Before board gaming became my drug ... er ... hobby of choice, I used to play Magic: The Gathering. I really enjoyed playing the game, but cracking open packs, and seeing what kind of neat decks I could build was my absolute favorite part. I also dabbled in tournament play. I loved playing in pre-release tournaments, and even played in a few Pro Tour Qualifiers that used the sealed-deck format. The fun of breaking into packs of cards and trying to make a legitimate deck in a short amount of time never lost its luster for me. Buying cards did though, especially at the rate that new M:TG sets hit the market. Saving money was one of the reasons I transitioned into board gaming. I don't think the "saving money" strategy has been a success, but I can say that I still look back fondly on the hours and hours of fun I had collecting cards, building decks, and putting them to the test. Every now and then I get the itch to pick up a pack or two of Magic cards, just for old-times sake. Millennium Blades has cured that itch for me, probably permanently.
Millennium Blades, by D. Brad Talton Jr./Level 99 Games, has taken my collectible card cravings and smashed them into tiny pieces. This brilliant, demanding, glorious monster of a game combines all of the disparate parts of CCGs—collecting cards, building decks, and playing in tournaments—and does it in such a tight, comprehensive way that I doubt I'll ever wistfully think about cracking packs of Magic cards ever again. This is a tense and demanding game though, so if you are a casual gamer who prefers simple, easy to learn, pared down rules, you are going to need to look elsewhere. For gamers who like complexity, especially when it comes to brain blistering depth and options, or if you are an ex-CCG player who has always wished there was a valid replacement that hits just about all of the sweet spots, look no further.
Millennium Blades condenses card buying, selling, trading, collecting, deckbuilding, and tournament play down into an incredibly involved and tense set of three rounds of play. Those rounds are broken into two phases each, one that focuses on the buying, selling, trading, Deckbuilding etc. and one that represents Tournament play. The sheer volume of options, depth, and possible card combinations could have sent the game flying off the rails, but a few excellent design choices keep this towering behemoth from toppling over, or collapsing under its own weight.
The first wise design choice is the timer in the Deckbuilding phase. Just the thought of timed phases in board games sends some gamers running away screaming, but it works so incredibly well in Millennium Blades that the game just wouldn't be as good as without the time constraints. Each Deckbuilding phase gives players 20 total minutes to buy, sell, trade and fuse cards, build a Collection of cards to turn in for points, and get their 8 card deck ready for the Tournament to follow. It isn't simply a mad scramble for 20 solid minutes though.
The 20 minute period is further broken down into two 7 minutes periods, and a final 6 minute period. Players get $30 from the bank and six additional cards at the start of the first 7 minutes, and the first Meta Game modifier is revealed, showing players one way of gaining bonus points during the Tournament. The second chunk of 7 minutes is much like the first, but players don't receive any additional funding from the bank, and the final Meta Game modifier is revealed. Players don't get any free cards during the final 6 minute period and can no longer sell cards into the Aftermarket. The final 6 minutes are generally best spent finalizing and tweaking Tournament decks.
The reason this phase works so well on a timer is because of the way new information is given to players in chunks. This can actually feel counter-intuitive the first time you play, as it feels like you don't have enough information to form a solid plan, especially since it's hard to know what kind of plan you can even form, but once it clicks it makes perfect sense.
The first period gives you enough time to look through the new cards, look at the first part of the Meta Game and form a basic idea of the direction you want to take in the upcoming Tournament. The second period gives you more new cards, and they become easier to sort, as you can quickly see which won't work for the overall plan you'd like to go for. At this point, you can really focus on buying, selling and fusing cards in order to try to get cards that will help your plan. The final period is best spent refining your strategy and building a Collection of unused cards to turn in for points.
Even once you have multiple games under your belt, the Deckbuilding phase still feels tense and exciting. The breaks between each timed period are also great because they allow players a few moments to take a breath and relax. There is an enormous amount of information that players need to work with and process during this phase, so being able to sit back for a few moments is very nice. Deciding on a strategy and trying to make it work can be very difficult, and can be overwhelming for new players. Thankfully, each player starts the game with a starter deck, each of which has an overall theme and basic strategy built right in to it, so it can be a good choice when starting out to just try to get cards that play to that strategy during your first few Tournaments.
The second design choice that really makes Millennium Blades shine is the tight structure the Tournament phase. Each Tournament, players take turns playing one card at a time into their Tableau. Players are allowed to bring 8 cards, one Deck Box, and 2 Accessories to the tournament, but only 6 of the 8 cards are usually played to each player's Tableau. This means that, for all of the chaos and tension in the Deckbuilding phase, players can narrow their focus down in to just about 10 cards for each Tournament.
The cards themselves have a huge variety of abilities and powers, so even though each player will only be playing 6-ish cards, the possible strategies to build around are huge. The deliberate, turn-based pace of the Tournament phase neatly avoids almost all card-ability timing issues that other games can have (The Stack in MT:G anyone?) and, because the position of a card in the Tableau is often important, and cards are played into the Tableau from left to right, the Tournament usually proceeds at a rapid pace. Unless players have a strategy that specifically focuses on messing with their opponents, players will simply place their card down and activate any effects that may trigger when it's played, and potentially take one Action, if they have cards in play that allow them to do so. Even in Tournaments where players are Clashing with one another often, the Clashes resolve very quickly. It is very rare for the Tournament phase to bog down, and, even though only a single card is played by each player each turn, it is thrilling to see a Tableau come together, especially when a strategy born in the chaos of the Deckbuilding phase plays out exactly as planned.
Millennium Blades' tension and excitement actually build round to round as players acquire, buy, trade for and fuse ever more cards, enabling themselves to build ever tighter, more focused and more powerful Tournament decks. The game continues to get better as player familiarity with the systems and the game flow grows, although, with over 600 cards, don't expect to become intimately familiar with everything there is to see card-wise any time soon. Money actually factors into the final scoring of the game as well, and players who have market savvy, and who are able to speculate properly on card values, can actually perform well simply by placing as much, or more, emphasis on the card buying, selling, and trading aspect of the game than on the Tournament aspect.
A note on play time: A full game of Millennium Blades runs 90 to 120 minutes like clockwork if players sit down and play non-stop from start to finish. The game requires that players be fully engaged for the entire amount of time though, so be forewarned. As tight as the game plays, including the time requirements, it is surprisingly easy to put the game on hold between phases though, because each step in each phase is deliberate. Taking a break after a Tournament, before the start of the next Deckbuilding phase, can actually be a good idea when introducing new players to the game, especially since the tension tends to really ramp up as soon as the Deckbuilding phase starts.
Another thing that bears mentioning where play time is concerned is the set up time for the game. Building the Store Deck can take quite a bit of time, as the Core Set needs to be shuffled together with 12 other individual sets of cards. Players need to choose which 12 sets to use for the store, as well as sets to use for card fusion and Tournament prize support, which can be time consuming if all players want to give input as to which sets should be selected. All told, once all sets are chosen, the Store Deck will consist of 262 cards, and ensuring that everything gets shuffled together properly can take time. Once the Store Deck is put together, it can be used across multiple different games, but for players who want to play with a new selection each time, they are going to need to expect to spend at least 15-20 minutes choosing and shuffling cards, as well as spending time sorting the cards back into their respective sets after the game is over.
A note on “chrome”: The component quality is excellent in Millennium Blades. The game even manages to pull off paper money in a way that not only works, but feels fun to play with. The art by Fabio Fontes is excellent, and calls to mind many nostalgic and iconic CCGs, while still feeling unique and fresh. There are many pop culture references in the game, but they are done in such a way that it feels like a fun parody, or a loving homage, rather than a groan-inducing dank meme, which is a pitfall that a lot of board games that attempt similar references fall into.
The bottom line:
Millennium Blades is one of the best games I've played this year, and has rapidly moved onto my "personal favorites" list. It sets out to simulate every aspect of collecting and playing a CCG, and nails it square on the head. Everyone who has ever enjoyed ripping open packs of cards, building a deck and then testing their creation against their friends, or in tournaments, should find something to love in Millennium Blades. The game is quite complex, and the sheer volume of information that players have to parse each round can be overwhelming to new players, so it certainly isn't the most immediately accessible game, but the people who put in the time to learn it well enough to not only play, but to form effective strategies, are going to find an absolutely brilliant Frankenstein's Monster of a game with incredible depth, and enormous replayability.
Both former CCG players and lovers of complex board games alike are going to want to take a close look at Millennium Blades. It truly is a unique experience in board gaming, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do nearly flawlessly. This game really is fascinating, and there is nothing else out, that I am aware of, that even comes close to providing this type of experience in a single board game. Millennium Blades truly captures the essence of what makes collectible card games so much fun to buy, sell, trade, and play while still feeling wholly unique.
Get this game if:
You have ever enjoyed playing CCGs, especially tournament play.
You love deep, tense, complex, tactical strategy games with a strong economic component.
You like games that place nearly all emphasis on player skill.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike complexity.
You prefer cooperative games.
The copy of Millennium Blades used for this review was provided by Level 99 Games.