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Game Preview at BGG.CON 2014: Elysium, or At Play in the Elysian Fields

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Elysium
Throughout BGG.CON 2014 and shortly afterward, I had many people ask for my favorite game from the show, and as is often the case at cons my answer was not even on their radar because I tend to play prototypes of games due out in the near future. I'm the news guy, yes?, so I need to be looking ahead, eyes on the horizon, no longer concerned with those games freshly on the market that everyone else is playing and enjoying. I'd say it's a rough life, but I doubt that anyone would believe me.

In any case, my favorite game from BGG.CON 2014 was Elysium from designers Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan, which should be out in February 2015 from Space Cowboys. At Gen Con 2014, Croc gave me an overview of the game and it sounded great, but he wanted to hold off on recording a video as Black Fleet was new on the market and he didn't want to steal that game's thunder. We then recorded a video of Elysium at Spiel 2014, but the sound was somewhat botched, making it hard to hear about the game. Let that deficit now be filled! Although you'll have to read the sections below out loud if you want to actually hear about it...

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Central card layout after a few turns

The gist of Elysium is that you're trying to earn the favor of Olympians by building strong legends, with the legends being comprised of characters from Greek myth. In each of the five rounds of the game, you're going to claim three characters from the central playing area by using your colored tokens; each character card has one or more colored circles on it, and to claim the character you must give up one token matching one of those circles. With the fourth colored token, you take one of four turn order markers, with the marker giving you a set amount of gold, victory points (VPs) and transfers; more about the transfers later.

If you can't use a token to claim a character (because none of your tokens match the characters on display), then you take a citizen — that is, a face-down character card. Citizens have no abilities and can cost you VPs at the end of the game, but they can still be useful.

If you can't use a token to claim a turn order marker (again because none of your tokens match the markers still available), then you'll go last in turn order next round and receive only a pittance of gold and transfers. You want to avoid this, if possible, but you're torn in multiple directions each round with only four tokens available, so sometimes you just take the hit.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Blue and yellow — spent! Green and red to go...

Each character has different abilities, and you'll ideally combine these abilities in good ways to earn gold and victory points. My cards above, for example, might not seem ideal at first glance — the one on the left with the little snake icon can't be used unless I hold another snake card in my domain, and the one on the right relates to getting and using citizens, which is the failsafe option on a turn and not something you probably want to plan for — but it was the first turns of a game I had never played, so I was winging it and hoping for the best.

Some characters have an instant ability, some an ongoing one; some can be tapped once per round, some have a one-shot use whenever you deem it best; and some affect only the endgame scoring. If you've played a few games, then you'll probably be familiar with the types of options available on them.

To earn victory points, you need to give up your characters — that is, transfer them from your domain to your elysium, a.k.a. the Elysian Fields that served as a place for mortals deemed favorable by the gods to go after they died. The trick is that once you place a character in your elysium, you can't use its power any longer. Thus, you want to put together an awesome combo engine on the fly during the game while simultaneously dismantling that engine along the way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My final elysian holdings

You can transfer a character to your elysium only at the end of a round or if a special power allows you to do so. As you do, you start a new legend or add to an existing legend, with each legend being cards of the same value or from the same faction. The larger the legend, the more points it's worth at the end of the game.

Cards are numbered 1-3 and come from eight factions (with only five used each game), and you need to pay 1-3 gold each time that you transfer a character. You can't repeat a character in a legend, so throughout the game you're trying to draft both characters that can prove useful in the early going while also allowing you to score them later. Once you have two characters in a legend, you can then transfer a citizen to it as a joker.

Bonus tiles are available for legends, with each value having a bonus token that works akin to Catan's longest road bonus; once you have two characters of the same value in a legend, you claim the token and you'll hold it until someone has more characters in a legend than you do. The bonus tokens for factions are first come, first served, with the player who first puts together two cards from the same faction earning five points and the next player earning two. As you can tell from the image above, I racked up a fair number of bonuses, but no one else seemed to be concentrating on faction legends, so I picked up three of them, in addition to one other bonus. Victory!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The side of the box that I stared at all game: dreamy...

As I mentioned above, Elysium includes characters that align with eight Olympian gods, with the characters for a particular god generally working well together — but only five groups of characters are used in a particular game, thus allowing you to change the nature of the game simply by swapping one group of characters out for another. Each faction repeats certain abilities — gain gold or VPs each time that you add a character from X faction to your domain or elysium — but each also seems to have its own identity. (The helmet icon on the personal player board relates to one of the factions we didn't use, so I'm not sure what that does in the game!)

Elysium combines lots of stuff that I love in games: drafting, card combos, a mini-game of "chicken" as you try to float a card for pick-up on your next turn, and the challenge of a new card layout each round that forces you to adapt on the fly.

This latter bit is perhaps the most enticing thing, something I dug in Colors of Kasane, too, for example: Over the course of the game you're going to have only fifteen characters. That's it! From the layout of 3n+1 characters each round, you get at most three of them, so at the start of the round you eyeball them all for powers you want and the mix of colors required to get them. Here's who I want first, but I'm going third in the round, so here's the back-up first choice. Ah, but you took that one, leaving only one other yellow character available in addition to the yellow turn order marker. One of us is going to lose out on yellow — but can I afford not to take that character now? Will it still be there for me? What is everyone else collecting, and so they have supporting characters to make that one matter to them?

Each round is a mini-game, with everything building up and being torn apart at the same time. You face off against your fellow citizens while also confronting the whim of the gods, who constantly challenge you anew. Looking forward to trying this again in 2015!
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