Artist: Julian Delval
Publisher: Sand Castle Games
I played Res Arcana several months back with a group of acquaintances. They were kind enough to teach me the game and I was happy to learn a new game Tom Lehmann even though his designs are a mixed bag for me. The most recent play of The City from Mr. Lehmann left me a little cold as was my experience with his flagship game: Race for the the Galaxy. That said, I am quite a fan of To Court the King. There is no argument that Mr. Lehmann’s record as a designer is stellar and even though I am not a fan of RFTG, I greatly admire his ludography which include many non-collectible card games that feature incredible interaction with vast amounts of replayability.
Back to Res Arcana. My first impression of the game left me lukewarm. I could see why people enjoyed the game. It was compact and like RFTG, The game features an immense number of interactions and possibilities for scoring. That each player only gets to see 8 cards per game is quite a feat and the combinations and diversity in card play was outstanding. Still, I wasn’t awed after my first play. I didn’t think I was the target audience for his card games.
Fast forward a couple of months. I picked up a copy of Res Arcana on the secondary market. I wanted to give the game another shot with 2 players even after the less than stellar impression after my first play. I was also concerned that Res Arcana’s fantasy theme wouldn’t be appealing to my spouse. I was hoping that the short duration coupled with the variability would sustain our game play for a little longer. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes setting up and tearing down a game on a weekday.
After about 5-6 games of 2 player Res Arcana, I think I can see why many gamers are enamored with it. First, some brief details: Res Arcana, as the theme suggests, is a race between 2 magic users looking to accumulate 10 or more victory points. The first to reach 10 points trigger the end game and whomever scores the most points wins the game. Like RFTG, Res Arcana is mostly a card driven game. Sure, there are large cardboard tiles and all, but the spirit of the game is contained within a pack of cards.
Players start each game by choosing one of two randomly dealt magic users. Each magic user has a unique ability which I think can somewhat help customize your approach to the game. However, none of the mage powers are overbearing in a way that dictates the entire outcome of your strategy. After choosing a mage, the players will then get dealt a hand of 8 artifact cards which form the entirety of the draw deck. Each player starts with 3 cards from the draw deck and a magic item which can be swapped from a common pool of items at the end of each round based on when a player bows out of the round.
During each round, players collect resources (water, earth, gold, etc……you know the drill) and use them to play cards from their hand, purchase places of power or monuments. Of course, these cards all have different synergies and chaining them in an efficient way will get you more resources or earn points by constructing a resource conversion engine.
Of course, hoarding all these resources is useless unless you can convert them to VPs. Most cards in your draw deck don’t earn you a lot of VPs. There are some creature or dragon cards with a single victory point each. What you are really gunning for are these “places of power” and monuments. These special locations will give you significantly more VPs in short order. Many of these places of power offer variable VPs based on how many additional resources you deposit or place on the card. However, these places of power are generally quite expensive and cost lots of resources to obtain. So, one must really focus on accumulating the resources required if you want to grab the places of power early because it’s first come first serve.
Purchasing monuments are also interesting because they can only be purchased with gold, and exactly 4 gold. Gold is just another resource (or essence). However, Gold’s value is a little quirky and different from the other resources and can be used for specific actions and purchases such as monuments that other essences can’t. So, among all the resources, it has a special niche. Buying each monument earns you 1-2 VPs and usually comes with a unique power. So, getting them is a good way to quickly rack up some points to complement the the places of power.
There is a small “take that” component to the game. There are select cards that target opponents to steal their “life force” which in essence is just losing the green resource. If you don’t have the green resource, you have to discard any two random resource. However, there are cards and magic items that can counter against such an assault. Usually, by tapping the card power or paying some resource, one can fend off the attacks. In our two player game, we rarely if ever bother with such attacks primarily because I think it isn’t that hard to defend. Plus, we usually much rather focus on engine building.
That’s pretty much the gist of the game. I think most of the game basically boils down to figuring out how best to optimize your engine and make the best of what you have. If the cards form strong synergies, and you can spot it, then you are in a good place to capitalize and win. Players who enjoy a good pattern recognition game or a puzzle will feel right at home since the game hinges on spotting the right combination and also sequence of cards to play. The winner will likely be the one who can figure out what’s the most efficient engine to employ given the 8 cards in your deck and the places of power available. One most quickly formulate a plan and execute, hoping that a more powerful combination out there doesn’t beat you to the punch. Its all about timing and familiarity with the cards.
Which brings me to a weak point of the game. I think you can get stymied by the cards you are dealt. It’s true that given time, you will get to 10 points. But since this is a race, if your card combinations don’t synergies, you will have a much harder time building the engine. This is particularly true between two skilled players familiar with the cards. I don’t know if the magic items are enough to equalize the disparity. At some point, all things equal, luck will likely becomes a stronger element in play.
I am not a huge fan of card based engine building games where it is the main and only mechanism in play. Much of Res Arcana and RFTG is exactly that. I do not mind it as much if the engine is overlaid on a game with a much broader scope intertwined with other mechanisms. Yet I find myself surprisingly drawn to Res Arcana. Probably for two reason: First, each game is short. Gameplay is compact and the race to 10 points works. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and each turn has this snappy rhythm to it especially once you have identified the desired engine to build. when that happens, the turns will happen quickly.
Second, Res Arcana provides meaningful decisions within a tight time frame. Pretty much most of our games have been won or lost within a turn of each other reaching 10 points. Because of the tight race, each decision feels critical and should ideally contribute toward earning VPs. If the game dragged, then each action will feel diluted and the game will fall flat. That’s when resource conversion for the sake of resource conversion turns mechanical and bland. Res Arcana solves this by not only making the game the right length with the right amount of tension, but by also making each decision meaningful.
The game mechanisms aside, I am also extremely impressed that Sand Castle Games and perhaps Mr. Lehmann himself took note of the diversity represented in the characters both on the cover as well as the artwork. There are equal number of male and female mages in the entire deck with a good mix of different racial identities (though it could be better.). Still, I noted that the cover depicted a good number of women. Great job on representation. You guys should really be commended….loudly!
The initial impressions: Good