Dale Yu – Review of Now or Never

Now or Never

  • Designer: Ryan Laukat
  • Publisher: Red Raven Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 13+
  • Time: 1-3 hours
  • Played with review copy provided by Red Raven Games

now or never

From the publisher’s blurb about the game:  Now or Never is a competitive strategy game that allows you to:

  • Choose one of four asymmetrical characters to play.
  • Rebuild the village so that returning villagers have a place to live. You must carefully choose what and where to build to maintain an advantage, earning the biggest rewards for long-term planning.
  • Interact with other players by hiring their specialists to perform special actions.
  • Combat dangerous creatures to rescue villagers.
  • Explore a fantasy landscape filled with bizarre places, technology, and peoples.

Based on this, it seems a little more thematic and narrative based than the games I normally like to play… But, I did just have a mini love affair with another Laukat/Red Raven game, Sleeping Gods, last year – and I was definitely interested in seeing if this one caught my eye as well.   Now or Never is the third game in the Arzium storybook series that includes Above and Below and Near and Far.  I haven’t played either of the earlier games in the trilogy, so this review comes from the standpoint of a newbie to the series and its lore.

The game is interesting in that it includes two modes of play: standard and story.   The standard mode is your usual one-off game.  Just play the game and somebody wins about 1.5 hours later.  When playing in story mode, you read from a storybook when you explore, making choices and learning more about the characters and the world. Each character has their own set of stories, unique to the locations they explore and diverse in plot, perspective, and motive, allowing you to choose what direction your own story will take.

So far, for a number of reasons, I’ve done most of my exploration of this game solo – where you set up the game as a 2p game and then play against a nicely developed Automa.  It’s a pretty decent game, and it was great for learning the game; and the game experience felt a lot like the one multiplayer standard game I was able to play.

Ok, so how do you play the game? Like most games, you want to have the most VPs at the end.  The game and the story of the game provide you with plenty of different ways to do this as you’ll soon see.

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Each player chooses their hero – taking the asymmetric player board for their character. You will find red attack slots on the left (with abilities printed on them which can be upgraded during the game with experience or by purchasing attack gear and blue defensive ability/gear slots on the right.  You have four specialist slots at the top, and you start with 2 starting specialists in setup. Your three action slots (arrows) are In the top right corner. Each character also has a varied number of movement points, as well as tracks for hearts and mana.  Hearts represent your health but also the exhaustion you take when performing tasks.  Your character has a set of unique hero abilities that are put to the side of your player board for now.

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Each player also gets their own town board – as well as a 4×5 grid of building tiles (each player has a matching set).  Your single resource track is found at the bottom of this board, but strangely, the tokens for the different resources are so large, that you may have issues keeping things straight. I ended up placing a die on top of each of my icons and ignoring this track altogether.

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The oversized and super long board is placed in the center of the table. You can see the varied locations in the game on said board.  A few spaces are filled with random draws each game to make things a little different.  Enemies and search tokens are placed on some locations as designated. 

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There is also a season board which tracks the six rounds of the game as well as containing the market and the gear for sale. Red gear represents weapons and blue gear generally represents defense.  There is also space here for a display of six villager tokens as well (any time this row is empty, replenish it with six new villagers). 

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The three decks of quest cards (basic, artifact, advanced) are shuffled and placed near the board.  Each player gets a starting hand of quest cards.  The regular specialist cards are shuffled and a market of 4 is placed face up.  Hopefully you have a big table, because just the solo game pretty much dominates my usual gaming table!

As I mentioned earlier, there are two modes – Standard and Story mode.  In the standard mode, the game is a one-off experience.  In the Story mode, you play through 6 games (chapters) and read from a storybook instead of using search tokens.  For now, I’ll stick to the Standard mode as this is what I have the most experience with.

In the standard game, the game is played over 6 rounds, each representing a season.  On a turn, a player takes a single action and then the next player goes.  This continues until all players have passed – then there is a production phase and the game moves to the next round.

On a turn, players have three general options: take a specialist action, take a hero action, or pass and finish your participation in this round.  There are also a few actions that you can do at any time.

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If you choose to use a specialist, you can choose any specialist on the board (not just your own).  If you use your own, pay the upper number to the supply to use it.  If you use someone else’s, pay the upper number to the bank and the player who owns the specialist gets the lower number from the bank as a fee.  Take the action shown on the specialist tile and then flip it over – it will not be able to be used again this round.  Alternative, rather than use a specialist, you can recruit one from the market by paying double the upper number and adding that specialist to your board.  If you already have 4 specialists, you must discard one of your pre-existing ones first.  Immediately use the newly gained specialist and then flip it over.

There are 5 main sorts of specialist actions (and some actions combine these themes):

  • Build – build a tile from your grid, paying the cost in the lower right of the tile, and place it on your board. Your first build must be from the outer border of your grid and then each successive build must be adjacent to an empty space in your grid.  Your first building must go in the bottom row of your town and then each later build must be adjacent to a previously built building.  Each building lets you house one villager, though some come with beds which increase capacity. 
  • Heal – move you marker all the way to the right on the health track. You may also gain some mana
  • Gain Experience – take 2 experience tokens and whatever else is listed on the action
  • Buy Gear – buy 1 gear from the season board and place it on the appropriate red or blue slot on your board.
  • Rest – only used on your own specialists, simply flip it over and take 2 hearts or 1 coin as shown in the bottom right corner

If you choose to use a hero action, you must have at least one heart and at least one available hero action token on your board (you get 3 each round).  Slide the action slot to the right to show that you’re using it, and then you must move your figure on the board; moving up to a number of spaces shown on the blue arrow that you just covered (2 to 4).  If you want to move further, lose a heart for each extra space.  You also lose a heart each time you move into a space with a mountain icon or an enemy which you choose not to fight.  After moving, you can choose to play a quest card if you are in the appropriate location – you will need to have a quest card that matches your current location as well as be able to pay the cost to play the quest card.  Tuck the completed quest card under your board as it may have an ongoing effect as well as endgame VPs.   Finally, take one of your three options:

  • Visit a Location – if you are at a named location, look under the name of the place.  Generally you pay something in order to gain something else.

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  • Fight an Enemy – if you’re at a location with an enemy, roll a d4 and apply one of your red combat abilities from your player board.  You start with some pre-printed on the board, but you may have replaced some with better actions with red gear things you have bought. Your enemy hits you simultaneously based on the damage icon on the enemy tile (this is modified by any blue defensive gear you have).  Note that some red/blue abilities can be powered by mana to make them more effective.  If you have exceeded the enemy’s health, you win. If not, mark how much damage you have done and then decide to retreat or go another round.  If you ever run out of hearts, your turn ends immediately and you lose the fight.  If you win, you get the rewards listed at the bottom of the enemy tile.  If you lose or retreat, you always get an experience marker as consolation. 
  • Search – if you are on a space with a search token, roll a die, lose hearts equal to the number rolled and then take the search token and gain what is on the other side.  Most of these tokens are then kept by your town to generate coin income in the production phase

If you choose to pass, you are done doing actions until the next round.  Other players continue to take actions until they also pass.  But, let’s not forget about the anytime actions:

  • Sell goods for coins – based on the chart on the season board
  • Place one of your villagers – put them on the right side of a row on your town board. There must be a building or a bed for it. Once you place it, it cannot be moved again, so be sure you know where you want it to go

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  • Complete an order that you got from the Tower of Miners – 2 points at the end of the game for each completed order
  • Pay 2 experience to fill the villager row on the season board – to improve the selection when you have to pick
  • Purchase one of your hero abilities – you got 6 tiles in setup that are unique to your hero. If you have the prerequisites, you can buy one of your personal abilities and install it on your board

Finally, when all players have passed, the game moves into the production phase.  Look at your town board. Each villager which has been placed in the town makes the good pictured underneath the villager.  Additionally, some buildings produce things.  Finally, collect 1 coin for each search token next to your board. 

Reset your board by refilling your mana spaces and moving your hero action tokens back to the unused space.  Also flip all your specialists back up.  Note that you DO NOT replenish your hearts; that track remains untouched.

Play another round.  At the end of the sixth round, there is a slightly different production phase as this is mostly the final scoring.  Discard all of your coins and set all non-book markers to 0.  (Essentially, if you haven’t used them at the end, you lose them). Now produce goods and coins normally.  Sell all created goods via the chart in the market.  Then calculate your score

  • Each coin is worth 1 point
  • Score points for each of the top 3 rows of your town which have 4 buildings
  • Score points for each row in your town that makes at least 1 of each type of good
  • Check your buildings for specific bonus endgame scoring criteria
  • Score points for completed quest cards
  • Score 2 points for each completed order

The player with the most points wins. Ties go to the player with the most remaining experience and books.

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The story mode adds a bit more flavor to the game.  To play this, you use the six chapter booklets, one for each of the six games you play in the story.  There are some setup changes outlined at the start of each chapter.  The biggest change to the game is that you will not use the Search tokens in the story mode.  Instead, when you search an area, you will check the book and read the appropriate paragraph – based on your character!  That’s right, different characters may have different choices and different outcomes for the same space on the board!  There is also a reputation track found on the season board which is obviously tracks reputation – and your reputation level can affect your choices and scoring.  As this is a campaign, you keep track of your score over all six games.  Further, the player with the highest total reputation in the six games scores a bonus 25 VPs.  The player with the most VPs over the six games wins.

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The rules also include solo rules which use an automa bot of 9 cards.You essentially setup a 2p game and play against the bot.  The bot does not score, and your goal is to score as many points as possible.  Your initial goal is to score 100 points; after that, you goal is to beat your previous high score.  

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My thoughts on the game

Well, the game definitely weaves together a eurogame with some story/narrative elements (especially if you are in story mode).  The story is not as immersive as in Sleeping Gods, but then again, there is more to the game here.  You could probably strip away all the story bits and still have a really solid game here.  I have played the game a few times in the standard mode, and have tried a story game – and the way that the same location can act differently for the different characters is an interesting twist.

The rules were a bit daunting at first; it is a thick 28 page ruleset – but once you get through it, you realize the game is actually pretty easy.  You really don’t have too many things to choose from on any given turn (the only thing that changes is that the number of specialists likely slowly increases throughout the course of the game).  Also, there is a great double sided player aid that summarizes the actions you have available as you play the game.  The production player aid is a useful way to remember how you score points, and the reverse side can be used to track the HP of your enemies.

As someone who likes puzzle games, I enjoy the challenge given to me in the restrictions on building choice and building location.  You’ll need to build something in the town in order to be able to house villagers; and you really need to look at your grid of buildings at the start of the game carefully.  Knowing that your first choice essentially determines much of the path through your grid; you need to figure out which buildings you want early on in the process.

The other puzzle here is figuring out which actions to take when.  Timing can be important here – don’t forget that all players have access to all the specialists; so if you’re looking to do a particular action; don’t get shut out by waiting too long!  

The game gives you a bunch of different things to do, and it’s unlikely that any two players will take the same path.  Some people may prefer the luck of searching locations (which also give a nice coin payoff in productions) while others may prefer to move around the board and smite all the enemies that they can find.  Others may focus on orders as a way to supplement their income.  Needless to say, there’s a lot of room on the board to explore; and the space feels even larger if you move to the story mode as each space might be different for each player.  

The big thing to remember – and what I’ll be sure to teach people each time – is that the game essentially comes down to the production phase of the last turn.  You’re building a production engine (in your town mostly), and your goal is to make the most stuff in that final round and convert it all to coins.   The game is an engine, and all that matters is what it produces in the final round.

Time – The game is long.  Really long.  Despite what the box says, games here are routinely in the 1.5 hour range.  And that’s solo.  The 3p game I played took 40 minutes to go thru the rules and set up and then about 3 hours to play – with almost an hour spent on the sixth and final round.  As you don’t keep anything once you enter final scoring; much of the final round is figuring out how to spend as many of your things as possible to increase your final production.  This leads to a bit of an AP issue because you definitely don’t want to screw up things in this final round!   As I have gained more experience with the game, I have found that the final round doesn’t take as long as my engine is now running faster before the final turn, and this lessens the AP a bit.

That being said, I’m not the only one who has had issues with the game length, and the designer has released an addendum to the rules to shorten the game by one or two seasons.  You essentially just get a little bit extra in setup to mimic what you might have gotten in the first one or two rounds and then you play out the rest.   https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/235335/now-or-never-shorter-variants   (This is similar to the way we shorten one of the longer games that I love, The Colonists – you skip the first of four eras and simply get a few buildings as if you had played that first era…)   It’s still not entirely clear to me whether you need the first 2 rounds.  You get more money and a few villagers to start with, but you also lose two entire rounds worth of building time – and that’s hard to make up.  You almost need to have different goals in mind when you are playing the short game as the setups are not exactly equivalent.  Maybe it all washes out in the end because you won’t spend actions trying to gain villagers in the first round or two, and just focus on building?  In any event, I think it’s useful to know that there are some official variants.  I will probably settle on the 5 round compromise…

The components are mostly great.  The artwork on the board and character boards is great.  The cards are easy to read with easily identifiable icons.  The enemy chits are a bit small, but I just have to take off my glasses to read the small print.  The only thing component-wise that I’m not a fan of (mentioned above) are the huge chits used for resource tracking.  They don’t stack well, and they can be easily bumped.  I’m tried using polyhedral dice that I have lying around to track the amounts of things that I have, but that didn’t work out so great.

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For now, I line them up underneath the board, which keeps me from bumping them, but I am afraid i’m still making errors when I move them left and right…  Sigh.

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See, is that shell a 1 or a 2?

The only other issue with the game is its table presence.  It looks gorgeous on the table.  But man, even for just a two player game, you might have to move to the dining room table AND put in the leafs that normally only come out for Thanksgiving!  OK, maybe not that severe – but this game requires a lot of real estate – so you might want to do a test setup on your table before you bring it out for a full 4p game.

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So far, the game has been intriguing, and I look forward to playing it more.  Unless the time of the multiplayer game comes down, this may be a game that gets played more solo.  (Though the 4 round shorter version may make this possible!)  Even if I only play this solo, that might not be a bad thing given the way that each character has different things to do in each space.  You essentially get four full campaigns in the box then, as you can play the story books through with each of the four characters.  Admittedly, there’s almost zero chance that I’ll have enough time to do that – but it’s a good way to describe the replayability in the box.

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If you’re looking for a game that also has a story, this might be the game for you.  If you want a game that you can play in a story/quest mode, this might be the game for you.  If you want a game that you can play solo (thanks a lot, Covid!), this might be the game for you.  For me, this one will be in the gaming basement for a bit longer so I can continue to explore the world of Now or Never.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • 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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