Professor Pugnacious’ Portfolio of Perils, Pugilism, and Perfidy: The Card Game of Victorian Combat – Game Review
The Fandible crew had the pleasure and privilege of attending Metatopia late last year, and while we have plenty of stories to tell from it (including the delightful opportunity to host our very own panel!), one of the standouts for me was the discovery of Professor Pugnacious. A deck-building game with a steampunk feel? It took me all of 3 seconds to start flinging my money at the box, and an hour later we’d taken over a nearby table and started shuffling cards about. It was an unique experience, made all the more interesting because we actually had the game’s creator, Thomas Eliot, sitting just a few feet away playing another board game. As you might imagine, this came in rather handy when we had rules-related questions. While we enjoyed our first game (David’s discovery of the ‘stay home and study while flinging rocks at my enemies with an army of trebuchets’ strategy seemed to particularly delight Thomas), we decided to hold off on doing a proper review until we’d had a chance to sit down with the game outside of the con. Below are our thoughts on the game:
Professor Pugnacious is a deck-building game in which the players assume the roles of competing proteges of the titular Professor, each vying to outdo the other in tests of might and smarts. Each player has access to a subsection of the available cards, and they use their accumulated resources (Fight cards and Skill cards) to purchase additional resources to add to their deck, and to defeat an ever-shifting selection of challenges, from monsters to traps. They also gain Fail points that they can use to trip up rival students. Defeating challenges (as well as certain card abilities) nets you XP. The game ends when the Finale, a particularly powerful and rewarding opponent card, is defeated, and the winner is the player who collected the most XP.
What makes this game unique
While the steampunk feel and theme of the game is the most obvious thing, I found that the most unique mechanic in the game was the Card Ring. In other deck-building games, all players have equal access to all available cards, whether it’s Dominion’s 13 piles of resource cards, or Ascension’s 6 piles of assorted heroes, constructs, and monsters. Professor Pugnacious separates the monsters and challenges from the rest of the resources, and then creates an ever-revolving carousel of cards in front of each player. On each turn, each player can only purchase cards from the 5 cards in front of him, and each player has a different set of 5 cards. At the end of each turn, you pass your left-most card to the player to your left, and receive a card from the player to your right which you place on the right-most spot, and then shift the cards over so they’re in front of you again. In this way, round by round, each player’s available cards to acquire changes, leading to changing strategies as the cards each player desires slowly make their way around the table. Certain cards, when played, allow you to manipulate the Card Ring, shifting cards to the right or left, and this manipulation is one of the more advanced strategic elements of the game. In an initial play-through such cards and effects were rarely used, but with more experienced and advanced players, such cards could strongly affect the outcome of game. Other than this, though, the game is a fairly straightforward deck-building affair, with the added wrinkle of separating the monsters and traps that the players have to overcome from the actual supply of useful resource cards.
What We Liked About The Game
Once we got the game going, the art, atmosphere, and general feel of the game are infectious, and we quickly slipped into character, building our resources, planning our strategies, and cheerfully backstabbing one another. There are definitely multiple valid strategies in the game, from David’s ‘stay home and study’ method to my own ‘draw ALL the cards’ scheme and it did not feel as if any one method was automatically superior or the ‘right’ way to play. The constantly changing selection of resources from the Card Ring also presented a method of keeping the game fresh that we all appreciated, and kept us always on our toes as we each tried to make sure we’d get access to the cards we wanted even though they were halfway across the table in another player’s Queue. The art and visual design of the cards themselves, from the dark gothic illustrations of the monsters to the quirky pictures of apprentices and clockwork contraptions are charming and unique, making it even easier to immerse yourself in the steampunk world the game builds.
What We Think Could Be Improved
The way the rulebook is written, this is not a game for someone who doesn’t have much experience with deck-building games. Even for myself, who is very familiar with the usual deck-building game tropes and methods, I found myself confused in many areas of the initial game setup. While the Card Ring and several other aspects of play, such as the order in which actions are taken (all players take their actions simultaneously, something we found a bit confusing to do in practice, so we ended up taking informal turns one by one just so everyone was clear on what was actually happening), are unique, they proved to be somewhat confusing at first blush, and the players felt that the way the book explained each concept was not entirely clear. Some editing or rewriting of the rule book to take new players into account, and clearing up of some slightly awkward descriptions, would go a long way towards relieving this issue.
While the artwork in the game is bold, bright, and visually attractive, we found ourselves regularly getting confused between the Skill cards and the Fight cards. While close examination reveals that each card type is unique, the colors are the same between them (both Minor Skill and Minor Fight cards are silver, Major Skill and Major Fight are gold) and the designs are not distinctive enough at a quick glance, which led to several instances in play of people thinking they were spending one type of card when they had in fact played the other.
Finally, we found that while the Failure mechanic could be fun at times (and led to some delightful name-calling at the table), it was, overall, underutilized. This may, however, have been a side effect of our own way of playing the game.
We certainly had fun while playing Professor Pugnacious, and despite some initial fumbling while setting the game up and some mixups with the cards due to the designs of them, the game itself is well-designed and balanced, and certainly something I can see a group of players picking up often, strategies refining and evolving with each play. If you have tried other deck-building games before, or if you happen to have the game’s creator sitting 5 feet away from you for rules consultations, we highly recommend picking up a copy of the game and giving it a try yourself.
There’s also at least one expansion for the game out now, Treachery On The Trains, which focuses on the Failure rules and mechanics and adds several new ways of making opponents fail (and avoiding failure yourself), which may well eliminate our mild complaint about the Failure mechanics.
Overall, the game is fun, entertaining, and brings some interesting innovations to the deck-building genre. This is definitely a thumbs-up from the Fandible crew!
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