Well, as usual, Small Box is up to no good. First, they make this killer game called Omen: A Reign of War which took everyone by surprise and turned into the “out of left field” smash card game of 2011. I mean, if ever a game needed an iOS app, it’s that one. And then they delivered Hemloch, an odd little card game with an odd little theme that is oddly, pretty fun. So, I was kind of thinking they were due for a stinker. I mean, we’ve loved most of what came out of the joint for a while, and then came Tempt, one of the most truly awful games I’ve ever played…with a rulebook so bad that it was incomprehensible. But John Clowdus and Company are, by and large, batting close to 1000. So, here comes Tooth And Nail: Factions (TANF), which has what I think is the best art and theme to date out of the company. “But how does it play?” you ask…well, let’s talk about that.
But let’s not put the cart before the horse, let’s talk about what it is before we talk about what it does. To sum it up, the game’s about factions of weaponized, bipedal critters such as an American Bulldog toting a DPSAM (dog-portable surface to air missile) or a lizard dude with a tomahawk. And it’s not all guns and whatnot, some of these creatures are magic users (like, I know, right?…Of course there are! How could there NOT be magical, glowing foxes?) and will mess you up with a fusillade of fireballs. Now, these factions are small, 30 critter armies whose sole purpose is to tear the guts out of opposing armies. In short, it’s a war game played with cards.
Now, as I said, the art, while a little “artsy” and “dark” really shines for the most part. I love it. I think it really carries the theme well, and there’s enough unique creatures in the game that it’s not too repetitive, although there are five copies of six critter cards in each of the six decks that come with the base game. As usual with a Small Box game, TANF has nothing but cards. You get seven factions, although one is more or less a mercenary faction that you can add into your own faction, which is made up of regular, full-bleed cards, and one card for your faction that lays out it’s special faction power. Then, there’s five reference cards which double as action point counters. If there’s one thing I have to say about John Clowdus, the man knows how to stretch a buck. I suspect, in fact, that some Clowdus long ago invented copper wire by fighting with his kin over a penny. Every card has multiple uses, per the “Way Of The Small Box”, and as usual, it’s clever and really adds to the game’s strategy.
Now about strategy, TANF really shines in the way it goes about what it does. This game is a duelling game, no more, no less. It’s probably had its roots in Magic The Non-Showering the way you tap cards in order to activate them, but it’s not like M:TG as far as I can say, although I am the last guy you’d call an expert on M:TG. There’s essentially two ways to play cards to your tableau, either as a “Command” card which allows you to use their card powers as actions, or as a “Warrior” card, which you can use to beat up the enemy. Now, the thing that is neat about this game is that it’s a bit like the old-school card game War in that you’re trying to deplete the enemy’s deck. To do this, you can attack, use your command cards, and use special attacks that are straight out of a game like Final Fantasy Tactics or something. Heck, really, this game is more like an old school JRPG’s tactical battle sequence than anything else. And it’s really fun, especially when you make elephant roars during the slaughter. Perhaps I’ve said too much…
Anyhow, the idea is that you have these two areas on your side of the battle. You have the war zone, which is where your front lines are. Then you have your command zone, where your hyenas laugh their asses off at your pathetic enemies, or use powers, whichever you prefer. While you get one action for free per turn, the more command cards you have on the table the more action points you can take. Alternatively, you can draw a card from your deck instead of taking an action point for each command card played, but that has its disadvantages since every card you draw is a “life point” gone, in essence. Now, each turn you get a card from your deck in addition to the cards you can optionally take, but the real goal is to have the maximum guys on the line and in the command center so you can deal as much damage per turn as possible without expending your own cards. It’s really quite a balancing act, and with so many options, there’s a lot of times that there is no obvious “optimal play” to make. Pretty tense, really, especially when your deck is getting thin.
The one thing that I think really stands out about the factions is that they are really, truly unique feeling in how they operate and interact. Even though there’s only two troop types, magic and mechanical, Small Box really found a way to make each faction stand apart from the rest. I’m not entirely sure that I’ll ever really master how to play each, but after the several games I’ve been in on thus far it’s clear that you can’t just use a cookie-cutter strategy and hope to be competitive. I should note that while each faction plays differently, you essentially only have a total of six unique cards per faction, so the strategy isn’t found in the wide range of cards that you can play as much as what you can do with the cards you have, and the fact that they can be played multiple ways.
The one thing that’s really lacking from the faction decks are responses to actions taken against you. Sort of like what I hated about Dungeon Command, whatever your enemy does to you, it just happens and there’s not jack squat you can do about it. You just have to sit there and take it, without any real way to stop it. From that standpoint, it’s another “I go, you go” game that doesn’t have the variety of defensive options that something like Summoner Wars has. In that regard it’s no different than a game like Ascension, but I generally prefer games where you have the option to make a saving throw, or have some mechanism where attacks will not always succeed. I guess I’ve been in enough fights that I’ve learned that you simply don’t land every single kick and punch. Now, I’m alone in this at my house, since my PETA-mocking friends and family here all liked the game and didn’t think it was at all like Dungeon Command. I suspect that it’s because a miniatures game has a different feel, but I stand by my estimation regardless.
That said, the other thing that John Clowdus is known for is being the master of variants, which is really just him doing what he always does, stretching that buck ’til poor old George Washington looks like Joan Rivers. That’s where the dog faction comes into play. If you want to spice up your game, and really, I think it’s the only way to play after you’ve mastered the concepts of the game, every card in that mercenary set is a reaction card played when it’s not your turn. Were it not for the Dogs of War faction, I think the game wouldn’t have gone over nearly as well since the rest of the game, while much more strategic than Dungeon Command, would suffer from the same deficit of what I’d call “actual interaction” where players are playing at the same time rather than taking turns shooting arrows while the other watches. In short, for me, I think the Dogs of War are really integral to the game play and really makes the game shine more than it already did although, again, my friends disagree with me on this point.
There’s also a three and four player variant in the box, which I haven’t tried, but which I’m not keen on trying either because I really like it as a fast, two player game. There’s also other variants in the rulebook for alliances, which allow you to pool two decks and then remove ten cards, leaving you with a 40 card deck. That’s a neat variation on the game which we did play, and I enjoyed greatly having foxes fight alongside vultures, knowing that under any other circumstances, the foxes would be vulture food. This alliance variant is a lot of fun, and I have to admit that I might even like it more than a single faction because of the neat pairings that end up on the table.
I’ve talked about using them as commanders and warriors, but I haven’t talked about other uses. Some of the other ways to use the cards is as currency to boost attacks or initiate special attacks. In addition, you can sacrifice cards in your hand to “take the hit” if you want to preserve cards already played to the table that would ordinarily be forced to die. At first, I thought that there weren’t enough unique guys to go around, but that was before I got to playing the game really, and once I got to the point that I understood the game, I was glad there weren’t a bazillion unique cards because it would become unwieldy. I think the mix is really quite perfect when you bring in the Dogs of War deck, and if you really require more dudes, play an Alliance game and use two decks.
Now, as a final thought, I’m going to do what I always do, rip on the rulebook. I love John, but the man needs a proofreader and a blind play test team like I need hair plugs. There are some misspellings, which are no biggie, but the layout is wonky and there are some things that we couldn’t really figure out easily, like how many “formation attack” troops you could use in a single attack. Thanks to BGG, we found the answer quickly, but Small Box’s penchant for making rulebooks that are sometimes all but indecipherable has reared its ugly head again. It’s not that you can’t read the book and play it, it’s that some of the things are explained in such a way that they’re harder than they need to be or not completely explained, I guess. Either way, after a couple of plays and one lookup on BGG, we got it sorted out and were pecking the eyes out of walrus’ with giant bipedal vultures.
All in all, it’s a great little medium weight duelling game with the only luck factor being in the draw of the cards. I’m not a big card game fan, in general, although John has come a long way towards breaking me of that predilection, and Tooth and Nail: Factions is yet another successful example of how a guy who started out selling 20 copies a pop of card games nobody ever heard of can grow into a powerhouse publisher with a high quality product that is not only a good value for the dollar, but a lot of fun. I think one final thing worth mentioning is that John already has some Print-and-Play expansions you can download, and it’s pretty clear that the only thing that will limit the “legs” this game has is John’s sick and twisted imagination, which has shown no sign of wearing out anytime soon.
- Why The Only Thing Cooler Than Chaingun Toting Elephants Is NOTHING:
- The game play smart and engaging; you will want to keep playing
- It’s not as complex as many SBG titles, making it a great for the family
- Lots of truly unique factions make this game infinitely playable
- Expansions, variants, and print and play content keeps the game fresh
- Because gun toting elephants F*****G ROCK, that’s why!
Why I Broke A Tooth And Chipped A Nail Playing This:
- This is the big time, so I expect better rulebooks with no typos
- Without the Dogs of War expansion, it’s a little less exciting
- There are no iOS or Android versions, which would make Small Box RICH
Everyone really dug this game, and I really was the one lone dissenter because I felt like the game had too much deterministic effects laid against the defender. Once the Dogs of War were unleashed, the game immediately changed, in my mind, from a fun duelling game into a really dynamic, action packed game of critter gittin’. The pace is fast, the options are all very intriguing and there’s very rarely an obvious play, which are all signs of greatness. While the rulebook could use some TLC, don’t let my ongoing critique of Small Box’s rulebooks deter you; it’s worth the hassle, without a doubt.
If you missed out on the Kickstarter, or abstain from Kickstarter in general for personal reasons, the great news is that you can always order it from John at the Small Box website. Personally, if Small Box could Kickstart this game as an iOS app, I’d be first in line to sign up, because this really would be perfect for it and would absolutely get me off the Ascension wagon for good. It’s simply a great game, and I honestly hope it does as well as Omen. While it’s not going to unseat Bhazum as my all-time favourite, it most certainly is in my top 5 hobby card games.
Check it out here at Small Box’s site: http://www.smallboxgames.com/factions.html
Check out the rules here: http://www.smallboxgames.com/rules_factions.pdf
Check out the VIDEO here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/smallboxgames/tooth-and-nail-factions-a-new-card-game-from-small