Board Game Review: Guardians of Graxia
Michael Eckenfels has gotten hold of Petroglyph's Orc and Elf infested board game.
Designers: George Chastain, Chuck Kroegel, Daniel Kroegel, Anthony Mullins, and Tony Mullins
I hate Magic: The Gathering. I never found a more useless game in my life, or one that sucks your wallet as dry as your soul. Yeah, I can talk, because I spent paltry sums here and there on the game; when I was a paramedic a lot of the other folks I worked with were into it. So what can you do? Peer pressure, man. That said, I humbly spent my $1 or $2 on pee-wee cards that couldn’t stand up to the individuals (or, in sore loser parlance, “geeks”) who spent $50 or more on single cards that could flatten my combined deck in one toot without breaking a sweat.
I also learned to despise fiddly mechanics involving a card having “X” ability but only if “Y” was in place, and the enemy had “Z” on the battlefield at the cost of so-and-so Mana, but only in the third alternate player reverse phase defensive turn that would in turn inflict damage equal to “R” number of zits on the Orc’s faces. It gives me a migraine just thinking about it again. So I’m pretty bitter about card-driven, fantasy-style games. For one, I suck at them. For another, I never had the money to be in the same league as the full-on geeks that invested serious coinage into it, so I never could take it seriously (forget “real” card tournaments – HA!).
That all said, when Guardians of Graxia came my way I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. My first instinct was to use it as a paperweight, booster seat, lining for my dog’s kennel, or some other equally unobtrusive but useful manner that it could do; besides go in the trash. Yep, I was ready to return it, but then I opened the box (besides, if I didn’t, my editor would kill me.)
I’m sure I’ve just built you up to turn a complete 180 on you. But hear me out, because it’s not a complete 180. Guardians of Graxia is a fantasy-magic card game for up to two players where each controls troops, heroes, and spells to gain control of floating continents. These continents are created by various terrain tile cards that are fitted together like a puzzle according to the scenario. Over this tiled ever-changing board system players summon said card-soldiers to do battle and gain control of said tiles.
All units are represented by cards. Overall the game feels a lot like chess, as only one monster/hero/unit is allowed in each tile at a time. Players battle each other from adjacent tiles, which is where I get the feeling I’ve done this a lot before (Nightmare Chess by Steve Jackson Games—thank you for ruining chess for me by making it fun). Players have a “Guardian” figure represented by a cool little plastic bit, but otherwise everything is card-based: units, spells, heroes, everything.
As I said, I don’t much like card-driven games as they tend to be really, really, driven by luck. Everything you do depends on the luck of the draw. But in Guardians of Graxia (hereafter referred to as “GoG”) you at least get to make some decisions related to this. Fortunately, GoG is not Might and Magic. You don’t buy booster packs, strength packs and individual cards, or dig through boxes in the back of comic stores like some kind of depressed heroin junkie trying to find a diamond in the rough for two measly bucks—not that I know what that’s like. This game is self-contained, so there’s no buying of extra stuff—although there is another title by Petroglyph called Heroes of Graxia, which has no interactivity whatsoever with GoG. So it had a hook in me there.
I almost broke out into a cold Magic: The Gathering sweat remembering that, despite my chilly memories, it COULD be fun at times. Could the card deck included in GoG even be up to the task of giving a decently-balanced game? Was there a ridiculously powered “dragon-on-steroids” card to do battle with the “hippy-elf-tree-grabbing” card? (Hint: the “hippy-elf” card usually loses.) And on top of that, how much real “wargaming” can be had from a title like this? How much strategy is in there, and how much fun could it be for someone used to pushing Panzers or aiming artillery? And, can it do any of that without being ridiculously overbearing in number-crunching? Let’s find out.
First off, opening the box gives you a decent-sized rulebook, a rather busy “Tracker Board,” a “Battle Sequence” that looks like something Avalon Hill put out in the 1970s, several very awesomely-thick counters, and many, many, cards. I should elaborate on “awesomely-thick.” I can’t stand feeble, thin counters. As much as my fingers are used to typing all day at work and doing other finger-related things, the last thing I want to do is feel something that’s going to fold up or blow away whenever I give off a frustrated huff of breath. These counters are easily handled, and that’s a good thing because you’re to be doing a lot of that.
Next, the terrain tiles. These are rather large, almost the same area as the front cover of a paperback book. There’s nothing terribly colorful about them—they all seem to be cast in muted, earthy tones—but they’re as durable and thick as the counters. This is another great aspect, as some of the terrain tile set-ups in the scenarios are large. Still, even the best materials don’t always work well; I found that the standard evils, such as bumping a table accidentally, makes the game world go wonky. Fortunately, there aren’t dozens of game pieces to be upset. But any game using tiles as its board (i.e. Magic Realm) are going to face this issue. On top of all that, it is a pain in the hindquarters to set up a full set of these things for a game. You’re constantly referring to a set-up chart, then looking through the cards for the one you need, then setting in on the table, then referring back to the book and so on—about 37 times (yes, there’s 37 terrain tile cards in the game).
The game cards themselves—of which there are 240 equally divided by monster, hero, unit, and spell cards—are standard card fare. The artwork on them is much more interesting than that of the terrain tiles, and the mixture is varied enough to make things interesting. Some of the unit cards have no less than nine pieces of information on them, so that’s a little daunting to look at when you’re a new player.
Lastly, the “Tracker Board”. This thing is used to track “Victory Points” for all sides (there’s two VP sections), all “Mana” points, “Battle Values”, and “Turns”. At first glance, my first thought was, “Oh man, how much stuff do I have to keep track of?” Not that I’m terribly lazy with regards to record-keeping, but at least the counters are cool and easily-handled making it less of a chore. It’s quite difficult having six players use the Mana and Victory tracks at the same time.
When I first looked at this game out of the box, I saw the six Guardian figures and thought it’s a game for up to six players. This is not the case; you have to look on the box to find a reference to solo and two-player scenarios. The book doesn’t mention anything about how many players are involved—at least not directly or immediately.
The confusion for me came from the fact that there are six Guardians that one player can choose from. Some scenarios set which Guardians, so players just decide whom they want. The Guardian is essentially your avatar in the game, each with unique special abilities. Losing your Guardian doesn’t necessarily mean you lose the game (although it can hamstring you severely). One might wonder, though, how beautifully chaotic and insane a six-player GoG game would be.
The book gets quite a bit of negative attention on BoardGameGeek and you’ll find a lot of questions being asked on that site; there’s even an extensive Q&A list HERE. Errata is understandable. But having so many people asking questions about what should be an airtight (or close to it) rulebook is, quite honestly, inexcusably poor editing. This is what other people thought. What about my observations? There were plenty of holes, yes, causing me to check out BoardGameGeek to see if I could locate any answers. Even where some questions are asked on the “Geek”, some of the answers are less than stellar or not even pertaining to the board game version at all.
There’s also some misspellings in the rulebook, although not many. For example, the first scenario is called “A Tale of Two Cites,”—something that Dickens might not have minded if the title had been spelled correctly.
If I had to come up with one word to describe GoG’s gameplay, it would be “unnerving.” But unnerving isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a wargamer; in fact, I think it’s exemplary, and a lost art, being able to put tension into a game. Maybe it’s just me, but trying to wrap your mind around all the possible paths and strategies your opponent can take will just drive you mad. There are almost “too many” possibilities to consider, and any decent hexagon strategist is going to do their best to think of all of them. Watching your opponent dismantle your best-laid plans is heartbreaking, especially when they beat you to within an inch of your life. But games can turn around suddenly and it’s very likely that players can notice all the angles they can take to ruin their opponent’s day even when they’re in jeopardy themselves. It’s a glorious and chaotic mess—one of GoG’s strengths.
Each turn of GoG is divided into two “rounds”—a first player round and a second player round. Each round players go through specific phases including: drawing cards, buying additional cards by spending Mana if you think you need more, moving and fighting, collecting Mana from occupied terrain tiles and registering Victory Points if the scenario calls for it.
Since you only have one card per terrain tile, you have to keep in mind the actual terrain itself. Some unit types cannot enter certain tiles. For example, only “Goblins” and “Dwarves” can enter “Mountains”. Also, each terrain tile has unique battle modifications. You need to take control of tiles by either having a unit card in a tile or having been the last player to move a card though it. Each tile grants Mana, which is always in short supply as it is used to deploy units, use spells, and buy new cards. You’ll need those tiles to fuel your war, so planning your movements ahead of time is a good idea. It really stinks to find out that your best-laid plan to attack an enemy card was ruined because your damnable Elven unit cannot move into a Mountain terrain card.
Positioning your units on these tiles is everything. A unit can battle an enemy unit on an adjacent terrain tile, but any extra friendly units bordering that tile give off a small but significant bonus for each one. This makes maneuvering as important as combat power—those “support” units can make a big difference in a battle. The battles themselves are quite hairy at first, when you’re learning and trying to figure everything out. The first thing you need to wrap your mind around is: when units battle, they BATTLE. There’s no attacker results versus defender results—they both get licks in at the same time.
There are physical attacks and magical attacks—each unit card type is unique. So, an attacking player might attack with a card that has a magical attack, but the defending player’s card might use physical attacks; each rating is compared to result in a “Battle Value” for each side. This Battle Value is tracked on the monster “Tracking Chart”. After that, players determine what support is available from adjacent units (if any), and then pretty take turns activating “Battle Abilities” and spending Mana to cast Spells. Each player chooses one before going to the next. If both players “pass”, this stage is over. Finally, players have an option of sacrificing a spell card to either raise their own Battle Value or to lower the enemy’s Battle Value.
Everything in these stages essentially boils down to increasing your own Battle Value as high as possible while lowering your enemy’s at the same time. The number of wounds you cause to the enemy is roughly equal to the Battle Value divided by two (rounded-up)—this number is on the Tracking Chart so you don’t have to do the math. So lowering your opponent’s Battle Value could mean the difference between life and death for your unit. A winner is determined once the battle is finished. If the defender suffers more wounds than the attacker, the defender has to retreat while the attacker advances into their vacated terrain tile. If a unit suffers more wounds than it has health, it is eliminated.
If you enjoy mapping out min/max possibilities and figuring out the mathematical probabilities of success of different attack powers against different defensive powers…well, what the heck is wrong with you? That’s just weird. I’d rather play by the seat of my pants. I might get them kicked in more often than not, but it’s a lot more fun that way. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on MtG, then?
The balance of this game is pretty wobbly because, “he who has more Mana, has more options.” And if you have more Mana, you have more terrain; which means you’re probably winning the ground war. Beating an opponent who is already sliding towards defeat isn’t that hard. However, in a card-driven game luck is always a factor; as I said earlier. A good player making wise decisions can have their campaign come to a crashing halt by the luck of the draw. Getting a good card at just the right time can save the day. And while it can be argued that luck has no place in wargames, or any kind of game, there are hidden factors that apply to every situation that can turn things on a dime—although those kinds of situations are rare. Usually, those who are winning and overwhelming their enemy will continue to do so; skill determines how long that takes, though.
Guardians of Graxia is an interesting game, full of options and influences. I enjoyed the one-unit-per-tile rule, which reminded me of Civilization V’s similar rule (and a vast improvement over Civ IV), making the game easier to visualize and control. That’s about all the control, though, as it’s easy to get overconfident thinking your Dragon could stomp on an Orc unit, only to come away with nine wounds (true story). But hey, at least I killed the Orc. Dead dragon on the next turn, but we won’t go into that. Maybe that should be saved for an AAR?
The only two things I really didn’t like about this game were setting up the tiles and the rather confusing rulebook, although the latter is easily enough fixed with a heavy review of online errata (at BGG, notably). For a price of $19.99, with an MSRP of $60, it’s hard to pass up—well worth the price. It would be a stretch to recommend at $60 though. For that kind of money I’d be expecting a lot more “cool bits” and an airtight manual.
Review written by: Michael Eckenfels
About Michael Eckenfels
Michael Eckenfels is an instructional designer, technical writer, and editor with the third largest blood banking non-profit company in the United States. He’s had many jobs prior to this in his attempt to “find out what he wants to be when he grows up,” including: paramedic, travel agent, airline flight/weight-and-balance manager, and actor. He’s been in feature and short films (one short film went to Sundance in 2010), as well as web series and dozens of stage plays (the most recent of which was the stage version of The Beverly Hillbillies, in which he played Jethro). With two kids rapidly approaching driving age and a spouse that more or less hates gaming, he finds great enjoyment in doing these reviews and especially enjoys games that take up the entire dining room table.