Licensed board or card games don’t carry the same stigma as they do in the video game world. In video games, a licensed release has some preconceptions to overcome, thanks to years of lackluster cash-ins. In the tabletop world, some of the finest games every year are adaptations of existing properties from movies, comics, and video games. The recent release of Bloodborne: The Card Game joins the ranks of excellent card games that do justice to the video games they’re based on. Publisher CMON has put together a high-quality release that ensures a tense and action-packed game session for three to five friends, and a whole session plays in a little less than an hour.
Designer Eric M. Lang has a prolific history in adapting big-name properties like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and XCOM. He has a talent for recognizing what makes a given franchise or world distinct, and then bringing that concept into the mechanics of his games. That’s especially true with Bloodborne, in which Lang has zeroed in on the fierce encounters between Hunter and monster, and found ways to emulate the quick pacing and constant character death that characterized the original video game.
Rather than try and retell the story of the video game, Bloodborne: The Card Game deals with an adventure into one of the Chalice Dungeons, the sprawling underground ruins that are chock-full of both dangerous encounters and big loot rewards. The player group works together to bring down the monsters they uncover in the dungeon, but the game is only partially cooperative. At the end of the game, only one player can win by having collected the most blood echoes, and escaping to the surface.
In order to manage that push and pull between working together and fighting for the most echoes, the game focuses on risk management as each subsequent monster encounter unfolds. In each battle, you choose whether to contribute to doing damage, usually by playing a weapon card, or whether you will withdraw from combat into the Hunter’s Dream. By doing so, you take greatly reduced damage from the fight, you get all your health and resources back, and you bank all your currently collected blood echoes, but at the cost of the blood echoes you might have collected in that round of battle.
Death is a constant threat. Even low-power monsters have the potential to completely devastate your health dial. That’s because there’s no sure way of knowing how much damage they’ll inflict. Custom dice are rolled to indicate how much damage is dealt to every Hunter involved in the conflict. But several sides of each die indicate a symbol to “roll again.” If you have the bad luck to remain in a fight when the monster happens to roll a big damage number, then you die, and all the blood echoes you haven’t banked are lost. Your character immediately comes back into the action in the next round, but you’ve lost a lot of progress toward winning. I love the way this dynamic emulates the feel of playing the Bloodborne video game, and moments where I found myself plagued by indecision about whether I should continue into the unknown, or hobble back to safety to save and power up.
Every player starts with an identical set of weapon and item cards to get going, but both dying and returning to the Hunter’s Dream location provide opportunities to draw new upgrade cards, including familiar items like the Kirkhammer, Ludwig’s Rifle, or the Molotov Cocktail. It’s here that the real strategy begins to unfold, as your card choice in each round lets you maximize benefit to your Hunter while often simultaneously hampering or hurting other Hunters. A ranged weapon might let you get in that last hit on a boss (and collect his blood echoes) before another character who played a melee weapon. Perhaps you throw out an explosive that does damage to both Hunters and monsters, but the action is especially devastating to your low-health competitor. The strategic choices are also aided by your memory; cards come into play face-up, and remain that way after being used. If you can track and recall which items any one player has in their hand, you can gauge the risk posed by their potential actions.
Bloodborne’s dark themes and intentional betrayals aren’t going to be the right fit for every gaming group. And there’s no doubt that the game will be best enjoyed by folks who are familiar with the source material. But neither of those facts are enough to sway my strongly positive impression of Bloodborne: The Card Game. Action moves quickly, and the any given game is over in time to let the loser hop in for another round and try again. The high-quality cards and other components do an admirable job of honoring the original video game, and it’s great fun to test yourself against infamous foes like Vicar Amelia or Rom the Vacuous Spider. And the constant threat of grisly death lends the same tension and thrill that made the digital incarnation so frustrating and entrancing. If you and your buddies nurse fond memories of your adventures through Yharnam, as I do, then I’d encourage you to check out this new adventure beneath the beleaguered city.
For other tabletop recommendations, including selections for the best games that released in 2016, hop over to the Top of the Table hub by clicking on the banner below. If there are other games you’d like to recommend, or you just want to chat about tabletop games, feel free to drop me a line by email or Twitter, available through the links below.