This post is the first of a series of reviews dedicated to soloable games based on a loose “Space Invaders” theme. What defines the theme is the following; you play a single ship; you play against enemy waves; there must be some “pew pew”-ing in the course of the game.
So. Warp’s Edge. The title that allowed the Solo Hero Series of Renegade take off, and whose success offered the designer, Scott Almes, the opportunity to design the next iteration of the series as well. Warp’s Edge is, at its core, a bag-builder. This may seem to be a mere fancy distinction to a deck-builder, but there is at least one difference that bears some importance on the game: you can’t write a lot on tokens. So, the effects of the tokens must be simpler than the cards of your typical deck-builder. Unless, of course, you put fancy symbols on the tokens, and expect the player to constantly check the associated effect on the back of the rulebook. Which is exactly what Warp’s Edge is doing.
Joking aside, the point still stands. The “bag-building” is an invitation to focus less on convoluted synergies between card effects, and more on the precise distribution of the tokens that go into your bag. The idea of the game is simple. You face four enemies. You draw five tokens. You must allocate the tokens to your enemies so they don’t shoot at you and so you can obliterate them. Usually, assigning a token is enough to “stun” the enemy and for you to be saved from any damage. But then, you can only stun with red and blue tokens – yet you also draw green tokens, which is the currency that allows you to purchase more tokens at the gigantic store space that hangs over you during the epic fight. As such, the typical deck-building thinking applies: I want to buy things that let me do things, but I also want to buy things that allow me to buy more things that would let me do more things. Find the right balance and all, you probably know the stuff already.
I’ll elaborate a little more. When you purchase new tokens, or get some by defeating enemies (loot!), they don’t go to your discard, but straight into your bag, which is exciting. However, when the bag is empty, it’s game over, and you must reset everything to start all over again. But your bag is now significantly bigger. The whole trick of the game is to beat the boss in a finite number of warps – at the end of the fourth one, you automatically lose the game. Therefore, stalling too much against enemies is a bad thing because you want to push through their ranks fast enough to make the best of the warp. But then, they add another lose condition to prevent you from being reckless: if you get hit too much, your ship disintegrates, and you die, for good.
Additionally, there’s also an interesting twist on the deck-building formula. Traditionally, starting cards are worthless. So, deck-builders have addressed this with two mechanics: culling (you manage to get rid of them) or making them useful through various means. Here, having more tokens usually allow you to last longer, so even base tokens have some value. But there is always the risk to play too much rounds within a warp, since if you don’t deal with all of the four enemies (e.g. if you draw too many green tokens in a round), you’ll get hit (and believe me, you will get hit). Except there is some nice balance at work here, because when you get hit, you lose shield points, and suffer the additional penalty to remove a discarded token of your choice permanently from the game – hence, culling. This is actually pretty smart.
Critical First Warp
It’s also the main drawback of the game to me. When you start a game, you have 11 tokens. That means you can last two rounds. It’s usually a very short warp, but you must use it to build your bag efficiently, so the second warp can be longer. Except, if you get hit, you’ll have to remove tokens from the game, which means the net benefit of the first warp may be null – or even negative. And this is a guaranteed defeat. I played 9 games, and I lost two. I could tell I would lose by the end of the very fast warp, because I hadn’t “ignited” the game properly. Of course these games were boring, even I did try my best to save the day against the odds. On the other hand, in the other 7 games, where I did good at the beginning, the bag quickly grew so powerful that I had no worry beating the boss – even the final one. So, it seems like everything is decided during the first warp. Bad luck there cannot be compensated later on.
That’s a problem. And it’s not the only issue I have with this game. Even though Scott Almes did his best to provide you with variety and flexibility – four ships to play with different arrays of power-ups, five bosses to fight against, all with their special rules, random enemies from a deck, additional “tactic” cards that help you mitigate things a lot so you’re never at the mercy of luck of the draw – things feel, overall, a bit scripted. I didn’t have the impression that I had to adapt my strategy much depending on the ship or the boss (except against the Hydra, which felt the most difficult of all, precisely because it’s very punishing during the early game), and I seldom used my tactic cards to their full potential. The differences between the ships are too obvious: one is very good with red tokens, one is very good with blue tokens, one is balanced, and one is a glass cannon (my favorite). The different enemies are almost interchangeable, and the monotony of the art certainly doesn’t help. They have three stats, and that’s about it. I could have always played against the same deck, it wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Another issue are the rules. They’re well written, and they do a good job to get you quickly to the actual game. But then, in the flow of play, there will be hindrances, as the subtleties of the tactic cards, the ship-specific power-ups, and the boss abilities, are sometimes largely unclear. There is one power-up that I never used because I just wasn’t sure of its use, and one tactic card which I also wasn’t too sure about its exact application. It happened often enough to be annoying, even though it’s not a game-breaker in any way. And a last negative while I’m at it: there are some power-ups that I hated absolutely. You need to flip them and depending on the face, they are either very powerful, or a complete waste. This can very easily mean you either play or lose the game, on the flip of a coin, despite all of your planning. I didn’t like this swinginess, and once, I allowed myself to cheat and to flip it on the “correct” side to beat a boss. It was that or losing, and I didn’t feel like replaying a game that I felt I had handled decently enough.
Overall, it’s a good game, if easy and a bit basic. It plays reliably fast (tonight I had a game within 30 minutes, including setting up, tearing down, and foraging for the right power-up tokens for the ship I will play next time). You don’t need to dive in the rules too often (but you’ll need to keep the back of the rulebook available to know what the power-up tokens do), and it sure provides an enjoyable moment. The Solo Hero Series is also, let’s not forget this, meant to introduce people to solo gaming, and it does it well, being very accessible. I like to have good odds of winning, I like to have agency, I like surprising myself muttering “pew pew pew” while allocating color tokens to the ships.
Power up your game
And, by the way, even though I’m firmly against over-production and deluxe components, if you buy the game, you might consider getting the acrylic tokens. They feel extremely nice, they are really a pleasure to draw from the bag, they have just the right thickness, and since they are the central components of the game, you get to interact with them all the time. So, I absolutely recommend this upgrade pack… With a caveat – and this will be my final warning.
The game is priced well, in my opinion. Production value is good, the inserts are great, both to store the components and to keep them organized during the game, the amount of “stuff” in the box is decent. But the replayability is low, so if you add the acrylic tokens, the price is getting high for what you really get. After 9 plays, I there isn’t much left to explore gameplay-wise. Sure, it’s fun enough that I’m not reluctant to retry a boss with a new hero (you get 20 combinations in total, but they don’t vary much as I stated already), yet the gaming arc is always the same, and you’re never given the opportunity to be genuinely surprised by what may happen during the game. I’d really like for the design to warp, and start over to push its limits and promises a little further.