Circumstances have prevented the Dungeon Crawl Classics group I’m in from having enough folks to run anything, so we’ve been playing various other games during our regularly scheduled nights. Last time we got together, I decided to bring over “The Challenge”, an obscure card game whose perforated cardstock I’d not even gotten around to separating yet.
“The Challenge” is a game of quasi-D&D-like PVP action. Players take turns having their party members fight it out with weapons and magic until one party is eliminated and the player with the most remaining HP + Magic item value + HP of enemy characters killed is the winner. Instead of the BS backstabbing and indirect conflict of Munchkin, The Challenge is all about straight head to head combat. As its name implies, a challenge is issued and characters slug it out until one is killed or both players have exhausted their actions.
Each player starts with 5 characters that can be sorted into one or two ranks. The races of the character (Orc, Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling) aren’t particularly relevant unless you choose to let players pick parties by race rather than randomly to get a more balanced party. More important are the classes and their abilities. Each character card has three abilities, meaning those are the cards that can be played when they are in combat: Fighters will have three of the four weapon types, Clerics and Wizards will generally have one weapon and two spells or no weapons & three spells, and Thieves will have two weapons + Backstab.
So, you draw a fist full of cards from the Melee and Mystic Action decks. The Melee Action deck is mostly full of weapon cards, Daggers, Staffs, Axes, Bows, and Swords, but also has a few “Parry” and “Dodge” cards. The Mystic Actions deck has spells, equipable magic items, some special thief actions (Spy and Hide in Shadow), and some general defensive items/actions. These cards can be played based on what abilities are listed on the character card. If you have a fist-full of Axes, chances are, you don’t want to attack with a wizard that turn, but if you’ve got that shiny human paladin, you’re good to go.
One of the neat aspects is the “ranks”; most characters can only attack one rank away (i.e. a fighter on the first rank can only challenge a fighter on another player’s first rank), but characters with bows can attack two ranks away, wizards can attack any rank(or two ranks, I forget), and if you play a “hide in shadows” card on a thief, they exist in special thiefspace and cannot be attacked but can attack either rank (though doing so will cause them to leave thiefspace). Once we actually figured out how the thief worked, we realized they were pretty badass. Since hide in shadows can be played as a response, it meant that they could attack with impunity so long as you had an extra hide in shadows card.
We had a lot of fun with it, but we will definitely need to create our own set of explicit rules and clarifications. For one thing, the rules pertaining to cards were neither entirely on the card nor in the rules’ description of the card, so you had to read both the card and the rules to figure out how something worked, and even then it could be vague. Dispel Magic was a point of contention because it was so varied in what it did: on a defensive turn, Dispel Magic could be played to neutralize a negative effect, such as Hold Person, on your own party, but on an attack turn, it could be used to destroy an enemy’s magic item (initiating a challenge against that character), remove a Charm Person (initiating and then instantly ending the challenge if the dispel resolves and you regain control of your character), or counter a spell targeting your caster. The jury is still out as to whether it can negate an Orb of Protection (because Orb of Protection is party-wide and normally targeting an enchantment/equipment initiates a challenge against whomever is enchanted/equipped), but we agreed that it could not negate the Shield Wall action. And here is where things are confusing: there are things which are actions which common sense tells you is an item. Healing Potion is not an item; it’s an action that can be played in response to taking damage or to remove accumulated damage. Similarly, an Orb of Protection is a “Special Defensive Action” which can only be played during a defensive turn. Note that the categorization of Mystic Action Cards is listed not on the cards themselves, but in the manual’s description of each card.
This is a game that if you have the patience to figure it out and don’t mind having to piece together your own errata will make a great addition to your gaming parties. It would feel right at home among something like Bang! or King of Tokyo for folks who like their party games a bit more cut-throat but don’t like the more passive aggressive styles of play. Though the box’s disclaimer “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Your Friends” is silly and childish, it could just as well read “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Eurogamers.” The only way you’re going to win at this is to be unafraid to throw an axe in someone’s face. Just make sure you’ve feigned with a Sword-3 or something to draw out that Parry before you drop the Axe-7 on them.
I found this game cheap several years ago and regret waiting so long to play it. Old as it is, this one is still going for under $20 in a lot of places, and I highly recommend it.