I recently pre-ordered the first English printing of Japanese deck-building game Tanto Cuore, which was slated to come out in May. Much to my surprise (and delight), it was actually released much sooner. To start from the conclusion (as the Japanese would say), it has proven to be an excellent addition to my collection so far.
The original game, released in December 2009, was created and published by Arclight Games and illustrated by a veritable dream team of Japanese illustrators. Since its release, fans have translated the rulebook and card text and have provided “paste-ups” which can be printed out and attached to the cards. Now, Japanime Games has released an official English printing which can currently be ordered online through CardHaus. It made its debut at SakuraCon in Seattle (some photos can be found here) and is scheduled to appear at a few other anime conventions throughout the United States.
Tanto Cuore is, by all accounts, the most popular deck-building game in Japan, and currently has two stand-alone expansions. The base game comes with 280 cards and is packaged in a relatively small and elegant box that manages to leave just enough space to sleeve all of the cards if you take out the spacer (use standard M:tG sleeves). It also comes with larger cardboard dividers that are labeled to make the game easy to organize.
In case you are unfamiliar with the genre, deck-building games are similar to collectible card games (CCG or TCG) like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh, but rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money on boxes of booster packs to collect all of the cards you need to build your perfect deck for tournaments, all of the cards you need to play are right in the box and players construct their decks during the course of the game from a shared pool of cards. Some types of cards in that pool give victory points, and the player who has collected the most points by the end of the game is declared the winner. This differs from the more adversarial mechanic of CCG’s, in which you are usually trying to attack opponents directly to bring their life points down to 0.
A deck-building game always comes with more types of cards than are actually used in one game. Some of the types of cards that will be available in the shared pool are chosen at random, others are always available. Each player uses the cards in hand to generate some value, which can be used to add one card of that purchase cost or less to the deck. The purchased card and all of the cards from that hand (played or not) are placed in the discard pile at the end of the turn and a new hand is dealt. When the draw pile runs out, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the new draw pile. Some cards may allow the player to draw more cards, generate more value, or purchase more cards, so players need to create a strategy for their deck that gives them consistently good hands for buying the cards that are worth points (which are usually more expensive).
In Tanto Cuore, the deck is your “house” in which you employ “staff” (all cute maids) by paying “love” (because actual money would not be nearly as cute). You start your turn with one “serving” (playing a maid card as an action) and one “employment” (purchasing a card). Being served by a maid may allow you to draw more cards, provide you more love, allow you to employ more staff, or give you more servings. After your serving(s), you may use the accumulated love from maids you played and cards in your hand to employ one or more cards from the “town” (shared pool).
The game puts a few twists on the basic deck-building mechanic that make it slightly more than just Dominion with cute art. Some maids can potentially become “chambermaids”. After employing the maid, when she is in your hand you may choose to be served by her as usual or you may spend some number of servings (usually one, sometimes two) to play her in your “private quarters” (the area in front of you). A chambermaid in your private quarters is not discarded at the end of your turn. The base set lacks any cards that allow you to fire a staff member, so this is one of the few ways of getting cards out of your deck, but there’s also an interesting decision element at work. Chambermaids are usually worth some number of bonus victory points for having sets of them in your private quarters at the end of the game, but being served by them during a turn confers benefits which you can’t get if they are in your private quarters. So each time a chambermaid card appears in your hand, you have to decide whether you want to play the card as an action to get those immediate benefits, or play the card in front of you to get end-of-game bonus VP.
Maids in your private quarters may be subject to illness; one of the cards that can be bought in town is an “illness” card that is played on any maid in any player’s private quarters instead of being added to the deck. A maid who is ill does not have any effects and is not counted for purposes of calculating victory points and victory point bonuses. She is essentially not in the game until all illness cards have been removed from her — and it is possible that she could have more than one! Another of these types of cards is “bad habit”, which is played in a private quarters in general rather than on any particular maid. These reflect general disorder within the house and are worth negative victory points at the end of the game. These two types of cards give the game a bit more of an adversarial feel.
On top of this, there are private maids. These cards are all unique, each giving a different number of VP at the end of the game and having a different effect which applies for every turn that they are in your private quarters (and not sick). At any given time, two of them are face up in the town. When one is hired, another is drawn from the facedown private maids pile and placed face up in the town. A player may have one private maid at a time; the next private maid hired is stacked on top of the first and the new maid’s effect is now applied instead of the old’s. But all private maids hired over the course of the game are counted for the purpose of calculating VP (except ones which are ill). Illness cards may only be played on the most recently hired private maid in a player’s private quarters.
These elements give the game some depth, creating different ways to win than just consistently buying the cards worth the highest VP by generating as much love as possible per turn. Sometimes, you can benefit just as much from buying a lot of cheaper chambermaids and playing them to your private quarters to collect big VP bonuses in the endgame, and spending some love on illness and bad habit cards may allow you to throw a wrench in somebody else’s strategy.
The game is missing any components for helping to choose random combinations of cards for games (I’m working on a little something for this, so stay tuned!) and there are a few private maids that are either confusing to use or just don’t seem to be worth as much as their purchase cost but perhaps I’m still a little green on the strategy. But overall, Tanto Cuore is an excellent game and I would recommend it to anyone who likes cute maids, CCGs, or deck-building games. It’s also not too tough to teach once you’ve gotten a handle on the rules yourself and I don’t find myself going to the card glossary or FAQ too often.