Review for Two

Review for Two – Empyreal: Spells & Steam

Thank you for checking review #125 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

An overview of Empyreal: Spells & Steam

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Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a board game designed by Trey Chambers that is published by Level 99 Games. The box state it plays 2-6 players and has a playtime of 30-75 minutes.

The industrial age has come at last to the World of Indines! Use your ingenuity and the skill of your team of technomancers to cross the continent of Indines while connecting towns and building a vibrant trade network. Research new spells as you carve a path through the many treacherous terrains of the continent, using your company’s unique advantages to outbuild the competition and secure supply lines for rare resources.

In Empyreal: Spells & Steam, technomancers use mana to build rails, and the amount of mana crystals required to cast a spell varies by terrain and by the potency of the spell. Mana crystals must recharge after being used, so your choice of when and where to use each spell will be critical to determining the efficiency of your construction engine.

The towns you choose to connect to your network will provide critical resources, and the value of these resources changes over time. Some become more valuable as they become more connected, while others become less valuable as their abundance increases. Thus, you need to be wary of what your competitors are building into their trade networks and adapt your strategies accordingly to maximize the value of your stock portfolio.

Reaching new cities first gives you additional benefits, and being the first to bridge the continent provides you with a sizable commission from your backers. However, those who build first are more at the mercy of changing markets. Time your construction projects to maximize your profits and the flow of mana.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

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 This box and its contents simply scream intentional design. What I mean here is that this game provides a comprehensive package. The components are all great in quality, even with just the retail version of the game. Even more than that, though, is that the game comes with storage items for everything that are both functional for packing the game away and keeping things accessible during the game. A lot of time and effort went into making this game, and it shows from the time you first open up that box.

 Gameplay is extremely simple (and the rules are done rather well!). You either move your conductor pawn and activate train cars at the space it stops, or you Administrate to replenish your supplies and expand your train car choices. Easy. Simple. Most of what you are doing involves placing trains on the map, typically adjacent to trains you already have on the map and going onto the terrain type pictured on the train car being used. There are exceptions, of course, and those are the trickier parts to get the hang of, but by and large this game can be taught in a matter of minutes, dealing with what train cars and specialists do as they are revealed.

 Speaking of which, let’s talk about the elephant in the room for the game: iconography. Sometimes iconography works well and a game is intuitive in how it flows once you understand what you see. Other times you need to have a reference guide at hand at all times in the game to understand what you are looking at. I’ve played games on both ends of the spectrum, and Empyreal: Spells & Steam falls more on the intuitive side. Yes, there are specialists that I still need to look up, but that is one time per game, at the time when considering which to take, and after that I don’t need to look back to remember what they do. The train cars? During the second play I was only looking up a select few to ensure what I thought it “said” was accurate and, in all but one case, I was correct. Some folks have made a big deal over the lack of text on the components, but I have found it to be something more helpful than harmful as the icons can be parsed quickly to see what something does, rather than needing to read text spelling it all out.

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 The game felt like it was sort of on rails during the first play. It felt limiting and restricted to a sheer race of laying down a pattern to connect the most hexes of a color to a specific city for delivery. But as the game hit the table more, I started to see more “advanced” concepts shining through, such as the Transfers, which open up the map faster. After all, your trains don’t need to be connected to be considered “connected”. It’s magic, right? Suddenly the map became more aggressive as you wanted to close in on an opponent, not just to have a chance to steal their goods but to be able to efficiently leapfrog their train and cut down on the number of cars you need to place to reach a specific location. Dropping Wasteland onto the map to clear out goods became a viable strategy. Taking train cars that provided free transfers suddenly felt as powerful, or moreso, than something that might offer a variety of terrain type placements. That isn’t even considering specialists.

 And those specialists are the stars of the show. They are the toppings for the ice cream that makes it feel like you are doing more than just eating vanilla ice cream. They add asymmetry for the players and allow you to break the ordinary rules in ways big and small – depending on the specialist type. Some help you get your own engine running faster or more efficiently, while others might help you to slow down an opponents’ plans. This asymmetry is the heart of Empyreal, and is what sets it apart from the other train-based games in the genre. Not only is it the distinguishing trademark, but it also helps open the door for…

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Near infinite replay value. This is something that seems like a strong point for both the designer and the publisher in question, meaning their pairing is always going to produce something that plays out differently every time it hits the table. With each company having a different player board of train cars, including a special train car on each of them, plus various conductors to mix-and-match would be enough. Shoot, the varied train car abilities would be enough by itself. Then you add in the specialists, with three types and taking one of each type over the course of the game. And the slightly-modular map layout. There is room for small variants, such as having mixed Demand Tiles on the cities or having players be able to draft specialists. All of these combine to provide a very different experience every single time you play the game.

 One of the worst things you can make a player do is to have to turn back to the rulebook mid-game. This is the one aspect where I wish they had included a separate printout for the various items with iconography. Don’t get me wrong, everything is clear as can be in the book. But having a single sheet with the train cars, and then one for each of the three specialist types, would make the process of cross-checking or verifying abilities a little easier.

 Call me crazy, but I almost wish the tiles for the map were smaller, so you could mix-and-match for a greater terrain variety from play-to-play. Yes, sometimes it might mean there is a cluster of 4 Forest areas together relatively close to the Green Town, but that would just mean you need to decide whether or not to try and focus there to be first to deliver that, or perhaps to spoil the opponents’ plans and deliver using 2 of those even faster, or ignore it completely and set up your own engine. I get that the map tiles are probably mostly balanced with the size, but I do wonder how it might change things with smaller tiles…

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 The solo mode is forced inside the expansion. And honestly, having played it via a friend’s copy of the expansion, there is no need for it to be an exclusive piece of the game that costs $40-50 more to obtain. Huge miss for the solo gaming market here, as it is already a costly game. To have to increase that cost by another 50% roughly to play it solo is going to keep others away from what is definitely a fun solitaire experience.

Final Thoughts

This game has been one of the most anticipated games to be released, with it making my list back in 2018 of games I was excited for. I’m an outspoken fan of Level 99 Games as a company, and equally a fan of Trey Chambers as a designer. Everything about Empyreal: Spells & Steam sounded like it would place it squarely within my wheelhouse and, better yet, be one only a few games from Level 99 Games that my wife might be willing to play. It took a long time for this one to deliver its goods, but it finally arrived and we’ve been able to get in some plays of the game (and I’ve even dabbled with the solo mode that comes in the expansion and, well, at some point I’ll be reviewing the expansion and covering that in greater detail but let’s just say I enjoy this one solo as well).

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And this game isn’t what I expected. Not in a bad way, mind you. But when you hear “train game” you either think of Ticket to Ride, or you think of 18XX. I was expecting something about in the middle of those two, but truth be told it is more akin to a fantasy flavor of Age of Steam, a game I played for the first time only weeks before my first plays of Empyreal. And I can’t help but see a lot of great things in both of those games: they support a wide range of player counts, they have built-in variability (AoS with maps, Empyreal with combinations of abilities, train cars, etc.), they involve building routes to deliver goods on the map to locations seeking those goods. And, truth be told, I think both could easily co-exist in my collection. AoS would likely appeal more to my wife and her desire for pick-up-and-deliver games of a moderate weight. Empyreal appeals to me with its asymmetric play and special powers. Neither one is inherently worse, they are just different. Kind of like how I enjoy both brats and hot dogs – one doesn’t replace the other, and there will be times I might want one over the other.

And for me, that game will be Empyreal. It is completely my jam when it comes to games, all fanboy considerations aside. The components, which is nothing more than sheer chrome to me, are absolutely delightful and look wonderful. I have the retail edition and don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not having the Deluxe Upgrade – much like I’m fine playing games with the cardboard money tokens instead of paying extra for metal coins. Empyreal has proven to be a game that opens up with repeated plays, possessing a multitude of strategies to pursue that you only grasp after a few plays and realize the benefit that something like a Wasteland Transfer can provide even at its “high” cost. The game can be as cutthroat or as friendly as you want it to be, especially as certain specialists or train cars enter in the mix. Especially at two players, where there is enough room to kind of spread out in some of the map, although eventually you’re likely to fight over resource tokens on the map.

If you’ve always wanted a game with something a little more than the random route-fulfillment of Ticket to Ride but aren’t entranced with the economic ideas contained within many of the other train games, this might be one to check out. It is a pure route builder, with your routes being represented by trains placed on the map, that is focused on delivering goods in certain quantities to cities demanding said goods. Because it has a strong, narrow focus with relatively fast turns, the gameplay is quick to flow and the player engines (pun intended) accelerate tremendously as the game chugs along. This makes it an easy game to teach, and a relatively fast game to play. I think we clock in at under an hour with two, and with more plays this will probably drop down to around the 20 minutes per player mark for the two of us. It feels like a game I can teach to almost anyone – some won’t be enamoured with the game, but I do believe that most will find enjoyment in the game with its smooth, solid gameplay and player-friendly play time.

This game is one I plan to keep in my collection for a long, long time. It has a very tall box, making it stand out on the shelf, but I forgive that because of the high quality of the storage system that comes with the game. It is nice having a game that can play as few as one (with expansion) and as many as six (with just the base game) or eight (with the two extra factions from the expansion) and isn’t a heavy, or light, game to teach and play. It isn’t often that I find a 2020 release so soon in the year that I fall in love with, but Empyreal: Spells & Steam delivered on everything I hoped it could be. Trey Chambers and the Level 99 Games team did it again here, and even if you haven’t loved any of their other games this one is worth checking out. If my wife can enjoy one of their games, so can you!

Board Gaming · Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: BattleCON: Trials of the Indines

Thank you for checking review #59 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

**A copy of the game was sent for review purposes. Opinions remain our own.

An Overview of BattleCON: Trials of the Indines

BattleCON: Trials of the Indines is a game designed by D. Brad Talton Jr. and was published by Level 99 Games. The box states that it can play 2 players and has a 10-45 minute play time.

BattleCON is a board game that brings the tactics, strategy, and ferocity of 2D fighting games like Street Fighter to your tabletop. Each BattleCON Fighter features a Unique Ability–a combat subsystem designed specifically for them, giving them a never-before-seen fighting style that you will have to master, and that your opponents will have to play around.

Trials is a new medium-sized box in the BattleCON series, containing 10 new fighters, each with a complete range of all-new skills and abilities.

Trials is the fourth box in the BattleCON series.

Setup and gameplay for 2 Players

Each player selects one of the 10 fighters in the set and takes their tuckbox which will have their specific cards (including the base cards universal to all characters), the character’s standee, a reference card (which is given to the opponent), and any special token or card powers that might be unique to that character. Place the standee for each character on the board on the spaces marked with the red/blue dots. Players will then select a base and a style to go into their first discard pile and select another pair to go in their second discard pile (the cards have recommended ones marked for these!). Each player takes 20 life and 2 force and are ready to begin.

During a turn each player will secretly select a base and a style card and place them face-down in front of them. Once both players have made this decision, it moves to an ante phase where (in turn order), the players can ante in some temporary boosts to power, priority (speed), or stun guard (and some characters also have their own unique special tokens or cards that can be anted at this point). Once both players pass consecutively, the players reveal their combinations and compare priority. The player with the higher value becomes the first player for the beat. If there is a tie, the players CLASH and have to select a new base to replace the current base card. If it is still a tie after that, the process is repeated until they are either out of base cards to play or until one player wins priority. In the case of the former case, the beat ends and they move to the end of the beat without taking their turns.

Starting with the first player, each player resolves any Start of Beat effects. Then the active player does any Before Activating effects, makes their attack (factoring in range), resolves any Hit effects, and then resolves any After Activating effects. Then the reactive player does the same thing so long as they did not get stunned. If you take damage greater than your Stun Guard for the round, then the reactive player loses their actions and does nothing for the beat.

Finally both players (in turn order) resolve any End of Beat effects. Then they cycle their discards, bringing the leftmost pair into their hand, shifting the remaining pair on the board over one space, and putting the cards they just played into the right-most space on the board. Each player will gain one force token (two if they have 7 or less life) and play proceeds to a new beat. The game continues until one player is out of life.

My Thoughts

 The mechanics of this are simple yet the depth within the game makes it complex as well. You’re choosing two cards to pair together to try and damage your opponent, avoid their attacks, or boost power for a future beat. However, the dynamics within all of that space is mind blowing. Not only does that apply to the game in general, but every single character in this box is unique in ways that makes it so a one-size-fits-all tactic is difficult to execute.

 Which is why there is a point here regarding the characters themselves. They are 100% unique in their gameplay. I have played, or played against, all ten of them in the box and it never felt same-y. The best feeling is, of course, finding that character that is YOUR character. I enjoyed seeing a buddy of mine find it when playing Burgundy XIII. I felt it myself when playing as Amon, which happened to be the same exact match.

 The artwork on the characters is outstanding. I’ve instantly become a fan of Nokomento’s art, which happens to be featured in a good number of Level 99 Games titles out there.

 The ante phase can be interesting, even though a decent number of times it might just be both of you “passing” to get to the reveal. You ante to boost your Priority, which tells me you really want to go first. Or that you feel like your number is a hair too low and so I could probably ante back to maintain my order. But you might also be trying to get me to waste my own force. This becomes even more interesting if you have two characters who have special things they can ante into play. This phase is just a step in the process some of the time, but I love the times when you feel like that decision to ante or pass really matters. And few things are worse than anteing up a ton of power and priority only to have them gleefully reveal that Dodge card…

 The lore in the whole Indines universe wants to sweep my imagination away. There are nuggets to be found in the game, particularly the Character Guide book, but I really wish there was more. I would 100% read a novella about pretty much any one of these characters, or anything placed in that Indines world. There are tidbits dropped in the Level Cap podcast, but it’d be better if they did something similar to Greater Than Games’ The Letters Page, at least for delivering lore content. But this solidifies to me that I really want to write for Brad and his Indines world.

 All characters have the same set of bases, plus one character-specific base. While the flavor shines through in the styles, I want to take a moment to appreciate those base cards. Even the long range characters have some smaller range attacks. Even the short range characters have long range attacks. They can all dodge. They all have ways to get Stun Guard, to play something with decent power, or decent priority. It prevents them from being forced into a sour situation where they simply can’t accomplish anything – so long as you account for the two beats where the cards are cycling.

 And that card cycling system is perfect for this game. I can’t spam an attack over and over. I can’t dodge endlessly until I get enough force to drop my finisher. I can’t just sit back and blast you from across the board. I have to not only adapt to what I don’t have, but also plan for what I might want or need in a beat or two. The fact that a fighting game has long-term strategy that you can employ still baffles me in a good way. I love it, and having to account for it when trying to choose my cards.

 Overall the rules for the game are fine and functional. However, there are omissions that could lead to some frustration. My first few games, I thought that the Character’s special powers that could be ante’d had to be paid for just like the tokens. It wasn’t until I played BattleCON Online that I started to question this and, eventually, learned the right answer. The component listing was also a little iffy, as I struggled to place a few of the tokens in the right place because nowhere in the book did it mention that the staff went with Kimbhe or that these four tokens I had leftover went to Lucida. And what about resolving a Clash? Do the cards you replace go back to your hand or do they cycle in the discards? 97% of what you need to know is covered, but it is those few instances, some of them not even specific to a single character, that are missing in here.

 There can be quite the steep learning curve for the game, as you will benefit from knowing the character you are playing as and the one you’re playing against. This is a game, since there is no luck, where a skilled opponent should win the vast majority of the time over an unskilled one. If you dislike a game where there is a steep learning curve, and where you might get thoroughly thrashed for your first dozen learning plays, then you might be turned off by this aspect of the game. But if you can find at least one person of a similar skill level who is willing to play with you, both of you will benefit from that practice.

 One player with Analysis Paralysis might make this game drag. Two players with it definitely will make it drag. The decision of the combination to play can feel so overwhelmingly critical, especially late in the game when both players are jockeying to finish off the other. The other thing that can make a match run long? Stupidity and/or miscalculations. I’ve been guilty of them both. I’ve made dumb plays that, as soon as I flipped the cards, I realized were really bad decisions. I’ve flipped cards thinking I’ll be in range and find out that I’m 1 space too close or far to pull off my attack. A few rounds of whiffing is funny at first, but it can make it feel like the game drags on a little too long. 20-30 minutes per match is the sweet spot, but far too often I’ve been involved in ones that creep up to that 45 minute mark.

Final Thoughts

I was never very good at the arcade-style fighting games. I was a button masher, because I simply had no patience to try and learn all the special combinations to execute the right moves at the right times. I could usually luck my way through some tough match-ups, but I would never get progressively better at the games.

Thankfully, there is no button mashing necessary in BattleCON. You get all of the wonderful elegance of those fighting games in tabletop format, and all of your moves are unlocked and available for use…apart from that brilliant “cool down” system in here. It levels the playing field, so to speak, and makes it more about being able to read and adapt to the board state as well as learning how best to function with each different fighter in the box.

This game is 100% fun right out of the box. Seriously, some of my best board game memories in the past month have come from this game and the laughter that can ensue. It is increasingly hilarious to state the names of your chosen combination in a fun voice, especially if you’re both getting into that aspect. It is fun to see both of your carefully-laid plans get foiled as you reveal cards and both move out of range so your attacks fail. It is epic to be beaten down to 1-2 life and come back to drop that last 10-12 off your foe to “steal” the victory when on the brink of defeat. Fun. Fun. Fun.

There is definitely a skill curve in this game, as you simply won’t know how to effectively pilot a character until you’ve played them a few times. Additionally, you won’t know how to counter a character until you’ve played them, or against them, a few times. And even then, you have to account for a person’s personal playing style. They might make choices you don’t expect because you’d play Combination X and they put out Y instead. This is a game of playing your opponent as much as it is playing your own game, and that makes it a brilliant design.

Had I played this game before my Top 25 was created, this would definitely have made an appearance on the list. It is in there right now, although I couldn’t tell you where or what game dropped off to make a place for this one. But this is a fantastic addition to my collection. Nearly everyone I’ve taught the game has expressed both a desire to play again and a desire to pick this game up for themselves. And with four boxes out, and a big release coming in July on Kickstarter, this is definitely a game to consider putting on your own radar.

Players who dislike direct conflict and the process of tearing down your opponent will not really enjoy this game. Nothing against Rahdo, but this is a game I don’t think he would play and that is a shame. Because as much as I like playing in a sandbox to build my own engine while my wife does the same in her sandbox, there is definitely a time and a place for a fun, beat-’em-up style of game. I can’t speak to others out there, but I played Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat and Soul Calibur growing up and this is everything I could want out of a game inspired by those. I’m beyond happy with the contents in this box, although I highly doubt it’ll be the only BattleCON title that will enter into my collection. Because while I don’t need more characters, I need more characters.

And that is a good sign for the game. I could play this box alone a hundred times and still enjoy using these ten fighters. But since they all play so differently, I really want to see who else is out there and find that one character that is so my style that I’ll play them like I play Fanatic when I bust out a game of Sentinels of the Multiverse.


Hopefully you found this review to be a useful look at BattleCON: Trials of the Indines. If you’re interested in providing support for Cardboard Clash so I can continue to improve what we offer, check out my page over on Patreon:

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