Review of Backstab Card Game – RPGnet RPG Game Index

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Backstab Card Game is a simple card game of conflict and encounters by Dave Stawar, published by US Games Systems.

Players:Playing Time:

Summary of the Components

Backstab comes with cards, cardboard tokens, and a die.

Quality: The cards are medium-weight and glossy. The glossy tokens are thin but sturdy. The die is big and plastic. 4 out of 5.

Beauty: The cards feature cartoony artwork that’s reminiscent of OSR artists like Erol Otus. They’re well done and a lot of fun. 4+ out of 5.

Usability: The game uses a simple system of icons to mark the ordering of the four suits (axes, blades, magic, and range). They’re easy to read, and it’s easy to see the ordering of suits in each zone. My only usability complaints regards the rules, which are laid out in a highly graphical format that makes them messy to read or reference. But that’s not an issue once you figure out the game. 4 out of 5.

Theming: The theme is gonzo adventure and it’s fun. You encounter threats like liches, degenerates, and crazed kings, and you fight them with weapons like smoke bombs, iron hackers, and silver mutilators. The color is all rather delightful, but on the downside the game is abstract and fast-paced enough that you often ignore the color entirely. 4 out of 5.

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Overall, Backstab is a well-produced game, with a special shout-out for the fun old-school art. I’ve given it a “4” out of “5” for Style.

Summary of the Gameplay

The object of Backstab is to earn 25 victory points ($.25), which you do by defeating 20 or more encounters.

Starting: Each player begins the game with five cards and five victory points.

Rounds of Play: At the beginning of each round of play, a zone is revealed. It decides the order of the four suits, so that you know which are better and which are worse. Then, five encounters are laid out. They’ll be played one by one.

Encountering: There are three types of encounters: steals, traps, and numbered cards. The steals cause you to pass cards around the table, and the traps cause each player to roll the die for random effects. Most of the game comes about through the numbered cards.

When a numbered card (from “2” to “A”ce) comes up, a random “trump” card is then associated with it. This tells the suit of the card, so together you might have a “2 of Axes” or an “Ace of Range”. Each player then secretly plays a card. When they’re all revealed together, the players see who beat the encounter by playing the same or higher in the same suit, or by playing a better suit according to the zone; the winners earn 1 victory point and get to replace their card.

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If multiple players beat the encounter, the one who played highest gets another victory point.

Cue the next encounter …

Backstabbing: Each player can also backstab his friends up to three times during a round. He declares who he’s backstabbing and they both play cards. The higher card wins, stealing 1 victory point, and gets to replace his card.

Ending a Round: At the end of a round, any player with 25 victory points win. If that’s no one, then everyone replenishes their hand to 5 cards and a new zone and set of encounters come out.

Relationships to Other Game

Backstab uses the core mechanic of an adventure game: it has encounters that must be overcome through careful card management. It’s also very much a take that game, where players assault each other. Finally, as a card game, it reminds me most of war (with enough expansion and development to make it interesting, of course).

The Game Design

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As an adventure game, Backstab is pretty simple. You manage a limited hand of cards to try and earn victory points while staying powerful. It plays very quickly and without too much thought.

The heart of the game is really in the backstabbing. It can be fun and fast-paced, as people shout that they’re backstabbing each other in rapid succession.

Unfortunately, the backstabbing is also where the game loses some of its fun. That’s because it trends toward beat-up-the-loser gameplay, which you see in lots of games of this sort, but which I don’t find a very enjoyable mechanic. Once someone has shown weakness, all the players tend to leap upon him. This puts the defender in a worse and worse position, as he runs out of cards and literally has no way to defend himself. This quickly becomes not-very-fun, as other people get to play and the loser doesn’t because they’re out of cards (while they’re hemorrhaging victory points as well).

Some of this is exacberated by ambiguities in the rules. They include: what do you do for an encounter if you have no cards? Can you be backstabbed if you have no cards? Is it an automatic loss? Does rolling backstab on the trap die force you to use one of your three backstab tokens? What if you don’t have any left?

Though the mechanics of Backstab are simple and the strategy limited, I’d still be perfectly OK with it as a light take-that game if the beating up on the loser weren’t so egregious. I think some more development could have balanced that out better, and at least kept things fun for someone as they got stomped. As is, I only give it a “2” out of “5” for Substance.

Conclusion

Backstab is a very light game of fighting encounters but (even moreso) assaulting the other players. There’s some beautiful old-school art and some fun cards, but also a bit too much of beating up on players who aren’t doing well.

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