If you've never checked out Lauren Faust's reboot of My Little Pony, you're missing out on a brilliantly written animated show that's a far cry from the twee nonsense of yesteryear.
Even if you've never watched the show, though, you should still take a look at this collectible card game, since its simple to learn rules but surprisingly deep amount of strategy gives it the potential to become a big hit -- maybe not of Magic: The Gathering proportions, but certainly something we'll surely start seeing organized tournaments for before long. Plus it's simply a fun two-player game, too, even if you have no intention of playing competitively or getting too deep into the deckbuilding metagame.
To get started with MLP: CCG (as we'll refer to it hereafter), you'll need a basic deck, as will your opponent. This consists of ten "Problem" cards and at least 45 Friend, Event or Resource cards, usually of two different colors that match those seen on your Problem cards. You'll also need a Mane [sic] Character card, usually of one of the two colors your deck is built from. Starter decks are available either as single two-color "Theme Deck" packs that come with the appropriate two Mane Characters, or in a two-player Starter Set that includes a pink and white Pinkie Pie deck and a yellow and orange Fluttershy deck.
In other words, to have all the Mane Characters available to you, you'll need a copy of the two-player Starter set, the Twilight Sparkle/Applejack Theme Deck and the Rainbow Dash/Rarity Theme Deck. Each of these offers a preconstructed deck that meets the game's deckbuilding rules and is plenty to get started with.
The cards themselves are of nice quality and thickness, with a glossy finish and bold, colorful, sharp artwork pulled straight from the show. The cards for which color is relevant are made extremely clear, and each color is distinguished from one another with a symbol as well in order to cater to color-blind players. It's a shame the action point tokens that come with each set aren't as high-quality, however, being made of somewhat flimsy, lightweight cardboard that can be blown away by sneezing slightly too hard, but there's nothing stopping you using something else instead -- the gemstones from a copy of Ascension work well, for example.
This being My Little Pony, this isn't a game about direct conflict between the two players. Instead, you're competing to be the first to gain 15 points through successfully confronting and resolving various issues represented by the two players' Problem card decks. Two Problems are visible at any one time -- one from each player's deck -- and the requirements to confront each are different for each player. The owner of the Problem deck usually requires less total "power" to confront the problem, but has specific color requirements, usually of the "[x] of one color, [y] of any other color" variety. Their opponent, meanwhile, has to gather a certain, usually greater, amount of power, but it can be of any color. This allows for the fact that you can't easily predict what colors your opponent's deck will be.
To confront Problems, you play cards from your hand by paying their action point cost and meeting their prerequisite requirements -- many cards require that you have a certain amount of power of a particular color already on the table before you can play them. This is an important consideration when deckbuilding -- it's all very well having a handful of powerful cards, but if you have no way of meeting their requirements, they're useless.
Cards may be played to either of the two visible Problems or your "Home" area, and may be moved between any of these locations for two action points. If, at the end of your turn, you meet the requirements for one of the Problems by having enough power of the appropriate colors in front of it, you score a point (plus its bonus points value if you're the first person to successfully confront that problem) and thereafter continue to score a point for each turn you continue to successfully confront it unopposed. In order to prevent you from simply vacuuming up points without doing anything, however, there's a mechanic in play to keep the "battlefield" moving: Faceoffs.
If you confront a Problem and your opponent is also meeting the conditions for it, you have a Faceoff against that opponent: you compare the respective total power levels of the Friends you have at that problem, then both flip a card and add that card's power to your total. Whoever has the higher total wins and scores that card's bonus points value; regardless of who won, though, all characters involved return to your Home area, which has a cap on how many cards may be present at the end of your turn (i.e. your opponent doesn't have to dismiss cards until the end of their turn if their Home becomes full), and a new Problem card is revealed to replace the now-resolved original.
If you're confronting both Problems simultaneously, you have a Faceoff across both Problems, regardless of whether or not your opponent is meeting the conditions for either. This works in the same way -- total up your power, in this case from Friends at both Problems, then flip a card and add it to your total. Again, the winner receives bonus points -- in this case, the higher of the two bonus values on offer -- and all characters return home afterwards, clearing the board and revealing two new Problems.
A third type of Faceoff occurs if your opponent has played a "Troublemaker" to one of the Problems; these block you from successfully resolving the Problem, and you must beat them in a Faceoff to remove them before you can confront the Problem. They do not block your opponent, however -- unless you've also played a Troublemaker to the same problem -- and so while you struggle to overcome an infestation of Purple Parasprites (one of the most irritating cards in the early game due to its ability to exhaust character cards) your opponent could be raking in the points. To make up for their inconvenient nature and annoying abilities, however, they do score the player who overcomes them a point or two, so they're not necessarily a catch-all solution for preventing powerful players from winning. The turn structure means that it's possible to defeat a Troublemaker, confront a Problem and trigger a Faceoff in the same turn, potentially providing a lot of points in one go if there are some Problems with high bonus values in play.
To counter some of the inherent luck in Faceoffs' card-flipping mechanics, a number of cards have special keywords that trigger special abilities, some of which may be used in Faceoffs. Pinkie Pie's Random ability, for example, allows her player to flip a new card over if the one they flip has 1 power or less. Twilight Sparkle's Studious ability, meanwhile, provides players with a bonus action point if they win a faceoff, making it worthwhile for purple deck players to be somewhat more confrontational than some of the others.
Each of the color decks has a very distinct feel to them thanks to the combination of the cards involved, their costs and their special abilities. Particular standouts include blue (Rainbow Dash) decks, which can move cards around significantly more easily than other colors, yellow (Fluttershy) decks, which have a number of cards that work well in combination with one another to build up huge amounts of power very quickly, and pink (Pinkie Pie) decks, which have some of the few abilities that allow you to directly "dismiss" (remove) your opponent's cards from the board.
The Mane Characters are also distinct from one another, too, even when playing a different Mane with the same deck. Unlike the other cards, Mane Characters are double-sided, beginning as a 1-power card of their relevant color. By meeting a specific condition -- different for each Mane -- you're able to flip it over and turn it into a 3-power card with several special abilities and a higher cap on how many cards you can keep in the Home area. A big part of each game is trying to make this happen as soon as possible while stopping your opponent from doing the same.
Some of the decks are significantly harder to use than others -- the Pinkie Pie/Rarity deck in the two-player starter set seems particularly challenging to use effectively, for example, as it's a deck built more around controlling the board than building up large amounts of power -- but this provides a good degree of variety and interest, both when playing and when deckbuilding. It's a little curious as to why this particular deck was included in the starter set, since it seems to be a deck made for more advanced players with a better grasp of the game's strategy, but it does at least demonstrate the clear difference between decks that are up-front powerful (such as the starter set's other deck, featuring Fluttershy/Applejack) and those that are more concerned with controlling the board. For those familiar with Magic: The Gathering, the difference is roughly equivalent to the distinction between Aggro and Control decks, though with the somewhat different mechanics and less confrontational nature of the game, it's not quite identical.
As with most collectible card games, MLP CCG's biggest strength is its flexibility. Even with just the starter decks, you can freely combine various combinations of colors together to build a deck that fits your play style. Add a few booster packs with the possibility of rarer cards and there's even more interest added -- particularly if you happen to grab one of the Villain cards, which acts as a Troublemaker on both players, not just one.
As well as being flexible, though, MLP CCG is also highly accessible, even to those who have never played a game like this before. Once you get your head around the rules -- something which the rather poorly organized rulebook hinders rather than helps, it must be said -- it's simple to understand and quick to play, making it a good game to take on the go with you if you have a travelling companion that also enjoys it, and an easy game to teach to newcomers. In fact, the biggest challenge you might have in this regard is overcoming the inherent My Little Pony resistance factor present in someone who's not familiar with the new take on the show.
In short, if you're looking for a fun card game that is less aggressive and confrontational than Magic: The Gathering -- and eminently suitable for children as well as adults -- then MLP CCG is a solid choice. It's pretty cheap to get started with, but as with any other CCG, has the potential to become a bit of a money sink if you get carried away with booster packs. The base game and starter decks are interesting and balanced enough -- with the possible exception of the Pinkie Pie/Rarity deck -- to keep you going for a long time without even having to think about buying any boosters, however, leaving the game feeling like something that wants its players to have fun more than it wants to make money. It's always a pleasure to come across a game built in that way, and strangely appropriate for an adaptation of My Little Pony.
An enjoyable and solid two-player game with the potential to become an obsession for the dedicated pony fan. The rulebook is poor and some of the starter decks are arguably unbalanced, but the game's flexibility and accessibility more than makes up for that.
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