Mix and match your mutants to breed powerful gladiators, and then send them into the arena to battle your opponents!
What Is Mutants: The Card Game?
Mutants: The Card Game is a deck-building game from Lucky Duck Games for 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 45–60 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $39 for a copy of the game. (Higher pledge levels are available for a copy with neoprene player mats, as well as additional included expansions.) While the game diverges a bit from traditional deck-building games, I think it’s not too difficult for kids with some experience with deck-building. Thematically, the game is about breeding mutants for battle and the illustrations do include some creepy monsters and busty women, so introduce to your kids at your own discretion.
Mutants: The Card Game Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. In particular, the Kickstarter page mentions components for solo play, but these were not included in my prototype so they will not be covered here.
Here’s what’s in the box:
- 48 Basic Mutant cards (12 per player)
- 72 Advanced Mutant cards
- 4 Player Aid cards
- 4 Preconstructed Gene Pool cards
- 4 Player boards
- Main board
- 4 Power markers
- 4 Score markers
- Round marker
- 13 Singularity Wizard cards (for Solo Boss Mode)
- 21 Jack Ice cards (for Solo Boss Mode)
48 of the advanced mutants are used in the preconstructed decks (4 decks of 12 cards each), and the remaining 24 are used in draft or constructed mode.
Mutants is based on an app called Mutants: Genetic Gladiators, and the artwork of the various characters and creatures comes from the app. It has a sort of comic-book feel to it, with bold black outlines and exaggerated features, but with a lot of texture and variations in the colors. I like the style overall, though (as I mentioned before) most of the female humanoid characters (of which there aren’t many) tend to be large-chested and scantily clad. (Update: The publisher informed me that the art team will be making another pass on the artwork before final publication, particularly addressing some of the more risque characters, so that may bring this more in line with the “10 and up” age rating.) There’s a big variety of different mutants, including robots, aliens, and animals, and the advanced mutants are “cross-breeds” of the basic types.
The other components are fairly straightforward: the main board has a scoring track along the outer edge, and the center has a round tracker and the power track, which indicates your relative positions in the gladiator arena. The player boards have various spaces for your cards: your deck and discard, frozen mutants, three areas for played cards, and an incubator. There’s also a turn order reminder and some small reminder text printed in various areas of the board.
How to Play Mutants: The Card Game
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to score the most points by dominating your opponents in the arena and putting valuable mutants into your freeze zone.
Give each player a player board and a starting deck (which includes 2 copies each of the 6 basic mutants). Each player’s starting hand consists of 1 each of the basic mutants; the remaining cards are shuffled and placed in the “deck” area of the player board.
The main board is placed in the center of the table, with the round marker on the first round and score markers on “0.” Choose a starting player. The last player’s power token is placed on the start space of the power track (just below the highest spot), and the rest of the power tokens are placed behind it, so that the starting player is the lowest on the track.
Each player will have a gene pool of 12 advanced mutant cards (2 each of 6 types); these can either be from the preconstructed decks, or you can use one of the variants where you draft or construct your own decks. Shuffle your gene pool and make 3 piles of 4 cards each, face-down, near your player board. Then turn the top card of each pile face-up.
On each turn, if you have a card in your active mutant slot (the top center of your board), then you must slide it left or right. If there is already a mutant in that space, then it will leave, going to your discard pile, which triggers its “leave” effect at the bottom of card.
After shifting your active mutant and resolving any effects, you may either Deploy, Breed, or Incubate.
Deploy: Play a mutant from your hand into the active mutant slot. If it has a “deploy” ability (indicated by a card with a down arrow), then you activate that ability right away.
Breed: Discard two cards from your hand to your discard area, and then deploy a mutant from your gene pool. You must match the types shown on your advanced mutant with the types that you discard. Each advanced mutant has two symbols in the top left corner: you must discard at least one of each symbol, though you may discard extras that don’t match. (Some mutants have two of the same icon; you only need to discard one of that icon to breed it, but you still must discard two cards total.) If your newly bred mutant has a “deploy” ability, you activate that ability immediately. After breeding, reveal the next mutant in the gene pool stack, if any.
Incubate: Discard one card from your hand. Take any mutant from your gene pool and place it into your incubator slot. You may only have one mutant in your incubator at a time. Reveal the next mutant in the gene pool stack, if any.
That’s basically it—but of course then there are all the various powers involved.
Sword icons indicate attacks, which will affect other players. You may cause players to move down the power track, or you may force them to knock down mutants, which turns them face-down and cancels their abilities.
Shield icons represent block effects, which can be triggered in response to an attack. They cancel the attack, and then you use the printed ability. In some cases, the card is still knocked down, but you gain power.
The “+1 then -1” effects let you draw a card from your deck, and then discard a card from your hand. Cycling through your deck is good for two reasons: it helps you get to the cards you want to play more quickly, and every time you need to shuffle your discard, you get to freeze a mutant. (We’ll get to why that’s useful later.)
Some of the advanced mutants (the ones with two of the same icon) have ongoing abilities. These reward you for taking particular actions, and you may be able to move up the power track while also doing other things.
Transforming mutants immediately leave, triggering their leave effects, and then deploy the top card of your deck (triggering its deploy effect). They can be a bit random because you don’t know what they’ll turn into, but they also cycle through your deck quickly.
Many of the cards gain or lose power, which moves you up or down the power track. If you’re already at the top of the power track when you gain power, it pushes everybody else down the track. If you’re at the top of the track and everyone else is in the bottom three red spaces at the start of your turn, you have crushed your opponents and the round ends immediately. If you are above another player on the track (or your token is on top of theirs), you are “dominating” that player, which may affect some of the card effects.
Finally, there are some powers that let you copy other abilities (but not transform, block, or ongoing effects), and there are some powers that will freeze mutants, placing them into your freeze zone. Frozen mutants will be worth points at the end of the game.
Once you run out of cards, you are done for the round and will skip your turns until the round is over. Because of breeding and other card effects, it is possible for players to run out of cards at different rates.
The round ends when everyone is out of cards. The highest player on the power track scores the larger number shown on the round tracker, and the second highest player scores the smaller number. If a player is crushing their opponents, then that player scores both values instead, and other players score nothing.
Then, reset the power markers so that the player with the lowest score is on the start space of the power track, and the player with the highest score is below everyone else. The player with the highest score will start the next round.
Every player first puts the mutant from their incubator (if any) on top of their deck, and then draws six cards for their new hand. If you run out of cards in your deck, then you will choose a card from your discard pile to put into your freeze zone, and then shuffle the discard pile to form a new deck and continue drawing.
The game ends at the end of the sixth round.
Every player counts up the values of the mutants in their freeze zone (shown at the top right of each card). Most mutants have a numerical value, but some award points for a particular symbol type—you earn a point for each symbol of that type in your freeze zone, including on the card itself. Add your freeze zone total to your score.
The player with the highest score wins. Ties go the player with the lower freeze zone score, and then to the player highest on the power track.
Why You Should Play Mutants: The Card Game
I’ll confess: the first time I tried Mutants, it kind of fell flat, and I wasn’t really excited about playing it again. But I was told I should really try it with the drafted gene pools, and it was a lot more fun. The hard part about a game like this is that your strategy depends greatly on the advanced mutants in your gene pool, but if you use a preconstructed deck then it might not line up with your play style. Each of the preconstructed sets pushes you in a particular direction, so after playing the drafted version I was able to understand the cards better, and also understand how the preconstructed decks are supposed to work:
- Mosh Pit is all about scoring on the power track.
- Cold-Hearted scores by getting mutants into your freeze zone.
- Breed to Beatdown is about, well, breeding more mutants.
- Vicious Cycle wants you to cycle through cards.
Knowing how the decks are supposed to work also made the next time I played with preconstructed decks (to teach new players) a bit more fun, too, because everyone knew going into the game what their approach was supposed to be. Still, I think once you’ve used them to learn the basics of the game, it’s a lot more fun to set up your own gene pools.
In a way, Mutants is a deck-building game in both senses of the word. First, there’s the way you build a deck that becomes your gene pool. It’s only 6 card types (two of each card), but you have to pay attention to the mix of card abilities and the symbols required to breed those mutants. If you mix it up and have a balance of symbol types, it may help you get a lot of the advanced mutants bred quickly. On the other hand, if you focus on one or two symbol types, you can also use those advanced mutants to breed again later—plus there may be some more card synergies that can narrow down your strategy.
Second, it’s a deck-building game because everyone starts with the same basic deck of cards, and you add cards to it as you go. The difference here is that everyone has their own private “market” to buy from, so aside from the starting cards you won’t have anything in common with the other players. That’s something I haven’t seen in a deck-building game since Nightfall (which had a couple of cards that were common to everyone and a couple that only you could buy from), and it ends up working pretty well in Mutants. It does mean that people can pursue very different strategies toward victory—but it also depends a lot on how you built that gene pool.
Since you’re buying from separate card markets, the usual limited interaction in deck-building games of buying a card that somebody else wants is no longer possible. However, there’s still plenty of other interaction involved, both in the maneuvering on the power track and through attack cards. It’s easy to get invested in building your deck or trying to pull off a cool combination of effects, but if you don’t pay attention to the power track, you’ll be left behind on the scoreboard. Ideally, you use ongoing abilities to move up the power track while pursuing your chosen tactics. Attack cards can also be very effective, knocking down other players’ mutants or pulling them back down the power track—but if somebody is building a gene pool that’s heavy on attacks, you may benefit by putting more block abilities into your own gene pool.
There can be some bad luck involved, though, even if you’ve built a deck well. For instance, each of the prebuilt decks has one card with an ongoing ability, usually one that moves you up the power track if you do a certain thing. Well, if you don’t manage to get that card into play, then even if you pursue the “right” strategy for that deck, you may find it hard to score on the power track. In some cases, that card you really need to appear early in the game ends up being at the bottom of your gene pool stacks—well, that’s just bad luck for you. In another instance, I had a game in which I never got to activate my ongoing ability, because my cards kept getting knocked down once I finally played them—though that was partly due to my own mistakes, not using block cards for protection when other players were playing attack cards. Update: Vince Vergonjeanne of Lucky Duck Games told me that they’ve introduced a mulligan rule, where you can cycle the top card of each gene pool pile if you don’t like what you start with, so that may mitigate this problem at least a little bit.
Freezing mutants is also an interesting aspect of the game. That’s not a totally unheard-of feature in deck-building games—titles like Dale of Merchants and Valley of the Kings both require you to remove cards from your deck in order to win or score points, and weeding out weaker cards is often a valuable tactic in deck-building games. In Mutants, you have two ways to freeze cards: either by triggering an ability that lets you freeze something, or by drawing through your deck so that you have to shuffle your discard pile. That means that cycle abilities and transform abilities, both of which get you through your deck more quickly, will also feed into your freezing. Plus, as you freeze more cards from your deck, you’ll have fewer cards to draw before you have to reshuffle, and so on, which can create a cycle. In one game, I managed to freeze over half of my total cards, though it wasn’t quite enough to win the game. Choosing which cards to freeze is also a tough decision: do you put your basic mutants (worth only 1 point each) there to make your deck more powerful? Or do you put your newly bred mutants in there for more points, knowing that you won’t get to use their abilities any more?
I really like the deploy/leave effects on the cards. It creates an interesting puzzle when you play your cards, because you have to decide whether you want to slide mutants to the right or left, and which effects to trigger and in what order. This is particularly important in the case of ongoing effects or copy abilities, because you may need a card in the correct place to use a copy ability.
Mutants has definitely grown on me after the second play, and I’ve taught it to a few more groups since then. I can’t say I’m particularly good at it, but I’ve enjoyed both putting together the gene pools and then trying to figure out how best to utilize them. It’s a curious mix of deck-building and hand management. The battling is somewhat abstracted to that power track, so I didn’t always feel like we were actually gladiators in an arena so much as jockeying for position, but it’s pretty fun either way.
If you, like me, enjoy seeing the deck-building mechanic used in new and unique ways, Mutants is one you’ll want to check out. For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Mutants Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype of this game for review purposes.