When I found myself with a chance to review Emergents: Genesis, I knew I was in for a treat. The new deck-building game from Urban Island Games and Top8Magic has quite a pedigree coming from veterans of the field and serious Magic players. The mechanics were the brainchild of designer Anthony Conta while the universe comes from the mind of Magic Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall. Matt Ferrando, who has a Grand Prix Top 8, and Matt Wang, a Grand Prix champion, also worked on the game. Gathering Magic had a chance to speak with Brian about the game way back when they first launched on Kickstarter, and I was eager to have a chance to test the finished product.
Full disclosure: I backed this game on Kickstarter.
Spoiler alert: It was money well spent.
I met Brian and Anthony to get my first taste of being an Emergent. As I sat down, Brian opined that the game involved a lot of shuffling and that maybe sleeves would be a good idea.
Emergents: Genesis has three different card types: avatars, actions, and gear. Players start with an avatar—a hero or Emergent—selected at random. Each Emergent subscribes to one of four disciplines:
- Acolytes — The are cerebral heroes who trade on manipulation. They have access to the counter ability, letting you redirect damage from attacks. (Batman, The Question)
- Non-Stops — They use their speed to see more cards and fuel their power. Non-Stops use flurry to generate multiple effects based on previous actions. (The Flash, Quicksliver)
- Sculptors — They are heroes capable of creating constructs from energy. These heroes make use of erasing cards from the page to forge new abilities. (Green Lantern)
- StrongHarms — They are those who believe the best answer to any problem is their fist—or maybe their foot. They can charge up their attacks. (The Hulk)
The game sets you up as an Emergent learning skills—think Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters meets Teen Titans—and mastering your Emergent abilities.
Players start with Focus and Punch cards. Focus cards generate skill—the game’s currency—while Punch cards attack opponents. The last player standing wins. The inclusion of Punch cards helps to set the tone: You have to attack to be victorious, so you may as well start early.
The starting cards
The rest of the cards—actions and gear—are set up in the book, the page, and the panel.
Here’s a gameplay video to walk you through from the creators:
My first run through had me piloting the Non-Stop Emergent Billy Stopless. Billy lets you reveal cards from the book until you hit an appropriate Non-Stop card while sometimes letting you unleash a huge attack. Anthony and Brian described him as storm meets cascade.
It took some time for me to understand what was going on, but once I found a rhythm, I was able to draw parallels to other games. The interconnectivity of the cards came into focus, and everything clicked. After that aha moment, I was able to focus on how smooth the gameplay felt. Things played out without much subtly as cards had effects in line with their names. A deliberate piece of design, this element helps to lower the barrier of entry makes the game move.
And move it did. For someone whose main source of multiplayer madness is Commander, I often find myself checking my phone. During my very first game of Emergents: Genesis, I found myself unable to take my accustomed screen time because there was always something happening. Anthony said this was deliberate. He wanted Emergents: Genesis to be an engaging experience and to cut down on the “load screens” between turns.
Thinking ahead, however, is rewarded. Anthony and Brian both emphasized the importance of sequencing your plays. Playing a single card out of order can have a lasting, if unforeseen, impact.
We proceeded at a comfortable pace, and eventually, Anthony went down, leaving me to face Brian. In a few short turns, the game was over, with BDM standing victorious. As it turns out, some of my earlier misplays may have cost me a victory.
“You told us not to let you win,” BDM chided.
A sample board state
All the subsequent games followed a similar pattern. Everything moved forward steadily until the conclusion drew near. Just as you know the ending is coming because there are a few pages left, so too does Emergents: Genesis speed to an end with its own forward momentum.
During that first game, I was able to glean some insight into what went into Emergents: Genesis. It turns out Anthony had been working on the game engine for a while when Brian and his business partner Matt Wang approached him with the Emergents universe. Brian was quick to point out that the majority of the actual mechanical design belonged to Anthony, but it was Brian who added the “or” text on tactics cards. Brian said it was directly inspired by his love of the 1980s Judge Dredd board game.
Anthony and Brian rattled off games like Dominion, Ascension, and Magic: The Gathering as influences. On the creative side, Brian was waxed poetic on Stan Lee’s Origins-era Marvel Comics—think 1960s Fantastic Four and X-Men. BDM then cited the Matt Fraction and David Aja Hawkeye run as a more recent source of inspiration.
A sample page
So why should you pick up Emergents: Genesis? For fans of Magic, imagine a combination of Commander and Cube. Your Emergent acts as your commander, and then you can start drafting a deck around that character’s particular abilities.
Designed by gamers, Emergents: Genesis stands up to a stress test that longtime fans of Magic can appreciate with a depth that belies the box. There is genuine effort put into making every aspect of the game operate as expected while not removing the potential for interesting interactions. The game is able to work with its flavor to help convey a message without becoming simplistic.
The Emergents universe is another reason to add this one to your collection. The characters are rich and have distinct play styles. The cards are gorgeous. Freshly opened, they are a little tacky to the touch, but once they hit the air for a day, they have a wonderful, glossy feel. The art—much of which was done by Steve Ellis—fits amazing works into a small space. Everything seems to have just been pulled from the pulp world, and it helps with the overall tenor of the experience. I cannot do the art justice, but when you hold some of the cards, you’ll be able to appreciate the quality.
Finally, Emergents: Genesis is just damn fun to play with friends. Sit down and shuffle up, and the game prompts the group to engage. I find myself looking for excuses to break this one out just to share the social aspect with my circle. On some level, all games are about their communities, but Emergents: Genesis seems to really strive to engage the player in a way similar to Magic, with the game above the table.
There are aspects I found lacking. While the game provides cards to track life, it does not give pieces to move up and down the counter. This is minor, as coins or counters from other games could work. Some cards generate tokens, so I would recommend coming with a bag of beads.
The Acolyte cards can be tough to read, as they have dark blue text on a black background. In normal lighting, this is not a problem, but playing in anything with less than that can be problematic and slow the game down.
Finally, I was hoping for a layout fold-up. I can see this being very helpful for newer players, as there are a lot of piles to track. The diagram in the rulebook is great, but something tactile to help demonstrate the flow of cards would have been ideal.
All this being said, none of these is a reason you should not buy the game, as my qualms do very little to impede the fun.
Some of Anthony and Brian’s favorite cards
A few nights ago, I managed to convince two of my regular Commander buddies—Micah and Rob—to give the game a try. In the time it would take us to play one game of Commander, we were able to get in two full rounds of Emergents: Genesis, and that was with me explaining the rules. That Micah and Rob both enjoyed the game reflects Anthony’s desire for a social experience. The game has a faster pace than other deck-building games, and that appealed to Micah. He also enjoyed how the gameplay encouraged interaction and not a solitaire-style victory. Rob noted that the game would be fun at a very basic level, but also that Emergents: Genesis packed a deep level of strategy that would make playing it over and over again anything but a boring experience.
The biggest testament to Emergents: Genesis is that, after our first game, with the daunting commutes home lingering, we shuffled up and played a second. And we wanted a third.
Back on that first night, I asked Brian and Anthony if they felt fortunate to be putting this game out at a moment when Marvel is everywhere and comics are now a pervasive element of pop culture. Brian was quick to reply that it was certainly fortuitous, but it wasn’t planned. Instead, Emergents: Genesis is about the unification of two of BDM’s great loves: comics and games. As with so many things in life, the love shines through.
- I am a Kickstarter backer of the game, but I purchased my own copy.
- Emergents: Genesis is a fast-paced deck-building game that uses the superhero genre.
- The game is easy enough to enjoy with casual gamers but has a depth of strategy long timer gamers will love.
- Emergents: Genesis is great out of the box, and while I had some minor issues, there was nothing that stopped the game from being fun.
- It is an immersive superhero experience, aided by amazing art.
A big thank you to Anthony and Brian for walking me through my first game, to Matt, Matt, and Zeilend for the second, and to Micah and Rob for helping me with this article.