Res Arcana Review

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Res Arcana Review

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The best game of 2019 - so far!

Res Arcana, Tom Lehmann's newest design, might just be his masterpiece. It takes a lot to blow me away these days, but Mr. Lehmann apparently figured out the right combination to do exactly that. This is an innovative, evolutionary design with fresh ideas and a razor-sharp focus. It's a lean set of rules and mechanisms that uses a brilliant combination of modular elements to create satisfying, compelling gameplay. You might be inclined to peg this as another resource conversion or tableau-building game and to some degree you'd be correct, but I don't think I've ever played a game in this design space that manages to balance accessibility with intricacy so well.

The core innovation of this game is that each player, representing a different type of Mage, gets an 8-card micro-deck of Artifact cards from a set of 40. They are all unique, and anything not used goes back in the box. There are two ways to go about distributing these: you can just do a plain old deal or you can use some variant drafting rules for more control. These 8 Artifacts and your Mage's special ability are all you start with aside from a seed account of one of each of the four essences and a gold nugget- and you never get any more Artifacts. Artifacts have a variety of effects ranging from converting or banking essences, discounts, sacrifice effects, card draws, and so forth and the goal is to have at least ten points across your Artifacts and other holdings in your tableau. Essentially, the cards represent the eight actions you have available for the game, and these must be effectively "unlocked" by paying essences. This creates the central sense of progression and development, which sometimes doesn't go the way you might expect based on what opportunities are available.

You might find that your Druid, who should theoretically be leveraging the power of Life essences and using her ability to untap creature Artifacts, winds up trucking in the darker arts far from the wild. Or your Alchemist might wind up with a few cards that play off of his innate ability to turn essences into gold, which you can parlay into Monument purchases. Perhaps your deck included a couple of high-cost Dragons, which allow you to force other players to lose essences and you'll want to look for combos and other effects that help get them onto the table quickly. It can happen that none of your cards, when played to the table for their cost in essences, generate any resources during the Gathering phase, forcing you to look elsewhere for income. Each turn, players also get to choose a Magic Item tile from an assortment of 8, which sort of guarantees the availability of a few core actions- passing first in a round gives you first pick out of these, which can be crucial.

But it's not all about the Artifacts. There are 5 expensive Places of Power available for purchase from a common row, each of which tends to offer a stronger-than-usual ability to convert essences to points or to generate other effects consistent with the game's core schematics. There are also two available Monuments, which can be purchased only with Gold and these give points or other effects. But you may never need either of these - it all depends on what you are doing with your micro-deck and the synergies you discover as you play.

In some ways, Res Arcana reminds me of a Donald X. Vaccarino design more than a Tom Lehmann design, especially in how these modular pieces combine to create a malleable, emergent matrix of potential decisions that lead to that sense of revelatory combinations and uncovering hidden pathways along the development curve. It's incredible to see this range of options bloom over such a short playtime - we're talking 30-45 minutes here. Turns have an almost puzzle-like feel as players navigate this matrix of options and effects, but it's more than just the cards and their powers. Timing is also a key concern- you'll want to be able to identify when it's worth the essences to play an Artifact, determine when a card will be more valuable discarded to gain two essences or one gold at the expense of the card being unavailable for most of the game, and when to pass so that you can select a specific Magic Item you need for the next turn. The impact is that the solutions you discover- and I can't emphasize enough that there is a thematic sense of growing revelation through play- are tremendously satisfying.

I've seen some comparisons of the game to titles like Splendor and the Century series and I do think that there is some connective tissue, but this is a far more intricate and compelling design. Yet it isn't, to my mind, all that more complex in terms of its fundamental rules structure. The learning challenge here is more in deciphering the rebus-like system of symbols but veterans of Mr. Lehmann's classic Race for the Galaxy will remind us that these things become second nature after a few plays. There is more depth here, by far, over the other recently popular games loosely in this genre. I would almost consider it a light game with medium-weight gameplay.

And that is another of the reasons this game has me so besotted- it does virtually everything larger, more complicated games with similar gameplay concepts and design goals but in a more compact, editorial package. I especially like games that are free from bloat - one of the most common problems in game design today - and that get right down to business. Res Arcana does exactly that. It moves from immediately engaging to immensely satisfying with a pace that I find almost startling.

Special thanks to Asmodee and Sand Castle Games for supporting quality games writing here at There Will Be Games by providing us with a review copy. There Will Be Games never accepts or solicits payment for reviews or previews.


Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Summary

A stunning design from veteran designer Tom Lehmann full of fresh ideas and brilliant gameplay.
MB
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Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #296113 26 Apr 2019 10:24
I must have to play this to see the appeal because despite all the praise I'm just not feeling it. It looks like yet another soulless conversion game. Having to make your 8 cards work is neat and I guess it's innovative, but not every innovation is exciting. Reading this just made me want to play 51st State more.

That said I don't think I've disliked a Lehmann game. It's probably at least fine. If it's as successful as folks are saying it is I'm sure I'll get a chance to try it soonish.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #296122 26 Apr 2019 11:42
I'd make some effort to give it a try. Despite my stated reluctance, I tried it yesterday and found it pretty interesting. There is that "puzzling time" where you sit there hemming and hawing over what direction to turn in, but the forced interaction between players in terms of competing for monuments, places, magic items, and even who's going to pass first makes it far more of a game between people than Race for the Galaxy ever was. I only played one 2-player game and we went with the suggested "first game" stuff to try to get a feel for how the system is supposed to work. My opponent played the Duellist and I played the Transmuter.

My initial impression is that the Duellist has a pretty significant edge; just for the ability to gain gold every turn. Granted, that's with the suggested starting cards, so perhaps he doesn't have a way to gain elan every turn to get that gold. But with that economic edge, my opponent bought two monuments to my zero and also had another random edge: a dragon. Said dragon didn't impact me very much, since I had multiple ways of avoiding its fire breath, but that combined with good essence-generating cards like Tree of Life made winning with the Dragon's Lair a foregone conclusion.

I think the game works with 2 players, but that random draw means that one of them might be aced out pretty easily. It will doubtlessly be different with more players and it can't be more emphasized that this was only one game. Still, I'm definitely interested to try again.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #296139 26 Apr 2019 13:33
If this were 10 years ago, it feels like Res Arcana would be one of those games that gets super popular, and everyone buys, and almost everyone likes (or at least tolerates) but in this era of shorter attention spans & minis-laden Kickstarters, it sadly ends up being another blip on the radar that gets steamrolled in the Cult Of The New stampede. It has all of the hallmarks of a "professional game" the sorts of which used to be easy to find & pick out & champion, but now is sadly lacking.

Although it does play notably better with 2 or 3 instead of 4.
stormseeker75's Avatar
stormseeker75 replied the topic: #296208 28 Apr 2019 17:46
This game is fantastic. It's a superb engine-builder. The rules are simple and clean. Once you learn the Euroglyphics, it's straightforward to play. This game has a ton of replayability.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #296211 28 Apr 2019 18:39
You guys singlehandedly put this on my radar. Thanks.
stormseeker75's Avatar
stormseeker75 replied the topic: #296261 29 Apr 2019 18:23
There's just so much replay in that one box. It's pretty great. I really appreciate how you have to decide which cards you will play into your tableau and which will be fodder for essences. It's so simple and yet so smart at the same time. I like it much better than Race. I think it's more elegant. Race may be better for more players, though.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #296383 01 May 2019 20:53
Just played my first game. Fuuuuuuuuuucccck is it good.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #296403 02 May 2019 10:55

Josh Look wrote: Just played my first game. Fuuuuuuuuuucccck is it good.

We told you.
Always take our word for it.
ratpfink's Avatar
ratpfink replied the topic: #296458 03 May 2019 10:46
My first play was really underwhelming. We went with the suggested "first time" setup(3 prescribed cards, 5 randoms, particular side of the PoPs). It felt like a JASE cube converter. None of the excitement of Race in figuring out what other people are doing and how I can craft my strategy to best mitigate or take advantage of that. Just boring "how do I optimize my cube production" decisions and glance at other people's cube supplies to see what Places of Powers they are probably going for. I'd give it another shot since I have a better feel for the flow now and it's pretty short, so I guess that makes it the best cube converter ever since most I would never play again.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #296526 04 May 2019 14:16
I'll give this a shot if it comes out around my table, but I'm real skeptical when people say a game is better at being Race for the Galaxy than Race for the Galaxy.

The core of "pay for your plays with other possible plays," is the real interesting part in RFTG, and does it better than San Juan or perhaps even good old Summoner Wars.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #296546 05 May 2019 01:08
This is one of those cases where I already own RftG, so... no thanks! Tap's off. But I'm glad this is incrementally better for anyone else who doesn't own the former.