The developers seem willing to apply deck-building mechanics to all genres and settings these days. At first, it seemed a bit trendy, but as the designers relax into it, interesting and thoughtful hybrids emerge.
One such example is mahokenshi (available now on Steam), a tactics game set in a Japanese-style folklore world from French studio Game Source. It’s not that mahokenshi does something groundbreaking with its card game elements, but the care with which the developer has incorporated deck building into every element of the game – not just combat, but also exploration and adventure – is very enjoyable .
It’s not worth spending too much time on tuning. You control magical samurai from four elementary schools as they battle cultists and goblins on mystical islands. There are beautiful illustrations, especially on the map illustrations, and the miniaturized maps of temples, forests, and small warring figures have a bonsai quality to them. But, coming from a Western studio, it smacks of a kind of reverential but generalized Orientalism that’s falling out of favor. There’s nothing offensive here – just a vague, borrowed mysticism that doesn’t seem deeply tied to the game itself.
As a game of tactics, mahokenshi is relatively light, but fun. Missions take place on hex-based maps where you direct your samurai to explore and fight. You expend base card game energy when moving or playing cards, and it’s fixed (to start with, you have four energies per turn) rather than building up over time, although there is ways to increase it later in the game. Tiles have different properties – standing in a forest boosts your defense, while mountains boost attack rate – and also contain gold chests, new cards to add to your hand and locations like villages, dojos, and castles, where you can boost your cards or character in various ways. Because it’s all about energy, you’re always balancing exploration rewards against defense and engagement, usually with an eye on the turn limit for the mission. It’s a solid risk-reward design. Some of the smartest card designs mix all of the game’s systems at once, combining movement with attacking or defending skills in concepts like Fly or Charge.
like a card game, mahokenshi has a twist, in that it’s not really a long term deckbuilder. Each mission resets your deck to a few basic starter cards, and you must build a new deck on the fly by exploring and buying cards from villages. It’s quite refreshing, in a way – it means mahokenshi is a game of improvisation and thinking on the fly, rather than working out a theory to achieve a perfect construction. This makes the game quite immediate and accessible at the start as well.
But it also essentially doubles the influence of chance on the outcome of your mission. Not only does the order in which you draw your cards each turn depend on chance, but also, to a large extent, the selection of cards from which you will have to draw. As the missions get harder, this can be a problem. Some might find mahokenshi too temperamental as a result, but it certainly keeps the game both interesting and light on its feet.
As deckbuilding delves deeper into every corner of video game design, it’s popping up in more and more varied places and bending into more and more interesting shapes. As mergers progress, mahokenshi is refreshing to lean on.