Once upon a time, a game designer went to a game publisher with a big, card-based game that, as one of its moving parts, featured a system whereby the cards would be changed over the course of the game. But the publisher said that it was too much for such an innovative mechanic, but it’s a great mechanic so let’s make some other stuff with it instead. And lo, so was born the Card Crafting System, which first begat Mystic Vale and will soon beget Edge of Darkness (which was the game that was originally pitched). But in the meantime, the mind of John Clair (via Alderac Entertainment Group) also birthed Custom Heroes, the card-crafting ladder game of arena combat (ProTip: it’s a ladder game, the theme is irrelevant other than the pretty pictures on the cards). You can also hear a brief take on Custom Heroes back in podcast Episode 222.
Like a traditional ladder game, the central goal of Custom Heroes is to shed the cards in your hand. Whoever leads in a round plays one or more cards with the same value from their hand. Subsequent plays must be the same number of cards and a higher value. The big twist in Custom Heroes is, of course, the ability to change the cards over the course of the game. In addition to the cards dealt each hand, each player has a stock of card advancements. The cards themselves are always played sleeved (the game comes with more than enough sleeves), and the card advancements are placed into the sleeves, but over the face of the card, modifying it in some mechanical way (and also modifying the picture, such as by putting an object into the depicted character’s hand). Each sleeved card has a printed ability and no effects – but the advancements sometimes add effects and almost always modify the value of the card.
This means that, rather than being restricted to exactly what cards you happen to have in your hand, there’s generally an option to add in an advancement to actually have a pair (or triplet or whatever) that you can use to keep climbing the ladder. That doesn’t mean you can always do such a modification, however – players only have a certain number of card advancements available. The fact that advancements are not unlimited tends to keep over-analysis down – you’re mostly looking for specific circumstances when you can use an advancement to drop multiple cards (and, of course, if you can go out).
In addition to the immediate effects of the advancements, those card modifications are permanent – the powerful special ability you just put on a card will give you an immediate benefit, but will also change (usually upgrade) the card for whoever gets it for all future hands. This means that card values tend to increase over the course of the game (not a big deal, as long as you realize it’s happening), but also that more special abilities go on the cards as the game progresses (which works out pretty well for leaning the game).
In addition to the card crafting, the second thing that Custom Heroes does is trying to keep everyone involved throughout the game. Ways that the game does this include a catch-up mechanic, a starting advancement, and a “championship” hand. First, the winner of a hand gets victory points, but little else. Play continues until everyone has emptied their hand, with subsequent finishers getting fewer victory points, but gaining more advancements to use in later rounds and more of the tokens that are needed to activate victory points.
Second, there are two ways to win Custom Heroes. It takes ten points to win, which is the number of points you get for winning two hands. And if you flat-out win a hand and already had 10 points (or more), then you win the game. But no number of points will win without winning a hand – you can’t string together a series of second-place finishes to get across the line. This means that the other players always have an incentive to keep fighting – there’s no point at which a victory can become inevitable. Of course, you wouldn’t want a game to last forever, so there can only be six normal hands. If, at the end of those six hands no one has won outright, then there is a seventh “championship” hand, which is a one-on-one duel. One of the participants in the duel is whoever has the most points. The other participant is whoever won the sixth hand (if that’s the same player, they win the game). Again, this keeps everyone involved in the game – if you can stop an automatic winner in the first five rounds, then you can make the championship hand in the sixth.
Third, there is the Kodoro advancement. This advancement lets a player gamble two of their victory points. If they don’t win the hand, they lose the points. If they win the hand, they get the two points before checking for game winner. This allows them to, potentially, cross the 10-point threshold from as low as eight points, keeping more players within striking distance of a win – so long as they’re willing to risk going big or going home.
Custom Heroes provides a neat twist on classic ladder-climbing mechanics. And once a player has gotten over the basic hurdle of grokking the card-crafting thing, it’s got a pretty low point of entry of casual gamers – the game builds the deck complexity up gradually, and in particular the starting advancements (Kodoro and a “you win the round” card for each player) are really late-game cards. Further, a lot of care went into keeping everyone involved throughout the game – the catch-up and everyone-is-always-in-it mechanics fit perfectly with the lighter, shorter gameplay of Custom Heroes. These factors combine to make it eminently suitable for family events as well as a filler between heavier games.