Reviewed by Herb Levy
AURA (Breaking Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 20-40 minutes; $25)
Card games are a revered staple in the world of games. Generally, they fall into certain types: matching and memory games, deck-builders (pioneered by Dominion) all the way up to sophisticated trick-taking games most notably Bridge. But card games are given a twist as colors come into play in a different way in this new game designed by Michael Orion: Aura.
With Aura, each player has an identical individual deck. There are five colors (suits) in the game and the cards show their colors front AND back. On one side, though, the cards are numbered from 1 to 8 with 1 “wild” card in each suit and 5 special cards, each unique to a specific suit. All card play is self-contained; cards are not taken and collected. Instead, they CAN be and WILL be removed from play – and that’s the goal of the game.
Players draw a card from their decks and high card becomes the active player. Now, all players shuffle their decks, place their Aura cards on the bottoms and draw starting hands of 8. (Decks are NEVER mixed. Your deck is your own.) With the idea of making the other players lose cards, the active player plans his attack.
The active player may play 2 to 5 cards. These cards are placed face down so only their colors are seen. Played cards must either be all of the same color or all different colors. Now, the other players must decide how to block them.
Against the attacking cards, each player may play as many (or as few) cards as they wish, one card assigned to block a played attacking card. Attacks may be blocked in two ways: by playing a higher valued card of the attacking color (ties go to the attacker) OR by playing trump. Unlike other games, trump is not fixed. Rather, trump is determined by color with red trumping purple, blue trumping red and so on. (A play aid card is included that shows the trump “cycle”. Be aware that although turn order goes clockwise, the cycle goes in a counter-clockwise direction on the card. Additionally, the trump color of each card is shown on each card too but that can be a little hard to recognize.) On the other hand, the attacker may create – and take advantage of – chains.
Chains are created when an attacker has two or more cards showing the same number. Cards need not be next to each other. If only one card in a chain is unblocked, it is as if ALL cards in that chain were unblocked. So, for example, a chain of three cards (even as lowly a value as 1-1-1) where a single one of them is not stopped will inflict THREE card loss damage even if the other two cards ARE stopped! Each color has one Wild card. A Wild card can be used as ANY number from 1 to 8; a potentially significant advantage in creating chains, particularly as the number a player wishes to use for a wild need not be declared until ALL attacking and blocking cards are revealed! Each player’s cards are resolved individually (for the most part) and “unblocked” cards force that player to lose that amount of cards from his table display, his hand or from the top of his draw deck into his discard pile. This basic play is enhanced by the five specials in the game.
Each suit has one “special” card. When played, these specials count as a “9” when resolving blocks but also have an effect that skews the rules.
The Block card when played on Defense successfully blocks ALL attacking cards regardless of color or number!
Double means that the number of cards lost by an opponent are DOUBLED! (Even if more than one of these appear in a round, only double the amount is lost. There is no “multiplier” effect.)
A Trade card allows you to go into your discard pile and exchange that card for one there (which can impact on a block/unblock situation).
Return allows you to return a card played to the table back into the hand of the player that played it!
Finally, there is Reverse which does just what it says: all blocked cards are now considered UNBLOCKED and vice-versa. This can be a godsend if you find yourself with a hand devoid of high cards or required trumps. However, if two are played, they cancel each other out! As in so many games, timing is everything!
If the attacker fails to have at least one player lose at least 1 card, he may attack again but no one replenishes their hands. Even if unsuccessful a second time, the next player becomes the attacking player for the next round.
Once all cards are resolved, cards remaining on the table get returned to the bottom of the respective players’ decks and everyone replenishes their hand, drawing up to five cards from their draw deck but never exceeding a hand size of eight. As cards are drawn, the Aura card initially placed at the bottom of every player’s deck will surface. The first time it does, it is again placed at the bottom. The second time it appears though, the game is over. The game can also end when a player can no longer draw cards from his deck to refill his hand. At either point, all players count the cards held in their hands and still in their decks. The player with the most cards (and, hence, the highest score) wins!
Card quality in a card game is important and the quality here is quite good. The colors used are bright and easy to discern which is always a plus. The numbers used are very stylized, however, so be careful you don’t confuse the number 2 with the number 8. The backs of the cards have a “line design” which helps you keep the decks from being inadvertently mixed but the design is very subtle so be extra vigilant on this,
Aura is described as a “casual strategy card game”. While not as deep as Bridge, for example, or its reported inspiration Magic, the Gathering, the game is not as casual as you might think. This game is very abstract in its presentation (no semblance of theme will be found here) but there is a lot of think and double think going on, particularly as it relates to the playing of the specials and the second attempt by an active player on his turn to take advantage of “limited intelligence”.
Players KNOW what colors players are holding but they do NOT know what particular cards they are. To narrow the possibilities, you need to keep alert as to what cards have already been played. This becomes even more significant when the active player fails to force anyone from losing cards and gets to try again. As mentioned, this second try is done without replenishing hands. A shrewd player can bleed the hands of the opposition dry, setting them up for significant card losses the second time around. A timely play of a Double can make this extremely painful. In fact, calculated use of the special cards (Trade to retrieve a valuable but spent card, Return to create havoc in another’s player display etc.) can make the difference between winning and losing. But it should be noted that adding these powers can create some chaos. The rules suggest, and we concur, that initial play should be done without the specials until players feel comfortable with the game mechanisms
Aura is an atypical card game as it explores a different way to use cards. As such, it is colorful and engaging with some clever touches from Michael Orion, who, if this is any indication, is well on his way to a colorful game designing career. – – – – – – Herb Levy
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