Reviewed by Herb Levy

WITCHES OF THE REVOLUTION (Atlas Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 30-60 minutes; $39.95)


History has always been a fertile field for game ideas. An offshoot of that is alternative history, where the “what ifs?” of the past are explored. But sometimes, an alternative narrative can slip into the fantastical – and that’s what happens when the history of the American Revolution is rewritten with a supernatural flair as covens of witches (!) seek to aid the American patriots in their fight for liberty against England in the aptly titled Witches of the Revolution

As designed by M. Craig Stockwell, Witches of the Revolution is offered as a cooperative, deck-building game. Players begin with their own individual but identical set of 15 cards which represents their “coven”. Remaining “witch cards” are shuffled to form a Recruit deck which is placed on the board with three revealed. A 40 card “Events” deck is mixed and placed on the Event Draw Pile space. The Moon and Liberty Track markers go on their starting positions, charting the power of the witches and the tug of war between Liberty and Tyranny on their respective tracks. There are four types of Objective cards and one of each type is randomly chosen and placed on the board (with the denoted number of magical icon tokens placed underneath each). If players are able to meet those Objectives, they will win. After everyone has shuffled their deck and drawn a hand of five cards, a first player is chosen (randomly or by plan) and the players’ attempt to reach those objectives begins. 

First, a new Recruit is drawn and placed on the board. (If there is an empty space on the Recruit track, cards are moved down to fill up the track. Otherwise, the card at the end is pushed out and put in the discard pile, “banished” and permanently out of the game. Once the Recruit deck runs out, it is NOT replenished. At that point, no more Recruits are available.) Then, an Event card is drawn. Revealed Events go into effect immediately – and they are not good. They might force players to lose cards or restrict actions in some way.) 

The first thing the active player may do is Recruit a card. Cards in a player’s starting deck consist of 15 “Seekers”. These witch cards display two “magic icons” as well as an (identical) “ability” and a “star” value. (In the case of Seekers, the star value is 1.) From the three card display in the Recruit row, a player may spend cards from his hand to buy one. Cards generally cost 1 or more stars to purchase. (Based on their position in the Recruit row, a card may cost less than their indicated price.)  Cards used in the buy are “banished” and are out of the game. Cards bought go right onto the TOP of that player’s draw deck (so, when cards are drawn, this new card will be part of that player’s hand next turn). It is always good to recruit cards if you can because all of these new cards are more powerful than the lowly Seekers. Recruitment is followed by Act. 

Act means trying to overcome an Event, particularly if that Event results in an ongoing negative effect. Most events display two different cost options in magical icons. (Some require any type with the amount based on the number of players!) Through card play, the players need to meet or exceed the number and type of icons to remove the Event from play. The active player may play any number of cards from his hand. As this is a cooperative game, other players may chip in with cards of their own BUT each other player may contribute only ONE card and only ONE icon from that card (no matter how many may appear) counts toward the necessary total. Cards played to overcome an event go into the respective player’s discard pile. (Exception: Relics, more  on them below, when played can use all THREE of their icons in defeating an Event but these are one time use cards. Once used, they too are banished and removed from play.)

When defeated, that Event card is removed from its position on the Event track and players gets to take ONE magic token of the type shown on the card from the Objective with the matching token. These tokens are kept by the player and may be used in place of or in addition to icons on cards to defeat Events OR to reduce the cost of recruitment of a witch card (at the exchange rate of 2 tokens per 1 star).  Manage to remove ALL of an Objective’s magic tokens and you have achieved that Objective and immediately reap its reward (such as removing an Event WITHOUT Overcoming it and more!). Overcoming Events is not always easy. Fortunately, the special abilities of your cards to help.

The special ability of Seekers is that they allow you to “Act” a second time on a turn. The more powerful cards have more stars and display more icons that the Seekers; they also have different abilities. The Dedicant allows a Seeker to be played WITH it in attempting to overcome an Event (negating that 1 card restriction), the Celebrant allows another player to contribute TWO icons from a single card when trying to overcome an event. Stewards may be “banished” at a player’s discretion (and removed from the game) in exchange for any icon from any Objective. Relics are free for the taking and may contribute all THREE of its icons in an attempt to overcome an event. Blessings seeded into the deck (one in each third) provide a helping hand to players allowing them to freely claim an Objective tile, draw an additional card, recruit for free or NOT draw an event on a turn. 

At the end of the turn, the active player may discard any number of cards from his hand and draw back to a full hand. (Unless specified otherwise, a full hand size is five cards.) But this is where it gets tricky. 

Unlike traditional deck-building games where you are encouraged to cycle through your deck as quickly as possible so more powerful cards surface more frequently, Witches of the Revolution makes you pay a price for that. Every time you shuffle your deck, the Moon marker rises on the Moon track (symbolizing the “draining of power” of the witches as the moon wanes). As this marker rises, the number of additional icons needed to overcome an event rises too! This can (and usually) requires the use of more cards (or the utilization of those hard won and precious Objective tokens) which tends to accelerate the need for further deck reshuffles. That’s bad enough – but that’s not all!

Some Events display a Liberty Bell or Flintlock (aka Peril) which come into play as Events not yet overcome slide across the track as new Events appear. As these particular Events advance further down the Event row, they will trigger unpleasant results. Although overcoming a Liberty Bell Event will move the Liberty marker two spaces UP the Liberty track, an undefeated Liberty Bell Event that manages to survive and move along the Event track will force the Liberty Bell marker further DOWN the track towards Tyranny (as well as placing further restrictions on recruiting). Perils that advance will remove potential Recruits from the game!

Play continues until either all four Objectives have been met (which results in a victory for all) OR the Event cards fill up the specified spaces on the track (depending on the number of players) or the Liberty marker falls onto the Tyranny space (in which cases, all players lose!)

Graphic quality of the game is quite good and atmospheric (the skull & crossbones motif on the back of the Event cards, as seen in the photo above, gives you the idea). And speaking of the Event decks, there are 8 “suits” (marked with small icons) with 10 cards in each with five of each suit always combined to make the Event deck so that you are assured of a balanced appearance of magical icons throughout the game. Half of these cards, however, are deemed “hard” (marked by “blood spatters”!) so you can use all easy Events or all hard Events or mix them up per your preference. The insert is well thought out as there is a place for everything which makes setting up (and breaking down) the game relatively easy. References to actual historical events and people juxtaposed with the supernatural (“Cure Paul Revere of Lycanthropy” or “Resurrect Benjamin Franklin”, for example) add to the fun.  

Although offered as a deck-building game, it would be more accurate to view Witches of the Revolution as a deck-STRENGTHENING game as deck size tends to decrease as the game unfolds but its power and abilities increase. The game surprises in another way too.

In the early stages of play, defeating Events is not that difficult and you tend to be lulled into overconfidence, thinking this game is easy. WRONG! The challenge rapidly accelerates as more player decks are shuffled, more icons (to overcome Events) required and fewer Recruits available. Maximizing the special abilities of your coven to deal with the rising tide of misfortune is essential. Fortunately, the difficulty level of the game can be adjusted by choosing Events for the deck, increasing the number of Blessings mixed into the Recruit deck and allowing for reshuffling without a negative effect. You can add or subtract these variations according to taste. 

Although the American Revolution is the cornerstone of American history, Witches of the Revolution slyly turns history on its head by referencing actual historical events with a mystical, fantasy slant. Despite any misgivings about this unusual marriage, this concoction actually works! The game is challenging with enough differences to separate it from the deluge of deck-builders clamoring for attention on game shelves. On several levels – card deck construction, theme, historical flavor and cooperative play – Witches of the Revolution casts a compelling spell.- – – – – – – Herb Levy

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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