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Helios

Reviewed by: Pevans

(Z-Man Games/Hans im Glück, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; $64.99)

heliosboxHelios, designed by Martin Kallenborn and Matthias Smith, is the latest from Hans im Glück (Z-Man is doing the English language edition) and stood out for me at the Gathering because of its bright cover – with lots of yellow to match its sunny theme. Let’s take a closer look.

Each player gets two small boards of their own. The first has a hexagonal grid and is where players will put tiles to build up their land. In traditional style, each type (colour) of hexagonal land tile produces a specific resource (a wooden cube of the corresponding colour). Players may build a temple on a tile (placing a white wooden building piece on it) so that the tile produces victory points instead. The other thing that goes on this board is the yellow wooden disc that represents the sun. A key mechanism in the game is moving your sun around the outside of your land tiles (the game is clearly set in a different universe!). At the end of its move, the tiles next to the sun produce resources (or points). Each board also has a track to show how far this player moves their sun and a space for the ‘mana’ (nice red glass stones) they collect.

The second board shows a city with a collection of interesting buildings (the same for each player). Each building has a cost (in resource cubes), provides a bonus (such as increasing how far you can move your sun or some mana stones) and scores points (at the end of the game). Clearly, players will look to complete buildings, both for the tactical bonus they provide during the game as well as the points they are worth at the end. However, the order in which players build them will depend on how useful the bonus is and what cubes they have.

Helios is played over a number of rounds, depending on the number of players, with the actions in each round limited by the rectangular action tiles available. These come in four colours and three types. Players take a tile, carry out the action according to its type and add it to their collection according to its colour (the grey tiles being wild). If a type of tile is running out and you want to take that action, it becomes more urgent of course. However, you may be stymied if you need to do other actions first. This provides part of the game’s tension.

Importantly, players get a bonus action whenever they have four action tiles of the same colour. This can be any of the three standard actions (see below), regardless of what action tiles are still available, and then they discard the tiles. Making the best use of your extra actions is a key part of the game. And, ideally, you want to have used up all your action tiles at the end of the game. Because of this, the tile you take depends on its colour as well as which action it lets you do.

Helios_SzeneI’ve already mentioned one of the three actions: moving your sun to gain resources and points. The second is building: spending resources to complete a building in your city or to add a temple to your land. You place a building piece when doing this, either as a temple or to mark a city building. The third action is adding a hexagonal tile to your land. Each round there’s only one of each colour available, plus a random extra tile. Again, if you want a specific tile, you may need to grab it early while it’s still there. Land tiles come with a resource cube on them, so expanding your land is another way of gaining resources. In fact, I’ve found that moving your sun isn’t always useful (for example, tiles that already have resource don’t produce again – unless you’ve built the building that lets you have two cubes on a tile).

As well as land tiles, there are also some special tiles that provide bonus points for the tiles or spaces adjacent to them at the end of the game. On top of this, some of the spaces on players’ boards provide extra resource cubes, mana stones or points if a tile is placed there. From my experience, I’d say these are the more out-of-the-way spaces, giving players a trade-off between the bonus and efficient expansion of their land.

Once all the available action tiles have been used for the round, players get a chance to buy or activate ‘characters’. In turn they can buy one, with mana stones, and/or activate any they hold by expending the appropriate resource cubes. Players keep doing this until they all pass, so it’s possible to buy and activate several characters in one round. However, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to afford more than one or two at a time.

Activated characters bring in extra points at the end of the game – generally for things players are still holding – and most also provide an immediate bonus – extra resources or increased sun movement. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to win without having any active characters, but it’s certainly much harder. I also recommend buying characters early as this gives you time to build up your stock of whatever the character scores points for.

There is a bit of housekeeping between rounds, then the first player marker moves on and the next round starts. After the appropriate number of rounds players tot up their points and whoever has the most is the winner.

There’s nothing hugely innovative about Helios, but it’s a nicely put together package. The various mechanisms interlock nicely and players have to balance what they’re doing. Hence, they have some significant decisions to make in the course of the game. Having said that, the game is more tactical than strategic as players’ options each round are quickly limited by what’s still available – resources, actions, buildings and so on. It plays in not much more than the 60 minutes given on the box and definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome.

I have played Helios a few times now and I’ve enjoyed it each time. Although designers Martin Kallenborn and Matthias Smith have produced a good middleweight strategy game with some neat mechanisms, for some reason, it just doesn’t grab me. Though I don’t feel any great need to play it again, I’m perfectly happy to play it if someone puts it on the table as I do appreciate its tactical subtleties. For this, I give it 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.


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