I invented a new game last month, Dectana!
Today I will ramble about how Dectana came to be, and why Gnostica lovers should play it. Unfortunately, I’ve never played Gnostica, and am unfamiliar with it beyond reading the rules. It’s no secret that I prefer Zarcana, almost entirely for the fun niftiness of the Trump Powers. So any in-depth strategic comparison between Dectana and Gnostica will have to come from somebody else.
(The rest of this article won’t make any sense unless you’re familiar with Gnostica or Zarcana. If your unfamiliar with either of these games, read about them at the above links before proceeding further.)
First, I guess the Decktet needs a formal introduction here. I learned of the Decktet’s existence through BoardGameGeek, and when I saw it I immediately thought of Gnostica. The Decktet is a Creative Commons game system, similar to a Poker or Tarot deck, with the twist that most cards have two suits. There are a handful of games invented for the Decktet, but I’ve never played any of them before. I printed out two Decktets expressly for creating Dectana.
Why two decktets? Good question. I didn’t think the deck was big enough by itself. A single basic Decktet is 36 cards. Consider that nine cards start out on the board. Then put three cards in each player’s hand. Even for a two player game, the setup alone uses 15 of the 36 cards, nearly half. With five players, the initial draw pile would only contain two cards! The decision to restrict the maximum player number or require a second decktet was an easy one. After all, Zarcana and Gnostica play better with more players, right? (NOTE: There are five more special cards in the extended Decktet, but that barely improves things.)
"But Ryan, I bought just one Decktet. Would I have to shell out my hard-earned simoleons on another decktet just to play your game?" I hear your cry. C’mon, the decktet is CC, free to make. Just print it out at home, cut the cards apart, and paste them onto a poker deck, or stuff them into card sleeves behind MtG basic land. I figured that game system enthusiasts wouldn’t be put off by a small amount of print-and-play workshopping. And you end up with two complete Decktets for you to try out the Decktet system game with. Who knows, maybe the two-deck requirement will challenge or inspire designers to create more two-Decktet games.
Back on topic (that being Dectana). I learned Zarcana two years ago, loved it, and even made a custom deck for it. I prefer Zarcana over Gnostica for many of the same reasons that Andy does in his "Why I Prefer Zarcana" article. But the designer within me wanted to hammer Zarcana into a better game, without simply repeating the efforts that went into making Gnostica. I mulled on this for years. When I found the Decktet, I found my canvas.
One of the immediate and apparant differences between Dectana and its predecessors is the number of suits, six instead of four. Most cards have two suits. Furthermore, I gave each suit two abilities, one for affecting pyramids and one for affecting territory. This means each Dectana card could do one of four things for you. With this kind of flexibility, you rarely get stranded thirsting for powers you can’t manage to find. There is no need for Wild cards, and card churning doesn’t happen.
Gnostica’s endgame trigger struck me as the most inelegant part of that game’s design, and I didn’t like its mean-spirited finale. I spoke with Jake Davenport and Kory Heath, two of Gnostica’s four designers, at Balticon ’07. They told me that they weren’t satisfied with that endgame either. In fact, in their eyes, Gnostica is stil a work in progress, one they’re unlikely to return to for completion. They never did find a satisfying endgame mechanic.
In Dectana, I think I finally found an endgame that I like. The Aces, having just one suit instead of two and having low point value, seemed underpowered and needed some boost, some appeal that made them less of a burden. So I tied Aces to the endgame trigger. You need to find, then reveal, three Aces from your hand. These less-potent cards take up spots in your hand that could be filled by more useful cards, but you need them to claim victory. The basic draw rules of Dectana make it hard to hoard Aces, as well, so you need to be resourceful in order to find and hold on to three Aces. And anyone can end the game, not just the leader, thus preserving Andy’s preference that the game have an Abort Switch for anyone to throw if they’re not having fun.
Dectana is a modern 3HOUSE game, instead of the older model of monochrome stashes. Three Treehouse tubes will support the full five player game of Dectana. And by limiting the pieces from fifteen to nine, piece management is a dearer skill in Dectana.
Other differences: There is no population limit on a territory or wasteland space. You CAN’T attack pyramids on your own territory. You can’t do anything to a territory’s card if it’s occupied, even by your own pyramids.
I think that the play time, strategic complexity, and gameplay variety of Gnostica is mirrored in Dectana, but I can’t say for certain. But it does give wannabe Gnostica players the chance to get the same game experience without involving Tarot, if that’s their concern. Yes, there is Zark City, but the difference between Zark City and Gnostica is like the difference between French’s yellow mustard and Grey Poupon.
I was able to teach Dectana to Icehouse neophytes at Capclave, folks who had never seen Zarcana/Gnostica before, and they picked it up handily, playing with confidence by the end of their first game (and even besting me at the final scoretime). I heard those three magic words… "Let’s play again!"
By the way, Dectana is listed on BoardGameGeek, in case you’d like to voice your opinion of it.
Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The Curta Calculator
Movies I’ve Seen:
The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984) ~ not surprised to learn it’s French
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) ~ very overrated so-called "art comedy"
What I’m Reading:
"The Gifts of the Jews" by Thomas Cahill
"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner
"The Physics of Star Trek" by Lawrence M. Krauss