Copycat: A four-sided game review

Copycat is a big box board game with a large board that plays in around an hour. It’s an interesting mix of worker placement and deck building with a cartoony art style and satirical (if largely pasted on) election theme.

That lovely Copycat board in all its glory

That lovely Copycat board in all its glory: Agricola-style action spaces in the main area, Through the Ages card line across the bottom

The box is big purely for the oversized board, but it’s really lovely and clear to play on thanks to this. Everything else rattles around in the remaining space: the (114) cards are of reasonable if not spectacular stock, while the few wooden bits are fit for purpose.

It comes with a really helpful setup sheet and a short rulebook that’s of about average quality (there are a few irritants, but nothing biblical – mainly in the descriptions of the various card actions and powers, that can be a little vague and open to interpretation). If you have Powergrid or another big box Friedermann Friese game you’ll know what to expect.

Teaching

Much has been made (especially by the designer himself) of what put the ‘copy’ in Copycat. The rules borrow heavily from several highly regarded games’ mechanisms – which makes it very easy to teach anyone who has played them. In short:

  • Dominion: You start with 10 cards; 7 money and 3 VP – draw five each round. You will use these throughout the game to add more powerful cards to your deck and also earn victory points.
  • Through the Ages: The cards you’ll buy come in four ‘ages’, getting progressively better throughout the game. They are bought from a track across the board, which cycles cards along it round by round.
  • Agricola: Each player has (at least) three workers to use each round. You start with a simple set of actions, with improving actions being opened up in each of the 11 rounds (again coming out in ‘ages’).

Even if players aren’t experienced with these games, Copycat does have a ‘gateway’ feel to it and is very easy to teach. While it uses mechanisms from two heavy euros, the structure of the gameplay means it’s very much closer to Dominion in terms of complexity. By the end of round one, most players should’ve gotten the hang of it.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: As someone who enjoys all the games Copycat copies, this was my one ‘must buy’ new game from Essen last year – and I wasn’t disappointed. The game plays fast and has multiple routes to victory, which do feel very different to play. I also love the art style and humour, which has helped make this only the second deck-builder that’s made my collection (having been very disappointed with Thunderstone, Ascension and Eaten By Zombies). It’s not particularly big or clever, but it works well in our groups across the board.
  • The thinker: While this wouldn’t make my list of favourites it’s been an entertaining diversion. Like Dominion it rewards a well thought out strategy, while the number of available cards and ability to manipulate your position in turn order mean mitigation of luck is more than adequate. While crazy strategies can win games, and be fun to play, a well balanced deck can also be well rewarded. But I worry about replay value, as card variety is limited; I’m already a little bored of it and the ‘copycat’ joke has quickly started to fizzle out. An expansion might save it, but will there be one?
  • The trasher: Definitely my favourite deck-builder so far. Dominion got boring, Thunderstone was stupid and you could be out of Ascension within a couple of rounds due to runaway leader issues (and then having to watch their boring turns last forever). Copycat is quick and dirty, with early low scoring giving way to some massive caches of points in the late game if you play it right and the luck is with you. A great game for taking risks and trying crazy combos.
  • The dabbler: I like Copycat, although it’s not one I do well at. The basics are very simple but the choices can be deceptively tricky; you can leave yourself with a bad mix of cards that makes it difficult to compete if you don’t really pay attention. But the game is less than hour, looks fun and always seems to generate some good chat around the table. It’s not one I’d particularly grab off the shelf, but I’m always happy to have a game if someone else chooses it.

Key observations

Copycat cards and actions

Copycat cards and actions

There seems to be one big difference between lovers and haters here: depth, or lack thereof. Of course some players will cite other things (pasted theme; dislike of deck building; no originality), but the shallowness debate is the one that gets players talking.

While the other arguments are very much down to personal opinion, in terms of depth it’s a tough one to call either way – hence some interesting debate. Personally I fall into the positive camp on the game, but I can certainly see the other argument and do have my reservations about the game’s long term replay value (without an expansion).

Copycat essentially has three types of card, as follows: money/VPs and bonuses thereof, extra/manipulation/duplication of workers or action spaces, draw extra/trash/save cards. They work really nicely and create all those basic Dominion-style decks that we all love/hate so much – but to the nth degree.

For example, in later rounds you may be down to such a small deck you’re drawing your whole hand every round as you’ve been trashing loads of cards – or you may have a larger deck but still be going through it because you’ve got so many draw cards. Or maybe you went big on extra workers and are getting a bunch of actions every round.

Once you’ve explored these you could see the game as ‘done’ – or simply be turned off by noting this will be the outcome from your very first play (as in Through the Ages, you see all the cards in every game). But there are two points here.

One, in 2013, does a game now need extensive replay value? Sure, it’s desirable in any game, but is it a requirement? The cult of the new is incredibly strong, with thousands of new games coming out every year. It’s so absurd to hear people you know play games an average of about three times each going on about how great ‘variable set up is’ as ‘you get a different game every time’. Yeah – but you’ll play it five times so what’s the difference?

Secondly, while a huge part, deck building isn’t the only thing going on in Copycat. Turn order can be crucial, as can grabbing just the right actions at the right time. And the nature of the Through the Ages card drafting means you’re not always going to get the card you want, meaning thinking on your feet plays a part too. It’s easy to miss these things in your first few plays.

Conclusion

See what I did there?

See what I did there?

With a rating of 8.5, Copycat is in or around my top 10 games. My plays of it are now into double figures and while I see the lack of replayability arguments I haven’t started to tire of it in any way yet.

I like it with two, three or four players and the majority of players I’ve introduced it to have reacted positively – sometimes to their complete surprise.

But the game certainly isn’t for everyone. Those hugely averse to deck-building are unlikely to find enough else here to woo them, while people who really want to get their teeth into a game may find Copycat comes up short. Lastly the game isn’t cheap, which may be off putting due to the slightly lukewarm reception the game has received overall. But if you get a chance I’d highly recommend you give it a whirl.

2 thoughts on “Copycat: A four-sided game review

  1. Pingback: My top 50 board and card games | Go Play Listen

  2. What a fantastic game. Can’t wait to give it another go. With only one play under my belt, it’s difficult to judge, but I think that it offers quite a bit of depth without a lot of obfuscation and complexity. Regardless, I completely agree with your point about the need for replay value. I’ve played my favorite game – Arctic Scavengers – less than 10 times. There are just too many games out there to get caught up in the idea that you need to play a game countless times for it to be a smart purchase.

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