. At the start of the game, the deck of standard attacks and tactics is dealt out to both players. Once hands are received, each player discard one of their cards, leaving each player 7 cards. Simultaneously, players choose the timing power of their upcoming attack. This is done by choosing a card from their hand and placing it face down. Once both players are ready, the cards are revealed simultaneously and the timing power in the top right is compared. The player with the lowest number will attack first. Each duel lasts three rounds and it’s important for players to keep their timing cards separate from the rest of their attacks, as there is a bonus for the fastest player. Once timing is determined, the quickest player chooses one of the remaining cards from their hand. These cards are either attacks or tactics. Tactic cards are completed as soon as they are revealed, but attack cards are only resolved after both players have resolved their cards. The only instance where an attack card triggers instantly is if there is “fast” listed on the card text, and even then only that specific portion of the card resolves instantly. At the end of three rounds, players earn points for having less damage than their opponent and earn a point for being the player with the lowest total timing number out of their three cards combined. If a player reaches 7 or more points at the end of a duel, the game ends and a winner is declared. If not, then another duel consisting of three rounds is played. In between duels players take a number of cards from an advanced tactics deck equal to their damage throughout the round, and choose to keep one. These added cards allow for more intricate plays and interesting strategies.
Games that cater solely to two players offer a number of challenges. Balancing is under closer scrutiny, the decisions have to be tense and interesting, and the game play has to remain fresh. Sure, these are truths for all games, but in the close up arena with 1v1 all of this is magnified. The Duel: Point of Honor does a solid job of avoiding putting itself into an uninteresting rut thanks to a number of factors. First is the timing portion of the game. The lower valued speed cards are also powerful action cards. By making all cards in the game dual purposed the first decision a player has to make when beginning a duel is what can I afford to throw away? By tossing away a powerful tactics card you may be winning a bonus victory point, but you could also be giving taking damage that’s going to negate that bonus. Players have a weird sort of rock-paper-scissors decision to determine who goes first, and then once that decision is made they have to then choose a card as their action. Bearing in mind that they’ll have to do this again two more times before getting a fresh new hand of cards. Each decision has to be weighed, it’s a very sleek use of the multi-use card mechanic and it works well. The decisions stay fresh throughout the entire game, which is exactly what you need with something small like this. Damaging an opponent too much is going to give them more access to the advanced tactics deck, but not damaging them enough is going to give you less points.
In reality this game’s biggest weakness is directly related to why I like it so much. In being a lean, player reading duel it succumbs to some necessary pitfalls. Primarily the dealing of cards. A player can get a really poor hand of cards that will leave them, at least for the one duel, wounded and without points. This is somewhat mitigated with the tactics deck, but ultimately it’s luck without a lot of mitigation. This is something I not only expect from a micro game, but it’s something I’m largely okay with. However it’s well worth pointing out because I am not necessarily in the majority. This game relies heavily on being able to read your opponent. Knowing what card to play when is crucial and a good chunk of where the fun stems from. The fact that certain cards make you blindly pick which type of card you will negate from your opponent is awesome…unless it’s not, which is something each player will have to decide for themselves.
This hits all the right notes for me. A quick playing time, easy to learn rule set with plenty of player reading and brisk pace. Even if I got completely hosed, which doesn’t happen all the time as no card is completely overpowered, the game lasts maybe 15 minutes. I’m far more forgiving of this when it comes to shorter games, it’s actually something I enjoy to an extent. By foregoing strategic decisions that require long play times you’re losing the spice. Throw in a little luck and a little player interaction and you can get that taste back, which is precisely what was done here.