Battle for Biternia Review

Adapting an outside property into board game form is simple. I mean, it’s not. But it also is. Bear with me here. Board games, insofar as they’re thematic, are abstracted versions of what they’re trying to represent. An engine builder game is fundamentally about investment. You start with a small investment, turn that into something that produces more than you put into it, and repeat. It doesn’t capture the complexity of investment in the real world, with all of its risks and variables and intricacies, but it communicates the basic idea. A war game isn’t going to simulate every single factor influencing a battle or conflict (though some try more than others), but it’s going to try to present to the players the types of decisions a commander might be faced with.

So you take a theme, setting, or concept, abstract everything down, balance it out a bit, and presto, a game! It’s a straightforward formula to mediocrity, however. Capturing an idea in board game form rarely tracks 1:1. The hard part, where many fail, is bottling up the essence of what you’re trying to represent.

Battle for Biternia, from Chris Faulkenberry, takes the MOBA genre of video games (most prominently represented by League of Legends and DOTA) and strips it down to its core. Or, at least, one of its cores. I always found the games to be a multi-core affair. 

All of this could be completely different now, with metagame changes and balance patches and such, but a few years ago when I trepidatiously poked my head around LoL the game was dominated by a peculiarly specific set of unwritten rules. 

If you haven’t played one of these games the fundamentals are pretty simple: two teams of heroes face off against each other with the goal of destroying the macguffin in the other side’s spawn point/base. There are three main “lanes” connecting the bases with other smaller paths in between those. Defending the bases and the lanes are towers that fire at enemies if they get too close. AI-controlled minions stream steadily down the lanes, mostly serving as cannon fodder for the heroes so they can get XP and gold and such to improve their skills. Heroes all have basic attacks but are mostly distinguished by their sets of special abilities that nearly all operate on a cooldown system. There’s leveling and map quirks and potions and equipment and all the other minutia you’d expect.

Anyways, when I was playing LoL I was told that every team had a certain composition. On the “top” lane was a fighter basically capable of handling themselves. The middle lane character seemed to allow for more flexibility, but they also operated alone. Two people always occupied the bottom lane: a glass canon sort of character and a healer/support keeping them alive. Finally there’s the mysterious “jungler” who occupies those in between spaces, fighting the more powerful AI creatures that lurk there and, if talented, becoming the kind of out-of-nowhere ambushing nuisance that makes you question what life choices brought you to this point. If not talented the jungler is responsible for receiving any and all blame for the team’s poor performance.

I never could figure out why the game operated like this. No one was stopping you from putting two people in the top lane or having two junglers running about, but these were the meta-rules and I learned to not ask too many questions. I ended up playing top lane, with clear instructions to not die. Conservative play suited me fine.

But each of these informal roles played slightly different games. On the bottom lane, the support character often took a sort of leadership role, working on visibility and communication with the team. The jungler would perform their mysterious dark arts for a few minutes before coordinating surprise attacks. Within each lane was a delicate push/pull dance of trying to gain ground by killing minions effectively while simultaneously poking at your neighboring enemy, looking for an opportunity to attack and get a kill.

Like I said, multi-cored. But Biternia takes a bold and effective approach by only really focusing on that hero v. hero dance. Minions are gone, replaced by a generic “farm” action. There’s no equipment or potions or jungle creatures. Instead each hero is entirely represented by a passive power and four unique action cards. In the first round of the game heroes will rush towards the center of the board in their lanes where farming is more lucrative. Once they clash with opponent heroes, however, they probably won’t want to farm but instead try to pick off an early kill.

So the dance begins, over a series of movement and action rounds. In each the two players take turns back and forth activating their four heroes. Biternia’s granular back-and-forth rhythm creates tension as each side tries to create the best combat matchups possible, both knowing they’re going to have to make sacrifices somewhere. 

Take, for instance, defense. Each action round begins with a face down card in front of each hero. These cards dictate the actions that hero can play, but they also contain defense values that absorb damage if face-up. Cards do linger around until their replacement is played, but timing can be tricky. You want to play your high defense cards early, before that hero is attacked, but you also want to play your strongest attacks early before your opponent can put up their own defenses. Ideally you’d like to play a high defense card early, and then keep that card up until late in the following round, but such long term planning rarely survives contact with the enemy.

Movement is another point of granular tension. During the movement phase heroes can either move a space or stay still, and there are very few cards that allow a hero to move during the action phase. This results in both players effectively having veto power over most combat clashes. Perhaps. The complication is that, of course, you’re activating heroes one at a time, and if you run away from a battle your opponent might just give chase. So you want to move after your opponent, but you can’t. You have to choose someone to move first. Do you need to pull back and heal with three of your four heroes? Too bad, you’re probably losing at least one of them as your opponent runs after them. In most combat or area control games going last is an advantage. Biternia takes that idea and pushes it down on the players in every moment of the game, creating a tactical maze.

I haven’t even mentioned one of the coolest bits of design yet: the cooldown system. As you play cards, they, naturally, go into a discard pile. If one of your heroes is killed their character card also goes into this discard pile. Once it’s time to cycle back in that stack of cards, instead of shuffling it you simply turn it over, neatly simulating the deterministic timing of a cooldown system. Character ability cards are typically much stronger at any given point in time than the generic action cards, so you want to try to cycle them back in as fast as possible while still maintaining some control over which abilities you have access to on a given turn.

Defense towers have a diminished, but still important role to play here compared to the video games. They only exist in triplicate immediately outside each team’s base, and they serve as a stout defense to anyone trying to rush through. In effect they serve as more of a deterrent than a strategy, as anyone attempting to combat the towers early will easily fall to the combination of tower and enemy attacks. Thus, the early stages of the game tend to play out in the center of the board, with limited movement.

This raises the question of why have a map at all? It’s a good question to ask, particularly with combat-focused games, as maps tend to extend play time without adding much strategic value. I can recall one BostonFIG (festival of indie games) event where I played four or five game prototypes that could have been described as “Magic: the Gathering with a map” and the map only made the game worse, and longer.

Biternia’s movement is justified, but barely. I could easily see the combat in this game working just as well without a map, or with an even simpler 1-dimensional setup (think: Level99’s Exceed system). We’ve seen maps removed from genres that typically house them with great success before, perhaps none greater than Through the Ages. Biternia has the iconic MOBA 3-lane image to hold up to maintain fidelity to its inspiration, but in effect its map facilitates hardly more than a binary state: engaged with a hero, or not engaged. Could this have been done map-less to save some time? Perhaps, but I don’t fault them for it. Once you get past the expectation of a map being about travel rather than quickly moving in and out of engagement you’ll start to understand what Battle for Biternia is about.

Pulling back from the granular moment-to-moment decision making, I adore how well Biternia captures the ebbs and flows of a MOBA confrontation. The early game is about trying to not die while gathering coins so you can level up your characters. If the game stays fairly equitable both you and your opponent will start acquiring level 4 ultimate attack cards for your heroes at about the same time, at which point you enter into a sort of standoff. 

See, the ultimate abilities are powerful. Like, really powerful. They’re generally just a touch weaker than “immediately kill a hero”, a number of them being “immediately kill a hero if you meet X condition”. Using one effectively can decide the game. But you decide to select which cards to play before the movement phase, which means that you have to choose to play an ultimate ability before you fully know what the map’s going to look like. Furthermore, you might also have to wait for your opponent to activate one of their heroes before you get a chance to launch that attack. The line between this sort of situation being tense and frustrating is very thin. If you don’t like yomi games then you’ll probably fall on the side of frustrating. No matter how well you plan, your plans will frequently fail, and fail massively. This isn’t a game of margins, but of violent clashes.

If you love catch-up mechanisms you’ll probably also find the game frustrating. As with the source material, early victories tend to snowball into actual victories. It’s extremely difficult to pull back to an effective defensive position after you lose a hero or two, and I’ve not yet seen any come from behind wins in my half-dozen plays. In fact, I’ve never seen anything close to one. I do think it’s possible but it might require a key mistake or two on the part of the winning player. 

That’s not to say that there are no catch-up mechanisms, only that they’re subtle. Most interestingly, defeated heroes still get to do their “turn” even though their turn is a forced pass. This means that if you’re short-staffed you can gain a bit of a “go last” edge. It’s not much of an edge, but it may give you enough hope to carry on.

Even when there is a victory via snowball it doesn’t take too long and Biternia rarely outstays its welcome. You don’t need to actually get into the enemy base, only kill enough heroes and towers to cause their crystalline macguffin to self-destruct from despair. 

Battle for Biternia’s production is low-key with fun pixel art and a nice variety of characters. While I have no problem with standees, I wish they were slimmer in this game as pieces tend to awkwardly collide with each other. Most annoyingly, the tower and crystal standees sit clumsily atop an un-mounted circular HP tracker, which means that it’s both difficult to read how much HP they have without removing the standee and very easy to accidentally jostle the pieces, shifting how much HP they have left. 

Such complaints shouldn’t dissuade you from looking into Battle for Biternia, however. Modest production standards are to be expected from a small company like Stone Circle Games. To demand extravagant, expensive game productions from everyone is to drive independent creators towards unnecessary risk or abandonment of their ideas. I game for the ideas; the mechanical craft. I’m done being seduced by flash and insubstantial sparkle. Biternia has more depth in its humble box than any number of kickstarter behemoths.

Score: 8/10

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