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Challengers!

As the two games both won major awards this year, this review of Challengers! is somewhat of a companion piece to my take on Dorfromantik (Pegasus Spiele), so if at any point reading below you begin to question whether I like the hobby, do take a break to read that review and come back reassured. I should also reference the highly entertaining review of Challengers! by Chris Yi, Roy Cannaday and Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower, as that is what occasioned me to buy Challengers! in the first place. Perhaps put up with me first before moving on there to see where I fall on the Roy-Tom scale.

OK, that's enough preamble, time to amble...

Published by 1-More Time Games, Challengers! is an interesting concept for a game: an auto-battler with old style deck building elements that takes up to eight players in a fairly short and always-engaged amount of time. I have quite the need for games with player count flexibility as I already lug around a hernia-inducing amount of cardboard, so a game that takes 2, 4, 6 or 8 players without bloating its timeframe was of great interest to me (there is a bot but, really, stick with even numbers). The cartoony art is neither a plus nor a minus, tho' it's distinctive enough that I could imagine someone taking against it. The rulebook is good and the graphic design is clear, as is the limited iconography in the game. The insert has been retained - rare for me - and the components overall are very much fit for purpose.



At setup, each player takes an identical starter deck and a card that shows their opponent for each of the seven rounds: while this is logically displayed, it is not intuitive and half the players tend to need help from the other half to work out who their next opponent is. Each round starts with a trawl of 5-10 cards from one of three decks of increasingly powerful cards that fuel the power escalation of the game. The cards come from five of the six factions included in the game and, generally, reward you for focusing on intra-set synergies. Deciding which cards to select and, later, discard, is the source of the greatest amount of player agency in Challengers! - effectively this is the game; the rest almost plays itself.


Each pair of opponents in the game face off by alternately flipping cards from their shuffled deck and comparing values. The attacker's card(s) must equal or exceed the defending card's value, then they take the victory flag token, bench any cards beneath the top one, and roles reverse. This continues until either a player runs out of cards in their deck or a player's bench exceeds six differently-named cards, at which point the player with the flag wins the round, gains a trophy with fan-points on it, and both move on to the next round.



There are occasional decisions to be made in the match-up - like choosing a specific card in your deck - but the tactics behind these decisions are usually predetermined by the strategy of building the deck before each round; as such, much of the time spent playing Challengers! is flipping the top card of your deck Top Trumps/War-style and resolving the strength or powers, if they apply. After seven rounds, players total their points from trophies and fans gained during the rounds and the two highest face off in a winner-takes-all head-to-head with their existing deck.


At best, I find Challengers! to be an amusement, mostly a pastime of flipping cards and hoping they come out in the right order: my opponent has a 3 strength card and I just drew a 2... I hope my next card isn't my 4, which wastes 3 strength; or, my opponent has a 5 defending and my cards come out 4-1 rather than 1-4, now I've got a pants defender. It's not that a lot of games don't have luck-of-the-draw, it's more that Challengers! has just so much of it. Yes, I get that the decision space is in shaping your deck, having cards that synergise, not having too many different cards so your bench doesn't overflow, weighing cards with low strength but good powers against the opposite; but, even then, if you draw ten cards you don't want in the drafting phase, your agency has shrivelled again.


So, my experiences with Challengers! have been varied, from two to eight players, with people aged eight to 80 and, most pertinent, with gamers and non-gamers. Without doubt, the game has been a hit with younger players and non-gamers: there was even a 'teachable moment' where a child with autism who had previously melted down at losing Pyramid of Pengqueen (Brain Games) won one round of the seven and held it together so admirably that I was proud of him, let alone his parents when I told them later. But it has to be said the audience for this game, in my experience, is very much those younger players and the non-gamers. When I've introduced this to adults and, especially, gamers, the dumbfounded looks of 'Is that it‽' have been pronounced; older gamers, especially, have been notably disdainful toward the game, even the winners taking little pleasure in their victory and being happy to have the experience behind them like a gastroscopy with no anaesthetic (been there, don't want to do that again).


More niche than that, I know, are gamers who can differentiate between the Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres: important awards that massively affect the sales of a game, particularly in Germany. Essentially the former is for families, the latter for gamers - or at least, that's been the way of things since 2011. Dorfromantik won the SdJ this year - and, if you haven't read the review, it's not a game, but it's a very good non-game that I really enjoyed - while Challengers! won the KdJ. Personally, I think the latter fact is preposterous: there is more consideration in most turns of Dorfromantik than there is in a round of Challengers! For what it's worth, of the nominees, I think Planet Unknown (Adam's Apple Games) should have won the KdJ.

But, good sir, you might say, they're really not like-for-like. OK, then, let's take Tea for 2 (Space Cowboys), a head-to-head two-player War variant that is (according to BGG) an even lighter game than both the above. In Tea for 2 you are building a deck of cards that not only affect the immediate interplay and provoke a this or that decision, but influence end-game scoring, have powers that can be applied both tactically and strategically, and play out a tug of war (!) in two limited resources at the same time. An underrated game, in my opinion, that shows what can be done with the basic 'card vs card' mechanism. I find Challengers! to be substantially fluffier than Tea for 2 despite it having a rubber duck rather than a pink flamingo.


As you can tell, I'm probably more invested in this debate than I should be. Challengers! is a piece of fluff: well designed for what it is, but what it is is fluff, pure and simple, and one that I will definitely not be taking to my regular game night again, but which will very likely be brought out by my son at our next kid's game day. For that reason alone, the game remains in my collection - my son even wants to get Challengers! Beach Cup (the inevitable having-won-an-award expansion) to take the experience up to an absurd 16 player count. Personally I hope they make it a knockout format, because then I can go play something else.


So: more Roy, less Tom, then.


(Review by David Fox)


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