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Game Preview: Arcanum

Andrea Ligabue
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I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a preview copy of Arcanum, a 2011 release from Andrea Chiarvesio (co-designer of Kingsburg and Olympus) and Pierluca Zizzi (Caligula, a nice highly-interactive board game). Andrea's design style tends to involve low direct interaction and great balancing, while Pierluca has highly interactive and more chaotic designs, so I was curious to see how they worked together.

Another reason to be curious about this design is that it's the first incursion by Lo Scarabeo, probably the greatest Italian Taroc publisher, into the world of board games. Perhaps not surprisingly, the core engine of the game uses a tarot deck with the major arcana being special event cards and the minor arcana being the true engine. (The Italian distributor of Arcanum, Oliphante, is a well-known name with loads of experience with games.)

Before a description of the game based on four playings of a pre-release version, let's ask co-designer Andrea Chirvesio a few questions:

Liga: Hi, Andrea. Most readers know you from Kinsgburg and Olympus, the two games you designed with Luca Iennaco. This time you have worked with Pierluca Zizzi. How does Arcanum differ from your previous releases, and what does it have in common with those games?

Andrea Chirvesio: The name of my co-designer is different, of course :-)

I would say that in common they all have easy-to-follow and, I would dare to say, elegant main mechanisms, which I believe is kind of my signature in designing games – maybe since I would get lost in more complex gaming architectures. They also each have several different effects (on cards for Arcanum and Olympus, on buildings or cards for Kingsburg) to make things interesting and always different. With Kingsburg, Arcanum shares also the "generic fantasy setting", being a middle-weight (gateway, if you prefer) game, and not being totally deterministic.

What is different is that Arcanum is more of a tactical than a strategic game, and I hope I won't hurt anyone's sensibility if I say that Arcanum has artwork that tops any other game I have seen in a while.

Liga: You have decided to use a Tarot deck as the main engine of the game. Where did this idea comes from? And do you think it could be the first of a series of games based on this engine?

AC: The idea comes from Pierluca, him being a Tarot deck "designer". I had no idea that several kind of Tarot decks exist, and that any single deck needs not only an illustrator, but also a writer who describes every card and its deep meanings. We were in my car coming back from some gaming event I can't remember now, and we started discussing how it would have been possible to use a Tarot deck as a gaming engine for a board game. And I had the idea that now is the core mechanism of Arcanum. From there, we brought the game to a Tarot publisher, Lo Scarabeo, based in Torino which is where we both live, since Pierluca designed Tarot decks for the company already.

They have been enthusiastic about the game and gave us permission to contact Patrizio Evangelisti for all of the illustrations and the game board. (Did I already mention that the artwork is beautiful?)

Through a stroke of luck, Lo Scarabeo even offered me a job that I accepted, so now I work for them full time.

Whether there will be other games based on this engine will likely depend on how well Arcanum will be welcomed by the market. Lo Scarabeo already had some experience with card and board games in the past and is planning to not stop with this single game, but to create a whole range of games, all related to its core business of Tarots, divinatory cards, runes, incenses, talismans, etc... so we'll likely publish more games and some of them could be based on the Tarot, with the same or a different engine.

One important remark is that Arcanum can be played with any Tarot deck, so even with that old Marseille Tarot deck owned by your grandfather, if you want, or with a deck you just purchased since you liked the illustrations.

Liga: How long did it take to develop Arcanum? I know that you were working on the design for a long time. Your games are also famous for the good balancing and the rigorous testing, usually with Luca taking care of this. What about Arcanum?

AC: As with most of my games, Arcanum took around nine months of development and yes, I tried to put in it the same attention for details as always, but with a different way of working.

Working with Pierluca is both similar to and really different from working with Luca Iennaco (Luke). In both cases, I am the one responsible for creating the main mechanism behind the game, while Luke or Pierluca are responsible for creating card or building effects. But when I work with Luke, he is the one in charge of refining, balancing and doing most of the playtesting, while with Pierluca that's a task that I took care of (balancing and refining at least). Pierluca is more a creative guy than Luca, so with Arcanum his contribution was very much focused on making the game coherent with its theme (while when working with Luca the theme is my part of the job).

I don't know whether I have been able to explain myself, perhaps not, so I'll try with a metaphor I hope most of the readers will be familiar with: Working with Luca is like working with Sheldon Cooper [a character on the television show The Big Bang Theory]. He easily see flaws in my projects, and I have to suffer some bitter and sarcastic criticism, but if I can get him to help me, I can be sure he will fix everything and take care of the good balancing and most of the testing. Working with Pierluca is like working with Howard Wolowitz [another character on The Big Bang Theory]. He is creative and enthusiastic, but sometime I have to steer him off dangerous routes, at least for game design issues. This would make me like Leonard, which would be totally fine, especially if some of you readers could provide me with Penny's contacts. (For the three of you for whom the last paragraph did not make any sense, stop reading this and go watch TBBT now!)

Now a quick explanation how Arcanum works: Players represent different paths of Fate moving the destinty of four noble houses which are represented by the four Tarot suits: Chalice, Pentacle, Wands and Swords. The game lasts six or nine turns, with a scoring phase at the end of the third, sixth and ninth turns.

Players use the minor arcana cards from the Tarot deck to move "court figures" on the map, trying to increase the prestiage of a house. At the same time, they bid on one or more houses by hiding every turn a single minor arcana.

During the scoring phase, each player scores points according to the prestige of the houses and according to their bids. Whoever hid the highest number of cards for each suit scores the most points for that house; ties are broken in favor of the player who hid the card(s) with the highest value(s).

The map displays ten cities, and each city provides a different abilty. Each city also offers prestige points according to which figure (type and suit) is moved onto it.

During your turn, you draw cards (three minor arcana or one major arcana) and play a single minor arcana and, if you like, a single major arcana. Playing a normal card (1 to 10) means that you have to move a figure of that suit in the city location with that number. Playing a figure card (King, Queen, Knight and Knave) means you have to move that figure in the location you want. Using arcana to move a figure where you want is nice, but hiding a figure is also a strong choice.

Apart from the special abilities conferred by some locations, you usually hide three cards prior to each scoring, which means that you have to plan your moves with care, trying to bid on houses with high prestige and trying to understand what other players might be bidding on.

After each scoring phase, the hidden cards are discarded and the prestige of the houses brought back to zero, so as Chiarvesio says Arcanum is much more tactical than strategical. The game is quick and highly challanging, and the 22 major arcana all provide special abilities that really make the game shine.
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