Design by Brett J. Gilbert & Matthew Dunstan
Published by Space Cowboys
2 – 4 Players, 1 hour
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
I always applaud originality in game design. Sure, there is wisdom in the old adage / question “Why reinvent the wheel?”, but in games, the same mechanism being used over and over again grows tedious and smacks of lack of inspiration or creativity. So when a game is published that uses a brand new mechanism or idea, it certainly receives well deserved accolades. Those accolades are even greater if the game built around that mechanism is a good one.
Elysium by designers Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan triumphs on both accounts. Elysium is set in the ancient Greek mythological world wherein players act as demigods forging their own stories and legends. As the box states, players will “recruit heroes, acquire artifacts, undertake quests and earn the favor of the gods.” Essentially this is a card game, with each of the 150+ cards having special powers and incredible artwork. Don’t let the abundance of special powers deter you, however, as this isn’t something akin to Magic: the Gathering or other games of that ilk. Rather, the powers are easy-to-understand and do not create weird, unforeseen circumstances that are not covered by the rules.
The main component of the game is the 168 cards, divided into eight different families, each representing one of the classic Greek gods and goddesses and related items. Present are Athena, Hades, Poseidon, Zeus, Ares and others. Each game, five sets are chosen and mixed together, so the mixture is different for each game, presenting a different challenge and forcing players to adapt their strategies accordingly. There is a recommended starting set to ease players into the game.
Each card depicts quite a bit of information, but most of it is easy to grasp. Depicted on each card is:
Level. Either 1, 2 or 3. This plays an important role in the card’s cost, as well as assembling “stories” to score victory points. The color of the banner indicates the family to which the card belongs.
Acquisition Cost. Indicates the color of column or columns a player must have remaining on his Player board in order to acquire the card.
Activation symbol. This icon specifies when the card’s power can be activated. I am a fervent “anti-icon” spokesman, but fortunately there aren’t too many different icons and they are fairly easy to learn and recognize.
Power. This describes the special power of the card, which is often available to be used during the game, but sometimes are end-game victory points if the specified conditions are met. It is important to note that a card’s power (unless it provides end game victory points) can only be used when it is in a player’s “Domain” as opposed to having been moved to “Legend” status. More on this later.
The basic concept of the game is that players will collect cards in their Domain, ultimately writing fabulous stories (or legends) by moving these cards beneath their player board. Points are scored by assembling sets of cards into either Level legends (cards of the same level, but from different families) or Family legends (cards of the same family, but different levels). Additional points can be earned by meeting the conditions listed on many of the cards.
The central “board” (per se) is actually comprised of four Quest placards assembled with
two other pieces so that it resembles an ancient Greek temple. Underneath this will be displayed the dozen or so god and goddess cards, forming the Agora, from which players will claim them. Each player begins the game with four columns (one each in four colors), four coins, a starting token (1 – 4, based on the number of players) and a handful of victory points. The fact that players begin with victory points means that some (or all!) may be lost! These items are stored on the player’s linear board, which also serves as the demarcation zone between a player’s Domain and Legend. Again, I’ll explain this important distinction in a bit.
In turn order–which varies each turn–each player alternates taking either a card from the agora (card display) or one of the four Quest tiles. The quest tiles will determine the turn order for the following round, the amount of income a player will receive during the turn, and the number of cards (transfers) he may move from his Domain to his Legend area. These are quite important, and a large contributor to the considerable amount of angst that is produced each turn.
As mentioned, each card depicts the color of the column or columns (one or two icons are depicted) that a player must still have present on his board in order to claim the card. For example, the player must have the red column present on his board in order to claim the Caduceus card, while claiming The Golden Throne of Hera requires the player to have both the yellow and blue columns still available. Some cards will depict a black icon, which means any color column can be present.
Now here is the deliciously tricky part. One would think that in order take a card, the player would need to set aside the matching colored column or columns. Not so! The player may set aside any column or columns. So, to take Caduceus, which requires a red column be present on the player’s board, the player may set aside a red, blue, green or yellow column. Thus, he may opt to keep the red column on his board and set aside a different color instead. While this may seem innocuous, in reality it presents players with an often extremely tough decision. All cards available this round are visible, so players can see which columns are necessary in order to collect those cards. So, if there is an abundance of cards requiring yellow columns, it might be wise to keep the yellow column on your board. However, one must also consider the cards he is hoping to collect, which forces players to consider numerous factors, including the sets they are trying to build, the powers they will grant, end game victory points and, of course, which cards one’s opponents are likely to take. This often requires players to survey each opponent’s player boards to see which columns they have remaining so some deduction / guesswork can be performed to determine which cards a player will likely take. This is delicious stuff and causes a constant stream of angst and tough choices.
When a card is taken, it is placed above the player’s board in an area known as the Domain. When a card rests here, its special power may be utilized. However, no victory points will be earned from those cards until they are moved to the Legend area, located below the player board. So, here is yet another choice: when to move the card to the Legend area, which will potentially earn victory points, but negate any special power the card may convey.
Instead of taking a card, the player may opt to take one of the Quest tiles. As mentioned earlier, the Quest tiles are vital, as they determine turn order, income, some victory points and the number of cards a player can transfer from his Domain to Legend area. All of these aspects are extremely important, and force players to carefully consider when they will take a Quest tile. As with the cards, each of the four tiles requires a specific color column be present on the player’s board. If a player delays too long and can no longer take any of the remaining Quest tiles because he no longer has the required column present on his board, he still takes one, but it is inverted, drastically reducing the benefits he will receive. Further, he will go last in turn order, which means the he risks losing out on the best cards. It is not uncommon–particularly in later rounds–for players to use their first turn to grab a Quest tile.
As with the Quest tiles, if a player is unable to take any of the remaining cards from the display because he does not have the required column(s) still present on his board, he takes a card from the face-down deck and inverts it to its “citizen” side. These cards provide no special powers, but can prove useful as wild cards to fill in gaps when forming Legends.
As mentioned earlier, cards have special powers that are triggered during certain phases. Some take effect immediately when taken, others can be activated during one’s turn, some require the presence other cards within one’s Domain, while still others only trigger when the listed conditions are fulfilled. Selecting complimentary cards, thereby building a mini-engine, is one of the many challenges facing the players. It is often difficult to choose between a card that grants a desired power versus a card that will help complete or continue a Legend.
After players have alternated taking four turns (three cards and a Quest tile), it is time to “Write the Legends.” First, the turn order is re-determined based on the Quest tiles, at which point players receive the income and victory points listed on the tile they took. At this point, in turn order, players may transfer cards from their Domain to the Legend area, simply moving the card from above their player board to beneath it. The number a player can transfer is determined by the Quest tile they took, which can be supplemented by certain cards present in their Domain. Transferring cards is essential, as the vast majority of victory points are usually earned by cards in the Legend area. The number of transfers allowed varies with the Quest tiles, ranging from 1 – 3. In a five turn game, this means on average a player will only be able to transfer ten cards. So, it is important to also secure cards that will allow additional transfers.
In addition to the number of transfers allowed, each transfer also costs money equal to the level of the card being transferred. So, a Level 1 card costs one coin, while a Level 3 card costs three coins. Players must carefully manage their funds to insure they have enough to complete the desired transfers.
The object of transferring cards is to form Legends, which I described above. Legends–both Level and Family–will earn victory points based on the number of cards in that legend. A Level Legend (all the same level, but different families) can have up to five cards, while a Family Legend (all the same family, but different levels) can have at most three cards. Level Legends can earn 2 – 12 points, depending upon the number of cards present, while Family Legends can earn 3 or 6 points. A player may construct multiple Legends, but Legends with only one card are worthless, as they result in a poor story.
There is also a bit of a race aspect to the game, as bonus victory points are awarded for being the first or second to complete a Family Legend (these are awarded for each of the five families), as well as being the first to complete a Level 1, 2 or 3 Legend. These points can be significant and turn order can play a key role in beating your opponents to these rewards.
Each round the Quest tiles are repositioned, a new set of cards is revealed, and the process is repeated. The game concludes after five rounds and final victory points are tallied (Legends, end-game victory point cards, etc.) Players lose 2 points for each Citizen that is present in their Legends, so care must be taken to determine if completing a Legend will yield more points than this cost. The player with the most points has written the best legends and may petition Zeus to be elevated to a higher level than his present demigod status.
Whew! That is quite a lengthy description! Please don’t let this deter you, as the game is surprisingly easy to learn and play. Indeed, it can be taught in about ten minutes or so, and generally takes just a tad over an hour to play. Yes, the potential is there for a bit of downtime as players have to study the card display, which involves reading the text, before deciding which cards they desire. We usually read them all aloud as we place them, so everyone has an understanding of what each card does. Plus, there are numerous duplicates or similarities, making it easier to grasp their powers.
The choosing of the columns mechanism is highly original and a stroke of genius. Such a simple idea introduces often excruciating dilemmas and forces players to make some tough decisions. The timing of using cards for their powers by keeping them in the Domain versus the desire to complete Legends and earn victory points, which is made doubly difficult by the limited number of transfers that a player will likely have, is yet another constant thorn in a player’s side.
Players will desire cards for numerous reasons, including their powers, victory points and family relationship so as to continue or complete Legends. Further, some cards — particularly that ornery Poseidon and his family — are aggressive in nature, often costing opponents coins, victory points and or cards. Do you grab one of these cards so an opponent cannot use it against you? Ahh … even more tough choices to be made.
I also cannot fail to mention the outstanding artwork on each and every card. This fantastic work is the courtesy of the creative talents of no less than nine artists. In an incredibly classy act, a mini-biography and photo of each of these artists is included in the rulebook. I would certainly like to see this as a regular feature in game releases.
If you have read this far, my assessment of Elysium will come as no surprise. I love this game. It combines ease of learning, fast play, incredibly creative and angst-inducing mechanisms, and a seemingly endless series of tough choices throughout. When a game can accomplish all of that, it is a huge winner in my assessment. Indeed, I consider it my top game of the year.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Lorna: I really enjoyed the drafting mechanism.
Jonathan: I played it once and had a hard time. I found that the frustration factor was greater than the fun factor. For one, you’ve got oodles of cards, each with its own power, with tiny print. So inexperienced players will be squinting and stalling. You take a card and a power, but once you bring it into your scoring (“Legend”) zone, you typically lose the power. So these don’t last long and one does not really build an engine. Then there is a sort of press your luck element, which can be very damaging. You want to avoid taking a turn order marker as long as possible, but if someone takes the wrong card, your remaining columns will force you to go last and move very few cards to the Legend area, which can KILL you.
I do agree with Greg and Lorna that the use of the colored columns to winnow down your draft choices is very clever, and I hope that something similar can be used in a cleaner game.
Patrick Brennan: My rating has potential to rise because there are a lot of things to like in the game. For starters, by each game taking a different slant by including only 5 of the 8 provided suits in a game, providing different effect families to explore. Also the first playing is tarnished by undue downtime – all the cards being revealed at once means there’s time spent working out what all the effects are, rather than using the drip-feed process that most card-effect games provide to circumvent the issue. I like how there’s a decision to make on which colour to discard each turn, which gradually narrows card taking options and causes hard decisions. Those decisions can create more downtime as well though while you check out what your opponents are likely going for vis a vis what colours they’ve discarded so far. The other issue is that a lot of the deck is not going to come out, so it’s highly possible for a player to be pus’d out of completing a set because the needed card didn’t come out in the last half of the game, and other players get lucky. Which felt like a touch too much luck for the length of the game and the downtime. Once you’re past that, and you’re ok with the fact that yes, it’s a card drafting game with a rummy scoring system and so yes, there’s going to be luck, the nice things about the game are that it’s a clean system with a different twist on card collection (ie the colour discards) that’s enjoyable to explore. The rules are great, and the card glossary answered all our questions as we went. I’m looking forward (at some point hopefully) to seeing if the game improves with repeat play, and with fewer than 4 players.
Larry (2 plays): Pretty good game, a bit light for me, but still with stuff to think about. Dealing with the columns is a pleasant challenge, even if it’s not rocket science. Deciding when to transfer cards can also be fun. Not something I’m itching to play again, but I’d be happy to participate if others want to get it to the table.
Dan Blum: I like it, but… some of the card sets have some really swingy cards. E.g. the one which allows you to trade money for VPs – in a game with lots of money (such as the suggested “Opulence” setup) whoever happens to be first in the round that card appears has a big advantage. There’s also the Ares card that gives you a VP for every power point you have. Experience with the game helps, but even if you know those cards could come out that doesn’t necessarily help.
So, I like it, but how much depends to some extent on which cards I’m playing with.
4 (Love it!): Greg S.
3 (Like it): Lorna, Patrick Brennan, Larry, Dan Blum, Mary Prasad
2 (Neutral): Jonathan
1 (Not for me):