Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Hitting the Table: Elysium

So last week, I told you I was going to talk about Elysium. And here I am to carry out that threat.

Elysium is a divine-themed tableau builder that uses the Greek pantheon as its inspiration. Where Deus is a light game, Elysium requires quite a bit of reading and juggling various abilities.

I'm afraid I don't have a bunch of awesome pictures of Elysium, because card games are oddly difficult for me to photograph. I'll supplement with pics from BoardGameGeek as needed.

Deus isn't strongly tied to its theme. You could very easily peel the gods out of it and throw in a different theme - it's not sacrificing to Neptune, it's investing in your trade infrastructure, for example.  That won't work with Elysium, because every card in the game ties back to one of the deities in some way.

At the start of the game, players will have four pillars on their board, along with a bit of money and a few victory points. There are cards tied to eight different gods in the box. Choose five gods for your game (we usually pull bonus tokens out of a hat). This means that every game will likely feature cards you haven't seen before. Shuffle those five small decks together to form one deck for play. Turn a variable number of cards face-up (it depends on the number of players).

Players then proceed to draft cards. Or turn order markers (more on this in a bit).

In Deus, you needed to keep track of multiple resources in potentially sizable quantities. In Elysium, you have no quantities to keep track of. You only need to keep track of four pillars. You'll gain victory points and money (and possibly prestige, if Ares is in play).

Each card has a bunch of information on it.  Here are three cards from the Hades deck:

Photo by Brett J. Gilbert
In the upper left is the rank of the card and a symbol telling you which god's family these cards are from.  Ranks range from 1-3, and there will be five gods in each game. In the upper right is the pillar (or pillars) you need to have available in order to draft the card.  The left-center is a symbol that tells you when and how the card's ability is triggered.  Finally, in the "text box" has symbols that tell you what it does in both symbol form and in text.

Each round, each player will draft three cards and one turn order marker. When it's your turn to draft, you can also activate some of your cards (depending on their timing). To draft a card, just choose one in the available draft pool and place it above your player board (an area called your "Domain"). Then discard one of your pillars. Note here: If I draft the left-most character in the above picture, I need to have my yellow pillar available, but I can discard any pillar. I don't have to discard my yellow pillar, I just need to have it.  The turn order markers are similarly tied to pillar colors - you can only draft what you have.  

It's possible that you won't be able to draft because you only have your yellow pillar and all of the cards require blue or red. If this happens, you draft a "Citizen," which is the top card of the deck, drafted face-down. Citizens are kind of a mixed blessing.

The turn order markers that you'll draft also have three symbols on them. There is a gold coin representing money, a harp representing "transfers," and a laurel wreath representing victory points.  Once everyone has collected all four items that they're going to collect that turn, players move their turn order indicators around, and the new first player moves into their transfer phase.

To transfer, you pay money equal to a card's rank, and move it from above your player board to below it - an area called your "Elysium."  Cards in your Elysium can no longer use their special abilities, but cards in your Domain are worth no points at the end of the game.

Every time you transfer a card to your Elyisum, you also add it to a set called a "Legend."  There are two kinds of Legends - there are Level Legends and there are Family Legends. One of them is cards from different families but which have the same rank, and one of them is cards of the same family that are different ranks. The different sets are worth different amounts of points, depending on how full they are.  There are also bonus points available for the largest rank-based set and being the first to complete a 1-2-3 set of a single family.  You can use citizens in your sets, but they are worth -2 points at the end of play. It's not a huge number of points to lose, but losing a close game because you had too many citizens can be heart-breaking.

That's the gameplay in a (crazy-simplified) nutshell.  Here's the thing, though: This game is complex. There are five or six different times and ways that cards in your Domain can activate, ranging from "triggers as soon as you draft it and never again," to "tap to use, untap during the transfer phase" (they don't phrase it like that, mind you), to "always-on effect." Each of these has their own symbol in play.

Also, each set of God cards plays differently. Apollo, for example, gives you the Oracle (a preview of the top of the deck for the next drafting round) and cards that interact with the Oracle. Ares gives you another way to earn victory points at the end of the game. Hephaestus makes it easier to earn money. And so on and so forth.

Balancing your actions is tricky, too. Because you need to transfer cards to get points to win, but some cards are too valuable to transfer. And you also need to have enough transfers and the money to pay for those transfers ...

And the game runs for a total of five rounds. That's twenty turns per player. Players who know what they're doing can be done in half an hour (with four players), so it's fairly quickly-playing.

It's a surprisingly deep game. I won't say broken strategies don't exist, but I haven't found them, yet. 

I think that this is one of the deepest tableau-builders I own. 

7 Wonders is a fantastic game, but there's not a ton of depth there until you start adding expansions - and those tend to focus strategy more than add depth. Also in 7 Wonders, cards played are effectively dead - they don't do anything (with a small handful of exceptions). In Elysium, every single card in your tableau has the ability to do something. It's possible to have multiple cards trigger on a single draft, for example.

Deus has cards triggering later in play, but they trigger in a predictable order that doesn't change. When I build a blue card, I know that all of my previously-played blue cards are going to trigger in order, and I usually know exactly when I'm going to do each time. I also have a hand of cards that I can hold onto and play when I want to play them. And I've only played one game of Deus in which we didn't reshuffle the draw deck at least once. In Elysium, the draft mechanism means that I won't necessarily know what's going to be available each turn. I also don't know which characters will appear in a given turn, so it requires a greater degree of adaptation. And you won't go through the deck multiple times unless something's gone very weird.

I'm a huge fan of this game, but it's a game that I can't bring to the table with easily-frustrated players, and casual gamers won't do well. It's also worth noting that knowing what's in the various decks is powerful.

But with experienced gamers, I pull this one out as often as I can. It's really that good.

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