My Custom Villainous Decks (and the rules they break)

Disney Villainous is an asymmetric board game. That means the game contains a variety of characters who play by different sets of rules all at the same time. This might sound insane if you’re not used to the idea, but it’s actually pretty common across all form of competitive games. Consider Street Fighter: one of the rules is “this button does a kick”, and that applies to all characters. However, another rule is “this button sequence makes Ryu do a fireball”, and another is “this other button sequence makes T. Hawk do a command grab.” There are no button sequences that make T. Hawk do a fireball or Ryu do a command grab. The two characters play by different rules, but that’s okay, because the central framework of the game — e.g. the set of core rules that applies to all characters — is robust enough that the game still works.

Another way to think of this: which of the above characters is breaking a rule? The game has rules about the various range of attacks; Ryu’s fireball breaks them by being a projectile that travels across the screen. The game also has rules about avoiding or teching throws; T. Hawk’s command grab breaks them as well. In fact no character in the game follows all the rules. It’s the part of the game’s design that make each character unique. This is something I immediately noticed about Villainous, and after a couple of games I knew I would be playing and thinking about it for a long, long time.

The asymmetry creates another property about the game I really like: it is endlessly expandable. Three expansions have been released so far, with a fourth on the way, each one introducing new villains that break the rules in fun and interesting ways. Even sticking with just the villains in the main box, though, I identified what must have been part of the game’s design doc: “there is a core rule set, but each villain breaks it in one way.”

I mean, each villain breaks it in lots of ways. That’s what cards are in board games; specific instructions on how you’re allowed, for that one play, to break the game’s rules. But each villain also has a special gimmick, something unique to just them, which breaks one of the game’s major rules. Other players are responsible for playing Heroes to your Realm, except for Captain Hook, who can (and probably must) do it himself. Realms have one locked location that becomes unlocked with a certain card, except for Ursula, who toggles back and forth between two locked locations. These deviations became more pronounced with each expansion. The first had a villain building a new kind of deck with cards from his own one. The next had a villain splitting her Fate deck into separate piles. All three in the expansion after that have new kinds of tokens and feelies to track various mechanics.

When I started designing my own custom decks for villains from the Final Fantasy series, I made “each villain breaks one rule” my own cornerstone. This post is a brief summary of the decks I’ve made and the rule each of them breaks. Buckle in for a long read, I’ve been at this for well over a year now, and there’s fourteen of them.

Garland (FFI)

“In Villainous, all cards remain in play, either in a Realm, or a player’s hand, or a deck, or a discard pile.”

Garland breaks this rule by having cards that remove Heroes from the game entirely. As one of the first decks I designed, I didn’t yet have a good handle on the ins and outs of how a well-constructed Villainous deck should look at various levels of development. The first round of feedback for Garland was that the deck felt absurdly powerful, and had a lot of interesting moving parts, but he wasn’t actually winning games. A lot of discussion, testing, observation and many rounds of changes went into getting the Garland deck into a position where it was fun and playable and an actual threat to win.

Part of the puzzle was giving Garland several cards that not only defeat Heroes in his Realm, but removes them from the game entirely. Garland’s Fate deck is as punishing as his villain deck is powerful — it helps give the deck a brutal, unflinching nature, kind of like the mean old NES game it’s based on. When Heroes kept cycling through his Fate discard pile and back into his Realm, Garland had no clean shot at victory. Giving him the ability to strike a fatal blow to the opposition makes him feel even more powerful but gives him an actual chance at the win.

Playing as Garland, it feels incredibly cool to send a Hero packing for good. Playing against Garland, there’s a feeling of horror at the same moment. It’s dark, it’s mean, and it’s exactly what Garland would do.

Sho-gun (FF Legend II)

“In Villainous, every deck breaks a rule.”

Sho-gun’s deck doesn’t break any rules, so that’s the rule it breaks.

I made this more or less as a joke deck, because I thought having a bunch of cards with all Game Boy graphics, based entirely around a quirk in the translation meant to avoid drug references, would be hilarious. The deck is still intended to be viable and I’m sure with some playtesting it will be.

Golbez (FFIV)

“In Villainous, you may only play one card at a time.”

Or two cards, if you’re on a space with two Play a Card buttons. Unless you’re Golbez, then you can play as many cards as you want. Indeed, you have to, on your final turn to win the game. You need to have four special cards in your game, and the Power to play them, and not have your play blocked by one of the Heroes in your Fate deck that can do that. This can be a hefty restriction, since you usually only have a hand of four, and every card you’re holding on to until your last turn is a spot not being put to use for something more useful you can play in the meantime.

Most villains have to discard lots of things they’d rather play, in order to get to the cards that are really important. Golbez still discards a lot of cards, but he also gets to play a lot more if he wants. This has always been one of the easier FF decks to learn and to win with, and this simple rule-break gives Golbez the flavor of a master manipulator who is, indeed, holding all the cards.

Dark King (FF Mystic Quest)

“In Villainous, you can only take one Fate action per turn.”

Fate is very, very strong. For most villains, it’s your only opportunity to complicate another player’s progress. It’s something every villain can do, and it’s something the game is very careful not to restrict. However, it’s also something the game is very careful to police. You can only do it once per turn, because you never have access to more than one Fate button at a time. Lots of villains have cards that grant extra actions, but these cards are always carefully worded to ensure the extra actions aren’t Fate actions.

Dark King begins his first turn by Fating someone. He has to. And he starts every turn that way, for the early game. Eventually this swarm of Fate stops and Dark King moves on to bigger and better things, but he can turn the early game into a real train wreck. In fact, this is the point. In the very early game, players tend to work towards their own goals, only using Fate when the opportunity arises. Nerts to that. Dark King throws monkey wrenches at everyone, throws up speedbumps all over the place, and gives everyone something to think about while he climbs the long ladder up his win condition.

I don’t know whether this breaks the game too much, or not. It’s a relatively new deck, and anything could happen. There’s a weird edge case where, with a potentially self-destructive sequence of actions, Dark King can perform three Fate actions at once. That might need reigning in, or maybe it’s fine as a once-per-game oddity. We’re keeping an eye on it, but it’s a characteristic I’d like the deck to keep into its final state.

Gilgamesh (FFV etc.)

“Rules are dumb, let’s just break all the rules, what’s the worst that could happen.”

Well, the worst that could happen is the deck becomes totally unplayable, or breaks the game in fundamental ways to the point where play cannot continue, or a winner cannot be definitively known, or bees swarm in through all the windows and sting everyone to death. I don’t think Gilgamesh (aka Greg, aka Glorgamorsh, aka Gilgafred, aka @FF5ForFutures) is at that level of tomfoolery, but he might be close.

After his initial introduction in Final Fantasy V, Gilgamesh just started showing up in whatever games he wanted, with no respect for the cosmological rules of whatever universe he happened to pop into. Indeed, he even started showing up retroactively when pre-V games got remade. Sometimes he’s a joke boss, sometimes he’s a sidequest, sometimes he’s a $4.99 DLC adventure, I think at least once he was a summon spell. Gilgamesh doesn’t know the meaning of the word “rules”.

When building this deck, I threw every stupid idea I possibly could into it, with no regard to coherence or reason or swarms of bees. Gilgamesh plays cards to other players’ Realms. His Conditions interrupt their actions. He can perform actions on your board. He can expand his own Realm to five locations. And then he can summon Enkidu to do it all again.

It’s nice to just cut loose and see how many shreds you can reduce everything to, sometimes, and Gilgamesh is exactly the right character to explore those ideas with. I haven’t played this deck myself, and I don’t think it’s gotten a win at my table, so it clearly needs some work. Maybe a lot of work. But it’s important that, at the end of this arduous project, I have one deck that’s just “everything exploded and then we just scraped off the stuff that splattered against the wall”.

Kefka (FFVI)

“In Villainous, each deck has two copies each of two Conditions.”

Conditions are special cards you play on another player’s turn, interrupting for a moment their action to take one of your own. In the Disney decks these Conditions are always named after personality traits the villain possesses — Cowardice, Rage, Opportunist, etc. — there are always two of them, and there are always two copies of each. Card games with lots of turn interrupts can get pretty complicated, so I can definitely see why the designers wanted to keep this aspect pretty simple. With the FF decks I didn’t slavishly adhere to the personality trait naming convention, but I did stick with two Conditions per deck, two copies per Condition.

Except Kefka. Kefka has ten Conditions in his deck. Two of them trigger off other players’ Condition cards. His final card to win the game is a Condition. There’s a sense of lurking dread playing against Kefka. Since much of what he does takes place outside of his turn, you can never quite tell what he’s up to.

If you know my decks, you might think this isn’t the weirdest thing about Kefka’s gameplay. He also splits his Villain decks and discard piles in half, which no other villain does. This sounds like a second broken rule, but it’s actually a logical emergence from the first one. Kefka doesn’t win on his own turn, he wins on yours. He has to put his Realm into a particular state before he can do that, though, so he needs unique ways to hide or play with information. Face down double discard piles is a way Kefka can keep track of his own business while making him tough for everyone else to follow.

I actually really hate playing as this deck, and hopefully it doesn’t need much more refinement. It’s kind of hard to tell if it does. That’s probably how Kefka would want it, all told.

Magus (FF Time Travel Gaiden Superventure)

“In Villainous, each villain has one Objective.”

Magus has two. They’re each of the form “Begin your turn at X location while y action avaiable and z card is played there,” but each of the variables has two possible mutually exclusive values.

At the time I started designing Magus’s deck, with its two Objectives, his gimmick was unique. That was before the second expansion, and the Ratigan deck. Ratigan (from The Great Mouse Detective) also has two Objectives, but they’re handled a little differently from Magus’s. Ratigan always starts with Objective A and then switches to Objective B if a specific thing happens during his game. Magus chooses an Objective at the start, and both he and other players have opportunities to flip it. Because his Objective can turn on a dime, and the two Objectives are mutually exclusive, his deck is packed with lots of odd abilities to help him pivot course.

The balance of this deck feels okay so far, but the intent is for the two Objectives to be equally obtainable from start of game. If one is easier than the other, the deck might become overly predictable. Or maybe that’s okay, because a table’s meta will change as players try to guess and second-guess whether this Magus is going for the easier Objective, or the harder one, or picked the harder one because he assumes you’ll assume he picked the easy one and then flip it on him, or vice-versa. (Assuming one is harder than the other in the first place, which I don’t have good data for yet.)

Magus is a conflicted character who does evil things in dogged pursuit of vengeance brought on by grief and loss. I hope the deck captures that duality.

And yes, Chrono Trigger is a Final Fantasy game as far as I’m concerned.

The Turks (FFVII)

“In Villainous, there is one villain mover.”

I was done making Villainous decks, for real I was. I had designed the eight core decks to the point they were table-playable (e.g. the cards were written and imported into Tabletop Simulator, albeit some without art assets, and in something like a playable state) when I decided to create two more “expansion decks” — Gilgamesh and Magus — rounding everything out at a nice even ten. And that’s where I should have left it, until we started brainstorming one night about what a deck with multiple villain movers might look like. The idea was so tantalizing I had to make another deck for it, and The Turks was a natural fit.

(For the record, each deck started with an idea rather than an actual villain, usually the idea that coalesces from some form of “what if we break this rule?” With the exception of Garland and Golbez, villains I knew I wanted in the collection for personal reasons, I never started with a villain and then went in search of deck mechanics that would fit that villian’s themes. This is why there are no Sephiroth or Kuja decks; none of the ideas I had presented themselves as good fits for those characters.)

The Turks is by far the most complicated deck I’ve made, and all those complications stem from the idea that while most villains are solitary creatures, moving about their Realms and performing actions, The Turks is a group of four. On your turn you select one to move and perform actions. All of the deck’s resulting weirdness stems from that core idea. Each Turk has Personal Actions they can perform in conjunction with the Realm Actions printed on the board, allowing for somewhat customizable action sequences. And they have an extra Company Action, too, which they take collectively, and depends on how many Turks are present in a single location. (This “extra action” concept is explored in a different way in the Dark King deck, which I decided to make after The Turks because I didn’t want an odd number of decks.)

This deck has gotten some heavy play and, while it is the most complex of all the decks, it’s also incredibly fun to work with. There’s so many moving parts and so many permutations of action sequences that it really does feel like you’re playing a group of people cooperating with each other, rather than a single villain pursuing his own goals. Someday Elena will be introduced in Final Fantasy VII Remake 2 or 3 and we’ll have a nice HD render of her character to include on this board.

Ultimecia (FFVIII)

“In Villainous, Realms have at most one locked location.”

Ultimecia has three. She has to unlock them, do some stuff, then lock them back up to win.

This deck first hit the table in a literally unplayable state. I mean it hard locked to the point where the player could not do anything. With a lot of work and testing the deck has landed in a state that is not only playable, and not only winnable, but also somewhat elegant. There were times early in Ultimecia’s development where we played around with changing a lot of the rules for locked locations just for her board, but in the end the only necessary change was this: in addition to the cards that specifically unlock locations, Ultimecia can unlock a location by playing an Ally to it.

Everyone who plays Ultimecia gets into big trouble on their first try. One of the deck’s main characteristics is locking stuff up, but the more you do that the fewer places you have to take actions. The actual order you want to do things is determined by the action symbols in the Realm (whether you need access to Power or Play or Fate buttons might change depending on what villains you’re playing against) and what Heroes you end up seeing, and in which order they appear. There is one powerful “lock EVERYTHING down” card, but it can be pretty obvious you’re planning to play it, if your opponents also know the deck and are paying attention.

Queen Brahne (FFIX)

“In Villainous, Heroes are bad for you.”

The core game already has one villain — Captain Hook — who breaks this rule. And in the wider world of custom Villainous decks, “defeat such-and-such Hero” is a fairly common Objective. (And that’s another blog post unto itself, maybe!) I really like Hook. He’s probably my favorite of the core decks. So I definitely wanted to try making a deck in the same style. In Hook’s case, there’s a Hero he needs to play and several ways to get that Hero out. Other players can Fate Hook and bring the Hero out, too, and in my experience that’s almost always bad for Hook. What I wanted to try was a deck where the Hero starts in play, and can never be removed, but needs to be semi-controlled in order to win.

(The third Villainous expansion introduced Mother Gothel, who works on a similar idea. Between that, and Magus’s double Objectives, and Gigamesh’s Quest structure, I feel at least a little smug about independently designing deck ideas that went on to be good enough to explore in the main game.)

The board ends up feeling like a chase, and that’s intentional. The Queen has to chase the Princess around in order to get certain cards played at certain times. Sometimes you can manipulate the Princess to where you need her, sometimes you have to work with wherever she ended up. My suspicion is that the deck is too hard to win with, but I actually really like it in its current state. Any refinements on the basic Brahne concept are going to be light touches.

Sin (FFX)

“In Villainous, you always have access to the lower row of action symbols.”

Sin has to destroy his own action symbols to win.

Sin is a slow and steady deck. It’s going to win, and no amount of Fate can prevent that, it can only deter the inevitable somewhat. Playing against Sin isn’t about disrupting its Objective, it’s about pushing it back long enough that you can meet your Objective first. (If you’ve played the base game, Prince John has a similar feel.)

There’s really not much more to go into here. The deck has the same “problem” as Ultimecia, in that you can box yourself in by blocking off actions too early, but the solution is to just learn the deck and avoid doing that. Very few refinements were necessary for Sin. It’s a simple, straightforward deck that’s another good candidate to introduce a new player to the expansion.

Shantotto (FFXI ~ A Shantotto Ascension)

“In Villainous, you can hold a card  in your hand as long as you want.”

Shantotto can’t. Some of her cards have a Channeling cost, which is an amount of Power she needs to pay to keep the card in her hand at the end of her turn. This led to a major emergent property of the board that is necessary for honest play: Shantotto always plays with her hand revealed. Other players know what you’re holding. This concept of having no hidden information, not even your own hand, is thematically appropriate for Shantotto. In her game, specifically in the expansion pack this deck is based on, Shantotto tries to be deceptive and to hide things from the player, but is so obviously up to no good that the ultimate betrayal is more or less played for laughs.

This deck currently exists on a razor’s edge. The card Shantotto wants to play to win costs 24 Power. That’s a lot of dosh, so the deck is mostly geared around getting infrastructure in place to get lots of Power very quickly. The card has a Channeling cost of 2, so if Shantotto is holding it but can’t gain at least 3 Power per turn, she’s just spinning her wheels. There do seem to be decent strategies for playing the deck depending on whether you see the winning card in the early, mid, or late game, and I suspect we’re close to the deck’s final state.

It was this time last year I was playing Final Fantasy XI to get art assets for this deck. It was hell. I have scars. (But I still love Shantotto.)

Doctor Cid (FFXII)

“In Villainous, every Realm has multiple Gain Power actions.”

Not Doctor Cid. He gains Power by taking a special action to reshuffle his discard pile back into his deck, and his gameplay is designed around starting with a small deck and making it larger over time. If you’ve played Final Fantasy XII it should be obvious why this is good theming.

I’m glad I eventually had a good idea for a Doctor Cid deck. FFXII was a big hole in the collection for a long time. It’s one of my favorite games in the series, and its primary antagonists Vayne Solidor and Doctor Cid are amongst my favorite villains, so it kind of sucked having decks for the likes of Sin and Queen Brahne, but not one of them. Well, now I do. (And then, to even things back out, I whipped up the joke-y Sho-Gun deck to top it all off.)

This deck is so new it hasn’t been played yet. There are some obvious problems I want to look at and who knows how many non-obvious ones. This is why I like to playtest decks quite a lot before releasing them to the public table.

Ardyn (FFXV)

“In Villainous, you defeat Heroes with Allies.”

Ardyn has no Allies. He must defeat Heroes himself.

This wasn’t a new idea, when I sat down to design Ardyn. Ursula (from the base game) and Evil Queen (from the first expansion) both have alternate ways of dealing with Heroes in their Realm, and it’s a popular design idea across many of the custom decks I’ve looked at. The twist with Ardyn is, instead of simply having alternate Hero-slaying mechanics, he uses the standard Vanquish action to do it with his villain mover, rather than relying on Allies.

To ensure that Heroes were a central mechanic to the deck, this property emerged: Ardyn needs reasons to go into his own Fate deck and play his own Heroes. Once that was in place, his final gimmick — cards that have extra abilities if he possesses the Fate Token — was obvious.

It’s dangerous giving villains the incentive and ability to go into their own Fate decks. If Fate is necessary to advance a villain’s Objective at all, other players may not want to Fate them. There is some debate whether you should fate Captain Hook, for example. (He’s the only villain in the base game that needs to play a certain Hero to win.) We worked very, very hard to carefully word each of Ardyn’s Fate cards so that playing Fate against him is always damaging to him. There should never be a turn where Ardyn gets Fated and then says thank you.

I may or may not do more in-depth looks at these or other Villainous decks on this blog. I’ve definitely been playing and thinking about it a lot over the past year-and-a-half. I do maintain a YouTube playlist where I go in-depth into each deck as it’s released, but even some of that information is obsolete now with further playtesting. (Garland and Golbez both need to be revisited in future videos.) You can check out that playlist, or the Tabletop Simulator mod itself, at these links:

Steam Workshop: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=1901065673
YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJaCM0fQ67Zaf3q34bWo5EKho4mNZ9FhA

Thanks for reading!

2 comments to My Custom Villainous Decks (and the rules they break)

  • I really love these decks and the thought process you put into them, even if I’ve only played the base game once (And clearly didn’t play it right, since Jafar won).

    And I’ve said it before, but a physical copy of these is a dream.

  • Ash

    I just found this website, and I gotta say this is literally the coolest. I love these ideas and concepts, just all of them. Keep doing what you do, man.

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