Chun Li versus Seung Mina; Nightmare versus Morrigan; Akuma versus Tycho Brahe: Ultimate showdowns we're likely never to see outside of crudely-written fan-fiction and our own fevered dreamings. Luckily for us, Sabertooth Games has devised the Universal Fighting System, a collectible card game that allows players to mix and match licensed decks to create legendary one-on-one battles.
There's one problem, or maybe I should call it a caveat: UFS isn't going to be for everybody. Beyond the gorgeous illustrations, and clear appeal to video game fans, this is most definitely a gamer's game; cards are littered with special icons, point values, and ancillary functions that dwarf the relative simplicity of CCGs like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon. Of course, the reward for this technical complexity is depth, with an incredibly strategic experience waiting to be unlocked by the hardiest of players. Not to deter you, but let this be a warning: A casual card game this is not.
Sabertooth packages UFS cards in several different configurations. Players can purchase starter character decks, battle packs consisting of two character decks, or booster packs of cards, all themed to different fighting game franchises, such as Soul Calibur III, Street Fighter, and Darkstalkers. Though the character decks make it easy to purchase and play, cards from different sets and series can be intermixed to create custom decks, making UFS fully playable as either a CCG or standalone card game.
However collected, UFS is always played with two players each having their own decks, capped off by character cards. The character cards define certain stats, such as the maximum number of cards in a player's hand, and the amount of health a player has at the start of a match.
The gameplay is turn-based, with players putting into play cards of several different types. Foundations represent training the character has had previously, Assets represent objects in battle or the environment around players, Actions are the physical maneuvers enacted during a battle, and Attacks are the basic kicks and punches. Any card making it successfully into play is dependent upon its "difficulty," as weighed against the randomized "control check" value. The more cards a player plays in one turn, the higher the difficulty for each subsequent card, although certain cards will also allow players to push higher-difficulty cards into play.
Though difficult to explain, this system tempers the pacing of the game, allowing more complicated turn structure later in play, while forcing earlier turns to remain moderately short and sweet. When attacking, values such as speed and range affect the opponent's ability to defend, and successful attacks build up momentum, which can in turn lead to more complex combos in later turns.
Of course, all this complexity comes at the sacrifice of basic usability. By far, UFS's biggest flaw is the convoluted nature of its rules and features. The instruction manual does little to alleviate the glut of special terms and cases, with each new glossary definition introducing at least two more vocab words to the mix. A simplified gameplay variant drops most of the heavy-handed features -- such as symbol-matching, enhancements, forms, and two of the game's four classes of cards -- but still manages to be worthy of head-scratching. Blame the rules, the unlabeled attributes on each card, or simply my own ineptitude, but don't expect to get this one right on the first, second, or maybe even third play-through.
Fighting-based card games are a great idea, and the franchise-mixing, customizable approach of Sabertooth's Universal Fighting System is nothing if not ambitious. If I haven't made it abundantly clear, my play experience with the game was not the most positive one, but I'd urge readers not to take my opinion as canon. After all, I am the guy who really dug the game about horses. Who'd trust what I have to say?
Final Verdict: If you're a fighting game fan, and bred off dice-rolling, stat-happy series like D&D and WarHammer, then you'll be right at home with Universal Fighting System. Those that love the button-mashing appeal of Soul Calibur, and are hoping for the card game equivalent, might want to demo this one at a local game or comic shop before investing.
UPDATE: Anyone interested in trying UFS can fill out this form to have two free demo decks sent to them. Thanks to Sabertooth for this special offer.
Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, a professional blogger, and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at numberless, and he'll cry if they don't include Lizardman in Soul Calibur IV.