Elysium Review

01 February 2016
Thomas Pike finds out what it’s like to be a demi-god.

Space Cowboys | Strategy | £37.99 | 2-4 players | 60 minutes | www.spacecowboys.fr

Promising you the chance to take the role of an ambitious demigod and forge your own legend in mythological Greece, Elysium is the newest offering from Space Cowboys - a publisher set up in 2013 to form what it calls ‘an alliance of talents’ including industry veterans and hand-picked designers. There is a high degree of expectancy whenever this crack team releases a new title, and we were suitably excited to get our hands on a copy of its latest.

Punching out the beautifully illustrated components and setting up the game took less than ten minutes. Everything looks the part and carries a high quality finish. We recommend the dining table, not the coffee table for this one though, since some strategies will mean the play area gets pretty busy as the game goes on.

A crucial test for any game these days is whether you can take it home, set it up, read the rules aloud and play. A good rulebook will guide you neatly into the action in a few short minutes. The Elysium rulebook, despite weighing in at only 13 pages, unfortunately requires a bit of study beforehand. The way it is written and structured is somewhat clumsy, with key information left for the reader to assume and confusing early references made to rules which have not yet been covered. On the cards and tokens themselves, a large number of unintuitive symbols are used to denote the game’s various abilities and triggers. All of this means your first play is likely to be very much a learning experience rather than a rewarding one, baffled by the cards on offer and having to make frequent visits to the rulebook.

Once up and running, Elysium is a very elegant, flowing game. Having fully absorbed the rules, competent gamers will rattle through a two player session in under an hour. Up the player count to the maximum of four however, and you will be well over the sixty minute mark. There is nothing especially new or complicated about the gameplay and the admin is minimal, but the decisions will be what kill you. Anyone prone to analysis paralysis need not apply. So how does the game actually play?

Each round, or Epoch, players take it in turns making four round-robin selections from a random, common pool of face-up cards and placing them in their own play area. Each card belongs to one of five families (Hades, Apollo etc) and has a level number between one and three. Each time you buy a card your capacity to buy more diminishes for the remainder of the round, but you gain that card’s special abilities. It might immediately grant you gold or victory points, or let you destroy a card belonging to another player at a later time. This is where the real tactical depth is to be found, in the interplay between card abilities - which to go for and when to use them.

Each Epoch, every player must also use one of their four turns to complete one of the available quests, foregoing the chance to take a standard card. The main function of quests is to advance your position in the turn order for the following round. Going first gives you a big advantage, since you get first pick from the fresh card pool. But, should you take that Apollo card you wanted, or complete a quest to make sure you go first next time? Tough call.

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The round ends when no-one can buy anything else and players then have the chance to transfer some of their cards into a part of their play area called the Elysium, thereby forming sets of families and/or levels. This set making is called ‘writing legends’ and completed legends are what score you the majority of your points. When the round is done, a new common pool of cards is dealt out, everyone is restored to full buying power and the next epoch begins.

The tension builds nicely with each round as you try to complete your legends while keeping an eye on what the other players are going for. The whole thing culminates in a stressful fifth and final Epoch where emotions run high and friendships will be strained over who is able to grab that last remaining Hades card. Either your masterplan comes together and you complete your sets for a windfall of victory points, or you are left staring at the table, unable to make eye contact with your former friends.

If you like vicious competition and ruining your opponent’s plans at the last minute, you will probably like this game. If, however, the reason you play games is to interact with your friends, to delve into a shared experience chock with theme and atmosphere and to basically have fun, then we have to advise you give this one a miss. There is very little player interaction during the game as each player silently ponders their own strategy. Atmosphere is also sadly lacking. Despite the designer’s best efforts the theme quickly becomes irrelevant and by the end of the game there is no sensation of immersion into the setting. All you end up caring about is what colour a card is, what number it has on it, and how its special ability might help you extract a few more precious victory points.

Elysium is an engaging puzzle and will provide a certain kind of thrill for the right group, but we wouldn’t exactly say it was fun and it is certainly not for casual gamers or the faint hearted. Unless you are the type who gets hooked by mechanics and enjoys protracted optimisation, we can’t see you coming back for a second try of this one. Given the stiff competition in the dry, flavourless category, we doubt Elysium will go on to become a perennial classic. Solid but not sensational.

Buy your copy here.

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