GenCon 2016 saw a limited U.S. release of Eight Epics, from Japanese designer Seiji Kanai (the full U.S. release is slated for October). Like smash hit Love Letter, the U.S. release is being published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Eight Epics is a small-box, fully cooperative dice-based puzzle game.
There is some theme to Eight Epics, but it did not seem particularly important. Eight avatars must defend against a series of six world-ending threats (there are eight in the box, but not all are used each game). Each threat represents a unique challenge that some of the heroes are better equipped than others to defeat, but conquering the series will require all of them to work together. Of course, all of this is represented by rolling dice in particular combinations.
Each threat to be faced by the players has a variable number of challenges on it (maybe only two, maybe eight). Each challenge specifies a quantity of dice, and what sort of end result need to be achieved to conquer that challenge. For example, the players may need to get one die to show 1 or less, get six dice to show the same number, get 8 dice to show 45 or more, or have a Yahtzee.
The player attempt to defeat the threats by activating the various avatars. All eight avatars are always used, regardless of player count. Each player is assigned one avatar, with the rest going in a common pool. On a player’s turn, they get to choose which avatar to activate, but cannot activate an avatar assigned to another player. This means that the game is more difficult the more players are involved, because more avatars in the common pool gives the players greater flexibility in what order to activate.
Each avatar can only be activated once per threat, and all challenges on the threat must be overcome – if the players run out of activations before all challenges are defeated, then they lose. Activating a hero gives one immediate benefit – re-rolls. When a challenge begins, the listed quantity of dice are rolled, setting an initial dice pool. When an avatar is activated, the player gets to re-roll up to three of those dice. These re-rolls are recursive – the player must keep at least one of the dice just rolled, but can continue re-rolling the rest (so rolling 3 then 2 then 1, unless the player likes the earlier rolls enough to keep 2 or more dice at once).
Once that re-roll is completed, additional actions with the avatar cost life points (the avatars have between 4 and 6 life). Spending a life point allows the player another 3-die re-roll, or allows the player to activate the avatar’s ability. Most of these abilities manipulate the dice, such as setting a die to 6, setting a die to 1, flipping a die over, or adding a new die to the pool. Significantly, there are three more meta abilities – one avatar who copies powers, one avatar who heals the others, and one avatar who can grant another avatar an extra activation to face the current threat.
Eight Epics is essentially a big puzzle, but with dice. The game is fully cooperative, and there is no mechanism for diffusing decision-making, so the “alpha player problem” will be as present or absent as the player group allows. The limited number activations, “free” re-rolls from activations, and avatar life points must be carefully spent to massage the dice pool into shape for completing the challenges. Any one threat can, of course, be easily beaten, but if too many life points are spent early, it is unlikely that the avatars will be able to succeed through all six threats. If the players are unwilling to spend life points, however, they are likely to run into problems with not having enough avatar activations left to get through all of the challenges. There are more subtle strategies in how to deploy the avatars. For example, it is inefficient to switch to a new avatar when only one die remains out of place, because the free 3-die re-roll for that activation is wasted. Those 3-die re-rolls, along with the 2-die re-rolls that come with the “healing” and “untap” avatars’ powers, are a vital part of the players’ resources, and when possible need to be used meaningfully. This makes Durge, World-Breaker one of the toughest threats, as it not only has 12 challenges, but the low dice count for those challenges makes the re-rolls fairly ineffective. The toughest threats will, of course, be the final two, which must be faced in succession without a chance to ready the avatars in between.
The components in Eight Epics consist of a large stack of dice and gorgeous, Tarot-size cards for everything else. In addition to the avatars and threats, the AEG version of Eight Epics includes 12 events that were not part of the original Japanese version of the game (they may have been part of Exceed, a separate expansion, but I’m not positive about that). These events generally make the game more difficult, providing a penalty during each threat (for example, each avatar losing a life whenever selected), although also providing an extra reward when the threat is defeated (for example, restoring a defeated avatar to life).
I found Eight Epics to be pretty challenging. Of course, because there is die-rolling, there’s a healthy amount of luck (although there are enough avatar powers that sometimes the particular rolls are not as important unless they’re exactly on the nose). There are options for making the game more difficult, but I’m not sure I’d want to use them. I’m OK with impossible or very difficult co-operative games when the story or mechanics are rich enough (I enjoy Eldritch Horror, although I’ve never won a game of it), but Eight Epics doesn’t have that, so for me there needs to be a somewhat realistic chance of winning to make the game satisfying. On the other hand, I’ll note that I’ve seen some say the base difficulty level is fairly easy, so someone else’s groups might want to use those optional rules after the first few plays.
I think that Eight Epics will be fun for those players in its niche, but it might be a very specific sort of fun. If a group (or an individual player, as the game supports solo play) likes the sound of huddling around the table and figuring out the puzzle of which dice to re-roll and what order to use their avatars in, Eight Epics does that very well, and I think they’ll enjoy the game. That sort of gameplay is not in my personal wheelhouse, so I simply found the game to be OK, but I had no trouble passing on my copy to someone at the table who was very enthusiastic.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.