Codex: Card-Time Strategy is Here!

Codex Game Logo

You might recall that half a year ago, I had a post about an upcoming game called “Codex”. I was incredibly excited for it, and at long last it’s shown up! I had a bit of a look through the boxes (I had gotten the Starter Set and the Core Set), and then I set up a play-by-post game with the Core Set, just to see what the game was like, now that I was able to play it for real, and not just the print-and-play demo I’d been using. So, now that it’s in my hands, it’s time to see if it lived up to the hype!

What Codex is Made Of

The very first thing I want to talk about is the physical aspect: the components of Codex. After all, it’s a board/card game, and so the physical bits are actually very important! While the gameplay is why I play games, I’ve found that how well the game is made (and how nice it looks) do still play a role in the experience. It’s the difference between a cheap game with flimsy cardboard pieces, a wobbly box, and dull art…and a high-end game with wooden cubes, a solid board, and a brilliantly-designed box. It’s the reason why I have a high opinion of Fantasy Flight Games, and also why Lords of Waterdeep is a game I still enjoy playing, even though it’s not as involved as I like. So how does Codex measure up?

First of all, there’s a lot of game in each box. Both the boxes for the Starter Set and the Core Set are compact, but they have a whole bevy of components. Here’s a quick look at what each one has…

Starter Set

  • Around 80 cards between the two factions
  • Two sets of playboards
  • A bunch of cardboard tokens
  • A life-tracker dealie that measures the health totals for both players

Codex Starter Set

Core Set

  • Approximately 145 cards between the two factions
  • Two thin card binders, one for each faction
  • A fairly big gameboard for each player
  • Even more cardboard tokens than the Starter Set
  • A whole pack of “token cards” that can be created through various effects in the game
  • A life-tracker

Codex Core Set

The components are fantastic. This is the fourth of David Sirlin’s games that I own (the others being Yomi, Puzzle Strike, and Pandante), and I continue to be impressed by the sheer quality that he produces. This game feels solid, it feels like quality, despite the fact that there’s no premium components like wood or pewter tokens. All of the cardboard chits feel thick, they feel relatively weighty, they have this wonderful finish. The box alone is amazing–just like the rest of the games by this designer, the box is one of the very few game boxes that feels sturdy. It’s hard to describe, but that along with a slightly-smooth finish (but not glossy) makes it an incredibly pleasing container for the game.

The binders are pretty neat, too; they store the cards for the game very adequately, and it’s easy to take the cards out during the game. I’m not totally sold on the look–while the designs on the binders are sweet, the binders themselves are covered in a shiny plastic that detracts from the overall visual. That’s a minor complaint, though. My other minor complaint here is that the life-trackers are a little loose–they look cool, and you’re not going to accidentally wind up bumping them and messing up the score, but they feel like they aren’t quite tight enough, and there’s no good way to adjust them.

My absolute favorite bit of the set, though, is the colorful design that permeates every part of this game. There’s iconography, there’s distinctive colors, and it’s all very easy to reference during the game. All of that contrast helps a player to parse a complex game-state quickly, which is what you need when you’ve got a game as involved as this. Cards have unique layouts, with simple-but-memorable art, and abilities/upgrades have a particularly helpful art style that resembles the icons of real-time strategy games like Warcraft.

Codex Game Cards

How Does Codex Play?

So, I’ve had some chances to get playtime in with Codex: I’ve played multiple games with the Starter Set, and a single game with the Core Set. In my experience, the gameplay ends up being very, very involved, and I’ve found that there’s almost no inconsequential decisions. The more I learn about the game, the more I realize that there’s a lot of subtle interactions going on between mechanics, which make the difference between a competent player and a skilled player in the game. I love that. Even better, I often find myself realizing during a game that I could have done something slightly differently and come out on top, and I’m able to take that lesson into the next game and learn from it.

It’s also not as intimidating as it sounds. While there’s a lot of decisions to be made, you won’t even realize what many of those decisions are, because they have to do with timing and tightly managing your resources. To play the game itself, you just have to know the core mechanics–and it won’t matter that many of those plays are suboptimal. This game also has a distinct advantage that sets it apart, difficulty-wise, from other CCGs: you don’t have to build a deck before you play. You just have to pick a side, and then start the game. You build your deck as you play the game. This means that you can focus on figuring out what you need as you play the game. You’ll realize something like “Oh, I need abilities that deal damage directly to enemies”, and you’ll be able to add those cards into your deck, adapting it to the situations that arise in play and also setting up your own plans.

This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t reward planning-ahead and having a set strategy: on the contrary, you have to be very able to make plans, because setting up plays and being prepared for your opponent is what gives you an edge in this game. It doesn’t help you to have the perfect answer to the play they made two turns ago, after all! You’ll need to work out what your best options are, and when you’ll have access to those options, as you cycle through a small deck of cards, slowly increasing it over time.

Codex Card Promise of Payment

Codex’s Shelf Life

All that said, what about Codex in the long run? After all, most CCG-style games rely on the continual release of new cards in order to keep the game fresh. Does Codex have the ability to stay fresh and interesting even after years of gameplay? Well, first of all, I’d like to point out that (obviously) it’s impossible to make those sorts of predictions about a game. It can also be perilous to predict a game’s longevity–who could imagine that Diplomacy or Monopoly or Chess would have any sort of longevity? Still, it’s worth thinking about how much continued depth Codex might have in the future.

Beyond anything else, something that strikes me about this game is the immense number of options available out of the gate. Traditionally, CCGs use a lot of “filler” design for their cards: they include cards that are inferior to other options, or even downright terrible, so that good cards become a scarce resource that you have to chase. This means that you wind up buying lots of booster packs in order to get to the good cards, which in turn becomes more business for the company that prints the CCG. Codex isn’t trying to get you to buy more cards, so each faction comes with all the cards it’ll ever need.

“But wait!” you exclaim. “Didn’t you just talk about how other CCG-style games continually release new cards in order to stay fresh?” Well, yes, I did, because they do. Unfortunately, continually releasing cards doesn’t mean that the game continues to get interesting, because a lot of CCGs rotate cards out, so you’ll even see things like outright reprints of older cards. There are new mechanics, but the concentration of really new, interesting cards is actually fairly low, especially when you consider how much filler exists in traditional CCGs. Codex takes all of that variety, all of those mechanics, and completely condenses it into what you get in the base set. The three specializations that each faction has represent an incredibly diverse swathe of mechanics, and even within a specialization, every unit feels remarkably unique.

The cards in Codex feel incredibly divergent, as divergent as the units in Starcraft or Warcraft 3, games which still have a devoted following today, despite seeing very little in the new way of content! Those games robustly grew in the competitive scene as players understood not just how to effectively use their tools, but also how to figure out ways to counterplay their opponents’ best options. I’m excited to see just what Codex can bring to the table.

Wrapping This Up

If you’re looking for a card game that allows you customization and also has a high skill cap, Codex is absolutely what you want. Currently, the game has a “Starter Set” and a “Core Set”; the Starter Set contains two specializations that count as neutral factions, which can be freely mixed with any other faction, and the Core Set contains two full factions. There’s two expansions that are set to release, and each of those contains two more factions.

Flagstone Dominion vs. Blackhand Scourge: featuring the Blue and Black factions, this expansion pits oppressive bureaucrats against necromancers and demon-summoners. Blue is a faction that aims to lock down the opponent by controlling their options, while Black is a faction that aggressively seeks power by sacrificing its own resources.

Whitestar Order vs. Vortoss Conclave: featuring the White and Purple factions, this expansion pits a hermitage of martial artists and cute animals against an alien race unstuck in time. White is a faction that excels at versatility and honest strength, and Purple has a lot of incredibly powerful units that are either doomed to fade out of existence or else have to “warp in” over time.

There’s an incredible amount of variety all across Codex, and I hope you check it out! You can buy the game from the designer here, or look for it at local gaming stores–it’s a bit of a niche game, but it’s possible that a store will stock it!

Have fun, and game hard!

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