One of the problems with this job -- aside from occasionally getting entire subcultures if not nations angry at you and the inevitable development of a psychotic reaction to the sight of little green army men -- is that sometimes, you run into a game that just isn't your style. You might have some fun with it, sure, but it's clearly designed for people whose brains are wired differently than yours.
It's hard to rate that sort of thing, with the occasionally-painfully-arbitrary conventional numerical scheme that reviewers tend to use. It doesn't deserve a low number, but it's not a first class ticket aboard the three o'clock to Fun City, as a high number would seem to indicate. It's somewhere off the chart, where the grading scale is only barely applicable. On a scale of one to ten, it's... I don't know, blue, or something.
So, with this disclaimer, let's discuss Culdcept, a game which was apparently meant to build a subculture around itself. If you're into collectible card games, or Card Fighters' Clash on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and you like board games, Culdcept, as a blend of the two, is designed to appeal to you.
In Culdcept, you are a Cepter. You use special cards as a method of casting spells, with each unique card capable of summoning creatures from the pages of the book of the goddess Culdra. When two Cepters meet, they duke it out in a strangely ritualized context, on a battlefield comprised of a set number of elementally-aligned hexes.
Your Cepter is found in a small village on the world of Solitaria, by Goligan, a talking walking stick (yeah, I know, I had the same reaction), who's looking for a few good men. You, as a young Cepter who's traveling in search of more cards, are recruited. In the end, it'll be you and your cards, up against a mad Cepter, Geminigh, who possesses the power to destroy the universe.
Between then and now, you'll have to duel with every single Cepter in every single town across the face of the planet, and beyond. It would appear that being a Cepter is a somewhat difficult life, because every jamook with a fistful of cards and an attitude problem wants to take you on. This is probably because the loser of a duel has to give up a few cards to the winner, so a Cepter grows more powerful with every fight he wins. Then again, it could also be your deodorant, so who knows?
During a duel, both you and your opponents are transported to a battle board. Each hex on the board is either empty, and has an elemental affinity (forest, wind, fire, or ocean), or features a pre-existing, immutable structure, such as a fort or shrine.
You begin with a hand of four cards, each of which is hand-painted by a variety of Japanese artists (some of them are downright beautiful), and a certain amount of magical power, abbreviated for obscure reasons as "G," which you use to summon monsters and cast spells. On each turn, you draw a card, to a maximum of six, and roll a die to see how many spaces you'll move.
Each unoccupied territory on the map can be "bought" by landing on it, then summoning a creature to occupy it. If one of your opponent Cepters then lands on that territory, they can opt to pay you some G as a toll, or to summon their own monster and try to take the territory from you.
You can attempt to avert this by equipping a monster with enhancement spells and items, such as suits of armor or new weapons, and by making sure that your monster has the same elemental affinity as the territory he's trying to guard for you. Whatever happens, a fight is over with in one or two hits; either the defender survives, and the territory remains in the hands of the defending Cepter, or the invader wins, the defending monster is destroyed, and the territory changes hands.
The winner of the match is determined by how much total G you've earned, as opposed to how much spendable G you have at the moment. A goal will be set at the beginning of a duel, and whoever reaches it first, and gets back to the Castle with it, wins.
It's a good bit more complicated than that, of course. Most of the monsters in the game have at least one additional layer of abilities or restrictions, and, if you land on one of your own territories, a fort, or the Castle, you can pay more G to level up your land, thus raising its toll and increasing the benefit it gives to a guardian monster of a compatible alignment, or change the land's allegiance entirely, or swap out an injured monster for a fresh one.
Culdcept is, simultaneously, both not as complex as I'm making it sound, and considerably moreso. It doesn't take all that long to pick up, and it takes a lot longer to explain than it does to just show you.
That being said, like Magic: the Gathering, Culdcept is packed to the rafters with ways to break its own rules. A given card, whether it's a spell or a creature, might modify your die roll, launch direct attacks upon an enemy creature, force the CPU to take control of a Cepter, remove a creature's native element, or polymorph a monster entirely. Any rule the game has comes with at least a dozen possible exceptions.
Victory in Culdcept is a matter of arranging your deck -- which must be comprised of fifty cards, no more and no less -- to create as many vicious possible combinations as you can think of, and then exploiting them without mercy. (I'm a big fan of planting Kelpies on level 6 ocean tiles, then watching the fun.)
The problem I have with Culdcept, though, is that pure luck plays way too much of a role. Between the randomness of rolling the dice, and drawing cards from your deck, there's a lot of room to get shafted via no real fault of your own. If the game was something fast-paced, like the recent Battlegrounds, it wouldn't be a big deal, but a single duel in Culdcept can last for a couple of hours. Blowing an intense match in Story mode because the dice weren't cooperating is intensely unsatisfying.
Against a human opponent, that's no problem at all, but trying to play against the CPU is vaguely like shooting craps against a psychokinetic. It seems as though a CPU opponent always has the cards he needs, and always gets exactly the die rolls that he or she was shooting for. They'll never hit the lands you've been building up, and home in on the weak little monsters guarding undeveloped territory. Meanwhile, you keep rolling ones and twos, bouncing from one territory guarded by a powerful monster to another, and your hand constantly consists of three item cards and a completely useless spell.
Obviously, this isn't always the case, and this can obviously go both ways. Of course, an adequate counterpoint is that "can" doesn't mean "will." More importantly, once you've won a few matches, you'll be able to customize a deck to minimize the role that luck plays in your game.
In any other regard, though, Culdcept is spectacular. An in-game manual can be referred to at any time; the graphics aren't even a little 3D, but are nonetheless amusing when they aren't gorgeous; the sound effects are subtle, but effective; and the sheer variety of cards provides an endless number of ways to beat the system.
Just as a matter of curiosity, I made sure to test Culdcept out on a few Magic fanatics I know. They do not seem to want to give it back. I take this to be a good sign. If you're a Magic fan, odds are, you'll like Culdcept, or at the very least, you will attempt to steal my copy.
Don't do that. It's annoying.
I can't get over the role that luck plays in Culdcept, but I have to admit that this is a seriously addictive game. No matter how many times the CPU seemingly cheated, or a friend managed to utterly destroy me using a lameass starter deck, I kept putting the game back in. If you're looking for a deep, varied strategy title, Culdcept delivers, but unfortunately, skill will often play second fiddle to luck.