Humanity has been wiped out, leaving behind only sentient robots, programmed to kill, doomed to forever battle until only one bot remains. Okay, so that’s not the official back story of Stak Bots. The game is a fast, light hearted, even tongue-in-cheek, combat game.
Stak bots costs £7 and it consists of a single deck of 60 cards. The cards are nice enough, they aren’t linen finished or anything, but they do the job. The artwork on the cards, for me, was initially off-putting. It has an amateur feel and as I have stated on this blog before, the look of a game is often the thing that appeals to me most. Of course, Stak Bots could well be a prime example of the imperative “Don't judge a book by it’s cover”
That said, I’m not saying that Stak Bots couldn’t be improved, at least visually with some Portal style robot graphics!
The rules for Stak Bots are mostly okay, the layout doesn’t follow a traditional flow which can make them harder to follow and actually the online how to play is better. There are also tutorial videos on the site and the free iOS app has a tutorial level you can follow. In truth, the hardest part of understanding the game is learning the turn structure, after that the game pretty much teaches itself. Talking of which, let's move on to…
How to Play
To setup the game each player is dealt a stack of 9 cards and a hand of 2. Do not look at your stack. Turn over the top card of your stack, do not follow any instructions on the card you turn over. Place all remaining cards in a central draw pile.
The game is now ready to begin. On your turn you must first draw a card from the central draw pile, then you may take any of the following actions in any order any number of times.
Play a Card from your Hand on to the top of your Stack
Scrap a card from your Hand or your Stack
Attack with the top card of your Stack
Play a Card – When you play a card from your hand it is placed on top of your stack so that the card below is still partially visible. Then any Entry Effects (Marked with a > icon) are carried out. Most entry effects are mandatory and target the “top card” of a stack. This means you have to take the action and all stacks are viable targets, including your own.
Scrap a Card – You may always scrap the top card of your own stack. This is often a tactical manoeuvre to reveal better cards. If you scrap the only faceup card on your stack you will turn over the next card and follow any entry effects on the revealed bot. Note that scrapping cards from your own stack lowers your health and when you run out of cards in your stack you are out of the game.
Attack – You may attack with the top card of your stack, any number of times during your turn. However, you may only attack with the top card of your stack and you may only attack with one bot per turn. This means that if you attack, then play a card so that your attacking bot is no longer the top card of your stack, you would not be able to attack again unless you scrapped the card covering your attacking bot. Bots always attack using their full power, the green number at the top of the card.
This number is also the bots Health. Attack Power is never reduced, even when the bot takes damage. When a bot attacks another both take damage equal to the others power. If a bot takes more damage than it’s power it scraps. A bot heals all damage at the end of every players turn. A player may continue to take as many actions, following these limitations, as he likes. When he chooses to stop play passes to the next player. At least one bot must enter the scrapheap before a player can end his turn, meaning if you can’t scrap an opposing bot you must choose to scrap one of your own. A player is eliminated when he has no cards remaining in his stack. When only one player remains they win the game.
I like it! I didn’t think I would. It looked too simple and the artwork looked too childish. After reading the rules I felt confused about the attacking situation. However, once I played the game and saw how it all worked together, it clicked and I could start to see the tactics behind it.
And it is a tactical game, not a strategic one, you are playing with a nine, random, unknown cards, you cannot plan ahead. If the game gives you lemons, then you must figure out how to make the most toxic lemonade you can! You have to know when to scrap your own bots, when to fight to the death and when to stop and let your bots heal up. Some bots like “Shot Bot” are great because they shoot your opponents when they enter the game, but they also have 0 health, which leaves you vulnerable to Bash Bot and Spike Bot who scrap additional cards when they attack on the other hand it could protect one of your stronger bots from the power of Reaper Bot who scraps the top card of a stack. To scrap or not to scrap, that is the question!
Sure, the game is random, you don't know what you’re going to have in your stack, but if you can get over that and realise the game is about making the best with what you get dealt and winning despite the obvious handicaps then you’ll find yourself having a blast. Also, because the average game takes 5-10 minutes I can forgive the randomness. Over a series of hands the luck factor balances out and if it really bothers you the game features a ranking system to allow for deck building and more balanced games. So far I have only played the basic game, but Stak Bots also comes with a bunch of variant play modes, more of which are being released with the expansion Because the game is so simple the designers can tweak the rules like this and create a very different play experience without adding to the complexity of the game.
Finally I love how the mechanics of the game reflect the theme. When you play a card it carries out its function, it feels automated, like the robots the cards depict. There is no complex “if” statements like you might find in a CCG, it’s very straightforward but each bot adds colour and flavour and different tactical decisions to make.
Stak Bots is a cheap and simple game with a passionate designer. It offers multiple ways to play, to appeal to serious tactical gamers, casual and family gamers and with the new variants, even players who love chaos! It plays quickly and is easily transportable. Stak Bots has easily become my filler game of choice while I wait for other people to choose the next game!
Dog-Eared Games kindly provided a review copy of this game.