Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Plays: 1Px16.

It is rare that I get this many plays in before I write about a new-to-me game. I am usually reluctant to call what I write "reviews", because I often only play a game once before I write about it. I'm more comfortable with "first impressions". In the case of Friday, it just so happened that I had a backlog of games to write about (allowing me more time), and the game is a solo game (making it easier to arrange to play).

One thing that I struggle with is how to write about it. This is a solo game, so a big part of playing it is discovering the strategies yourself. I don't want to spoil this aspect for those who plan to play it. What I'll do is I'll restrict spoiler-like content to a clearly marked section. If you plan to try this game yourself, I recommend skipping that section. I won't share strategies directly in that section, but I will write about my thought processes during the game.

The Game

Friday is a deck-building game. You play the role of Friday, the native Robinson Crusoe met on a Friday. Robinson Crusoe is initially quite clueless about surviving on the island, and you need to guide him through facing various hazards and help him learn various fighting and survival skills, so that when he eventually faces the pirates he can defeat them and leave the island.

How this translates to game mechanisms is you start with a deck of fighting cards representing Robinson Crusoe. Most cards are weak or downright bad (values of 0 and -1). There is a deck of hazard cards. Every turn you need to draw two hazard cards, and pick one to fight. A hazard card has two parts - the hazard part and the ability part. If you beat the hazard, you add that card to your discard pile, and it becomes a new fighting card, i.e. using the ability part of it. The next time you reshuffle your deck, this new card will become available.

A hazard card specifies a number you need to achieve, and a number of cards you can draw for free from your deck to try to beat it. If the total value of the cards drawn matches or exceeds the hazard value, you beat the hazard. If it doesn't, you can spend life points to draw more cards, or you can concede defeat by paying in life points the difference between hazard value and total card value. If you concede, naturally you don't gain the hazard card (to become a new fighting card), however the life points paid due to the defeat can be used to discard bad or unwanted fighting cards involved in the current fight. You need to go through the hazard deck three times, and in each subsequent iteration the hazard values becomes higher.

Game in progress. Three three decks of cards (from left to right) are: the aging cards, the Robinson deck and the hazard deck. I put discards below their respective decks, out of the way. I use the area above the three decks as the main play area. For the current hazard, I have drawn two free cards. The yellow card on the left indicates that I'm on the second cycle through the hazard deck (it goes from green to yellow to red). The two pirates are on the top right. The green grain wooden pieces are life points.

Only look at the upper half of the cards. The card on the right is a hazard. The value I need to reach is 5, because I'm in the yellow stage now. I am allowed to draw 3 cards for free. I have drawn two, but it is already enough to defeat this hazard, because one of the cards can double the value of the other. My total fighting value is 6.

If you survive three cycles of the hazard deck, i.e. you have not come to a point where you need to spend life points but have none left, you get to fight the two pirates, one after the other. The pirate cards are like special hazards, except you can't concede defeat. You win or you die (like when you're playing the game of thrones...). There is a hazard value you need to achieve, and you are allowed to draw a certain number of cards for free. The two pirate cards are randomly drawn at the start of the game and turned face-up, so you know what to expect and can plan your strategy accordingly. Some pirate cards have special rules, which gives some variety.

One of the pirate cards. You need to achieve 35, and you get to draw 9 free cards. You can pay life points to draw more, or use special abilities of some cards to draw more.

The central mechanism of the game is, of course, deck-building. You start with a mostly lousy deck. You need to both remove bad cards (by intentionally failing to beat some hazards or using the Destroy ability of some cards) and gain good cards (by beating hazards). Keeping your deck lean and mean is not that simple though. Every time you exhaust your deck and need to reshuffle, you need to add an aging card to it, representing Robinson Crusoe getting old. Aging cards are bad and also harder to get rid of. You don't really want your deck to become too lean, because that means you need to shuffle more often, and thus need to add aging cards more often.

Some of the aging cards. All are bad. The two grain icons on the top right corner of a card means it costs two life points to permanently remove an aging card from your deck. When you fail to defeat a hazard and need to pay at least two life points, these two life points can be used for getting rid of an aging card which is involved in the fight.

There are all sorts of card abilities, in addition to the numbers on them. Some let you gain life points, some let you remove cards from your deck ("Destroy"), some let you peek at and sort the next 3 cards, some let you discard drawn cards and draw new ones to replace them. It is important to make good use of them, and to make good combinations of them.

If you beat both pirates without getting yourself killed, you win the game. There is a way to count points, if you want to do so and see whether you improve from game to game. There are 4 levels of difficulty to play at, and even after you beat Level 4 consistently, you can further increase the difficulty level by adjusting the life points you start with.

The Play

The first time I won was on my fourth game. I have played deck-building games before (Dominion, Ascension, Resident Evil, Nightfall, A Few Acres of Snow, Mage Knight) so I know about removing inefficient cards and keeping your deck lean and mean. The pirates seem daunting at first, with values as high as 40 when the highest valued fighting card in the game is 4, but once you learn to improve your deck quality and learn to conserve your life points better, they won't seem so impossible anymore.

I think this was my first victory, this being the second pirate I needed to defeat. Pirate value was 40. Cards on the left of the pirate are those I drew for free. Cards on the right were drawn by paying life points or using special abilities. My total card face value was 31, but I had two Double cards and one Copy card. I Copied the Double ability, and then applied these three Double abilities to three different cards - 4, 4 and 3. The final fighting value was 42.

The game can feel a lot like a numbers game. Every hazard and pirate is just a number you need to achieve. It can feel like you are justing summing numbers, counting cards and estimating probabilities. It made me feel a little uncomfortable when I looked at it that way, but in the end I see that the game does present many interesting decisions, and the randomness of the card draw still often presents some surprises (good and bad). You are presented with various types of problems, and you need to decide how to try to resolve them, e.g. which card powers to use first, whether to spend life points to draw more cards etc.


There are quite a number of key decision points and considerations in the game. Picking a hazard from two sounds simple, but there are many considerations behind it. Can your deck beat the hazard? Do you want to beat it in the first place? You can try to intentionally lose in order to trim your deck. Would it be too costly in life points? Do you fight the tougher card so that in the next cycle through the hazard deck you'll have an easier time? Which card ability is more useful to you? During a fight there are many considerations too. Even if you have already decided to try to beat the hazard, sometimes things go bad and you need to decide whether to fight on (pay a life point to draw another fighting card) or to concede (pay life points to escape, possibly removing some bad or unwanted fighting cards). There are many different types of card powers and thus many possible combinations. Sometimes using them in a different order can yield different results.

How you spend your life points is a crucial aspect of the game. You know you will need to spend them on getting rid of bad cards (by conceding to some hazards). How much can you afford to spend to draw extra cards to try to beat certain hazards? When do you want to push your luck a little? When do you concede early?

One thing that I discovered is that sometimes tougher hazards can be easier to deal with, because they allow more free cards. More free cards mean less reliance on the good luck of drawing a high numbered card. It also means you have a better chance of drawing useful combinations of card abilities that can eventually help you beat the hazard. My gut feel is sometimes tougher hazards let you beat them without spending as many life points as when trying to beat easier hazards. Also the card abilities of tougher hazards are better, and thus will likely be more helpful later on.


Now that I have a better grasp of the techniques to efficiently build a good deck, I find that by mid game I will have a good estimation of whether I will win the game. I get a sense of how well I have been doing and based on that I can make a fairly good guess of whether I'll eventually win. I played quite many Level 1 games before progressing to Level 2, but I didn't play as many before progressing to Level 3. I find that now that I have a fairly good grasp of the game, the difference in difficulty level from Level 1 to 3 isn't all that big. If I am still optimistic by mid game, then I usually will beat the pirates comfortably. I have not reached the difficulty level where I keep hovering near the edge of losing, where the final battles against the pirates come right down to the wire. I plan to play a few more Level 3 games and then move on to Level 4. I wonder whether I will meet my match there, or beyond.

Now I am fine-tuning my skills and I'm not learning anything very new. I know the general principles well now, and I can almost play on auto-pilot. I am now trying to identify small ways of further improving my play. I start to count cards, check the discard deck, check removed cards etc, making use of every bit of information that I have before making any important decision. This may sound boring and tedious, but it's satisfying to find ways to push further to improve.

Card abilities can only be used once. If I have used a card ability, I tilt it by 90 degrees to remind myself.

The Thoughts

Friday is a decent solo-game. I would say the whole game is about deck-building. It's not deck-building plus some other mechanisms. In A Few Acres of Snow, deck-building is a tool. It is an engine that drives the game, but my attention is on the board, and I feel I am immersed in the French and Indian War. In Friday I am often reminded that I'm just revamping and then fine-tuning a deck of cards. I am supposed to imagine myself ridding Robinson Crusoe of his bad habits and weaknesses, and training him up to kick pirate buttocks. The theme is there, but I think it's not much better than Dominion. If I were to rank the deck-building games (and games with a significant deck-building element) I have played, I'll probably rank them this way:

  1. A Few Acres of Snow - Among these games, I am only certain I like this more than the rest. Other than Resident Evil, the others in the middle are very close. I really don't have any strong preference of one over another. I'd be willing to play any of them. In A Few Acres of Snow, I find that the deck-building mechanism matches the setting very well.
  2. Mage Knight - This is also quite immersive. It's an adventure game, but it's not about playing with your heart or rolling lots of dice. You play with your brain, planning ahead a lot, calculating a lot, optimising a lot. You're a sword-wielding accountant putting together the supporting documents to slay the dragon of the unbalanced balance sheet! There is a rich world for you to explore and create your own story. It is satisfying to get your cards to work well together, killing monsters and such.
  3. Friday - One good thing is it is an honest solitaire game, as opposed to some deck-building games which may sometimes feel like multiplayer solitaire. Also it has meaningful decisions all the time, not just when buying cards. Sometimes deck-building games feel like they are all about shopping, and the action phase of actually using cards is mostly auto-pilot, having either no choices to be made, or the best choice being obvious.
  4. Dominion - I have not played face-to-face Dominion for a long while. I'm quite rusty now. I have seen the many clever tricks and interesting combinations of cards in Dominion. I need no convincing that it's a great design.
  5. Ascension - The iPhone version is so slick and enjoyable that it makes me suspect that the physical game won't be as good. Sometimes I wonder whether I'm being silly making such an inference, but my gut feel is Ascension is very well suited as an asynchronous mode game, and that is why I enjoy playing it so much. I own the iOS version, but I have no urge to buy the physical version.
  6. Nightfall - Doesn't give me a very strong deck-building game feeling. It feels more like a multiplayer fighting game where you also need to manipulate your opponents through negotiations and diplomacy. This aspect seems to be more important than how well you've built your deck. The chaining mechanism is different, but I don't have strong feelings about it.
  7. Resident Evil - Not that it's bad, just that it didn't feel very different from Dominion, so I lost interest quickly.

On the whole I quite like Friday. It's convenient when you don't have any opponent handy, and it's challenging enough to be interesting, even after I've passed the "I've-figured-it-out" stage. I've already played 16 games, and plan to continue to play at higher difficulty levels. Now that's value for money.

No comments: