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Subject: Aerion or Aerioff? An Archont-approved review in several parts. rss

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Daniel Wilmer
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Archont's Shipwright interview questions wrote:
• Do you enjoying construction challenges, principally undertaken alone, in your own workshop?
• Are you familiar with the auspice of Grand Archont Shadi Torbey and his work?
• Do you manage well under pressure? Examples include working with limited resources and throwing dice at your problems.
• With a view to promotion, are you capable of working in a modular fashion, with varied challenges* and increased responsibility?
• Off the record, do you appreciate the bright watercolour dreamscapes created by Elise Plessis?
• Trusted with the finest tools and high production values**, are you willing accept that all your tools fit neatly in an ornate box, wrapped in protective clouds?

*This may or may not involve contact with the Hellkite.
**Opinions may vary


Ahoy there! Welcome to my Aerion review. If you want the short version, please take the Archont's interview above, then skip down to the end to see what the Archonts have to say. Otherwise just fly right in to my clouded thoughts about the game, with pictures!


1. Fleet Flight, Shipwright

Aeiron is the 6th Oniverse game from solo-meister Shadi Torbey, this time exploring the Oniverse Skies. The game puts you in charge of creating a fleet of six airships using limited resources. Each ship needs three different elements: a material, a unique ship blueprint, and a crew. Your role is to source all these elements in one of two workshops, building up to two airships at a time, before the resources run out. It can be played one or two player but this review focuses on the one player experience.

The elements of the Nacelle Airship: Blueprint, Nuts, Sognae


The basic premise for creating these ships is to roll six dice. Each turn you will roll the dice hoping to get one of six combinations corresponding to one of six available resources on display. This combination could be 'two pairs', 'three of a kind', a 'run of 1-5 or 2-6' etc. You can discard one of the other resources on display to reroll any number of die once hoping to get the combination you need, but you must acquire at least one card from the display available. Caution is advised however as the skies resources, even in a dreamworld, are finite.

To help out you have books of shipwrighty knowledge, I liken these to contacts or contracts with other oniverse denizens, and a small number of Pixies...

So are you fleet and frugal enough to build your fleet for flight?


2. The Wide Blue Yonder

Zman games have, as far as I'm concerned, done something special when publishing the current generation of Oniverse games; they have dialled up the production values. Opening the box is part of the experience, welcoming the bearer with overlapping leaves of colourful watercolour art. Peeling back these leaves reveals the Book of Rules; the promise of exploration within its pages and the components hidden underneath. It's like opening a box of chocolates where the sugary treats never go off. Have a look at Aerion's offering:

Enter the world of Aerion


So how does Aerion compare to the other Oniverse in terms of components?

I'd say it was right up there .

From the leaved billowing clouds splashed with purple and blue, the almost neon purple-pink insert with pastel-blue dice and Hellkite pawn, to the playfully illustrated cards and tiles. The rule book is card-bound too, with similarly beautiful illustration throughout. I found no typos and was quickly able to digest most of the information within. The attention to components is what you have come to expect from the series.

A point to mention with the punch boards, if you throw them away the insert tray will sit too low for the insert leaves and rulebook to sit flat to each other. Do as suggested by Neinnub and put the punch boards under the insert.

Using the punchboards to raise the insert, or keep the proof of purchase


The inserts holds a generous pile of 133 gorgeous cards, bordering on the amount in Sylvion (188) and Onirim (169) which is pretty impressive for a dice-based game. Regarding the art, this has to be some of the best and most varied in the Oniverse to date. Elese Plessis has really done some great work here.

A lot of the art feeds the narrative. The pencil blueprint sketches outline the plan, the material influences the design and the crew add some life to the final ship, culminating in the ship tile. The book cards have a reassuring grey-bound book with a porthole image of a ship embossed on the cover - obviously containing everything you need to know about being a shipwright... right?

Regarding references from other games, the Sognae crew are characters first seen in Urbion, while the Incubi have been present in many of the Oniverse games since Onirim. If you look closely you can also see the medals on the Incubi crew, perhaps a throwback to the Incubi being the Admiral depicted on the intermediate level ordeal cards in Castellion.

Example of Castellion's Incubus Admiral - Image by BGG user dodecalouise


The expansion cards just keep giving too, with new themes such as piers, construction workers, hourglasses, factory scenes and the evil Hellkite's outposts and lairs. If you want confirmation of how evil the Hellkite is all you need do is check out the Lair card image with the dream denizens locked up in cages! The Hammer Birds from Onirim also make a triumphant return in not one but two of the six expansions. The Hammer Birds help you destroy pesky Stone clouds, while the Hammer Bird eggs are my daughters favourite. I also really liked the simple graphical touch on the expansion cards where instead of a symbol to designate which expansion the card was from, their lower cloud boarder was a unique shape and colour which is also referenced next to the respective title within the rule book. Very nice.

Iconography for sorting the expansions


Overall the art on display is as wonderful as ever, and the fact there are so many cards, in comparison to the more recent Nautillion and Castellion, I felt quite spoilt.

When reviewing the art and component quality, it would be remiss not to mention the printing anomaly on the ship tiles. As pointed out by Durkinphd the ship tiles have some of the imaging mirrored compared to the rule book and cards. I must say this is in no way a deal-breaker for me and has not affected any game I've played. It would have been much more frustrating if the symbols were on the wrong tile so thank goodness for that (indeed perhaps that was a preproduction error and the quick fix was to mirror the element symbols but we can only guess). It is kind of odd when so much care and thought went into the box design and rules editing that the punch board symmetry slipped through. This isn't the first time for the Oniverse either as Nautillion's first printing had a similar issue where two of the mage tiles had their art and associated letter switched around.

But enough on the nitpicking. I'm going to leave this section with a delightful positive. You recall the folding leaves of clouds that wrap around the rules and insert? None of the Oniverse games so far have added this touch but do yourself a favour and take out the clouds and look underneath, you now have a full spread perfect backdrop screen to set your games of Aerion, you're welcome!

The perfect backdrop



3. Of Pixies and Books

For this section related to mechanics, you may be better served by the words of the designer. Shadi Torbey has written a detailed designer diary that covers the mechanics and emphasis behind them clearly and succinctly. I'll try to avoid too much duplication with that.

For the review I thought I'd illustrate some of decision spaces with an example. Here is the base game set up:

Base game setup


In the set up above I've put the resource piles in order of the combination probability for each deck (EDIT: According to 'gut feel' - Thanks to Durkinphd for the stats in the comments). The iconography of the deck 'AA+BB' contains Incubi crew, cocoon material and Bee blueprints. There are two cards of a single type of element plus two book cards in each deck giving a total of 8 cards in each of the six resource decks. The distribution across all the decks is 6+6 crew, 4+4+4 materials and 2+2+2+2+2+2 blueprints. To build all the ships is going to require half of each unique type (18 elements total), but in general elements to the left of the display are going to be easier to get. Also because of the distribution you're going to need between 1-5 cards from each deck, meaning you're going to have to roll each combination at least once, with some crew, blueprints and material being much harder to get in general.

This distribution is what evolves Aerion from a simple dice game, becoming one of planning and risk management.

A game runs in quick succession through 3 phases: Roll, Acquire and Replenish. (Other alternatives to acquire phase in the expansions include: Build, Payday, Demolish, and Hunt). The restrictions on Acquire are going to influence the Roll phase, where the meat of the decisions are made; What die combinations to aim for, which cards to discard from the display or aim to keep.

In the example above the starting display has no materials or blueprints but plenty of books that should be easy to obtain with minimal rerolls. Starting with a few books in the opening display is quite good, even if we can't begin building ships yet.

It is at this point I have to raise that book cards are the bass guitar of the decision-making notes for the base game (no pun intended). Obtaining a book gives further options such as 3 rerolls or bypass the acquire rules, or perhaps more importantly - recover elements from the discard should there be none left in the resource decks. While not game breaking, these options give some necessary mitigation to the die rolls and acquire restrictions, ensuring that the planning and risk management can flow smoothly from turn to turn.

Having a book means it is possible be a bit more aggressive using display discards for rerolls, knowing the element cards can be recalled if needed. It also allows a resource deck to be put back in play after it has been exhausted; at worst giving two more rerolls, or even necessary element and a reroll. Using a book however discards it and they are also a finite resource, so it is important not to lean too heavily into their support. These choices become even more interesting when expansion cards can be returned from the discard.

Move on to mid game and we have an example of the range of decisions in play:

An example of play midway through a game


Here both workshops are flexible allowing options to build four of the five remaining ships. In the display only two of the blueprints can go in a workshop (with the nut), while the workshops are not ready for the two Sognae crew. Having a book in the pulpit means any of these cards can be put in the reserve should we roll their values. Also consider the discards piles, there is one of three different blueprints in the discard even if the die roll a natural 'AAA+BB' there is the option to pull some discarded elements back with the current book before taking the book card in the display. But if we did roll 'AAA+BB' it might be better to acquire the Nacelle blueprint 'AAA' instead.

In the example I've rolled an natural 'AA+BB+CC' combination. These means the Sognae crew could be acquired but no ship is ready. Here the option would be: use the book to acquire the Sognae crew, discard a display card to reroll die (probably just two die, leaving two pairs on the table), use the book for three rerolls (seems excessive), or use the book to bring two cards out of the discard pile and discard the Sognae (perhaps not so useful in the base game). While option one in this example seems most beneficial it is yet another turn where no construction is done. Option two is not a terrible choice either because the Bee ship is already constructed, meaning the 'AA+BB' blueprint is effectively a free reroll when discarded.

This illustrates nicely how the book card smooths out some choices, making some mechanical elements easier but also tempting a different path where direct progress is not always obvious.

It is at this point we probably should talk about Pixies. Here is the end game scenario for the same game:

The endgame


Down to the last two ships I have both crew ready to go (in reality the Hornet ship on the left is already built, I've just got in the habit of only using the reserve cards when absolutely necessary.) This game illustrates the crunch time toward the end of the game. The last blueprint needed happens to be the hardest roll in the game, the resource piles are all but exhausted meaning the reroll opportunity is one more discard and there are no book cards left. All that planning and use of rerolls have come to this, it's my fault it got this bad. There is one other source of support however, a lone pixie circling my shipyard.

There comes a time in dice game when the no roll is good enough, no rerolls will help and all other tools are spent. Two Pixies had already saved the current game from exactly this problem; once for each of these darling little sprites a single die can be changed to any value. This is so much more powerful than I gave it credit for. And now I had one left and one reroll for the final turn.

Have a look how my final roll played out:

The final roll of the game - Magic Pixie, give me a high five!


So if books are the base notes, Pixies are guitar riffs; a tiny colourful flourish that lifts the ensemble and punctuates the memorable moments!

Suffice to say, there are plenty of decision points and interesting interactions in Aerion that make for a challenging enjoyable solo dice game.


4. The Hellkite and other stories

The stand out feature of all Oniverse games to date has been modular expansions. How they are introduced and interact with the base game varies, as does the amount of content devoted to them.

Aerion contains no less than six expansions. The card count for all the expansions actually surpasses the base game by quite an amount. Have a look at them stacked next to each other:

Base game components (Left) vs Expansion components (right)


Pretty generous I'd say! And look at that little Hellkite, don't you just want to tickle his chin to make him smile.

And here is what it looks like all spread out:

Spread of all the components


Similar to my discussion on mechanics, the designer diary is worth a read regarding the expansions. Also part of the fun of exploring the Oniverse games is groking the base game and then seeing how the expansions change up the base game and interact with each other.

With that in mind I don't want to go into too much detail but I thought I'd rank them with a completely objective and scientifically proven Archont rating system, used by shipwrights for at least the past century: This is categorised by Lifting gas (theme), Envelope (decision space), Propulsion (complexity) and Rigidity (randomness). Do skip this section if you want to explore them on your own.

The Flagship:

Lifting gas: Build a flagship with the help of a factory
Envelope: Get a third workshop just for the flagship and brake some game rules
Propulsion: Five more elements to acquire with less restrictions on card play, slightly easier than base game depending on factory cards.
Rigidity: More control over rules and randomness. Roughly same or less than base game depending on factory cards.

The Hourglasses:

Lifting gas: Time sensitive resources.
Envelope: A separate resource to collect that distracts from others due to time pressure but more opportunity for rerolls.
Propulsion: Forces attention away from the main goal but mechanically very similar to base game. Slight increase in pressure to reroll for certain resources.
Rigidity: Minor increase in randomness from base game.

The Stone clouds:

Lifting gas: Enlist the Hammer birds from Onirim to break clouds of stone.
Envelope: Encouraged to leave birds in play until a flock large enough to damage more stones, reducing available options to acquire each turn. More pressure on rerolls but more opportunity for rerolls.
Propulsion: Similar to Hourglasses, a restriction and distraction. Feels slightly easier than base game. Would recommend playing on harder difficulty where stones need to be broken before a ship can be built.
Rigidity: Minor increase in randomness from base game.

The Piers:

Lifting gas: Use workmen to build three piers for your airships, but make sure you pay them.
Envelope: Building a pier requires 'five of a kind'. Workers can't be acquired but can be taken for free from the display for three rerolls to pay for their services later, or discarded for one reroll. To pay them requires a roll of 26.
Propulsion: Chasing more the difficult die combinations for the piers is going to need some extra help. Those workers are tempting, but the cost to pay them off is higher than the average of six dice. Increases complexity over the base game.
Rigidity: Leaning harder into die combinations, rerolls and higher rolls, this expansion certainly steps up pressure on the die rolls. Increased randomness over the base game.

The Hammer Bird Eggs:

Lifting gas: Look after some Hammer Bird eggs. These darlings are full of potential to turn into anything you like, relating to ship-building of course. All you have to do is look after them.
Envelope: The eggs can't leave the display unless you acquire them. Acquiring the eggs can let you search the resource piles resources in the display. Extra lose condition if your display is full of eggs for two turns.
Propulsion: The these new eggs are more of a barrier than a distraction, while the search mechanism is also strong it also carries an element of uncertainty too. Increases complexity over the base game.
Rigidity: There is no real increase in randomness here as the search function mitigates this quite a bit allowing the gain of a specific resource when you have the roll for it. About the same as the base game.

The Hellkite:

Lifting gas: The evil Hellkite is marauding the skies capturing dream denizens and cramping your ship-building style.
Envelope: Roll 15 or under to destroy one of six outpost and again on later turns to destroy the lair underneath. Destroying a lair may allow you to take a card from the display.
Propulsion: Totally changes the focus of the game. The Hellkite stops the collection of one of the three elements each round he/she sits on an intact outpost. There is very little effective shipwrighting while the Hellkite is around.
Rigidity: The pressure on low rolls means more requirement to reroll, certainly more randomness than base game.

Well there you go for an attempt at a précis of the expansions. Each explores a slightly different challenge space, either rolling high, rolling low, rolling more dice variations etc. Having played each I'd say the Piers, Hammer Bird Eggs and Hellkite expansions push the game a little deeper, The Hellkite and Piers make it harder, while the Flagship, Stone Clouds and Hourglass make it slightly easier. The Stone clouds looks like it would put up some more barriers to work around, but I've not found it to make too much difference to the core mechanics.

One aspect that was clear as I tried to stratify each expansion is that they they tend to be quite balanced. That is, the negative addition tends to have a similar positive to directly counteract it. This is testament to a solid design that it feels this way, but some may wonder if the extra overhead of managing the expansion rules is worth the addition of an expansion. Personal preference of course.

As the expansions are modular it is possible and I would say encouraged to add 2-6 expansions together when confident with them. These interactions are likely to alter my views above quite a bit. For example I'd consider adding in the Flagship when playing with the Hellkite to combat some of the difficulties. The other aspect of adding expansions is the increases in play time.

Check out the set up for a game with all the expansions:

A game ready to go with all the expansions - note stone clouds and flagship are on hard mode. Difference in size of the resource deck compared to base game.



6. Step up to red alert Captain, but change the bulb first

Depending on the Oniverse game, difficulty levels can be a contentious area. In Sylvion the main modifier was to draw less cards which didn't reframe the challenge fairly for some. In Castellion the three levels of game increased in complexity but not necessarily challenge.

Aireon feels like it sits somewhere between Sylvion and Onirim for difficulty in the base game. Once familiar with the mechanics most games are winnable like the former but the challenge and tension is constant like the latter. As noted in the previous section, Aerion's expansions are so balanced that for the most part they don't seem to raise the challenge but they do make the game more interesting.

Aireon's offering for difficulty starts with the Pixies. Just get rid of them or reduce the number you have. I must say I've yet to beat the game without any Pixies. One compromise I like to do is avoid using Pixies for as long as possible. This builds a lot more tension and I can score a win based on how many Pixies I have left. For reference I've only managed one game out of the 15+ I did for this review where I had one Pixie left. Did I say this game was balanced?

For the expansion increased difficulty options I can't say I've explored too much at this point. Having had two games with the Hammer Birds, I immediately played the harder variant the second time (have the stone clouds block finishing ship construction) and I doubt I would go back on that, unless perhaps when combining it with the Hellkite expansion. Next play of the Flagship I'll probably play the expanded factory variant.
Suffice to say there is quite a bit of variation in how you tune the difficulty of the game across the game. A toy box of fun to be sure.


6. Purple sky at night, solo gamers delight?

So some of you may be asking, is Aerion worth your time? I hope most of what was written here allows you to make your mind up on that. Aerion is a dice game with more interactive elements than a first pass might indicate, but it remains a solid dice chucker at its core; a refreshing wind-whipped, sun-kissed exploration of violet skies and a unique insight into life as a Oniverse shipwright.

Archont's Interview Grading System wrote:
Ok cadet, as you might expect there are no wrong answers. This test is one of enthusiasm, what what! The clearer and bolder you marked your paper with an affirmative, the more we like the cut of your jib and the more you're made of the right material scoff scoff! *stiff pat on the back*
Don't worry old chum, if you want a rank you'll find it waiting in the workshop, now get to work!

Number of interview affirmatives:
0-1: Delegate my good soul, find another cad to straighten up and fly wright. Phnar, Phnar.
2-3: Ah you're still uncertain, I suggest you spend a little time with the Incubi crew before any construction begins in ernest.
5-6: Welcome to the family! It's a long ship don't you know, what what! Chocks away!

Edited for Grammar and clarity
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Eric Teoro
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And that's how you write a review!
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Jonan Jello
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Wow, great review. The game looks great in your pics.
My copy of the game arrived today.
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Daniel Wilmer
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7eat51 wrote:
And that's how you write a review!


Thank you for your kind words and the tip! Glad you enjoyed it
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Dan Durkin
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Excellent writeup, Daniel!

I like your interview questions and grading system. I think this is a great way to judge if Aerion is for you. Well said.

One note on setup: I would switch your "AAAA" and "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" columns, thereby matching the setup on page 6 of the rules. This would group your two Nuts decks and two Helices decks. All the Elements would then have one area to focus on.

This arrangement would also put your columns in order of decreasing probability of rolling a given combination with 6 dice in one roll, for the most part. By my calculations, "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" has a probability of 5.48% and "AAAA" has a probability of 5.22%. Yes, they are close and rare (and that's been my experience - thank goodness for Pixies!).

The oddball is the 5 dice straight: 1+2+3+4+5, 2+3+4+5+6. By my calculations, it has a 9.26% probability, which is higher than the previous two columns. It's also my experience that it appears more frequently than either of those, on one roll. I wonder if it's placed last because it's hard to transition to this combination on re-rolls, and that if you go for it, you might have nothing to fall back on (also consistence with my experience).

It's definitely fun being a shipwright for the Archonts. I almost always play with The Flagship expansion. I really like the Hourglasses and the Hammer Bird Eggs.

I very much enjoy immersing myself into the Oniverse games. It's been a constant on my table for a week now.

Enjoy!
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Daniel Wilmer
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Hex_Enduction_Hour wrote:
Wow, great review. The game looks great in your pics.
My copy of the game arrived today.


Thank you! It is a lovely game. Have fun!
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durkinphd wrote:
Excellent writeup, Daniel!

I like your interview questions and grading system. I think this is a great way to judge if Aerion is for you. Well said.

One note on setup: I would switch your "AAAA" and "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" columns, thereby matching the setup on page 6 of the rules. This would group your two Nuts decks and two Helices decks. All the Elements would then have one area to focus on.

This arrangement would also put your columns in order of decreasing probability of rolling a given combination with 6 dice in one roll, for the most part. By my calculations, "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" has a probability of 5.48% and "AAAA" has a probability of 5.22%. Yes, they are close and rare (and that's been my experience - thank goodness for Pixies!).

The oddball is the 5 dice straight: 1+2+3+4+5, 2+3+4+5+6. By my calculations, it has a 9.26% probability, which is higher than the previous two columns. It's also my experience that it appears more frequently than either of those, on one roll. I wonder if it's placed last because it's hard to transition to this combination on re-rolls, and that if you go for it, you might have nothing to fall back on (also consistence with my experience).

It's definitely fun being a shipwright for the Archonts. I almost always play with The Flagship expansion. I really like the Hourglasses and the Hammer Bird Eggs.

I very much enjoy immersing myself into the Oniverse games. It's been a constant on my table for a week now.

Enjoy!


Thanks Dan for your kind comment and feedback. It's funny but I grouped the piles on my perceived difficulty plus my desire to have the crew on separate sides (too much Urbion!). I appreciate your stats though. Having played more I agree four of a kind is harder to reach, but I'd got in the habit of that pile order by then. May have a go switching the piles, providing the crew don't argue!

Thanks again

Dan
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Dan Durkin
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SolarJ wrote:
I grouped the piles on my perceived difficulty plus my desire to have the crew on separate sides (too much Urbion!).
Dan


The crew shouldn't complain too much: the three Incubi columns and three Sognae columns will still be together, respectively.

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So they are! Well nuts to that I say!
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At this point I don't think it's fair to call the "expansions" expansions. They don't expand on the base game: the base game's tutorial level and the expansinos are in the base game. They're more like modules.
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Thanks Raz.

I certainly acknowledge they are modular. I find this one of their strengths.



 
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I'd love to know more about the probabilities of the different dice results. I, too, have found the 5 dice straight among the most frequently rolled.

durkinphd wrote:
Excellent writeup, Daniel!

I like your interview questions and grading system. I think this is a great way to judge if Aerion is for you. Well said.

One note on setup: I would switch your "AAAA" and "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" columns, thereby matching the setup on page 6 of the rules. This would group your two Nuts decks and two Helices decks. All the Elements would then have one area to focus on.

This arrangement would also put your columns in order of decreasing probability of rolling a given combination with 6 dice in one roll, for the most part. By my calculations, "AAA+BBB, AA+BB+CC" has a probability of 5.48% and "AAAA" has a probability of 5.22%. Yes, they are close and rare (and that's been my experience - thank goodness for Pixies!).

The oddball is the 5 dice straight: 1+2+3+4+5, 2+3+4+5+6. By my calculations, it has a 9.26% probability, which is higher than the previous two columns. It's also my experience that it appears more frequently than either of those, on one roll. I wonder if it's placed last because it's hard to transition to this combination on re-rolls, and that if you go for it, you might have nothing to fall back on (also consistence with my experience).

It's definitely fun being a shipwright for the Archonts. I almost always play with The Flagship expansion. I really like the Hourglasses and the Hammer Bird Eggs.

I very much enjoy immersing myself into the Oniverse games. It's been a constant on my table for a week now.

Enjoy!
 
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