Of Monsters and Men: A Review of EPIC Card Game

Doug Mann, April 2016

Epic Card Game is a fantasy card game from designers Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, the team responsible for the very good Star Realms, and White Wizard Games. The 2015 production had a lot of hype connected to it. Let’s see if it measures up to this hype.

Epic consists of a deck of 128 standard-sized cards. Eight of these are double-sided “tokens” (minions) that various cards bring into play: humans, demons, zombies and wolves. The rest of the deck consists of one-sided collections of champions (heroes) and events. The champions are divided into four classes: Good (yellow), Evil (red), Wild (green) and Sage (blue). These four classes of cards parallel the four factions in Star Realms, though they don’t have as great an effect on play as the Star Realms factions do.

Two things make Epic epic. First, every single card has a beautiful painting on it, with repeats found only on the four types of token cards. Many of these, if blown up about ten times, would be suitable for postering or screen savering, if not framing. Unfortunately, the artistic medium isn’t the message. Second, the things pictured on these cards are a wild miss-mash of decades of fantasy gaming: human heroes, fairies, vampires, flying horses, dragons and dinosaurs make an appearance, among other creatures. In this sense, the game is thematically a somewhat more serious version of Smash Up. Fun seems to be promised.

However, the rules and game mechanics don’t measure up to the visual presentation of the game. The rule-book is a tiny card-sized booklet with Mage Knight-style typesetting – you’re strongly advised to either print off the rules on full-sized sheets of paper (download them from BGG) or to order a Sherlock Holmes commemorative magnifying glass from the BBC website before reading them. Second, the rules themselves are poorly organized, full of jargon, and require several readings before they “stick.” To solve this, I’ve rewritten the rules from scratch: see my Epic Revisited post on BGG.

One problem is that the jargon isn’t natural English, and echoes (I’m taking this on faith since I’m not an aficionado) Magic the Gathering, assuming that all players of Epic know its venerable parent game. Instead of “kill” and “apply” we get “break” and “tribute”; then we get a series of terms such as “ambush,” “banish,” “blitz,” “loyalty 2”, “righteous,” and “untargetable” that require players to pull out their electron microscope and refer to the rule-book to understand them. This use of a lot of special jargon might be justified in a monster like Arkham Horror, but not in a small card game like Epic.

Here’s how it plays. Each player starts with a hand of 30 cards and 30 Health (though there’s no tracker provided). You can “mulligan” away some cards in exchange for Health. Champions have attack and defence values, a gold cost of 0 or 1, and various special powers. You get 1 gold each turn (not provided – use poker chips): the most powerful cards cost 1 gold, so you can only put one of these into play each turn.

You start your turn by rebooting your gold supply, “preparing” you champions, drawing a card, then playing cards, using powers or attacking “as much as you like”.

epic art 05 stand alone

In the Battle Phase, the attacker chooses which champions will attack, the defender plays powers/events and chooses blockers, and then the attacker responds with powers/events. Each side deals out damage based on their attack values (though no tokens are provided); to “break” a champion, you have to match their defence value. This is followed by “triggered abilities” and an End Phase where you discard down to seven cards and remove damage.

The main problem with the mechanics of Epic lies in the phrase “as much as you like.” Other than the one-gold restriction, players typically wind up tossing down a bunch of champions and events without much strategy or structure. This is accentuated by the fact that attack values range from 0 for the High King to 18 for the Burrowing Wurm, a much larger range than the 0-8 one seen in Star Realms ships and bases (I’m excluding late-game faction-matching power-ups).

That means that a rampaging dinosaur can wipe out a small party of petty humans with a swing of its tail. In addition, there are a few super-powered event cards like “banish all champions” that make planning pointless. There’s little subtlety in the game: it’s more like WWF wresting than a cagey boxing match. Or like a petulant child at Wal-Mart who cries “mommy mommy… I want all those toys!”

The tight gold restriction limits this WWF factor a bit, though this has its own problem: it’s pretty easy to wind up with a handful of powerful 1-gold cards that you can’t play on a given turn. You eventually just have to discard these if you get too many. Since there’s no shuffling of the discard pile in Epic as far as I can tell, they’re lost unless you can recall them with an event card, which probably costs 1 more gold.

I find the way gold is used in Star Realms much more satisfying: you start with a deck of eight Scouts (which provide 1 gold) and two Vipers (1 attack), and use the gold provided by these Scouts to buy ships with higher gold and attack values, placing these into your discard pile when you buy them, shuffling the discards with your player deck runs out.

This deck-building aspect of Star Realms wouldn’t have to be integrated into Epic to fix the latter game, yet the way the gold works should be revised. One possibility is to create a market of five cards, giving each player a set amount of gold for the entire game (say 20): they could use this gold to buy new cards along with playing the 1-gold cards, but only one such card per turn.

In short, there’s no sense of the engine-building found in Eurogames like Terra Mystica or in most deck-builders. Things just happen, somewhat randomly. And bloodily.

Another problem with the game is that there are three “positions” for champions: prepared, expended and flipped, which interact with a series of special powers with an “extend” cost indicated by a turn-left arrow. This adds needless complexity: I suggest revising it to include just “active” and “tired” champions, with both attacking and blocking tiring a champion. Once again, too much jargon.

Then there’s what’s missing from the game but required to play it effectively: gold and damage tokens, a health tracker, and a player aid that summarizes both the sequence of play and the arcane terminology found on the cards. Epic is in reality a small-box game like Incan Gold that has cheaped out on essential components to fit into a box about the size of two decks of cards stacked on top of each other. It calls for a “deluxe” second edition with lots of shiny new baubles included.

Lastly, the game has no sensible meta-narrative. In Star Realms, you’re fighting to reduce the authority of other star empires, to crumble their political structures with military might. Here you’re fighting to reduce health. Whose health? That of a god? Who is this god? And why would he care if a random zombie or wolf gets killed? And where did he get that flying horse from?

Epic Art 08

In conclusion, Epic looks great. But it doesn’t play great. Here are my ratings out of 6:

  • Strategy: 2 Cool (too many wild mood swings)
  • Luck: 4 Warm (your life depends on your card draws)
  • Complexity: 4 Warm (too much for a card game)
  • Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (6 Excellent for the paintings)
  • Player Interaction: 3 Moderate
  • Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s a slug-fest after all)
  • Depth of Theme: 2 Cool (a demon can ride Pegasus into battle against a Triceratops! How freaking awesome is tha…. wait… that makes no sense!)
  • Overall: 2 Mediocre (back to the wizardly work bench fellows!)
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