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Mythotopia

Reviewed by: Pevans

(Treefrog Games/Asmodee, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 60 minutes; $49.99)

mythopiaBack in 2011, Martin Wallace and Treefrog Games published a very clever wargame, A Few Acres of Snow (featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). This is a two-player game of British and French conflict in North America through the first half of the eighteenth century (and a game I still play, mainly online at yucata.de). The central mechanism was inspired by Dominion (Winter 2009 GA Report) with players’ actions driven – and limited – by the cards available to them. The immediate question was whether this could be extended to a multi-player game.

Three years later and we have our answer in the form of Martin and Treefrog’s latest, Mythotopia. This is a 2-4 player game of empire building across a fantasy land using the same core mechanisms as A Few Acres of Snow. In fact, the rules suggest that players familiar with A Few Acres of Snow may only need to read the two-page rules summary at the end of the rulebook before playing. I have to say that I had to go through the full rules to feel comfortable that I knew what I was doing.

The basic mechanics of the game are straightforward: in turn, each player takes two actions, powered by their available cards. They then re-fill their hand with cards from their deck. When they run out of cards to draw, they shuffle their discards to make a new deck. Players score points for the provinces they control and for other specific actions (such as defeating a dragon!), taking the appropriate chips. This continues until enough chips have gone and one player declares themselves the winner. Yep, the only way the game finishes is when somebody explicitly claims the win at the start of their turn! This is a really clever idea. But I’d better start at the beginning.

The box contains a mounted board, playing pieces and, of course, lots of cards. The board is a map of the land of Mythotopia, divided into named provinces. Each shows a type of resource, its defence strength – if no player controls it – and whether it’s “rugged” terrain. There are also hills and mountains between some of the provinces. In the standard game, players have nicely illustrated, thick cardboard playing pieces in their chosen colour. The limited edition has chunky wooden pieces, adding a tactile element to the game.

The cards are the heart of the game and can have multiple uses. Most cards have symbol(s) in the top left corner and can be played to provide what’s represented by one type of symbol: resources (Food, Stone or Gold), Armies or Ships. Some cards have text, setting out what they do. For example, a “Build” card allows the player to construct a road, castle or city – though they’ll also need the right cards to do so.

Players start with a standard set of cards (including a Build card) to which they add a random assortment of Provinces. There’s a card for each province showing the resource produced there and players gain the cards as they conquer provinces. Provinces are also worth three victory points each, giving each player the same starting score. The initial cards are players’ starting areas and they place town markers in the provinces. This is a deliberate feature of the game: players start with provinces scattered about the board. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few provinces close together, providing a good base for expansion. The luck element is another feature of the game and ensures players have different challenges each time they play.

As well as their starting cards, a selection of “Improvement” cards is available for players to draft. These provide additional actions and resources. There are several types of card: “Action” cards require an action to use while “Free Action” cards don’t and “Benefit” cards are used with an action to boost it. “Reserve” cards have a permanent effect but only once they’ve been added to a player’s reserve. Any card can go into reserve though the size of players’ reserves is limited. From there, they can be played in a subsequent turn in addition to or instead of cards from hand. This is a very useful way of, in effect, increasing the size of your hand but it does cost an action to add the cards.

mytho3So, taking an Improvement card is an action and adding cards to your Reserve is an action. Invading a province is another, obvious action for players to take. However, this does not give the invader control of the province, it just starts a war. Ending the war is a separate action – and must be the first action in a turn. Thus you invade on one turn and have to wait for your next turn to win – always assuming the defender hasn’t added reinforcements. This can go on for several rounds if both players have the right pieces and cards to play.

The important thing to note is that players are constrained by the cards in their hand (and reserve). You may want to defend a province under attack but there’s nothing you can do if you don’t have the right cards. Similarly, to invade in the first place you need the right cards: an adjacent province, a food resource (an army marches etc) and armies. You place as many armies as the army symbols – if you have enough army pieces. That’s the other constraint: players start with a certain number of army and ship counters and can only gain more by taking the appropriate action and buying them with gold symbols.

The way to win at Mythotopia is to have the right cards at the right time. Or, to look at this the other way round, the cards in your hand (and reserve) determine the right actions to take each turn. This makes the game very tactical: what you can do each turn is dictated by what’s available, not by any strategy. The strategic element is provided by managing your deck of cards so that you are more likely to have the right cards to do what you want. Thus there are actions to discard cards from your hand and to remove cards from your deck. Province cards are particularly annoying in this regard: they have just one resource symbol, so they’re not very useful, and they clog up your deck. Strategically, what symbol a province provides is an important factor in deciding where to invade. And taking the right Improvement cards can be crucial.

Returning to wars, these are won by having more strength than your opponent, counting armies, adjacent ships and castles (for the defender). Or just the defence strength if it’s a neutral province. A successful invasion means the attacker takes over the province, placing their town counter, taking the province card and gaining points on the scoring track. If another player controlled the province, they lose the card and the points and take back their town. Both players take back the armies involved. Thus taking a province off another player is a big swing in the two players’ relative scores.

This covers the meat of the game. Players must manage their cards and playing pieces, using them to take provinces and increase their score while keeping in mind how this will affect their deck of cards. At the same time, they need to keep a careful eye on their opponents, making sure none of them is in a position to win on their next turn.

What I haven’t mentioned yet are the sources of victory points other than provinces. These are provided by another set of cards. At the start of the game seven of these victory point cards are laid out. Three of these are standard, appearing in every game. They give players points for building castles, cites and roads. Each of these constructions has an effect on game play too. Castles add to the defence of a province. Cities replace town markers and increase the size of a player’s reserve. And roads connect two provinces, allowing players to use the card for either province in place of the other and to move armies between them.

mytho2The other four victory point cards are drawn at random and provide other goals for players. For example, the “Dragons” card means that Dragon pieces are placed in random neutral provinces. They increase the defence strength of the province but give players victory points if they succeed in invading. Alternatively, the “Lord of the Isles” card gives players points for controlling one of the islands on the board. However, the number of points from each card is limited. After drawing the cards, the appropriate number (and value) of victory point chips is placed on them. When players achieve a goal, they take a chip from the card. Once the chips have gone, there are no more points to be scored for that goal. Thus, there are five Dragon counters on the board but only three two-point chips to be won. The other significance of empty victory point cards is that nobody can win the game until all the chips have gone from at least four of the seven cards. Thus, a player cannot win the game simply by taking an early lead and claiming victory immediately. Mind you, it’s up to the other players to make sure no one capitalises on an early lead to dominate the game!

From my experience, each game starts the same way: with players grabbing Improvement cards. After all, once they’ve gone, they’re gone and it’s clearly an advantage to get first choice of the cards. I’ve no doubt that analysis will show some of the cards to be ‘better’ than others. So far the only thing that I can say is that, in the games where it’s been available, the player with the “Reserve Army” card has won – though it’s been a close call.

After this, it’s a question of building up your position on the board and managing your deck (which is the bit I – still! – find tricky) to be in position to claim the win. While making sure that no one else can do so. And here’s the rub. Playing with analytical gamers who are intent on making sure that no one else is in a position to win, I can see that the game could go on for a long time. It hasn’t happened in the games I’ve played, but my group is still learning the game.

I am enjoying Mythotopia but it does have the usual issues of a multi-player wargame: if one player is attacked by more than one opponent, they will lose. And the player who stays out of the fighting and picks up the pieces will win. (This seems to be the effect of the “Reserve Army” card in a three-player game as it means the other two players can only attack each other.) When players are aware of this, it makes for a slow, cautious game where the winner will be whoever makes the fewest mistakes rather than having the best strategy. In its defence, there are other ways of picking up victory points. However, controlling provinces is the main source of points, so nobody can afford to ignore this part of the game – and it is a wargame, after all. I’m also baffled by the odd infelicity in the game’s design. For one thing, the scoring track runs from 12-68 along just two edges of the board. The other two have a decorative border, so why not a 0-100 scoring track around all four edges? Okay, players start with at least 18 points (depending on the number of players) and may not drop below 12, but why not use those other two edges? And avoid having to have a special rule telling players what to do if their score is below 12.

Quibbles aside, Mythotopia is an interesting game with some clever features that I have enjoyed playing. However, I can only give it 7/10 on my highly subjective scale. Despite my aversion to two-player games, I have to say that, so far, I still prefer A Few Acres of Snow.


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