Some games feel open and comfortable. Whatever system the designer created feels like it could contain endless iteration and tweaking. You’ve got a general idea that it’s probably balanced, but there’s room in the design to breathe. If a given item cost three instead of four it probably wouldn’t change much. At high level play there might need to be some adjustments, but for the vast majority of players they’ll never see that kind of precision anyways.
Other games feel like they’re balanced on the edge of a knife, threatening to fall off the side one way or the other with the slightest push. They feel like feats of design precision, where every piece of the puzzle is necessary. They bring a kind of inherent tension, as you worry that the game will fall apart at any moment. At high levels–who knows? I don’t want to find out.
Anthelion: Conclave Of Power, the new wallet game from designer Daniel Solis and Button Shy games, is absolutely in the latter category. It takes that most tenuous of game mechanisms–the push/pull tug of war–and *ahem* pushes it to its limits. Is it broken? I don’t know, but it certainly feels like it could be, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s just one of those games where each part of it seems nearly too powerful, and yet it somehow works.
The setup is simple: each player takes the role of one of the base game’s two factions–Liberation or Dynasty. I suppose Liberation are the good guys because they’re called Liberation, but whatever lore is in here is slight at best. I think it’s a continuation of some fantasy sci-fi universe from other Button Shy games? Anyways, it’s all vaguely familiar from literally every sci-fi book or movie or TV show or video game you’ve ever played. Nevertheless, the art is clean and the characters are diverse.
So you choose a side, set up 5 planet cards, and place five character cards at random underneath the center planet. Each planet and nearly all of the character cards provide actions that you’ll be using to attempt to pull characters to your side. All of them are unique and they manipulate the concept of pushing the pulling is just about every way possible. Some will push something and pull another. One will just teleport another card to it. A couple could potentially every other card towards your base.
Each card also has a star value, which is how much they’re worth once you pull them all the way into your “conclave”. In addition, all kinds of card effects manipulate those values. Manage to snag the diplomat? Great! Now your opponent has three additional stars until you get another Liberation character, and the game goes to 10 stars.
Every random selection of five cards is its own little puzzle, and there are some very interesting combinations. Anthelion almost feels like an abstract game, with its focus on tempo, puzzling out a given board state, and tight win conditions. 10 stars doesn’t feel like a lot, until you’re 10 minutes in and realize that if your opponent can score that one particular card, they’re going to immediately win.
There’s no room for mistakes, and Anthelion is wonderful in how it immediately punishes any mistake. In the games I’ve lost I’ve been able to point out precisely where I went wrong, and that kind of feedback is fantastic. When you can evaluate your decisions and see precisely where you blundered, you learn how to play better and you can feel that progress.
As a result, Anthelion is the most strategically taxing Button Shy game I’ve played. It’s not a game you’ll pull out for a quick microgame jaunt. Rather, it’s the sort of game where a random glance at its play will most likely see both sides staring at the cards in silent contemplation. Teasing out the implication of a given move isn’t just a matter of seeing how many pulls you get and what your opponent could do in response, it’s a matter of analyzing what can happen after that. Some random elements prevent too much perfect foresight–when a new character enters the play area it’s drawn from a face-down deck–but the player who thinks ahead the most will be at a very significant advantage.
My quibbles with the game are minor. Defensive, slow play seems to be the way to go. Every time I’ve tried to be very aggressive it’s backfired in spectacular fashion. This is a result of many of the cards providing both a negative and positive effect. Squeezing out tempo advantages from those effects are what the game wants you to do, and I don’t see the potential for much stylistic diversity.
We’ve also speculated that the Liberation side has a bit of an advantage, due to always having the first turn and more cards of its color (which give a +1 star bonus to the Liberation player). I’m sure there’s some design reason for this, but in my handful of plays the Liberation player always seems to have the easier time.
Nonetheless, Anthelion is a smart game and one of the best I’ve played from Button Shy. They’re going to be releasing a number of expansions for it in 2019 and I’m very excited to see what kind of new variations on pulling a card back and forth Solis will come up with.
Review copy provided by publisher.
+Actions are powerful, but not overwrought
+Rewards thinking ahead and clearly punishes mistakes
-Art is colorful but the theme isn’t compelling
-Broad strategies seem limited
Length: 20 Minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 3/5