Deck of Wonders was #8 on my Top 10 Cooperative Anticipated Games of 2021! It is running quite late: it was a Kickstarter that promised delivery in November 2021, but it just delivered on February 1st, 2023 (a few days ago).
This is a solo or cooperative legacy card game for 1-2 players. It doesn’t label itself as such, but Deck of Wonders is “essentially” a tower defense game where you defend your “tower” (yourself) with your “troops” (minions). It also has some cool story and legacy mechanics: as you play, a story advances and you get to upgrade your cards with little stickers! It’s very cool! Let’s take a look.
What’s in this huge box?
This tiny box was in the huge box! I think they overpacked it!
But you get a sense of how big this game is!
The components are actually quite nice.
Remember how we said this was a legacy game? Part of the legacy cone part comes from the stickers above! The sticker sheet contains little stickers you can put on your cards to upgrade them!
The vast majority of this game is cards: see all of them in the box above.
The bottom row is a bunch of little card packs. As you unlock parts of the story, you get to open some of these packs and add new cards/rules to the game!
The middle section of the box holds the 3 main Villains.
The final box at the top: it’s a box of the player cards.
The cards all look fantastic: they have two sides! When the text is normal, it’s your side. When it’s upside down, it’s for the villain. Every card in the game can be used, depending on whose turn it is!
The components are pretty nice for a little box!
The rulebook is .. okay. I think there were three main issues:
The first complaint: the font is too thin. I understand it has to be small to fit in this size, but it was so thin I had trouble reading it! I think this may the first time I have ever had this complaint!
You can actually see how much more readable the font is in the other sections when it’s fattened up! See above.
The second complaint: there’s no FAQ. I think my very first round of the game I had a question (does destroy count as an attack? Do shields stop a destroy?), but there was no place to go to look it up.
Having said that, they did have an “Easy rules to miss section” at the back. That was really helpful!
The final complaint was that the start of the game was under-specified in the start game. Normal flow is that you draw 1 card on the bad guy turn, and 1 card on the good guy turn. But in the beginning of the game, how does that work? The villain plays 3 cards … are they consecutively? Do we do battlelines each time? Does the first card being a minion mean he gets to attack 3 times? This really sets the timbre of the game if you take 4 damage three times from a really bad minion who just happens to show up. A little more help here would have gone a long way.
Oh yes, the game completely fails the Chair Test! There’s no way I can use the chair next to me to “just look” at the rulebook! It’s much too small! See above. It MUST go on the table! See below.
It’s not a terrible rulebook, it mostly taught the game. It needed fatter fonts, a FAQ (especially with some keyword elaborations), and better startup directions. There’s also some house rules I think should be in here (see discussion later).
By default, this is a solo game. (There is a cooperative mode, but it’s not really that different).
At the start of the game, you mix two decks: your hero deck and the bad guy deck: there are about 28 cards in each deck. This is the Deck of Wonders! All gameplay comes from this deck, both good guy (you) and bad guys (the game) plays.
Both the good guy and the bad guys have a little hit point tracker. (The game doesn’t come with any tracker tokens: I had to get my own). To win, you have to take the bad guy to 0 hit points. You lose if you are ever knocked down to 0 hit points.
The good guy (you) starts with 4 cards: notice that they text is right side up on the Title! This means we are using the cards for the good guy side. You can play as many cards as you like on your turn, as long as you have enough cards, and can pay the costs (some cards cost other cards to play them). You start the game with 4 cards.
The bad guy starts by playing 3 cards from the Deck of Wonders. When you are playing the bad guy turn, you always play the card with the title text upside down! See the Forest Troll as a bad guy minion above!
Essentially, play alternates between good guy/bad guy until one side wins!
Most cards that get played are minions that “stay in play” until they are killed.
There are also some one-shots: See Lightning Strike above.
Before you get into the game, three legacy decks are turned up: they show “conditions” to try for to unlock the decks! For example, the first deck requires us to defeat Cullin and still have 10 health remaining! In order to fully defeat Cullin, we have to fight him until we can open his third and final deck (see above) and defeat his final “Fated Form”. These deck conditions inform what you are trying for in the game.
Over the course of 2 or 3 three nights, I ended up playing about 10 games. I won 3 of them and lost 7. Every time you win, you get to add an upgrade sticker to a card!
The game really is about 15 minutes. Even though I lost 7 games, the game moves pretty quick. The worst part of setting up a game is all the shuffling.
The solo game moves pretty quickly. It was fun adding upgrades to cards (but see below). As you unlock more and more decks, it was cool to see the story.
I love the art in this game: it was one of the reasons I backed it.
The cards are very readable, and the artist, Lauren A Brown, did a fantastic job. Since the cards are the main component you look at as you play, this art is just captivating the whole game.
There is an interesting story that unfolds as you play. The game starts with a brief back story ….
… which you can have read to you by the Foreteller app! Now, I don’t know if the story isn’t quite done, but the only narration I found in the app was for the Intro. There are a few other places in the game that narration would make sense: perhaps I just needed to unlock it with a code, or perhaps it’s not quite done yet. Either way, I only heard the intro narrated. It was cool.
After that, story comes out as you unlock story packs on cards. Below is the intro for Cullin, the first villain to fight.
As you unlock more packs, more and more story comes out!
Honestly, I really did enjoy the story that came out as I played. The new mechanisms it introduced seemed consistent with the story. Hopefully by the time you read this, all the story will be in the Foreteller app.
Luck and Legacy
I love the idea that this is a “little legacy” game, where you can upgrade cards and put stickers on them to make the game better. That’s a really great idea! You can choose “how to upgrade” your deck! The problem is that, statistically, your upgraded cards will almost never appear, especially at the beginning!
Let’s look at the first set of decks you are playing: you start with 56 cards (28 from bad guys, 28 from your deck), but then immediately add 4 upon advancing: let’s call it 60 cards for ease of math.
Whenever you win, you are allowed to add exactly 1 sticker to 1 card to upgrade it! And that’s it! Most of of the games I’ve played only made it through about 40 cards before the game ended. So, you have about a 40/60 or 2/3 or 66.6% chance of seeing your upgrade. That’s not bad, except you have to consider that the upgraded card may be played by the enemy upside down! About half the cards will be played the wrong way causing you to miss your upgrade! So, that cuts your chance of seeing the upgrade in half! Your chances are now 1/3 or 33.33%! So, a single upgrade has only a 1 in 3 chance of ever even being played. And the upgrades are pretty minor too: +1 here, +1 there, so they aren’t THAT helpful.
It’s cool that you can upgrade cards, but I think the upgrade path is too slow. I played three winning games, and I don’t think I ever saw any of my upgrades … well, I did, but it was played by the enemy (which was infuriating). In the meantime, the bad guys advanced much, much faster! Cullin (the bad guy) gets 4 cards in the first upgrade which are pretty significant! By the third upgrade, he was doing two damage to everything on his turn: me, my minions, everything! I was lucky when I did any damage to him. I was getting massacred.
The legacy thing is cool, but the upgrades come out way too slow. The odds of you seeing your upgrades were very small.
Too Much Randomness and Possible Fixes
This game is too random for me. I played ten games, and every single one was completely unbalanced … either for me or against me. It’s great when it’s for you when you are winning (for three games), but the ones I lost (seven) were incredibly frustrating. I never felt like I could do anything to fix my loss. I just watched as the cards came out, with no chance mitigation on my part. I could tell quickly whether I would win or lose. And that was it. I mean, at least the game is quick and over in 15 minutes.
But I think a few minor fixes might make the game much more palatable and less random.
- Speed up the upgrade path! When you win a game, allow the user to choose 3, 4, or even 5 upgrades! I don’t know what the right number is, but I think if you saw your upgrades actually coming out and helping you, you would find the game more engaging.
- Card Choice: The most frustrating thing is that you only draw one card per turn. I watched over and over as I drew useless garbage on my turn as the villain drew amazing cards! Give me some choice: maybe I draw two cards, and keep one and discard one? This would also give the upgrades a better chance of appearing! And then I feel like I have a choice! It would keep me more engaged, rather than just randomly flipping cards.
- Battlelines: Weirdly, I am forced to arrange my minions is priority order: I get choices on ties only! Why? This seems to just take away choice from the game. This might be a balancing mechanism initially, but it’s so frustrating: my only choice on BattleLines is on ties and the order the bad guys attack! I would rather be able to arrange my Battlelines the way I want! Thematically, it almost seems like the bad guys should use the priority to attack, not me? The Battlelines seems reversed! The choice seems intuitively and thematically in the wrong place. I don’t know. I feel like this mechanism needs a revisit.
I think with some of these changes, I might like the game more. I was just overcome by the randomness and didn’t feel like I had much agency when I played. Maybe these fixes would alleviate that?
Deck of Wonders has a lot going for it: wonderful art, easy-to-read layouts, compelling story, interesting upgrades, nice components, and straightforward gameplay. Unfortunately for me, it was far too random, as I feel I didn’t feel like I had a lot of agency when playing. Over the course of about 10 plays, I saw a very swingy game depending on what cards were drawn. I wanted a little more mitigation of luck: maybe some of the possible fixes I mentioned (above) would help that.
I do, however, have to remind myself that many games of “plain Solitaire” with 52 poker cards are just as random! In “plain Solitaire” (such as Klondike, above), the hands of fate may conspire against you and you can’t win. But it’s over quickly and you can try again. The same can be said of Deck of Wonders: even if you lose, you lose quickly and can reset again! And the art and story of Deck of Wonders are so much more compelling than a deck of cards!
If you are looking for a solo game with about the same randomness of “plain Solitaire”, Deck of Wonders might be what you are looking for: it’s got great components, great art, great story, and some really interesting ideas. In the end, it’s far too random for me, but you may enjoy this.