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Elysium

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Space Cowboys/Asmodee, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60 minutes; $59.99)

elysiumtfAmbition is a powerful force. When you are a human being, it can be the drive that moves you up the corporate ladder or shoots you to the top in political circles. But when you are a demigod with designs on claiming a spot on Mount Olympus, you are entering some really serious territory. And that is the premise of the new game designed by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert: Elysium.

To rise to Mount Olympus, players need to gather the support of families. Eight families, represented by cards, are found in the game but only five (specifically or randomly chosen) will participate in any one session. The bottom of each family’s card is color coded so you can easily tell which family (suit) the card belongs to.

Every player has a “board” used to hold accumulated Victory Points and gold (and, if a certain family is in play, Prestige counters). More importantly, the board acts as a divider between a player’s “Domain” (the area above) and his Elysium (below). There is also a Temple which will hold Quests. For the first turn, turn order is determined randomly with all players starting with 5 gold and VPs equal to their turn order. Everyone also gets four columns, one each of red, blue, yellow and green.

The five decks of families chosen are shuffled together and a bunch of them (3 times the number of players plus 1) are displayed in the center of the play area (called the “Agora”). The four Quests (denoted as 1, 2, 3, 4 with 3 or 4 players or just 1 and 2 in a two player game) are placed in the Temple. In each round (an “epoch” in game terms), a player must make four “buys”: 3 cards and 1 Quest. Buys may be made in any order but precisely 3 cards and only 1 Quest may be bought, one item on a turn. To buy a card or Quest, a player needs to use his columns and this is one instance where planning pays off.

elysium2All Quests and cards have a cost noted by a colored circle (or two). To buy a card or a Quest, a player MUST have column(s) of that color present on his board. So, for example, if a card shows red and green circles, a player must have both the red and green columns on his board to take that card. After making the purchase, a player must then DISCARD ONE of his columns. The discarded column may be ANY color and need not be one used to make the buy. (So, in the above example, the red or green column could be discarded but the yellow or blue column could be discarded instead.) Purchased cards go into a player’s Domain (but you can never have two of the same card in your Domain at the same time) while a purchased Quest goes next to that player’s board.

All cards have a power. They may grant you more gold or Victory Points. They may grant you bonuses for acquiring certain cards. They may impact on other players. These powers are explained at the bottom of the card and icons used on the card explain when a power may be used. Some are permanent (as long as they remain in your Domain), some must be used immediately, some may be used once a round, some may be used once at a time of your choosing etc. Quests determine turn order (as well as grant VPs and/or gold and/or “transfers”) and can be critical. But what happens when you don’t have the necessary color column to buy a card or a Quest? That will cost you.

If unable to make a buy for a card, a player, in its place, draws the top card of the draw deck and places that card, face down, in his Domain. That card is considered a “Citizen”. Citizens have no “powers” but they do have certain useful abilities. If you can’t buy a Quest, the Quest you choose flips to its back. Rather than getting multiple gold, VPs or transfers, ALL Quests so chosen only give you 1 gold and 1 transfer. This can be a killer in creating valuable and all important sets in the next phase: “Writing the Legends”.

Once everyone has made their purchases, players receive the rewards of their chosen Quest. These may be gold or Victory Points. More significantly, they give you the power to make “transfers”. A transfer means bringing a card in your Domain down, below your board, into your Elysium. This is important because this allows you to “Write Legends” and this will be your major source of Victory Points.

A transfer is a money spending operation. All cards have a certain level, ranging from 1 to 3. Each transfer costs, in gold, the level of the card being transferred. So, for example, a level 1 card costs 1 gold, a 3 card costs 3 gold. If you have a Citizen in your Domain, you may transfer a Citizen. Citizens act as “wild cards”. They may join any type of set and the cost of their transfer is the same as the number value of the card it is duplicating. (So, if you are using a Citizen as a 2, its transfer costs 2 gold.)

elysium3The purpose of doing a transfer is to try to complete sets of cards: either a set of cards in the same suit of values 1, 2, 3 and/or a run of cards of the same value (all 1s, all 2s, all 3s) in all five suits. Partial sets will score partial VPs but if you are first (or second to complete) a 1-2-3 run, you will score bonus VPs. For runs (all 1s, 2s or 3s), the first player to put 2 of these together gets a bonus which is kept until another player creates the same run with more cards in which case he claims the bonus tile. (This continues until someone does a 5 card run which cannot be surpassed.) While Citizens can be useful in this regard, their use is restrictive and can be costly. A Citizen may only join a set of at least 2 cards and each Citizen in your Elysium at game’s end will force you to LOSE 2 VPs!

At the end of the fifth and final epoch, points are tallied. To VPs gained during the rounds, players score for sets amassed in their Elysium. (All cards left in Domains are discarded; sets of less than 2 cards in an Elysium are discarded as well). After deducing 2 VPs for each Citizen in the Elysium, the player with the highest total has ascended to Mount Olympus and relishes victory!

The artwork of Elysium is beautiful and aptly captures the essence of Greek gods and goddesses. The colors used are well chosen (color-coding the bottom third of the card makes set identification easy) and the level numbers are very large and easy to see. Which makes the choice of typeface used to describe a card’s powers a puzzler. Despite the importance of the cards and their critical role in every move, the typeface used is inordinately tiny! In some games, artwork dominates a card so that the type is left to be squeezed into any space that remains but that is not the case here as the artwork doesn’t spill over into the text area. The game does provide a very useful glossary of card powers and helps address any questions about card abilities. Card type size is not a deal-breaker but it is something that should be addressed when a second printing of the game is done.

Because only five of the eight families of cards are used each game, there is an opportunity to inject variety into Elysium. For example, with the Apollo family is in play, the Oracle appears. (This allows players to see which cards will be available in the NEXT round, a bit of future forecasting). If the Ares family is used, another avenue for scoring is introduced via Prestige Points. Prestige Points add to the endgame scoring as players will get VPs for having the most or second most (or third most etc.) amount of PPs.

Elysium is a two-tiered game. The first tier, and the most intriguing aspect of Elysium, is the use of those columns. This simple device is compelling, forcing you to plan ahead so that you can A) determine which cards have the most advantageous powers for you to use, B) which cards will help you complete sets, C) the costs of cards on the table, D) which columns can be safely sacrificed so you can get the cards – and Quest – you need. But it doesn’t stop there. You also have to be alert to which items are most attractive to your opponents. You have to decide whether to go for what works best for you or grab something to weaken your opponent. These are not always easy decisions. The second tier is managing your gold for those crucial transfers.

Transfers cost money. Gathering up gold and matching them to transfers is a balancing act. It can be heartbreaking to have enough transfers to complete a set but not enough money to make it happen. Likewise, you can be swimming in wealth but reduced to but a single transfer leaving sets unfinished and your dreams of victory unfulfilled.

Elysium is not a difficult game to learn. But the challenge of juggling the use of your columns wisely, knowing when and which cards/Quest to choose, handling your resources to maximum effect combined with the excellent graphics (barring the tiny type) and the ability to vary the families in play to keep the game fresh and different, all join to make Elysium an atmospheric and satisfying blend of both style and substance.


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