Res Arcana board game: A four-sided game review

Res Arcana* is an engine-building board game (well, largely a card game) for two to four players that takes about an hour to play.

The game was designed by Tom Lehmann, of Race for the Galaxy fame. My favourite game. No pressure then. It’s listed for ages 12+, but gamer kids as young as 10 should be OK with it.

In the box you’ll find 64 cards, 150 wooden tokens, 14 small cardboard boards and a few cardboard chits. It’s all beautifully laid out in an almost clever insert. Annoyingly, half the bits escape their moorings if you hold it on its side. But component quality is high, with shaped wooden pieces and good cardboard and card stock. And the pentagonal lidded tray for the wooden pieces is great, helping make setup a doddle.

It’s just a shame the bog-standard fantasy theme does nothing to inspire. You’re all pretty poorly drawn mages using the elements to conjure powerful spells… I think that’s enough of that. But generic theme aside, it feels like good value for the £30-ish you’ll pay for it (Res Arcana was released in 2019 and is easily available at time of writing).

Teaching Res Arcana

At its core, Res Arcana is a standard engine building card game (use your turns to generate resources which you then use to buy better things). But it’s the twist that maketh the game. Teaching will be a doddle for anyone used to engine-builders. And its short enough a new gamer can muddle through and be ready for the rematch. Especially as the iconography largely makes sense and is pretty intuitive.

Anyone brought up on Race for the Galaxy, Terraforming Mars etc will be on familiar ground during setup. You’re dealt two mages and keep one. You’re also dealt eight ‘artefact’ cards, so you can see how they (hopefully) synergise while choosing your mage. So far so every game, right? But here’s the twist. Those are the only cards you get dealt all game. Put your chosen mage on the table face up and shuffle the eight artefacts into a draw deck. Draw three, and you’re ready to play.

Artefacts cost 0-9 resources to play into your tableau. The majority give you an income (resources), a way to get/exchange resources/cards, or both (as does your mage). When you look at your cards at the start of the game, you plan how you’re best going to score points. But of course, those pesky other players may be having the same ideas. There is a small amount of conflict in the game, but very much on the periphery.

The game usually ends on the round someone hits 10 points, giving Res Arcana nice drive and tension. Most points come from claimable goals: five ‘Places of Power’ and 10 ‘Monuments’. Places of Power cost around 10-15 standard resources, while all Monuments cost four gold (the rarest resource). Places are available from the start (and double-sided doe replayability). Two Monuments are dealt face up, or you can buy the top one of the draw pile as a lucky dip. Once a goal is claimed, its yours and yours only.

Monuments are worth 1-3 points each but are plentiful (those worth less also have an ability). Places of Power often start being worth less points but can be powered with resources to be worth a lot more. A tight engine paired with the right Place of Power can get you all your points from one source. While another player may get a few artefact points, a few Monuments and a Place of Power. Either strategy, or one in between, can work. The key is making the most of what you’re initially dealt.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: During Res Arcana, each player holds one of eight ‘magic items’ they trade for another at the end of each round. Think bonus tiles in Terra Mystica. These give you a way of accessing abilities your deck may not have, allowing a little more flexibility. For example, one lets you draw an extra card (you only get one card per turn, so you may not even see them all otherwise); while another allows you to turn basic resources into gold. Also, unwanted cards can be discarded for a few resources – opening up more interesting options.
  • The thinker: I thought I’d like this one, but in the end there was just too much luck and not enough flexibility. As strategy is front-loaded, a player with a better hand or lucky deal can beat you to your target Place of Power. This would be OK in a game with more options, but here there’s rarely enough variety to then pivot to a new plan. Even though the game has maybe just 4-6 turns, you can feel after two or three that your own challenge is over. Those constraints I thought I’d like can become frustrating, insurmountable obstacles.
  • The trasher: Dragon artefacts offer a little direct interaction. Once played into your tableau you can use them to attack, but they do nothing but take a few resources – and can be easily countered. Frankly, they feel tacked on. The real interaction and tension comes from scrapping over Places of Power. But there’s little you can do to stop a better engine than yours, due to the lack of interaction. And with lower player counts, you’re unlikely to be aiming for the same goals anyway. But despite this I enjoyed the game as a fast-playing tactical puzzle.
  • The dabbler: I didn’t really enjoy this one. It was OK, but the theme is unimaginatively tacked on – made worse by the average art (no cliche was left unflogged). I get it in a game with hundreds of cards, but this has less than 100 images. I’d rather have a card type art-free, so more could be spend making the important ones really pop. Beyond that, I didn’t feel there was enough payoff for the number of rules and symbols you have to fight through. This is a race puzzle for euro game fans, which is fine – it’s just not for me. A complicated Splendor, if you will – but I’m happy with the original.

Key observations

Where KeyForge is Magic: The Gathering with the deck-building ‘chore’ removed, Res Arcana moves half the cards from those personal decks and makes them contested instead. It’s a niche that needed filling and the game mechanics generally do it well.

But due to the front-loaded strategy, some say the game gets ‘on rails’ about half way. Claiming a game this short ‘grinds’ seems harsh, but if you’re out of it by then (and you can be) it can get frustrating – even if only for 10 minutes. There’s no denying the lack of hidden information makes the game state easy to parse. Which will be seen as a bug by some and a feature by others.

Replayability is a concern. After a few games the randomness of the draw can be replaced with (included) drafting rules. And the flip-sides of the Places of Power step things up a bit too. But as someone who enjoys Res Arcana, I’m already resigned to the fact it’s a ‘once a month’ pick, rather than a regular. It’s a hard line to walk. Sure, you want players to quickly become familiar with cards to efficiently plan. But not at the expense of the game getting samey quickly. Something needed more variety. Splendor works well because the game is more in the race. Here, less so. An engine-builder needs more options to really sing.

Monuments and the gold strategy feel unbalanced. Only two of the 10 mages, one of eight magic items and less than 10 artefact cards let you get gold. Especially with four players, where you may be locked out of the Places of Power entirely, this may be your only way to get points. If it’s not open to you, you’re screwed. On the flip side, if you get a gold-friendly mage the monuments route will likely be free of competition – while you can still easily go for Places of Power too.

Conclusion: Res Arcana

I’ll draw a vague comparison between Lehmann’s Race versus Res and Rosenberg’s Agricola versus Caverna. Race and Caverna are for players who want to see where fate take them, building a tableau as the game develops. Res and Agricola instead front-load these decisions, putting much more emphasis on your initial decisions. I enjoy seeing a game evolve as I roll with the flow. So while I have a strong fondness for both Rosenberg games I only own Caverna. If I want to play one of them, either will do.

I’ve found a place for both Res and Race on my shelves. While Res Arcana has a similar feel, it scratches a different itch. I can see myself reaching for one or the other in different moods. Res won’t hit the table as often as Race, and already feels as if it needs expansions. But all my friends have enjoyed it and I’m sure it will get enough plays to warrant it hanging around.

But I’m left with as many questions as answers. The number of cards you receive and the way you get them feels just right, as if really well tested. But the Monuments and Dragons especially feel half-baked. Artefact cards work well, but of the 40 in the box many are extremely similar: just the same card for each resource colour. Places of Power seem well balanced, but why always five? It’s too many with two and not enough with four. Its as if they simply ran out of time. But ultimately the good outweighs the bad and I look forward to seeing what they ‘fix in post’ via expansions.

* Thanks to Sand Castle Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a review copy of Res Arcana. Click here for more of my board game reviews.

Top 10 strategy board games

If you’re in the market for a strategy board game, you’ll soon find there’s a lot to choose from. Where once you had a choice of Risk or, well, Risk, there are now literally thousands of great board games to choose from. But don’t worry – my top 10 strategy board games guide is here to help.

A few disclaimers. First, I’m talking board games rather than just card games. Secondly, I’m talking proper strategy, not just tactics (where you react to a given situation). For a game to be considered strategic, you need to be able to come up with and execute a long-term plan. It may not work, or get scuppered, but you must be able to plan ahead.

But that still leaves loads of scope. Below you’ll find games lasting from under 30 minutes to more than three hours. You’ll find abstract games alongside war games, as well as themes from history to sci-fi and fantasy (and, erm, trains). Hopefully something for everyone. Think I’ve missed something? Get in touch in the comments below.

Finally, this is meant largely as a guide for those who don’t already have a large games collection. I’m going for what I consider the classics here, rather than leftfield picks, so expect a lot of top-selling, tried and tested and in-print games from the hobby market. And they’re not in ‘first to last’ order – more in accessibility order, if anything.

(All links are to full length reviews elsewhere on the site. Most of the games should be available from your local friendly game shop, or online stores such as Meeples’ Corner)

Top 10 strategy board games – lighter games

Enchanted Tower
Children’s games aren’t known for strategy, but this is an exception. It’s a one-against-all game where one player hides a key and has to go get it – but starts many spaces further away than the other players. The others spread out and look for it, working together to search. Both sides must use strategy, while the game is beautiful and has fantastic components. (ages 5+)

Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is a simple set collection game with the addition of a board – and some strategy. You’re collecting cards to lay train routes, aiming to complete secret route cards. But there are bonus points for most connected trains, and efficiency in route-building is key. Highly accessible, it has sold millions and is suitable for families. (8+)

The current king of abstract strategy games (beyond the classics). It has won every award going since release and deservedly so. Beautifully produced with simple rules, its a highly interactive 2-4-player game. Spotting key tactical advantages is key, but repeat plays start to reveal longer term strategies. (8+)

Another award-winning family/gateway game million-seller, Pandemic is fully co-operative. Working together you try and stem the spread of four diseases across the globe. You act tactically to deal with hot spots, but also need to think long-term to eradicate the diseases. Not tried a co-op game? This is a great place to start. (10+)

1906 San Francisco
Give me one leftfield pick? Ta! I reviewed this recently, marvelling at how much game was packed into such a small box (about the size of a paperback). Actions are quick and simple to learn, but a mix of hidden and open objectives lead to multiple strategies. You can also choose to score fast and end things quickly or play the long game. (10+)

Top 10 strategy board games – heavier games

Classic ‘euro games’ usually blend tactics and strategy well and this is one of the finest examples. You begin by tactically spreading your empire across Europe. But as the board takes shop, you must secure the scoring cards best fitting your end game strategy. Gorgeous, simple to learn but hard to master.

Terraforming Mars
While Concordia includes a small amount of ‘engine building’, Terraforming Mars takes it to the next level. Your unique starting organisation gives you impetus, but you must then build a tableau of cards that will see you succeed in your goals. Rich and deep, it offers a thematic experience while remaining relatively simple to learn.

Star Wars: Rebellion
Thematic games can often be a let-down for strategy fans, relying on simplicity to shift units and pay for the licence. But Star Wars: Rebellion offers the first three movies in a box, with a great (if complex) strategy/theme mix. Tolkien fans should seek out War of the Ring for a similar, but more hobbity experience.

Twilight Struggle
Traditionally war games were blighted by impenetrable tables, buckets of dice or both. But they’ve moved on. Another award-winner and best-seller, Twilight Struggle is the Cold War in a box. Two-players go head-to-head playing cards to influence the world’s nations. A fascinatingly tense history lesson (with, admittedly, a few dice thrown in).

Through the Ages
And finally an epic. This historical euro game takes you from ancient times to modern as you build your own civilisation. You’ll want to set a good 3-4 hours aside, but what a payoff. Build wonders, replace leaders, fight wars and see your empire construct everything from the pyramids to space rockets. And possibly MacDonalds…

Squirrel: Kickstarter board game review

Squirrel Kickstarter? Sure, I don’t usually do this sort of thing. But the designer reached out about this little pocket children’s game and it simply charmed me. Better still, he sent me a review copy to take a look at. And while I’m not going to do a full review, I thought it deserved some love.

Squirrel is on Kickstarter right now until April 11, 2019. At time of writing it had doubled its goal (over £2,000 of a £900 target), so will fund. A pledge of just £12 will get you a copy of the game, which will be £15 later at retail. But don’t delay – it is only up on Kickstarter for less than two more weeks.

Squirrel has charming components

Each copy of Squirrel is made by hand. The cute little box, the 18 cards/tiles and the rule sheet. Only the two cute little wooden squirrels are crafted in Germany. There’s no plastic in sight, while the card for the box is recycled.

The only issue I had was with the cards themselves. It’s lovely that they’re screen-printed and also on recycled card. But they’re going to get a fair bit of use and may not stand the test of time. They’re also not easy to shuffle and handle. Designer Tom Sudall has acknowledged this and future editions may be factory made. But for the environmentally conscious, or those happy to get a piece of art, it works.

Simple game play

A game of Squirrel takes two players about five minutes, or 10 with the rules. Simply lay out the 18 cards in a two-deep three-by-three grid, green leaf side up. Each player then puts their squirrel on a pile, and the game begins.

On a turn, simply move your squirrel to an adjacent pile and then take any top card adjacent to its new position. The reverse of the card will either have a brown leaf, or a number of brown acorns (1-3). Acorns good, leaves bad. Also, once you have three cards in hand, you must drop one when you grab a new card – brown side up.

This means you may have to drop an acorn. If a player then lands on said acorn, they can choose to take a random card from your hand rather than the ground – which is going to be an acorn. It’s a small but smart piece of interaction that balanced the blind draw luck a little bit. The game ends when there are only brown leaves/acorns face up. A smart thematic touch, showing the forest going from summer to autumn.

Squirrel Kickstarter pros and cons

While my friend and I were charmed by the production, we got nothing from the game. For gamer adults there’s too much luck and very little strategy. But we’re clearly not the target audience. So, she took it home to play with her daughters and the youngest (eight) in particular loved it. So much so that the next day, she was sitting playing it alone. She’d made up her own (unfathomable) solo rules.

The girls loved the theme, loved the changing of the seasons, loved the squirrels. It was a hit. You really are foraging. And it really is portable. The box is roughly 3x2x1 inches and weighs next to nothing. You could easily play on a train or plane fold out table. Or on a spare bit of table in a restaurant while waiting for your food (boooooring). And the luck is going to balance out over multiple plays.

If this sounds like its ticking a few boxes, do go check out the Squirrels Kickstarter. Its cheap, ethical and hand-crafted. And fun for kids. Enjoy!

Click here to browse my full length board game reviews.

Friday feelings: Twilight Imperium – different edition, same mistakes

I recently watched the Twilight Imperium (TI4) documentary (Space Lions) with a mixture of wonder, sadness and frustration. It was nice to see the Shup Up & Sit Down guys turn their clear talent for content creation away from their opinions (shonky at best) to ‘real’ tele. Bravo, chaps – seriously professional job. But boy, did it lift the lid on what (many people presumed) happens over at Fantasy Flight Games.

Having played TI3 a few times I was interested to see what would change in this new edition. But as I watched the game’s history play out, right back to first edition prototypes, I lost all hope. And looking at comparison videos of the new edition, those fears were confirmed. History is, once again, repeating itself.

I believe TI4 is more streamlined, a little shorter, a bit more accessible etc. But two tragic things struck me as a I watched. Firstly, how insular this firm really is. And second, how that seems to be stunting the game; and the company’s ability to fix mistakes it is making again and again.

Twilight Imperium: Testing with the wrong people?

In Space Lions the developers state, proudly, they have a dedicated fan base ready and willing to test new editions of the game. Which seems a strange brag, as one of the first things I was told as a designer (and still pass on now) was this. Asking your friends’ opinions about a prototype won’t get the answers you need. They like you and they’re not experts. What you need is people who will be critical, preferably from a wide range of design perspectives.

So, what we end up with in Twilight Imperium, over and again, are Groundhog Day style bad moves. And I’m not talking about ‘theme’. I love the fact each race has a backstory and the universe has rich and detailed lore. I’m talking game play and design – and really basic stuff. White text on black cards. Tiny fonts. Lack of useful iconography. Terrible overuse of language, both on cards and in the rules. There are so many more.

But they have that core audience that thinks ‘experience’ first. They happily make house rules to fix the game’s problems. They don’t mind playing a game for 10 hours, where they in fact only did a few things that influenced the actual winning of the game. And when presented with a new version, they don’t notice the basic flaws (that put the rest of us off) because they’ve gotten used to them in previous editions.

The best of all board game design problems

But ultimately, why would Fantasy Flight care? Its other properties make many of the same mistakes: Arkham Horror, Fallout, Discover etc. But they all sell in their thousands. It’s doing enough right to keep its core audience happy, and that core audience is larger than many. So, I expect we’re doomed to see more of this going forward. Or are we?

It was refreshing to see Fantasy Flight release an incredibly streamlined product last year with KeyForge. Here it went outside its usual design/dev pool to Richard Garfield: a man who knows his onions when it comes to simplifying the game experience without losing depth of play. Easy rules, great use of iconography – everything made sense. I’m surprised he wasn’t laughed out of the building!

Here’s hoping Fantasy Flight Games will recognise this chink in its armour and exercise a bit more basic design savvy on its bigger properties moving forward. It wouldn’t lose anything from what it has now, so what’s not to like? I love the occasional game of Eldritch, or Fallout, or Mansions of Madness. But I could, and would love, to love them so much more.

1906 San Francisco: Board game review

1906 San Francisco is a light-ish one-hour euro game for two to four players. While listed for ages 12+, young gamers of 10 (and maybe lower) should be able to grasp it.

You get a lot of game in a small package. In the 18x11x4cm box (think paperback book) you get: three small boards, 24 cardboard tokens, 32 wooden buildings, 98 cards and a glass year marker. The quality is perfectly reasonable, the iconography easy to follow and the artwork average. And while the cardboard tokens could’ve been a bit bigger, everything is perfectly usable.

In terms of theme, you each play a developer helping rebuild San Francisco after a devastating earthquake and fire. But in truth there is nothing tying the game to that historical event – you could up-sticks the game into any other city. Or space ship. Or Middle Earth, etc etc. Yes ladies and gents, this is another largely theme-free euro.

Teaching 1906 San Francisco

While 1906 San Francisco is a simple game to play, you do need to front-end the rules explanation. But for experienced gamers this should only take 10 minutes or so.

Players will see seven action areas – six cards and the starting area (on the year marker board). After getting income from the start area, the player furthest to the right in the area (who subsequently got least money) moves onto a spot on the first action card and does an action. Each other player then does the same, moving onto the same action card but into a different space on it (also taking an action).

Usually a player will do the action in the space they move to, but you can pay money to do a different action on the card. This is expensive, and money is often tight, but it is worth it sometimes. The worst actions tend to be nearer the right of each card, because progression continues the same way. Whomever is in the right-most spot on this card, once everyone has had a turn, will move first onto the next action card.

Actions in 1906 San Francisco are straightforward. Collect houses; collect cards relating to building plots; then build houses on the plots by spending the cards. Additionally you can collect money, clear rubble/complete urban developments (for bonus points), or take extra scoring cards.

To build quickly, you need a single building card matching the colour/number of a plot. Alternatively, you can use two cards (one with the right number and one the right colour). When using two, if they have matching urban development symbols (each building cards has two of four symbols) you get a bonus. Some plots still have rubble on them, which costs money to clear. But doing so again gives bonuses, while potentially helping with scoring cards.

The game ends either after six ‘years’ (so about 40 actions per player) or when someone builds their eighth building. You get some points for bonuses mentioned above, plus leftover money, but the majority come from scoring cards. Each player starts with a secret card only they will score, while three cards sit face up from the start of the game that everyone will score. And you can pick up more throughout, either face-up (so your opponents know what you’re going for) or blind (lucky dip, but they stay secret). Most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’ve spoken before on how I don’t think variety equates to variability. But 1906 San Francisco is a great example of how you you can add a little replayability simply by reorganising a few cards (in this case the action cards). It doesn’t make games hugely different, but adds enough to take plays into double figures without breaking sweat. But the real trick was squeezing so much euro game into such a small box. It hogs lot of table space, but for travelling its the perfect way to pack a meaty game into a small amount of luggage.
  • The thinker: While this is a solid euro game, there isn’t much on show for fans of heavier games. Luck of the draw can sink you easily, both in scoring and building plot cards. And while you can concentrate slightly on different ways to score, you’ll all be doing pretty much the same thing. Being able to draw random scorecards is fine for this level/length of game, as it is in say Ticket to Ride. But it can make a bit of a mockery of what happens elsewhere if you flip some lucky combos. However, it beats most small box games hands down and I’d be happy to play it again.
  • The trasher: While 1906 San Francisco is very much a puzzley euro game, I did enjoy it. While you don’t directly mess with each other, the fact you’re competing on scorecards helps. Also, you can look to see what your opponents need and mess with their plans by taking spaces they need. Sure, they will usually still be able to do it – but they’ll have to pay. While some of the components are annoyingly fiddly, you can just about see what everyone has around the table. And it’s a fair price to pay for the small box size.
  • The dabbler: I was a bit worried as the rules were being described for this one – they seemed to go on and on… But once we started playing, I was surprised at how straightforward the game was. While its neither pretty or thematic, the theme does make sense in terms of how the game flows. And you only have to play a single year (six actions) to understand how the game works. While each round is essentially the same, it does have a bit of an arc. More scorecards makes you think about scoring differently, while the decreasing range of plots makes finding the right building plots more difficult.

Key observations

1906 San Francisco is a little fragile (no historical pun intended). Getting a great run of luck can occasionally lead down a path of obvious decisions and easy victory points. Is this a design flaw? I see it more as the product of lighter euro/gateway games that is pretty much a feature of the genre, not a flaw.

But more work could’ve been done balancing these scoring cards. Some are simple to score 8-10 points from, where others you’ll struggle to reach 4-5. But in most games each player will have enough cards that the weak and strong should balance out.

Keeping track of scorecards – your own, the public ones and those of your opponents – can become a problem. In a four-player game you could easily be looking at 20+ scorecards between you. Parsing that much detail is daunting, even when the iconography is pretty good, which can lead to AP. But even with a slow player or two, this shouldn’t really overstay its welcome. And most players won’t play this game seriously enough for this kind of play to develop.

Colours can be an issue though. Blue and green are pretty similar at the best of times and, often represented by thin lines here, they can cause a problem even for those with great sight in good light. It’s a shame too, as they got the player colours right (blue, orange, black and white). On the plus side, the number of problematic components is limited so should be easy to point out once then remember.

1906 San Francisco: Conclusion

So, should I overlook these points for a game that costs around £20 and will fit in a large coat pocket? For me, the answer is yes. If the game were in a bigger box, it may have blended in with other euro games and failed to make an impact. So while it may not stand out on theme, or mechanisms, size this time is everything.

It’s annoying more work wasn’t done on balancing the scorecards, while a simple graphic change could’ve solved the colour issues. So yes, the game could’ve done with more polish. But it joins a select group of titles that are genuinely small box and of euro complexity. It will definitely be staying in my collection and – in that small niche – comes highly recommended.

Find many more of my game reviews here.

* I’d like to thank Looping Games for providing a copy of 1906 San Francisco for review.