Darryl T.
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I love the drafting mechanism, so it is no coincidence that Seasons is one of my all-time favourite games. But there are times when I want to experience the thrill of drafting cards in a shorter amount of time and without having to read through oodles of text. Many other gamers apparently share this sentiment, as proven by the popularity of light drafting games such as 7 Wonders, Fairy Tale and Sushi Go!

A recent addition to the genre is Age of Assassins, a Japanese card game which marries the quirky card interactions of Love Letter to the drafting mechanism. In the game, each player is recruiting a stable of characters in the royal palace with the intention of bumping off the king. Well, sort of – the objective of the game is to be the first to reach 15VP, so we never really see the monarch meet his royal end. However, players are apparently fair game for being stabbed in the proverbial back, so players have to be on a constant lookout for their own lives as well!


Components

Inside the solid box are 28 standard-sized cards for the basic game. 3 additional cards which replace selected cards in the basic game are included for the advanced version. All cards are printed on smooth cardstock and the box has enough spare room for the cards to be sleeved. Several reference cards and sheets are also provided, but bear in mind that all text in the game is written in Japanese. Fortunately, user Zimeon has kindly uploaded English rules and card paste-ups in the Files section.

The VP tokens are thick and sturdy, although I have two minor gripes about them. First, more 1 VP tokens would have been welcome as we tended to run out of those in 4P games. Secondly, the tokens have their value printed on only one side, so players will have to flip all tokens over to their printed side during the setup.




Gameplay basics

The goal of Age of Assassins is to have the most real points (VP) when the game ends. The game is played over several rounds, and each round is divided into 2 phases – the drafting phase and the resolution phase.

Players start the drafting phase with a hand of 7 cards. Each player picks a card in their hand to keep, and places it face down in front of them. Once each player has done so, players simultaneously decide whether to turn the card face up or leave it face down. Cards turned face up are considered to be in front, and cards left face down are considered to be in the rear. (Once a card is placed in the front or the rear, players can no longer shift its position.) Players then pass their hand to the person on their left and repeat the process until all cards have been drafted. An important rule to observe is that players must have exactly 4 cards in front and 3 cards in the rear when the drafting phase ends.

An example of a player's set at the end of the drafting phase.


In the resolution phase, all cards in the rear row are turned face up. The effects of all characters are then resolved based on the values at the top left-hand corner of their cards, beginning with the lowest values. Interestingly, many characters have different effects depending on whether they were assigned to the front or the rear. Most of the effects involve gaining preliminary points for the player, but a few effects can cause players to be killed.

A player who is killed loses all preliminary points earned in that round and cannot gain any more preliminary points for the rest of the round. If a player survives until the end of the round, all of his or her preliminary points are converted into real points. Whenever any player has 15VP or more at the end of the round, the game immediately ends and the player with the most VP wins! If not, then another round is played.


Thoughts

As you can probably tell, Age of Assassins is in filler game territory. First, it’s a quick game – it typically takes 20 minutes to complete a game, and can possibly end even faster if a player lucks out early. The initial rounds might proceed slower when playing with new players though, as there is a considerable amount of text to digest when playing for the first time.

Secondly, the basic gameplay is simple to learn and it only takes a little while to become familiar with the various effects of characters. However, we did miss out on a few rules regarding killed players in our first few games – players who are killed early on can still activate other abilities (the Magician, for example, can still kill off other players) and gain real points (in the instance of the Grave Digger).

Being a filler game does not mean Age of Assassins is a lightweight in terms of gameplay. As a drafting game, it delivers the kind of gameplay which we have come to expect from the genre. The factors to consider when drafting cards gradually shift throughout the course of the round – there is little information to work with early on, so players have to recognise which cards are safe bets or good early picks. As the round progresses, players have to pay attention to their strategy as well as their opponents. Although players will mostly draft cards which complement their own strategy, they have to occasionally consider drafting cards purely to prevent them from ending up in opponents’ hands. (This move of denying other players is nicknamed hate drafting for a reason.) Players will also have to take notice of the potential cards which will come back round to them.

While those comments generally apply to most drafting games, here are three distinguishing features in Age of Assassins’ gameplay:

Keeping exactly 3 cards face down during the drafting phase: This rule, in my opinion, really makes the game shine. Keeping cards face down leaves other players guessing what has been drafted and serves as a very useful bluff. But the kicker here is that 5 out of the 7 available characters have different effects when positioned in the rear row. Players have to weigh these two factors when evaluating whether a card should be placed in the rear row, all while keeping in mind that space in the rear row is limited.

The characters’ effects feature a high amount of interaction: Three characters – the Assassin, Cook and Politician – have effects which are highly dependent on the cards drafted by opponents. Other characters steal points or profit from the death of other players. The high amount of interaction requires players to really observe which cards their opponents pick and adjust their decisions accordingly.

Characters who feature a negative effect with a specific trigger: Two characters – the Magician and Assassin – kill the player who owns them, but only when a specific number of those respective characters are drafted into a set. Once that critical number is surpassed though, these negative effects are swapped for highly positive effects. However, to surpass the critical number also means to amass the majority of these characters, a move other players are unlikely to allow to slide. Therefore, these characters introduce a high risk, high payout strategy for players who attempt to hoard them. On the other hand, if your opponent is avoiding taking on that specific number of cards, it opens up the possibility of leaving behind the very cards that your opponent would not want to draft.


Drawbacks

Of course, Age of Assassins is far from a perfect game. The severity of its drawbacks, however, is dependent on players’ preference in gameplay:

The 3P game is not as great as the 4P game: 3P games use a dummy player which is randomly assigned 7 cards prior to the drafting phase at the beginning of each round. The problem is that the randomly drawn set tends to be suboptimal in synergy and this kills some of the tension in drafting. The dummy player still is a decent alternative, although it does not measure up to having a fourth player actively making decisions.

Little variability between rounds: 7 Wonders and Sushi Go! feature random cards in every round of drafting, and both have cards which are carried over to the next round. There is none of that in Age of Assassins as every round begins on a clean slate with the same 28 cards, so the rounds feel similar to one another after a while. The advanced cards help introduce a little diversity, although they are for the most part simply tweaks of the base cards.

Chaotic gameplay: Between not fully knowing what cards have been drafted and the high possibility of getting eliminated, some players have commented on the lack of control over the round’s outcome. I will concede that despite the skill involved in deciding which cards to draft, the element of double-guessing what your opponents have drafted lends itself to some randomness. Personally, I don’t mind a bit of chaos when a round lasts for a few minutes. Besides, it makes for a great story when a player who manages to draft 5 Assassins unexpectedly finds himself killed by a neighbour who managed to amass enough Magicians.


Quick Comparisons

So how does Age of Assassins stack up against other light drafting games in the market? Sushi Go! may be as cute as a button, but its gameplay is a bit rudimentary for my tastes as it is essentially a set collection game with slight variations in scoring the different sets. On the other hand, 7 Wonders is a meatier game, but it is less portable and lasts on the long side for a filler game. (One possible upside to 7 Wonders is that it supports up to 7 players, but I feel that it plays best with lower player counts as there is more interaction and control over the draft.)

Age of Assassins falls somewhere between the two games – there’s a bit more to chew on in comparison to Sushi Go!, but it does not have the replay value or depth of 7 Wonders. It does, however, have the benefit of being easier to teach and quicker to get a game going. (I have yet to try Fairy Tale, so I’ll reserve commenting on that.)

My favourite character in the game. She looks like she really means business!


Closing remarks

If you enjoy simple drafting games or light games with decent amounts of interaction, then you really owe it to yourself to give Age of Assassins a shot. I bought this game based on a whim, when there were only 2 lonely, yet glowing comments for it on its BGG entry at that time. Yet this game has surprised me with its refreshing take on the drafting mechanism.

Age of Assassins does suffer one last drawback; it currently can only be bought from Japan. Until a Western publisher notices this game and gives it the wider distribution it deserves, it will be a little difficult hunting down this game.
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Jeremy Olson
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Fantastic review. Really wish this would come to the West, maybe AEG can add it to their Japan line or something.
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Julian Yong
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You should bring this out to the table more often
 
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