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Subject: First impressions with some pics rss

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Daniel Danzer
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Steven Finn’s new game will be on kickstarter soon. When he asked for some playtesters and reviewers before the launching date, I volunteered, printed the files and played half a dozen games so far with different opponents.

Since other reviewers already broke down the rules in detail (there is also a tutorial video), I will just summarize them briefly and rather talk about my impressions.

Components:

First of all, the rules are great - very clear and comprehensive and supported by phase overview cards for each player and a card explanation sheet. My only suggestions are about some formatting: the things players actually do should be highlighted, as some important notes (rules easily forgotten), so the reader could skip additional rules and remarks. Also, a short overview of the actions (maybe in a side column, as in alea games) or a short summary on the last page would help finding more quickly into the game or back into it after having not played it for some time.

The cards and icons are top notch. It is absolutely clear what to do, and what the different icons mean - this is crucial in a game with cards working in different ways.


The card overview on the card summary sheet

The rest of the material is - well, at this moment, print and play . But after trying to come as close to a printed copy as possible (Steven sent me the files for the counters, too) I have the impression of a very clear concept behind everything.


My PnP copy - cardboard tokens, laminated cards, dice ...


Short description of the gameplay:

Each player gets 4 dice and a set of 6 handcards for the available actions available: Cast 1 stone (3 cards), cast 2 stones (1 card) and take stones (2 cards) plus some "power stones" (the currency of the game), one random card (out of 3 possible) and some additional material. In the center of the table is a row of 6 cards with dice results (1 - 6).


What each player gets in the beginning.


Basic setup.

Besides these “locations” cards to gain and one special “Portal” card are placed. Available cards are either “tools” or “characters” with a number of power stones you need to place on them to gain them (and another number of power stones you have to have more on this card than your opponent), special actions available (one-time, permanent or immediately) and victory points you get by gaining this card. Tools are varying broadly, characters count as many VP, as the number of character cards you have (1st one 1 VP, 2nd one 2 VP, and so on).

Each round, players roll their dice and assign 4 of their action cards face-down to the dice (one card per die), then simultaneously reveal them and take their actions. Taking stones mean that you get as many power stones as the number of pips of the corresponding die for your personal supply. Casting stones means that you place one or two stones from your personal supply on the cards placed beside the corresponding location.


Example for actions: Taking 5 stones (for a total of 10), casting one stone on each of the cards at location 2 and 4, and 2 stones on the Portal at location 6.

The special “Portal” card, used as a “Joker”, is resolved in Phase III: Players may now take their stones from the portal and put them into another location - or one of them onto the other special card (the “Ethereal Realm”) for additional victory points and other benefits. When both players have stones there, they assign the power stones in secrecy ...

Now, special “Phase IV actions” on some of the cards the players already gained can be triggered (the order is defined by numbers on the cards): Stones can be shifted, opponents’ stones can be discarded, and so on.

In the last phase the final result of stones on the cards is checked, and the players might gain one or more of them. If so, the cards are shifted "down" and the spare locations are replenished with new cards from the draw pile.

The first player gaining 20 or more victory points, wins the game.

Impressions:
The gameplay is plain gorgeous. Despite being split in 5 phases, one round is played very quickly. Both players act almost all the time simultaneously: assigning cards to dice, taking and casting stones, resolving the portal and Ethereal Realm, resolving Phase IV and eventually go through the locations to check for gained cards. This game has zero downtime and is fast paced!

Another good thing: everything you do feels good and the actions are really different. This is a weak spot in many games, that feel rather repetitive, because you just do one thing over and over again ... but have a look here: Rolling dice, pondering about where to assign which card (and watch your opponent at the same time!), the tension when the stones are cast on the cards, thinking over again what to do now with this first result and how to influence until phase V, the bluffing when it comes to the Portal, the attempt to get a kind of “engine” built with some nice tools or a growing team of characters (or both), the surprise of new cards and the changes they trigger (“oh, now I need that one!”), the tempting Ethereal Realm (which has a kind of “push your luck” mechanism) ... great!

The course of the game can be very different, too. The fight over a card might escalate, just because the dice rolls suggest that, or because you don’t want to have put all the stones in former rounds there just for no purpose! So you continue to put more stones on the same card again ... there is a perfect amount of interaction, not being too much of a pure “card battle”, but just to the right degree of competition and harassment. The dice add some luck and spice, but since you can manipulate your result in many ways, it doesn`t feel too much being "played by the dice".

One more aspect is the different interwoven effects of tool cards, which are very well chosen by the designer. Which one to aim at, which one to let go to your opponent, how and when to use the cards you have for the cost of a power stone, when you also could save that power stone and are not forced to use one of your dice for taking more, and so on - there are just so many different relations between the cards, depending on the situation!

All my games were great fun for both players, who were rather “gamers” than non-gamers. Still I think, that the game can also be a success with not so experienced players. The things to do are easy enough, but there is still quite a challenging depth in it. Since there are not that many cards coming into the game, each session developed quite different. A lot of available characters lead to a different feeling compared to more aggressive tools to be gained ...

After one game with an experienced game designer, now editor at a small, but very well-respected publisher, we discussed the balancing of the cards and found some of them not yet perfectly balanced - of course, this was just after one game.
A pure character strategy ideally leads to the win with 6 cards for the cost of only 24 power stones, but tools give you advantages much better than that. Especially the starting tool “Ring of Influence”, (tweaked by Steven Finn to 2 dice rolls for removing up to 2 power stones from the opponent) was much stronger than the “Mortar & Pestle” enabling the player to adjust one die +/-1 after the roll. The destructive powers surely lead to a lot of fun - but they can also end up to a “strong getting stronger”-problem leaving the opponent with no way to counteract.
Another card especially strong in our opinion is the “Wand”: It costs only 3 stones, gives you 2 VP and you can shift 1 of your stones in Phase IV. With that additional “Portal” function, the player is always able to adjust his placements and reach ALL locations. Since there are often “useless” stones placed from former rounds, or the opponent has placed so many stones on a card that the single one of yours is doomed to be discarded in Phase V anyway, the shifting is a very nice thing and a tough one for your opponent.


The situation - advantage for blue and no way to stop him. (Note: The VP of red should be 5 here. I forgot to adjust it when reconstructing the situation)

I am sure, though, that Steven will play many more sessions until the final print has to be done, so that somewhat overpowered combos will be detected and in the end weakened just enough to guarantee tense games. But even if not - knowing the game better and better, players will learn what to fight for, which combos better not getting into the hands of the opponent and maybe find ways to react... Another possibility would be to note final scores of, say, three consecutive plays and add them.

As I said, these are rather nitpicking remarks, and the “strong getting stronger” occurred only once in my six games so far.

After all, I think Steven Finn did a real great job here - this is a must buy for me, (crossing my fingers for EU-friendly shipping).

Highly recommended for everybody interested in a quick elegant mix of card and dice game.

My rating so far: 8.5

P.S.: I am sure Steven will be asked from some larger company for the license to get this on the broader market. The Kosmos 2-player series, Iello (who did "Biblios" before) and more will ask for that! I am eager to see, what will happen to this quick, easy to learn, but still complex enough gem.
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Daniel Danzer
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Kind of edit / update: Played a couple of times more meanwhile, I think the cards are pretty well balanced. Especially when playing with somebody who also played it before, the struggle for certain cards is more tight, and - don't underestiate the ethereal realm! Also, the character cards, which seemed a bit weak first, are growing strong in exactly the right time, when the other cards unfold their strength, too.

What I like more and more is the perfect elegance of this simultaneously played dice+card game without being a luck-fest. You really have to take care what to do with the result and card layout, and you can do something with almost every roll!

To me, a real highlight - Steven Finn delivers a great example of a small package game with great replayability and fun for two.
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