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Subject: Go on then, there are other worlds than these. A review of Spell Saga. rss

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Scott Sexton
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When I was in college, I minored in English Literature. I wish that the past 15 years hadn't dulled my memory, because I'm sure that I'd be able to write a much more interesting analysis of Spell Saga if I could properly compare it against T.S. Elliott's The Wasteland or Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Spell Saga's creator calls it a tabletop novel. Far be it from me to dispute that description, however, in truth I think it is something far more interesting, it is an attempt at epic poetry with a very unique and modern twist. At its heart Spell Saga is a solo adventure card game that plays much like a cross between the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and the old Decipher Star Wars CCG while weaving a free form epic poem.

In Pathfinder, you play out a loop of exploring actions to gradually hunt down the big bad boss of the given scenerio, all the while you are chucking dice to determine the outcome of various actions (fighting, exploring, etc). In Spell Saga, you are doing much the same, although in Spell Saga, there are no dice to chuck and the game feels more like being stuck in a maze that you are trying to escape from.

I mention the old Decipher game because at its heart, the core mechanic of both games is the cycling of cards that serve multiple uses. In the Decipher Star Wars game, your cards could serve as their face up versions or they could serve as your currency to buy cards (when face down) or they served as your life force (while they were in your deck). Spell Saga too uses face down cards as your life force and currency. Where the games differ though is that in SWCCG, the cards were all about area control and combat. There was very little effort put into deck manipulation itself. Spell Saga uses cards and card combos the likes of which I've never seen before in a game. You have roughly 100 cards and almost every card focuses on deck manipulation of some kind. It really requires some mental effort to wrap your brain around how to make the deck work so you can escape the trap your character is wandering through. While the overall gameplay itself is familiar and not particularly revolutionary, the mechanisms built into the cards are staggerily complex and nuanced, bordering even on madness.

Lets talk about the structure of the game. The overall game is composed of 5 decks (I think, I've only played the first deck). A prologue, Act I, Act II, Act III, and the Endings deck. Much like a serialized videogame (think Tell Tale Games' Walking Dead Games or any of their adventure games really) you play each deck in order. Once you have completed a deck's given task, you are allowed to take the cards you have developed into your tableau and you carry them on to the next deck, effectively continuing the story. To make things more interesting, you are not given the deck's objective at the outset (you have to discover this for yourself as you play the deck out) although you could "cheat" by reading all the cards in the deck and figuring out what you are trying to do. Playing the game without foreknowledge of how to solve the deck is part of the fun of the game. You'll pour over the cards with each new card that is turned up and gradually, card by card, the story the designer is trying to tell you unfolds.

Do not expect the author to guide you by the nose to tell you what the story is or means. This isn't like reading a Harry Potter novel folks, you have to figure the story out for yourself, much like reading Browning or Elliott. The story being told is through the clouded lens of the game and it is almost like viewing an impressionist painting where things are familiar, but just a bit out of focus. So what is the story? I'll leave that to the player to figure out, but it is no big spoiler to say that this is the story of a heroe's journey in a word that has "moved on". Obvious comparisons can be made to Stephen King's Dark Tower series, or to SEC Games' "Ico" or "Shadows of the Colossus".

The game itself evokes feelings of isolation, helplessness, and frustration. The odds are always stacked against you, even if you feel like you are a world beater. During one recent game, I had built a solid team armed to the teeth with weapons, spells, and items. Things couldn't have been better, and I was working on finding the last card I needed. Then everything went to hell. I stumbled across a nasty foe who, thanks to two very unlucky card draws, defeated my team. The foe stole my weapons, cycling them to the bottom of a roughly 100 card deck. Oh, and did I mention that there are only 2 weapons in the game? So without any way to fight off enemies, I had to desperately work to try and find the "exit" from the deck before the monsters made a snack of me. Thanks to some complex combos I was able to chew through most of the deck looking for the last piece of the puzzle before I met an untimely end. My hero failed spectacularly, and the story came to an end.

I hope that gives you a sense of what you are in for experience wise with Spell Saga. Nihilism, death, and a pinch of hope that you can make it through to see the next part of the story.

One final aspect of this game worth noting is the artwork. The watercolor wasteland given life through the illustrations and design are for the most part quite evocative and appropriately set a somber tone for the game. I cannot say enough kind things about the aesthetics of this game.

Conclusion- Ignoring the literary accomplishments of this game, is it any fun to play. As a solo game, this will never be something that everyone will enjoy. This is a solo experience for players who enjoy sitting down in a leather recliner to read a book on an overcast Saturday afternoon. It offers a brutal, yet fair challenge for players. You shouldn't expect to "win" all, or even most games. If I had a complaint, I would say that some of the joy of discovering the story dulls over multiple plays, just because you already know what the story offers, and so I question the long term replayability of the game. I also think that there are some possibly frustrating factors that the game doesn't adequately allow you to combat. For example, much of the game is spent trying to find certain cards to advance the story or your objectives. If you save up money (which you should) and/or you build up your health (which you should) the cards you are searching for MAY accidentally cycle to those piles and be effectively lost to you until you spend down your money or take significant damage. This would be a lot less frustrating if you had some reliable way of checking the cards in those piles without cheating (by looking at them, or by searching your deck to see if you can find those cards in the deck while you are looking for other cards.

Back to what I said earlier about how this is really an epic poem and not a story in the commonly understood sense. The feeling this game gives you is that there is a definite poem that was written, and then the author took the poem and cut it up into its individual parts, pasted each bite onto a card and shuffled the deck. The is an internal chronology the cards follow as the story unfolds even though individual cards may pop up randomly. The solution the designer/author developed is a creative notion of "ignoring/acknowledging" cards as they come up. For example, if I am only half way though the story, I can't purchase or encounter cards that are limited to the final third of the game. I effectively skip those things until I am far enough into the story. It is a clever way of giving some structure to the story without defaulting to a story on rails model (see Final Fantasy XIII). There is something to be said for the sheer innovation and brilliance that it must have taken to craft this game. It is perhaps the most innovative creative writing project I've ever seen. It is epic poetry given life through an interactive experience with the audience.

In sum, if you are a solo player or a fan of literature who is interested in trying something that is unlike anything you've experienced before, check out Spell Saga.

Maya Angelou, eat your mother f'ing heart out.
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Todd Michael Rogers
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Oh my God..thank-you very kindly for playing my game, and for the heartfelt thoughtful critique. I would say I am I am speechless, If I weren't typing as I said it. This was wonderful to read, my favorite review. Thank you.

(pssst use the yellow song or conch shell)

-mE.
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Bernard Donohue
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You make a compelling case to get it, Scott.

Even enough to overcome my initial distaste for the weirdness of the US items costing more than the international versions.
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Todd Michael Rogers
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Bernard, I hope we see you there. Sorry the shipping seemed weird. The US gets free shipping and no customs taxes, so all we did was even it out for our International backers.
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Brandon Nall
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Scott's review is as good as any I've read for ANY game... As a fellow Cabalist I'm going to trust him, close my eyes on jump.

You have my money, Todd.
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Huw Barton
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Great review. You brought to my attention a game I had never heard of, now I am a backer! Cheers.
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Avri
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As we get closer and closer to actually getting our hands on the published version (rather than our lovingly crafted PnPs) I find myself rereading people's thoughts on the game. And few put it as eloquently as you, Scott.

One thing I assume has become clear with repeated play?

Quote:
. . . much of the game is spent trying to find certain cards to advance the story or your objectives. If you save up money (which you should) and/or you build up your health (which you should) the cards you are searching for MAY accidentally cycle to those piles and be effectively lost to you until you spend down your money or take significant damage. This would be a lot less frustrating if you had some reliable way of checking the cards in those piles without cheating (by looking at them, or by searching your deck to see if you can find those cards in the deck while you are looking for other cards.

You have found all of the varied and ingenious ways built into the game for tackling this, right?
 
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Bernard Donohue
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So what is the status of the project anyway? I just don't have the energy to decode the stream of consciousness updates enough to extract useful content.
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Avri
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Seems Todd just received the advanced shipped copy. My understanding is that the rest are on their way to the US as we speak. Fulfillment begins as soon as it all arrives - he has given up trying to predict when that will be . . .
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Sid Rain
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I just got my copy in yesterday and agree with you on this review. I've only played Deck One and the Prelude, but it felt very much like you're stuck in a maze when playing the game. The Prelude deck especially is deceptively small, that's actually a weird puzzle.

Spoiler alert
Spoiler (click to reveal)
Deck One requires you find The Forest card and you can be stuck for awhile just traveling around trying to find that one card just to end the whole thing. The Prelude Deck requires you to perform a number of odd word transmutations to get the Rusted Revolver.


I like that the game uses the card deck to handle multiple things:
• Health (armor)
• Resources (source)
• Difficulty (story)
• Damage

But at times I wish that the goal of the game had been something independent of a single card or card combo, like maybe: after X Story cards then fight X monster or something like Friday where after cycling through the deck X times, then go on to the next stage. As it is, it almost feels a bit like a solo game of Munchkin. You end up hunting around the Deck hoping you get lucky with that one card you need, but most likely you're going to get dicked over by something.

For me the story aspect of the game gets lost, I get that the writer/designer is going for something a bit more cerebral and poetic and it's impressive that the game works at all with how much is going on, but the story just felt flat to me. I haven't felt a sense like I was involved in a storyline that progressed, it all felt very whimsical & non-sensical, more like a fable. Each of the Story cards gives some description of something vague happening and then an effect tied to that, but then I'm like "... oooooook. Next phase I guess?"

For a Tabletop novel, it doesn't feel like there's much of a plot, though maybe that aspect comes out more when played across the entire 5 or so decks. I almost want to see the mechanics re-skinned as a trapped in a labyrinth adventure that was a bit more coherent, just because the theme and the mechanics would work so well together and reinforce the idea that you're trapped (especially the Prelude deck).
 
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Brandon Nall
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Still haven't gotten mine (which is completely annoying), but according to Todd Michael Rogers they are on their way. I backed this due to Scott's review, and still haven't played the damn thing.

I have to admit that I had lost all hope that it'd ever actually arrive. Holding the game in my hand will feel like a miracle... I can't imagine the level of excitement I'll have if its actually worth a damn.
 
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Bernard Donohue
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Empulsive wrote:
Still haven't gotten mine (which is completely annoying), but according to Todd Michael Rogers they are on their way. I backed this due to Scott's review, and still haven't played the damn thing.

I have to admit that I had lost all hope that it'd ever actually arrive. Holding the game in my hand will feel like a miracle... I can't imagine the level of excitement I'll have if its actually worth a damn.


I say we mock Scott in a merciless fashion if we don't like it.
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