|Prisma Arena (2020)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.00]
|Player Count (recommended)
|John Fiore and Rory O'Connor
A review copy of Prisma Arena was provided by Hub Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.
One thing I especially enjoy about looking at a new entry from Hub Games is that there’s going to be something genuinely interesting in it. Blank is a design toolkit masquerading as a card game. Holding On did fascinating things with theme and with representing hazy memory as a gameplay mechanism. And now Prisma Arena comes and completely solves the problem of representation in board games. I’ll save my comments on that for the teardown but I want to get it on record early – Prisma Arena doesn’t merely show good practice. It’s not even simply best practice. Is there a category higher than best? That’s what we’ve got here and I absolutely love it.
We’ll get to that next week.
Prisma Arena is a sort of cardboard ‘team-based shooter’. A board-game Overwatch if you will. Each player takes control of a small squad of brawlers. They have a hero, representing their heaviest ordinance, biggest cannon, and toughest tank. And they also one or two smaller companions (Mo’Kons), each with a unique ability. Activating alternately between players and characters, everyone chooses whether they’re going to move around the board, strike an adjacent enemy, or blast a remote one. Mo’kons and heroes have different allowances for movement, damage and health and your job is to pepper each enemy character with sufficient wounds that they get ‘bounced’ out of the arena. When that happens they get briefly taken out of the action and you get points based on how tough they were to defeat. First to a set number of points wins.
It’s a very simple setup in almost every respect. There are some additional rules regarding things like grappling, blasting while in melee range and so on. None of them are at all complex. The game plays just as easily in reality as it does in your head and that’s good because games like this can get very complicated.
Prisma Arena’s main complexity lies in the combo cards that each player has available. Every action you take in the game may, or may not, offer you an opportunity to chain a combo onto it if you play a followup card. You might segue from a move into a strike, or a blast into a move. You can keep chaining cards as long as you have any in hand and as long as the card doesn’t terminate a chain. Borrowing a design innovation from Onitama, Prisma Arena makes things interesting by forcing you to discard combo cards into an opponent’s discard pile. You get them dealt randonly at the start of the battle and this ensures you always need to be improvising.
Does it work though? Well, let me do the usual Meeple Like Us thing here and throw in a game design digression.
Prisma Arena is a game that is flirting with two video game genres in its design. The first is the good ol’ beat’em up. Critical in the design of a good video game brawler is the concept of a move set. The collection of actions you can take, how they synergise, and how they function in the loose ‘rock paper scissor’ ecology of a beat’em up roster is where basically the entire game is to be found. A poor move set leads to a poor character, and enough poor characters lead to a poor game. There’s a reason why Street Fighter 2 took the world by storm and laid the foundation for a mega franchise. It’s because its roster was full of interesting characters with equally interesting moves to master. If ‘war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means’ then moves are the vocabularly you have available for persuading your opponents. More than anything else, the combo system in Prisma Arena is the representation of a move-set. It’s more fluid and interesting in its core conceptualising here than you tend to see in a video game, where stealing powers from an opponent is rare, although not unknown.
The second genre we see if we look with our microscope into the DNA of Prisma Arena is the team based shooter. Here, move-sets aren’t quite as important because they don’t need to be all encompassing. You don’t need a ‘call and response’ structure. I don’t need to be able to deal with a ranged character if I’m a heavy duty melee brawler. I don’t need damage output if I’m a healer. Every character is going to excel in some capacity, be mediocre in others, and terrible in a few more. The individual move-set represents then a kind of topographical overlay of strengths and weaknesses. The team is a mesh of those overlays, allowing players to choose a kind of tactical weave with peaks and troughs that must be managed and exploited. Multiple healers supporting glass cannons can be interesting and effective, as can the typical ‘tank, healer, DPS’ combos. ‘All DPS’ can work surprisingly well, as can a kind of ‘all healers’ endurance match. Overwatch, like Street Fighter 2, didn’t succeed just because it played well. It succeeded because it nailed the interrelationship of strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want any one character to be a standout, you want the combination of characters to be the star of the show. And the concept of teaming up a hero with a Mo’Kon strikes me as that.
In other words, while Prisma Arena may seem to offer up a simple premise (get a squad, beat the hell out of another squad) it’s actually got an awful lot going on. It’s an incredibly difficult kind of game to get right because there are two things it really needs to nail:
- Each character needs to have an interesting move set
- The combination of characters in a squad need to complement strengths and weaknesses
I think Prisma Arena does each of these competently. It all works and creates an enjoyable game. It doesn’t though do either of them well enough to really get the most out of the interesting interplay of these concepts. It’s certainly a very approachable implementation of these techniques, which is a good thing in and of itself. More complex games like this tend to disappear up their own arse as players get obsessed with the metagame. Prisma Arena is a pickup and play title. It doesn’t need you to obsessively study your homework.
Well, let’s deal with move sets first.
Each of the combo cards you get is fine, but none of them are particularly exciting. Discarding to an opponent is a great idea – I loved it in Onitama – but for it to really be effective I need to be invested in what I’m getting and reluctant to put something cool the way of my opponent. The tiny move set in Onitama and how it flows means that every card you pass to an opponent might be the key to the lock of the board. You’re constantly examining your board disposition because one wrong move at the wrong time can unravel lots of hard work.
I don’t really feel that come through in Prisma Arena because the combo system means projecting the possibilities for an opponent is all but impossible. At best I can say I’m reluctant to pass on damage cards but I rarely find myself concerned with the specifics beyond that. And likewise, I rarely find a card come into my hand that makes me feel like I’ve been given an exciting solution for my worries. Every card is just a specialisation of something I could already do as part of the baseline action system. ‘Strike once, or strike twice for one damage each time’. That’s great if I’m surrounded by low damage foes, but just a fancy strike otherwise. Cards with interesting effects are usually too situational to really get my blood pumping.
But importantly, the nature of the design of Prisma Arena means that I can’t develop an interesting move set because that comes from synergy. You don’t get interesting move sets through a random deal. Individual elements need to feed in and out of each other, with all the attendent emergent complexity that implies. In Prisma Arena all I can do is respond to a series of largely equivalent moves that never cohere. It’s like playing a hole of a golf course without ever caring what club you’re using. Sure, it’s still fun but it feels like something is missing.
Probably. I don’t play golf.
Now, there’s a feature of Prisma Arena I haven’t mentioned yet, which is that you level up as you play through the matches and levelling up gives you access to prisma powers. Combinations of those can be selected at the start of the match to configure yourself with a kind of tactical load out. And those powers are interesting. They let you phase through obstacles, rally troops, absorb energy and then dish it out as additional damage. The problem is that you get so few of them, and the really cool ones take such a long time to get, that the best parts of the game may never even be experienced by a lot of Prisma Arena players. Mrs Meeple and I have played this multiple times and I still only have level two Prisma powers. The third level contains toys I just can’t play with within the framework of the game.
To be fair, you can get these powers during the course of a match too, but the level of your character determines how many you can use and how much total power you can have available. For a long time, the fun stuff is still kept tantalising out of reach.
Even when you get the best tools though, mostly what you have are a range of passive buffs. The combo cards themselves never become more exciting as you level. You’re not going to be starting off with punches and kicks and evolving to chain lightning and earthquakes. This keeps the move set approachable, but it does put a hard limit on how much you’ll be enthused to use it.
Team composition is the second ingredient in the stew, and again here we’re limited by the fact that there’s no real way characters work together in synergy. They represent buffs more than anything else – kind of like mobile, free-roaming prisma powers of their own. Every player character though begins the same, so it’s not really possible to complement strengths and weaknesses because no character has any. You don’t get tank Mo’kon pairing up with healer heroes or vice versa. The texture of the squad topography is entirely flat with occasional small peaks. The troughs – the weaknesses – are an important feature too though. It doesn’t really feel like Prisma Arena gives you an interesting squad mesh no matter the combination of companions you have.
There’s a reason that certain character archetypes dominate group-based games. Tank, healer, DPS triads didn’t emerge simply as a consequence of the popularity of World of Warcraft. It wasn’t even the originator of the system. It’s just because in order for everyone to feel important, everyone needs to have something of unique value they can do for a group. It’s one of the reasons why those of us playing druids in WoW felt so underappreciated for so long in the classic game – the unique benefit they brought to a big raid was ‘you’re here as a battery for our priests and to combat resurrect our priests when we lose them, priests priests priests’. Prisma Arena has an egalitarian battleground, but it means team composition just doesn’t matter much. As with specific combo cards, you don’t care that you get a specific Mo’kon. Any will do, really.
It’s possible that reading all that leaves you thinking I don’t like Prisma Arena, but that’s not true. I do like it. I just don’t love it. And it may be that’s because in the end all of this talk of move sets and team topographies shows one thing clearly – I take my games way too seriously. I’m exactly the kind of over-thinking bell-end that gets off on exploring the systemic depth in games that I don’t even enjoy playing. But I felt consistently through Prisma Arena that it wasn’t quite reaching the itches that I needed scratched because it never went where I wanted it to go. I wanted upon levelling up to get new combo cards revealed to me – ideally from secret sealed envelopes full of hidden promise. I wanted to be able to pick a hero archetype that I gradually built out in ways I wanted. I wanted leveling up to impact on stats as well as on prisma powers. I wanted to feel like I owned my character. Which, to be fair, is exactly what Prisma Arena implied would be the case…
See, you get your own locker! You get a bag to store all your cards! And you get this sheet of stickers which I absolutely adore and will be a massive feature of next week’s teardown:
I get to put my stamp of personality, within the constraints implied by the stickers, on my hero. I just never really get to put a similar stamp on how that hero plays – at least to the extent I’d like.
However, all of this is fixable. Very fixable, in fact. Prisma Arena could easily solve all of these issues with expansion packs, an optional legacy campaign, or even additional leveling rules and printable character sheets. The problem for me is I don’t know if any of this is on the cards (teehee). And that leads me to my Final Thoughts.
In order for Prisma Arena to end up with expansions and additional content, it needs to prove its economic worth. It needs to do numbers. There’s no point investing time and effort in a product that won’t yield a return – margins on board games are already thin. But board gaming is still stuck in the mindset of ‘Put out a game, see how it does’. The best you get as a guide to future intentions is on Kickstarter in the form of stretch goals.
I don’t like ending reviews by saying ‘This would be great if X was done in the future’ because I have no idea if X will ever happen. I find myself in these circumstances thinking ‘if only there was a road-map for this game I could consult’. Video games do this all the time. You don’t even need to actually make good on them – we all know Star Citizen is basically vapourware, but that doesn’t stop the developers putting out road-maps, and then removing them in favour of a road-map to a road-map. I’d be a lot more comfortable in enthusiastically recommending Prisma Arena to people if I knew what the future plans were should it do well enough.
It’s a good base of a game. A solid foundation upon which I think a really exciting, interested and varied game could be built. As it stands though, it’s good not great and I don’t know if it’s going to get the popularity it would need to fulfil ujpon its promise. If you’re looking for a fun knockabout tactical battle game, Prisma Arena is worth your consideration. If you’re looking for something you can over-analyse in the manner of an ivory-tower academic asshole like myself, you may need to wait, potentially forever, for expansion content.
A review copy of Prisma Arena was provided by Hub Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.