Dale Yu: Review of Res Arcana

Res Arcana

  • Designer: Tom Lehmann
  • Publisher: Sand Castle Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Times played: 11, with review copy provided by Asmodee NA

Tom Lehmann has always been one of my favorite designers.  He is a joy to game with, and he is one of the most enthusiastic gamers that I’ve ever played with.  It’s amazing to watch him work on games at conventions such as the Gathering of Friends where you can see his ingenuity at work as he is able to come up with revised versions of games literally overnight based on feedback from other people.  One recent design of his that I loved was Jump Drive, a game that compresses the idea of deck building down into a 15 to 20 minute game. In Res Arcana, players take on the role of mages, as they try to use the essences (Life, Death Elan, Calm) as well as Gold to take control of Places of Power and to control Dragons and Creatures.   This engine building game is also supposed to play in a short amount of time, and I was super excited about it once I first read about it.

To set up the game, place the 5 Places of Power in the center of the table. Also, shuffle the deck of 10 monument and flip up 2 in a display.  The 8 Item cards and Essence tokens are placed in the center as well. Each player gets 1 of each resource, a hand of 8 artifacts and 2 mages. Players are allowed to look at their artifact cards before shuffling them and drawing a hand of 3 cards.  Then, once they see their initial hand, they choose to keep one Mage card. A start player is chosen and then, in reverse player order, each player chooses one Item from the display on the table.

The game is played in a number of rounds until one player has at least 10 VPs.  The rules suggest that this will likely be between 4 and 6 rounds. There are 3 phases in each round:  Collect Essences, Take actions, Clean Up.

To Collect Essences, all players look at their cards in play and take any resources given to them by those cards.  At this time, you may also (but are not obligated) to take essences off your cards, but if you do so, you must remove all essences from that card.  Read your cards carefully – some components may require a cost to be paid in order to collect stuff (and a penalty levied if you do not collect) while others may produce an effect if they have resources remaining on them during this phase.

In the Action phase, play goes clockwise around the table, and each player has the opportunity to take a single action or pass.  The different actions are:

1] Discard an Artifact – discard an artifact from your hand, placing it face up and sideways under your artifact deck.  Take any two Essences or one gold from the supply

2] Place an Artifact – Play an artifact from your hand to the table in front of you.  Pay the cost in resources as shown in the upper left corner of the cards

3] Claim a Place of Power – Pay the cost of the Place as seen in the upper left corner of the card and move it from the center of the table to the area in front of you.  It will be yours for the rest of the game.

4] Claim a monument – All monuments cost 4 gold. You can choose either of the face up Monuments or take mystery meat from the top of the deck.  If a face up card is chosen, replace it from the Monument deck if possible.

5] Use a power on an upright card.  Many cards have 1 or 2 powers printed on them.  Most of these have a cost and effect, shown as icons to the left and then to the right of a triangle.  You must pay all the costs on the left side of a triangle in order to get the effect shown on the right.  Some effects might cause you to tap the card (yes, I know, WotC will try to sue me now). Some effects may cause opponent to lose life (green wooden bits).  Players must discard those bits, or if they do not have any, they must discard any 2 other essences for each green. Alternatively, players can discard a card from their hand to ignore the entire effect.

6] Pass – Players can pass if they have nothing else they wish to do.  Once you pass, you are out of the round. The first player to pass in a round takes the start player token – which is also worth 1 VP while you hold it.  When you pass, you must swap your current Magic item with one from the supply. The new magic item is placed facedown so that you can remember that you have already passed in this round.  Finally, draw one card to replenish your hand. If your deck is empty, shuffle your discard pile to form a new deck.

When all players have passed, the game moves into the Cleanup phase.  First, check to see if the game is over. If anyone has more than 10 VPs, the player with the most points at that time wins!  If there is a tie, the player with the most Essences available to them wins (with Gold counting double). Otherwise, the game continues.  All players untap all turned cards and the next round begins with collecting Essences.

My thoughts on the game

Res Arcana is the debut release from Sand Castle Games.  They went with a well known and well respected designer for their first game, and I think the result is wonderful.  At first glance, the game looks like a simple engine builder racing game with a slapped on fantasy theme. However, as I have played the game more and more, it is much deeper than that.

There are a lot of things going on in the game which elevate this from a simple entry level game.  First is the strategy encompassed in your hand of 8 artifact cards. Each time you play, you’ll only get 20% of the overall deck of Artifacts, and these cards are all you get to work with.  You will have to figure out how to get the most of those cards – seeing which ones look like they will work well with each other and which should be discarded for resources. Each game will present you with a new challenge when you first look at your hand, and then this will be compounded with the 32 different combinations of the Place of Power cards.

You will have to be able to react to the hand that you are dealt each turn as well.  Though you know all 8 Artifact cards that comprise your deck, you still start with a random hand of three cards (and only draw one more each round), so you’ll have to make the best of the cards available to you.  As you near the end of the deck, you might be able to advance plan a bit more as you’ll know what is still coming off the deck. You also have to factor in the different actions of the Item cards, and you’ll change which item you get each round – so that’s one more thing that you will have to consider as you try to make plans.

I tend to love games that include a Turn Zero planning stage (probably stemming from my work with Dominion) – and here, it’s a little bit different from Dominion as each player has their own puzzle to solve.  However, careful planning has a big payoff here as most games really do only go 4 to 5 rounds; thus, you really need to get off to as fast a start as you can because you simply don’t have many rounds to catch up.

The game does move swiftly, and once you’re familiar with the game, it breezes by much like Jump Drive.  That’s not to say that you’re still not making plenty of decisions each round – but this game packs a lot into its short playing time.  If there is a negative (at least for me) about this game, it is that the short game arc means that you have to decide on a strategy early on, and you have to stick with it, and hope that you have chosen better than everyone else… You simply don’t have time to change gears in the middle of Res Arcana – not when you likely only get 5 or 6 turns!  But… this isn’t a game breaker – especially not when games come in at 20-30 minutes. I love the quick turnover; I can try an idea and then see if it works, and then we reset and do it again. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve even wondered if it would be fun to keep the same setup after a game and play again to see if I can improve upon my performance once I’ve seen how the cards, monuments and places interact with each other.

For some, this straight downhill trajectory is going to be a negative.  I can definitely see that, and in some instances, I wouldn’t care for it either… but in a game of this short duration, I like the challenge of figuring out the ever changing puzzle from the start and then seeing how it turns out. Thus far the games have all felt different – even though I think I’ve seen just about all of the cards by now, the different arrangements in your “Deck” and then the order in which they come out in combination with the monuments/Places of Power make it dynamic enough.  The rules allow for a drafting setup which I think would add another dimension to the puzzle solving/turn zero strategy – but for now, I’ve been super happy with the regular setup rules and getting a hand of 8 random cards from the deck of 40.

Sometimes, you’ll find a combo in your deck of Artifacts – this is easy to rely upon, as you should be able to get those cards together early on.  If you find a card that looks like it will work well with a Place of Power – they can be devastatingly effective, but you have to make sure that you can be the one who buys that particular Place!  And, as always for me, the fallback scenario is simply to figure out how to make the most gold and buy up the monuments. But, it’s different each time we play, and I love the constant renewing challenge in that.

The art is pretty spectacular.  Julian Delval has always been a favorite of mine, and his art is finely detailed and richly enhances the theme.   The icons are mostly intuitive, and by the end of the first game, usually you’re not having to look anything up. The rules are fairly clear, though there are the expected set of questions that always come up in these sorts of games where rules on the cards trump the written base rules.   Many of the issues can be resolved with common sense, and there are a number of threads on BGG with clarifications.

Thus far, I have truly enjoyed my plays of Res Arcana, and I am anxiously awaiting another chance to play it.  Many folks have asked if this is like Jump Drive or Race for the Galaxy – and, to me, they are different games.  All three of them have a home in my collection. Jump Drive and Race are related in the sense that Jump Drive is a simplified version of Race.  Jump Drive could be said to similar to Res Arcana due to game length. However, they are quite different in feel despite the fact that they are both mini engine building games  – play is not simultaneous in Res Arcana, and it feels to me like the card interactions are more prevalent in Res Arcana. Also, no one has been befuddled by the iconography in Res Arcana which makes it way more likely that I’ll get this to the table with newbies.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Jonathan: I don’t buy many games these days, but I put in a special order for it at my FLGS.  I love it. It plays quickly, but has moments of aha. In a way, it is two games I love somewhat merged and a game unto itself.  You can plan ahead for your series of turns each round, but there is more interaction than multiplayer solitaire. Just the threat of someone throwing a wrench in your engine changes your plans.  Passing is critical and even though the other player(s) get to keep going that round, you might deprive them of the pass tile they need for next turn. Or, if another player has the tile you need, you need pause moves to outlast them so they have to pass and you can get their tile for the next round. I don’t see it played out for ages and know there is an expansion in the works.

Alan H: This is my most played new game of 2019 for several reasons.Firstly, it’s a really good game and each game presents a different puzzle to solve. Secondly, the variety is excellent – your own deck, your mage, the selection of places of power, the sequence of monuments arising – all of which gets you planning and then what others do which is what you need to react to. I’ve played with all player counts and everyone of the 12 other people I’ve played with has enjoyed the game. Some have bought the game based on their first play, and those that have not played are seeking to do so. Finally, it’s quick and about 45 minutes of interesting decisions. And you can’t necessarily tell who is doing well. Loads of resources are useful but not a prerequisite for winning. In my latest game I hardly ever acquired resources but won by a good combo for my place of power that I’d never experienced before. This will be amongst my most played games for 2019 all year and thank you Jonathan for highlighting that an expansion is coming. It will be acquired at the earliest opportunity.

Chris Wray: Phenomenal.  I wasn’t interested at first — the name and theme did nothing for me — but I played it recently and fell in love.  The mechanics are sound, the play is fast-paced, and the design is intuitive once you master the symbols.

Tery: I have played this game twice and I really like it. I agree with what everyone has said above about interesting mechanics and ever-changing game play packed into a 20-30 minute game. One of my games was with 2 players, and that worked just as well as it did with 4 players. It feels very different to Jump Drive or Race for the Galaxy to me, in part due to theme. In order for me to love it and potentially buy it I will need to try it again with the drafting variant that is listed in the rules. During play 2 I managed to draw a card of hands that gave me zero income, which made it nearly impossible for me to do anything for the rest of the round. I think the drafting option (where you draw 4 cards, pick one, pass them to the next player, repeat until you have 4 and then do it again) would solve this potential issue.

Dan Blum: I am enjoying the game quite a bit, in large part because the cards always seem to mesh well together – it seems that no matter what deck of eight artifacts you get there’s always some way to get a set of them to work together. Per Tery’s complaint, you can definitely get a bad opening hand from such a deck, but there are ways of dealing with that. I’d be happy to try the drafting variant but haven’t felt the need yet. The only thing keeping me from “love it” rating is the fact that the relatively small number of cards does keep me from wanting to play it over and over the way we did Race for the Galaxy back when it was new. Admittedly this is an unfair comparison as they are not meant to be the same kind of game.

Brandon Kempf: Really well done engine builder that allows for some fairly clever interaction between the players and the game. I am not a Race for the Galaxy fan, and for the most part that’s because of the people who I have played Race with. They have played the game hundreds of times between them, so it has become second nature to them. That’s who i learned from and have played with, and it didn’t work out, I never fully grokked it the way that I should have and have thus dismissed Race. Res Arcana is a different story as I have learned this with everyone else who is learning it so I don’t have that feeling of being behind. It’s interesting to me how they attempted to balance a game like this where everyone is randomly dealt 8 cards and that’s what they have to work with. For the most part, this has worked perfectly, most everyone is on an even field, but I am still waiting for the hammer to fall and see that hand that is just dead in the water before it even starts. I’ve seen hands that are weak, very little production and heavy in elements that aren’t that valuable and mage combinations that don’t really help. So I think eventually there has to be a drafting method installed with the game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Jonathan F. Alan H., Chris Wray
  • I like it. Tery, Craig V, Dan Blum, Brandon Kempf
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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