I need to begin with a confession. I freakin’ love giant robots. I grew up enthralled by Gundam Wing back in it’s Toonami days and from there I actively sought out any and all media with, what will always be mobile suits to me, big robots involved. It’s one of the reasons I bring out Armored Core so often on our podcast and why my desk at work is decorated with the Burning and Banshee Gundams. If I see something with a funky robot on the cover it immediately grabs my attention.
So you can imagine my excitement why I saw Critical Mass, a box with not one but two big robots on the cover. This is a card game for 2 players (3 or 4 with an additional box) who want to smash two chunky metals death machines together and see what happens.
You are given a bespoke deck of cards and player board for your mech. Players are going to simultaneously choose a card to play and then reveal at the same time. This might be a heavy laser fire, an electron beam, an evade or perhaps an activation. Once you have both chosen and revealed, the fastest card goes first with higher numbers being faster. However, a lightning bolt symbol with also goes first. And going first is important because if you attack faster than your opponent then you will disrupt them, meaning they don’t get to use their card.
Immediately, this turns Critical Mass into this wonderful mind game of trying to bluff and guess your opponent’s next move. It also manages to evoke the feeling of two mech pilots having a duel as you try to preempt an attack with a dodge or try and get your shots off first to stagger your enemy. However, the metal rabbit hole goes even further with the addition of different tech levels.
There is some mild deck building in Critical Mass but you can happily go with the suggested cards and still enjoy developing your mech throughout a fight. When playing the activate card, you prime your mech and you get to add either a level one or two tech card to your hand. Play this when you are already primed and you get to snag yourself a level 3 Tech card and these are all stupendously powerful abilities.
So let’s say that you have been deftly reading your enemy, you’ve acquired a Tech 2 card and you are starting to run low on options. The longer this goes on, the more likely you are to take damage to your mech and see valuable parts destroyed. To prevent this, you will always have a card called Recharge which means you can get back all the cards you’ve played and it will always go faster than your opponent. However, it also leaves you vulnerable to an attack.
If you have left yourself with nowhere to go but to take a moment to Recharge, then your enemy will press this advantage with one of their slow but powerful cards and cause some serious damage. This is, of course, if they have read you correctly. If you sneak in a little bluff or make it look like you are going to do something else then maybe you can scare them into an Evade or something and Recharge unmolested.
There are a lot of different weapons to use, abilities to perform and equipment to, well, equip, that even if you play several games with the same Mech you’ll find each fight goes differently. You’ll find weapons that you are sure are massively overpowered and while you’re grinning madly to yourself over the massive damage you’ll inflict your opponent will probably be doing the same. Critical Mass does a fantastic job of making its players feel the weight and power of these mammoth machines and feel the scope and destruction involved in these fights.
It does this everywhere except with the card art. I really wish that Critical Mass had more interesting artwork on each card. Attacks like the Molecular Disrupter sound terrifying but the card art is extremely similar to other laser attacks that its grandeur is diminished. I 100% believe that Critical Mass would be an infinitely better game with a second edition that brings every single one of these cards to life and makes players really understand the devastation each card presents. Whereas, at the moment I have to read the text and consult the iconography before sweating over how I’m going to deal with such a powerful card.
Does the card art mean that Critical Mass is a bad game? No, absolutely not. This is still an epic, fast-paced fight between two Mechs full of mind games, explosions, roars of triumph and cries of defeat. However, it could be even better and this missed opportunity feels like a shame.
Critical Mass is full of twists and turns, each battle fraught with difficult choices and awesome cards. It is only let down by the card art a little bit. However, every time you play Critical Mass, you’ll want to go again to try and get different Tech cards, play one of the other Mechs on offer (I only have Iron Curtain and Patriot but there are others), or perhaps delve into the little bit of deckbuilding on offer. Whatever you decide, know that Tom his Chainsword so that’s almost definitely what he’ll do next. Unless he doesn’t.