Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Plays: more than 50 games vs AI.

Brawl is a game I discovered by accident when browsing An iPhone version was recently released and I downloaded it to give it a try since it is free (it comes with 3 characters, and there are 3 more you can buy). The artwork isn't quite my kind of thing, and I didn't really expect much from it. However it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I later found out that the designer is James Ernest, who also designed Kill Doctor Lucky and Lords of Vegas, and is the guy behind Cheapass Games.

The Game

Brawl is a 2-player real-time card game which can be played in 45 seconds. Really. The setting is one-on-one fights, and the execution is done using one pre-set deck of cards for each player. There are quite many characters in the Brawl game system, and each is represented by a deck of cards. The card mix of a character determines his (or her) strengths and weaknesses, and makes him unique. The objective of the game is to win the bases (there can be up to three of them) at the centre of the playing area. Once all bases are frozen, the game ends, and whoever wins more bases wins the game. The game is tied if both players win one base each.

Two of the characters available for free in the iPhone game.

The game starts with two base cards at the centre, each portraying one of the fighters. The character on the base is a tiebreaker - if both players have the same strength played onto a base, the character on the base wins this base. During the game bases can be added (player's decks contain bases) and cleared (by Clear cards). Each player start with his deck face-down in front of him. There are no turns and everything is done in real-time. You can play as fast or as slow as you want. At any one time you only have two choices - draw the top card from the deck and place it on top of your face-up pile, or play the topmost card of your face-up pile. This means that other cards in the face-up pile are not accessible, until you use the card(s) above them. So it can be tricky to decide whether you want to cover a good card which you can't use yet. Do you wait until the right moment comes, or do you cover it now, hoping that later enough cards will be used so that this good card becomes accessible again? Often there will be cards that you need to give up on.

The most basic card type is Hit cards. They come in three colours. You play them next to your side of a base card to fight for the base card. Once you commit a colour to a base card, you can only add cards of the same colour to that base. Then there are Block cards, which also come in three colours, and they are usually played on your opponent's side of a base card to stop him from playing more Hit cards.

Clear cards let you remove a base and all cards attached to it from the game. Usually you clear bases that you are losing. You can only clear outer bases, so if there happens to be three bases, the centre base cannot be cleared. This is one consideration when you decide to play a base card (when there are fewer than three bases in play). You want to position it such that a base you are winning is protected, or that a base you are losing remains vulnerable. Playing your base card is usually good, because it being your base card (having your character on it) means you win ties. When playing your base card, you also need to consider whether to play it on the left or right.

There can be up to three base cards in play. At this moment, my opponent (Hale) is leading in all three bases. For the two bases at the sides, our strengths are the same, but the base cards themselves are his, so he wins ties.

There are Smash cards which are Hits x 2. There are always three Freeze cards at the bottom of the deck. You play a Freeze card to freeze a base, preferably one you are winning. By the time you reach the Freeze cards, you know you are at the end of your deck, and usually there is not much else you can do if you are already losing. If you are winning, you want to quickly freeze the bases you are winning to secure your overall win.

These are the cards in the three basic character decks. There are more types of cards, some with the three other characters in the iPhone game, and some with other expansion characters in the physical game.

The Play

So far I have played against the Normal AI and the Hard AI. My win rate is quite average with the Normal AI, and is downright pathetic against the Hard AI (which is only the second of three levels). It is very challenging. I'm not sure whether the AI cheats by being luckier with its card draws. So far it does not seem so. The Hard AI appears to play both quicker and smarter. It applies some tricks that I have not seen at Normal level. I am still working hard to become competitive against the Hard AI.

The game is very quick, and being a real-time game, you really need to focus. My games usually take less than the 45 seconds advertised. Sometimes luck is a big factor, but you do often have to make quick decisions and tricky decisions. You need to watch the cards that your opponent is drawing. Sometimes you need to pause to see what he does, e.g. if he has a blue Block and you have a blue Hit, you shouldn't blindly commit that blue Hit because he would happily block the base you commit it to. Do you wait for him to draw another card which would make inaccessible his blue Block? Do you draw another card yourself, potentially wasting your blue Hit? Sometimes you can plan for a big reverse run, e.g. if you know you have a string of Hit cards of the same colour in your face-up pile, you can wait for the right moment to free up the cards above them, to allow you to make a big attack.

One thing that I find is often you are trying to force a tie, when things look bad. Sometimes even being able to achieve a tie is satisfying.

Despite the simple rules, you are constantly pressed to decide whether to draw a new card or not. You do need to get familiar with the decks in order to be able to make good decisions. Card counting certainly helps, but I have not really bothered with it much. This is meant to be a fast and furious game.

The characters are all unique and are suited for different strategies. To play well you need to know thy enemy, know thyself.

End of a game. I win both bases and thus win the game.

The Thoughts

Brawl has simple rules, but has more depth than I expected. There is emergent gameplay that is not apparent at first. You do need to play quite a number of games to pick up the tactics. You should also check out the card distribution of the decks. These aspects remind me of Blue Moon. Brawl takes time to appreciate. The game is condensed. It definitely is a filler, but it is one that you can enjoy for a long time (over many games, not a single 45 second game).

The interface of the iPhone version is well done. The AI's are challenging (or I am a very lousy player). I am still playing with the basic three characters that come with the game, and have not bought any of the other three. I hope in future they will release more characters which have been available in physical form.

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