A few weeks ago I purchased a haul of boardgames online. Games I knew I would rarely (if ever) get the chance to play. With two kids and two fulltime jobs between us, my wife and I spend most of our time (while not in our day jobs) feeding, entertaining, cajoling, and putting our little monsters to bed.
Recently, I decided to take up painting. Not on the canvas, but on small miniatures. Miniature monsters, cavalry, demons, sharpshooters, desperados, knights, winged beasts, and samurai. I bought a paint set, hauled some lumber into the basement as a makeshift table, and got to work. My wife even purchased a nice lamp and paint brush stand for my birthday. And then for four glorious nights (not in a row, mind you) I painted. I got through two dozen or so before the momentum stopped, and I returned to our routine of hitting the sack exhausted just after putting the kids to bed.
But every day I looked at boxes and boxes of boardgames purchased and wondered, who will ever even play these with me?
And then the other night, a friend made the trek out to the suburbs in the snow. I picked him up at the Metra, we grabbed one of the kids from school, spent a few minutes playing with the boys, and then a few more eating dinner. Then we popped the lid on Aristeia! which I have been dying to play since I received it before the holidays last year.
Aristeia! (What is it?)
According to Corvus Belli’s official website, Aristeia! “allows two players to take the role of a competition team manager in the greatest visual show of the Human Sphere.”
Put more simply, Aristeia! is an arena combat game for two players, where you pick a team and slug it out through five rounds of play until one player reaches victory. Unlike many miniature war games, however, the goal is not to wipe out your opponent’s figures. Quite the opposite, in fact, the goal is one of arena control: Maintain control of the current scoring zone by having more of your figures in the zone than your opponent and score points. And there is no perma-death! Once you knock out an opponent’s character, it simply heads to the infirmary for a turn, then to the bench. And then it’s back in play the next round.
Each character in Aristeia! has a set of stats (speed, armor, initiative, etc.) as well as a handful of special abilities. And most of those abilities are not combat oriented! They might involve spinning artfully around your opponent’s figures, dazzling them for a turn (know, seriously, “dazzle” is an ability), or they might “take a bullet” by standing in front of a teammate who is about to get nailed by a sniper.
As an added mechanic, each player receives a handful of cards with which to augment their turn, adding dice to rolls, canceling out opponent’s actions, or adding range to a sniper shot.
I found out early on that simply going after kills does not grant you victory. In fact, while I spent my turns blowing all my action cards on extra attack dice, my friend was maneuvering cleverly across the board to the scoring zone.
To begin, I’m going to lay my cards out on the table (sorry, couldn’t resist). I am not good at board games. I’m not good at card games. I regularly lose to my 7-year-old son (even when not trying to lose) at just about every game we play (Dragonwood, Batman Fluxx, Fishing for Words, Crazy Eights, The Game of Life, YOU NAME IT I’VE LOST IT). But that doesn’t change the fact that I love to play games. I play them for the experience. For the touch of the pieces, the joy of a unique player interaction, the thrill of an exciting new play mechanic. I play to laugh, to make fun of myself, and, yes, to lose horribly. My game session with buddy Scott was no exception.
We began by setting up the board, punching through cardboard markers, and setting up our respective teams. As my guest, Scott got first pick. He chose the Orange Team, a fantastic foursome consisting of a giant Man Panda (8-Ball), a fashionista speedster (Gata), a lone gunmen (yup, Wild Bill), and Miyamoto Mushashi, the badass samurai.
That left me with the Green Team: Maximus, the fully armored tank; Major Lunah, sniper extraordinaire; Parvati, the medic with twin submachine guns; and, finally, Hexx3r, a sorceress puppeteer.
As we set out our figurines onto the board, my children hungrily asked a dozen questions about each one, desperately hoping I would allow them to hold them. Of course, I let them. And attempted to answer their questions about a game I had barely just opened. But then it was time for bed, and after some stalling and pleading, my wife shuffled them off to bed and I thanked her gratefully, and made psionic promises to her of future date nights and foot rubs.
We began the game as we (my friend and I, and our typical game group) usually do: By just starting and assuming we will work out the rules as we go. I had taken the time to read the first five pages of the rulebook beforehand (which is enough to get in the basics), and my friend had also read about as much while I negotiated bedtime snacks with the children. A marker of a good game is in your ability to do just this: Play your first turn with some amount of understanding. And I would say Aristeia! passes this test with flying colors.
Again, I am terrible at strategy. My friend realized immediately that the best course of action was to set up a single character (Wild Bill) in some nice cover, while simultaneously sending his other recruits to the scoring zone. I, on the other hand, like a moron, wanted to open fire at the first thing in range. This led me to lose the first round, 3-nil (You receive three points if the scoring zone is occupied solely by your figures).
By the end of the second round, I had exhausted all the cards in my hand, while Scott had built up nearly a dozen (you gain card draws from defeating enemies, and for scoring). As the Underdog (a role you assume when you are losing — shocker, it was always me) you have the task of moving the scoring zone at the beginning of the next round (so long as it is unoccupied). I thought I was clever in my placements, but Scott was always one step ahead of me. The best example of this was in our final round, when I thought I had him beat. I placed the scoring zone exactly six spaces away from Maximus, who had precisely that many move points. And I thought I’d be able to take out his next nearest figure before he had a chance to move him into the scoring zone as well. But Scott instead moved 8-Ball, and using one of his action cards, swapped places with Maximus, pushing him out of the scoring zone and he into it (a lovely visual came to mind at that moment, as a giant Man-Panda deftly performed a twirl with a man in full body armor).
One mechanic that sped up gameplay and kept things interesting even when it is not your turn, is the fact that all combat is simultaneous. If your figure attacks mine, it is assumed that I am shooting back. At first, this mechanic confused (and infuriated) me. I was hiding behind some cover and took a sniper shot with Major Lunah from 8 spaces away at 8-Ball (you know, the giant Panda Man wielding a stick). I didn’t realize that successes in both our rolls (all attacks are opposed rolls) meant damage, even if rolled by the defender. So, yes, somehow, the Panda got a single hit on me. But I learned later (from a forum moderated by very kind and patient game developers) that this was intentional, and simply a game balancing mechanic.
Throughout the game, which took about two hours, there was plenty of shocking die results and hilarious and unexpected turns of events — all of which served to build a sort of story into this arena battler. I found myself eagerly rubbing my palms together with each strategic move (even if they were all terribly wrong), and happily cheering my opponent on when he foiled my ridiculous schemes.
I won’t give this game a star rating (at least, not yet). As this is my first game review, I’d rather just share my thoughts in a more general way. Plus, there’s always boardgamegeek for that, if you love numbers.
The bottom line is that I (and my opponent) enjoyed this game very much. We enjoyed the constant interaction, the gorgeous looking miniatures, and the gameplay, which was fast and unforgiving.
The sculpts of the miniatures themselves are fantastic. Even in plastic, the detail is staggering. In addition, nearly half the characters are women, which is encouraging in this genre of games (and none of them are wearing skimpy bikinis or look as if they are in distress — I’m looking at you, Conan).
While the components are all gorgeous, and the rulebooks shiny and easy to read, there were definitely a few mechanics I wished were laid out more clearly in the main rulebook. That said (and as stated above) their online community is very active (at least for now) and answers to my bemused queries came quickly and kindly.
All in all, myself and my opponent had an absolute blast. I cannot wait to paint the miniatures and go at it again. This time, perhaps, I’ll try reaching a scoring zone or two…