"Used to do a little but a little wouldn't do it so the little got more and more"
I all but ignored Aeon’s End, which came out years ago back when I was EIC of a gang of reviewers working on content for an online retailer. The reviewer we had on it, Byron Campbell, did a really good review but the description and concept (co-op Final Fantasy-ish deckbuilder) just washed over me. Flash forward to November of 2019 – as is often the case, I found myself suddenly, out of nowhere, wondering about a game that I previously ignored. I wanted a “next generation” deckbuilder, and something CCG-ish and Aeon’s End seemed to fit the bill. By this point, there were multiple releases off a few Kickstarter campaigns and I would have bounced off it again by default but I happened to find a criminally inexpensive copy of the War Eternal set. Now, it’s my favorite deckbuilder of all time and I own almost everything for it.
Indie Board and Cards was kind enough to support this fanatic (and the production of this review) by sending over a review copy of Aeon’s End: Outcasts and well, what do you want me say, it’s more Aeon’s End and it’s going to get high marks because the game is as great as it is across all of its releases. From the first game to this one, it has the same complex, volatile, challenging, gameplay. The deckbuilding is as hot and dynamic as ever. The highwire act of balancing purchases with building up charges against opening breaches or managing threats is as exciting as ever. It has a whole host of new market cards (the stuff you buy) and 8 new Breach Mage characters to play around with. The commitment to diversity and inclusion continues, with an admirable range of characters of all ages, shapes, skin tones, and identities.
What’s more, it follows on from New Age and presents its material progressively as a sort of mini-campaign with sealed envelopes, which I prefer over both the straight legacy format of Aeon’s End Legacy as well as the less structured formats of past editions as it allows you to encounter the new material gradually. So there are some fun surprises to encounter as you work through the storyline, which is presented for the first time in a booklet that you may or may not be all that interested in. The game can be reset easily if you are worried about that.
There are, of course some new twists – the first Nemesis (one of the game’s big boss monsters) blew my mind because it does something so different to any other that has come before it. Shortly after dispatching this thing, my mind was blown again because it completely changes – via the rather detailed storyline that follows on from the narrative established in the previous games – the “defend Gravehold” element of the game. Without completely blowing the surprise, the imperiled city is replaced by a more active ward that will be familiar to players of previous installments.
Now, the running theme here is clearly that Outcasts a) maintains the high standard of the Aeon’s End line and b) it does some new stuff that veteran players will especially appreciate. That second item is significant because this edition is very much an “advanced” or “expert” addition to the series. I felt this way with New Age as well, but even more so with this outing. The card interactions and effects are more nuanced, detailed, and complex. More of them lean into the co-operative elements of the game and there are more off-turn options to consider. The Nemeses in this game are especially difficult, and players just establishing their Breach Mage footing might find themselves stymied or even frustrated even though the campaign gently pushes you forward even if you lose. I did not mix this set with my collection, but I can imagine that all kinds of intricacies and unexpected synergies might emerge between the new cards, mages, and bosses so it is possible that with more options the difficulty and complexity might shift up and down and that makes it a bit tricky to pin down if the balance is correct.
I’ve also been playing this game for a while and feel comfortable navigating the now-overwhelming range of options available. At least kind of. With Outcasts, I am almost at the point where I feel like I have too much Aeon’s End. In fact, my decision to not mix the sets stems from not wanting to overburden this specific release, which is in fact the first Aeon’s End game I’ve written about, with the myriad other options available. I wanted to present just Outcasts. To that end, this is a great set if you are already playing Aeon’s End and if you feel like you want more complex content and, well, more of everything.
I would not recommend that newcomers to Aeon’s End start with Outcasts at all. It’s not because I don’t think the average player couldn’t handle it or because there is some kind of super secret elitist cache that comes along with getting to The Hard Stuff right away. Rather, it’s because I think this release is more meaningful and impactful if you are coming to it with some time with earlier releases. You’ll simply get more out of it. If you’re new to this game, then War Eternal remains the ideal starting point, offering some evolutionary steps ahead of the original release but leaving features such as Expedition mode and some of the more complicated content to be discovered in either Outcasts or New Age.
But there again, this set almost has me at a tipping point where I feel like the game has become unwieldy and overstuffed with content, and that worries me. Past releases have followed a pattern of core set plus a couple of expansions, and I find myself wondering if I’ll collect anything futher. I’d hate to leave the expansions for this cycle flapping in the wind, but when I open up my Aeon’s End boxes I’m starting to feel more stressed out than excited. It’s a lot of cards and given the volatility of so many modular parts it’s become wildly inconsistent in terms of the quality of an individual session. Some market setups just don’t work for certain combinations of Nemesis and Breach Mages. Some cards that are game winners in one setup are next to useless in others. Sometimes you just don’t even have a chance because of what you are playing with.
I love volatility, unpredictability, and surprise in games and I love that these things happen in Aeon’s End. But with each subsequent release, it feels as if some control is ceded to “variety” and an overload of content. I’m not sure if I’ll ever mix Outcasts with the remainder of my sets for fear that playing the game will become more burdensome than fun. It plays great without any other content from any other release, but there again it’s best suited for veterans who have experienced the past titles- and may not be looking for more Aeon’s End content at this point.