Mutants – Veteran of a thousand psychic wars

I – Introduction

The complete collection as of now.

Fact sheet
Author: Sen-Foong LimJessey Wright
Publisher: Lucky Duck Games
Illustrations: Mateusz KomadaKatarzyna Kosobucka
Year published: 2019
Player count: 1-4 players
Recommended player count: 2-3 players
Length: 30-60 minutes
Set-up and teardown time: fast, 5 minutes
Mechanisms: draft, deckbuilding, hand management
Sleeve size: 57x89mm (Mayday Chimera penny sleeves are a good fit)
Copy obtained through: Kickstarter

In the 24th century, humans have developped psychic powers that let them control mutated abominations they use to fight in arenas. As one such psy-captain, take control of a team of mutants, breed them into more powerful mutants, unleash devastating attacks on your opponents, and crush the competition!

This review was written after 40 plays including all expansions, played solo and with up to three players.

II – A quick rules summary

To play a game of Mutants, each player should select six different advanced mutants, two copies each, to build their gene pool, either through the four preconstructed decks, through drafting, or through deck construction. They then receive two copies of each starter mutant, take one of each in their hand and shuffle the other copy in their deck.

A sample of cards and tokens.

Each turn, the player checks to see if they crush the competition. They do if their power token is at the top of the power track (they have Fury) and at least one other player is in one of the last three slots (they have Dread). If they do, they earn a number of victory points determined by the current round.
If they have a mutant in their active slot, they then push it to the right or the left of their board, forcing a mutant in this slot to leave their board, activating its leave effect before placing it in their discard pile.
The player then take one of the three following actions.
Play: the player selects a mutant from their hand and places it in their active slot, activating its deploy effect.
Breed: the player selects one of the three visible advanced mutants above their mat and discards two cards with matching genes from their hand, then place the mutant in their active slot, activating its deploy effect.
Incubate: the player selects one of the three visible advanced mutants above their mat, discards any card from their hand, then places the mutant in their incubator. They cannot do this if there already is a mutant in their incubator.

When no player has any card left in hand, the round ends. The player in the lead on the power track scores a number of points determined by the current round. With three and four player, all other players except for the very last one on the power track then score a smaller number of points, also determined by the current round.

Each player then puts the mutant in their incubator on top of their deck and draws six cards.
If at any time they must draw a card and their deck is empty, they freeze – remove – a card from their discars and place in their freezer, to be scored at the end of the game, shuffle their discard, use it to form a new deck, then resume their draw.

After five rounds, each player adds the value of all the Mutants in their freezer to their total on the score track. The player with the most points wins the game.

When playing solo, the player constructs a deck to fight against one of two bosses (five with expansions). The game plays the same with the exception that the boss begins with a health total the player depletes by gaining victory points. If they do not manage to reduce the boss’s health to zero by the end of the fifth round, they lose. If they do, they win the game.

III – A measure of Mutants

Pros:
Mutants plays fast but fully delivers! Quick to setup and with a small enough amount of actions to resolve per turn, the game can be played in half an hour by one or two experienced players. Yet every moment, even before the actual arena fight, is tense and full of sprawling decisions, making each game feel very nervous.
Mutants is unique! The game’s approach to pool/deckbuilding is very original, getting rid of the economy inherent to the genre and replacing it with hand management and a heavy emphasis on timing. Access to advanced mutants is entirely asymetrical past the pregame construction or draft, calling for replayability and experimentation.
Mutants adapts to player counts! The game feels really different solo, two players or three players, with different stakes and interactions, and a higher or lower emphasis on attack and defense, making each mode feel unique, and forcing the player to reevaluate the worth of each card.

Cons:
Mutants has divisive graphic design! The game is colorful with a coherent palette, but the character design will not please everyone, and the card frames can feel a little amateur at firt, with a lot of information to digest. Ultimately, said frames make a lot of sense and are very easily read, notably in solo mode, but the art will remain a matter of taste.
Mutants has direct interaction! These are never gratuitous, “take that” moments, as they often require giving up an option for an attack, only trigger under certain conditions, or are used as preemptive strikes, but some factions in the game encourage attacks and can create situations where the player sees their abilities cancelled or their effects diminished, which won’t please everyone.
Mutants has little replay-value for the solo gamer! While there is a lot of content in the base game, only two bosses will let the player face them, opening to very little replay-value, as the incentive to face a boss that has already been beaten is low, especially when the official rules only allow deck construction and not drafting, which would encourage the player to try different combinations. Expansions fix this issue by providing with three additional boss, but of course add to the entry price.

IV – The wall of text (a.k.a. the Comboteur Fou’s opinion)

Introduction

Releasing a deckbuilding game in an oversaturated market takes confidence. And while this is not Lucky Duck Games‘s first attempt at the genre, as they have already published the fantastic Vikings Gone Wild, it takes something truly special to make a game stand out among the plethora of games on offer these days. Worker placement, no-shuffling, movement points, Legacy aspect… Mutants has none of these. What it offers, is pre-game drafting and asymetrical markets. Is it enough?

Mighty Morphing Power Builder

Mutants‘ approach to deckbuilding is certainly a novel one. By letting the players build their own gene pool, the game lets them decide before the game begins the direction they want to follow to gain victory ponts, and the means they will use to do so. The limitation to six cards, two copies each, can seem restrictive at first, but gives the game a focus on the cards other games of the genre lack by diluting good cards in a deck of suboptimal ones, and forces the player to consider the effects of each of the cards they draft, all the while creating enough randomness, through the division of the pool in three random stacks, that each game won’t be a matter of simply playing the same sequence over and over. Key cards sometimes won’t show until the late game and the player will be left having to adapt their gameplay to that fact, sometimes being punished for relying too much on a single trick. The initial mulligan, which lets the player place the top card of one or all of their gene stacks at the bottom of their stack and reveal the next card, is a good way to help the very first turns feel more productive and further engages the player into making difficult decisions even before turn 1 began.
Because each player begins with one copy of each base mutant in hand, they have full access to each and every single advanced mutant in the game from their very first turn, and will never be forced to dump a particularly bad hand into a subpar, always available card that will ultimately do more harm than good, like they would in other games. Moreover, each basic card is powerful enough on its own and can be played for its own effect at any moment in the game without feeling like a lesser choice. In fact, the starter cards will often be relevant during the endgame and be desirable picks for the player to play when advanced mutants can be more situational; even more so when it is often beneficial to freeze advanced mutants than to keep them in the deck, as they then provide victory points at the end of the game, when basic mutants only provide a single point.
The fact that the game has no economy, and therefore does no rely on the usual “buy cards to buy more powerful cards that can buy more expensive cards” completely changes the game’s pace, as each card can easily be bought, either directly at the cost of two semi-specific cards, or in a delayed fashion at the cost of just about any card. Thus, rather than trying to think about the nth shuffle when the card might prove useful, or denying the opponent a card by hate-drafting it, purchasing a mutant becomes a matter of timing and reacting to the opponent’s actions and maximizing one’s ability to benefit from given abilities. It would for instance be risky to deploy an Android when the card is the centerpiece of the deck, without having a mutant with a block ability to protect it from an attack.
This change is nicely balanced by the fact that, while a strategy is much stronger if one heavily invests in a single color, doing so will slow the deck down as the player will likely only be able to breed into a mutant once or twice per turn, if they have incubated on the previous turn, and even then they would have to discard their newly obtained card to breed into the new one. This pace moreover forces the player to balance priorities between upgrading their deck and establishing board control. Each time they breed, the player effectively loses a turn for the current round, giving their opponents more opportunities to play unanswered threats and to raise their power and score points for the round. Even incubating represents a tempo loss as it means a turn without a deploy ability and a subsequent turn without a leave ability trigger.

Rust in Peace

Timing is everything in Mutants, and culling is one of the many ways this prevalence shows itself. While culling starter cards in regular deckbuilders is almost always desirable, it is not necessarily so here. Culling, called freezing here, is compulsory everytime the player depletes their deck and need to interact with it, and mutants in the freezer are worth points at the end of the game. But the thing is, starter cards are only worth 1 point when advanced mutants are worth between 2 to a potential whopping 12+ for those with variable values. Coupled with the fact that discarding advanced mutants to breed or incubate is a waste of potential, and that basic ones can provide with powerful abilities that the player won’t otherwise have access to if they did not draft them, it becomes much more appealing for the player to freeze high value mutants or, in the case of variable ones, mutants bearing two genes of the same type, to maximize their points. Doing so of course weakens the deck, especially if freezing the centerpiece. But freezing is an important part of the game and one that can bring 20 to 30 points by itself, which is enormous. Focusing heavily on it can become an issue, though, as if a player freezes too many cards, they can put themselves in a situation where they begin a round with less than six cards in hand, and will therefore lose tempo on their opponents. A situation that definitely threatens and which I experienced firsthand, naturally balancing the power curve in yet another, highly ingenious way.
Mutants may technically be a deckbuilding game, in that each player has their own personal deck from which they draw cards and in which they add cards they can play by cycling through, but in effect, it plays nothing like one, and expecting it to can only lead to disappointment since, in the end, it plays more like a revolving tableau-builder, with a highly dynamic hand and, to a lesser extent, resource management aspect built in.

Burning for you

The main source of interaction in the game is the red gene color, whose main ability consists in attacking opponents, which is symbolized on the card by a bloodied sword. These attacks rarely target a single opponent or mutant, instead targetting “each opponent”, which both makes the attack more powerful in multiplayer games and reduce the feeling of being personally attacked or targetted, sometimes repeatedly so, by an opponent.
Their consequences are rarely long-lasting unless the attacked player put themselves in a situation they cannot recover from, but they do create damaging situations and major tempo losses. Most attacks will knock a given mutant down which, as mentioned previously, will make a turn worse for a player. Other effects can make a player lose power, which could prevent them from crushing others if they had Fury, or could prevent them from winning the round, but could also allow a player to crush their opponent if they manage to stay on top for a whole round, a feat that will take a lot more work with three or four players, but could be devastating if the player managed to be the last one standing for the round with a couple of turns left on their own. One of the most interesting attacks is one that forces a player to shuffle their discard pile back in their deck, as it denies them their free freeze for depleting their deck, and thus both endgame victory points and the thinning of their deck but, depending on what is in their discard at that time, can also force them to go throught their weaker cards for another cycle, which could last two to three rounds if they did not get cycling abilities, potentially making this ability the nastiest and most damaging one in the game in the long term, while most of the others cause short to mid-term inconveniences and allow welcome control over players taking off.
Interestingly, blocking, the main ability of the purple faction, prevents any kind of attack from resolving against the player controlling it, instead of just those that knock mutants down. It thus becomes interesting to play a couple of mutants with these abilities to “scare” the attacking player and force them to delay deploy abilities triggering attacks, while playing one when a leave ability is in play will punish the attacking player altogether. Succubus, the starter purple card, is somehow counterintuitive in that regard as she is much more valuable upon leaving than blocking, netting three power rather than one, but the damage potential of some attacks is well worth the loss.
Packing some attacks is a great way to prevent a player from skyrocketting throught points unanswered, and knocking key cards that would otherwise remain in play unanswered from turn one on, such as the aformentioned Android or the excellent Pit Lord (especially when combined with a mutant such as Android) can quickly become a necessity to stand any chance at all. Having more than one is also a good way to manoeuver through potential blockers. It is a testament to the creative genius behind the game that, even within the sole, somewhat limited red/attack faction, several strategies are available.
Outside of these two colors, factions offer no direct or indirect interaction. Yet the game never feels like multiplayer soliaire, and the player will always have to be on their toes and pay attention the what their opponents are doing and at their position on the leading track if they want to minimize their benefits from crushing the competition, being the only player to play cards for a couple of round, or simply taking off on the power track and bringing every opponent down; actions they can counterbalance by, if needed, playing some power-gaining mutants to avoid a crush or losing the round, or by delaying breeding into a mutant they want so they can react to the last cards their opponents played, forcing them to constantly be on the lookout and reassess their priorities, making Mutants an eminently indirectly interactive and reactive game of mostly solitary gameplay. An interesting achievement.

Poison, the Knife or the Noose

Mutants offers a customizable experience by letting players decide the amount of control they want pregame, letting them play with either four preconstructed decks, draft their deck from a limited pool, or construct it from the whole pool. Or, while it’s not written in the rule, embrace their chaotic desires and simply deal each player six, or even twelve, one copy each, random advanced mutants. This lets them determine how long the pregame building will take. Some will enjoy the “plug and play” aspect of preconstructed decks, which will also help new players in the game, while others will prefer the indirect interactions provided by drafting and others still the fine-tuning of constructing a deck.

The game can easily be customized through the a good amount of optional modules.

The pre-built decks are a neat introduction to the game and help show how different paths are completely viable while remaining simple enough to understand and enjoy. Of the four preconstructed decks, the ones built around cycling and freezing were the most enjoyable to me and have heavily influenced the way I drafted decks for my first plays, looking mostly for green, orange, and variable freeze value cards. The one revolving around freely acquiring from the gene pool failed to gain my interest, which is also true of the brown faction which, if I may not yet judge its power level due to avoiding it altogether, is the least interesting to me. I tend to get rid of their starter card as soon as possible as, while it has its use in “monocolored” decks, I find it too slow and situational, and such is the case of “two-steps” mutants that play with the incubated card or the gene pool. There are a couple of mutants that I consider to be duds and would dislike having to draft as they have marginal uses only, and this includes the one that gains power according to the number of cards left in the player’s hand when it leaves. While the potential gain can certainly turn things in its controller’s favor, its use is too narrow and it will consistently fail to rebalance the power state when it actually matters the most: at the end of the round, when hands are empty or close to and its efficiency is greatly reduced or nullified altogether, when one wishes they could climb the power ladder back up and score the round’s points. Getting a good headstart early in the round is of course not to be neglected, and the opportunity to pressure opponents to suboptimally play cards when they did not intend to under the threat of offering free crushes is an interesting perspective, but not one that I would favor over the vast majority of effects I could have otherwise played.
But ending up with duds or trying to avoid them is what contributes to making drafts enjoyable to any game and Mutants is no exception. Luckily, no card is truly bad in Mutants, their power level is mostly a question of timing and synergy. It may be painful to end up with an undesired card as if it shows in the gene pool it will block access to the cards behind it until bred into or incubated, but this is also where the game’s tight balance shows: with three stacks and six different cards present in two copies in their gene pool the player can never be stuck with an unwanted card unless they effectively deplete the four cards that make their third stack when the other two show the two copies of the undesired one. And since they are allowed one mulligan before the game, the odds are that if the undesired card is revealed the player has already had access to a card they did want prior to that. At any rate, incubating or breeding into the card will free up a breeding pool slot. Once in hand, the card can easily be discarded with a cycling effect or as fodder for the breeding and incubating actions. When deployed it will simply live its life and provide effects until it leaves, at which point it becomes a target for freezing effects, meaning that the player will rarely get to suffer from an undesired card clogging their deck for long. There are cards which will have negative effects for their owner when deployed or leaving, but these effects are usually balanced with a strong leave/deploy effect and high freeze value. Such effects are usually an immediate power loss.
Aside from boss effects in solo, the game doesn’t include forced discard, which would effectively reduce the amount of actions for the discarding player, or negative cards to include in opponent’s decks which, while it does open design space for potential expansions, is also welcome as it limits the potential for frustration found in games that feature them.

The Solo mode is where deck construction will make the most sense. It is more difficult to opt for that mode in multiplayer since, unless each player owns a copy of the game, the pool will be shared and the construction would then technically amount to drafting a card color mechanism that no other player could use. The potential is definitely there though, and being able to develop a pre-game, fine-tuned strategy is exciting. Many cards can support one another and having no knowledge of what the opponents can bring to the table is exciting. If the game was popular enough, seeing a tournament scene for it would be viable and quite interesting to follow. With expansions there are enough mutants for deep variety and surprising strategies, when psy-captains, orbs, buildings and heroic mutants allow for different game formats, providing enough options for a lively metagame.

Killed by Death

Mutants is a game that will play differently depending on player counts. While the solo mode is deserving of a paragraph of its own, two players to four players modes are really more similar. The main difference would be the two players mode, not because there is more interaction or attacks targetting a single player — in fact, there will be less and the need to rely on blocking abilities will be lesser — but because, as opposed to three and four players where only the last player on the power scale won’t score, only the player in lead will score at the end of the round. This makes it more difficult to grab a couple of extra points by sneaking to second or third place at the end of the round and may create higher points differences between players. On the other hand, because only one other player is applying pressure and potentially gaining power while in Fury, and because only one turn will happen in-between each turns of a given player, keeping Fury and crushing the opponent — who still gets as much time to react as they do in higher player counts — becomes that much easier, dynamically creating a more pseudo cutthroat environment and opportunities to score the points otherwise denied by the higher count. As mentioned previously, attack cards aren’t affected by the player count as they all target all opponents, but block cards are more likely to be sollicitated the more player there are as when a maximum of two attacks can trigger in-between two turns for a given player, up to six can happen with four, meaning the potential for devastation is that much higher and blocking abilities that much more desirable.
Of course it also means that the more players there are, the more chaotic the game becomes, and the least likely it will be for the player to achieve their goal. The two players game is a nice, short, fast-paced, somewhat confrontational game that, along with the solo mode, emulates a combat of a team of gladiators the best, when other player counts rely more on rising opportunities and tentative containment of threats where loads of undefended attacks could potentially lead to a frustrating experience that could as well be blamed on suboptimal pre-game choices and the aggressivity of the other players. Yet attack cards rarely feel unfair as many knock-down abilities rely on conditions to trigger the knock-down, such as an opponent dominating the player, or give opponents the choice of where to position their mutant or which one they want to k.o. Those that offer an unconditionanal k.o. are a welcome and necessary way to control otherwise too powerful mutants such as Pit Lord.
Due to the fact that players only have one action per turn, the downtime between two turns is usually relatively short, but can become longer if a player has to trigger several effects, such as a leave effect, an “always in play” effect, a transform effect that would force them to reshuffle their deck (and therefore freeze a mutant from their discard pile) and then a deploy effect. Most of the deploy/leave/passive effects are self-explanatory and do not ask the player to make a choice, so resolving them will be fast and easy, but, while I personally find that choices are not too difficult to make, it would be possible for a player to agonize over which mutant to play, which one to breed into or incubate, and which mutant to discard to achieve that. Which way to slide their active mutant could also make people think for a bit. Luckily there aren’t that many cards into play and options to choose from that their reflection would take too long for most players, even having to wait through three times that. It is possible to think of one’s turn during the turn of others but the board state is highly likely to change before the turn comes back and the player may want to change their plan and adapt to the new situation, which in itself is pleasant.

Injustice for all

The game contains two copies of each card in every possible gene combination, up to double-genes of the same color and combinations where the main gene becomes the secondary gene. Each mutant conveniently has a copy with a M in the lower right corner to sort one copy for the draft deck and one to find after the draft to complete the deck. Mutants that are part of a preconstruted deck are also marked with the deck’s icon in the lower left corner, which is a nice touch and greatly helps swift sorting.
Even when they feature the same gene twice, players must discard two cards, one of which at least features said gene, to breed into it. Even when they discard an advanced mutant featuring both the genes of the card they breed into, players must discard a second card to do so. As opposed to breeding, which immediately deploys the card, therefore triggering its deploy effect, incubated cards, which let the player discard only a single card without having to care for its gene, are not becoming part of the deck until the following round, which essentially makes incubating a much slower way to acquire cards, especially considering only one mutant can be in the incubator at a given time, but also a dead move on the last round of the game, since cards in the deck are not worth any point at the end of the game. There of course are effects that let the player freeze or manipulate a card from their incubator but these are rare and need to be drafted first.
Most of the factions are centered around one base mechanism, also present on their starter card, and which could be summarized as such:

  • Red: attacking
  • Purple: blocking and transforming
  • Green: freezing
  • Orange: cycling
  • Blue: copying abilities
  • Brown: breeding and incubating.

Each faction has a double-gene mutant bearing the same gene twice and which has no deploy ability but instead has a passive ability that lets the player take fully advantage of the faction’s ability, most of the time by giving the player +2 power each time the ability is triggered, on top of the actual ability. This would, for instance, in the case of Android, give +2 power each time the player cycles cards. These abilities can be extremely powerful as they could trigger up to twice per round for a total of +4 power just for having the card in play. They allow some strategies to become much more viable and powerful when they would otherwise provide minimal immediate benefit and would potentially not change the state of the power balance. But they come at a high indirect cost since playing them gives no immediate benefit and losing them represents a high power and tempo loss as the player will then need to either breed into them again, or wait until they draw them again to benefit from their effect once again, meanwhile deploying them with no benefit for another time, and being threatened from losing them another time, indirectly forcing them into protective measures if their deck is centered around them. Should they succesfully protect them, the player will probably want to keep them in play as long as possible, which means that one of their three slots will be occupied, leaving them a single mutant per turn they can actually choose to make leave, therefore drastically reducing their options. The effect is worth the price though, especially in solo mode when attacks are easier to predict, control, and when power swings are constant and sometimes extreme.
The Pit Lord and Northern Terror are nice variations as the latter triggers on any attack, not just those caused by its owner, making it potentially trigger off-turn and be much more powerful the more players there are in the game, when Pit Lord allows the player to fully control what they play and obtain leave effects the turn they deploy the mutant, at the cost of -1 power per activation (and thus per turn). Because forcing the mutant to leave frees the active slot, it means that as long as it is activated, the left and right mutants will never leave, which will allow the player the rare opportunity of having two passive abilities in play. A risky move but one that gives the player the opportunity to benefit from block mutants’ leave abilities more easily, when controlling threats with attacking mutants, if lucky, should be possible, turning the deck into a control/combo nigh undefeatable abomination.
In the base game, the other cards all have a deploy and a leave ability that are reminiscent of their genes, with the exception of the block and transform mutants which don’t have an actual deploy one as these are replaced with the generic transform text, meaning the mutant immediately leaves and is replaced by another mutant that then triggers its deploy ability, if applicable; or a specficic block text that has no effect until triggered. Block effects can cause a mutant to immediately leave, to be knocked-down, or neither as some very powerful block abilities can be triggered multiple times. Blocking an attack is not an option and, when eligible, a blocker must block an attack if said attack would affect its controller (which is not always the case if they do not fulfill the conditions that would cause them to be attacked, such as dominating the attacker), but if they have more than one blocker in play, the player can choose which one will defend. This inability to opt out of defending lets the attacking player trigger an attack they are not relying upon to get rid of the blocker before resolving a bigger attack, should they have the option, proving once more how much control and interaction there is in the game and how finely the balance was tuned.
Freezing has been adressed above.
As in many other games, the ability to copy an ability is only as good as the ability it copies. What is interesting with it is the variety of sources it can target, although each mutant is restricted to a single one. Some can target a card in play, others make the player discard a card from their deck and copy it, which can lead to whiffs or nasty surprises if the player discards a block or passive ability, or negative power points, but helps towards cycling and thus freezing. An ability allows copying from the gene pool, which is extremely powerful in the early game and gets weaker as the pool diminishes, meaning that that mutant may be a prime freezing target. Interestingly, no mutant among the whole collection allows copying from an opponent. In fact, seldom are the cards, if any, that care for the opponent’s areas in any way, focusing solely on the power board, which is a surprising design choice as it could make for some interesting attack abilities on a red/blue card.
Cycling is one of the most satisying things to do in the game. It may not win any point by itself, but getting closer to playing powerful cards again, gaining more opportunities to freeze through depleting the deck, and filtering out suboptimal cards all contribute to a well-oiled machine. The increased draw capacity leads to a more honed deck. Cycling is sort of a mix of everything the game has to offer, but in a less efficient way. It allows freezing, if in a less efficient way. Like copying, it is only as good as the cards it draws into and is as bad as the cards it forces the player to discard. But it becomes more efficient as it draws other cycling cards, draws into answers the player actually needs against current threats, draws into needed genes to breed, etc. all the while making access to key cards faster. But since the player’s hand shrinks as the round advances, cycling consistently becomes weaker, since no card in the game lets the player draw additional cards without forcing them to discard as many cards as part of its effect. Which makes sense since the number of cards in hand is the number of actions the player gets per turn. So to put it another way : there is no way for the player to gain additional actions in Mutants.
Transform is a complex and rather random ability which triggers an additionnal deploy/leave ability upon resolving and can throw the deck’s pace off balance by forcing reshuffles early, freezing many cards or discarding cards from the deck to do both at the same time. It is the most unpredictable and random ability in the game, and the most difficult one to master.
Of the regular, non-block or transform mutants, it seems the primary gene determines the deploy ability while the secondary gene does the leave ability when the latter isn’t a simple unconditionnal power gain. Mutants from the expansions have more adventurous abilities that blur the lines between their factions by mixing abilities from both.

Solo Mode

As opposed to most competitive games on the current market, Mutants doesn’t offer an automated opponent that automatically grabs points and resources without having to manage resources, but completely turns the game on its head by turning a race for points into a tense boss fight where victory points become health points the player has to reduce before the end of the fifth round to win. And it does so in a very ingenious way, all the while not changing much to how the game works, adding only a couple of rules to the multiplayer ones, therefore adding little in the way of learning and remembering while functioning the same way for the most part.

A relatively small footprint and a win.

There is a lot to like in the solo approach to the game, starting with the fct that there are different enemies to face. Although the base game only comes with two, which is not much and not enough to warrant purchasing the game solely for solo, expansions bring the total up to five, a more comfortable total to justify the investment. Each of these bosses manages to feel very different from one another, with Singularity Wizard bing the most simple and straightforward and a good way for the solo player to train, both in terms of game pool construction pre-game and hand management during the game. With average stats and card effects, the wizard encourages the player to cover a wide range of effects to shatter its weaknesses – one of the most imaginative aspects of the solo mode – and prevent him from benefitting from their devastating effects. Doing so will require dedication from the player during the pre-game pool construction, as it will be hard to shatter them with base mutants only.
As alluded to above, weaknesses are one of the most fascinating, self-balancing aspects of the boss’s design, in an already fascinating and innovative game. Serving as a temporary relief for the player as they do not have any effect upon entering play, they nonetheless apply a high amount of pressure upon them as their leave effects are usually much more devastating than the regular boss card. Because they can reduce the boss’s health when shattered and gain the player time as doing so also immediately removes them from play, it will be important for the player to meet their requirements as fast as possible, while they remain in play — which could last from a single turn to five or ten turns depending on where the AI pushes next. Those requirements could be difficult to achieve and usually will require some setting up, as the player may need to gain a certain amount of power in a single turn, gain power when in Fury, or put the boss in the Dread zone, cycle through a given number of cards, freeze an advanced mutant, or knock a specific card down. Setting up which may prove difficult if the player is suffering from an attack onslaught such as those the wolf side of Jack Ice tends to unleash.
And while shattering weaknesses is a good thing, it is not without consequences. As cards get removed from the boss’s deck and it gets thinner, moments of respite become rarer as the boss cycles into cards with enter and leave effects more frequently, meaning that, as the player’s strength grows throughout the game, so does the boss, even though no card gets added to their deck. In that regard, the balancing act in solo Mutants is truly remarquable and games always feel tense as the player knows that shattering a weakness early will make things more difficult for them in subsequent turns, but not doing so can also cause serious damage, as the damage it gains them is also much neeeded, since defeating the boss through freezing and end-of-round damage alone will prove difficult. Crushing the boss for some in-round damage is often possible but doing so will require a lot of work on the player’s side. When weaknesses are still entering play, the tempo gain of shattering them will leave the player more room to do so, but will net only a few points, while during the last two rounds of the game, if most weaknesses were removed, the boss will benefit from a highly efficient, thin deck which will leave little room to breathe for its opponent, making it not only hard for them to crush the boss, but likely that the boss will instead crush them and heal enough hp that winning suddenly grows out of range.
Interestingly, bosses from expansions play around weaknesses in a very inspired way, making them more interesting that the, in comparison, mildly vanilla ones found in the base box. While Glubber will become stronger and less predictable as his weaknesses are shattered and replaced with new cards granting him new powerful abilities inspired by playable mutants. Zombie Horde will be quite unharmful during the first rounds, when all its cards have weaknesses with variable values and will tempt the player to be greedy and shatter them for as many points as possible, before turning into a card-spitting machine with little scoring opportunity. Finally, Heimdall will clog the player’s deck with weak edict cards that can trigger his weaknesses and offer some payoff for the player, should they happen to keep their edict cards and time them right.
Because the boss always goes first and only takes a turn if the player has taken one after that, it is entirely possible for the player to control how many times the boss plays and to deny them scoring opportunites. There is no use playing a card giving power if doing so does not grant the player victory points during the last turn of a round, and breeding when in the lead and the next boss’s leave ability makes him win the round instead could deny him said victory. Just like in the multiplayer mode, each turn in Mutants‘s solo mode offers an agonizing range of options where timing is as important as the card played. Knowing half of what the enemy is going to play gives the player a good amount of control over what they are going to play, thanks to the smart way the next push is implemented on each card back, indicating which boss card is going to leave next. It then becomes relatively easy to know when to play a block ability to protect a key card from an attack or where to push it on one’s own board.
Yet randomness in the solo mode is more prevalent than in the multiplayer game, and while the player may be subject to it in either modes, their opponent can suffer from a surge of bad luck or a poorly managed deck in multiplayer, when it won’t happen to the boss in Solo mode. The result is that a bad hand, especially in the late game where things tend to accelerate and the player is trying to either crush their opponent or avoid being crushed by a deck that has been made highly efficient due to the removed weaknesses, can become extraordinarily punishing and reduce any amount of effort to dust, with no chance to recover if none of the cards let them cycle and gain access to better cards or obtain the last needed points through freezing. While this can often be dealt with in multiplayer, by slowing the opponent down through attacks and timely power gains, in Solo mode, when combined with an exceptional draw from the boss, it can sometimes feel like the player is merely trying to lessen blows and defend against attacks coming for every side, all the while achieving nothing but repeatedly entering and trying to exit the Dread zone. A bad draw from one or all of the sources of randomness (breeding pool, player deck, boss deck) can turn the tide so much that the same game will sometimes result in almost seamless victory and sometimes in crushing defeat. Due to the short duration of the game this may not be seen as a problem for most, and games that feel hopeless, with the exception of Heimdall fights, are rare enough that the player will feel involved all throughout. The randomness often really kicks in in round 5, although it isn’t rare that the player is setting up to exploit a weakness and ends up being unable to because the boss draws a card that counters their efforts, either by knocking a mutant down or by blocking attacks, which reminds of the multiplayer interactions but can also be slightly frutrating. Thanks to the very clever way the player knows in advance which boss card is sliding out, they have more knowledge of which leave abilities will trigger than they would against an actual opponent, though.
The major drawback to, in my opinion, one of the most innovative solo modes, comes from the fact that the player needs to build their gene pool before the game, which could be daunting for a new player or against a new boss, as there are a lot of cards in the game, especially with all expansions, and only one doesn’t work in solo mode. To better emulate the enjoyement from the multiplayer pre-game draft, I have enjoyed a self-made variant consisting of drawing five advanced mutants, keeping two, and repeating the operation two additional times, thus rapidly building a different deck each time, to moderate success. Doing so greatly improves the replayability as the player will end up trying new mutants they would otherwise not have used, pursue new strategies they may not have thought about, and will be forced to adapt to both their deck and the boss. When constructing, I enjoy focusing on a single color and main strategy, such as cycling, and trying to keep my centerpiece mutant in play, Android for instance. But, as alluded to earlier in this review, doing so is risky, as all the cards will require the same gene, limiting one’s ability to breed, while not drawing or losing the centerpiece will be devastating.

Gluttons for punishment

Mutants as competitive game offers a pretty high replay-value considering the amount of mutants in the base game, how each draft will make decks feel different and unique, and how different each player count will naturally feel. This gives players a lot of different combinations to try at different player counts and will let them gauge priorities in drafts for practically limitless amounts of plays.
For solo players’s added replayability, the rulebook challenges the player to tackle the boss again with additional health, or without using genes of a given color, or a combination thereof, which is appreciated as challenges and building restrictions are always welcome for stirring creativity.
While the base box alone offers an incredible amount of content for multiplayer, the solo-only player should invest in the two main expansions to get real mileage out of the game. Not being aware of that can only lead to disappointment and it would be a shame to avoid or miss such an innovative game for this reason alone. Releasing new bosses in the form of booster packs would be a great way to provide additional replay-value for the solo player at a lower cost.

A complete collection will give more challenging opponents to face.

Luckily for both the solo player and for the multiplayer one, expansions do not just come with one or two bosses, but also with a large amount of new mutants, as well as new optional play mode (that are sadly not compatible with the solo mode). One even comes with a replacement set for the starter cards that promises to shake the game’s pace from the first turn through.
Different mutants don’t necessarily interact with one another directly but, due to only having six different cards in the gene pool, each one has a huge impact on the deck’s flow and strategy, which becomes evident when swapping one for another after a defeat against a boss, for instance. Trying out different mutants combinations does therefore give a good incentive to play again to those who enjoy getting a different feel from their cards through repeated plays. One can imagine the appeal of building nonsensical combo decks that dump their whole deck in the discard pile each turn by relying on chained transform, cycling and discarding abilities, or razing the whole board through attacks every turn. Those who consider that having won against the game is enough and does not warrant replays will have a good time going through a quality game but, even with the expansions, won’t find much replayability. Those who enjoy attempting a challenge again with slight modifications will find a good amount of replay-value and opportunities to impose self-restrictions to challenge themselves, if through guild challenges and house rules.

Bonus: an ode to Heimdall

Heimdall is a difficult and resilient opponent. Being 50hp strong he’s already one of the most enduring bosses in the game, and the fact that he barely has any weakness to make up for it — 4 if memory serves — and that they only remove 2hp each from his total doesn’t make winning any easier. This means the player must rely on other sources to damage him, especially given that there are only so many points that can be obtained from potentially winning rounds.
This forces players to rely on freezing and crushing, both of which will be problematic due to Heimdall‘s particularities. Coming with a very thin deck of fifteen cards, he will cycle through them often. His other cards are the main issue, as these, named edicts, are to be placed on the draw pile of the player, as a leave effect of two of his ongoings, or at the end of each round, after the player draws their hand of six. Edicts are weak cards, weaker than starting mutants, which will considerably slow the player in many ways:

  • Playing them will make them lag behind. Their effects, deploy or leave, are rather weak, some are situational and will do nothing more often than not. They bear no gene and so cannot be used to breed. They can, however, and should, be discarded to incubate or to cycle through cards, but they will still be back to clog the player’s hand in future rounds.
  • Drawing them will slow the deck. A hand with three edicts isn’t rare and isn’t good. Since they end up on the top of the player deck when obtained, rather than in their discard pile, they effectively neutralize the first effect that would interact with the draw pile each round (most often: cycling, but also transform).
  • Freezing them will waste freeze triggers. Since they are worth zero point when frozen there is no incentive to destroy the edicts, other than having them gone from the deck, which will waste a lot of freeze effects for decks that aren’t centered around that very strategy. And given the power swings and high life totals, freezing does feel like it should be a vital part of any Heimdall fight.
  • The fun factor disappears. What makes Mutants fun is the power growth of the deck and the difficulty of knowing when to play effects and when to remove powerful cards from it for points. Drawing a lot of advanced mutants is as satisfying and exciting an experience as in many other deckbuilding games. Drawing a hand full of edicts without having any way to get rid of them, on the other hand, makes for a dull draw and frustrating experience, as they sap any kind of strategy or interaction between cards the player might have tried to build, negate draws and become the focus of freeze effects that should strategically be used to improve the deck or build up much needed damage.

Edicts do synergize with one another, but even then they do not generate powerful effects. It is possible to have a combination of them give a whopping +4 power upon deploying one, but this remains seldom. To really exploit them, the player would need to have all eight of them available in quick succession, and then they would still be unable to breed, to score on freezing them, to benefit from their other mutants’ synergies, all of which is told without even addressing Heimdall‘s other, rather devastating effects and the need to constantly answer his non-edict moves.
Aside from edicts, Heimdall has a versatile panoply of effects that will force the player to cover all grounds and will almost constantly push him out of the Dread zone thanks to his recurring +3 power gains, making him very difficult to crush, let alone consistently. Attacking him to prevent attacks or obtaining edicts, granted through two otherwise very annoying ongoing effects, can be made completely impossible by one of his cards that simply stays in play upon blocking, never leaving play until pushed out naturally, which could take several turns, making the red faction unreliable. The fact that these ongoings do not grant edicts through attacks means the player cannot block the effect if they cannot knock the card down. They will therefore need to be lucky to do so, and failing to can easily slow them down to defeat, both from the gained edict and the important power swings gained by the ongoing effect. Relying on edict synergy is made even more difficult by the fact that the boss unleashes many attacks targetting the left and right slots, but also the player’s position on the power track — another way for him to prevent crushes made agonizingly hard to obtain already by a combination of low power gains from deck pollution and high swings from the boss’s frequent +3 power gains.
The complete package makes this boss punishing and frustrating to fight against, as it bashes the player in so many ways that it simply makes them feel powerless, not allowing them to rely on their deck, their cards in play, or their ability to consistently gain power and crush or freeze good cards for points, which in turn makes Heimdall the least enjoyable boss of the game to this reviewer, not just because it’s hard, but because it doesn’t let the player play the game. Games where bad cards are inserted in finely-tuned decks and engines aren’t well regarded in this household, with the exception of weakness cards in Arkham Horror: the card game because of their creativity and thematic appeal, and corruption cards in Aeon’s End because of how finely the game is tuned and the fact that their rewards are actually interesting, making them feel punishing but not frustrating.

Solo mode conclusion

The solo mode, whether the player will enjoy it or not, remains a reference in terms of design and will be a metric against which further competitive games’ solo modes will be compared in the future, at least for this reviewer, given how it manages to turn the game into a fully-fleshed one all the while introducing a minimal amount of changes and managing to still feel very similar to the original game.

Theme, artwork, and components

Theme

Mutants is not a thematic or storytelling game, and at no point does the player feel like they’re in an arena, psyching orders to a team of Mutants fighting other teams of Mutants. Without knowing the source material, breeding, incubating and freezing do not make much thematic sense out of context either and is not explained in the rules. The goal of Mutants clearly is not to stress its theme and the focus was entirely on the fresh and innovative mechanisms.
Many of the Mutants are pop-culture cheeky references, amusingly done, easily recognizable if the player knows them They include references to Chuck Norris, Nyarlathotep, Chun-Li, Master Yoda, Daft Punk, and so on. The Mutant’s ability does not necessarily pay homage to the depicted character, and are more tributary to its faction or color(s) than its appearance or source.

Artwork

The graphic design first feels amateurish, which is surprising coming from Lucky Duck Games, who usually never fail to impress in that regard. Bleak and gaudy at the same time, it seems to be going all over the place and there is a feeling of disconnect between the different icons and the artwork. After getting used to it, though, the design makes the game easy to grasp at a single glance, and becomes really instinctive. In that regard, it can thus be considered a success.
The player mats in particular are well done, and truly help organize the play area, which in this game matters a lot. It would have been appreciated if they were larger and could accomodate the gene pool, draw deck, incubator and freezer, which are currently placed outside of the mat, and the box is probably large enough to welcome them. While not offered in the retail version, the neoprene mats suffer from the same issue.
The solo mat is on the reverse side of the yellow player mat. While not necessary, it also helps organizing the two different power slots but suffers from the same issue of having cards left out of it.
The power track can be a little difficult to read and does need some getting used to, as the Fury and Dread zone are not explicitely named on the board and not well delineated. The round tracks, though, is well done, and the crush and second/third place values are implemented in an ingenious way.
That the artwork is a matter of taste and is inherent from the source material is a fact, and some will find it very good when others will find it a real turn-off. Sadly, the second option seems to have been more prevalent as the game may not be appealing to players who only look at the box and do not know much about the gameplay. The combination of the graphic design and artwork almost made it so that this review never had a chance to happen.

Components

The main components are cards and their quality is not up to the standard established by other companies. They feel flimsy and warp easily.
The player mats are made of thin cardboard sheets. Switching to neoprene mats if possible, as it makes it easier to manipulate cards without creating a mess, which matters in a game where the location of cards is of the utmost importance, is strongly recommended. Picking cards up will not be a common occurence as they mostly slide from slot to slot, but it will happen that the player needs to flip them facedown or remove them from play, in which case the cardboard will make picking unsleeved cards difficult.
The round and player tokens are made of wood and very satisfactory to the touch. The switch from green to purple is welcome and helps break the routine of seeing the same four colors every game, although the other three player colors are the usual blue, red, and yellow.
The scoring board is made of thick cardboard, with a better finish than the player mats, which would have been easier to use were they made of this material. But that would also have made the game more expensive.
The insert accomodates all currently released cards, including the expansions, and lets the player organize their collection rather easily. Sleeves are a tight fit, though, and not every brand will work. Mayday Chimera penny sleeves fit but a couple of corners will get bent, although the cards are left pristine.

If it fits, it sits.

The cardboard box itself is rather thin. The limited edition offered during the Kickstarter campaign comes with a paper sleeve, which serves no purpose and is a waste of resources. A practice that should be stopped altogether, especially for those that like keeping the shrinkwrap on their boxes to protect them from wear and tear, which the sleeve doesn’t allow.

Rules

Mutants is an unusual game and as such, can be a little difficult to grasp.
The biggest issue for new players is understanding the goal of the game and how to score. As the game is supposed to depict an arena fight, players will come in expecting to have to use combat, which they will, for the most part, not. The concept of freezing a mutant will be counterintuitive at first, as they will expect to want to remove their weaker cards from the game when it is often more valuable to remove the most powerful ones instead.
Luckily, the preconstructed decks well help ease the players into the game with a focused gene pool which will give them a general direction to aim for and will give them a reference point to use for their first drafts as they will recognize cards and effects that they enjoyed playing with during their first plays.
There are many icons to remember and many effects to consider, which makes learning the game a little daunting.
Despite that, the rulebook is clear and well organized, with a dedicated portion just for the solo mode peculiarities, and a welcome in-depths explanation of each icon at the end of the document. Unfortunately, this depth also means that it takes more than just a single page. Although to be frank, most of the icons are self-explanatory. The reliance on both written text and icons makes learning the game slightly easier while allowing a wider array of different effects.

Conclusion

While it may have gone widely unnoticed, perhaps due to its peculiar theme, divisive artwork and graphic design, or to the relatively unknown source material, Mutants is one of the most interesting competitive deckbuilders out there and will provide hours of enjoyment, especially with expansions, by placing timing rather than resources at the center of its gameplay, all the while offering one of the most solid, if not highly replayable without expansions, solo modes on the market for a competitive game. A design that would greatly benefit from being rethemed with a more appealing combination of theme and artwork, fully deserving of a wider recognition.

An excellent innovative card game with a groundbreaking solo mode well worth digging through the peculiar graphic design

Mutants belongs to Lucky Duck Games. Header image from BoardGameGeek.com

One comment

  1. Excellente critique d’un excellent jeu. Il renouvelle complètement, à l’instar d’un Aeon’s End, l’expérience du deckbuilding. Personnellement j’adore le coté cartoon des illustrations.

    Like

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