Age of Assassins (a review)

Designer: Muneyuki Yokouchi (横内宗幸)
Publisher: 操られ人形館 (Ayatsurare Ningyoukan)
Players: 3-4
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Times Played: 8 (some on a friend’s copy, some on a copy I purchased (1st ed.), some on a second copy I purchased (3rd ed.))

I first played Age of Assassins in 2014.  I didn’t own a copy at the time, and while there were rumors it was licensed, at some point I stopped holding my breath for that imminent announcement.  I loved it then, (and I hope that isn’t Spoiler City for our destination.)  In the intervening years, as my knowledge of how to acquire small print run games from Japan has increased, I eventually bought a copy, and, well, now have 2. 

It is a drafting game with sequential resolution.

Let’s break that down.

The game consists of a deck of 28 cards, and a way to keep score.  

Two kinds of points:  within a hand, you’ll earn preliminary points; if you survive (IF! 🤣) those convert to “real” points. The first person to a given number of “real” points wins.

The cards come in only a few types, and they are numbered 1 to 6.  Each has a series of effects that may be triggered, and these interactions are the heart of the game.  The cards will resolve sequentially (when we get to that part), with the 1s doing their thing, then the 2s, then the 3s, &c.

All of the cards are dealt out, 7 to each player.  Choose a card, pass the others to the left; choose a card, pass the others to the left; choose a card, pass the others to the left; (and a few more times).

It’s “drafting” like you are used to, but, naturally, a few twists to cover. 

First up, is that cards are placed into one of two rows.  A “front” row of cards that is face up and will eventually house 4 cards, and a “back” row that remains face down until resolution begins, and holds three cards.

When you choose a card, you have to commit to playing it in the front, face-up, or in the rear, concealed.

If you’re planning ahead, you’ve noticed the second wrinkle, and one that drafting games don’t typically do: you have to accept the last card!  It’s an homage to the hand you passed 4 cards ago.  

Twist 1 + Wrinkle 2 = You also don’t get to choose where that omiyage comes to rest. 

Once everyone has selected 6 cards and been passed a 7th, reveal the back rows and resolve.

A lot of the things in this game will, well, kill you.  That’s why we’re about to talk so much about “potential” points.  If you live to the end of the round, you can keep them.  

Also, the card text can be a lot for the first hand (or, say, reading a review), so bear with me.  They’re all important in their own way.

The first cards to resolve are the 1s: Assassins and Soldiers. Assassins give you 1 preliminary point each, and, hey, that’s the name of the game.  Probably important!  Soldiers work alongside them, and while the Assassins will have the same effect in the front or in the back, the Soldiers do not. 

(Before we proceed, let’s agree on a couple things.  I’m no longer going to say “preliminary” points.  They all will be unless I say something else.  I’m also not going to say “each”; every card does what it says it does, not some sort of ‘this effect happens once regardless of how many you have.’)

Ok, where were we. Soldiers! In the rear, Soldiers grant you 1 point for each Assassin you have (that was a different use of “each”, so it’s fine). In the front? Well, you lose 2 points for each Soldier and count as having 2 less Assassins.  

Huh?  Who said anything about counting Assassins?  Well, this is a spider-web of a game, and I’m leaving a lot of things out.  I’ll get to them, just maybe not at the first possible moment.  So maybe now we’ll talk about two things: one mechanical and one critique.

Assassins are the first way to die!  Whomever has the most Assassins straight-up dies. When you die, your cards will participate in the remaining resolution as appropriate, but there’s no need to track your points.  So this is where the Soldiers come up – lowering your risk of death.

But, as this review tends to do, I left some things out.  If you make it to 5 Assassins, instead of dying, you get 15 points. FIFTEEN! That’s how many you need to win, so if you pull that off and make it through the round (at which point preliminary points convert into “real” points), you win!

So that’s a common theme of the game, I think (and I’m going to try to save most of this for after the “————” down below): it only has shoot-the-moon mechanics.  Sure, you can try to get those 15 points, but if you miss, it is really going to hurt.

(Oh dear, seven paragraphs to talk about the number 1 cards, we’re going to have to pick up the pace a bit.)

So the 2s are the Cooks.  In general, they’ll earn you 2 points in the front row, but if there are at least 3 in the rear -across all players- they’ve poisoned the food, and those players with Cooks in the front row are killed.

(See that was easy. There was so much more I wanted to say, but I’m holding it until after the jump.)

3s are the Magicians.  If you have one, you get 2 points!  If you have two, you are killed. Yikes, that took a quick turn.  What happens if we make it to the moon?  With three the player on your right is killed instead (a-ha!), and you get points.

The 4s and 5s are where we coast to the 6, as the shenanigans are a bit more passive here, but, again, we’ll talk about this more down below.  4s count how many players have them, and if it’s 2, players with them in the front gain points; if it isn’t, players with them in the rear gain points. For 5s, in the front, you sort of earn interest on the points collected so far, and in the rear, steal from others with large caches.

(I’ve left a few of the precise details out of these.)

Ok, so 6, the Grave Digger.  It was a game about dying, and we were going to need this.  If all other players are alive, the Grave Digger is killed (I’m thinking they got laid off? Couldn’t eat?). Otherwise, they can choose to be killed; then if at least 2 players are dead (maybe you, maybe not), you gain 3 real points. Real points!

Alright, just a quick sprint to the finish.

So after the 6 resolves, players convert their preliminary points to real points; if anyone has reached 15, somebody has won.  If not, play another hand.

So, I love this game. It has so many things I shouldn’t, but I just do.

I think I want to start with talking about my feeling that it only has shoot-the-moon strategies.  What I mean is, there are no reliable ways to stay alive and score points. There are only wily schemes. The tight card count and limited spots mechanically ensure it, in a Newton’s third law sort of way. 

Let’s have an example. If I want to push for 5 Assassins, some of them will need to go up front.  The more that you do, the more you dial up the chances that a Cook arrives on the 7th flop, taking a front row seat and increasing your chances for death!

What you don’t take out of circulation is still there.

Slots you take up aren’t available later.

These seem obvious, but it’s like the game exploits some sort of logical fallacy to make you think, “…but maybe this time?”

Bulwinkle, that trick never works.

But let’s take a brief detour into why I shouldn’t like this game: the bluffing. Let’s say I place that Assassin from earlier in the front row.  What have I telegraphed to the table? If I place a Magician in the front, and have any cards in the rear row, I am sort of daring you to stick me with another (as 2 would knock me off), but if I have a spare in the rear, it is you who is now out this round!

This sort of bluffing is almost universally “Not for me…”, but I make an exception here. (That’s not a choice, it’s a compulsion.)

The 4s and 5s are sort of the packaging peanuts as you shift around the Assassins, Cooks, and Magicians.  You think you’ll have room for the Gravedigger (looks like an easy 3 real points!), but you’ve undervalued the real estate.  Those 4s and 5s aren’t going to kill you, and might earn you some points, but where (and when) can you afford to place (and take) them? 

…I don’t know.  Maybe I have it wrong and the 4s and 5s are the focus; are 1-3 red herrings I keep trying to catch?

Each card feels finely tuned to ensure that if you place it where you want, the consequences for the remaining cards you’ll play mean that you’ve just stabbed yourself in the leg, shot yourself in the groin, and stepped on a rake.

The game is a riot.  There is a pressure to the draft, as you think you have a plan, then call an audible, and then another. Then you resolve and it’s a comitragedy, as nothing seems to be go according to plan for anyone.  Hopefully someone earned a few points and the game pushes a little closer to resolution (that’s probably the weak point of the game for me, it doesn’t have a way to short circuit the ending if folks aren’t accumulating many points.)

I don’t know how this game succeeds, but it is a joy for me every time.

James Nathan

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: (maybe 7 plays total over the years) – this is one of those games that I have enjoyed each time I play, though maybe not quite enough to ever want to acquire my own copy.  There is a delightfully tricky draft in each game, trying to maximize your own scoring while trying to prevent your own death – which as JaNate notes – is exceedingly common in this game.  You can try to figure out what your opponents are doing based on the cards that end up face up in the display – but it’s not as easy as it looks.  Some of this is bluffing, but some is also necessary as the rules are different for some cards based on their location.  But of course, maybe I’m playing an assassin face up for you to see just as a bluff?  Sigh.   Each hand is quick, and it is possible to score pretty well on a good hand – which usually encourages me to go for the 5 assassin win at least once a game.  Lots of fun and anticipation waiting to see what that last card is given to me which I am obligated to play!   It’s amazing how many times that last card totally screws up my plan… Maybe it’s a second magician (which kills me), maybe it’s a fourth assassin, which isn’t enough for the win, but enough to kill me…  Maybe it’s a cook that I’m forced to play up front – which, guess what – likely kills me.  Now that I think about it, maybe I should see if James Nathan is willing to part with one of the four or five copies he seems to own….

Dan Blum (2 plays): I like what it’s trying to do but it doesn’t quite work for me – the typical repeated failure to get anywhere gets frustrating too soon for me to really enjoy the game. I’d play it again with four as with three you have to use a dummy player, which ramps up the frustration quota.

[JN: The third edition removed the dummy player for playing with 3 people. A few specific and known cards are removed, and a few undealt cards will become, well, it’s sort of a dummy player still.  For cards that care about things like “if exactly 2 players have this card…”, then the flipped over kitty can count as that other player.]

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! James Nathan
  • I like it.  Dale Y, Steph H., John P
  • Neutral. Dan Blum
  • Not for me…
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