I’ve had the privilege of running through three deckbuilding games (DBG) from Renegade Game Studios this year: GI JOE DBG, My Little Pony: Adventures in Equestria DBG, and now Transformers DBG. Growing up, I watched the cartoons for all three of these properties, although I spent most of my time with GI JOE and Transformers. I loved both of these cartoons so I’m generally inclined to believe that anything featuring the IP from these two franchises should work.
GI JOE DBG was a blast. It was a good game that generated great memories, and building up the deck was fun as I took JOEs on missions to take down COBRA by flying in a Skyhawk or rolling into the mission with a big tank. That game was also tough, so I found myself losing just as often as I was winning.
My Little Pony DBG ended up being just right—not great, not bad, beautiful production, a little too easy to win.
Transformers DBG, unfortunately, fits at the bottom of the pile, by a very large margin. Despite having some Transformers toys here in my house—still, 40 years after purchase!—Renegade and designers Matt Hyra and Dan Blanchett missed on the part that should have been a walk in the park: Transformers DBG never thematically feels like I am in the world of the Transformers.
All the Transformers films directed by Michael Bay are better than this game, which is really saying something. I enjoy a good deckbuilding game, so it is also saying something when I share that this was such a disappointment.
It Can’t Possibly Be Friendly
Right from the time I opened the rulebook, Transformers DBG was in trouble. The rulebook somehow takes the prize of having the worst rulebook of the three DBGs referenced in this article. (If you’ve played GI JOE DBG, you’re with me.)
The rulebook is awful here. It’s 20 pages long, which is way too long to describe a light DBG experience. There are almost no examples of how different game situations play out. In what has to be a record (at least any of the rulebooks I can remember), the Transformers DBG rules go five consecutive pages without any pictures of any in-game components or scenarios. It’s like an eighth-grade history book, with smaller print.
The most telling issues with the rules come on page three: “In a Competitive game, the Autobots are participating in a friendly competition to determine who is the best of the best.” If you have even passing knowledge of the Transformers property, you know that the Autobots are the good guys and the Decepticons are the bad guys. These factions are sworn enemies, and have been for thousands of years.
So the goal of this game is to have a little friendly competition? With their lives on the line????
Wow. With that as your setup, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, almost everything else.
From there, Transformers DBG turns into an exercise more than a fun-filled experience. You’ve got a standard deck of 10 terrible cards. You’ll draw five of them to build a hand, then you’ll go about improving your deck to take down your Decepticon adversaries. (The game has both competitive and cooperative modes, but almost all the in-game processes work the same, save for the Assist feature, which we’ll cover in a moment.)
Where Transformers DBG breaks away from the GI JOE ruleset is by setting up a card market mixed with the requirement that players travel to each space in a grid scaled to the player count. So, in a two-player game, you’ll have a 3×4 grid of facedown cards that have to be searched in order to reveal them.
Luckily, you’re a Transformer, so moving around in vehicle form should be a piece of…oh, wait a minute.
In Transformers DBG, you can move when you are a vehicle, but if you transform into Bot form, you can’t move by default. (Never mind that in the TV show, all Transformers can fly in Bot form. They don’t always choose to fly, but they can fly when they need to. It is true that only the Decepticons ever took on flying vehicles in vehicle form, like Starscream, but there were plenty of times where Optimus Prime and other Autobots took to the air. Still, the idea that the Autobots don’t have any move points in this game is just plain weird.)
OK, so the setup for Transformers DBG is different: the card market that makes up almost every deckbuilder out there requires players to move a pawn representing one of the six included Autobots around a grid (the Matrix) to reveal cards that can be bought or fought.
The main deck is built so that regular cards that can replace your starter deck will be revealed, bought, and added to your deck. But a good number of cards are not available for purchase, because they are minor Decepticon bad guys that have to be fought with the same resource used to buy cards—Power.
Bosses that were slotted randomly into parts of the main deck also appear in this way, so eventually you’ll move to a space in the Matrix to flip a card that you hoped to buy, only to find out that it is Soundwave or maybe Megatron. Whenever you fight a boss, you’ll reveal an Encounter card, which makes that boss fight a little harder.
Beat three bosses to win, or exhaust the entire draw deck to lose. I would argue that you’ll lose as soon as you open the box.
Transformers DBG does have some positives. Like the other DBGs discussed in this article, the production is top notch, the cards look good, and the Energon resource cubes that are used to activate powers for each player’s cards looks just like it did in the cartoon.
The six playable Autobot leaders—Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ironhide, Wheeljack, Arcee and Ratchet—feel right, although I don’t remember the Arcee character from the show. I just wish the characters felt more distinctive. Each has a power, but none of those powers is really special. For example, Wheeljack is better with Technology cards, one of the card types available in the Matrix.
But his ongoing power is only a +1 Power boost on Technology cards. In game, this is a pretty small bonus. You can boost this with Energon cubes, but in my plays, Energon is never plentiful, so choosing when to activate this is also not going to lead to a lot of special moments.
Like the other Renegade DBGs, Transformers DBG has a decent solo mode, so I was able to get more plays in using this format while still seeing most of what the game has to offer. With a higher player count, Transformers DBG gets interesting when one player fights a tougher enemy but can’t finish them off on their own, requiring help that allows for players who assist these fights to score the same amount of VPs as the active player.
So, there’s a little something there, but not enough to stay longer than a play or two.
Don’t Roll Out
I’m still a bit stymied by my experience with Transformers DBG. I know the game isn’t fun, but it is hard to pin this on a single reason.
Transforming from a vehicle into a bot should be a lot more fun. Adding Jazz or Ratchet or Mirage to your deck should make things more interesting. Ally cards, one of the standard card types which stay face-up in front of its owner when purchased, should do a lot more than the cards in this game.
The boss deck has only six choices, scaled by round, so you’ll only ever see three of them in your game. But, I’d like to think we all agree that all games should end with a fight against either Megatron or Starscream, right? Why is Devastator the alternate choice for the final boss, then? Do you even know who Astrotrain is? (I didn’t, but couldn’t believe that he was one of the lower-stage boss choices.)
Megatron’s face is plastered across the front of the box, bigger than even Optimus Prime. This game should have leaned harder into nostalgia. Fan service is vital to make games like this work.
While I’m sure expansion content is on the way for Transformers DBG, there’s not enough in the base game to recommend diving in any deeper than the shallow end. You won’t even be sure you are playing the game correctly because of the dense, obtuse rules summary. And similar to the 1986 Transformers animated film, you’ll only need to see it once to know it was mostly a bust.
How dare you besmerch the great name of Transformers The Movie (1986)!
Honestly I find it hard to believe you’ve watched it if you don’t know who Arcee is; heavily involved in the plot of the movie, and the first female transformer.
Tread cardefully when you walk on people’s childhood.
Slow your roll Eddie, Justin’s main focus here is the game. But if the game doesn’t serve the IP well, or the IP doesn’t integrate well with the game mechanics, then comparisons to the 1986 movie or knowing who Arcee is won’t help. Side note I grew up in the early 80s and watched The Transformers religiously and I don’t remember Arcee–so maybe that character isn’t as well known as you think?