Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Quick draw: First impression of Death Pit Duels

In the world of head-to-head two-player battle card games, I'd be hard pressed to name a more distilled, purified entry than Death Pit Duels (designer Bryan Johnson, publisher Frost Forge on Game Crafter).

Let's start with the draft. The game features a single deck of combatants in four races, each with a combat value from two to eight. From six quick rounds of I-split-you-choose, each player ends up with a stable of 12 combatants ready to go. Each player then shuffles their respective combatant deck. That's all there is to the first half of the game.

The second half is 12 combat rounds, each for a prize of a coin (that is, a card with a coin printed on it) valued between three and seven points. Each player randomly deals out one combatant, then simultaneously plays one card from a hand of "Duel" cards numbered from one to 12 to augment the combatant's strength. The strength of each combatant, plus any special power modifications, plus the player's revealed Duel card determines which player wins the prize. A tie leaves the prize on the table, plus a one-value coin, which move on to the next duel. Each combatant and each Duel card is used exactly once, so while the combatants emerge in random order, the challenge to players is deciding when to toss the cheap Duel cards and when to go big.

There's a deftness to the I-split-you-choose draft. The player who is "splitting" the draftees has five random combatants from which to form two pairs; the opponent will choose one pair and leave the "splitter" with the other. If players ignore the special powers, there's very little decision-making in balancing the two pairs evenly. But some combatants have bonuses against certain other races, so there's value in paying attention to what the opponent has drafted - and splitting or choosing accordingly. Other combatants gain randomized bonuses from a die or from a "prisoner" deck, so it's important to pay attention to their expected values as well.

In combat, there is a temptation to throw away cheap cards at three-coin battles and play the big ones for the seven-coin battles, but here again, paying attention to the difference between the combatants and which cards an opponent has already played can yield opportunities for stealing a battle with a cheap card. There is also an opportunity for bluffing an opponent into spending a high-value Duel card while tossing a low-value card, leaving oneself with a stronger hand for the later game.

The illustrations by Alisha Volkman are cartoonish and the physical quality is basic, which is in keeping with the light nature of the gameplay. For those concerned about representation, all of the human-race combatants and all the prisoners are white males, although there's no player-identification associated with those characters.

All in all, Death Pit Duel is at its heart a light quick two-player filler. If you like something short and sweet that you can knock out in 20 minutes but still put a little thought and second-guessing into, this game will fill that niche.

The designer Bryan Johnson provided a complimentary copy of the game without condition.

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