Jafar is the Worst Disney Villain

…in Disney Villainous, anyway.

Me and the hipster bronies on my Discord server have played probably 100 games of Villainous at this point. Admittedly a lot of that time has been spent playtesting and refining the custom decks I’m working on for a Final Fantasy variant of the game, but that’s another blog post.

Villainous: Final Fantasy playlist on YouTube

Villainous is an asymmetric game. What that means is, when you play it, you pick one of a handful of famous Disney villains, and your win condition is different from everyone else’s. Each Villain has their own unique deck and their own unique challenges. It’s easier to win with some decks than others. Luck plays a bigger role in some decks than others. In some decks it’s possible to screw yourself out of the double-yoo if you don’t know what you’re doing. This has led to a few Reddit critics croaking about “lack of balance”, but the asymmetry is actually a design goal of the game. The idea is that players of different skill levels — say, parents and their children — can both play the game together “for real”. Give the kids one of the easier Villains, like Prince John or Maleficent, whie the grown-ups play the tougher ones, like Ursula or Dr. Facilier.

The game being asymmetrical means, inevitably, some villains are better than others. I don’t think this game is played in competition anywhere, so I don’t expect anyone to have detailed matchup statistics, but from my own experience and observations the tier list looks something like this:

Thanks to tiermaker.com

There’s a mechanic in the game called Fate that lets you attack other players and push them away from their win condition, and this works pretty well as a balancing feature. The “easier” characters tend to get Fated more often than the “hard” ones. Prince John has an easy win condition that doesn’t take much planning or trickery to achieve, but all the other players know that, so they can work to block a Prince John win by sending a lot of Fate this way.

You know who never gets Fated, though? Jafar. Because everyone knows Jafar isn’t going to win. Jafar is the worst player in Villainous and it isn’t even close. There really needs to be another empty tier between him and the tier above, to demonstrate just how far away he is from the rest of the pack. Being the hardest villain to win with isn’t his biggest problem though. The problem is the things that make him hard to win with also make him very not fun to play as, which is a real damn shame.

We’re going to have to wade through a bunch of game jargon so I can make my case, so if you’re not familiar with Disney Villainous hopefully you’re able to follow along.

In a nutshell, what makes Jafar so tough to win with is this: he needs a specific card from his 30-card deck to fulfill the first step of his win condition. Only once he draws this card and gets it on the board is he able to “start playing”. He isn’t the only villain with this feature. About half the villains have to dig for something specific. (Ursula, who I rank very highly, has to dig for two somethings!) These other villains, though, are able to “start playing” sooner than Jafar is, because the design of their boards and their decks give them other things to do and to focus on while they’re digging. And also gives other players incentive to Fate them early.

So what’s Jafar’s malfunction? Let’s take a look at his Realm, and I’ll explain some game mechanics.

Jafar’s Realm

All of these are levels in the Sega Genesis version.

A villain’s Realm has four locations, and each location has four Action Symbols. Think of the Action Symbols like little buttons. On your turn you move to a location, push as many of the buttons there as you want, then draw some cards and end your turn. Each button has its own function and performing these functions is how you accomplish anything in the game. Look carefully at the Cave of Wonders space on Jafar’s board, and note the little lock icon in the corner. This means the Cave of Wonders starts out LOCKED. At the start of the game Jafar is not able to move there and its little buttons are not available to him. Also note the two top buttons in each location are in a kind of rounded box. When you Fate someone, you can play a Hero to their Realm. Heroes sit in these rounded boxes and cover up any action buttons in the top row.

Now let’s talk about what the little buttons do.

The numbers are Gain Power actions. You spend Power to play cards, and taking these actions is how you gain it. Most villains have a 1, 2, and 3 Power spot in their Realm. Note that Jafar’s Power: 2 is in a location he can’t reach at the start, and his Power: 1 can be covered by Heroes. A good anti-Jafar strategy is to stick a Hero in the Streets of Agrabah and cut his ability to gain power down by 25%.

The card with a triangle in it is the Play a Card action. This lets you play a card out of your hand by spending Power. Most villains have one space with no Play action, but Jafar has this button everywhere. At the Oasis he has two of these buttons, so at that location he’s allowed to play two cards. We call locations like the Oasis a “double play” space. The ability to play two cards early on is exceedingly important for Jafar, so another good anti-Jafar strategy is to stick a Hero there and remove his double play.

The card with the shinies coming off it is the Activate action. Some of the cards you play stay in your Realm and have features that need to be activated. You do that by moving to this location and pushing this button. Jafar has a few of these cards, and one in particular is very important for his endgame, but note that both of his Activate buttons are open from the start (e.g., neither are at Cave of Wonders) and both are in the top row (e.g., Heroes can take them away).

The card with the lightning bolt in it is the Move Hero action. You use this action to move Heroes around in your Realm, especially if they’re covering something you don’t like. Note that Jafar cannot do this, as he has no Move Hero buttons anywhere in his Realm. (He does have a card in his deck that moves Heroes for him.)

The spikey gear is the Vanquish action. To kill a Hero you need to play a special card called an Ally to that Hero’s location, then perform a Vanquish action. If the Ally has a higher number on it than the Hero, you can discard both. As an example, Jafar has some Palace Guards in his deck that he can play to his Realm and keep the Hero population low. Because Jafar can’t usually move Heroes, defeating them with Allies is the only way Jafar can deal with them. (Most other villains have both options.)

The thundercloud is the Fate action. This allows Jafar to attack other players. Possibly Jafar’s only saving grace is that he has a Fate button on the best space in his Realm, and he’ll be moving there often, letting him go offensive early. (Some villains have Fate buttons in more-or-less dead locations, meaning if you want to Fate someone you kind of have to waste a turn. Jafar has a lot of drawbacks but this isn’t one of them.)

The card with arrows on both sides is the Move an Ally or Item action, and it’s how you move cards you’ve played to your Realm from one location to another. This action is pretty central to Jafar’s win condition, which involves playing a specific card to the Cave of Wonders and then moving it one space at a time to the Sultan’s Palace. This takes three Move Item actions, which Jafar can only take once every two turns. (He has an Ally with an Activate feature that can help move the Item faster.)

The card with the X through it is the Discard action, and this is the most important button on Jafar’s board by far. When you take this action you can throw away as many cards as you want from your hand. Because Jafar’s entire game plan hinges on him finding one specific card, throwing away unwanted cards is his top priority. And this is the crux of the problem.

The Crux of the Problem

Jafar isn’t the only villain who wants to throw away a bunch of garbage while looking for one specific card. One of my favorite villains, Ursula, also has to do this. I’m not going to cram Ursula’s Realm into this post, so you’ll have to take my word that she’s much better at doing this than Jafar for a very simple reason: she has access to two Discard buttons from the beginning of the game. (She has a locked location in her Realm, like Jafar does, but there isn’t a Discard button there.) Having two Discard buttons — one on the bottom that’s always open to you, and one on the top that can be covered by Heroes — is the default setting for Villainous boards. The only exception other than Jafar is the Evil Queen (from Snow White), whose second Discard button is also in a locked location at the start. But Evil Queen doesn’t need to jackhammer her deck the way Jafar does, so in her case, it’s not a drawback. It’s only ever a problem for Jafar.

(Evil Queen, by the way, is the easiest deck to win with and maybe I’ll write another post about her. I suspect the reason one of her Discard buttons is locked up is because it’s not immediately obvious to young or new players that throwing away cards is a good move, so limiting it as an option and designing the deck so it’s not essential is a way of removing one layer of complexity from the game.)

Jafar’s only other recourse as far as getting rid of cards is to play them, by using the double play location in his realm. This isn’t a feature of Jafar’s board, by the way, every villain has a double play space. Jafar’s is crucial, though, because it’s a way to get rid of two cards from his hand without having to discard them. Of course, this consumes Power, which might be in short supply depending on what you drew. Also, one of the rules of Villainous is you aren’t allowed to play a card unless you can actually perform the card’s function. The language on the cards is pretty specific; there is a clear line between “you do this thing” and “you may do this thing”. If the card doesn’t have the magic word “may” you can’t play it unless you can do everything the card says. Even if you have enough Power to play a card that says “attach to an Ally”, you’re not allowed to actually play it unless there’s already an Ally on the board to attach it to.

The wording on this card was changed in later printings specifically because, in its original form, Jafar could almost never play it.

Putting all this together, we see a kind of “Jafar formula” emerge. On your first turn you move to the Streets of Agrabah, gain 1 Power, and throw away your whole hand (and then probably Fate someone). You draw new cards and, hopefully, next turn you have the ability and enough Power to move to the Oasis and play two of them. Then you alternate these two turns until you see the specific card you need to actually “start playing”.

This already looks really bad for Jafar who, at best, is able to churn through three cards per turn on average. (It works out to less than that in practice, because there are a lot of cases where playing two cards at the Oasis just isn’t possible.) But it starts to look even worse when you begin comparing him to other villains that need one specific card. The most even comparison is Captain Hook.

Jafar’s Objective

Hook’s cards are better because they are purple.

Though these two cards have different verbiage, they do basically the same thing: Jafar needs to play the Scarab to unlock the Cave of Wonders, and Captain Hook needs to play the Map to unlock the Hangman’s Tree. Neither villain can win while the locked space in their Realm remains locked. This is Step One of their win condition. We already know why Hook has the advantage here: he can discard every turn, rather than every other turn. He gets to look at a lot more cards a lot faster than Jafar does.

Once they get the card they need and get their fourth space unlocked, each villain needs to play a second card to further their objective, and this is where we really start to see why Hook is great and Jafar is pants. Hook needs a specific Hero on the board, and he has eight cards in his deck that help him to find that Hero. That’s almost a full third of his deck devoted to getting this done. Jafar has only five such cards, many of which have probably already been discarded or used in search of the Scarab. (One of these cards is also really bad. So bad, in fact, I’m devoting an entire section of this post to it.)

Even after both villains get their second needed card, they have work to do. Jafar’s second card is the Magic Lamp, which brings the Genie into his Realm. He needs to Hypnotize the Genie (which means there’s a third specific card he needs to win, but it’s generally not a problem finding one if you make it this late in the game), then move the Lamp to the Sultan’s Palace. Even after doing all of this, he still doesn’t win. To actually secure victory, Jafar needs to be in that state — Genie hypnotized, Lamp at the Palace — at the start of his turn. Once he sets it all up, every other player at the table has a chance to Fate him, and there are several Fate cards that push his Objective back.

This is also pretty common. “Win at the start of your turn” is the default state for Villainous decks. It’s where Captain Hook stands out, though: he can win on his own turn by killing a specific Hero in a specific place. Once he has his Map, he needs to pull Peter Pan from his own Fate deck, play him, move him across his Realm, then murder him with pirates. Once he does this and puts his board into a “win state” he wins immediately. The table doesn’t get a round of actions to try and push him back.

And it gets even worse for Jafar. Since Hook can discard every single turn while digging around for his Map, he has the luxury of holding onto specific other cards if he thinks he’ll need them later. Other villains who are digging for specific cards, like Ursula and Yzma, can do this too. They have a little breathing room. Instead of dumping four cards every turn, they can instead dump three cards every turn and keep one in their pocket. Hook and Ursula and Yzma all have cards they want to play later, so this is a good trade. It’s also an interesting decision point, a thing that is severely lacking in Jafar’s deck. Do you dig hard by throwing away potentially useful cards? Or do you dig a little slower but keep something useful in reserve you’ll need once your Step One is behind you? There are reasons Hook, Ursula, or Yzma players might do it one way or the other, but Jafar doesn’t have that luxury of choice. He has to dig hard, and the only way he can do that is to throw everything away, every chance he gets.

Another thing Hook can do is what we call “building infrastructure”. He knows that eventually Pan will be on the board, and he knows he needs enough pirates in play at key locations to get the little green boy moving and eventually plant him. If he has a card he wants to place into that infrastructure, but can’t play it this turn (because he doesn’t have the Power, or because it’s not a legal play yet), he can use the breathing room he has to hold the card and play it later. In a typical Hook game this means you start to see the pieces he needs to kill Pan are at least partially in place by the time he finds and plays his Map.

But let’s look at Jafar in the same situation. Say he has Gazeem in his hand at the Streets of Agrabah. Gazeem costs 2 Power and has an ability that helps Jafar get Items on the board he’s already discarded. This ability can’t help him find the Scarab, but it can help him with the Lamp or other Items that might be useful late game. If Jafar started this turn with no Power, though, he can’t play Gazeem. He gets 1 Power from the Agrabah button (provided it isn’t covered), and now he’s stuck. He doesn’t want to junk Gazeem, because he’ll need him later. But he doesn’t want to keep Gazeem, because this is one of his precious discard turns, and discarding one fewer card means that Scarab is going to take longer to surface.

This isn’t an interesting decision point as far as I’m concerned. The Scarab is too precious, Gazeem has got to go. This means Jafar can’t build infrastructure in his Realm the way Hook can, while he’s digging. He has to dig single-mindedly, endlessly, painfully and then hope he can whip something up later, once the Cave of Wonders is open.

Scry Me a River

Jafar has one trick up his sleeve when searching for the Scarab so he can “start playing”: Scrying.

Original card title: “Umbrella Lip”.

At first glance this looks like a pretty good deal. You shout excitedly, “Item! Item! I want an item!” and then you throw cards away from the top of your deck until you hit an Item. This is Jafar’s best tool for finding the Scarab. Other villains that need specific cards out of their deck have similar cards.

And right there is the first problem: they have these similar “dig through your deck” cards in addition to the ability to discard every turn. In actual practice, Scrying isn’t something special Jafar can do, it’s just a concession to the style of deck he has. (Notably, Hook does not have cards that help him dig for his Map. This is because he can discard constantly and has lots of cheap, helpful cards to play as it is. Hook doesn’t need any help in this regard.)

Even as far as “dig through your deck” cards go, though, Scrying is really bad. I mean, it’s fine if the Scarab happens to be near the top, but then you were going to draw it next turn anyway. Doesn’t that sound weird? If the Scarab is in a spot in your deck such that Scrying can help you get to it, you probably don’t need Scrying to help you get to it. And if it’s any lower in your deck than that, well…

There are eight Item cards in Jafar’s deck, one of which is the Scarab. One is the Magic Lamp, which he doesn’t need yet, but can safely discard. (He can grab it out of his discard pile later.) The rest of his Items only seem to exist to be land mines that foil Scrying. They’d be useful if Jafar were able to concentrate on building infrastructure, but he’s not. They’re just junk.

Let’s deploy math. Eight cards in a thirty card deck means, on average, there’s an Item card every 3.75 cards. With slightly better-than-average luck, you’ll use Scrying to discard three cards from your deck, then the fourth will be an Item. If that Item is your Scarab, great, but more often it will be something like one of Jafar’s three useless Scimitars. These Scimitars are the land mines I mentioned. When you hit one, it royally sucks, because you’ve used one of the most valuable cards in your deck to pull a sword you don’t want and maybe discard the same amount of cards you could have if you’d just had a goddamn Discard button in your space.

In absolute terms, Scrying is no better or worse than other such cards. You get to throw away a few cards you don’t want, and you maybe put the thing you do want in your hand. I bet a lot of playtesting was done to make sure the chances are about even across lots of Scrying plays. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and pull five or six or more cards before hitting a land mine; other times your life sucks and there was a Scimitar waiting right on top of your deck. Psychologically, though, on top of all the other drawbacks Jafar has, this card feels mean and gimped.

You have three Scrying cards, and some limited ability to pull them out of your discard pile after you’ve used them. These five-ish chances
are all you have to try and reach the Scarab on turns you can’t discard. It always pushes you forward, even if only an inch, but it generally feels bad to play because of its potential to hit a land mine.

This is Dumb

I want you to scroll back up and read the effect of the Scarab card. Note that playing it increases Jafar’s hand size, and mull that over a second. Doesn’t that sound like it would be super helpful in finding the Scarab? Printed on the Scarab card itself? D’oh!

Now look at Jafar’s second discard button, sitting there on the Cave of Wonders, where he can’t use it until after he plays the Scarab. Except, once he’s played the Scarab, he’s probably already seen half of his deck (on average) and doesn’t need to discard so hard anymore; once every two turns is probably enough for the rest of the game. Double d’oh!

Most Villainous decks have an elegant design sense to them. Cards that synergize well, cards that combine to create specific effects or action sequences that reward skilled players. Hades has one of my favorite turns in the game where, if he knows what he’s doing and has it all set up, can go from 10% to 100% of his win condition in a single turn, while all the other players watch in horror, mouths agape, tongues lolling, curses flying. It’s a great moment if you can pull it off. Other villains can do similar things.

By comparison, Jafar’s design looks like a train wreck. The two things that would be most helpful in completing his Step One are things he can’t do until after completing his Step One, at which point he kind of doesn’t need them anymore. Are there trombone players in Agrabah? Because I think we need a womp womp.

WHAT DO, HOW FIX?

When fixing problems like this, I think a light touch is best. Remember, we already don’t mind that some villains are “harder” than others. Asymmetry is one of the design goals of the game, and there’s a built-in mechanic to correct for overpowered decks. A simple tweak that makes him fun to play is absolutely fine, even if it leaves him the worst villain overall. Here’s the tweak:

“Know this: only one may discard here.”

Swap the Activate button at the Oasis with the Discard button at the Cave of Wonders.

Activate is an important button for Jafar, but not until after he finds the Scarab. A skilled player with two Activate buttons and the proper infrastructure can win very quickly once the Scarab is out. In order to give Jafar the space he needs to build that infrastructure, though, he needs to be able to discard heavily on his first couple turns. Both buttons are useful at the proper point in the game

Also, both buttons are on the top row, which means they can be covered. Other players have a reason to Fate him, now. In his current state Jafar almost never gets Fated because there’s really no point in doing so until he has his Scarab. In a version of his board with two Discard buttons, though, Fating him early and taking that power away is a more attractive strategy. Since Jafar’s Realm is more attractive to Heroes, he’ll have to spend a few turns cleaning them up. This puts more decision points into his game and breaks up the “Jafar formula” I mentioned earlier.

There are other changes you could make, if you really wanted to make his deck more powerful, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Remove the monotony of his early game, make him a bigger Fate target, make the Cave of Wonders a more dangerous space in the late game, and suddenly his board becomes both viable and fun. This one simple change accomplishes all these goals.

There’s still a problem with Jafar’s deck, though, that no simple gameplay tweak can address…

A Whole New Herp

A whole new flurp to herp and durrrr.

I give you… Aladerp and Jersmine.

Most of the artwork in Villainous is tremendous, but these two cards are… special. I mean, they look like they smelled a fart.

Thank you for reading this long post about why Jafar sucks!

1 comment to Jafar is the Worst Disney Villain

  • Drathnoxis

    What, Aladdin’s nose is HUGE! I scrolled past the picture before reading it and thought it must have been some parody art or something. Unbelievable that’s official artwork.

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