First Look at Soul Raiders

The Soul Raiders kickstarter is launching tomorrow.

This is a first look based on an incomplete preview prototype of the game. I was able to play with perhaps 50% of the mechanical features and less than 10% of the story content.

Some may argue that exploration and board gaming do not combine. A video game? Sure. They’re great for exploration because the developers can build huge, fantastic worlds in which you can roam freely. But a board game is contained to the box. You open up the box and the entire game sits before you. After you set up the game and look through the rules, what’s left to explore? 

A stack of shuffled cards or tiles can simulate discovery by sending random encounters your way. This requires a measure of suspension of disbelief by the players, as they have to ignore the fact that it’s merely randomness. Legacy games try to capture a sense of discovery by blocking off parts of the game to you until you progress further. It’s crude, but it can work. Marc Andre’s Soul Raiders provides a more elegant response.

Borrowing from early video games that had you progress from static (or nearly static) screen to static screen, Soul Raiders holds each adventure in a stack of large cards. When you enter an area, you might only have one card on the table displayed, but that card will contain one very important feature: possibility. Each location may contain some sort of triggered effect on it, a skill test you can attempt to gain information, multiple paths to traverse, and more. 

I’ve grown so used to the straightforward barely-exploration of dungeon crawlers like Descent and Gloomhaven or the uncaring whims of a shuffled stack. Soul Raders’ combination of expansiveness and design blew me away. Knowing that, if I go through a particular door, I will find on the other side not only a surprise, but one created to tell a specific and particular story, is a wholly unfamiliar feeling to me in a board game.

Other games have come close. Near and Far sprinkled in story beats at particular spaces on its map, but that felt less like pure exploration and more like triggering the next chapter in a book in the middle of a eurogame. I know that The 7th Continent is well respected and might capture a similar feeling, but I haven’t had the chance to play it. For me, Soul Raiders is novel.

The art certainly helps. When I look at the credits I see no fewer than 15 different artists credited. They should be commended. Even in my small preview copy the location art truly captures a sense of place. I finished playing the included prologue more than a week ago and I can still vividly picture in my mind the ruins I explored. Many board games treat exploration as a series of discrete locations. Soul Raiders (at least in the prologue scenario) opens up the details of one single location. I understand the architecture and geography of those ruins in three-dimensional space.

I want to make this point clear: Soul Raiders is worth checking out for its exploration alone. Now let’s talk about the rest of the game. 

Mechanically, Soul Raiders borrows from the many great dungeon-crawler/fantasy deckbuilders before it. You’ve got a deck of cards representing your skills and abilities, and it’s your job to do your best with the hand you have on any given turn. However, a lot of flexibility is built in–more than I’ve seen before. Each card has a number on it. Use that number for whatever action you want. If you use it for the action type specified on the card you also get some kind of bonus. It’s sort of a modification of Mage Knight’s system in which you can play any card sideways for 1 point of whatever basic action you want, except in Mage Knight such a play feels mildly desperate. In Soul Raiders it’s commonplace.

This makes the card play feel much less constrained. You’re not battling against the forces of fatigue, hubris, and cruel fate so much as always competent and occasionally super powerful. Compared to Mage Knight and Gloomhaven, the two titans of this mechanical space, it feels a touch limp.

On the flip side, Soul Raiders contains a massive amount of different triggers, status effects, spell types, action types, etc. I count 43 different symbols listed on the back of the rule book cheat sheet and an additional 17 in the “spells” section. There may be more. I don’t know if I’ve ever referenced a rulebook so frequently for such a simple game. And it is simple! But in trying to be so large in scope I suspect people will find it to have a fairly steep learning curve–or perhaps more accurately an “icon-learning curve”. 

Many of those icons deal with how to read and interpret the exploration cards, which is the price you pay for such an immersive system. After the ~2 hour prologue scenario I was confident about the meaning of roughly 80% of the icons I was seeing. 

Is this worth it? The answer for me is an unequivocal yes.

One of my most vivid gaming memories as a kid was exploring the vast world of Vvardenfell in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I had never felt such freedom in a video game before. It was sort of terrifying. I don’t think a board game can ever capture that feeling, particularly without app support.

Soul Raiders brought to mind another video gaming memory. Towards the beginning of The Wind Waker you’re tasked with sneaking through an island prison complex. In a small cut scene you are presented with the whole of the island. There it is. Go, explore, conquer. It’s a fantastic feat of level design, one I can still recall over a decade later .A location in a board game can be as simple as a dot on a map or an empty hexagon. The best games can endow such shapes with import and meaning. Soul Raiders goes beyond this. Beyond a dot or a name or some dazzling art, the locations in Soul Raiders are places. At least that’s the aim. I’ve only been able to taste the amuse bouche of this multi-course feast. Bring on the rest of the meal. At a minimum it’ll be interesting.

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