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.

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