Remember when deckbuilding was new and fresh? In those times of old it seemed like every single new release was messing around with the system. Some deliberately tried to take the crown from Dominion by going bigger and bolder. Some implemented deckbuilding as part of a larger design. Others, like T.C. Petty III’s Xenon Profiteer, experimented with the idea of deckbuilding itself. What could be done with this mechanical gift we were given? What elements could be excised, moved, reversed?
Where Dominion is about building up, Xenon Profiteer is about containment. You take on the role of a scientist trying to distill xenon from air. This is difficult because air, as you may recall, is composed of mostly things that are not xenon. At the beginning of each turn you’ll automatically distill (i.e.: trash) the easiest to remove elements from your hand: nitrogen first, then oxygen, then krypton. If after doing this only xenon remains, you immediately harvest it and place it in your tableau. The challenge is that in order to get xenon into your deck you need to add air, and air is all four elements.
This is a clever variation of Dominion’s victory card system where the more you progress towards winning the game through the purchase of victory cards, the more polluted your deck gets. In that game there’s typically a turning point where you decide to commit to purchasing those cards, hoping that your deck’s acceleration can outpace the baggage you’re heaping upon it. In Xenon Profiteer you’re working in cycles: accumulation and distillation.
Within that primary cycle you’re buying additional upgrade cards that grant greater efficiencies. For a high cost you can slap those cards down on your tableau, gaining access to their powers every turn. A more modest sum adds the card to your deck. Figuring out which upgrades to purchase and where to place them is the game’s core strategic consideration. I suppose getting more upgrades to the deck is most efficient if you can keep a lean deck (so as to frequently cycle your upgrades back into hand). But that can be tricky, for keeping a lean deck might mean not taking in as much as you would otherwise, which caps how much xenon you can harvest.
It’s a difficult balancing act, and one that often feels like walking a tightrope, or indeed containing the wind. When I’m locked into trying to judge the contents of my deck and get a handle on distillation probabilities I enjoy Xenon Profiteer quite a bit. The rest of the systems I could live without.
I’m sure they’re necessary for the game to function but they don’t feel like a natural extension of the central gameplay. There’s a bidding system, for example, that feels somewhat limp. A certain category of upgrade can score a small number of points but doesn’t have the sort of game-changing impact the other upgrades can have. You can frequently wipe away the available cards and reset them (hence the bidding which locks cards down), which allows for combo-hunting, but more often than not I do it because I’m forced to whenever I decline to take air.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said this about a board game before, but I think Xenon Profiteer would work best as a digital game. To use technical language, it has a poor ratio of game-playing to stuff-doing. Every turn you’re trashing cards and gathering one or more of each element, and gaining coins, and spending coins, and perhaps resetting the display or shuffling your deck. It’s not a big hassle, but it starts to feel like one in the context of a 20 minute game. If a computer was able to automate all of this card flow it’d take 5 minutes and you’d quickly be able to test out combos and strategies. You’d be able to gather some momentum over repeat play rather than that momentum constantly being interrupted by operating the tasks of the game.
But I still see value in Xenon Profiteer in how it gives me another angle to examine the idea of deckbuilding. Has there been a single more important mechanism in board gaming the last 15 years? We got to witness in real time a great experimentation as designers poked and prodded this beast. Place Xenon Profiteer next to Trains, Mage Knight, Eminent Domain, Fort (née SPQF), The Quest for El Dorado, Friday, Mystic Vale, Hardback, and Time of Crisis as one of the more interesting experiments I’ve encountered.