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Bloodborne - the Card Game

It seems like everything has a board game these days. I wouldn't think that a license like Dark Souls or Bloodborne would warrant a board / card game adaptation, but apparently, I'm just not creative enough. The kickstarted Dark Souls board game is shaping up to be something similar to Descent, and is slated for release later this year. Bloodborne, on the other hand, already has a card game sitting on the shelf of a hobby store near you since last year. A copy of the game showed up under my Christmas tree this year.

Bloodborne: the Card Game Is very easy to learn, and it plays very fast and smooth! This is good, since most of my games are epic-length, 4-plus-hour games that we rarely have time to play. So it's always good to find a new game that people like and which can be played in an hour or less. Our first learning game of Bloodborne (including reading the rules) took about an hour and a half. We had planned on playing a sample round to learn the rules and then doing a mulligan on the game, but we didn't even need to because the game process is so simple that we all grasped the basic mechanics pretty much immediately.

"Selfish Phlebotomy": A game of kill-stealing

The game is a competitive card drafting game in which players sort-of cooperate to defeat a series of monsters, but compete against each other to score the most points. It's basically a Bloodborne-themed reskin of Cutthroat Caverns. Thematically, each player takes on the role of a hunter, the group fights a series of monsters in a Chalice Dungeon, and the hunters acquire Blood Echoes (points) by fighting and killing the monsters. Blood Echoes are directly earned by damaging a monster with a weapon attack. Each player who deals damage to a monster in the round in which the monster is killed also gains one or more trophies (based on the strength of the monster), which are converted to Blood Echoes at the end of the game for scoring.

Bloodborne the Card Game - Hunter's Dream
You're playing for Blood Echoes, which are lost if you die - unless you bank them in the Hunter's Dream.

The major mechanical gimmick of this game (and the one that is most inspired by the source material, and which most separates it from Cutthroat Caverns) is that when a player's character dies, that character loses all of his or her collected Blood Echoes, and then resurrects to fight again the next round. However, a player can use an action during the round to return to the Hunter's Dream and bank their collected Blood Echoes so that they cannot be lost. While in the Hunter's Dream, a player can also select new cards to add to his or her hand, and going to the Hunter's Dream is the only way to cycle your previously-played cards back into your hand. The drawback, of course, is that you can't participate in the fight and gain more blood. It's a risk / reward mechanic, and it works very well.

Bloodborne the Card Game - die combo
The die can combo for massive damage.

There are three different monster attack dice, each with a different distribution of damage values. Each die also contains a set of combo icons that cause the die to be re-rolled and the results added - indefinitely! Massive amounts of damage (and death) can come very suddenly, so regularly retiring to the safety of the Hunter's Dream to bank your Blood Echoes is critical. Just like in the video game, if you get greedy, you can be swiftly punished! The exploding die is very random and volatile, but I don't mind that so much because it's such a short game.

A relatively tame experience

Although the hunters are working together to defeat the monsters, they are also competing with each other to acquire the most Blood Echoes. This means that you're playing a game of deception and manipulation against the other players - even moreso than playing against the monsters that are dealt. The cards you play are often selfish, and not always in the best interests of the group. In fact, certain cards can even directly or indirectly harm the other players, preventing them from acquiring Blood Echoes, and - hopefully - leaving more Blood Echoes for you. So you have to be aware of what cards your opponents have in their hands, in what order the actions are resolved (first player rotates every round), and how much damage the dealt monster might deal.

Bloodborne the Card Game - killing another player
Causing other players to die can be a way of ensuring that they don't collect more Blood Echoes or trophies.

I think that screwing over the other players is maybe supposed to be an abstraction for the PvP component of the Bloodborne video game? The mechanics for screwing over the other players is rarely as deliberate or malicious as in some other games. It's more pronounced than some of the Legendary games that just have a simple kill-steal mechanic, but it isn't as malicious as Munchkin, where you're deliberately and explicitly singling-out other players for harmful effects. In general, if you play a harmful card, it's either something that affects the group as a whole, or it's because you didn't have any other cards available to play.

Sometimes, the actions in Bloodborne can be intentionally malicious, such as throwing a Molotov Cocktail (which damages the monster and all players - including the one who played the card) when another hunter only has 1 HP, specifically because you want to prevent that hunter from attacking and scoring Blood Echoes. But other times it can be more incidental, such as playing a weapon that has the effect of doubling all damage against other players simply because it's the best weapon in your hand, only to roll a now-fatal amount of damage from an otherwise weak monster.

Players who don't like being negatively affected by other players may not enjoy this game, but they might find it more tolerable than a game like Munchkin or Cutthroat Caverns. I've played the game several times with two of my friends who usually get very upset by these sorts of competitive games, and they refuse to play Munchkin. But both of them actually liked Bloodborne enough that they'd be willing to play again, specifically because they never felt like they were being picked on.

Bloodborne the Card Game - escaping monster (Micolash)
There is no penalty for failing to kill a monster, other than the opportunity cost of not scoring any points.

The Bloodborne card game, however, is a strictly competitive game. Since players respawn continuously (with the sole exception of one final boss effect), there is no chance of the players collectively losing because they didn't keep each other alive. This makes the game considerably easier than Cutthroat Caverns, and also undercuts the need for cooperation. While losing a player early in Cutthroat Caverns can lead to a total party wipe, losing a player in Bloodborne usually only results in the hunters not having enough damage potential to finish off a monster, and so nobody scores points that round.

Players can tie, and collected blood echoes acts as the singular tie-breaker. This makes echoes slightly more valuable than the trophies, and I think the intent here is to try to disincentivize players from turtling through the game by taking potshots just to collect trophies. In a close game, it will be the player who dealt heavy damage to monsters (and therefore collected the most echoes) who gets the tie-breaker.

Bloodborne theming is hit-or-miss

Since there's no character or class selection, all the variety in the game comes from the different permutations of monster cards and final bosses. After picking off each of the minor monsters and mini-bosses, a game ends with the players battling one of five different final bosses. Each final boss has a unique effect on the overall game - but strangely have no special effects within their own encounter. One final boss actually makes the game easier by allowing players to heal each round. Another reduces each hunter's max HP. Yet another lengthens the game by adding new monsters to replace any that retreat. But without a perma-death, extending the game does little more than drag out an otherwise-streamlined game.

Bloodborne the Card Game - easy and hard modes
Mergo's Wet Nurse and Rom final bosses feel like the game's "easy" mode "hard" mode respectively.

There is one final boss who acts as a "hard mode" by adding a perma-death for hunters who die a second time. This particular final boss forces the players to be more wary of outright killing each other and does introduce the possibility of all players losing. There's no way to indicate which hunter(s) have already died at least once, so you have to trust everyone's collective memory. The developers could have included a token, or perhaps if Rom is in play, the first death could flip the player's board over to a side in which the "Collected Blood" section reads "If you die, you are removed from the game.".

I've yet to actually play with the Rom boss in play. We drew him in our very first game, but decided to mulligan the pick so that we could learn the game first before being thrown into "hard" mode. Also, we wanted to make sure we understood how the respawn system worked (as designed), instead of using a card that basically threw out a fundamental design element of the game.

Each of the regular monsters and mini-bosses can also have a special effect that can make the game easier or harder, and some monsters have a special penalty that is applied if the hunters fail to kill it within the round. But for the most part, the monsters - and the game as a whole - feel surprisingly timid considering its source material. Given the volatile combo mechanic for the dice, it's maybe for the best that the stakes are so low. A total party wipe because of a astronomically-unlikely die roll isn't a game over; it's just one turn of downtime before everybody jumps back in. You just lose all your un-banked Blood Echoes - which I guess is mostly in-line with the video game.

Bloodborne the Card Game - 5-player game
Bloodborne supports 3-to-5 players, and is a semi-cooperative (but actually competitive) game.

There's also some monster cards that include some catch-up mechanics. One monster automatically kills the hunter with the most total Blood Echoes if the monster escapes. Another causes the player with the most Blood Echoes to discard some, while yet another allows the player with the least Blood Echoes to collect extras. These effects are somewhat rare, so the rubber-banding doesn't seem excessive. I would have liked to see more monster and boss cards have more interplay with strategy and tactics. Maybe some monsters should be weak to melee or ranged weapons, or some should deal extra damage to hunters in melee, or maybe some who influence turn order.

Leaving room for expansion material?

There's also a lot of mechanics and items from the video game that weren't included in the card game, even though there seems to be plenty of room to have included some. I'm wondering if the developer was intentionally leaving room for expansions to the card game?

Unsurprisingly, nothing from the Old Hunters DLC was included in the card game. So my precious Whirligig Saw is nowhere to be found...

But there's plenty from the base video game that could have been included in the card game but just wasn't. As I mentioned earlier, there's no mechanic for creating a specific character class, which could have affected your starting equipment or granted various passive buffs or abilities. Including different character sheets (such as Church Hunter, Vileblood, Executioner, Bloodtinge, Hunter of Hunter, etc.) or armor sets could have been a way to include such a class mechanic.

Iconic weapons like Logarius Wheel and Ludwig's Holy Blade are suspiciously absent...

A bunch of interesting and high-profile weapons were also neglected. I wouldn't necessarily expect secret weapons like the Blade of Mercy or Chikage to be included, but some iconic weapons like Ludwig's Holy Blade and the Logarius Wheel are just absent. I also think that the Rifle Spear could have been a cool inclusion, as its ability could maybe have been that after revealing all action cards, you get to decide whether to use it as a melee or ranged weapon. There's also no Resonant Bells or Sinister Bell, nor any mechanics for directly targeting other players with attacks. I guess the process of calling my friends to come over and play the board game is a meta-abstraction for the Resonant Bell...?

A quick, light game of macabre action

Despite these limitations, it is the simplicity of Bloodborne: the Card Game that is its strength. It plays much quicker and more smoothly than its peers. Bloodborne isn't exactly the deepest or most challenging game in the world, but its easy learning curve and short play-time makes it an excellent lightweight game for killing an hour. It also makes me really want to load Bloodborne back up in my PS4!

PROS

  • Very simple to learn and play
  • Flows smoothly and finishes quickly
  • Most strategy involves bluffing or manipulating other players
  • Competitive mechanics aren't as openly malicious as some other games
  • Box insert allows for easy storage of all components (unless you want to sleeve your cards)

CONS

  • Respawning means board never wins, so stakes are fairly low
  • Very volatile dice
  • No variation in character builds or classes
  • Some card effects don't seem representative of the source material

FINAL GRADE: B

Manufacturer: CMON
Lead Designer: Eric Lang
Original release: November 2016
MSRP: $34.95 USD
Player(s): 3-5-players
Game Length: an hour or less
Official site: cmon.com/product/bloodborne-the-card-game

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