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By Mr. Saint
I love fighting games. There’s just something about that particular video game genre that has always captivated me. The intersection of theorycrafting and practiced mechanical execution have always kept me coming back. I still watch the Evo Championship Series every year and follow the Capcom Pro Tour whenever I have time. While I can enjoy 3d fighters (and had quite a proficiency in Soul Calibur 2, back in the day), and marvel at the skill ceiling and execution requirements of the anime fighters, my favorites will always be the classic 2d fighters, especially the Street Fighter franchise.
But, I must confess, I haven’t actually played a video game fighter in over five years. Now in my mid-thirties, my reflexes aren’t what they once were. I also don’t have the time to spend hours in training mode practicing combos and special moves to play fighting games at a competitive level. Instead, I have been looking for an analog fix to my digital woes. We started by dusting off Yomi (read our review here), a game that we already owned but hadn’t played in a long time. More than anything, revisiting Yomi reignited my interest in exploring the plethora of two-player dueling games. After some research and deliberation, we settled on Level 99’s Exceed Fighting System as the next game to try.
The Exceed Fighting System (hereinafter Exceed) is a two player card battler. The goal of each game of Exceed is to reduce the opponent to zero life. To that end, players will take control of a character from an ever growing roster of intellectual properties. Recognizable cultural icons from the Street Fighter universe may be joined in battle with the magical and monstrous denizens of Level 99’s own Seventh Cross. Shovel Knight, from Yacht Club Games, might find himself facing off against Motion Twin’s Beheaded. New characters are getting added all the time, and while individual IPs have their own unique styles, they all work seamlessly within Exceed’s system.
Each of Exceed’s characters is represented by a deck of thirty cards. Half of each deck is the same, composed of two copies each of eight different Normal attacks. These attacks represent the type of things most any fighting game character can do, like a sweep, blocking, or throwing their opponent. The remaining cards in each deck comprise a character’s Special attacks and Ultras. Often, these are a character’s signature abilities from their source material, such as Ryu’s Hadoken. Each deck has a reference card which details the Special attacks and Ultras of that character, which should be given to the opponent at the start of a game.
A game of Exceed occurs in a nine space arena, with players taking turns doing various actions. These actions include things like moving, changing out cards in hand for others, or putting a boost into play. Boosts are temporary bonuses, which usually last until after the resolution of the next strike. Some actions require force, which can be generated either by discarding cards from hand or by spending gauge (gauge is primarily earned from successful strikes).
One of the most important actions a player can take in Exceed is initiating a Strike. When a Strike is initiated, the attacker sets one of their attacks facedown on the table. Then the defender does the same. Both cards are revealed simultaneously, and the attack with the highest revealed speed is resolved first (ties go to the person who initiated the Strike). All attacks have a range, determining at what distance from the enemy fighter your attack will be effective.
As an example, an attack with a range of 1-3 will hit the opponent if they are one, two, or three spaces away from you, but will miss if they are further. If an attack hits, it deals damage to the opponent equal to its power minus any armor the opponent has. Then, if the opponent isn’t stunned (a character is stunned when the damage they take from a strike is greater than their attack’s guard value), their attack now resolves. Any attacks that successfully hit go to their player’s gauge, which can be spent later on powerful Ultra attacks or to flip your character to their stronger Exceed mode.
It’s all pretty simple. Some attacks have Before, Hit or After triggers which might complicate things a bit, but the triad of speed, range and power form the basis for how most strikes will resolve. Players will continue taking actions in turn until one of them is victorious.
I have to admit, when I first heard that every character’s deck in Exceed contains the same number and distribution of Normal attacks, it was not a selling point. Rather, I was concerned that having fully half of each character’s deck be the same would result in an overall feeling of homogeneity. Especially after playing Yomi, where virtually every card in each character’s deck was unique to that character, it was hard to look at Exceed’s Normals as anything but a negative when forming my preconceptions of the game.
I’m happy to report that this is one of the many times in my life where I got it absolutely wrong. Exceed’s Normal attacks are the glue that binds the whole system together. Their ubiquitous inclusion instantly makes Exceed more approachable than Yomi, as, even if you don’t know what your opponent’s character is capable of, you know they have 2 Assaults, 2 Grasps, etc. in their deck. Starting with this shared framework across all of the characters, players can quickly internalize Exceed’s systems and start to make informed, tactical decisions in relatively few plays.
As an example, let’s say it’s your turn, you’re at Range 2, and you’ve decided you want to Strike. Your opponent only has 6 life left, so connecting with the Sweep in your hand should close out the game. Looking through the opponent’s discard pile, you see that neither of their copies of Cross are present. As such, you know it is risky to commit to an attack with less than 6 Speed at this range, as anything slower may potentially be met with one of those previously unseen Crosses, damaging you and catapulting the opponent’s character to safety before your attack has a chance to land (an attack with 6 Speed would win a tie against your opponent’s Cross because you’re initiating the Strike). Maybe you aren’t initiating a Strike with Sweep this turn after all.
After only a handful of games, Mrs. Saint and I were able to intuit whether a given attack was more or less likely to be successful by comparing it to the normals that are effective at that range. Because the Normals are present in every character’s deck, they form the baseline by which other attacks will be evaluated against. Digging deeper into the world of Exceed, I later found out this was a design principle known as the “Speed Curve”. But I think it speaks volumes to Exceed’s approachability that we were able to internalize this concept before I had ever heard of it.
While the Normals are the core of Exceed’s gameplay, Level 99 has done an admirable job of making each fighter feel different and exciting through their Special attacks and unique abilities. Most of Ken’s Specials allow him to close distance with the opponent and are better if you are the one initiating the strike, giving you the sense that he is an aggressive brawler. By contrast, the bevy of defensive stats and low speed on Geoffrey’s Specials indicate you will be playing a more reserved game, trying to trade favorably rather than win strikes outright. With a constantly expanding cast of characters derived from various gaming IPs, there’s an Exceed fighter to fit anyone’s personal style.
And you know what? Exceed does feel like the best parts of a fighting game to me. Gone are the execution and reflex based barriers to mastery, but the tactical play of the best fighting games remains. Controlling space, proper positioning, understanding your opponent’s options and reading their intent: it’s all there. Like its source material, Exceed is quick and punchy. And like the best moments of its video game predecessors, it’s incredibly gratifying to get into your opponent’s head, correctly predict what they want to do, and cut them off at the knees with the perfect counter.
One might argue that, when compared to digital fighting games, there is less player agency in Exceed. In digital fighting games, all options are always available to you (barring things like super moves which usually rely on some type of resource that must be accumulated). It’s up to you to correctly analyze a situation in order to determine the best play and then follow up with the necessary mechanical execution in order to realize your plan. Because Exceed uses a randomized deck of cards to represent your fighter’s available moves, and because you do not have access to the full deck at all times, your choices are limited by comparison.
And I think that is a fair criticism. But I also think it’s a bit overblown. In our experience, judicious use of the Change Cards and Reshuffle actions significantly reduce variance and help players find relevant options. On occasion, you may legitimately have a game where you feel like you can’t do anything because you’re not getting the cards you need, but this has probably occurred once in thirty games for us. And with the average game of Exceed lasting around fifteen minutes, the next exciting match is literally only a handful of minutes away.
We initially bought a couple of boxes in order to give Exceed a try. While our collection started out with only eight fighters, it has quickly grown to a roster of over forty. Exceed fits a niche in our collection as the perfect game to squeeze in when we have thirty minutes or less but still want a rich gaming experience. It captures the best parts of fighting games while simultaneously being more accessible than its digital counterparts. So far, it’s our most played game of 2020, a trend I expect to continue. And at this point in time, it’s easily my favorite two-player game.
By Mr. Saint
Ken has always been one of my favorite fighting game characters. Going all the way back to Super Street Fighter II Turbo, where his character design broke with the traditional shoto fireball style in favor of a rushdown style that relied on knee bash loops, a superior jab dragon punch, and crazy combos. What better way to start our new Exceed Fighting System focused blog series, “A New Challenger”, than with this archetypal paragon of fighting games.
True to his video game roots, Ken, as portrayed in Exceed, is a character defined by relentless aggression. Take his unique character ability (UA), which allows him to Close 1 and draw a card. As long as what you want to be doing is moving towards your opponent, Ken’s UA gives you a very economical way to do that. In a similar vein, attacks like Shoryuken and Knee Bash reward you for being the one to initiate a Strike (+2 speed for Shoryuken and +0-1 Range for Knee Bash). So you should always be pressing to move into and continually strike at Range 1 then, right? What I’m about to say is the secret to unlocking Ken’s true power: Ken is at his best at Range 2.
To drive this point home, let’s look at what may be Ken’s best special attack: Axe Kick. Thanks to its “Ignore Armor” clause, seasoned players will know that it is dangerous to play Block against Ken at close range while Axe Kick is live. Further, if you can afford to critical Axe Kick by paying one gauge, it becomes an on curve attack at Range 2, beating Cross if you were the one to initiate the Strike (Critical is the Season 3 mechanic, whereby Street Fighter characters can spend one gauge when setting their attack to gain access to that attack’s critical text). If you were at Range 1, you would have to worry about Grasp, but because of Axe Kick’s “step-in” (Before: Close 1) you can safely blank Grasp by using Axe Kick at Range 2. Notably, Axe Kick still loses to both Sweep and Focus, trading marginally on damage and putting the Ken player down significantly on resources (especially if the Axe Kick was critical).
So the answer is obvious then. If Ken initiates a critical strike at Range 2, players should respond with Sweep or Focus, right? Another one of Ken’s specials, Tatsumaki Senpukyaku (Tatsu for short) beats both Sweep and Focus cleanly at Range 2. The combination of Axe Kick and Tatsu (or Spike) at Range 2 force the opponent into a high risk/high reward guessing game, with an incorrect answer resulting in a sizable chunk of damage and a refund on Ken’s gauge investment. Ken can even throw some critical Shoryukens into this mixup in order to beat Range 2, Speed 7 attacks such as EX Cross or Akuma’s Goshoryuken (though not without risk, as Shoryuken loses just as badly as Axe Kick to Sweep and Focus).
Because Ken already hits reasonably hard, his kit synergizes particularly well with Power boosts. Fierce (Grasp’s boost) removes the ambiguity from the Range 2 mixup we detailed above. With +2 Power, Axe Kick will beat Cross, Block, Sweep, and Focus. The boost on Ken’s Hadoken, Overpower, is also useful for this, providing +1 Power and the opportunity to strike immediately. This blanks Focus and denies the opponent the opportunity to reposition or tech your boost on their turn. True Master (the boost on Guren Senpukyaku) all but guarantees a win for the next strike, and is a card I actively look to mulligan into if it is not present in my starting hand.
Ken is at his best against characters that want to continually position out of close range to be most effective, such as Eugenia, Syrus, or Sagat. Against these types of characters, Ken can control the pace of a match, gaining resources with his UA while he moves into his preferred ranges. Once there, opponents may find it difficult to escape, especially if Ken is in Exceed mode, where his UA gives him a steady stream of resources while allowing him to continue to strike every turn and maintain the initiative. Conversely, Ken can have trouble against characters who greatly benefit from sticking to Range 1. Specifically, Zangief’s powerful options and dangerous UA at Range 1 make him a tough opponent for Ken.
As another weakness, Ken is fundamentally playing a fair game of Exceed. I spent paragraphs praising the dynamic gameplay around Axe Kick, an attack that requires gauge to be on curve at its preferred range. Characters that get to break the normal rules of Exceed can also give Ken trouble. Remiliss is a nightmare, with her ability to create and empower EX attacks whenever Ken starts to gain momentum. The Radiation Transformation (on Toxic Tendrils) is particularly difficult to deal with, as it makes EX Grasp effective at Range 2, opening up Remiliss’s options in Ken’s best range. While an Exceeded Zsolt is scary for just about anyone, Ken suffers more than most from chained together attacks with advantage, as this denies Ken his stat boosts for being the one to initiate a strike.
Ken is relatively simple to pick up and play, appropriate for his status as one of the demo deck characters (along with Ryu). His game plan of sticking close to the opponent and maintaining momentum via initiating strikes is easy to grasp, which allows Ken players to focus on the fundamentals of Exceed. He also has some powerful options, making him a reasonably competitive choice. This makes Ken a great character to grow with, as he will reward increasing understanding of the game as one’s mastery of Exceed’s systems mature.
So that's a wrap on our first post in what we hope will be a long running blog series. I’m an Exceed enthusiast, not an Exceed expert, so I welcome discussion and constructive criticism on this post. Let me know if you enjoyed it, or if there is something specific you would like to see covered in a future post!
If you enjoyed this post, please check out the blog post with images on our website: www.gamingwiththesaints.com and be sure to follow us on Twitter to get updates on when new content is released @Saint_Gamers.
Growing up in Alberta, Canada, I knew what wolves were from a young age. Not that I’d ever seen one up close or in the wild, but they were common in some parts of the region. They were frighteningly beautiful creatures, full of mystery and majesty. To this day, they’re one of my favorite animals. When The Alpha came out from the good folks at Bicycle (you know, the playing card company), I was more than a little intrigued.
Getting down to it, The Alpha is a game about being the dominant pack. Hunting for food, fighting for a bigger share of food, and ultimately being the very best (like no one ever was). It’s a game that’s easy to learn for all ages, which is a strength, I think. There’s a fair amount of luck to it (i.e. rolling dice to see how much food comes out of the hunt), but it all works together to create a tasty game of dominance.
From first read of the rule book, I could tell it would be an interesting game. It is very thematic in terms of the life of a wolf. Hunt, chase, eat, fight, repeat. (How often do wolves fight? I don’t know.)
At first glance, it looks like a fun, lightweight strategy game. At second glance? Well, let’s just say there’s a bit more than meats meets the eye.
For a bit of background, players take turns placing a wolf on an animal (or berry patch) to hunt. This continues until all wolves have been played, including the two-headed alpha pairs (these count as two, and each player has one in their color). After this, it’s feeding time. The player with the most wolves on a creature rolls the die associated with the animal. The number that comes up is how much food that player gets. Of course, you could get an X, which is nothing. Or you could get killed, in the case of the livestock. But, with greater risk comes the greater reward. And I love a good risk.
But it gets better. If there’s a tie for most wolves, the players secretly decide whether to share the kill or fight for it. If both players share, then they split the food evenly. If only one shares and one fights, the fighter gets it all. If both fight…then each player loses a wolf for a few turns due to injury. And, uh, neither player gets food. (See kids? Sharing is good!)
There’s not a lot more to it than that. Sure, there are a few intricacies, but you get the idea. It’s all about placing wolves, trying to get more of yours on a critter than the other players, while at the same time trying to stop your opponents from getting too many on one beast. It’s a fine balancing act, and there’s usually one or two animals you’ll have to let fall to your opponents. Hopefully, the other players will take care of those. (Hopefully.)
I like how the game plays. Gameplay can (and should) go quickly. I think, perhaps, the most difficult decision you’re going to make is deciding if you should share the food or fight for it. Bluffing (or straight up lying) your way to more food is a key component of winning the game. Of course, many people I’ve played this with always choose to fight anyway, so sharing wasn’t really an option in those games.
I want to also mention that I taught my two kids this game. The youngest is three and the oldest is five. The youngest asked me, during the first round, “I’m done with this game. Did you win yet?” This was, of course, to be expected from one so young (even if he did end up winning). My oldest kid, though, absolutely loved it. It really is quite language independent, so I didn’t have to read things out for him and he could be left to make his own decisions. He caught on very quickly and I didn’t need to help him with his turns. He even recognized the danger of putting his wolf on the Livestock tile—a 1-in-2 chance of killing off that wolf for the rest of the game—but he put it there anyway (he rolled an X, so he survived, albeit without gaining any food).
The game is simple, but it is fun. Now, remember, it is a “light” strategy game, so you’re not going to be hurting your brain with these decisions. This might not be everyone’s go-to at game night, but if you and those you play with prefer lighter fare anyway, The Alpha is a good choice.
Wolves. Hunting. Being the very best (must…resist…temptation…). This is what you’re getting into with The Alpha. The theme comes across strong with art and the little wooden wolves. The dice also play into the theme, allowing for prey to become wounded (to be picked off the next round) or get away. Wolf packs fighting and getting injured, scavenging for leftovers, risking a blast from the farmer’s rifle in the livestock field … all of these aspects of the game contribute to a solid theme.
I like animals, especially those types that stick close to forests and mountains. The art on the animal tiles are really well done. Perhaps that’s one reason I enjoy this game. I wouldn’t put it past me. But while they could have gone for a cheaper look, they went for more realism, and I appreciate that. It’s certainly a fun game to gaze at.
These are the things that stood out to me (in a good way):
- My five-year-old can play it!
- Risk and reward
Things to Consider
While the following aren’t bad, they may be things you might want to consider.
Complexity: The complexity of The Alpha is a little too simple for my tastes. But, that’s just me. It’s still a good game, but you should know your audience when bringing this one out.
Runaway Leader: One issue I’ve found more than a few times is the problem of a runaway leader. Or, if you prefer, an inability for those who have fallen behind to catch up. I’ve lapped other players on the score track (and nearly been lapped myself). It’s not always fun to know you’re destined to lose, even before the last round comes upon you. Of course, some games can be close—perhaps too close for comfort—but having players roll poorly can really hurt their chances of even coming close to winning.
I like The Alpha. It’s a good, solid game. It may have an issue or two, but those can be overlooked—just know they exist and play accordingly. It’s perfect for younger kids wanting to play games with their parents. In fact, during the first round, my eldest son said, “This game is hard.” But not too hard. He still caught on quickly enough. Plus, he enjoyed looking at the pictures (as do I).
You know your preferences of games. If you like some lighter complexity mixed with luck, The Alpha is a great choice. There’s a lot to like about this game, and I’m looking forward to playing it as a family again soon.
About the Author
Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego’s Copyediting Extension program. He’s a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction at BoardGameImmersion.com.