Martial Arter

September 14th, 2020

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It seems that lately I’m always going “hey, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these!” so what better way to get back into the groove of things than talking about an expansion to a game I already had a look at a while ago?
The two of you reading this may remember the Martial Art review that we posted waaaay the hell back in 2018, and the good people at Spider-Goat Games have not been idle since. With new games like Divorce Simulator or Gangster Dice, Jonathan Ruland & co. have been chugging games out for a good few years now.
The expansion we're looking at today is called Clans (coming to Kickstarter September 22nd!) and builds upon the world of Martial Art as the previous one, Battlefields, also did when it was successfully Kickstarted back in 2018.

To backtrack a bit, Battlefields brought in battle effects that influence the outcome of combat by applying various bonuses or hindrances to either winners or losers of certain engagements. With the simple base frame of Martial Art, it was a welcome addition that added a fair bit of variety to an already varied game without bogging things down in myriad extra rules or things to remember. I personally marked it as an indispensable addition to Martial Art back when I first started playing the game.

Years on, and several dozen games in, I still feel one of the best things about Martial Art is the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) element of the cards. You almost never need to check back on the rules since everything is either printed in text or iconography on the cards themselves, making it easy to suss out what the particular effects are at any given time. Further, I hesitate to say this game has a bonafide rulebook, since the rules to one base game and two expansion total three pieces of folded paper, printed front and back, that fit neatly inside a regular deck box. And that's a great thing in this hustle-bustle day and age. It's also worth mentioning that I’ve yet to feel the need to sleeve the cards and they’ve taken a fair bit of punishment thus far, without showing much wear and/or tear.

Another high point of Martial Art is ease of learning and play: you're up and running within minutes even with new players around the table.
Clans takes that same design philosophy and introduces a handful of new cards that, unlike Battlefields which come into play now and again, heavily alter the way everyone will play the game from the get-go.

Each Clan has its own particular style of play, whether it be the deluge of extra cards played by Shimazu or the land maneuvering of Chosokabe (forever referred to as Chokosabe at our table, because I'm a dyslexic twat with a sweet tooth, it seems), and greatly influences the way you play your cards and fight for various plots of land.
There is a main clan card that holds information on what, exactly, that clan is about, and either one or more leaders that come with each of them. Additionally, Dojos are introduced as another type of Land.

Whenever a Dojo is won, the winner may draw their Clan Leader, which counts as either a Battle or Support card, playable at any point down the line. Once the leader is played, it is placed back within reach, ready to be drawn again whenever another Dojo is won.

This makes Dojos very sought after, because the Clan Leaders are, by and large, great cards that not only help a battle along with their power, but also bring up a unique effect that is more often than not a serious boost to a player's side during combat.
Some Dojos are doubly important, for instance one of them counts as a river, and we all know how important that is towards winning the game.
As a result, the Clans expansion brings in a bevy of new variables that add strategic choices without bogging things down in terms of round or game duration.

On a related note, I've seldom seen as little analysis-paralysis for a game of this sort as I have with MA. Even for new players, getting to grips with what's going on and what cards you need to play (and when you need to play them!) in order to give yourself the best shot at victory comes naturally and never seems to grind mental gears to a halt.

At its core, the game has stayed as straightforward as it was when it was first released, with the available expansions fluffing the experience up without damaging the bottom line, if that makes sense. If you've played MA before, you can sort of get an idea on how things have progressed and expanded since its inception.
We've gone from a fairly simple, war-style card game, where the highest battle value took the pot, to something infinitely more engaging and thematic, with anything from terrain and weather effects to specific factions having a hand in making things more realistic. Realism of sorts, anyway.
After all, MA is still "just" a card game, with nothing but static, classical pieces of art (however amazing they may be) to stand in for your soldiers and commanders on your rather plain, tabletop-looking battlefield.

But with every new bit of content, it's grown and become better in terms of adding layers that help bring that battlefield feeling to life and adding more tactical options for players without increasing the playtime by excruciating amounts or keeping new players away.

I also feel that one of the best things about the way MA was designed is it allows for a theoretically infinite number of modules to be added to it along the same lines, bringing in new types of cards whilst keeping the core set of mechanisms the same. I think it's very important for games to have a cohesive style for expansions (unless those expansions are explicitly trying to create an entirely different gaming experience), and MA seems to do this with surprising ease.

If you're into fast playing card games that nonetheless pack a satisfying amount of tactical depth and a solid set of asymmetrical powers, Martial Art is a no-brainer, now more than ever.

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Tags: Costin Becheanu, Boardgames, Kickstarter