Ever since I lost my semi-regular opponent owing to a move, I've been on the lookout for some sort of game to fill my free time. It would need to be playable solo, would preferably have some sort of fantasy theme, would ideally be some sort of deckbuilder variety, and would would be easy enough to pick up and play with minimal reference to the rules but deep enough to hold my attention over many plays.
Bulwark would seem to be that game.
I came across Bulwark here on Drivethrucards initially, and after very briefly looking it over I discounted it from being something I'd be interested in for some reason or another; I did something very similar when I first encountered Summoner Wars, but at least for SW I can say that the box art for the first two installments of the game were what turned me off - I don't know what about Bulwark did the same.
Nor can I say exactly what drew me back to it as I looked for and discounted a number of other games, particularly the in-the-title-of-the-review mentioned Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Thunderstone. I do know that in both of those cases, the length of the rulebook did quite a bit to dissuade my interest. After reading through the Bulwark rules (not even 9 pages for the base set) and looking at the free PnP version available (and freeing up some funding from games that otherwise weren't getting played), I plunked down the cash to by both the "Core" set and Winter of Death.
While I waited for the cards to arrive, I contacted the designer and got some input from him as to how to go about first playing the game and what to expect from the physical product.
The physical product
The cards arrived from Drivethrucards banded in plastic in a plain shipping box; no frills here.
I had planned on - and the designer also recommended - sleeving the cards once they arrived, and after doing so I plunked them into the BCW boxes I purchased (and fancied up) to hold them.
As to the cards themselves, they are of pretty sturdy quality and what one would expect for POD. I haven't noticed anything amiss on the cards in terms of printing, and really my only complaint would be the cost; both sets set me back over $60, and that was for not even 500 cards. Had I not freed up the funds from the games I got rid of, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have gotten the game just because the price point seems very steep.
I understand WHY this is the case, but what it boils down to is that I'm usually a lot more -cheap- frugal than that.
I'll also say that the text on the cards seems like it could be a size larger; for a great number of the cards, very little space on the card is utilized as the card text all shares the same font size (more or less: the Heroism cards are the big exception). While the font is hardly microscopic - and I would say I have pretty good, non-eyeglass required vision - it does seem to me that the text could be bigger.
Additionally, other than some icons which provide clues as to how various cards will interact with each other, there is a distinct lack of artwork. Each Hero, Location, and Foe deck is a distinct color on the front (so as to be easily separated), and to be honest I found the lack of artwork to be a plus in this case - rather than try to shoehorn the important parts of the card text around art, it just does without.
Hello there, hero.
See this castle?
There are some terrified soldiers defending it.
Out there is a bloodthirsty invading army.
It's 5,000 versus 500, plus a handful of heroes.
You guess that makes it an even fight.
Now get down there and do what you do best.
From the back cover of the Bulwark RPG
The goal of the game is for the players to cooperatively defend the "castle" from an invading army by use of a number of different Heroes and Locations, represented by different decks of cards.
Bulwark is definitely a Dominion-style deckbuilder - no confusion in terms of how the nomenclature is being used here.
Each player chooses a Hero to play, and this provides the player with a unique set of cards that can be purchased using a currency called Heroism. Each character is a specific sort of fantasy archetype: the Soldier attacks hard and defends himself and allies, the Cleric heals and protects, the Thief sneaks and stabs, etc. Along with a specific set of cards that can be purchased each character has their own set of starting cards with which cards can then be purchased or actions and attacks made.
I will say at this point that when I initially heard about Pathfinder and it being a "deckbuilder" (before the terminology was a little better clarified to describe the mechanics), this is how I expected such a thing to be accomplished - each player having a unique character to purchase from that would play differently than the other sorts of characters.
The Core set comes with three Hero decks, and Winter of Death adds another; the majority of the other available expansions are Hero decks as well.
Along with each player choosing a character (or characters if playing solo) and associated deck, a Location is also selected. This represents not only whatever fortress our heroic band is attempting to defend but also provides a number of purchasable cards that can then also be included in a player's deck to be used against the enemy (or in favor of the player - to-may-to, to-mah-to).
The Core set comes with a Location deck, and Winter of Death adds three more.
It wouldn't really be a fantasy battle without enemies to fight, and these are represented by the Foe decks. Each Foe deck has a recommendation as to how many turns during the Start Phase should be selected as a way of making the game more or less difficult, and having that flexibility is a good way of getting used to the game without feeling completely overwhelmed.
The Core set comes with three Foe decks, and Winter of Death adds one more.
Finally, there are a deck of Wound cards to represent damage dealt out by the Foes to the characters, and these cards largely work to clog up useful cards in one's hand.
As just mentioned, there are three Phases to the game: the Start Phase, where players can purchase cards to prepare for the assault without fear of dealing with Foes; the Main Phase, where the players then deal with the Foes as they appear; and the End Phase, which signals the end of the game is imminent.
I'm not going to go into the specifics of the individual Phases; to see exactly how the game plays out step by step, please reference the rules which can be found via the Chthonic Games website.
During the Start Phase players can purchase cards from either those available in their specific Hero Deck or from the Location Deck, and these cards are then added deckbuilder-style to the discard pile (to be shuffled back into the draw deck as needed).
I felt that the Start Phase was quite thematic for this game, particularly with being able to lengthen or shorten the number of turns cards could be freely purchased. To me, it felt like the difference of having forewarning that an army is approaching and having the time to plan and prepare, to being ambushed and having to make do with resources on the fly.
Once number of turns selected for the Start Phase finishes, the Main Phase commences thus bringing on the Foes. The Foe Deck selected is shuffled and every turn sees at least one Foe drawn to be added to a line of Foes that need to be dealt with. Different Foes have different abilities that may trigger when drawn, or later in the Main Phase. Once Foes have appeared, players may play attacks to eliminate said Foes from the line, thus increasing the chances of survival. Each Foe has an Armor value, and an Attack must be equal or greater than the Armor value to defeat the Foe.
In each Foe deck are five Crown Foes, and these are more powerful Foes that can only be attacked to be defeated (as opposed to some other options available via the players).
I'll also state that just because it might not be a particular player's turn that they very likely will still be able to participate; a good number of cards allow for actions on a different player's turn to assist that player (either boosting offense or defending).
Once the Foe deck has been expended, thus starts the End Phase. All the defeated non-Crown Foes are shuffled and replace the Foe draw deck, then any Crown Foes that have been defeated get shuffled together separately and placed at the top of the newly created Foe deck - these Foes will now need to be dealt with before the rest.
In addition to the other Steps taken in previous Phases, the End Phase introduces a "Check for Death" step - if a player's hand contains a majority of Wound cards at the beginning of their step, their character is dead and can no longer take any action. Unfortunately for the rest of the players, said player will still take the other steps for their specific turn, and those mostly involve the Foes doing terrible things to the remaining characters.
Playing the game
Setup takes very little time; a Hero (or Heroes), Location, and Foe Deck are chosen, the Hero and Location decks are separated into their purchase piles (about five piles of cards each), and the Foe and Wound decks are shuffled and placed face-down to be drawn as necessary.
Getting familiar with the cards in each deck will definitely speed play along, but even with just about no familiarity choices can be made fairly quickly - with one action and one buy available per turn (apart from any granted by cards played), there's probably not going to be a whole lot of analysis paralysis.
Depending on the Location and Foe decks chosen you'll likely need to adapt a given strategy to account for specific Foe abilities, but that definitely increases the replayability of the game.
I wish I had become aware of this game sooner as it seems like it hits all my game-preference itches. After having played the base set, I have ordered the remaining expansions for the game, and that should only increase the number of ways that it can be played, thus making it a nearly completely different experience for the foreseeable future, giving me quite a bit of gaming to look forward to.