- Designers: Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan
- Publisher: Space Cowboys (distributed by Asmodee)
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 14+
- Time: 60 minutes
- Times played: 5, between review copy provided by Asmodee as well as with copy at the Gathering of Friends
Over the past two years, the new(ish) design house of Space Cowboys has become one of my go-to sources for great games. I’ve played all four of their games (one still unpublished), and the initial lineup of Splendor, Black Fleet, Elysium and Time Stories is a damn good start to this publishing line. (I’d ask you to pardon my French, but since Space Cowboys is mostly made up of French and Swiss folks, there’s no reason to apologize!)
The game is co-designed by two guys whose previous output is limited but of high quality. Gilbert is probably best known for Divinare, a recommended game for the 2013 SdJ. Dunstan’s debut game was Relic Runners, a challenging family game released by Days of Wonder. Given this short but impressive resume of both the designers and the publisher would have been enough to make me want to try this as soon as possible.
Elysium had been on my radar since I got a first glimpse of it at the great press demo event at GenCon 2014. Croc give us a tantalizing ten minute explanation of the game and we got to play a round or two – which was enough to whet my appetite for the game, but not quite enough of a look to know how the whole game would turn out.
In Elysium, players “take on the role of an ambitious demigod who is trying to claim a place at the summit of Mount Olympus”. In order to do that, that demigod must collect the most victory points over the five rounds of the game.
At the start of the game, each player gets a thin board where he can store his coins and VP tokens. The space above this board is his Domain, the area where his active cards lie. The area below this board is his Elysium, the area where cards are placed in order to be scored. Each player is also given four colored columns (one each of red, blue, yellow and green) to place on his board.
The card set for the game must first be constructed. Elysium is made up of eight separate God decks of 21 cards each (Apollo, Area, Athena, Hades, Hephaestus, Hermes, Poseidon and Zeus). Each deck has a different theme to it. In each game, five of these eight decks are chosen and shuffled together. Each of the cards has a lot of information on it. The name of the card is at the bottom of the artwork. In the upper left, you will see the deck (color) and level (1, 2 or 3) of the card. In the upper right, you will see the “acquisition conditions” or cost – one or two colored circles. Finally, at the bottom of the card, you will see the special ability of the card.
These special abilities are used during the player’s turn – though the timing of when the action can happen depends on the icon on the left side of the card
- Instantaneous – used once immediately upon acquisition of the card
- Trigger – this action can be used once during the game – you place a trigger ring on the card when you acquire it and then discard the ring whenever you choose to use the ability
- Permanent – this power is always active as long as the card is in your Domain area
- Activated – these actions can be used once in each of the five Epochs of the game. You tap the card to show that it has been used
- Eleusis – This is similar to an Activated card, but its action can only be used if you have at least 2 Eleusis cards in your Domain
- Legend – can be used only in the Writing the Legends Phase
- Final Scoring – cards with the hourglass icon contribute to final scoring
The start player is determined randomly and turn order for the first round is clockwise from this player. Players can place their turn order marker in the circular notch on the right side of their board. The temple is also set up in the corner of the table which holds the four Quest cards. Players also take a number of VP equal to the number on their player order token.
The game is played over 5 Epochs, and there are four phases to each Epoch
- Setup the Agora
- Writing the Legends
- End of Epoch
To set up the Agora (or market). Any cards still in the center of the table are discarded. Then a new set of cards is dealt to the center, equal to 3 times the number of players plus one more card.
Then, in player order, the players each take an action. There will be four rounds of action taking, and at the end of this phase, each player will have taken 3 cards from the Agora and taken one quest from the Temple. In order to take any card (either from the Agora or the Temple), you must possess the right prerequisites. As I mentioned earlier, each card has a set of acquisition conditions in the upper right corner. The player must have columns of matching colors on his board at the time he collects the card. A black circle on a card can be fulfilled with any color column. After taking a card, you then must discard one of your columns (which does not have to be a column used in the acquisition of the card).
If you have collected a Quest, you place it to the left of your board. If you have collected a card from the Agora, you place it in your Domain – that is the area above your player board. It may turn out that you are unable to collect an Agora card on your turn because you do not have the right prerequsites, you simply take a Citizen card – that is the top card from the draw pile which remains facedown. If you cannot collect a Quest card, you will be given an uncollected Quest card at the end of the round which your must flip over and display the unfinished Quest side.
Once all the actions are completed, you then move into the Writing the Legends Phase. You first set up the player order for the next round. Players take the number that is shown on their Quest card. Each player also then receives Gold and VPs as shown on the bottom of their Quest card. Finally, the lyre icon on the bottom of the Quest card tells you the maximum number of cards that you can transfer from your Domain to your Elysium.
Each card transferred to the Elysium costs the player a number of gold equal to its level – the number in the upper right of the card. When you transfer a card to your Elysium, you must place it in a Legend (just a fancy term for a meld). Once a card is played, it cannot be moved into another Legend.
There are two types of Legends that you can write:
Level Legend – this has cards all of the same numerical level, but of different suits. It is completed when there is one card of each of the five suits.
Family Legend – this has cards of a single suit – it is complete when there is one card of each of the three numerical levels
Cards can be played to the Legends in any order. You can have as many incomplete Legends as you want, though it is advisable for you to complete them by the end of the game! It is also possible to move a Citizen card to the Elysium (remember – these are the cards that you pick up when you do not have the correct prerequisites to gain a card from the Agora). The Citizens act as a wild card and they can only be added to a Legend that has at least 2 cards already played. The cost of the transfer is equal to whatever level the Citizen card is replacing in the Legend.
It is important to note that once a card is moved to the Elysium, you can no longer use the special ability of that card (except for the Final Scoring cards, which only work at the end of the game and only when in an appropriate Legend in your Elysium).
There are also a few bonus tiles in the game which are given to the first and second player to finish a Family Legend in each suit. These cannot be taken away once gained. There are also bonus tiles for the Family Legends. They are initially awarded to the player who first creates an incomplete legend of at least 2 cards for each of the three levels. It can be stolen by another player if they create a Family Legend with more cards. The first player to complete a Family Legend of all five cards therefore keeps the marker permanently.
In the final phase, all the columns are retrieved and the used Activation cards are untapped in player’s Domains. The next Epoch then starts with the formation of a new Agora.
The game continues through 5 Epochs and then there is some final scoring. In order to simplify things, all single cards in the Elysium are removed as they do not score points. Additionally, all of the cards in the Domain are removed as they do not score points either. Any Chronos cards remaining in the Elysium are then scored.
Next, each of the Legends are scored:
- Family Legends: 2 cards = 3VP, 3 cards = 6VP
- Level Legends: 2/3/4/5 cards = 2/4/8/12 VP
- Finally, players must discard 2VP for each Citizen card used in a scoring Legend. The player with the highest score wins. IF there is a tie, the player with more gold left breaks the tie.
My thoughts on the game
Elysium is a challenging game that is very meaty for the 45-60 minute time frame that the game plays in. Successful players will be those that can make their cards work together well both in their Domain as well as their Elysium.
My first two games were played with the recommended starting set and the later ones were all with randomly drawn sets of 5, and thus far, each of the setups has provided a different feel to the game. This modular setup gives you 56 different possible combinations of card decks, and this certainly helps the replayability of the game because it prevents players from settling into a fixed strategy in the game.
Each of the decks has a different theme or emphasis –
- Apollo – allows players to see and manipulate the cards coming in future Epochs
- Ares – gives players another way to earn VPs – by collecting Prestige Points along the way – which are worth 16/8/4/2 for most/2nd/3rd/4th in PPs
- Athena – all the cards have very strong abilities, but they are usable by all players, not just the owner of the card
- Hades – These cards give you extra ways to move cards to Elysium
- Hephaestus – helps you get or use Gold
- Hermes – allow you to reuse the powers of cards or use the powers of the cards in the Elysium
- Poseidon – these cards are used to antagonize and attack the other players
- Zeus – these cards give you alternate ways to score VPs
Thus, the specific suits used will cause you to change your strategy and certain synergies between the suits can also alter your play. Being able to foresee how the cards will work together is an important skill for playing Elysium correctly.
Figuring out how to set up your action phase is also a difficult task. Managing your four columns is harder than it looks. You can come up with a plan at the beginning of a round, but you will likely have to alter it along the way as other players take cards that you aren’t expecting them to take. You need to try to make sure that you keep columns on your board to keep your options open.
There is a clever balance between trying to get the cards that you want from the Agora while also trying to pay attention to the Quests in order to set yourself up for turn order in the next round (as well as the gold, VPs and ability to move cards that come on those Quests). If you make a move too early for the Quests though, you could end up giving up a lot of opportunity on getting cards from the Agora.
I do wish there was some more compensation for original player order. It pretty much only sucks to be last in order in the first round due to luck alone. You have the least variety of cards to choose from in the turn, and thus end up being more likely to be last in turn order again in the next round. You could take a Quest card early on to shift the player order, but then this likely makes your acquisitions from the Agora even worse than they would have otherwise been. The three VPs does not feel to be enough to make up for this handicap IMHO. However, I’ve only played the game five times, and I’m fairly sure that the designers and developers have played this enough to properly balance this. Future plays will hopefully prove the balance of the setup.
The art is very well done, and each of the decks has a consistent thematic art on the cards of that deck. The only quibble I might have is with the title logo. The artist has chosen to use Greek letters that look similar to the regular letters in the word “ELYSIUM”. But, as my fraternity studies have oh-so-usefully-helped me here, the title on the box translates to “XLPSFUM” which isn’t really a thing. It’s cute, and the use of the Greek letters does help underline the Greek theme of the game – also corroborated by the use of the Greek Olympians as opposed to the Roman names. In the end, this is a completely superficial thing that is more pedantic than anything else.
Finally, it should be noted that the custom insert is awesome – and something that I wish other games provided us – a well thought out system that allows both storage and ease of access for all the components…
I have found my initial games of Elysium to be challenging and quite varied in the style of play needed to win. I think that this is a worthy nominee for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, and I would not be surprised at all for this to come home with the wooden poeppel. (NB: This was written prior to the award but not published until afterwards – Elysium did not win the award which instead went to Broom Service)
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Lorna: 5 plays. I think the use of the columns for acquisitions and having to “pay” one is clever and interesting. There is not really much else that is novel to the game, drafting, set collecting and card combos. I’m glad it has a few different decks because I’m already questioning it’s replayability. I’ve enjoyed my plays so far and hopefully the different deck combos will keep my interest.
Larry (1 play): Nice little game, with a reasonable amount of meat. Sequencing the order of the columns requires some planning, as does deciding when to retire your cards. I won’t seek it out, but I’d be happy to play if someone else brings a copy to game day.
Greg S. (5 plays): Probably my favorite game of the year so far, and will likely get my top vote for the International Gamers Award. The column mechanism is brilliant, and choosing which cards to take and when to move them into your Elysium can be very tough. The game is fairly easy to learn, making it accessible and playable by a wider variety of folks than games such as Kanban, Alchemist or Zhanguo. Top notch game.
Alan H. (1 play) I can’t assess how the other powers play, but it is an enjoyable game I generally like my games to have more complexity so this will not hit the table very often. I do find games where everyone has to read the cards more challenging to enjoy as this creates downtime as players assess the merits of each card and possible choices later in the game.
Jonathan F. (1 play) – Many of the comments above strike me as less positive than I associate with a “Like It” rating. The game’s use of columns for acquisition struck me as counterintuitive, in that you had to have that column available, but could spend any remaining column available in your supply to get the item. I would play/teach it if someone wanted to, but won’t seek it out unless my colleagues find hidden depth in it and report back. The retiring of cards felt like Valley of the Kings and other games where you can choose a small ongoing benefit or a big one time benefit. In this case, the set collection felt a bit abstract plus ‘been there, done that’, but I am in a jaded place right now, so take this with a grain of salt.
Mary Prasad: (1 play) – I enjoyed my one play although I really would like to play a few more times before making a final assessment (I may decide to change to “I love it”). I like how there are different decks, each with a different feel. I didn’t care for the Poseidon deck since it goes after other players but since you may choose what set of decks to play, you can always leave it out, which makes me happy. I like the column mechanism for taking cards as well as the decisions of when to take a quest and when to transfer cards, not to mention which cards to take – lots of decisions in a relatively simple game. I wonder if I will get tired of playing after a while or if the change of decks will keep my interest… although maybe there will be other decks released in the future?
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y, Greg S.
- I like it. Lorna, Eric M., Larry Alan H, Mary P, Chris W
- Neutral. Jonathan F.
- Not for me…
I believe this game is good to great and it should be the type of game that appeals to me . . . but for some reason it doesn’t. I keep seeing the game mechanics when I read about it, but I don’t see the “story”. And I’m not one who needs theme in games. Dominion is one of my favourite games of all time and its theme is pretty light. I ultimately think this game will be forgotten in a short amount of time so I don’t think I’m missing anything that won’t be filled by focusing on other games right now. I have 8 unplayed games to work through that will easily take me to the next Spiel.
Have played three times and the more I play it, the more I like it. It is NOT (IMO) a simple game. If you play it well, it is quite involving. There are many agonizing decisions to be made with each turn. You must consider many different things – which card to take (this alone requires consideration of the type of action, the action’s synergy with other cards, the family of the card, etc.); whether to take a card or a quest; which column to discard (requires some future planning), etc. During Phase III, which cards to send to the Elysium; which type of Legend to assign new arrivals; do I go for “Longest Road” (Largest Level), or “First Family” awards (first to complete a Family of 1-2-3); How do I manipulate the “Citizen” cards (sometimes it’s part of a good strategy to deliberately not be able to take a card, so as to get a Citizen and thus ultimately complete a family or level you could not otherwise do.
All of these must be considered when making a single decision! Thus, the game can be overwhelming to first time players (I still feel overwhelmed with the choices after three plays).
My main negative is the time it takes to read the considerable text on each of 13 cards in a 4-player game, then remembering what they do after reading them! Us older players sometimes struggle with that. But the more I play it, the more I understand the iconography, thus making reading of the text less needed. But if you have newbies, you still have to read them.
Aside from this negative, I find the game refreshing, challenging, and highly enjoyable to play. I Love It.