A deep dive into Disney's expansive, asymmetric card game.
I'm not a Disney guy, for the most part. While I appreciate the dedication to craft that informs much of their films (and have long been convinced that Walt Disney's frozen head remains directing the now-monstrosity of a company), Disney's output never really appealed to me, outside of their more unusual offerings like Fantasia. I was and remain much more of a Warner Brothers'-type person; far more interested in the subversive nature of "kids' cartoons" than the rather straightforward black-and-white depictions of the villains and heroes in most Disney films. So, when Disney Villainous was first announced, I was fairly disinterested. Most IP-connected things have to sell me pretty hard in the first place and something as "vanilla" as Disney was a few steps behind from the get-go. But then people started to talk. Everywhere I looked on places like TWBG, people whose opinions I respected kept talking about how interesting the game was; about how succinctly they had captured the stories of both characters and films; about how fluid the quite asymmetric play remained, even with four or five players. So, I finally gave in and tried it myself... and they were right.
Villainous is a game that takes the vaunted asymmetric play approach of the modern era to its limits. Each deck of the 18 available villains plays quite differently. There are certainly similarities (Captain Hook and Jafar both trying to find their primary opponent and drag them to their lair; The Queen of Hearts and Maleficent trying to have a certain type of card spread across each location in their realm; etc.) but each deck functions in a manner that not only makes it distinct from all the rest but also captures the essence of the character in question. On top of that, they also manage to include characters (Allies and Heroes) and events (Items and Effects) from the films that also stay almost perfectly in tune with what most would expect from their namesake cards. It's really a remarkable effort of IP translation and Ravensburger/Prospero Hall is to be commended for it, whether you're a fan of the films or not.
The downside, of course, is that the vaunted asymmetric approach can have two distinct drawbacks. The first is what I usually refer to as The Root Problem. Just as with Leder Games' Root, Villainous can take a lot of time to learn for any respective group and only begin to really shine once people are familiar with not only how their deck works, but also how everyone else's does, as well. It's all well and good to be fascinated by the mechanics of how your villain operates, but if it means someone keeps running away with the game because you're not familiar enough with what's happening to stop them, it can leave a sour taste with a lot of people. (See: Root, Vagabond.) Compounding that is that trying to figure out your own deck means you're spending a lot of time focusing on the six inches in front of your face, rather than interacting with the other players. The Fate mechanic in the game creates interaction but, again, if you're not familiar with how Prince John operates, you could end up picking the "wrong" Fate cards that could make it easier for him to win and end up deciding that it's better to just conduct your own business as well as you can. This is the foundation for multiplayer solitaire.
Of course, if your group has the patience and interest to get past that hurdle, the game will absolutely blossom for you. Playing Yzma or Scar or The Evil Queen or Gaston will be a new challenge every time and require you to sharpen your hand management skills even while you're keeping one eye on the opposing Hades to make sure those Titans don't stray too far... And, of course, if you're a fan of some or all of the films, it will be quite easy to revel in the role of many of the villains that you've come to know from childhood to adulthood, as Ursula's deck feels like the story of Ursula and Dr. Facilier's deck can't help but remind you of The Princess and the Frog. With that in mind, I thought I'd do a deep dive on all 18 namesake characters of the game and talk a bit about how they work, what their challenges are, and what the best choices might be in terms of trying to ensnare other members of your group in the despicable plots of the game. As the most popular argument on the Interwebs is which villains are the most difficult or easy to play, I'll even throw in a rough difficulty scale, 1 to 3. Part I will focus on the main box, Part II will include Wicked to the Core and Evil Comes Prepared, and Part III will cover Perfectly Wretched and the new Despicable Plots.
First off, let's establish that any of the villains can be perceived as "easy" or "difficult" depending on your draw. If Dr. Facilier draws the Talisman, Rule New Orleans, and any of a number of cards able to drop the latter into his Fortune pile in his opening hand, the game can end in a couple turns. Of course, the immediate move that most opponents should make is to Fate him and look for a low-strength hero to steal the Talisman and that will solve that for a while. Conversely, villains like Captain Hook and Jafar can feel far more difficult to win with because of the need to not only find the right cards in their villain deck, but also in their Fate deck, as well. The trick to understanding the various characters is in knowing which cards are immediately or even always useful and those which are more situational. The one thing to emphasize that most beginning players don't get is that the Discard action is one of the best in the game. If what you're holding isn't something that can build toward your ultimate goal next turn, dump it and look for something that will. That said, many villains have key cards that you really should consider holding, even if you don't have the Power to play them on your next turn. This is part of what we'll be getting into.
Objective: Begin a turn with 20 Power.
Prince John's "Lovely taxes!" are the centerpiece of his play, as all you really want to do is accumulate Power as fast as possible. The second part of your strategy is actually inviting Fate attempts, since the downside is that you'll lose access to Power-gaining locales, but the upside is that having Heroes in your realm means that Beautiful, Lovely Taxes will gain you Power simply by their presence. Using Imprison means you can dump as many Heroes as you want to The Jail, where they won't impede you at all and you can still extract taxes in their name. Of course, some of the Heroes in your Fate deck will take Power from you until you Vanquish them. But in some ways, that's kind of like having a savings account. Little John will store 4 Power for you that no one else can take until you defeat him. Then, you get it all back. And Prince John has multiple ways to defeat heroes that can be used to retain the Allies needed to beat them, like Intimidation and Bow and Arrows, so you won't have to pay to play Allies to a location again. This is assuming that your opponents want to play Allies to s location that you have covered in Warrants in the first place, thus gaining you more Power. Prince John, unusually, also has two Condition cards that are quite useful, depending on your opponents. If you're against other villains that like to accumulate Power, Greed can win you the game. In fact, I've drawn into two Greed cards, had an opponent hit 6 Power, and played both to gain 6 Power myself and won on my next turn. Similarly, Cowardice allows you to play Allies for free. If you're up against someone like Scar or the Queen of Hearts who will frequently have Allies spread across their board, you can drop Rhino Guards for free without having to sacrifice any of your lovely taxes. While Condition cards are usually first among those that people exercise the Discard action for, Prince John may be an exception to that.
As you might expect, something else that enhances your pursuit of your goal is that Prince John can gain Power at every location in his realm, albeit for fairly minimal amounts. His preferred spot is, of course, The Jail, since he can gain 3 Power there and never be prevented from doing so. But the best other spot is Friar Tuck's Church, which is the only place he can play two cards, as well, so that's normally a high priority target for Fating opponents. Of course, having Robin Hood in your realm means that both Nottingham and Sherwood Forest have one less action, since he'll eliminate the one Power you could get from them. That's why one of the best strategies against you will be to get Robin Hood or King Richard on the board and then play Clever Disguise on them, so you'll be forced to pay Power to even have the chance to Vanquish them. King Richard makes it impossible to play Effects, which are some of the best cards in your deck, so that's something to work against immediately. Despite the initial impulse being to just sit back and accumulate revenue, as with most businesses, you have to spend money to make money, so don't shy away from pushing out Allies and Items to ready your various locations to receive the criminals trying to steal your taxes(!)
Objective: Start your turn with the Magic Lamp at Sultan's Palace and Genie under your control.
That goal is a mouthful, isn't it? Despite the often overblown concerns about the difficulty of certain villains like Jafar and Captain Hook, I think it's safe to say that Jafar's goal is one of the more arduous among any of the villains in the game, since he's dependent not only on unlocking a location (Cave of Wonders) and finding a specific hero in his Fate deck (Genie), similarly to others, but also to have a specific card from his deck (Magic Lamp) in a specific location at the same time. It's an exercise in hand management and a little bit of luck, but it's also true that Jafar has some of the most powerful cards in the game to help him get there. Sorcerous Power is a perfect example. Most Effects of similar type allow you to move either a Hero or an Ally. Sorcerous Power lets you do both, which can easily set up some very advantageous situations. Scrying lets you pick a type of card and discard from your deck until you find it. Then Gazeem can be used to Vanquish and put one of those cards you discarded right back in your hand. The Snake Staff lets you grab that Hypnotize you discarded early in the game just when you need it to take control of Genie. And the Scarab Pendant, which you need to unlock the Cave, increases your hand size, which is one of the best things you can have in any card game, but especially for a villain deck like Jafar's, where combinations of cards will be essential to success. One of the consequences of his complexity, of course, is that Jafar players will often spend most of their time focusing on their goal alone, so he does have one Condition card, Deception, with an easily achievable condition (if an opponent has just two Items in their Realm, Fate them for free) that can keep him in the more interactive portion of the game.
Jafar's realm is also quite useful, since he'll always have a 3 Power location (Oasis) that Heroes can't take away. Oasis also is the only location where he can play two cards, as well as use the Activate action (like for moving Iago with the Magic Lamp closer to Sultan's Palace.) Jafar is also unusual in that he has two locations with that Activate action and at least one location with the Discard action (Streets of Agrabah) that Heroes can't deny. Jafar is one of those villains for whom the Discard action is absolutely essential, not only because of the greater combination of cards that he requires, but also because he has a number of cards, like Snake Staff, that let him retrieve cards from the discard pile, anyway. Crucially, of course, the Cave is the only location with the Move Item or Ally action, which is important for getting it unlocked, on top of the need to play Genie there. Speaking of which, Jafar's Fate deck focuses on buffing its Heroes because the two most important, Abu and Aladdin, can steal Items (like, say, the Magic Lamp) and hold it until they're defeated. Jasmine also makes it more difficult for Jafar to play, overall, by limiting his card draws and/or nullifying the power of the Scarab Pendant. Then there's trying to pay the cost to Hypnotize Genie if he has a couple Wishes attached to him. So, yes, Jafar can be a steep hill to climb, but in the hands of an experienced player, he can also run like clockwork.
Objective: Start your turn with a Curse at each location.
Maleficent seems like one of the more straightforward of villains since she, like the Queen of Hearts and the Horned King, is trying to place cards at each location in their realm. The upside is that Maleficent's cards actually do something (i.e. they're not just Allies waiting for a Hero to beat on) that makes it more difficult for her opponents to stop her. The downside is that Maleficent can trip over her own feet when it comes to keeping Curses in play, so a little forethought is required in terms of which Curse gets played where and how it may limit your movement in turns to come. One card that significantly helps in that respect is Vanish, which makes Maleficent the only villain in the game who can avoid moving and simply stay in the same spot and reap the benefits of that location's available actions again. Given the power of her Curses, it's also natural that opponents will try to Fate you early and often; trying to get Heroes down before you can play Green Fire to too many places, for example. An excellent response card is Dragon Form, which not only lets you defeat a Hero without using a Vanquish action, but also gives you three Power if someone Fates you before your next turn. Unlike some villains, Maleficent can usually be labeled "high engagement", as your opponents will see the growing collection of Curses and you'll have to respond to their attempts to trip you up, unlike what is usually the case with villains like Prince John. Maleficent's most frequent allies, her various Goons, are also fairly efficient for their Power cost, but the best card in the deck, almost without question, is Raven, since it can be used to play five actions in a turn, which gives you remarkable flexibility. It also has to be said that one of her Condition cards, Tyranny, is one of the best draw & discard mechanisms in the entire game and happens on someone else's turn, rather than the end of yours with an actual Discard action.
Maleficent's realm is also advantageous, with The Forest not only having two Play a Card actions and gain three Power as many villains have, but also a Discard action, which allows for big turns of playing and cycling (MTG term.) But Briar Rose's Cottage is almost as good, since it has another Discard action, on top of gaining two Power and playing a card, but also has a Move Item or Ally, which is often the way to shift a Goon over to another spot that won't dispel Forest of Thorns. Gaining Power in all four locations is also a bonus, even if a couple of them can be obscured by Heroes. As you might expect with the power of her Curses, Maleficent's Fate deck is replete with Heroes that have significant impact on the board and aren't simply action-covering speed bumps. From Heroes that forbid Curses at their location (Merryweather) to those that discard them when played (Fauna) to those that move your Allies to one spot (King Hubert) to those that simply remove your Allies wherever the Hero lands (Prince Phillip), Maleficent has Fate cards that are extremely active, in that they don't often have annoying persistent effects, but usually wreck her plans on the spot. And then there's always the Sword of Truth, which makes it more expensive to play Curses in the first place. I almost always recommend Maleficent for new players, both because she's easy to play and because she encourages other players to interact more regularly, once they see how devastating her Fate deck can often be. Plus, she has one of the best visual presentations of any of the decks in the game, so she becomes a nice eye-catcher when other people walk by the table.
Objective: Defeat Peter Pan at the Jolly Roger
Here's a difficulty assessment where I might get some blowback, as a lot of people consider Hook to be one of the more difficult in the game based on one thing: drawing the Neverland Map and its considerable cost to play (4 Power) when you do find it. The fact that Hook's goal, Peter Pan, has to be moved three times and has a strength of 8(!) only compounds that feeling of frustration. However, I think the deck and the realm have enough tools built into them already to make Hook easier than a lot of people might think. Three of the key cards are Ingenious Device, Hook's Case, and Cannon, since all of them allow you to add actions to locations. This is especially important for Hook since, in addition to gaining the extra actions which every villain likes to have, Hook's realm will often be heavily populated with Heroes as you cycle through your Fate deck looking for the accursed Peter Pan. Hook's Case becomes key here because although he can gain power at any location in his realm, Heroes can cover three of them, so having the option to gain power, regardless, is always useful. Hook is also one of the few villains who can manipulate his own Fate deck with Obsession (which admittedly isn't a particularly good Condition card), Worthy Opponent, and Give Them A Scare and also has the option of moving Heroes around in his realm built into his board. Hook's plethora of pirate Allies aren't quite as efficient, overall, as Maleficent's Goons but he has ways to make them significantly better with the inexpensive Aye, Aye, Sir! and Scimitar. Also, Hook benefits even more from Allies that can be used to attack two different locations (like the Wolf Archers for Prince John) than other villains, since he'll typically have more Heroes to Vanquish in a given game, as he often plays them on himself.
As noted, his realm is unusual with the Move Fate card action at Hangman's Tree, but the most important locations may be Skull Rock and the Jolly Roger, since they're where the Discard actions are located, with the one at Skull Rock being uncontestable. Hook more than any other villain in the main box must engage this action regularly, since the point about the Map being key to his success is irrefutable. But Peter Pan can be played (actually MUST be played) to the Tree even if it's still locked, so using cards like Give Them A Scare rather than discarding them will often be essential to setting up your victory conditions while you search for the Map. Hook's Fate deck, as you might expect, is dominated by the Lost Boys and by cards that make it more difficult to remove the Heroes that you and your opponents end up putting in your realm. But one of the most problematic cards is Splitting Headache, since it removes those precious Items that are replacing your lost actions. A well-timed Taunt to prevent you from closing the game out on Peter Pan is also a concern. But one of the most daunting Heroes in the entire game is Tick Tock, since if you move to his location, you basically lose a turn as your hand goes down the croc's gullet. I've never seen a Hook player do this and there are no ways to move him like Maleficent, so it's a nightmare scenario that will likely never be realized.
Queen of Hearts
Objective: Have a wicket at each location and successfully take a shot
In contrast to Captain Hook, my brief review of the Interwebs makes me think that a lot of people find the Queen of Hearts to be one of the easier villains to win with. I've even seen suggestions of house ruling her so that her 0-cost cards don't count as cards drawn when she Takes The Shot. But that doesn't match my experience at all. Perhaps it's a factor of having more people in my various groups who actively take the opportunity to Fate each other, but I've seen (and experienced) the Red Queen being slowed down so much by the significant Power demands of her plot and the inability to activate all of her Wickets at the right time that she doesn't win any more often than the other 17 villains. The Queen is affected by RNG more than any other villain, since her winning move is based on a random draw. But she can secure her position more readily than many others and not have to spend much time in Tulgey Wood, which is the only location in her realm that doesn't gain her Power, by using Off With Your Head! instead of the Vanquish action there. The Queen is also able to build on her own engine of having multiple Card Guards/Wickets in play with Very Merry Unbirthday as a ready source of the Power required to activate Guards and finally take her shot. The Stopwatch is also excellent for this. Unusually, she also has two very solid Condition cards, with the requirement on Judgment (opponent having 3+ Allies) often easily met by many opponents and granting her even more Power and the utility of Fury allowing her to choose exactly which actions are blocked by Heroes that she may not wish to discard Card Guards in order to remove. All of that said, there are still a lot of (literally) moving parts in the Queen's scheme and one thing that restrains her is the question of opportunity cost. Villains like Hook can be cavalier about the Discard action, but the Red Queen has no way to retrieve anything that ends up in the discard pile short of going through her whole deck. With a huge expenditure of Power happening to attempt a win, it can lead to some tough choices as to what to toss away and what to retain in the hopes of building up that winning structure.
Again, Tulgey Wood is the spot that the Queen can afford to be relatively indifferent to, since the Power gain is in the other three locations and the largest two- Courtyard and Hedge Maze -are actions that can't be denied by Heroes. That's also true with the Activate action at White Rabbit's House. And, thankfully, Off With Your Head works on every Hero in her Fate deck except Alice and the Cheshire Cat (that is, unless March Hare and the Mad Hatter are in the realm at the same time...) And while the Cat's impact (turning Wickets back into Card Guards) can be quite the stall on your plans, Alice's effect (forbidding the movement of Allies/Items) isn't nearly as daunting as the star heroes from other Fate decks. White Rabbit, on the other hand, can be a serious impediment, as it will suddenly cost twice the Power to activate your Card Guards/Wickets. And, indeed, Mome Raths may be, overall, the best card to use against the Queen, since it can spoil her carefully arranged Wickets, which suddenly makes that lackluster ability of Alice's quite a bit more problematic. ("Curiouser and curiouser!") Again, I think the Queen's RNG dependency can be quite daunting if you run across someone on a lucky streak who wins without anyone being able to slow them down. But there's another side to RNG that means that card draw problems can easily occur as often as they don't. Stall her and she can turn out to be a more difficult puzzle than many think.
Objective: Start your turn with the Trident and the Crown at Ursula's Lair
And finally we come to the character that almost everyone who has played the game agrees upon: Ursula is probably the most difficult villain in the game. Like the Evil Queen (in Part II!), she lacks the Vanquish action and is, instead, reliant upon six Binding Contracts in her deck and moving Heroes to the appropriate locations to remove them. It's not as difficult to deal with as it originally sounds, since both Flotsam and Jetsam can move Heroes with the Activate action, but that's only available at Ursula's Lair. She can instantly remove Contracted Heroes with Whirlpools, but that means spending Power in addition to a card action, instead of just using Vanquish and an available Ally, as with most villains. On top of that, the Lair or The Palace will always be locked, which means that Ursula only has three locations to use at any given moment, unlike every other villain who will always have access to four at some point during play, if not throughout the game. Change Form can move the lock, of course, but you only have three of those in the deck, so timing is key here. You can use Opportunist to retrieve things like Change Form and the Contracts from your discard pile (also important when making use of the Discard action), but that's still limited in its execution, as you often have demand for both. You know how I said that Jafar's powerful cards make up for the complexity of his goal? That's not really the case here. Grow Giant to get five actions is good (just like Raven for Maleficent), but still doesn't make up for only having three choices of location at any point. And cards like Cauldron, which gives you Power for every Contract that you have out, most of which you'll be trying to execute immediately so that you can gain access to the actions you need with a smaller choice than any other villain, just don't really measure up. Ursula is also, unfortunately, the poster child for discarding subpar Condition cards, as both of hers qualify as such.
Her realm is decent, with both large Power gains unblockable by Heroes and she does have two Move Item/Ally actions, which will be key to taking advantage of the eels and Contracts, as well as perhaps putting the Trident and Crown where you want them. But most of the time, she'll probably be hopping back and forth between whatever spot is currently unlocked and The Shore (her Gain 3 Power, two Play Card, and Discard spot) with Eric's Ship being left in the dust except as a spot to Discard, as needed. Her Fate deck can be absolutely crippling, as well, with Snarfblat more than doubling the cost to play Contracts in the first place, Eric moving Heroes away from where you were trying to get them Contracted, and Ariel swiping an Item and forbidding the Move Item/Ally action; all of which can bog down Ursula's progression so much that the frustration becomes obvious. Don't get me wrong: I like Ursula. I (mostly) enjoy playing Ursula as I find it a solid challenge to solve her unusual circumstances (which are unusual, even for a game as asymmetric as this one) but I would never, ever suggest her for new players and rarely suggest her even for those who've played a couple times. As much as I respect the overall design of Villainous, I think Prospero Hall missed the boat on this one.
Next time: The Evil Queen, Hades, Dr. Facilier, Ratigan, Yzma, and Scar.