Mystic Vale brought us the “card crafting” mechanic – a revolutionary new way of putting a spin on traditional deck building. Rather than build a deck, you build the cards themselves. So you never end up with more cards, just better looking ones! This worked well in Mystic Vale despite AEG demanding a heftier than appropriate price tag for the expansions that came after it. But I was looking forward to more games that would use this mechanic and so we have Custom Heroes.
Additionally in 2018 we apparently have a worker placement Euro with card crafting on the way – if that’s true I’m very excited for that also. But for now we are dealing with simple trick taking. Trick taking isn’t my favourite style of game because a lot of it feels random unless you’ve played the game a million times with the same people, but being able to augment the cards that everyone gets sounds like a good laugh and if nothing else, I get some cool anime pictures to look at!
On the surface, Custom Heroes is a pretty simple ladder-climbing, trick-taking game. The deck of cards is simply sets of 1-10 per player with no suits, no trump, no face cards, just some conspicuous empty slots. Players simply play a set of cards with the same number, and other players follow with the same number of cards (same rank or better), or pass, until everyone passes successively. You win a round simply by running out of cards first, and points are given accordingly.
The starting player plays a set of cards to start the trick: it may be either a single card or any number of cards with the same value. Subsequent players must match that number of cards, with either the same or a higher value. The cards you play on each turn must have the same value as each other. For instance, if the first player started with 3 cards of value 5, then you must follow with 3 cards of equal value to each other, either 5 or higher.
If you play the same value as the previous player, then you skip the turn of the next player. Not a rule I’m a fan of I must admit, brings back too many bad memories of Uno.
After each round, players will have received victory points, power tokens and card advancements based on their position in the last round. Power tokens enable special abilities on cards to be activated and the advancements can be sleeved into any card (subject to a one per type restriction) to augment them in various ways. These advancements can be sleeved at any time, allowing players to make tactical plays based on the circumstances.
Rounds continue until one player has won a round while being on 10 victory points. If no-one has won by the end of the 6th round, then it falls down to whoever has the most points generally. This is to stop the game dragging on for too long.
INNOVATION PUT TO ANOTHER USE
Custom Heroes is another title using AEG’s Card Crafting System (like Mystic Vale), which uses transparent cards that layer on top of each other to change the cards. Plastic card sleeves are provided and you simply slide the advancements into them. The sleeves are big enough so that you can insert up to 4 advancements per card, and should you tear any, there’s more in the box.
The card advancement bag is a nice cloth bag that’s just big enough to hold the deck of advancements, though it’s weird drawing cards out of a bag and you certainly don’t want to scrunch up the bag like you’re normally prone to doing. The plastic cards have a transparent film on them which is required as part of the printing process, but you can peel this off and everything looks sharper as a result – even if it’s annoying having to do it for all of them.
All the artwork is anime/manga driven and if you’re a fan you’ll at least find everything pretty to look at. Things get a bit more weird when you start adding advancements as the characters are portrayed in such a way that the overlays add various items to their hands, from additional weapons to silly items like those giant rubber hands you see at NFL sport matches. Doesn’t that get annoying having to carry those around, I digress?
A SLOW BURN
To begin with, the game is pretty generic and in a way, a bit boring. You’ve just got basic cards from 1-10 and you’re playing sets. . . . . whoopee. . . . so you have a little bit of a slog to begin with, but then things start getting interesting when you see those advancements appearing. Because when you sleeve a card, you have to be aware that you’re not necessarily getting that card back next round. Someone else could use it against you. I’ve always been a fan in some Euros where the ownership of resources/meeples, etc fluctuates throughout the game. Big example would be the “Key” series of games like Keyflower and Keyper where the meeples change hands each round. Same concept here where the upgraded cards change hands.
Some combinations do lead to some bonkers cards and it’s great to see them in action, but I wish that maybe players got dealt more than one advancement at the start of the game and had to sleeve them in advance of beginning the round. That way, the initial rounds would be a bit more interesting. It’s a small niggle though as the players who perform poorly in a round get more cards to use, but it’s all down to when they actually bother to sleeve them in.
Other than that, there’s not a lot else to say about the gameplay. If you’re familiar with trick taking games, you’ll know what to expect. You’re trying to decide when’s the best time to play certain values or sets and when’s the best time to try to win a trick or bide your time. On top of that, you have the additional tactical element of holding back on your advancements until you need them. A situation might present itself where that +2 modifier adds an additional card to a set or pips your opponent’s trick at the last minute. It can lend itself to some mild AP while players consider all their advancement options, but it’s not at the levels where it gets annoying.
MORE PLAYERS IS NOT ADVISABLE
It’s a good thing that there is a automatic game-end timer for the 6th round as otherwise Custom Heroes would run the risk of dragging on. With 4 or less players it’s not so much of a problem, but 5-6 player games can go on for too long unless one player is extremely lucky with his victories. Typically with less players you can finish the game in an hour which is the longest I would play a trick taking game for anyway.
But also with less players comes a greater sense of control and knowledge. All of the cards are in each round, so technically you have perfect information except that with all the advancements out there, it’s hard to remember what has been augmented and what hasn’t. Those sets of 1-10 will be very different soon enough. At 4, it’s a challenge, but 5-6 just amounts to chaos with players having no clue what to expect from any player on the table. With the skipping rules (which I’m not a fan of anyway, it seems unnecessary) it almost feels like a modern equivalent of Uno.
The victory condition for the game is also a little hard to achieve. Firstly you need 10 victory points, which depending on your success rate will take at least 2-3 rounds to achieve. Then you have to actually win another round to seal the deal. Again with less players, this is a much easier milestone than with more.
So even though Custom Heroes allows for 6 players, I really don’t recommend you go above 4. You’re adding time and chaos to a trick taking game and those are two factors I think we can all agree do NOT go well in this genre.
VERDICT ON CUSTOM HEROES
I’m still not the best audience for trick-taking games, but Custom Heroes is one of my preferred ones to play currently. Much of that comes down to the simple “shell” that it begins with. No chaotic special effects, no trumps or anything that we’re normally expecting. Instead the basic card set is vanilla and the advancements change up the game. These advancements are the best aspect, though I wish they came out in greater numbers.
With 4 or less players, the game plays at its best with players able to make better decisions on what cards are out among the opponents. With 5 or 6 players, it’s just a chaotic mess and becomes more down to luck than tactics not to mention it’s a bugbear to have to separate out all those advancements during teardown. Each additional player also scales the playtime up and at the higher end, Custom Heroes outstays its welcome even with the automatic timer built in after 6 rounds.
For trick-taking fans, this is pretty solid and worth looking into, especially if you’re aware of the card crafting mechanic and/or are a fan of it. I don’t think it’s going to sway those who aren’t into the genre, but I still say it’s worth giving it a try.
PERSONAL RATING – 6
YOU WILL LIKE CUSTOM HEROES IF:
You enjoy trick taking games that have a twist to them.
You’re a fan of the card crafting mechanic and want to experience alternative uses.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE CUSTOM HEROES IF:
You play this regularly with 5+ players – it’s a little too chaotic at that point.
You hate the idea of sorting the cards out every game!
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.