It seems like WWE Superstar Showdown is a board game that hasn't made much of an impression upon release. It's by Gale Force Nine, the team behind the excellent Spartacus and the strong Sons of Anarchy, and it's about wrestling. Yeah, wrestling! The wrasslin'! WWE! The squared circle! It's a board game set inside this very ring, featuring a selection of current WWE Superstars. And they're having a Showdown!
WWE SUPERSTAR SHOWDOWN
Inside the box you'll find a board that represents a wrestling ring, and players sit on opposite sides, face to face. By that ring, on the board, there are places to place cards. Because, yes, this is a game about card-play. But wait – before you go “UGH!” (and really, you shouldn't, because the WWE had a great wrestling card game back in the day called Raw Deal) – there are also miniatures representing the wrestlers in the middle of the ring too. And you'll be moving these miniatures around, simulating the movement of your characters during the wrestling match.
Right, wait, hold on. You all know what professional wrestling is, right? It's one of the most beautiful art forms on the planet. It has two performers battling, telling a story of psychology and physical prowess, in front of an intelligent audience that completely understands the grammar of the performance. Okay? Got that?
Superstar Showdown has an odd selection of characters. John Cena is in there, as he should be. And big Roman Reigns is there, quite right too. And yeah, Daniel Bryan too. All good. Then things get a little bit more “random”. There's Big Show, the giant. And Big E, who was a lower card wrestler at the time of development, but is now part of a hugely entertaining faction called The New Day. And then there's Randy Orton, who is a wonderful wrestler, but seems to climb higher and lower in prominence on WWE's shows with no real rhyme or reason. So it's a bit of an odd selection, yes.
No Undertaker? No Triple H? But in the actual playing of the game, the characters are a nice mix of strenths, offering different play styles. I should probably tell you how it actually plays, I suppose.
It's a clever game, this. Each Superstar has their own deck of cards, with different distributions of cards. The fundamental mechanic of the game is essentially Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Sorry, that was habit. Rock, Paper, SCISSORS. Strike cards beat Manoeuvre cards, Manoeuvre cards beat Grapple cards, Grapple cards beat Strike cards. And Slam cards beat everything! So the Slam cards are always printed with the wrestlers' signature moves – Roman Reigns' Spear or Randy Orton's RKO.
Players place three cards from a hand of six face-down onto the board. Then, each is flipped in sequence, and the cards compared. If your card wins, as per the system I just told you about, then you can carry out the actions printed on your card while your opponent discards his. On the cards, you'll find all sorts of actions – movement of different values, attacks of different strengths, and setup actions that will strengthen the movement or attack values of subsequent winning cards.
If a card allows you to attack your opponent, they have an opportunity to play a Block card from their hand – but Block cards are discarded from the game when played. So the more you block like this, the less opportunity you'll have to block later in the game. When damage lands, cards are given up by the losing player from his hand or from the top of his deck. So, your deck also represents your wrestler's health. As damage hammers in, your deck will start to be thinned and dismantled.
All three cards are flipped in a round, and at the end of the round the player who has had the most winning cards can, if they are adjacent to their opponent in the ring, make a pin attempt. This forces their opponent to play a Kick-Out card from their hand – and again, this is removed from the game. If the opponent can't play a Kick-Out card, then cards are peeled one-by-one from the top of the losing player's deck in an attempt to find a Kick-Out card. This is where the ONE! TWO! THREE! moments of the game come from, and it's hugely effective.
There's a lot more to the game than this, though. Stun cards allow players to chain cards into hugely damaging sequences of moves. Some cards representing high-flying moves demand that a player is positioned at a turnbuckle before they can activate. Other cards do damage based on momentum, and these can be very powerful if a player can run the ropes before they land. Players can even roll out of the ring to “take a breath”, allowing you to shuffle your discard pile back into your deck, refreshing your card potential. Cleverly, damage done on the outside is even more perilous, and it simulates the situation when things “pour outside” in a real wrestling match very well.
Superstar Showdown is a fine game. It's been a hit with everyone I've played it with, and I've played it with kids and adults. There is a measure of luck in the game, with that Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanic, but the meat of the game is in how you react to the winning and losing showdowns on your cards. It's more about how you use your Blocks and your Kick-Outs, how you position yourself, and how you prepare for potential sequences or pin situations. It's a game of reaction and risk, and it works beautifully.
It also has a fun and quite brilliantly considered tag team mode. And it has lots of options for matches with special stipulations, hardcore matches and the like. You can even play matches as if they're part of an event, and new, more powerful cards can be unlocked for your wrestlers.
But hey – there are only six wrestlers. And while it's fun to learn how to use the different decks (Big Show has crazy power moves, Daniel Bryan can run around like a whippet) you soon get the feeling that more variety would be nice. But...
I'm not sure that many people bought this one. And it's a damn shame. Because had this one really flown, and been expanded with more wrestlers and legends from back in the day, we'd have had quite a superb experience on our hands.