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Arcanum

Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

(Lo Scarabeo, 3-5 players, ages 10 to adult, 45 minutes; $59.99)

 

arcanumArcanum, from Lo Scarabeo, is the new game from Andrea Chiavesio and Pierluca Zizzi, released in Essen 2011. I really like Andrea’s designs starting from Kingsburg, one of the greatest dice games ever (and featured in the Spring 2008 Gamers Alliance Report), down to last year’s release Olympus. This time, Andrea has changed co-designers joining with Pierluca Zizzi. Pierluca and Andrea have quite different design styles but the result of the mix isimpressive. Lo Scarabeo is the greatest Italian Tarot publisher and Arcanum is the first boardgame they have released. Perhaps not surprisingly, the core engine of the game uses a tarot deck with the major arcana being special event cards and the minor arcana deck being the true engine. The materials, the illustrations and the quality of the cards are top level.

Players represent different paths of Fate moving the destiny of four noble houses which are represented by four Tarot suits: Chalice, Pentacle, Wands and Swords. The game lasts six or nine turns, with a scoring phase at the end of the third, sixth and ninth turn. A typical game last six turns but I really suggest playing the full nine turn game since the nine turns allow the game to develop in a more satisfying way with a minimum increase in playing time. Actually, the only things that change from one “phase” to the next is the cards you have in your hand at the start of the phase: a random assortment the first one and the ones you preserved in your hands from early phases in the later phases. The choice, in the end, is between playing a two stage or a three stage match.

The well illustrated map board depicts the city with 10 areas, numbered from 1 to 10, highlighted by a circle and special icons. The city, including the Mage Tower, the Castle and the Throne Room, has a sort of medieval fantasy setting with the theme well realized in the graphics of the city and the tarots. Still, the game is actually a well designed and solid “German” game.

Players use the minor arcana cards from the Tarot deck to move “court figures” on the map, trying to increase the prestige of a house. At the same time, they bid on one or more houses by hiding a single minor arcana every turn. The court figures moved on the map are actually chess figures: the pawn, the horse, the queen and the king. Tarots and chess – the designers seem to have heavily tapped into the classic game world.

arcanum2During your turn, you draw cards (three minor arcana or one major arcana) and play a single minor arcana and, if you like, a single major arcana. Playing a normal card (1 to 10) means that you have to move a figure of that suit into the city location identified with that number. Playing a figure card (King, Queen, Knight or Knave) means you have to move that exact figure into the location you want. This offers a huge amount of possibilities. Of course, the cards in your hand somewhat limit these possibilities but are enough to set and play a good strategy. Since you can decide to play in a specific area (using a normal card) or just move a specific figure wherever you want, you can plan your moves with a certain degree of freedom. The suit of the card you play will get 1 point of prestige.

What makes the game really challenging is that, each turn, you also have to hide a minor arcana that will be used for scoring purposes. Of course, if you hide a Chalice, you will try to make the Chalice get prestige but that means you have to use a Chalice card during the playing cards phase. Is it better to use your figure cards to move figures and get prestige for the suit? Or just hide them, poised to earn the highest score? The 10 city areas offer different prestige bonuses depending on which figure and/or suite you are moving in. Some areas, like Mage Tower, will offer a prestige bonus to a single suit (Chalice, in that case). Other areas, like the Ballroom, offer prestige bonuses to specific figures (Kings and Queens in that case). Some areas make you draw extra cards, others allow you to hide more cards or get extra victory points and so on. The four suits are not perfectly symmetrical. For example, you can get 4 prestige points moving a Sword Horse in the Castle or a Wand Knave in the Artisan District but there is no equivalent possibility for Chalice or Pentacle.

During the scoring phase, each player scores points according to the prestige of the houses and according to their bids. Whoever hid the highest number of cards for each suit scores the most points for that house. Ties are broken in favor of the player who hid the card(s) with the highest value(s). The player with the second most cards in a suit gets half points and the third half of the second. The suit with the highest prestige suit gives 16-8-4, then 12-6-3, 10-5-2 and, finally, 9-4-2. That means that bidding on the winning suit is the right road to victory. On top of the brilliant and elegant mechanic is the major arcana, actually a set of 21 cards with special effects that can drive your strategy or simply be used to break other players’ plans. Apart from the special abilities conferred by some locations, you usually hide three cards prior to each scoring which means that you have to plan your moves with care, trying to bid on houses with high prestige and trying to understand what other players might be bidding on.

After each scoring phase, the hidden cards are discarded and the prestige of the houses are brought back to zero. Arcanum is much more tactical than strategical. Actually, as mentioned, you play three games (or two games if you are not playing the full version) in a row. Of course, having the possibilities to preserve your hands between one game and the other lends to a bit of long-term programming. To play well, your strategy requires you paying attention to what you are doing while also keeping an eye on what other players are doing, trying to guess which suits they are hiding and bidding on.

I really like Arcanum. Of course, it is not a thematic game at all but it is solid with innovative mechanics that is light and flows well while still being intriguing and challenging. The use of the Tarot is brilliant! I think the game will really get a good response from gamers and, because of its use of well known objects (chess figures and Tarot), Arcanum could also score well with families and occasional players.

 


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