Game Review: Transformers Trading Card Game

The more I see in this crazy world we live in, the more I realize that there is no drug more powerful than nostalgia. If you have less-than-stellar things to say about something that someone enjoyed when they were a child, prepare for them to come out swinging. I try to not let this affect my judgement. I try to appreciate the new versions of things as well as respect their past. I consider myself a utility infielder of all things geeky. If you need me to play first base and discuss video games, I’m your guy. If you want to talk board games, comic books, professional wrestling, or yes, even anime, I can carry the conversation pretty well no matter what position you put me in. Every once in a while, I make the conscious decision to not get in to a certain fandom. There are a few different reasons, but at the end of the day I just have to say “No, I’m not going down that rabbit hole.” Transformers is one of those fandoms.

Here’s what I know about Transformers:
-Transformers are alien/robot things. Some are good, some are bad. There’s no real in-between.
-Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are popular good guys, with Megatron being the leader of the bad guys.
-Michael Bay has made 73 Transformer movies. Most of them are not very good, according to fans.
Lastly, and most importantly:
-My children LOVE the Rescue Bots animated series. Chase, Blades, Boulder, and (my kids’ favorite) Heatwave are the main Transformers of that series.

My oldest son is 6 years old and I’m pretty sure he legitimately knows more about the Transformers history and backstory than I do. So, when I saw that a Transformers TCG was coming out, with a focus on kids being able to play it too, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. I got the starter set, a few booster packs, and surprised my son with them one evening after work. We’ve played a few games, and I’m here to tell you what I think of it.

In addition to my usual Gameplay and Theme sections, I’ll also touch on competitive play and how I feel the collectible nature of the product compares with other collectible games. As always, feel free to scroll down and find whichever heading you specifically want to read about.

Transformers TCG
Designer: N/A
Publisher: Wizard of the Coast (Licensed by Hasbro)

Gameplay:
The first thing I need to talk about is the cards. The Transformer character cards are oversized and double-sided. One side has their vehicle form, referred to as the Alt Mode. The other side has their combat ready Bot Mode. Each character has Attack, Shield, and Health stats in addition to character abilities. These stats and abilities can change depending on which side of the card is currently face up. This transforming mechanic is actually what made me decide to go out and get the game on its release day. It’s a unique feature that you don’t often see in CCGs that can thematically fit with Transformers better than other franchises.

The character cards also have a star value. On a constructed team, you cannot have more than 25 total stars among all of your characters. Some characters in the game have as many as 13 stars, some have as few as 5. This gives a lot of freedom when selecting characters to use. Do you want 2 high-value characters, or will you go with 4 or 5 smaller ones?

The deck of cards you will be using is made up of Battle cards. You must have a minimum of 40 cards (no maximum) in your deck. There are only two types of Battle cards: Upgrades and Actions. You can have up to 3 copies of a single card in your deck.

At the start of your turn you will draw a card. Then you may:
-Transform one of your characters, flipping their card over.
-Play an Action card from your hand.
-Play an Upgrade card on one of your characters.
After you’ve done any, all, or none of those actions, it’s time to attack. There’s some nuance in attacking but after a few turns my 6 year old picked up on it. The flow of combat goes as follows:
-Turn your character card to signify they are attacking. Now, does your opponent have any turned character cards?

-If Yes, you must attack a character that is currently turned.
-If No, you may attack any of their characters.

Now, both players flip two cards from their decks face up. The attacking player adds their revealed orange squares to their Attack value, while the defending player adds their revealed blue squares to their Shield value. There are other abilities that can allow you to flip more than two cards, but this is the baseline for combat. Take the attacking player’s total Attack value, subtract the defending player’s Shield value, and that is how much damage is dealt. Combat is over.

NOW, the most difficult part of the game: does the defending player have any ready (normally orientated, untapped) characters?

-If Yes, it is now that player’s turn.
-If No, does the player that just attacked have any ready characters?

-If No, ready all characters, and it is now the defending player’s turn.
-If Yes, the attacking player immediately takes another attack with a ready character.

Yes, you read that correctly. If you get in a position where you have multiple ready characters and your opponent doesn’t, you will get to attack a few times in a row. The one caveat here is that you do not get whole additional turns. So, no draw step, and no window to play Actions, Upgrades, or Transform any characters. It feels odd the first few times playing through it, but like any game with unique turn sequences, you just get used to it. It’s not a bad feature… I don’t think. It certainly does feel a little like the game is giving an advantage to the player that already has more characters. So if you lose a character early in the game, things might snowball out of control quickly.

I like how having the orange/blue squares on the cards that affect combat can weigh in to what cards you want to put in your deck. This card’s text effect might be incredible, but if it doesn’t give you any combat bonus when flipped, you may choose against it. Contrary, if you choose your deck of battle cards PURELY on orange or blue squares, I don’t know how much synergy and effectiveness those cards will have when played as Actions or Upgrades. It’s a balancing act, and tough decisions like that in deckbuilding are can really be what makes a game engaging.

And that’s gameplay. Turns go back and forth between players until one side’s characters are completely knocked out. If you run out of cards in your deck, you just reshuffle your scrap (discard) pile, and your deck is good to go again.

Theme:
This is what a card game should be like for a popular IP. You find one mechanic that is unique that the IP can exploit and put on display. In this case it’s the cards flipping from Alt to Bot mode: the transforming. Other games could do something similar, and flip cards to have a character power up or morph in some way. The problem with that is in many cases, characters will go through multiple forms OR there’s no desire to play as the “weaker” form. In Transformers, each character only has 2 forms and they both have their distinct uses and appeal.

As far as what the character abilities represent, they are kind of all over the place. Which is good in this instance. Transformers is a longstanding property that has told hundreds of stories. So, having one Optimus Prime card that’s a Melee fighter, and one that’s a Ranged fighter makes sense. These different versions of the same character help represent them in different situations and mindsets. That’s a lot of fun with a game depicting popular characters that we have a connection to.

Again, this game is thematically on point.

Collecting/Competing:
Well, here’s the part of the article where I do not sing the game’s praises. The rarity distribution is straight up awful. Each booster pack (MSRP $3.99) contains 1 character card 7 battle cards. The character card can be any rarity, while the battle cards break down to 1 rare, 2 uncommons, and 4 commons. The rare character cards (there are 10 of them) have a rarity distribution of 1:10 and super rare characters cards (Bumblebee and Nemesis Prime) have a rarity distribution of 1:79. So buying a booster pack display (30 packs. MSRP 119:99, but often sold between $90-100 through most FLGS) only gives you an average of 3 rare characters, and less than 50% of snagging one of the 2 super rares. Yikes.

Meanwhile, if you look at the card list available on Hasbro’s Transformers TCG webpage, you’ll see that there are more rare battle cards (30) than common battle cards (24)! So if you are acquiring common battle cards at 4 per pack, and rares at 1 per pack you would (mathematically, based on averages) have 5 complete playsets (3 copies of each card) of common battle cards by the time you had 1 complete playset of rare cards. I have personally never played a game or have seen a model that includes more unique, different rare cards than common.

If we combine those 2 rarity models, it takes (minimum) 90 booster packs to get a complete set of rare battle cards, picking up multiple complete sets of common and uncommon along the way. However, the super rare character cards have a 1:79 distribution. So you’d have to get pretty lucky to get that second super rare character in 90 packs.

I know most TCGs are not marketed as needing a complete set of cards to be able to enjoy it. But if you are looking for a specific card, your best bet is to buy singles, as there’s no guarantee of pulling it even if you buy in bulk.

Wizards of the Coast has been on record as saying they do not plan on promoting in-store organized play events for this game. They encourage players to get a local scene started on their own, but there’s nothing official. Some people are upset by this, because they want to play the game competitively. Others are excited by this, feeling that a hyper competitive game can drive away potential casual players. So, whichever side of the fence you’re on, it’s good to be aware going in to this game that there is no planned competitive play.

That said, there ARE official events being held at gaming conventions. It just so happens that WotC is holding some of these official events at the upcoming 2018 PAX Unplugged. There is already some online discussion over on the Facebook page about what decks are best such as Dinobots, Insecticons, multiple Bumblebees, or the 2 Primes (Optimus and Nemesis). It will be fun to see what wins out, and how consistent those results are.

Parents:
Like most card games, set up time is minimal. Especially if you already have deck of cards made up. Personally, I have 2 40-card decks of battle cards already made up. They have some unique cards between the two, but it’s mostly randomized; neither has a clear theme or strategy. Then my son and I pick new teams of Transformers every time we play. Sometimes he takes our 12 point Optimus Prime with some small supporting characters and sometimes he focuses on the Dinobots. This game is 100% able to be played with randomized decks of cards and it is still fun.

The rules say for ages 8+, however my 6 year old son is able to play as long as I walk him through some stuff. I make him read character cards, and then tell me what it “means”. He’s memorized some keywords like Tough and Bold, knowing when they apply. There is reminder text as well on many of the cards, so that helps. I make him do the simple math when we are calculating damage. “A printed attack of 8, plus 2 orange squares on battle cards, is 10. Minus the 3 shield, and another 1 from the blue square on this battle card equals 6 damage.” He’s almost to the point where he could play the game without me helping him along, but we’re not quite there. I think the recommended age of 8 is pretty spot on.

Also, he loves making sound effects when his characters transform, equip upgrades, or battle. Ok, ok… I make sound effects too.

Final Thoughts:
I like it. The game is fun and thematically unique. It’s based on a popular IP that many people have fond memories of from their childhood. It is fun to play with randomized decks, effectively slamming giant robots in to each other until someone wins. It’s also fun to strategize and craft very specialized and focused decks, planning for the most optimized attack possible. This is also a great game to use to introduce the concept of CCGs to young players. The keywords, the combat values, the flow of the turn: it’s all very easy to pick up on. The only tricky part is if the attacking player has remaining ready characters and the defending player does not. But I went over that above, and after a few games, my son has picked up on it.

If you’re not a completionism, and just looking for a fun, casual game, this is a good one. Especially if the words “roll out” take you back to your childhood.

My one request is that since Hasbro is licensing the game, and it is made to be played by younger players, please eventually put the Rescue Bots in the game. I have multiple children telling me they want a Heatwave card. I’ve tried telling them that there’s isn’t a Heatwave card, but they don’t believe me. The only other option is to get Hasbro and WotC to make a Heatwave card for the game. Please and thank you.

As of now, I plan on participating in some of the Transformers TCG events at PAX U this year. Feel free to reach out to me, Randy@GamingWithSidekicks.com, if you’re also going. I’d love to meet up with other players and get to know some people who also enjoy this game.

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