A buddy of mine and I picked up both sets of Hawken on a whim the other day based on Tom Vasel’s glowing impression of it. Most of the time, games that try to combine strategy with real-time aspects seem to fail, but I had seen it work before. Jab: Realtime Boxing is quite a solid game that seems to hang out in a similar niche to this one.
Hawken is pretty simple for a (semi)-collectible card game, with each of the game’s 40-card decks featuring only a handful of unique cards. Cards represent weapons and their ammunition, so if your mecha has a Slug Rifle as its main weapon, you have maybe 12 copies of that same card in your deck. This is sort of novel, but does feel a bit odd at first.
Each round will start with players flipping one card at a time off of their decks in real time, and choosing to play it face-up in a stack of like-colored cards to be used for its ability, or stack it facedown to be used as cover, potentially preventing damage later on. Players can continue to do this as long as they like, however, flipping more cards is quite dangerous in a couple of ways.
First of all, your mecha’s health is represented by the same stack of cards you’re burning through, so for each card you play, you’re essentially dealing yourself 1 damage. Furthermore, many cards have a “heat” rating, which will cause your mecha damage at the end of the round. What’s worse, the heat can only dissapate at a rate of 1 per round, so even spending a single turn at eight or nine heat can wind up in you taking a beastly amount of damage from yourself. So if you’re playing lots and lots of cards, you’d better make sure they’re worth it.
But you might not have time to do that… One you’ve flipped three cards, then at ANY point you can call “FIRE!” (not strictly necessary but very satisfying) and grab the corresponding FIRE! button. The opponent must stop flipping cards as well, though they’re allowed to flip up to three cards if they’re somehow still below that. At this point, there is some book-keeping… players must make sure nobody put cards in the wrong stacks, check their respective speeds (the faster mech can do some free damage or change the “engagement range” one step from long to medium, or medium to short, or the reverse), deal with the heat they’ve accumulated and then each player in turn resolves all of the cards they played. Any new damage is dealt in the form of cards, taken from cover first, then off the top of the deck, and the first player to be forced to reshuffle 3 times loses the game.
So while there are a couple of neat mechanisms here, and some interesting interplay between cards, unfortunately, my impressions weren’t quite as glowing as Mr. Vasel’s. The game’s not BAD, but there are flaws that come out after only a few plays, and still haven’t managed to resolve themselves with fresh plays.
The two packs are Scout VS. Grenadier, and Sharpshooter VS. Bruiser. The first pack contains two mechs that feel very different and care about different parts of the game. The Scout wants to have more speed-granting cards than the Grenadier, getting into close range where his weapons do more damage. The Grenadier has more of the powerful armor cards (which reduces speed, but he can still occasionally win by surprise) and more consistent weapons which don’t have the weaknesses of the Scout’s cards. Of the two sets, this was the most fun, because of the times when the Grenadier managed to barely squeak past the Scout in speed, mitigating the damage, or when the Scout managed to rush to close range and blast away with the flak cannon. The cards here are more flavorful, too. All of the games we played with this set felt close to evenly matched.
The second set of packs, Sharpshooter VS Bruiser, seems less balanced. The Sharpshooter’s weapons have harsh limitations (with the rifle only doing 1 damage unless the player builds a large stack of them, and the sniper rifle losing 3 of its 7 damage unless fighting at long range.) while the Bruiser’s have less limitations (Rifle does less damage if you play more than 4 of them, Missiles do 5 damage instead of 7 unless you have an aiming card). The special ability cards (limited to 2 per deck) seemed stronger in the Bruiser deck as well, with one card giving every Rifle card +1 to its damage. Everything seemed far less conditional, lending to hands where the bruiser could get 3 or 4 cards out quickly and keep the Sharpshooter from either building up a stack of Rifles or getting enough speed to escape armor-piercing “Aim” cards and get to long range to make their rifle effective. These games were all blowouts in favor of the Bruiser.
In both decks, however, there was a major problem. Effects are incredibly swingy, and interact with each other so strongly that it’s possible to cancel out everything an opponent is doing without even noticing. Do you have 3 or more speed? Tow Rockets are going to do less damage. Do you have an Aim card? You completely remove their Armor card. Did you play Thrusters? That’s one free damage against their cover stack. There are so many of these all-or-nothing interactions that grabbing the button as soon as possible seemed like a good idea for everyone except the Sharpshooter. The advantages conferred by some of these cards are too great to risk letting them be cancelled, so as soon as I’d have a good, un-cancelled card, I’d just “FIRE!” immediately, regardless of anything else. It often seemed better to just grab the fire button early even if I was losing, just to reduce the total damage I could take. As a result, the heat track never advanced very far, meaning that mecanism almost never came into play.
Even if it had, there was a grey card which reduced the impact of heat on the game, lowering you TWO STAGES instantly. Of course you never knew if you were going to draw it next round, or just take it as damage this round, so building up heat in anticipation of drawing the coolant card was a very risky proposition. The grey cards in general ranged from absurdly powerful (Camouflage makes all cover cards absorb 3 damage instead of 1! EMP limits your opponent to 4 cards, chosen at random from those they have played!) to extremely situational or just plain weak (+1 to secondary weapon cards, 5 in a 40 card deck, or put 2 cards from your discard at random on the bottom of your deck.)
There are a couple of clunky mechanisms, here, too. First, if you’re forced to reshuffle while you have a lot of cards on the field, you’re going to be taking a lot of “pseudo-damage” which can really turn the tides of the game. Second, cards all being in the same stack makes sense for visibility to the opponent, but there is no such rule for the grey cards and they’re often the most powerful cards. I found that really considering card interactions beyond “X beats Y” was very difficult since the opponent could always stop you from playing cards. This ended up feeling very much like “taking a knee” and the idea of running out the clock and winning by increments doesn’t feel much like mech combat to me. Finally, playing a card is an automatic point of “damage” against you, so tossing unwanted cards into cover seems very good… if hunkering down and hiding until you have a clean shot is a good strategy… well, I guess that DOES match up with most online combat games. (Hey-oooooooo!)
The components aren’t great, either. The cards are cheap but not too bad, the art on them isn’t varied but it’s attractive and thematic, the little board is solid and isn’t warped and the tokens punched out fine. The standees for the mechs are cute but not necessary. The rulebook quality is only okay, though. We had a few questions about grey cards that weren’t answered. (Does EMP make the player shuffle their cover cards, too? What happens if a weapon deals 2 damage to a Camouflaged-d Cover card?) My biggest complaint here is the box which instantly fell apart. It’s one of those giant paper tuck-boxes. At least make it as sturdy as an M:TG starter, guys.
Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t awful by any means. I found it hard to try to keep track of the interactions between cards as we were playing them. I understand this is part of the reason for making it real-time, but since doing this at real time without slowing down was somewhat difficult, just playing stuff really fast quickly became dominant. Perhaps some customization of the decks would make it more interesting.
Anyway, my verdict is a resounding “Ok.” I have enjoyed other real-time games more, and I think that those games thrive when there are either fewer, weaker, or simpler interactions to keep track of. Anyway, If the game sounds intriguing to you, I would strongly suggest getting the Scout vs Grenadier pack because of my perceived balance issues with the other pack, and the decks feeling like they play in different ways. If you enjoy that I’d pick up the second pack but would use it more for customizing than playing straight out of the box.