So, I recently got my hands on our review copy of the expansion to Romance of the Nine Empires – Arcane Fire – only to realize we’d never done a review of the base game. So, to start off I shall rectify that omission, before reviewing the shiny new expansion.
The base game came out at last year’s Gencon – in fact Chris mentioned it as one of his games to look forward to at the time. Created for the movie the Gamers: Hands of Fate as part of their Kickstarter campaign AEG agreed to make a physical copy of the game featured in that movie. Basing the mechanics on their long dead game Legend of the Burning Sands, Romance of the Nine Empires was born.
The Base box contains the cards for 5 decks, each of a different faction, with an extra stack of cards and tokens to be able to customize your decks. 5 factions make up the base game – the evil Ixhasa, the noble Holden, the proud Malchior, the out of time Displaced and the alien Ord. Each focuses on a different way to play the game, including exploration of all of the various win conditions.
Since I doubt many players are familiar with Legend of the Burning Sands (and the game does change more than a little from that origin) I’ll give a brief overview of play. When you start the game you have your Stronghold (representing your faction) as well as 4 or 5 castles which hold your food and a starting property, which are used to produce gold. Gold and food are your two resources – gold being produced by properties while food is (barring exceptional cases) only created at the beginning of the game and then spent/moved around/stolen. These resources are used to bring into play Heroes – the main focus of the game – cohorts, spells, and items. These three card types are generally attached to your heroes and boost them in some way. The other two card types are tactics – cards played from hand for an effect – and quests – the focus of the popular victory.
There are three ways to win the game — you can starve your opponents out, show your military dominance, or gain the renown of the people. Basically, if you have no food left at the end of the turn you starve to death. If you are ever without castles you are militarily defeated. And if you’ve quested enough to gain 50 renown you win a popular victory.
The basic flow of the game is a series of turns, each made of four phases: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Spring is simply prep/straightening while Winter is cleanup/draw/check for victory. Most of the game is in the summer and autumn. Summer is the main phase: each summer players take turns playing cards from hand or attacking until all players pass consecutively. Of course the meat of the game is that attack phase. Once per summer you can declare an attack on another player. To do so you assign your units to attack castles while the defender assigns theirs in defense. At each castle your opposing forces fight, trading battle actions back and forth until the castle is destroyed or both players finishing taking actions.
While there are plenty of actions to be found on cards, the most common battle action is going to be engaging – this is where the damage is done. To engage, bow one or more cards in one unit: this creates an amount of damage equal to their combined strength. The other player now needs to deal with this damage. Attackers can show immunity to attacks smaller than they are – a 1 strength attack isn’t likely to take down a 4 strength guy. Otherwise you absorb either by killing your cards (hero absorption can be boosted by discarding a card in hand) or for the defender using food or the castle itself — the castle absorbs all remaining damage, but be careful for once gone it is permanently gone, and if you ever run out you lose the game.
The other major phase of the game is autumn, primarily used for raiding. In raiding you attempt to steal a small amount of food from the other player. Where attacks are brutal conquests, raids are affairs of stealth: each player sends but one unit to each castle, max. On sending they will discard a card from hand to establish the unit’s stealth level. Once all raid actions are taken, these cards are revealed and if the attacker has the higher number they get to steal a food from the castle.
Finally, quests are an advanced user plan: each is distinct in how to play and score it. To win by questing you have to succeed in at least three and play enough to reach 50 renown. Of course the trick making this more difficult is that you really can only bring each quest by title into play once meaning you have to diversify your deck quite a bit to succeed at enough quests to win.
So, that’s the general flow of the game. It’s reminiscent of Legend of the Five Rings, but at the same time distinct enough to not feel like a clone. It also has very nice art design and art used – unlike a number of AEG games I don’t constantly feel like I’m looking at recycled art that I recognize (looking at you Thunderstone). Also, since this came out of a Kickstarter for a comedy – and one of the rewards from the Kickstarter was to personalize cards – there is plenty of humor to be found in this game, from the simple juxtaposition of US army units and alien invaders with medieval fantasy down to individual cards such as Flaming Hands of Fiery Doom or The Biggest Turnip. There’s also plenty of interesting story, but for that I’ll let you watch the movie that spawned this whole game: The Gamers: Hands of Fate.
Romance of the Nine Empires retails for about 40 bucks and comes with 5 prebuilt decks, another 100+ cards and tokens to customize with, 125 punchboard tokens (mostly food) and a rulebook/quickstart guide. I would recommend this game for anyone who’s looking for a new card game to play with a limited buy in. This is an ECG (Expandable Card Game) after all, meaning that like Fantasy Flight’s LCGs you have a very low buy in cost to be able to play the game.
Arcane fire is the first (and hopefully not the last) expansion for R9E, released in the ECG style of a single box giving you a playset of all the cards. Sadly it does not give you enough cards to play on it’s own – despite including two new factions you will still need the base game box for staple cards to make playable decks, such as the castles.
The two new factions are the Tuatha – master duelists – and the Arcanix – summoning wizards. Each brings a new mechanic. Guardians are special powerful heroes who are summoned by wizards – to bring one into play you must also bow a wizard already in play. However it’s often worth the cost as the guardians are much more powerful for their costs, and the Arcanix wizards are especially skilled at summoning them.
The other new rule is dueling. Modeled after the burning sands knife fight mechanic, duels in R9E are a back and forth affair of thrusting with a card from hand to be countered with a parry either from hand or off the top of the deck. In either case the defender takes damage to their will equal to the difference, often leading to a lethal duel.
In addition to the new factions, each of the existing factions receives a number of new cards to put into their decks. While probably not enough to justify if you’re not interested in the new factions, I’d say both new factions are quite a bit of fun, if overly strong. The only real complaint I’ve had playing is that dueling seems too strong. Unless I’m missing a subtlety it seems like every duel could be made lethal simply by dealing enough will damage to the other combatant to bring their will to 0. I’m also glad the guardians were not in the base set as it took several reminders against one of the people I played with for them to remember the whole “bow a wizard to play” bit (he wanted to try them out so was borrowing my deck). That said, Arcane Fire adds a number of good options to the base game and I would recommend it to anyone who has the base game and liked it.
Arcane Fire retails for about 30 bucks and includes 250 cards, a rules supplement, and comes in a very nice deck box you can use if the base game box is too big for your decks.