BANE [Review]

Today I finally had the chance to play a demo of a new card game currently making it’s debut on Kickstarter, down at my local board game store in the mall. The game is called BANE, and I was really impressed.

Full disclosure: My sister works at the company producing this game, which obviously has an effect on how I perceived it. I’ve done my best to explain why I like each aspect of the game, and I honestly don’t have much negative criticism. Nonetheless, I’m not an unbiased third-party. However, I do not benefit directly from this game’s success, nor have I been paid by anyone (or even asked) to write and share this review.

BANE is a card game in the more traditional sense, though it’s not played with a standard 52 card deck. It’s structured and themed with just the right amount of modern elegance, but at it’s core is the same engine that runs games like Hearts, Spades, and Xactica. It feels like a beefed up take on classic trick-taking games, and each addition adds a fun new angle to consider for each play. Perhaps most importantly, the game is accessible without being watered down. The main cards are all essentially a suit and a number, so you’re not bogged down in a bunch of rule text. There are special Power cards that each player gets one of partway through the game, which can have somewhat complex interactions, but they are limited to a single card per player per game. This is a big part of why I say it feels more like a classic card game than something like Magic, Nightfall, or Dominion.

There’s a series of videos on the Kickstarter page that go over most of the rules if you want more specifics, but the game is pretty easy to pick up. In the beginning, you get a hand of 8 cards, two of which you place face down in front of you. Two additional face down cards are added from the deck, unseen, so each player has four trophy cards. Generally your goals are to take other players’ trophy cards and protect yours (though not always, it’s occasionally good to lose on purpose). As soon as a player runs out of cards in their hands, or runs out of trophy cards, the “Hunt” ends, points are awarded, and if no one has won the game, another hunt begins with another hand of 8. The game is won when a player has essentially earned 6 points. To win a hunt, you must have more trophy cards in front of you when the hunt ends than anyone else. If that’s the case, or if you’re tied for the most, you earn two points, otherwise you earn one point for that hunt. This is a very subtle but cool scoring system that ensures that even when you’re down, you’re not out until the end. Our own game entered the last turn with each of us in reach of the win. Players are never eliminated. Occasionally your play may be forced, but you’re always a part of the game, which I absolutely love.

Hunts are made up of several engagements, which are the core of the game. Each engagement has each player play one card in turn. Each card has a number from 1-8 which represents it’s speed, with lower numbers being faster attackers. Each card is also a Werewolf, Vampire, or Human, which act as a three-way suit system. Humans hunt Werewolves, Werewolves hunt Vampires, and Vampires hunt Humans. Generally you’ll try to have a diversity of each race in your hand, so you can try to control whether you’re the predator or the prey. Whichever played card is the fastest and has a valid target will win the engagement and take a trophy card from their slowest rated target. (The rest of this paragraph is a somewhat wordy example, you don’t really need to grok it fully to get the game.) So if a Speed 3 Vampire is played after a Speed 2 Human, the Vampire is set to win the engagement. Although the Human is faster, Humans only hunt Werewolves. Since the Vampire hunts Humans, it then becomes the fastest character with a valid target. If that were followed by a slower Vampire or a faster Human, nothing would change. Any werewolf other than a Speed 1 would give the Speed 2 Human a valid target, thus setting the Human to win.

Whoever wins the engagement takes a card from whoever their target was. Importantly, only one player wins each engagement, the player with the fastest speed and a valid target. Then another engagement begins unless the Hunt has ended. If a player reaches the 6th point place on the board (titled Mastery), and they end a Hunt with the most trophies (or are the only player on Mastery), they win. This means the end of the game isn’t quite a solid number of turns, and there’s room for showdowns in the 5-6 point range. You can’t win the game in a tie, even though you can tie in an engagement. If players end an engagement in a tie, the game goes for another round for all players.

There are a few other twists that make the game fresh, like the Power cards players earn when they reach their third point. They have effects like “Change the type (suit) of a target card” or “Target card is automatically the fastest card”. Each player also has a once per Hunt ‘BANE’ token that can be played to steal a played card and make it’s owner play a replacement. And instead of a stack-order, there’s a small dash of dexterity in order resolution. I saw an opponent considering throwing her BANE token on my card, and as soon as her fingers touched her token, I threw out my Power card that made my card immune to being the target of a BANE. If she’d gotten her token there first, I’d have been out of luck. All of these touches give the game a lot of strategic interplay between players, and the game always feels lively.

We stumbled occasionally reading the board, just getting used to the Human > Werewolf > Vampire > Human triangle, but within a couple turns, the real beauty of the game unfolded. Almost every turn is a balance between several factors. Do I want to try to be the predator, or keep my head down and let someone else risk a trophy? How many options are left in my hand after this play, am I getting locked into a single race or a small range of speeds? Who still has their BANE token ready? Am I in position to have the most trophies this hunt, or do I need to target the current leader? This variety of angles makes each play feel significant and weighty, but the simplicity of the cards keeps the game moving quickly. A game takes about half an hour, our 4 player game was about 40 minutes after a short explanation of the rules. The game supports 2-5 players, but 4 or 5 are probably the sweet spot.

The theme of the game wasn’t fully in the demo we played, so I can’t speak much about the post-apocalyptic setting or the lore, but I appreciate that the game ran smoothly without relying on a heavy backstory. We got to play with wooden tokens that added a nice touch of authenticity, and are one of the stretch goals for the Kickstarter.

Everyone at our table was smiling, no one was lost in the rules, and my brain had enough to consider without being overwhelmed. We were playing so smoothly in our first game, I think I could teach this game to almost anyone, maybe age 12+. There’s just nothing intimidating, no sneaky technicalities or complicated order-stacks. The game never drags its feet, and everyone was fully engaged the whole time. Super great design!

The box art might make you expect a hardcore game of weapons and combat, but instead it’s a refreshing expansion of classic card games focused around player’s trumping each other’s plans. My parents could play this just as easily as my friends, and I’d have no fear busting it out at a board game night or a coffee shop table.

Written by¬†Yamen O’Donnell

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