Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan
Artist: McCambridge, Eric Bourgier, Cari, Vincent Dutrait, Sylvain Guinebaud, Didier Poli, Pascal Quidault, Emmanuel Roudier, Bruno Tatti
Publisher: Space Cowboys
Elysium surprised me. It really did. I have written previously that I am not a huge fan of card games with extensive text or iconography that confer special powers to the player. In other words, I avoid games like Magic The Gathering. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the design and admire the variability these cards provide to extend the shelf life of a game, but I feel that playing these games, especially squinting across the table to examine the text, to be exhausting. I guess I also don’t like the delay where you sit around and stare at cards, trying to formulate a strategy. With that mind, I approached Elysium cautiously.
Well, Elysium does suffer from all that I mentioned. In each of the 5 rounds, a fresh pile of cards are placed in a common pool for drafting. Each card is more or less unique and one has to spend some time absorbing the text on the cards in order to assemble a strategy. This is the part I probably don’t enjoy as much. I should mention that many games have cards that confer special abilities or powers, be it single use or permanent abilities. However, in most Euros, cards usually play a minor role and they complement a larger and more central mechanism. In Elysium though, cards play an outsized role and card powers can and should dictate your strategy. It is an integral part of the game. I think to play well, you really need to know what and when to pick cards and also possibly understand how different decks interact with each other.
There are a number of thematic decks in Elysium and you are expected to combine a few decks to form the play pile. Each deck is identified with a god in the Greek pantheon. Every deck is unique with card powers associated with the personalities of each God. For example, Ares is associated with war and the deck is conflict-oriented. I do think one reason that Elysium is highly regarded is that the core game contains multiple decks that you can mix and match to generate an infinite amount of combinations. As much as I dislike variable card play, it is the easiest and cheapest way to generate diversity.
Each round, based on turn order, players draft cards and place them in their tableau. Each card can roughly be grouped based on color (different gods) and value (1-3). In addition, all cards have a wide ranging number of powers that are typical for this type of game. Some of these cards generate income, score VPs, allow you to draw more cards, play more cards, bend rules, provide bonuses to end game scoring, provide powerful one time abilities, convert resources, etc. You have seen this before in others games. Basically, card powers are extremely diverse and part of the mental exercise is to figure out how they interact and to find combinations that amplify scoring. Of course, this is all pretty run of the mill and not that unique in the board gaming world.
What makes Elysium unique is the interaction and timing between using cards for their powers and converting them into victory points. Cards that are drafted from the central pool are immediately placed on individual player tableau, but they don’t count for scoring unless they are transferred to the Elysium where Legends are written (basically set collection) and points are scored. The trade off being, as soon as the cards are moved to the Elysium and converted to Legends, their special abilities are voided. However, transfer of cards to Elysium doesn’t happen automatically. Some special cards may give you bonus transfers to the Elysium, but this card transfer to Elysium is largely tied to turn order when you select a turn order tile. In lieu of your action for drafting a card, each turn, one may choose to pick up a single turn order tile. These tiles come with different bonuses: Some tiles earn income, VPs’ or both. Importantly, tiles also give players a certain number of transfers from player tableau to the Elysium with the lower numbered and weaker turn order tile allowing a greater number of transfers. It is first come first serve and I find this decision quite tense. Do you want to draft that all important card to complete your Legend or pick up the turn order tile that is desired. Of course, picking a lower turn order tile means you draft cards later in the subsequent round. These are all trade offs one has to decide.
Since the game lasts for only 5 rounds, you simply cannot wait till the final round to initiate the transfer. The writing of Legends needs to happen slowly and consistently over all 5 rounds. While the interplay between drafting and scoring is angst-filled, the scoring is very traditional. It is pretty much a Euro scoring matrix for set collection. You either score for a set of legends that are same color (basically a set of god cards with values 1-3) or a set of cards with different colors but of the same value (5 colors all worth value 2). Points are scored for each complete set of legends with additional VPs’ coming from special end-game bonuses from drafting cards. In addition, there are also bonuses for being the first to complete specific legends unique to each Olympian gods. So there is also a race element to assemble a set of cards to earn those VPs. Really, all the scoring is pretty standard Euro mechanics. So, nothing quite novel here either.
Not all colors and gods are available for you to pick up because card drafting also depends on the availability of specific drafting tokens in your possession. To draft a card of a particular god, you need to have the corresponding token of the matching color. However, with each card drafted, you need to choose a token in your possession to discard. The color of the token discarded is independent of the color of the card you just drafted. In that way, it is possible to draft 3 cards of the same color in the same round, if you still have the right color token at hand. Pretty neat, pretty novel and pretty agonizing.
Elysium is one of those games that I would normally ignore because it doesn’t feel like a game that is up my alley. Card games driven by unique powers with lots of modifiers, dice or elaborate minis are ingredients for a game which I will run away from. To be fair, Elysium is still a Euro , so it doesn’t necessarily have all the attributes that I shy away from. I think somehow, the unique blend of card drafting, limited use of powers, relatively compact game play and the enormous diversity from the different decks that can be mixed and matched each game really makes the game a stand out. The use of tokens to restrict card selection and also the push-pull to draft turn order tiles are fantastic ancillary mechanisms that contribute toward my enjoyment of Elysium. That plus the theme is very apt in the game. Every one loves those flawed Olympian gods. There is a noticeable down time in the game as you wait for your turn to draft cards. I found myself pretty tense while waiting for my turn, hoping that the card or turn order tile wasn’t picked up. It is agonizing to wait a full round only to see your neighbor pick up the card or tile you covet. Apart from that, the final round of play can sometime be boring as players try to grab whatever card that lets them get more transfer to the Elysium. Hence, some cards that are drafted just aren’t as valuable.
Beyond that, Elysium is a terrific game. I purchased this on a whim after selling Deus, another card-driven game that came out around the same time as Elysium and often compared side by side. It is pretty clear that I think this one comes out on top. I don’t own a lot of card games but probably this is a keeper.
Initial impressions: Great!