When I took on the role of Games Editor here at Collider earlier this summer, it wasn’t just with the intention of checking out the latest and greatest PC / console video games or mobile games. I always intended to take the opportunity to get away from the many, many screens that occupy so much of our time these days and instead focus on tabletop games, card games, and other solo or community-oriented leisure pursuits. So while today’s game review may have started its life as a video game, I’m happy to say it’s a fantastic excuse to put down those powered electronic devices and dive into a good, old-fashioned tactile card battler instead.
We’re talking Shovel Knight, of course, a lovingly retro throwback game created by Yacht Club Games back in 2014. Now, the 2D side-scroller with iconic and beloved characters gets a different kind of 2D treatment thanks to Level 99 Games’ clever card battler, Exceed: Shovel Knight. (Level 99 was kind enough to send me a free review copy of the Hope Box and a lovely playmat on which to set the battlefield.) The clever part isn’t just in the seamless port from video game to tabletop card game but in the use of Level 99 Games’ Exceed Fighting System. This core set of rules and abilities can be tailored to fit just about any fan-focused franchise out there, from Street Fighter, to Shovel Knight, to the brand new BlazBlue entry in the Exceed line-up. It basically pits two fighters head-to-head on a linear path where they’re destined to clash with only one standing when it’s all said and done. The system, once you’ve mastered it, allows you to quickly pick up the feel of the game and flow of combat, tweaked ever so wonderfully by the various quirks that each individual franchise and character brings to the table.
For example: Shovel Knight is a solid enough fighter solo but becomes even more formidable when battling alongside the complementary Shield Knight. But stay on guard if you’re fighting against enemies like Mole Knight, whose burrow can move about the battlefield, allowing the subterranean knight to move quickly and strike swiftly. And that’s just one of the many opponents (or playable characters) you’ll find in Level 99’s sets. You can pick up as few or as many as you want, either to try the system out and see if it’s your style or to bring the fun to friends in a massive multiplayer tournament battle. It’s a very flexible system — and relatively affordable, starting at about $12 — that accommodates all levels of ability and amount of time you have to dedicate to a round or two.
Those rounds will take you an estimated 15 to 20 minutes, but I’ll be honest and say that it took my girlfriend and me quite a bit longer to sort it all out; we tend to be thorough and talk out every move to make sure we’ve got the rules right. But once you’ve got the basics down, combat can move very quickly … and brutally. She reduced me to ash in just a handful of moves once she figured out Mole Knight’s killer combos. Those of you who are more experienced with card battlers than me will surely use the combination of Shovel and Shield Knight much, much better.
Level 99 Games’ Exceed Fighting System is a very clever framework, a set of basic rules that allow players to quickly pick it up, while mastering the various franchises and characters added to that foundation takes dedication and practice. It’s a great one-two punch for a tabletop card game that not only encourages gamers to step away from the screen for a bit and look another human in the eye, but to embrace the fandoms around their favorite franchises at the same time. Call it a win-win, even if you lose!
For Shovel Knight enthusiasts, you can start out with the Solo Fighter set, or pick up the expanded Hope Box or Shadow Box. For the full-on tournament set, you’ll want to check out the Shovel Knight 4-Game Bundle that has everything you need to get set up and running.
But if you’re not into Shovel Knight and are instead a super-fan of BlazBlue, you’ll want to head here to peruse Level99’s shop to see what they have to offer in their Exceed Fighting System for the anime title. And be sure to check out the full store’s offerings to see what other franchises await you!
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD