It’s hard not to have at least an occasional moment of existential dread when you think about the events of the last year or two. Between world politics, killer weather patterns, and a deadly pandemic, there are legit reasons to be anxious about what’s going on. What better reason to play a game than to enjoy the pleasure of interacting with friends or family over a known scenario and written set of rules? Turns out that game developers have their own occasional low moments too, and that’s exactly where the fun, lightweight card game Doomlings was born.
Co-developer Eric McCoy explains: “Justus [Meyer, the main game creator and artist] proposed to his family over a holiday break that they make a game of their own—something they could spend some real-time on together. At the time, Justus was going through some existential dread, so they decided to make a game that has some fun at the expense of the end of the world… and after a few months of proving the concept, Justus brought it to Eric, who immediately saw it as an opportunity to try something new. Doomlings was born!”
The basic premise of this 2-6 player card game is that everyone’s competing to build the strongest gene pool, even as bad things are happening and catastrophes are being triggered left and right. Arguably just like real life, right? There’s a deck of Ages cards (a subset of which are catastrophes) and a big deck of Traits, organized into five colors: green, blue, purple, orange, and grey. Okay, grey’s not technically a color, but you get the idea.
DOOMLINGS GAME COMPONENTS
Once the basic Ages deck is set up, each player is dealt five traits and the first Ages card is flipped. It’s always “The Birth of Life“, as you can see:
Your hand size varies throughout the game as your “gene pool” size increases or decreases. You start out with 5 Traits cards, and here’s a sampling of what they might look like:
Every Traits card has a color, a name, some amusing subtext, almost always an action (notice Conscious doesn’t have anything below the central image), and a point value on the lower left. You’ll immediately notice that the green Swarm card has a “+” instead: In this instance, there are a number of Swarm Traits and they will all be worth the combined number you have at the end of the game. In other words, if you have 3 Swarm Traits at the end of the game, each will be worth 3 points. Not bad, actually!
As you might surmise, the goal is to maximize your points. That’s not necessarily best done by just playing the high point cards, however, so there is some strategy around when you play and when you play it. Some Traits also affect an opponent, letting you steal a card, discard one of their played Traits, etc.
The only other piece to know about are the Ages / Catastrophe cards. Here are a few examples:
Each round consists of the first player flipping over the new Ages card and everyone doing what it specifies as necessary. Then each player plays one Traits card to the area in front of them, known as the Trait Pile. Those cards, as shown earlier, can have various effects and actions which are then taken upon play too. Once done with your turn, you then Stabilize, adding cards to your hand up to your Gene Pool level. Everyone goes, then it’s another round. Given the Ages deck assembly for a game, a typical game only lasts 10-13 rounds, and some of them are really quick!
PLAYING THE GAME DOOMLINGS
Okay, enough explanation. Let me show you a bit about the most recent game, me versus my 17yo gamer daughter. We initialized the Ages deck (basically ensuring 1 out of 4 Ages cards is a catastrophe in each of three mini-decks, then stacking them up so the three catastrophes are randomly mixed into 9 Ages cards and The Birth of Life then slapped on as the top card) and dealt five cards each. Here’s my starting hand:
Oh, I forgot to mention that the Traits with the gold star – like Hyper-Intelligence – are known as Dominant Traits and you can only ever have two in your Traits area. Generally they’re pretty high point value, so that makes sense. Notice this particular card says “At World’s End” (e.g., after the third catastrophe appears, which marks the end of the game) “Opponents discard 1 trait from their trait pile at random”. In other words, when we get to counting up points, all other players will have to randomly pick one of their played Traits and discard it. Uncounted. Could be rough!
But for this first play, I’m going to play a 1 point card that’s leftmost: Saliva. It lets me increase my gene pool by one which then allows me to have more cards in my hand for every turn. More cards = more chances of having great, high point cards to play.
This is now the beginning of round two, so a new Ages card has been exposed: Enlightenment. This particular card says “You may discard 2 cards before you stabilize.” Remember, at the end of your turn you pick Traits cards to get back to your Gene Pool max card number. So Enlightenment lets you junk two cards you don’t like without penalty. Helpful!
A bit further along in the game…
Eagle-eyed gamers will notice I have 7 cards in my hand but my Gene Pool indicator shows 6. That’s okay, I just need to “stabilize” down to the specified number at the end of my turn. Also notice that the top card in my hand, Brute Strength, is pretty nice with a point value of 4, but that the cost of it is that my gene pool number goes down by one. Points shown in my current Traits Pile sum up to 14, as you can verify.
And, finally, much further along we hit our third catastrophe – Nuclear Winter – and it’s game over, time to count up. Here’s what I’ve played:
Not too bad, a total of 23 points. My daughter’s done pretty well for herself too:
Your eyes are immediately drawn to that 17 point card, aren’t they? “Tiny” is an interesting Dominant Trait: It’s worth 17 minus the total number of Traits cards you’ve played. In fact, it ends up worth 17 – 11 or 6 points. Still nice, but not anywhere near as overwhelming as when she first played it and I said “oh, great. How can I compete against that??” Still, her final point value added up to 27 which meant that she beat me rather handily!
FINAL THOUGHTS AND HOW TO GET A COPY
While there are a few cards that seem a bit ambiguous on first glance, the fact is that Doomlings is fast, easy to learn, and entertaining. Our matches have moved right along (especially after the first game!) and we had a lot of fun each time we played. If you’re wanting to calculate some complex long-term winning strategy, you might be playing the wrong game though. While I enjoy a complex game, there’s much to be said for more straightforward games that can be quickly taught and are highly portable: Doomlings is basically a deck of 200 or so cards. That’s it. We both give the game a solid thumbs up, though I will add that I surmise it would be more fun with more players; two is not necessarily optimal, especially if you enjoy the “take that” aspect that can be part of the gameplay if desired.
Doomlings is due to be launched on Kickstarter on March 2, 2021 – I got a pre-publication copy to review – and they’ve promised that there are going to be all sorts of fun stretch goals, including more Traits, more Ages, and even the possibility of a fancy holofoil ‘Birth of Life’ card. Just as importantly, I am expecting this to be quite affordable. It’s cool to occasionally back those big-budget games that cost a few hundred dollars and come with dozens of miniatures and boards big enough to take over your dining table, but it’s also nice to back budget games that are portable and family-friendly too. There’s space for both types in the hobby!
Suffice to say, if you’re interested, hop over to Kickstarter and sign up to learn more or to back Doomlings directly: Doomlings on Kickstarter.
Disclosure: Eric & Justus sent me a pre-publication copy of Doomlings for the purposes of this preview and writeup. Thanks, guys!