The millions of people who lived in Greece from the archaic age until the Roman occupation probably never imagined that someday, in the great and terrible distant future of 2017, their culture would be remembered in the form of a card-drafting strategic deathmatch. Probably.
But if – through an oracle perhaps – they had somehow known this and been able to see Elysium, I’m sure the daily struggles of the common farmers, craftsman, women, and children would have been borne with all the more vigor and hope. Or not. As Elysium makes clear, average citizens are negative victory points. It’s all about the heroes.
What Comes in the Box?
A fantastic box insert that actually evokes the theme of the game, that’s what! Oh, and game pieces. A lot of them. You get coins, victory point counters, prestige counters, cards, cardboard player boards, a game “board” made up of multiple pieces, various other counters and tokens, and pillars. Small and colorful wooden pillars. Just like the ancient Greeks used.
Set the pieces out in front of a full complement of four players, and watch as everyone mistakenly grabs four pillars of the same color only to be informed soon after by you, the wise owner and mentor of the game’s rules, that they’ve made a horrible error.
Everyone in the game gets four pillars, one each of red, blue, green, and yellow. These are used to take turns, as well as add a lot of strategic depth to those turns. Everyone also gets a board to keep track of their victory point tokens, coins, and other tokens as necessary. The board also acts as a way to separate each player’s domain from his Elysium. More on that later.
There are eight decks of cards in the game, one each for Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Hephaestus, Ares, and Apollo, keeper of that oracle I mentioned at the start. Each Greek god has a different personality, and their decks reflect that. Before the game starts, you’ll pick five gods, grab their decks, and shuffle them all together. This is the source of some amazing replay value. The back of each card is a citizen. These are like jokers with strings attached. We’ll discuss their jokes and strings soon.
How Do you Play?
The game is divided up into five epochs. Over the course of an epoch, players will acquire cards and “quests”, which are also cards but are made of cardboard and determine turn order. To acquire something, a player makes sure he has the pillars which match the colors of the card or quest he wants and then discards a pillar of any color to grab the prize, putting any cards in his domain. This is where a lot of the game’s strategy comes into play, because you want to think ahead about which colors you’ll want to keep around and which you can sacrifice. You’ll need to pay attention to the moves that other players make, too, because if they leave you without any options, bad things might happen.
Everyone is required to grab a quest on one of their four turns. If you can’t grab a quest, then your last turn is forfeit, and you get a broken quest that places you in last for turn order while providing you with mediocre benefits. Quests provide lots of money, lots of chances to score points, and affect turn order so it’s good to avoid this.
On the other hand, if you manage to claim a quest but can’t choose any of the cards available on your turn, you get a citizen, which is simply the next card on the draw pile never flipped face-up.
All of the cards in the game have special abilities that can be used at different times. Some can be used continuously through the game, some once per game when you choose, some the moment you acquire them, and others once per epoch.
Once everyone has used up their four pillars, players have a chance to move cards to their Elysium in the writing of legends phase of the epoch. Essentially, while your various heroes, monsters, and other cards do cool stuff, the real goal is to be remembered forever. As everyone knows, the only way to be remembered forever is to end up in a set or a straight of cards in an Elysium. So naturally, that’s what you have to do in the game.
You’ll take your cards from the domain and, if you pay coins equal to the number on the card and have a quest or cards that enable you, place it into your Elysium. At this point, the true nature of the game is revealed and you discover all of the rules are really the most complicated way imaginable to build sets and straights in Rummy. You either play cards of the same god (color) with different number values – called a family set – or you play cards of the same number but different gods (colors) – called a number set. You score extra points if you are the first to complete a family set, or if you have the longest number set. Every set and straight of cards also earns you points at the end of the game. In fact, most of your points will come from the cards in your Elysium. The catch is that cards moved to your Elysium no longer provide any abilities. For one-time use cards you’ve already blown through, this isn’t a hard choice. For cards that provide benefits the whole game, choosing when to move them to your Elysium is a stressful ordeal.
Sometimes, you don’t get the chance to grab cards you really need to complete a family or number set. The game provides you with a second chance at glory with citizens, those cards you obtain usually by failing to obtain something better (although there are other ways). Citizens can be moved to your Elysium at the cost of the card they are going to replace in a set, so long as the set they will join already has at least two cards in it. The problem is that each citizen, being a boring normal person, takes two of your victory points away at the end of the game. Use them sparingly and strategically, and this won’t be a big deal.
Once everyone moves the number of cards they want (and can) to their Elysium, the Epoch ends. After five epochs, the game is over, and you score points.
Who is This Game For?
Elysium is not a simple game. It isn’t a complicated game. But it is a thought-provoking, sometimes mind-melting experience. I don’t recommend playing it late at night, but I highly recommend playing it.
My wife and have played a variety of board games together. Often, games work better with larger numbers of players and have optional rules for two and while we enjoy them, it’s clear the experience might be enhanced by other people joining in. Elysium, however, seemed to be excellent for two players. With more, I imagine there is a bit more chaos (which I’m fine with), but we enjoyed the decisions and freedom with just the two of us.
For people who want something a bit heavier than Dominion but love the card drafting, for people who want the customization and build-up of 7 Wonders but want more long-term planning, and for people who like Magic: The Gathering but want something more manageable, this is a great choice. It’s right in the middle in terms of complexity – most of which comes from decision-making and not arcane rules. The cards have a lot of symbolism on them, but they also have full descriptions of what they do. Any ambiguity is removed by a book listing every card and more detailed explanations, which I’ve only needed to use once in a corner case.
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like this game. It was popular last year, but from the description and reviews I had seen, I was not impressed. But I absolutely love it and can’t wait to play it again. I’m glad I was wrong. There is a lot of depth here without the analysis paralysis that accompanies so many games like it – at least in the far too limited experience I’ve had with it. I only wish they’d print an expansion.
You can pick up a copy of Elysium here.