Matthew Dunstan, Brett Gilbert
2 - 4
14 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

You have done this before in games: gather heroes, artifacts and demigods to your side to help you win the game. But there is something different about Elysium, the Kennerspiel 2015 nominee by Matthew Dunstan and Brett Gilbert, because usually you don’t intend to kill them off for your own glory. But that is exactly what you do, and with the name Elysium that shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Elysium is the high-class, five-star Greek afterlife for heroes and relatives of the gods, people who couldn’t be expected to share the space in Hades with common folk.

As a demigod yourself, you need the help of heroes and the like to secure your spot on Olympus. Those guys are incredibly helpful, with many special abilities you want to use during the game. But ultimately, no one tells tales about the living, and so those helpers of yours have to die to become part of your legend. And to give you victory points, because the gods lack imagination and a simple scoring system is the best way for them to keep track which of their children should join them on Olympus. That’s the big dilemma in Elysium: you want to keep your cards – heroes, artifacts and so on – alive to useĀ  their abilities. But you also want to kill them off, because that way they are worth points. However, you can only kill a few of them in each of the five rounds, so you want to start their heroic sacrifices early, before everybody else’s legend becomes to big for you to compete.

Once in a game
Once in a game

To start with, you have no cards at all. That simply won’t do, an aspiring demigod needs an adventuring party, and so each round you will recruit three cards to aid you. Those cards come from the so-called Agora, an open supply of cards that is refreshed every round and holds three cards per player plus one. To take cards from here, you use your four columns, small wooden columns in green, red, blue, and yellow. Every card has a price given in those columns, most need one, some need two. Only, and this is an important detail, it’s not really a price. You have to still have the right columns to take a card, afterwards you have to discard one column. But that column need not be one of those required for the card. You can take a card with red and green and then discard the blue column. I screwed myself over more than once by discarding a column I could still use because I forgot I can discard another. So repeat after me: you can discard any column, no matter what card you took. Probably I will still forget it, so you better repeat it again, just to be sure.

Now you have a card, what do you do with it? They have different types of abilities. Some have an immediate effect when you take them. Others can be activated once per round, in addition to your regular move, or exactly once, and some have a permanent effect. All of them have in common that they can only be used while they are in your Sphere, meaning still alive and lying above your player board. Only very few still have an effect when they are in Elysium, below your player board. Mostly those award extra points when they appear in your legend.

What exactly a card does depends on the god it belongs to. Eight of the Greek gods are represented in Elysium, but in any one game you only play with five of them. The gods participating in the game have a huge influence on how the game feels and what are effective strategies.

Heracles, the greatest hero
Heracles, the greatest hero

Zeus, for instance, is a powerful and very direct god, his cards mostly let you take victory points without putting cards into Elysium. A simple one, like the Garden of Hesperides, awards you two points as an instant effect. Another, Initiation, can be activated every round for an extra point. And then there are the big ones, like Heracles. He lets you take one victory point for every three victory points you already have. Getting him when you’re already playing a heavy Zeus strategy is like nectar and ambrosia raining from heaven.

Then there is Poseidon. Remember Poseidon from the Odyssey, where he prevents Odysseus from going home for years? Yeah, he’s an ass, and he’s an ass in this game, too. His cards rarely do anything good for you, instead they do bad things to everyone else. How about a Tidal Wave that costs every other player one coin, or a Cyclops that takes two gold or a card from them? And that’s not the worst of them. Poseidon is not the god of making friends.

Compared to Zeus and Poseidon, Hermes seems a much weaker god. And on his own he is, his cards let you use an immediate effect or one time effect of your cards again, sometimes even of cards already in your Elysium. Now, remember that Heracles card form above? When you manage to activate it three times thanks to Hermes, that’s enough points to win the game without killing anyone. Just this once, everybody lives.

Hephaestus only really cares for money. Most of his cards are different ways to get rich quickly – and then there’s Sacrifice that lets you exchange coins for points, another way to score big without any deaths.

Hades, as lord of the underworld, has a pretty obvious job: his cards let you transfer cards, which is a nice way of saying kill them and cart them off to Elysium. He gives you ways to transfer more cards than you would otherwise be able to. Every transfer, with Hades’s cards or any other way, costs money: one coin for each rank of the card, three at most.

Athene - for a better community
Athene – for a better community

Athene is, by standards of the Greek pantheon, a very social and cooperative goddess. Her cards give you some sort of bonus and all other players a weaker version of the same bonus. For example, a Trade Agreement is worth three coins for you and one for everyone else. Being that helpful might seem like a bad idea, but keep in mind that you still get the better deal, always.

Ares, god of war, is another god to score points, although not powerful enough to compete with Zeus or Hephaestus. His cards allow you to take Prestige markers, and at the end of the game the most prestigious players is awarded 16 points, the next eight, then four and finally two. He doesn’t pack the same punch as the big guys because he’s limited to sixteen points, but you should treat him the same way as you treat military strength in 7 Wonders: if you can keep ahead with little effort, his points are great to have.

And finally, there’s Apollo, in Elysium in his role as god of prophecies. When Apollo is in the game, there are four cards in the Oracle that will go to the Agora next round, so you can plan ahead a little. Apollo’s cards interact with the Oracle and let you take cards from there or use effects from those cards.

You can probably tell how different games will go depending on the gods involved. A game with Zeus and Hephaestus, but without Hades, will go very different from a game with Hades, Hermes and Poseidon. But you can probably tell another thing: you have four columns, but you only take three cards per round, what to do with the last column? You use it to buy a quest tile. A quest tile determines player order for the next round and gives a bonus in points, coins and transfers to Elysium. When Hades is not in play, the quest tiles are the only way to transfer cards. It sounds a bit clunky at first to have four columns and be forced to use three of them one way and the fourth in another, but it doesn’t feel artificial while playing. Quite the opposite, it opens some interesting tactical choices about priorities – take the quest tile you want and risk all the good cards being gone, or take whatever quest is left – and about what columns to keep; when the round is over, you must have one quest tile and three new cards, but quest tiles and cards require you to have the right columns to take them. So what happens when you still need something, but don’t have the columns to take it?

Citizens - not exciting, but useful
Citizens – not exciting, but useful

If you’re missing a card and can’t take it, that’s not even all that bad, you’ll be forced to take a Citizen, a card from the draw pile that you never turn over. Those guys are pretty useless on their own, they have no ability, but some other cards give bonuses for your citizens and they can be discarded instead of more useful cards when you must discard. They also count as wildcards in Elysium. Having them there gives you two penalty points, but using Citizens to complete a set is often worth more than that. If you can’t take a quest tile, that’s worse, because you will have to take a Failed Quest. That means you will have to go last next round and not even get a decent bonus to make up for it, only one coin and one transfer. Especially the second part is bad, because cards in your Elysium is how you score points after five rounds.

The Elysium is about building sets of cards; single cards are worthless here. Sets come in two kinds: cards with the same value, but belonging to different gods, or cards belonging to the same god, but with different values. Those sets are valuable in themselves already, up to 12 points for the former kind, up to six for the latter, and they become even more attractive when adding the bonuses for being first. The first player to build a set of all values of one god takes a bonus marker worth five points, the second still takes two. Sets by value only have one bonus marker that always goes to the player who currently has the largest set, worth three, six, and nine points for rank one, two and three, respectively.

In the family
In the family

Having some sets in your Elysium is worth a bunch of points and often the right way to win the game, but, and that’s a part I really like about Elysium, not always. Especially when Zeus and/or Hephaestus are in the game, they can win the game with very few cards in Elysium. It’s all about using the available cards right. That also applies to “supporting gods”, the ones that don’t score points directly. Different sets of gods really create a very different game experience, and since you’ll only use about half of the cards from the draw pile even a game with the same gods may still develop very differently. There’s a lot of replayability there, and many interesting decisions in what cards to take, when to take them and especially when to kill them off. And then there’s the handling of your columns that adds some limited but interesting player interaction to the game. You rarely interact directly in Elysium, only with Poseidon and Athene cards, but keeping an eye on other players’ remaining columns and using yours accordingly is paramount.

All that adds up to a very variable and entertaining game with multiple ways to win and very little downtime, a very good candidate for Kennerspiel des Jahres in my opinion. But with all the praise, there is one annoying detail, made worse by how easy it would have been to fix: the components. Oh, they’re robust and pretty alright, each gods’ cards illustrated by a different artist. My problem is that there are not enough. In a game with Zeus and Hephaestus we managed to run out of both coins and victory point markers, and not only by a few. Using chocolate coins and gummy bears to keep counting is fun, but having enough tokens would be even better. That won’t put a dent in the game’s chances for the award, but sometimes it’s the small things that annoy me.

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