Here at the Bell house, we play a whole lot of the classic card game War.
You know the one: deal out half of the deck to each of the two players seated at the table, then deal a card off the top of each player’s deck to see who has the higher card. The winner takes both cards and you keep moving through the deck until one player is out of cards.
I don’t think War is fun, but for a dad looking to engage with his 6-year-old son, it’s a great way to pass the time. The best part of War is when each player plays a card equal in weight, such as when both players lay an eight on the table. Then you’ve got to keep playing cards until someone has the objectively higher card, leading to one player taking all of the cards in that trick.
Sure, War has a major runaway leader problem, but otherwise, the game knows its place in the world. And while I wasn’t sure the world needed it, designers Johannes Krenner & Markus Slawitscheck have given the world Challengers! (2022, Z-Man Games), War with a deck-building spin and a few other twists.
I like Challengers! a whole heck of a lot better than War. While it’s more of an experience than a game, it’s an experience I really enjoy, particularly at higher player counts.
Go to the Park
It’s the world’s biggest capture-the-flag tournament! In a game of Challengers! each player takes a starting deck of the same six cards, with a base power ranging from 1-4 points. Power, like in a game of War, dictates who wins a hand, but in the context of Challengers! it also dictates who controls the flag.
Over the course of seven rounds, players have to craft a deck that gives them the best chance to hold a flag the longest in one of the four parks where players compete to capture the flag. Before a round, players use a Plan card to determine which park they will compete in, which is really just a way to mix up which different player you’ll have to fight. In this way, everyone is playing at the same time in a park against a rotating cast of opponents.
Then, from a draw deck of ever more powerful cards, players will draw one or two cards that can be added to their deck. Everyone then has the chance to review their entire deck and cull any cards they want to banish from their hand to ensure they have the cards best suited to win.
After that, it’s time to shuffle the deck and basically play War with their opponent for that round. After a coin flip, or a tiebreaker system attached to the player who has won more rounds leading up to the current battle, play begins.
The attacker plays the top cards from their deck until they have met or exceeded their opponent’s power, then the flag moves to the attacker. They become the defender, and their opponent takes the same steps to play stronger cards until they take the flag back. Defeated cards go to that player’s bench, which offers one of the two ways in which a round can end: either a player’s bench has maxed out, and has no more space for unique played cards, or a player’s draw deck runs out before they can take the flag back.
There’s a little more to it than that, but not much. The winner gets a trophy worth points (known as Fans) that will factor into the endgame. After seven rounds, the two players with the most Fans will face off in a winner-take-all battle to determine the overall winner of the game.
It Takes an Army
Challengers! plays 1-8 players. Now that I’ve played it solo and at two, seven, and eight players, I can tell you without hesitation the best way to play Challengers! is at the max player count.
That’s because of a few problems that show up right away:
- Solo is basically a 30-minute game of War against an automa deck. Is that how you want to spend your evening?
- With two players, you can be “whitewashed” off the board; if one player is ever losing by 11+ points, they automatically lose the game. Not a great way to go out!
- Also with two players, there is no end-of-game matchup between the top two players, since there are only two players. So, it’s just whoever has the top score after seven rounds. At larger player counts, the battle at the end of play is a fun moment, and that moment is lost at lower ones. It also means that in a three-player game one player is squeezed out to watch the last round. Not the worst thing ever, but still not ideal.
- In a seven-round game, you play against the same players multiple times unless you play with eight players. In this way, you have the chance to face off against a different player every round. This has turned out to be much more interesting than playing against, say, one player three times and another player three more times and one other player once. You aren’t really building a deck to face-off specifically against anyone, and the smack talk is just funnier when you can keep moving around to play against different players.
- With an odd number of players, someone has to play against the Robot deck (the name of the automa) every round. Again, do you want to play War against the computer? Meh.
At eight players, Challengers! really shines. The deck-building elements do have some strategic elements, particularly around planning for cards hitting your bench. Unique cards fill each of the six bench spots, but if you can find duplicates in the draw deck when building your army, you create fun synergies that also allow you to avoid losing a match because your bench fills up.
This will lead to an issue with experienced players knowing which cards to look for, but I’m not sure I’ll be playing Challengers! enough for that to ever become an issue. Challengers! is officially Big Dumb Fun in my house, so not taking it seriously is actually one of the benefits.
Go to War
Challengers! is sticking around in my collection because it’s great to have filler games that help kick off a game night with bigger groups. Similar to my experience with Ready Set Bet last year, Challengers! is easy to teach and can be raucous with the right audience.
I bought my copy online during a holiday sale for only $22, and at that price, it might be one of the best games in my collection. The production is great, with small neoprene mats used for the parks where battles take place. Many of the game’s cards feature situational rules which can be hard to parse, but the short rulebook does a good job. The cards themselves are a hoot, featuring a wide array of funny, well-drawn pictures, although the variety in decks could use a minor boost (the game comes with six decks, five of which are used in each game). The game comes with deck trays used to separate the different cards by phase, so it’s easy to keep track of where things go.
The biggest nightmare with eight-person games of Challengers! is when players need to draw new cards to add to their deck; there’s always a traffic jam when players need to reload. And the complaint I hear most from players is valid: this game is ruled by the luck of the draw. Adding duplicates of strong cards is a blessing and a curse with this game. I even had one player referring to the winner of my eight-player game as “the winner”, using air quotes, because it’s hard to say how much control he really had in claiming the victory.
Totally get that. But as a laugher with friends, Challengers! does the job.