Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

pastelboys, a bad circus, the 17th space hussars, Quinns' sex thing
Quinns: I want to play Doomtown: Reloaded a little more before I’m ready for our official review, but I also want to write about it before SU&SD wraps up for the year. Greedy boy that I am, I intend to have my cowboy cake and eat it by writin’ up some impressions.

Silas: Yeeee-hawww! Let’s get to it.

Quinns: …Who are you?

Silas: Ah’m Silas McCoy, a fictional character invented by that dirty Brendan fella fer his Colt Express review. Yeeee-hawww!

Quinns: Yeah, I don’t think so.

[BANG]

Silas: You shot me! In the knee!

Quinns: Yep. You’re not needed here, Silas. See, Doomtown doesn’t use cowboys as a safe theme like so much pastel-coloured wallpaper. Remember how we loved City of Horror because it’s a game that “gets” zombie fiction? Well, Doomtown is a card game that stinks of the Old West.

Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

You know what a living card game is, Silas? Where players build decks out of the cards they own, and a new, little expansion pack is released every couple of months? Well, Doomtown is the first living card game I’ve played that’s good enough to take on Netrunner, and I’m far from the only person who feels this way. The dude who runs premier deck-building resource netrunnerdb.com has just launched DoomtownDB.

Oh you’ve passed out. Guess I’ll just talk to the people at home, then.

The idea behind a match of Doomtown is that this town ain’t big enough for the both of you. Your deck represents one of the game’s four factions, which could mean lawmen, bandits, ranch owners or the circus. Yes, the circus. And let me be the first to tell you that you *really* don’t want to mess with this circus.

Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

Players start the game with a small posse of tough men and women who provide “Influence”, and over the course of the game you’ll play locations representing properties in town that you control. You win if you ever have more points of Control than the other side has Influence, leaving you with two fairly thematic ways to take over the town. You can buy up all the property or murder all of the other guys.

Like Netrunner’s ever-growing servers, these properties you buy see players giving the card game some firm geography as they play the match out. Buying a law office doesn’t simply give you +2 money every turn. It’s another location which men and women can visit, take control of or even die defending. That’s fun, and it gets still more fun if I tell you that Doomtown doesn’t stop at two players, so you can have three or even four players fighting over the same town.

But all I want to share today is the game’s method for solving fights, which I love. Where most card games don’t use random chance, preferring the brutality of raw integers, and many board games use dice, Doomtown offers something stranger, smarter and infinitely more thematic. Rather appropriately for a gunfight system, it took the top of my head off.

Here’s how it works!

A fight begins when you declare that one of your dudes is “callin’ out” an opposing dude. The targeted dude can retreat, but if they don’t back down then you each call in whatever backup you have nearby and git ready to raise hell.

Players then draw 5 cards off the top of their deck with the aim of making the best poker hand, as every card in Doomtown doubles as a card from an ordinary 52 card deck.

Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

The fightin’ ability of the dudes you have in the shootout simply lets you draw more cards, or perhaps throw some away and draw again. Every rank of poker hand you get higher than your opponents means they have to take a casualty. If there are people still standing and who don’t want to run away after you’ve revealed hands, you do all of this again in a new round of combat.

WHY IS THIS SO GOOD, you ask. Why, allow me to draw my critical opinion from my greased holster of… of criticism. No actually don’t let me do that because that sounds like a sex thing.

(1) Because it delivers grace and drama to random number generation.

We all love rolling dice. Of course we do. But in any game that simulates battle with a clatter of dice, it’s always tinted with annoyance. You charge your 17th Space Hussars into the breach, roll the dice… !!!… and they get killed. Bollocks.

The simple act of drawing cards and looking for decent hands in Doomtown slows this moment down, lets you linger in the luck (or lack of it) you receive, and gives you time to prepare psychologically for what happens next, all while performing the enjoyable act of drawing (and concealing) a poker hand from your opponent, before finally fanning them out on the table. Lovely.

(2) Because it’s wildly unpredictable.

This might be the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said on SU&SD, but there’s beauty in deriving the results of your random number generation from the difference between two results. It means more often than not players are a reasonable one or two hand ranks apart, leading to a manageable (but still painful) one or two casualties. But there are so many incredibly rare poker hands that you’re always petrified as to what your opponent might reveal because if they get ludicrously lucky they could obliterate your entire posse of four dudes. Boom.

Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

Among the reasons this is awesome is that it means you’re never out of the game. In one dramatic showdown I had with Brendan, my Sheriff had to walk out into the town square to stop four bandits from taking over the town. In the first round of combat he blew away one of them. Brendan didn’t blink. In the second round of combat he blew away another, and Brendan was faced with the miserable decision of fleeing the town square, putting me back in the game, or keeping the lead flyin’ and maybe losing his entire gang.

Within Doomtown’s fights are heroism and terror in equal measure, and that’s just how it should be.

(3) Because it’s Wild West as all hell.

This system doesn’t just make Doomtown feel like a western because you’re playing poker. It makes it feel like a Western because even when you outnumber or outgun your opponent, calling them out takes clanging brass balls and can always go wrong. So it ends up being a game of waiting, of storms brewing over the town, until finally someone calls someone else out with the brooding timbre of a thunderclap. Or, if you’re anything like me, with a squeak and a hesitation. “I’m um, calli’IN you out. Am I really calling you out? Oh god.”

Holy Cow: Doomtown Is Pretty Neat

(4) Because of what it does to deckbuilding.

So you and your friends are enjoying Doomtown and want to get into deckbuilding. Obviously you’ll pick your faction, then you’ll try and get the right mix of dudes, deeds, equipment and events, and then you’ll gawp in horror as you realise that you can also build your decks to get you good poker hands.

For example, put a whole crapton of Jacks in your deck and you’ll find yourself easily falling into four-of-a-kinds or even five-of-a-kinds.

…But!

The balancing mechanic here is that a whole ton of cards or law-abiding dudes can punish your opponent when they reveal a “cheatin’ hand”, meaning a hand that couldn’t be drawn out of a standard 52 card deck (if they reveal more than one Jack of Spades, for example). So in the right situation you can put the screws to your opponent and having them throwing away illegal flushes, panickedly looking for a legal hand. Any legal hand at all.

I’m aware at this point that I’m starting to disappear down the rabbithole of living card games and your local metagame and god knows what else, so I’ll stop. But if you were looking for something to experiment with over the Christmas break, just know that I’ll be playing Doomtown.

Silas: Hey, would’ja look at that! I think I’m on the mend–

[BANG]