Deck-Builders and Dungeon Crawlers are both types of game that can get BIG. It seems like every deck-builder has a million expansions, and every Dungeon Crawler comes with loads of miniatures, and a few expansions as well. It’s a trend that has given us some great games, but the end result is often something you need a forklift truck to carry around.
100 Swords takes the genre, and then strips it right back – a dungeon-crawling deck-builder that you can fit in your pocket; the ultimate in portability. Obviously the game itself is going to be similarly minimalist, but is it still good? Let’s find out.
Do I start with 100 swords? No – just 7!
When you open the box of 100 swords, you’ll find everything you need to play the game – except a rulebook! 100 Swords comes with a single quick-reference card, which is a helpful reminder once you know what you’re doing, but doesn’t give you enough information to get started. It’s easy enough to download a rules pdf, but this definitely annoyed me when I was getting going…
Once you do find some rules, you’ll discover that 100 Swords is a deck-builder. You start off with 6 “Crappy Swords”, 1 “Awkward Sword”, and 2 pairs of “Boots.” Any card that ends up in your player deck will be worth a certain amount of movement (a number next to a boot on the top-left of the card), a certain amount of strength (a number next to a hand, alongside the movement), and may have an effect as well (in the text box at the bottom). You use movement to get yourself into and around the dungeon, and strength to defeat the monsters you find there. Starting Boots are worth up to 2 movement but no strength, and Crappy Swords are 1 of each (The Awkward Sword is more complicated, and I’ll get to it later).
As you wander through the Dungeon you’re also going to run into other equipment, mostly Swords (although you won’t get anywhere near the promised 100 swords of the title). Items you encounter can be purchased with energy, and added straight to your hand. Energy comes from cards in your hand: instead of playing a card normally, you can play it sideways as 1 energy (not triggering its ability text), to meet costs – I really like this type of mechanic, it calls to mind games like San Juan, where a single card can fulfil multiple functions, and allows designers to maximise the effects that you can get from a single deck of cards.
What’s Hiding? The Dungeon!
At the start of any turn in a game of 100 Swords, there will be a 5-card Dungeon in front of you. You always leave the Dungeon at the end of your turn, so you need to spend at least one movement to get into the Dungeon each time.
Cards are dealt into the Dungeon face down (“hidden”) when you enter a room, you examine the card there – if it’s a Monster or an Obstacle you must “reveal” it by turning it face up, whereas if it’s an item, you have the option to leave it hidden. This feels like the place where most of the strategy comes in to the game: the turn you reveal a monster it is ‘surprised’ and you can move past it, but after that, reaching a room with a monster in means that you must stop until you fight it. Various cards in the game let you peek at dungeon cards, and hide cards that have been revealed, allowing you to move freely again. Deciding what you leave hidden or revealed for your opponent can significantly impact what they do on their turn.
You can only ever move further in to the dungeon, and at the end of your turn, all the cards gets shoved along to the left (the beginning) and topped back up to five cards, ready for the next player.
Are these 100 Swords all the same? Spot the differences
Aside from basic Movement/Strength stats, items in 100 Swords also have abilities. The only starter card with an ability is the Awkward Sword, which is worth 0 strength as printed, but allows you to pay 1 energy to get 3 strength. Many of the other swords you acquire during the game will have other effects; allowing you to hide or reveal cards, to draw extra ones, or to “retire” cards (move them to your “trophy” pile, where you can still score them at the end, but they don’t clog up your deck in the meantime).
Card effects are compulsory, rather than optional, and they trigger as soon as you play the card, before you use it for movement or strength. Generally, this keeps things fairly straightforward and simple, although you will end up with cards you can’t play, simply because you don’t want to trigger the ability. Part of me wishes there was more choice in whether or not you triggered an ability, but this way also adds decisions, as you need to balance the benefit of the card’s stats versus the potentially negative ability that will trigger.
Who’s in the Dungeon? The Monsters!
Whilst you want to build your deck in 100 Swords, this isn’t Dominion where the deck is it’s own reward, and once you’ve got some decent cards, you’re going to want to actually go and fight something. Fortunately, the Dungeon of 100 Swords also contains some Monsters for you to take on.
When you reach a room with a Monster in, you have to “reveal” it (turn it face up), triggering any “when revealed” effects, and then you can fight it. A monster’s strength is indicated at the bottom of its cards, and you need to generate the same amount with your swords to send it to your trophy pile.
Is that it? Who won?
A game of 100 Swords ends when somebody defeats the “Boss” enemy (always shuffled into the bottom 10 cards of the Dungeon deck), or there aren’t enough cards left to replenish the dungeon. At this point, you total up the gold value (the little yellow number on the top-right of a card) of all the cards in your deck and trophy pile, and the person with the most gold is the winner – in a tie, it’s the one with the most swords.
Once you’ve got the hang of the rules, a game of 100 Swords doesn’t last very long at all, as you’ll run through the dungeon fairly quickly, probably 20 minutes max, unless you’ve mixed in other packs to bulk out the Dungeon Deck. (There are two full Dungeons, the Red Dragon, used for this review, and the Blue Mammoth. There are also 4 mini packs that can be mixed in to add cards).
Can I go alone? Yes – but do you want to?
Although primarily a 2-player game, 100 Swords can be played solo. The rule-sheet which you can download from the designer’s website notes that these rules are “in Beta” and it certainly doesn’t feel like they’ve spent hours developing them, although the game is officially listed on places like BoardGame Geek as “1-2 Players.”
Mechanically, your turn works much the same in Solo as it does in a 2-player game of 100 Swords. The key difference is that at the end of the round, before you re-fill the dungeon, you will reveal the cards at either end, and add the highest-value card to a separate victory pile for the game. When the game ends (in the normal fashion), you win if you have more points than the game.
In 2-player, the interaction between these 2 can get quite tactical
Whilst this seems like a fairly small change, the impact is actually quite significant. Normally when playing 100 Swords, you need to strike a balance between knowing what lies ahead, and giving too much information to your opponent. In a solo game, this concern is gone, so it’s almost always a good idea to reveal as many cards as you can, even if it’s the last card of your turn, and you know you won’t be able to acquire/defeat the card you reveal. Peeking is less useful, as is hiding, and often you can avoid having to hire keys to defeat barriers, as you can just give them to the game’s victory pile.
I played a few games of 100 Swords solo, and won both, although by a fairly narrow margin the second time. The main problem with it was that I didn’t feel like there were any difficult choices to make. You always need to press on, and defeat/acquire as many cards as you can, without much thought for what you leave behind for the next turn.
The Verdict? Fits in the Pocket
When I first opened 100 Swords, I was pretty underwhelmed. The lack of a proper rulebook was a major let-down for me, and as the quick-reference cards inside don’t give you enough information to actually play the game properly, I went online to look for the rules. Whilst I found the rules soon enough, it wasn’t until after I’d encountered some pretty scathing reviews for the game.
Now I’ve had a chance to play it a few times though, and I think there’s more to this game than meets the eye. It’s not about to replace a 2-3 hour immersive and thematic Dungeon Crawler, but that’s clearly not what it’s trying to do. This is the perfect sort of game to take on holiday, or on a journey- you could easily play it on the table on a train, or a patch of hotel-room floor, and it’s an ideal little distraction for that sort of environment.
The fact that 100 Swords is only a 2-player game limits its use – I wouldn’t bother taking this to a big gaming group as a filler, and the solo variant feels like it was stuck on at the last minute, and it would have been no real loss if they’d left it out. Within its “2-player, very portable” context though, I still think this is a good game. It delivers well on what it sets out to do, and I’m sure I’ll be playing it again in the future.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits in my new life as a dad.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Dice Masters and Destiny) when I can make it out of the house.Competitively. When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.