Developers seem to be willing to apply deckbuilding mechanics to every genre and setting these days. At first, this seemed a little faddish, but as designers relax into it, some interesting, thoughtful hybrids are emerging.
One such example is Mahokenshi (out now on Steam), a tactics game set in a world of Japanese-style folklore from French studio Game Source. It’s not that Mahokenshi does anything revolutionary with its card game elements, but the care with which the developer has integrated deckbuilding into every element of the game — not just combat, but exploration and adventuring, too — is very pleasing.
It’s not worth spending too much time on the setting. You control magic-wielding samurai from four elemental schools as they battle cultists and goblins across some mystical islands. There’s some nice artwork, especially on the card illustrations, and the miniaturized maps of temples, forests, and little warring figures have a bonsai-like quality. But, coming as it does from a Western studio, it smacks a little of a kind of reverential but generalized Orientalism that is falling out of favor. There’s nothing offensive here — just a vague, borrowed mysticism that doesn’t seem deeply connected to the game itself.
As a tactics game, Mahokenshi is relatively lightweight, but fun. Missions play out on hex-based maps where you direct your samurai to explore and battle. You spend the card-game staple of energy when moving or playing cards, and it’s fixed (to begin with, you have four energy per turn) rather than building over time, although there are ways to increase it later in the game. Tiles have different properties — standing in a forest boosts your defense, while mountains increase attack rating — and also contain chests of gold, new cards to add to your hand, and locations like villages, dojo, and castles, where you can boost your cards or your character in various ways. Because everything depends on energy, you’re always balancing the rewards of exploration against defense and engagement, usually with one eye on a turn limit for the mission. It’s solid risk-reward design. Some of the cleverest card designs entwine all the game’s systems at once, combining movement with attack or defense skills in concepts like Fly or Charge.
As a card game, Mahokenshi has a twist, in that it’s not really a deckbuilder in the long run. Every mission resets your deck to a few basic starter cards, and you need to build a new deck on the fly through exploration and buying cards from villages. This is quite refreshing, in a way — it means Mahokenshi is a game of improvisation and thinking on the fly, rather than theorycrafting your way to a perfect build. It makes the game quite immediate and approachable in the early stages, too.
But it also essentially doubles the influence of randomness on the outcome of your mission. Not only is the order you draw your cards each turn down to chance, but so, to a considerable degree, is the selection of cards you’ll have to draw from. As missions get tougher, this can be a problem. Some might find Mahokenshi too capricious as a result, but it certainly keeps the game both interesting and light on its feet.
As deckbuilding burrows deeper into every corner of video game design, it’s popping up in ever more varied places and getting bent into ever more interesting shapes. As amalgamations go, Mahokenshi is a refreshing one to build on.