Category: Cooperative Game
Designer: Kevin Riley
Publisher: Action Phase Games, Indie Boards & Cards
Year Published: 2016
Playing Time: 60 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Don't Play
Several months ago I reviewed Dominion, the first standalone deck-building game. Prior to Dominion, “deck-building” was a sort of meta-game that collectible card game players would play between actual games. Dominion was a humongous hit, and numerous imitators quickly joined the market. The glut of deck-building games has finally subsided now, but the early 2010s were defined by this genre.
Unsurprisingly, several designers experimented with semi-cooperative and fully cooperative ideas. In 2016, two cooperative deck-builders hit the market: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle and Aeon’s End. Both have received strong reviews and are highly regarded by both critics and players. Recently, I got to try Aeon’s End for the first time, so let’s see if it lived up to the hype.
Aeon’s End takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world where the last vestiges of human civilization scrape out a meager existence in Gravehold. This subterranean city has served as humanity’s last bastion against The Nameless, ferocious beasts that periodically attack Gravehold. In their struggle for survival, the humans have discovered two critical things: 1) The Nameless are not native to their world, but rather have entered though mysterious portals called Breaches. 2) Specially trained humans can tap use these Breaches to channel magical power and fight The Nameless.
Each player is a Breach Mage who must work together with their fellow mages to repel The Nameless onslaught and protect Gravehold. Your deck of cards depicts the gems, spells, and relics that you will need for the fight. Gems are magical rocks infused with Breach energy that generate Aether, this game’s currency. Relics are magical items that can help you and your allies in a variety of ways. The meat of the game focuses on spells. The only way to damage enemy monsters is by casting spells, but casting spells is difficult in this game.
Let’s dive into that now. Each character has four Breaches at the start of the game. Breaches are square double-sided tokens that can either be open or closed. An open Breach is one that the mage has full control over. They can prep a spell to that Breach at any time, and they can leave that spell prepped for several turns before casting it if they wish. A closed Breach requires effort to use. The breach will display an aether cost you need to spend to open the breach so you can use it normally.
But! Each Breach also has a clockwise arrow in the middle with a secondary cost. This is the “Focus” cost, and it’s lower than thecost to open the Breach. You can pay the focus cost to rotate the closed Breach 90 degrees clockwise. This has two effects. First, it lowers the cost to open the Breach on a later turn. Second, focusing a Breach allows you to prep a spell to it, even though it’s closed. Prepping a spell to a closed Breach comes with one small downside: you must cast the spell at the beginning of your next turn. You can’t save it for later like you can with an open Breach.
Have I written the word Breach enough yet?
Here’s what a turn looks like in Aeon’s End. First, in the casting phase, you cast any spells that were prepped on a previous turn. You must cast any on closed Breaches, and you can choose to cast any on Open Breaches. Those spell cards then go to your discard pile. During your main phase, you can do just about everything else. You can prep spells to open or focused Breaches, you can focus a Breach, you can play gems to generate aether, you can spend aether to purchase new cards, and importantly you can also spend aether to charge your mage’s special ability. Every mage has a unique power that you can use once fully charged.
Once you are done with your turn, you move to the draw phase. This is when you move any played cards to the discard pile and draw back up to a hand of five. It sounds simple, but actually this is where Aeon’s End deviates immensely from all other deck-building games. You can choose to leave any un-played cards in your hand to save for next turn! That’s pretty big, right? Like, if you’ve played Dominion, then you have probably had a turn where your hand only has action cards, but none of them give you extra actions, so four will be wasted. That’s pretty cool. But that’s not all!
In most deck-building games, if you need to draw a card and your deck is empty, you simply take your discard pile, shuffle it up, and set it down as your new deck. Aeon’s End also has you use your discard pile as your new deck, but YOU DO NOT SHUFFLE IT FIRST. I have to say, after ten years of playing deck-builders, it felt super strange to just flip the pile over and make it my deck.
The wheels might be spinning in your head already. If you don’t shuffle your deck, then the order of cards in your discard pile matters. You can plan for future turns and arrange to have certain cars appear near each other. Importantly, you are not allowed to rearrange your discard pile once the cards have been discarded. You just have to make that conscious decision as you discard.
So that’s what the players are doing, but what about The Nameless? What’s going on there? Well, during setup, the players will select a Nemesis to play against. The Nemesis is a powerful monster that has suddenly decided to attack Gravehold. Each Nemesis has its own unique rules and mechanics, but all Nemeses share a special Nemesis deck. The Nemesis deck contains three types of cards: Attacks, Powers, and Minions. Attacks are simple cards that have an effect and then are discarded. Powers are special cards that sit on the table near the Nemesis and enter play with some number of power tokens. Generally, these cards won’t do anything, but on each Nemesis turn they lose a power token. The card’s effect happens once all the power tokens run out. Many of these powers have a “To Discard” effect, where a player can sacrifice something to discard the power before the effect happens.
Minions are Nameless monsters that will aid the Nemesis. They have some number of hit points and generally have a “Persistent” effect that triggers on each Nemesis turn until they are killed. The Nemesis can have multiple Minions and Powers in play at once, and they are arranged chronologically in the order that they are drawn. So, a Nemesis turn looks like this. First, the players go through each Minion and Power card one by one. They resolve any persistent effects on the Minions and remove a power token from any Power cards, going in order from oldest card to newest. Then they draw the top card of the Nemesis deck and do whatever it says.
And that’s it, Nemesis turns are simple but deadly. One thing that’s interesting about the Nemesis deck is that it’s not fully random. Nemesis cards come in one of four tiers: 0, 1, 2, and 3. Higher tier cards are more dangerous, and they are relegated to the bottom of the deck. In other words, when preparing the Nemesis deck, each tier is shuffled independently and then the shuffled piles are stacked on top of each other. So when the players are at their weakest, they only face tier 0 and 1 cards. And as the players build their decks and grow stronger, the threats they face get worse and worse.
So how does the game end? There are two ways to win and two ways to lose Aeon’s End. You can win by killing the Nemesis, a.k.a. dealing enough damage to drop its health to 0. Or, you can win by outlasting the Nemesis deck such that there are no cards left in the deck and there are no minions or powers left in play. You lose if all players are “exhausted.” This happen when a player reaches 0 life. If a player is exhausted they stay in the game, but have to discard one of their Breaches. The other way to lose is if Gravehold falls to 0 life. That’s right, the city has its own set of life points. Many of the Nemesis cards deal damage directly to Gravehold, and there are very few ways for the players to restore that health. It doesn’t matter of Gravehold has 1 or 30 health at the end of the game, as long as it doesn’t drop to 0.
Okay, let’s recap something real quick. The Nemesis deck is constructed to follow a growing difficulty curve so that the challenge level matches the players’ deck strengths. The player decks never shuffle so you can memorize your deck order and know what to expect each turn. In fact, each player’s mage has a defined starting deck AND STARTING HAND. Every game with that character will start the same way. So if you don’t shuffle the player decks and you don’t shuffle the Nemesis deck, what keeps this game from just following the same predetermined paths every time you play?
There’s some facetious answers, like you could have different cards available for purchase or the Nemesis tiers might be slightly different, or you might be fighting a different Nemesis, but ultimately those are all window dressing. The source of variance in this game is the turn order deck. This is a small deck of roughly six cards. At the beginning of the game, it’s shuffled up, and then the top card is drawn. It will say which player gets to take their turn, or if it’s the Nemesis turn. In a two-player game, the Turn Order deck has two cards for each player, and two cards for the Nemesis. But the order of those six turns changes every time, so you don’t know when exactly you’ll get a chance to cast those prepped spells. Maybe it will be just in time to stop a deadly Minion, or maybe it’ll come too late to stop a crisis.
In other words, you have near total control over the order in which your cards appear in your deck, but you have no control over when it’ll be your turn. This is a fascinating twist on deck-building game mechanics that presents many interesting opportunities to create and execute plans.
It’s interesting, but it's not fun. The lower difficulty nemeses are simple enough to beat by just playing whatever cards are available. There’s some challenge there, but it can be overcome. At higher difficulties, you will need to work together to not only construct decks that support each other but also prepare your discard piles to set up powerful effects for later turns. It's challenging and difficult, but meticulously planning your cards for your actions three turns in the future just isn't fun.
So, there are interesting decisions to make when ordering your discard pile. But unfortunately, there aren’t many interesting decisions to make in actually BUILDING your deck. The market has four different spells available for purchase. Every spell in this game has one primary effect: damage. Some spells have secondary effects as well. So you can look at the spell deck and decide between a spell that costs 5 aether and deals 2 damage to an enemy and heals a player for one health, or a spell that costs 5 aether and deals 3 damage to an enemy. Neat. And some of the spells have more complicated effects, like one that deals 2 damage and also focuses one of your Breaches, or one that lets you destroy up to two cards in your hand and deals 3 damage for each destroyed card. But at the end of the day, every spell just does damage, so every player is ultimately maximizing the same thing in their deck: damage. With the right selection of relics and spells, a player could build a more supportive deck, but that’s rare in the base set of the game.
To summarize, Aeon’s End is a deckbuilding game that has eliminated as much variance as possible. On one hand, I can understand why. Lower variance gives the designers more control over the game’s progression and difficulty curve. It also eliminates the feel-bad games where a powerful enemy shows up on a turn two and ends everything before it can even start. That’s happened to me with a couple of semi-cooperative deckbuilders, and it’s not fun. On the other hand, it feels like this game would be more fun with a different mechanism. I enjoy deckbuilding games for the deckbuilding and probability mitigation, not for long-term planning.
Because of the low variance, Aeon’s End resembles a puzzle more than a game. And I think the game suffers there as well. The base game comes with four Nemeses and seven different Breach Mages. Presumably, you can tackle each Nemesis with a different combination of Breach Mages. The rules also provide guidance for ways to vary the difficulty and make the game harder or easier. So that’s nice, but it feels like there’s no real reason to keep playing. We defeated one Nemesis, and it feels like we’ve seen everything that Nemesis has to offer. Why try again, unless there are new players to share the game with?
Which is interesting when you think about other cooperative games like Pandemic or Forbidden Island. These games don’t have anything like the Nemesis to oppose players, they just have a single objective and a series of environmental threats that create a race against time. But I’ve played dozens of games of Pandemic but I’m still ready to come back for more. And the only reason I can think of for that is that the variance in the card decks makes the puzzle feel different every time. It’s fun to pit my wits against the game and try to find a path to victory. Aeon’s End just feels too same-y. Once I’ve defeated a Nemesis, I have no desire to go back and try again with different Breach Mages. What this game needs is a campaign. That would create a sense of growth and narrative progression so that you’re not just resetting things back to normal every game.
It just so happens that such a game exists: Aeon’s End Legacy was released in 2019, and so far has exceeded the critical acclaim for its original. I was not impressed by Aeon’s End, but I’d be willing to join an Aeon’s End Legacy campaign. The world is pretty cool, and I’d be interested in seeing how our band of Breach Mages could grow and progress over time to make game feel like a constantly changing series of challenges.
Finally, let’s talk about art. Or, really, the lack thereof. Aeon’s End presents a really cool world, and the art on the cards that have art looks great. The spells and flavor text evoke the desperation with which the Breach Mages defend Gravehold, and the Nemeses and Minions look like true threats that must be stopped. But then a bunch of Nemesis cards have no art at all. Think of how much more visceral an Attack card called “Mutilate” would be if it depicted a gruesome monster striking a hapless defender? The Attacks and Powers have great names, but no art, so they end up just feeling very same-y and boring.
Those cards just lose something. Similarly, most of the components are great. The cards feel good to hold and shuffle, except you aren’t supposed to shuffle most of them. And the tokens are well made and distinctive. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the Breaches. For some reason, those incredibly important squares are made of cheap, thin, low-quality cardstock unlike the other tokens and cards. They feel prone to warping, which isn’t great considering how often they’ll be used and touched by players in every game. Perhaps it’s a good thing I don’t think this game has much replay value since it means those components will stay in good condition longer.
Aeon’s End is widely considered the best cooperative deck-building game on the market. Thanks to low variance, it is actually possible to plan ahead and cooperative with your teammates to overcome immense threats. Unfortunately, this trades deck-building for deck-ordering. If you are frustrated by the way shuffling ruins your perfectly constructed masterpiece when you play Dominion, that give Aeon’s End a shot. There are plenty of expansions with new Breach Mages and Nemeses to try, if you want. But for the rest of us, there are better ways to spend your time. You should not play Aeon’s End.