Sunday, 24 December 2017

Custom Heroes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A quick and dirty description of Custom Heroes would be "Super Cho Dai Dee". It's a climbing card game like Tichu and Cho Dai Dee / Big 2, something most Chinese people around the world are familiar with. The main hook of the game are these transparent plastic cards below. The game must be played with sleeved cards. These transparent cards can be inserted into the sleeves to augment the normal cards. Cards can be upgraded. They call this the card crafting mechanism.

The transparent cards are called card advancements. Everyone starts the game with these two. You choose when you want to use them. At the end of every hand, you receive more, depending on your position for the current hand.

A game usually lasts 5 or 6 hands. To win the game, you need to first reach 10pts, and then win a hand. If there is no winner at the end of the 6th hand, only qualifying players enter the 7th hand, a championship hand, and whoever wins that wins the game, regardless of score.

The basic cards in the game are very simple - they are just cards numbered 1 to 10. No jacks, queens, kings or aces. The number of cards used depends on the number of players. You add a set of ten cards, numbered 1 to 10, per player. At the start of a hand, all cards are dealt out. Everyone gets 10 cards. Your objective is to get rid of all your cards as early as possible. A lead player first decides the combo type to play. It can a single card, a pair, a triplet and so on. The card values must be the same. Once this is decided, subsequent card plays must be of the same number of cards. The card value must match or top the latest value. You continue playing until no one is able to or wants to play any more. The last player to have played a combo becomes the next lead player and decides the next combo to play. This continues until one player plays all his cards. He is the winner for the hand. The rest then continues to play, to determine 2nd, 3rd positions etc. Once all positions are determined, everyone collects rewards. This includes points, power tokens and card advancements. The winner gets the most points, but the losers get more power tokens and card advancements. This is a catch-up mechanism. The core mechanism is simple, more so than Cho Dai Dee. You don't have all the poker combos like straights, full houses or flushes. There is no concept of suits.

During a hand, cards are played into a pile like this.

Let's look at the card advancements. They are the main selling point of the game. Card advancements are hidden behind your player screen. Every time you play cards, you may choose to upgrade them by attaching card advancements. There are four types of advancements. If you take a closer look at the photo above, you will see that near the bottom of each card there are four circles. Whenever you add an advancement to a card, one of these will be filled. Each card can accommodate four advancements at most, one of each type. In this photo two of the cards have been upgraded, and both have used the blue advancement slot. Their values have been increased.

Upgraded cards stay upgraded for the rest of the game. When you upgrade a card, you do it just before you play it, so that you enjoy the benefit. Before the start of the next hand, all cards are shuffled, and the card which you have spent a card advancement to upgrade may be dealt to another player. When cards get upgraded, the card distribution of the deck changes. There will be cards with values higher than 10. There may be fewer cards of a certain value because they have been upgraded, making it harder or even impossible to make four-of-a-kinds and triplets. On the other hand, upgrades can make five-of-a-kinds possible.

The player screen hides your card advancements. It also shows a reference table which lists the rewards to be given at the end of each hand. The red tokens are victory points. The yellow tokens are power tokens.

Some card abilities can be activated only by spending power tokens. If you play such a card and cannot afford the power tokens or do not wish to spend the power tokens, you gain some power tokens instead. Power tokens can be converted to victory points too.

There is one rule which does not exist in Cho Dai Dee. If you play a card or cards of the same value as the previous card or cards played, the next player is forced to pass. Since Custom Heroes has no concept of suits or the relative strengths of suits, cards of the same value being played consecutively happens quite often. This rule can cause some unexpected twists. You may be confident in the strength of your remaining cards, but if you get locked out of playing cards, even for just one turn, sometimes your perfect plan can become completely unravelled.

The Play

Playing Custom Heroes is very much like playing Cho Dai Dee (Big 2). The core mechanism is the same - it's a climbing game. The moment the cards are dealt, you already have to plan how to play out your hand. You need to make good use of the different combos. E.g. if you know an opponent has no pairs, you want to keep playing pairs to deny him progress. You know that weak cards in your hand will likely need to be helped by the strong cards. E.g. a lowly single 1 will likely be dependent on a 10 being played, so that you can be lead player next and play that 1. All these are familiar if you know Cho Dai Dee.

One thing that's significantly different is you don't play until one player wins. You play until there is one player left with cards. You need to determine the positions of all players, from first to last. In Cho Dai Dee, if your hand sucks you will try to do damage control, expecting to lose but trying to lose without too many cards in hand. You cut your losses. In Custom Heroes, even if you can't be first, you try to be second, or third. You don't want to be stuck with cards you can never play. The strategy changes because of this.

The advancements are precious. It's tricky deciding when to use them and when to save them for an even better occasion.

You need to keep in mind the ever changing card distribution. You need a rough idea of how it has changed, so that you can better evaluate the strength of your hand. You need to know what the highest card values are at any time. It's no guarantee for winning a hand though, because your opponents can always introduce yet another advancement to immediately modify cards. There will always be some surprise in store for you.

The rightmost card has been upgraded to a bomb. It is a single card, and it beats any combo played before it, regardless of the number of cards in the combo. However it can also be beaten by a bomb played after it. Every player starts the game with a bomb advancement.

I played a four-player game - Ivan, Allen, Abraham and I. The funniest thing in our game was how many times Abraham was forced to pass. He sat on my left, and there were many occasions when I had the exact same card value as previously played to the pile. I couldn't not play it! It was the best move. Abraham was blocked so many times that we got to a point when all it was needed was an apologetic glance from me, and he'd nod knowingly and signal to me: just do it man, just get it over and done with. In hindsight, I should have suggested to swap seats with him.

This #4 card has been upgrade twice, +9 and -1. So it's a 12 now. Negative advancements are not necessarily bad. Let's say I have a 12 and a 13. If I "improve" the 13 by -1, making it a 12, I can make a pair of 12's, which can be very powerful and handy.

Thematically, two of the advancement types are weapons, for right and left hands respectively. When you add such an advancement to a card, it is not just a number being added, a weapon will also be placed in the hand of the character. In this particular case of a negative enhancement, the weapon is a cabbage. That text at the bottom is a separate advancement. Base cards have no text. This particular text advancement reverses the strengths of cards. Smaller values now beat higher values.

The Thoughts

The card crafting in Custom Heroes is fun and interesting. It gives you many options. Even if your hand is poor, it gives you some hope of turning things around, or at least securing a middling position. Your opponents will open spring surprises at you. Since the core mechanism is a climbing game, non-gamers who know Cho Dai Dee will be able to learn this relatively easily. The card crafting is not rocket science. Some of the text card powers need some explaining though. It is not exactly a light game. It is a mid-weight game. Also, you don't play a 3-minute single hand. You need to play around 4 or 5 hands to complete a game. Complexity-wise it is higher than most climbing games. You need to worry about the power tokens, scoring victory points, and the various card advancements. Fiddling with the card advancements is some work, especially when packing the game away. You need to remove all the card advancements from the basic cards. It's the price to pay to enjoy the card crafting. Custom Heroes is something different and worth trying.

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