One of the marvelous things about a 52-card, 4-suit deck of playing cards is just how many different games you can play. From the complex to the rudimentary, there are card games for all skill levels. Some are so simple, however, that the entire game relies on the luck of the shuffle, with no real strategy involved.
One example of that is the oddly popular game “War“, wherein a deck is split 50/50 then opponents flip up their top cards simultaneously: the higher card wins both. If they tie, each places a facedown card and then another face-up card in the central area, the winner gaining all six total cards. The player who wins the entire deck wins the game. There is no strategy at all but the game endures, even if it often takes quite a while to fully resolve.
Enter “Ransom War“, a variant on the card game War from game designer Bill Bennett. It adds some small element of strategy but mostly it’s a mashup of basic D&D skirmishes and the traditional card game. Instead of just having the random element of the shuffled card order, it adds dice to first ascertain battle initiative, then actual attack and defense rolls. More importantly, every single pairing of cards is a battle so it’s a lot slower to go through, but considerably more interesting.
COMPONENTS AND BASIC IDEAS
Let’s start with the basic components of the game. They are a deck of 54 cards, four dice, and a convenient box that holds the cards but not, alas, the dice (if the box were just a 1/2″ longer they could fit atop the cards, which might be something for the second edition of the game):
As you can see, each card is bright, visually interesting, and includes four numbers along with a descriptive text or special power listed at the bottom of the card. The overall design is fun and lively, very reminiscent of classic Dungeons & Dragons.
The four values are Attack (the hammer), Defense (the shield), Value (the coin), and Health (the heart). Each card also has special powers or effects listed at the bottom. You can see that the Zombie, for example, isn’t very good, with an attack and defense of 0, a value of 1 coin, and health of 2. It also attacks last, meaning there’s no need to roll initiative if it’s involved in a battle. By contrast, the Fire Elemental is pretty tough, with an attack of 2, defense of 0, value of 2 coins, and health of 2. It also matches any elemental, not just the specific Fire Elemental, and if you can end up with both, that coin value jumps to 5, instead of 2. Per card, so those that pair go from a combined 4 points to 10 points!
This brings us to another significant change: The game is played until you’ve exhausted your initial deck. There’s no cycling of cards won in battle, no endless rounds that go back and forth, back and forth, forever. With 27 cards each, this means that a game will take at most 27 battles and typically about 20 battles to resolve, one way or ‘tother. Let’s jump into the game!
HOW TO PLAY RANSOM WAR
The setup is easy; put the four included dice in a central spot, shuffle the deck thoroughly, then deal one each per play until you have the entire deck distributed. Ready? First cards DOWN!
This is Lich vs Wizard! They’re fairly evenly matched, something you can ascertain at a glance by looking at their coin values. At the end of the game, your “ransom deck” (the cards you’ve won in battle) is scored based on coins, so winning the high coin value cards is pretty important. But they’re stronger cards, as we’ll see, so it’s not so easy.
The first step in a skirmish is to check if they’re both the same card. They’re not, so we’ll check for special effects that might influence the battle: We have no ransom deck to start out, so the Lich effects don’t apply. The Wizard isn’t battling an Elemental, so his effect doesn’t apply either. We’ll need to roll for initiative to see who attacks first!
Initiative is calculated as 1D6 + Coin Value, so the Lich is at 2 + 3 = 5 versus the Wizard at 2 + 1 = 3. Lich attacks first! The dice are re-rolled:
Since the Lich is attacking, its attack is going to be 1D6 + Attack Strength or 4 + 1 = 5. The Wizard defends with 1D6 + defense, or a rather pathetic 1 + 0 = 1. 5 v. 1? The Lich crushes the hapless Wizard. Bummer. Note that if the situation would have been reversed and the Wizard would have successfully attacked the Lich, it has a health of 3 so would require two more successful attacks to be defeated, making it a stronger opponent.
In skirmishes, one player can always look at the opponent and decide to surrender the battle. No dice are rolled and the card is surrendered, but the surrendering player gets a very helpful +3 on dice rolls for the very next skirmish. If you’re down to the last few cards and the two in battle are low point (coin) value, it can be a great tactic to help ensure you’ll win a subsequent skirmish!
A BIT FURTHER INTO THE GAME
A few more skirmishes have transpired in Ransom War and we’re in a pretty heated battle of Wizard vs. Knight:
This is the second attack roll; the first attack was the Wizard and it overcame the Knight’s defense, subtracting one point of its 3 points of health. That is generally denoted by the use of the additional dice as markers: By having the two on the bottom of the card, I’m indicating it now has two health, rather than three.
With this particular roll, the Wizard has an attack of 3 + 2 versus the Knight’s defense of 6 + 2. Knight defends successfully and the attack switches. Remember, attack/defense alternates once the order of initiative is ascertained through the initial dice roll + card (coin) value step.
The next turn both players reveal a Necromancer, which means it’s WAR! Like the regular card game, war is resolved by each player then adding a face down, then face up card: The two newly revealed face up cards then battle:
In this instance, it’s going to be Fire Elemental vs. Imp (Demonic). The special effects related to Fire Elementals relate to forcing a new War if opposing another Elemental (which doesn’t apply), while the Imp’s special effect is a sort of super-attack: If it successfully attacks, then a subsequent die is rolled and with a result of 1 or 2, has a super-hit that outright kills the opponent, regardless of remaining health. Nice!
Again, we’ll roll for initiative…
The dice rolls are identical, but the Fire Elemental has a (coin) value of 2 versus the Imp’s 1, so the Elemental attacks first.
Fire Elemental’s attack is 1 + 2 = 3 versus the Imp’s impressive defense of 5 + 3 = 8. Imp easily avoids the Fire Elemental’s attack, laughs cruelly, then spins around with an attack of its own (that is, another dice roll and comparison of values).
And so it goes, card after revealed card until you’ve gone through your initial deck. Once done, spread out all the cards in your Ransom Deck, check all the yellow scoring modification boxes, then add up all the coin values. The player with the most coin value wins Ransom War!
FINAL THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS
From a gamer’s perspective, it’s hard to understand the appeal of the basic card game War, so it’s great fun to have Ransom War add an additional layer with its initiative and attack/defend skirmishes. It’s also a great thing that the game has a defined endpoint rather than just going on forever (like Uno, the game that never actually ends, particularly with lots of players). The winner, however, is still mostly random, whether it’s the randomness of the initial shuffle or the random results of dice rolls. The only actual choice a player can make is whether to lose a card by surrendering so that they can get that great +3 on the subsequent skirmish and how they order the cards they’ve won in skirmishes and wars that they place in their ransom pile. Is that enough to make this a fun game? Yes, but mostly for younger players or non-gamers.
The prototype I played was also plagued by in-process rules that were revised time and again during my testing, muchly due to questions and clarifications I sent to the game designer. Props to Mr. Bennett for not getting fed up with my emails, but I certainly hope that the rules will be significantly improved prior to final production of the title; good rules are critical to the enjoyment of a game, whether it’s as complex as Gloomhaven or as simple as, well, Ransom War. I would also like to see a deeper box that allowed the dice to be stored within and to have different color dice, perhaps red for attack, blue for defense, to help players track what turn they’re in. While I’m dreaming, a better mechanism for tracking health during a skirmish might be nice too, but that might be something chosen at the moment, like actual coins that represent each point of health.
With those qualifications and comments, Ransom War is a quick, fun, light game with very little thinking and essentially zero strategic play required. Sometimes that’s just what ya need to clear your brain from a tough day at school or work, so it might indeed be a great addition to your casual game shelf and certainly fits in even the smallest backpack, purse, computer bag, or vehicle glove compartment.
Ransom War is a 2-3 player card game from Bill Bennett Games. $18 at Ransomware.Wixsite.Com
Disclosure: Bill Bennett Games sent me a copy of the game in return for this candid review. Thanks, Bill!