The enemy is fast approaching, and you are tasked with the responsibility of preparing your team of heroes. After equipping them with new weapons and skills, you test their merit by, um… playing them in sets in ascending order? Ok, so admittedly this game has virtually no theme, but there are still interesting mechanics and clever strategies to be found in the Card-Crafting game of Custom Heroes.
Custom Heroes is a 2-6 player “ladder-climbing” card game (similar to trick-taking games) and is the second installment in AEG’s “Card Crafting” line, and has a playtime of about 45 minutes.
The object of the game is to be the first player to have 10 or more victory points and then be the first player to win a Hand of cards. Victory points are awarded based on the ranking each player achieves in various Hands throughout the course of the game.
At the beginning of the game, the deck of cards (which consists of cards numbered 1-10 and has a full set of cards per player) will be shuffled and dealt out evenly to all players. The game is played over a series of Hands, and during each Hand players are attempting to be the first player to empty their hands of all cards. Whoever plays first each “pile” (also referred to as “round” in the rules) can play any number of cards, as long as they have the same value. For example, a player may play three “2”s, or four “3”s or even a single card.
Each player in turn order may then play a set of equal or higher value, but it must have the same number of cards. So if the start player leads with three “4”s, then the next player must play three cards of the same value that are equal to or higher than 4. If the number is the equal to the last set played, the next player in order is skipped and instead goes to the next player. The “pile” continues around until no more players wish to or are able to play any further sets of cards, and the last player to have played a set wins the pile and leads the next.
Play continues this way until all players have emptied their hands of their cards, and depending on what order they emptied their hands, they will receive a certain number of victory tokens, gold, or “advancements” (details on those to be described in a moment). The game continues on with playing Hands, and whoever is the first player to have 10 or more victory points and then win a Hand is the winner of the game.
While the core element of the game is pretty simple and straightforward, what really takes this beyond classic card games and makes it interesting is the “card-crafting system” AEG has created. Custom Heroes comes with high-quality card sleeves for each of the standard 1 through 10 value cards, as well as 84 different clear plastic cards that are referred to as “advancements.” These advancements have different modifiers on them that, once placed into a card sleeve, permanently modify the value of that card for the rest of the game. Alternatively, advancements may instead contain special powers that players can spend gold to activate. Once an advancement is placed into a card, it may never be removed and its modifier is not optional. Cards may have up to four different advancements, one special ability and three modifiers that each fit into different slots.
So while initially, the deck starts with cards labeled 1 through 10 in equal amounts, these advancements allow cards to achieve values potentially as high as 20 or 30, or even possibly a negative value, and the distribution of each particular number in the deck will change throughout the game.
And don’t forget the special abilities, which may allow one card to count as two, or require players to play sets in descending order instead of ascending order, or even become a “trump” card that beats all other plays when played by itself (unless someone else also plays one of these trump cards!). Remember that special abilities cost gold to activate, but you can also play a card without activating its ability and gain a gold instead to use for other abilities later on, or to trade in four gold tokens for one victory point.
Now remember that players draw advancements randomly at the end of each hand depending on where they ranked (Ranking lower gets you more gold and advancements but ranking higher gets you more victory points). And what’s really neat about this system is that you can add advancements to cards in your hand at any point during the game. There’s no cost to adding advancements and it doesn’t require you to skip your turn. You can just sleeve an advancement and play immediately if you want or wait until a more opportune time appears. Because of this, I would argue that the Card-Crafting mechanic integrates pretty seamlessly into the rest of the game.
The quality of the cards is decent. They’re not the greatest, but honestly, it doesn’t matter because the game comes with a ton of some of the highest quality card sleeves I’ve ever handled (Although I don’t usually sleeve my cards, so I’m not an expert on the topic, either). The game even comes with a good number of extras in case some sleeves wear down over time, but I don’t see needing to replace any of them as likely except in an extreme situation. Also keep in mind that before your first play you will have to sleeve all the standard cards yourself. The clear plastic advancements also work well and slide into the sleeves easily.
The insert is functional and allows me to keep everything organized as well as I feel it needs to be. The game comes with a small bag for the advancements for when you draw them during the game, but while in storage I just place the advancements in the box and put the tokens in the bag, and this works well for me.
The rule book is pretty good for the most part. My only complaint is that it could have been clearer in the rules as to what was considered a “hand” vs a “round” or “pile.” It can be figured out from the rules, but it is a little confusing at first, especially with one or two of the special abilities. There is a clarification for the various abilities in the back which helped some, but a glossary that defined those terms would have certainly have avoided confusion more easily.
The game also comes with individual player screens to place your advancements behind, and they also serve as player aids to remind you of the rewards you get depending on where you rank each hand. They are very convenient and work well for the game.
The artwork is done in an Anime-style, which I personally enjoy and think is done well here. Many of the advancements have cool items (swords, shields, cabbages) portrayed on them that look like the characters are holding when sleeved, as well as different auras such as fire, lighting, or cats (Of course an anime style games lets you have a cat aura!). However, since there really is no integration of theme and mechanics, it is easy to gloss over the artwork in order to focus on gameplay, even unintentionally. I usually have to point out after a game to other players that a particular character was wielding a cabbage or had summoned said cat aura.
Also, all cards and player aids have both English and Japanese printed on them, without ever getting in the way of each other. I applaud AEG in how well they integrated the two languages onto single cards. The back half of the rules is in Japanese, as well (unless you read Japanese, then it’s the front half!).
I really like this game. I grew up playing trick-taking games like Rook, and while the mechanics and even strategy are different, this definitely scratches the same itch in a much more satisfying way for me. Honestly, I think the game could stand on its own even without the card-crafting as a classic card game, but the advancements add so much fun to the game, and really gives each playthrough its own unique personality because cards are combined in new and different ways each time. One game you might see two 30-value cards that can be played as doubles of themselves, but then another game you might sets of six 10s even though the deck only started with three.
The fact that you can modify cards at any time really adds a level of tactical excitement to this game. You may have the perfect strategy for how you want to play out a hand, but then you see someone leads a round in a way you didn’t expect, and so you modify three of your cards on the fly so you can beat the set of four 9s they just played. And I love the fact that because all card changes are permanent, someone may make a really awesome card to win that hand, but it ends up in my hand later in the game, and I get to modify it again to make it even better. But that really cool set of 13s I just made may come back to bite me in a later round, as well. All this just leads to a ton of laughter and a great time throughout the course of the game.
Custom Heroes is very simple to play and can be taught in less than 5 minutes, and works surprisingly well at all player counts. I’ve had a blast just playing with my wife, as well as with 4 or 5 players. I would say that with fewer players the game is probably more strategic, but it gets more interesting at higher player counts because you have more cards getting modified and you see more crazy combinations each round.
The ranking/reward system is also really neat and works well as a catch-up mechanic that prevents a run-away leader problem. Since whoever got last place gets the most new advancements and gold, it sets them up in a nice position for the next hand, whereas the previous winner may have already used up all their gold and advancements last round. This keeps the game tense and exciting, it ensures that the deck is constantly evolving, and gives everyone a fair shot at winning the game.
My wife and in-laws have played this and loved it, but I did play it with a Magic: The Gathering player who did not enjoy it at all. He said he didn’t understand the strategy to the card play and didn’t like not knowing what was in the deck or how it could change. That being said, my wife and in-laws, who play other games but would probably not consider themselves gamers, picked up the strategy and decision making easily.
It is fair to say that this a chaotic game, especially at higher player counts, and if you’re expecting a deeply strategic and serious game, you will be probably be frustrated like the M:tG player above. However, there is still strategy and tactical decisions, and my experience indicates that those who play better will ultimately pull out the win (My father-in-law, who is a strategic thinker, has won every game he’s played so far).
Custom Heroes is a really neat game with clever mechanics, exciting card-play, tactical decisions, easy-to-teach rules, and fast, chaotic gameplay full of unexpected twists and lots of laughs. If you like card games at all, I strongly recommend that you check this game out.
For the Parents:
Violence: Some of the Advancements feature weapons such as guns, swords, and knives.
Sexual Content: In keeping with the Anime-Style artwork, some of the cards and one of the player screens do feature women with revealing neck-lines.