Shovel Knight - Hope Box
Publisher: Level 99 Games
Number of Players: 2
Play Time: 15-30 Minutes
Copy Provided by Publisher
The fourth season of Exceed Fighting System has landed, and this time it’s Yacht Club’s Shovel Knight entering the fray. While we already reviewed Exceed last year with Season Three’s Street Fighter, it’s just ridiculous (and fun) that this system has made such a hard turn to write fighting rules about a set of characters from a platforming game. I’ll be giving my thoughts on each of the characters shortly, but first I want to give my impressions of the Hope Box as a whole.
Before I dig in, I should mention that I am by no means a competitive Exceed player. If you’re looking for in-depth analyses of the speed curve, tier lists, and matchups, I can’t help you. I can, however, recommend that you start with some of Tirankin’s articles over on BGG, which take a much deeper dive into the strategy of the game.
One of the first things I noticed? They stepped up their character art.
However, if you’re interested in just the fun of playing and you’re wondering what the new characters are like, then you’re in the right place!
What’s In The Box?
Note: I’m trying to keep things newbie-friendly, but if any of the terminology confuses you, you can check out our initial review of Exceed for a run-down of the mechanics.
Four fighters, four totally new experiences within the Exceed Fighting System. A lot of card games fall victim to power creep, where the company keeps players buying their new products by continually increasing the power levels so only people who constantly buy the newest stuff can be competitive.
Level 99’s approach, though, is actually putting me more in mind of Netrunner. Their new cards aren’t necessarily more powerful than the old ones, they’re just very different. You don’t need to buy everything they put out in order to stand a chance - in fact, some of their season 2 characters still top the tier lists, and season 1 was utterly dominant in competitive before they (mercifully) rotated it out.
So, if that’s the case, why buy the new stuff at all? Because it’s just so different from what they had before. Season 3’s Street Fighter characters are solid, functional, and feel a lot like their video game counterparts - which isn’t too unexpected, given that Street Fighter and similar games were the model for Exceed. But what about the weirdness of Shovel Knight?
How do you turn THIS guy into a serious fighter?!
That comes through in the Hope Box in the form of goofy, off-the-wall mechanics, overpowering cards balanced by harsh costs or restrictions, and an overall experience that feels nothing like the season before it. Are they stronger than the Street Fighter characters? Well, no doubt some of the new characters will put the hurt on some of the old ones (sorry, Vega); but at the same time, some of the old characters will wipe the floor with some of the new ones.
Of course, many players are just looking to have some fun and not worry about the strongest competitive decks. This will be great for those people too, because the Hope Box has fun in spades.
Get it? Spades? ...Nevermind.
The Problem With Trying New Things
Unfortunately, there are a few problems that I have to mention. First of all, the new season uses weird and sometimes janky mechanics that aren’t very beginner-friendly, then doubles down on the issue by not explaining some of them very well. For example, when Tinker Knight jumps into his tank, the field gets reset and both characters move back to their starting positions. However, it would be easy to get confused and think that the field reset is supposed to happen every turn. How do I know that? Because that's what Adam and I were doing when we tried him out.
Secondly, while the card art looks amazing, the cards are a bit overdone and some of the design choices are really counterintuitive. In the last season the cards were great: easy to read and interpret, with the art confined to a window near the top like most other card games do. In this box the art spills into the numbers and effects, making it all a bit hard to look at. On top of that, Level 99 made the very odd design choice of putting special symbols on all of the normal Strikes, but not the specials. Any experienced player would know at a glance what’s a normal and what’s a special, but a newbie could easily come to the exact opposite conclusion.
Finally, and this one isn’t a new problem with this edition, Level 99 seems to be in desperate need of a proofreader. The box comes with a special card detailing all of the errata that they’re already aware of. To clarify, these are all of the mistakes and misprints that they’ve already noticed in the short time between designing the cards and printing them. Most of them are inconsequential and seem to be a result of copy-pasting the card counts without accounting for the fact that many of the Shovel Knight characters come with additional special cards, but it’s really not a good look for an otherwise great game.
This is half of the errata. Half.
If you’re just getting into Exceed, I sadly can’t recommend starting here. Your best bet as a new player would be one of the Street Fighter boxes from last year - either the Ryu box or the M. Bison box would serve you well. The characters are much more straightforward and will help you nail down the basics before getting into Shovel Knight’s weirdness.
Speaking of which, let’s do that!
Shovel Knight & Shield Knight
Oddly enough, Shovel Knight was already in this game as a solo fighter from Season 3. I got a chance to chat with some Level 99 reps at PAX Unplugged and had asked, given that he was already a character, how could they use him to headline the new season?
This was the answer: an Ice Climbers-style Shovel & Shield team up. Shovel Knight is the actual fighter, but he has an ability that can either move Shield Knight around the board or pull her directly to his space. Then, if he begins an attack on the same space as Shield Knight, he gets bonuses to movement as she gives him a push with her signature shield. He also has a couple of attacks that calculate their ranges from Shield Knight instead of himself, letting you sneak some extra damage in just when your opponent thought you were a safe distance away. Things only get more fun when they transform; Shovel Knight’s ability improves so that he can place Shield Knight on any space, while Shield Knight provides extra protection if she’s between you and your opponent.
In Shovel Knight lore these two were once the greatest duo in all the land, so it was a treat to finally get to play as both of them together. Level 99 also did a great job of making it feel like both characters are contributing to the fight, while not making the 2v1 battle unbalanced.
Okay, I know I just said that the Hope Box isn’t good for a beginner, but Propeller Knight is actually a great training tool as well as a fun character in his own right.
His character ability says that his specials and ultras deal extra damage if they hit at their maximum range, which is a fantastic way to work on distancing. He’s also got some great mobility options; one of his cards lets him immediately fly to any space on the board. When transformed, he gets another ability that lets him move one space before attacking. One space may not sound like a lot, but it often puts you at the exact right distance to take advantage of the additional power from his first ability, or allows you to stay out of range until you’re ready to strike.
After my first time trying out Propeller Knight I described him as “like Vega but good” (Vega, despite being my favorite from the Street Fighter set, is a notoriously low-tier character). While a bit low on power unless you really leverage his character abilities, Propeller Knight is great fun to play and very satisfying to master.
Now we get into some really strange mechanics. Mole Knight comes with a burrow that he can move around using his character ability. The Burrow’s ability lets you add an effect to strikes that you initiate (i.e. on your own turn) that allows you to move to the Burrow’s space before attacking.
This effectively means that you have two different threat ranges on your turn: one starting from Mole Knight, and one from his Burrow. You do have to declare whether you’re moving or not immediately after choosing your strike, and before your opponent chooses what to respond with, so there’s no element of surprise. What there is, though, is a way to effectively keep the entire board in your range at all times, and make it very hard for your opponent to play the range game effectively. The Burrow can also grant free movement that puts Propeller Knight to shame.
Here’s the real trick, though: attacks with more range tend to have lower speeds. If you’re planning to strike from the Burrow, your opponent has to figure out whether to try to stop you before you Strike, or to soak the hit and try to retaliate. Ideally you want Mole Knight far away and your Burrow right in close, so anything with enough range to reach you will be too slow, but anything fast enough to beat you will fall short. Exceed really captures his hit-and-run playstyle, and he is a pain in the pauldrons to fight against.
One helpful tip though: he doesn’t like it when you stand on his Burrow.
What? Just… just what is happening here?
Level 99 has honestly done a brilliant job with Tinker Knight, but he is so freaking weird. They had to capture the feeling of his two-phase boss battle in a system that’s not designed to support it. The obvious choice would be to make Tinker Knight’s starting side his extremely weak first phase, and his empowered side the giant tank he jumps into after you beat him in Shovel Knight... which is exactly what Level 99 did, but they went a step farther.
Tinker Knight starts out with only half health - 15 instead of 30 - and he can’t Exceed in the normal way by spending cards. On top of that, his special and ultra attacks have extremely powerful extra effects, but those effects are too expensive to reasonably use. You’re nearly crippled for the first part of the game, as half of your deck is half-useless. When your health hits zero for the first time is when the real fun begins.
When Tinker Knight’s health reaches zero he Exceeds automatically and gains health back based on how many cards he has in his Gauge: up to 20 health. That means that if you handle the early game well you can actually end up with slightly more total health than a normal character, even though you only started with half. Oh yeah, and he now takes up three spaces.
Finally, remember those super-expensive extra effects? They’re automatically added to his special and ultra attacks when he’s in his Exceed form. Each card can normally be used either as a strike or for its extra effect, but he gets to just… do both. It’s a perfect representation of a giant boss battle in a system that really shouldn’t be able to do that.
Level 99 Games Continues To Exceed Expectations
This time around, the answer to “who is it for” is pretty obvious. The Hope Box is for fans of Exceed Fighting System and/or fans of Shovel Knight; unfortunately, it is really not for fans of Shovel Knight who are interested in trying out Exceed. With the exception of Propeller Knight, these characters are really not great choices for a new player.
What if you’re a huge Shovel Knight fan who now has a hankering to try Exceed? I’d actually recommend that you check out the Shadow Box instead, which comes with Plague Knight, Polar Knight, Treasure Knight, and King Knight. Yes, there is more than one than one box each season for the Exceed system; it actually really helps starting collectors feel like they can try the game out in sections instead of having to spend all their money at once. Except for Plague Knight, who demands some very careful hand management, they’re a bit more beginner-friendly than what you’ll find in the Hope Box.
Astute readers might have noticed that I didn't mention Specter Knight. He's also available, but only as a separate solo fighter.
If you are brand new to this game system and want to try it out, I want to encourage you to go ahead - just maybe not with this box. For fans of Exceed, I think you are really going to enjoy the new tricks you can pick up here. My next article will be going into more detail about the Shadow Box, so stay tuned! In the meantime, may your shovel be sharp and your shield be strong.