Custom Heroes is a ladder-climbing game (a variant of trick-taking) in the same vein as Tichu or Clubs, but with the major twist that players can "sleeve" power-ups permanently onto the cards.
Trick-Taking / Ladder-Climbing
Designer: John D. Clair
Artist: Matt Paquette
Publisher: AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group)
Category: Trick-Taking / Ladder-Climbing Game, Card Crafting Game
Player Count: 2-6
After Dominion spread like wildfire in 2009, it was followed not only by a variety of other deckbuilders, but also by pool builders, dice builders, hand builders—you name it. Perhaps the most interesting evolution of this phenomenon has been the card crafting system from AEG and designer John D. Clair, which first began with 2016’s Mystic Vale. In that game, players modify sleeved cards by covering them with transparent pieces of plastic that modify parts of the original card.
They didn’t stop there, however. Several games are planned in the card crafting system, and the next is upon us. Custom Heroes is a ladder-climbing game (similar to trick-taking) in the same vein as Tichu, Clubs, and Daifugō, but now players can adjust their hands by “powering up” their cards—but those cards may show up in other players’ hands in future rounds! Can this strange hybrid of a game actually work? Let’s find out!
The game has Japanese-inspired fantasy artwork, which is fine, but three of the five female characters have unnecessarily revealing outfits. And—to be fair—the male cover art character is also not wearing much up top either.
On the surface, Custom Heroes is a pretty simple ladder-climbing game. The deck of cards is simply 1-10 repeated once per player—there are no suits, no trump, and no face cards. Players simply play a set of cards with the same number, and other players follow with the same number of cards (same rank or better), or pass, until everyone passes successively. You win a round simply by running out of cards first, and points are given according to the order players finish. Compared to Clubs or Tichu, I was shocked by how simple the game’s shell was, and immediately wondered if maybe the game needed a bit more. I mean, you can’t even play runs!
However, I quickly found that John D. Clair and AEG were quite brilliant to keep the game’s shell simple. The meat of the game is in the advancements (plastic overlays that upgrade cards). Players begin with three of them, and can upgrade cards in their hand at any time, allowing them to make powerful plays and turn the tide of a given hand. There are two excellent twists to this formula. First, these work as an excellent balancing mechanism—players who finish farther in a hand score fewer points, but receive more advancements for the next hand. The second twist is that advancements stay on the cards, even though all of the cards are shuffled and redealt each hand. So that amazing power you put on a card may end up in someone else’s hand in the next round!
Giving up advancements makes for some deliciously difficult decisions, but it’s also hard to swallow for some players. My friends who grew up wih trick-taking games didn’t mind this one bit, but one friend who is obsessed with engine-building games hated giving up his advancements to the whims of fate the following round. This makes the game come across as very tactical, but I don’t think it is. A huge part of trick-taking games is knowing where you think cards are in other players’ hands, and it’s hugely important to remember what’s been added to the deck and who played what. Additionally, some advancements are activated with a really clean and clever system where players can spend star tokens to activate advancements, or if they choose to play the card without the ability, they earn one star token back—some are also doled out each round with the victory points and advancements. So players have to also manage their token income from round to round, knowing what abilities might come to them. They also have to decide when to save advancements for future turns, or whether they are worth the immediate gains. I vividly remember one decisive win where I saved my “trump” advancement (Ascended Form) that everyone starts with until the end of the game, after the other Ascended Forms had been played in that hand.
That’s not to say the game isn’t tactical at all—it very much is—just like other ladder-climbing and trick-taking games. But I would say this game has far more long-term planning than most of this genre. However, the game does live in a very weird cross-section of genres. I usually play trick-taking games like Hearts and Spades with my parents, and I feel fairly confident they would not understand this game or be interested in it. On the other hand, some of my gamer friends who didn’t grow up in a trick-taking household don’t quite appreciate the game for what it is. If you’ve had both experiences, e.g. heavy gamers who grew up with trick-taking, or Tichu addicts who clearly can handle a complex card game, this game is truly incredible. It’s the best of both worlds.
So not only do you have to find like-minded players, you also have to find only about three of them. This game is definitely best at four players. With three, we found the skipping rule–if a player plays a set of the exact same rank as the previous play, the next player is skipped automatically–to be particularly obnoxious. It was too easy for two players to play in succession in a row and repeatedly skip the third player. While that’s completely possible to recover from and could even work to your advantage as the third player, it’s not particularly fun in the moment. And to be honest, the skipping rule has no connection to any other mechanism, and the game would work without it. I have absolutely no idea why the rule is there. However, with four or more players, it’s not likely to be the same player repeatedly skipped, so it’s less bothersome. For what it’s worth, I didn’t mind it, but some other players really did. However, with five or six players, the game can go well over an hour, while we were able to play games in about 30-40 minutes with three or four players, which I think is a better fit. Because one player needs ten points and to win a hand after that, and because the deck continues to grow in size with each player, the playtime goes up exponentially. I see why they wisely limited the game to a showdown after six rounds, but it’s still a bit more fun if the game ends naturally. All that being said, I wouldn’t bother to play this with two (haven’t), but I would never turn down a game with three, four, or five players. With six players, I might suggest we split into two games.
And if we did split into two games, I would want to make sure I was in the game of Custom Heroes. Even though I think the game has an extremely narrow audience due to its weird mix of influences—trick-taking, modern engine-building type gameplay, anime artwork—I’m definitely among that audience. I really like the art style also, but I did find the female artwork borderline too revealing. If it’s a problem for you, you can easily replace the character cards with cards 1-10 from any numbered deck of cards. They’re basically just numerical placeholders. Before playing this, it had been a long time since I’d played Tichu, Clubs, or any other ladder-climbing or trick-taking game, and I’d forgotten just how much I love the genre on its own. Paired with the awesome advancement system, this is some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year. This is an incredible game, with great production value, a pretty cheap price ($30 MSRP), and awesome gameplay.
Thank you to Alderac Entertainment Group for providing a review copy of Custom Heroes.
+ Great use of card crafting system
+ Tough to decide when to use power-ups, knowing you'll lose them next hand
+ Game is just the right amount of complexity—designers deftly avoided over-complicating the ladder-climbing rules
+ Iconography is clear and done very well
+ Reasonably priced
+ Game is fast and fun
- Some may find giving up powered-up cards annoying
- Skipping rule can be obnoxious
- Weird hybrid of genres may give it a narrow appeal
- Revealing artwork is entirely unnecessary
- Powered-up cards are easily detected when dealing out hands