Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
XENON PROFITEER (Eagle-Gryphon Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, 30-45 minutes; $29.99)
I must admit that the theme of Xenon Profiteer did nothing to entice me to try the game. Science was never amongst my favorite subjects in school, and I had a strong aversion to chemistry. Indeed, I somehow managed to escape high school without ever taking a full semester of it. So, a game that involves distilling the chemical element Xenon (Xe) from a variety of other natural air elements generated about as much interest in me as a root canal.
Still, try it I must, and this was one of the most pleasant surprises I have experienced in gaming in a long time. Xenon Profiteer , designed by T.C. Petty III, is a deck-builder in the fine tradition of Dominion, but simpler and faster. Still, it has some very interesting elements (pun intended) that continue to intrigue me and makes the game feel different than the recent spate of deck-builders.
Players assume the roles of entrepreneurs attempting to extract Xenon to fulfill lucrative contracts. Each player begins with a central console that lists the phases of a player’s turn, five bid tokens and a measly $3. Further, each player’s initial deck of cards is assembled with ten cards consisting of two packets of air (two each of nitrogen, oxygen, krypton and Xenon) and two upgrades: Feed and Reflux. These cards are shuffled and a player draws five into his hand.
Two lines of cards are formed on the table, one for contracts and one for upgrades.
As in Dominion and most other deck-builders, players attempt to utilize their hand of cards optimally, accomplishing their goals and hopefully fulfilling contracts. To do this, players must isolate their Xenon cards from the other elements, hopefully discarding those elements back to the general supply and out of their decks. To accomplish this, a player follows three steps during his turn:
Distill. The four elements are ranked in order: nitrogen, oxygen, krypton and Xenon. During this phase, a player may remove all cards depicting the top-ranked element in their hand, returning these cards to the general supply. If after doing this the only remaining element in a player’s hand is Xenon, he may set those aside into “cold storage”, ultimately to be used to fulfill contracts.
For example, if a player’s hand consists of two nitrogen, one oxygen and two Xenon, he may distill the nitrogen, leaving him with one oxygen and two Xenon. Since he still has oxygen in his hand after removing the nitrogen, he cannot set the Xenon aside. If he had a way to also remove the oxygen (Upgrades), he would then be able to set aside the Xenon.
Air or Wipe. A player may choose one of these two actions. Air allows the player to take one each of the four elements, placing them into his discard pile. This is the primary method to acquire new Xenon, although it must ultimately be distilled in the manner described above. The player also receives $2, which is a major source of income. The Wipe action allows the player to flush either the line of Contract or Upgrade cards and replace them with four new cards. Any cards marked with players’ bid tokens may not be wiped. More on this in a bit.
Buy or Bid. Again, this is a choice. To Buy, a player purchases one of the displayed Upgrades or simply takes one of the Contracts. Each Upgrade depicts two prices. If a player pays the higher amount (full price), he is able to immediately install that Upgrade into his factory, placing it tothe left of his console. If he pays the lower amount, the card is placed into the player’s discard pile, and he must wait until the card makes its way into his hand before he can use its ability. Once it does appear in a player’s hand, he may pay the balance of the full payment to immediately install it.
Once an Upgrade is installed, its power may be used every turn during the appropriate phase. These abilities can be quite useful, so obtaining Upgrades is extremely important and can help make a player’s distillation process more efficient. Some Upgrades allow the player to distill additional elements during their turn, which helps isolate Xenon quicker. Others will provide money when distilling certain elements, while others will give victory points or reduce the cost of fulfilling contracts. There are also some that give end-game victory points if the conditions listed upon it are met. There are a wide variety of benefits, offering players numerous options on how to tailor their factory and pursue their strategy.
Instead of an Upgrade, a player may use the “Buy” action to take a Contract card. There is no cost for taking a Contract (unless it has one or more opponents’ bid tokens upon it), which is immediately placed to the right of a player’s console. A player may only have one unfulfilled contract at a time. In addition to some atmosphere-inducing flavor text, each contract lists the type (entertainment, medical or government), the amount of Xenon needed to fulfill it, and the victory points earned, which ranges from 1 – 5. Of course, the Contracts requiring more Xenon tend to earn more victory points. Contracts are the main source of victory points, and once a player completes five, the end-game is triggered. A Contract is completed once a player has accumulated the required amount of Xenon. Many Contracts provide immediate benefits when filled (money, bonus actions, etc.), and all provide victory points at game end.
Choosing Bid allows the player to place a bid token on one of the Upgrade or Contract cards on display. Multiple players can have tokens on a card and a player may have multiple tokens on a single card. If a player purchases a card with bid tokens on it, he must pay $1 for each opponents’ token present. He does, however, receive a $1 discount for each of his own tokens on the card. Bid tokens can be useful in reducing the cost of a card, or driving it up for an opponent.
Once a player completes all phases, he may decide to discard unused cards from his hand, or hold onto them for the next turn. In any case, he draws back to his hand limit of five (this can be increased if a player purchases Pipeline Upgrades) and his turn ends.
One other option a player has comes at the beginning of his turn. Before taking any other action, a player may decide to work Overtime. Overtime alters the normal turn phases, allowing the player to take Air twice (two cards of each element). However, after doing that, he may only place or move two Bid tokens. He may not Distill, Buy or Wipe. He may, however, shuffle his discards back into his deck, which can prove useful in getting desired cards back into his hand quicker. Working Overtime is a handy method to acquire more Xenon than normal, but a player may not work Overtime two consecutive turns.
The game approaches its end once a player constructs five Upgrades or fulfills five Contracts. That player then has a choice: take the 3 victory point token, or give himself one more turn after all other players have another turn. Normally all other players receive one more turn, but the player triggering the end game does not get another turn. So, if the triggering player feels he can earn more than three points on his final turn, he should exercise that option. Otherwise, the 3-point token is more beneficial
Once all turns are complete, players tally their victory points, earning points from their Contracts, Upgrades (usually 1 point per Upgrade), Pipelines and money (1 per $5). A typical game plays to completion in less than 45 minutes.
There are two expansions included, one adding special player powers, while the other provides incentives to fulfill certain types of contracts. Both add additional features without much complexity.
As mentioned, Xenon Profiteer falls squarely into the “deck-building” category. Most mechanisms will feel quite familiar to players of Dominion, Ascension and other deck-builders. Still, it has enough unique elements and features to give it a distinctly different feel. The process of having to remove cards from one’s deck in order to isolate the card that can be used to earn victory points is different and challenging. The Upgrades provide methods to personally tailor one’s factory (engine) to help make this process more efficient and profitable. Choosing which card to buy on a turn can be tough, as there are usually numerous enticing options available.
The designer and developers have also done a very good job of evoking the theme. Upgrades are appropriately named (“Vapor-Compression Refrigeration”, “Pressure Swing Absorption”, “Expansion Turbine”, etc.), as are the Contracts (“UV Sterilizers”, “Xenon Chloride Excimer Laser”, etc.). All have a bit of factual information that explains the component and its benefits. Even for a non-science oriented guy, this is interesting and appreciated.
While I – and perhaps many other gamers – are a bit weary of the deck-building genre, Xenon Profiteer is a refreshing addition. It is fast, fun, interesting, challenging and different, a good combination of features. Don’t let the rather technical and scientific theme deter or scare you. The theme fits and is actually quite interesting. One actually gets the feel that you are distilling Xenon, albeit in a far more simplistic and easy-to-understand manner than in reality. For that, I am especially thankful! – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser
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