The best movie fight scenes are rarely about the fighting itself. When I think about the fight scenes most notably implanted in my mind, I think about the best of Star Wars: the emotional passion of Luke vs. the calculating Darth Vader; the respite in the battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Jon, and Darth Maul, each person typified by their reaction to that moment; even the Wagnerian excess of the final Obi-Wan/Anakin spar. I think about Hero, where the idea of fighting as an extension of personality is so ingrained that one person’s weakness is revealed via their calligraphy. I recall the climax of Rob Roy, where two opposing personalities and fighters square off–one trained, polished, and proud, the other desperate, slow, and full of grit.
Games, too, communicate ideas through fight scenes, though there are perhaps a broader range of ideas available even as they’re harder to grasp. Mage Knight sees fighting as a calculated effort of planning and precision. Magic: The Gathering has temperamental god-like beings slinging spells back and forth as a reflection of their own creativity and cunning. Star Wars Armada embraces the weight and momentum of bulky space ships, drawing a line between ships blasting cannonballs towards each other on a tempestuous sea and star destroyers launching TIE fighters and slinging plasma in the cold void.
Godsforge, the absolutely beautiful game from Brendan Stern and Atlas Games, has a tough time finding a compelling identity with its fighting. The rulebook explains that the magical currency of this land, etherium, has diminished and the only major source of it remaining (housed at the titular Godsforge) is up for grabs. It’s a free-for-all, then, and one can imagine spellcasters ruthlessly trying to vie for control of this magical geography. The setting is compelling enough, but the game doesn’t capture it.
Godsforge is trying to balance two distinct gameplay elements, and it fails to do either particularly well. There’s the dice manipulation, which seems so fearful of succumbing to too much randomness that it overcorrects into mundanity. Each person rolls four dice, and each card has a particular cost to be paid with dice. Maybe it requires precisely a three and a five, or three odd-numbered dice, or four in a row, or a three and dice that add up to eleven or more. These costs seem specific enough to be challenging but there are a number of ways to manipulate your dice.
First, everyone gets two free re-rolls per turn just because. Additionally, every “1” is a wild that can be turned into any number you want (between 1-6). Every six can be turned in for a “veilstone” gem that can be used to increase or decrease the value of a die by one. Finally, every value you’re looking for can be gained by adding dice together. Need a five? A two and three combined will do just as well.
The result of all of this tinkering is that most of the time you’ll be able to cast the most powerful card among the four you have in hand. If not the most powerful, probably the second most powerful. And because you can only cast one card per turn, that’s the primary challenge of Godsforge: figure out how, with the dice you’ve got, you can employ the best card possible. It’s a decent puzzle, and every once in awhile you’ll come across a particularly tricky situation that requires genuine ingenuity to get the card you want to play down on the table.
But I can’t get over the fact that you can only play one card per turn. Doesn’t it take away player agency and a lay of decision making to eliminate the opportunity to play two weaker cards over one powerful one? Some cards will let you play another card as a special ability, but that makes me feel like the game is railroading me into precisely the kinds of plays it wants me to play. I feel manipulated, like Godsforge is telling me “have fun!” instead of providing the opportunity to do so.
Similarly, you don’t have any choice over who you fight–you’re always attacking the person to your left and defending against the person on your right. I suppose this decision can be defended on the grounds of trying to eliminate kingmaking, but, again, it feels like the game softening edges until there’s nothing left at all. Assuming the people I’m playing with are not going to kingmake in an unfun, meta way (which would be the case for most groups), shouldn’t we be able to make tactical decisions about who is in the most powerful position and target them? Another decision point eliminated.
That said, moments of genuine delight peek through, particularly once someone’s been eliminated and the remaining combatants start losing health like it’s gone out of style. One can imagine powerful spellcasters, both mortally wounded, summoning whatever they can think of in a last-ditch effort to hold their ground, hubris meeting raw power in an assault mutually doomed from the start. Those moments make sense, and your madcap rush to find more powerful cards, heal the damage that you’ve suffered, and finish off your opponents before it’s too late fit with the theme of Godsforge.
The rest of the time the random card draw and stumbling about to try to find any kind of synergy feels arbitrary. Everyone draws from the same common deck of cards, which means you never feel ownership over your abilities. The cards have no story to tell beyond their own borders. There’s very little in the way of synergy because that would simply turn the game into a rush to find the right cards. Instead, each card is powerful in its own right, bringing significant turns to the battle or establishing a strong defensive position. But despite their power, they don’t feel meaningful. You didn’t do much to bring this giant creature about, the magic ur-deck simply decided you got it instead of your neighbor.
The cherry on top of all of this mundanity is the fact that the combat in Godsforge is, quite literally, one-dimensional. There’s attack and defense, and not much else. Sure, there are cards that do things like remove a single creature, and others that contain choices within them (want to spend veilstones to boost an effect? There’s lots of that). But all of it boils down far too easily to counting up the amount of health/defense/lifegain and playing the card with the bigger number.
All of this disappointment despite the art! I mean, look at that beautiful art! The creatures are brutal monsters, illustrated like you’d see them, fleeting, in the heat of battle, all full of movement and danger. The tone is somewhere close to, but not quite, apocalyptic. The best are the spells. Too often fantasy magic languishes in the unimaginative whiz-pop sparkly lights we’ve all seen before. The spells in Godsforge ask, “what are the most mysterious, magical, dangerous forces in the universe” and rightly answers, “geometry”. Each spell card is an articulate, twisted, labyrinth of lines and shapes, fundamental structures of the universe, brought to hand.
I just wish I did something interesting with them. The art makes Godsforge more than just your typical mediocre game. It makes it a disappointment. There’s potential here to create an interesting world, and more importantly, an interesting combat system, but Godsforge is too soft and too straightforward. Instead of combat that serves to tell a story, push a feeling, or illustrate the personalities of the combatants, Godsforge feels, simply, like spellcasters standing in a field, lobbing spells at each other, until all but one falls down. I squint, but I can’t find the drama.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Length: 20 Minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 2/5