The greatest fighter cats in the world are competing for the Hairweight Championship Title. Build attack combos, power up your special moves, and unleash the furry.
What Is PopCats Fighter?
PopCats Fighter is a video-game inspired card battle for 2 or 4 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 30–60 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $35 for a copy of the game (with shipping costs to be charged later). I’ve played the game with my 11-year-old, and while there is a bit of rules explanation, I think experienced gamer kids won’t have too much trouble picking it up even at perhaps age 10 or so. There is, of course, some cartoon violence but not even at the level of what you’d see in fighting videogames.
PopCats Fighter Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. Game Designer Estefania Rodriguez and artist Arnel Baluyot are local to me here in Portland, so they brought over a prototype and loaned it to me for a few days, and then picked it back up for demos at San Diego Comic-Con.
Here’s what comes in the box:
- Red/Blue Corner Board
- 2 Meter Storage boards with sliders
- 4 Health Bar boards with sliders
- 8 Character cards
- 16 Special Move cards (2 per character)
- 8 Power Up cards
- 97 1-vs-1 cards
- 27 2-vs-2 cards
- 3 Win tokens
- 1 Turn Tracker token
The components and artwork have all been designed to evoke the feel of an old-school arcade fighting game, and it looks great even in the prototype form. The box itself had a magnetic flap that opened up, revealing a character-selection screen, along with a joystick and two buttons for game selection. These are the backs of the Red/Blue Corner board and the meter storage boards. There are even quarter slots on the front edge of the box.
There are lots of fun little details like that included. The health bar is a double-layered board, with a card that slides in and covers up the colored bar. As you take damage, you slide the card out so that more of the color is exposed, until it reaches the skull and you’ve been defeated. The back of your character card has a “Game Over” message and—as an additional touch—the “Continue?” prompt that will be familiar to arcade-goers.
The illustrations are by Arnel Baluyot of Ninjabot; I’ve seen his artwork before at local shows, and he has a whole series of “Pop Cats” with these cute cats dressed as various characters, both real and fictional. PopCats Fighters sticks with their own IP, avoiding any infringement issues, but there’s a fun mix of characters, from luchadores to pirates to cyborgs. I really love the artwork on these, though there’s only three illustrations per character. There are also pledge tiers available with just art prints, in case you love the artwork but don’t want the game.
The Meter Storage board is where you stack up cards to power your special moves. The prototype used a double-layered board that had a small plastic slider, though I’m not sure what the final form will be. I will say that sliders are notoriously difficult to pull off and this may be the single most expensive component in the game—hopefully they’ll find a good solution that works well!
Overall, the components look great and have an ’80s vibe to them, with lots of bright colors and simple icons. The only issue I saw was the yellow background on some cards, which made the white text difficult to read; there’s time to get those adjusted, though.
How to Play PopCats Fighter
You can download a copy of the rulebook here. I’ll focus mostly on the 1-vs-1 version of the game, with a brief explanation of the 2-vs-2 game.
The goal of the game is to crush your opponent, of course. You can either play a single fight, or best two out of three. (Or I suppose you could just feeding quarters into the slot as long as you want.)
Give each player a meter storage and a health bar. Everyone gets a character card along with their two special moves, and a randomly drawn Power Up card. Your health bar starts full, and your meter storage starts at 0. Shuffle the cards and deal each player 8 cards. Choose a start player and give them the turn tracker token.
On your turn, you will attack and your opponent will defend, and then there may be a response phase.
When you attack, you get 4 actions, which may be spent on any of these options:
- Attack move
- Move Enhancer
- Instant card (only once per turn)
- Draw 2 cards
- Burn 2 cards
Other than the Instant card, any of these options may be chosen more than once.
An attack move consists of one or two cards: an attack card, a directional card, or both together. Each card has a damage value at the top (also noted in the card text), and some cards have additional effects.
Move Enhancers are played on a particular attack move, and can affect how they resolve. Taunt is a great way to start an attack because if the opponent can’t block it with a Kitten Block card, they’re vulnerable to the rest of your attack. Stunned will cost you two cards from your meter storage, but cannot be defended against.
Instant cards can only be used once per turn (and are placed next to the corner board), but they have powerful effects. Standing on Your Last Paw makes your attacks stronger when you’re low on life; Paw-er Burglar lets you steal your opponent’s power for a turn; Stacks on Stacks lets you double up attack moves.
You can also draw cards and burn cards. When you burn cards, you place one in the discard pile, and one face-down on your meter storage, increasing its value. Various effects will cause you to spend cards from your meter to activate them, including your special moves. You have a hand limit of 12 cards, so if you ever exceed that at any point you must discard until you’re below 12.
Your character card gives you an ongoing ability; your Super Move and Mega Move are both high-damage attacks that may be played if you spend cards from your meter. The Super Move also has an additional reward that is activated as soon as you play the move. (Each move may only be used once per turn.)
Once you’ve played out your attack turn, your opponent gets 4 actions for their defense, which may be used for:
- Defense Move
- Move Enhancer
- Instant card (once per turn)
- Draw 2 cards
- Burn 2 cards
Most of these actions work the same way as the attack actions. Defense moves include blocks and counters that protect a player from attacks. Some blocks reduce the amount of damage done, and others can totally cancel an attack. Any attack that is fully negated is turned face-down.
If your opponent played a Counter card (which also allows them to play an attack move on you), then there is a response phase, where you get one action per Counter to defend yourself from counterattacks. (You can’t counter counters, so there won’t be an endless loop.)
Then, both players take damage equal to the cards that were not blocked or reduced by sliding their health bars. There may be some cards that take effect “if successful,” so those trigger now. Finally, put all of your successful or partially successful cards (attack or defense) into your meter storage. Instant cards and unsuccessful cards are discarded.
Now it’s your opponent’s turn to attack you.
The game ends when a player is reduced to 0 health. If playing a best-of-three match, give the winner a win token (on the red/blue corner board) and then start a new fight.
In a 2-vs-2 game, you shuffle in the additional cards before dealing them out. There are new attack, defense, and instant cards, but the gameplay is fairly similar. Players sit next to their teammates.
The turn order alternates between teams, though each turn is a single player attacking a single defender, and you alternate the target each time it’s your turn to attack. Your teammate is allowed to give you up to 2 cards from their hand during your turn, but they must be used immediately and may not be saved for later. Your teammate is also allowed to play an Instant card during your turn (in addition to the one that you’re allowed).
If your teammate dies, they put their hand (except for Instant cards) into your meter storage. Their character power and Power Up are no longer available to you, but you do get 5 actions per attack and defense turn instead of 4.
The 2-vs-2 game ends when one team is eliminated.
Why You Should Play PopCats Fighter
PopCats Fighter is definitely designed for people who (1) love the ’80s and (2) love cute-but-vicious kitties. It’s a throwback to classic fighting games like Street Fighter, and I think the packaging and aesthetic will really appeal to the same audience who snapped up the NES Classic.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward, and most of the cards are easy to understand. Lay out your attacks, see how your opponent defends, and then get ready to defend yourself. The trick is figuring out the best combo, and also making sure you’re spending some actions to draw cards so that you don’t leave yourself defenseless (or declawed for the next attack).
There are many fighting games out there, with a wide range in complexity and strategy. I’d put PopCats Fighter on the easier end of the range—it’s not too difficult and has a somewhat higher mix of luck. For instance, it can be frustrating if you spend several actions drawing cards and never get the attack or defense card you need. At the same time, there are strategic decisions to be made throughout: do you spend an action taunting your opponent so that the rest of your attacks might get through? Or do you just spend all your actions on more attacks, so that you have higher total damage if they’re not blocked? Or, maybe, you should spend some actions filling up your power meter so you can pull off a Super Move or a Mega Move.
The Super Move usually seems to be a better deal to me, because it costs less and also gives you an instant reward of some sort, while the Mega Move requires a full meter—and both can be blocked by a single Special Move Block card. On the other hand, if you know your opponent is out of defense, that Mega Move can wipe out half their health in a single go, which can turn the tables on a fight.
Unlike some fighting games, this one is turn-based, with players taking turns on offense and defense. That means it’s more about managing your cards and actions, and less about predicting what your opponent is going to do—which one you prefer is a matter of taste. I have some friends who are terrible at reading other players, and would probably like this better because they can just look at the attack as it’s laid out and respond to it. Other players may prefer simultaneous choice because it feels more like an arcade game, with both players hitting buttons at the same time.
Ultimately, I think PopCats Fighter is a good fit for players who want a slightly more casual fighting game, and not the intense mind-games involved in something like Yomi. Because the action cards are shared, you only need to learn your own character ability and Power Up, rather than learning an entire deck per character. It makes it a bit easier to get started, and also means there may not be quite as much strategic depth.
My daughter and I had fun trying out a few of the characters before we had to return it, and we enjoyed a couple of pretty close fights. (And we were also proud of being able to defeat Estefania and Arnel in our learning games!) It’s light-hearted, adorable, and if you like the artwork it might just be the cat’s pajamas.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the PopCats Fighter Kickstarter page!
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