It’s tough out there in head to head card gaming world. Many is the promising package to have come to grief when bounced from Kickstarter into the cold and harsh reality of the uncaring world. Atop the pile of the “grab a deck and smash your opponent’s deck” crowd there sits Magic: The Gathering, the first of the bunch, an unstoppable behemoth that, despite its tendency to favour the richest in an otherwise equal battle, still ploughs resolutely on through all the other confrontational card games out there.
Think you can run the world like one of these?
Fight to the top? Or fit only for the drop?
Sure, every now and again something new comes along and finds its niche, such as Android: Netrunner, but that was designed by Richard Garfield who also designed, er, Magic: The Gathering, so it hardly counts. In the outer orbits there sit Ashes: Rise Of The Phoenixborn and the relative newcomer that is Dice Throne, the only one to dare not to have a colon in its title, and there are many lesser known gems besides, but in general it is a card eat card world out there.
Into this epic struggle for supremacy comes Twilight Of The Gods, a new head to head card game from Chris Kluwe that has Magic firmly in its sights, touting itself around with the kind of swagger that comes not from a wilful desire for publicity, but instead from a strong sense of self-worth. Officially accommodating up to four players, but really a face-to-face smackathon at its core, this game sits at the heavier end of the spectrum, placing itself firmly in the category of designs that need to be taken seriously.
How does it size up? Not a good start…
The thing is, we have been here before, or at least I have. Final Fantasy TCG, despite having all those fantastic worlds to choose from, really did nothing new and, worse still, required two different people to buy decks in order to be able to play the game, at some cost. Something like Ashes, in typical Plaid Hat fashion, comes with six factions in the box from the get go, plus about a million others released since then, so you can get in fairly deep straight away and then drown in all the extra stuff later, if you like. The point is that a game such at this really does need to hit the ground running or it will be left behind before it has even left the starting blocks, so how does Twilight Of The Gods do?
Not a great start when the box is too small for the rules.
It does not start brilliantly, and all for the sake of a millimetre here and a millimetre there, for while the box lid is big enough to contain the rules, glossary and play mats, the actual box is just a little too small, leaving the booklets and mats bowed and bent. It is literally a tiny detail, and made me think “Them pesky Kickstarters!” but it is enough to make a first impression. Second impressions, though, get better, markedly so and quickly too. There are piles of cards, some thick and chunky tokens, and four build-them-yourself card tuck boxes for the decks of the different factions. My copy also came with some extra holographic deity card thingies, presumably Kickstarter extras, though here I had to use my initiative to work out what they were.
You want decks? We have decks!
Separate out the factions, differentiated by an admittedly tiny and hard to confuse icon in the bottom right of each card (green and blue are particularly difficult to tell apart) place them in their own tuckboxes and it all starts to look like a decent product, and the artwork goes to reinforce that as well. It is well illustrated, evocatively too, vividly colourful and with enough to keep a player interested as their opponent mulls through their turn.
The tuckboxes are a delight!
Although the artwork is impressive throughout, the fact that some cards can contain a decent amount of the detail means that the text can get a little small at times, but it is not so small as to cause genuine problems, as long as you are prepared to get up close and personal. It is never as bad as those tiny icons in the Final Fantasy game, but it could certainly be an issue for some of more advanced maturity.
Good God! Or bad God..?
The aim of Twilight Of The Gods is simple – you, as a deity, need to get your opponent to run out of cards, for their deck represents their life force. It is an idea we have seen before, but what is so refreshing about this game is that there are several mechanisms that are new, and they all go to give something that has a very familiar feel a layer of freshness.
Grab a player mat and choose a faction.
Each player constructs a deck based around a single faction (Aggression, Negotiation, Mysticism or Sanctuary) and an associated deity – there are rules for constructing or drafting decks, or you can simply play with one of the preset ones – and then they simply alternate turns until one of them runs out the winner, but the flow of each turn incorporates some niceties that will make even seasoned battlers turn up the corners of their mouths in knowing smile.
Trade agreement? Or just seize power!
The first tweak that players will notice, mainly because it is nearly the first thing you do in a turn apart from refreshing and drawing, is that players need to trade cards with each other in order to gain the power needed to summon creatures to the battlefield. This can be done in a properly negotiated fashion, or as a forced trade if certain criteria are met, or if trading does not happen you can simply pay to be able to steal a card from your opponent. These cards go face down into the Aspect Stack – swapping sides – and then one of them becomes a resource each turn, gradually increasing a player’s power.
I’ve got the power. Level II in this case…
It is not all quite as simple as that, however, for there is a little black bar at the bottom of each card that represents what happens when it is “manifested”. This is when a card in a player’s resource area is flipped face up, and what this means is that each deity has the chance to lay traps for their unwary opponent right there under there noses. It is an extra layer to think about, and a decent one too. Sometimes this manifesting power can be as simple as exhausting that card, effectively rendering it useless for generating power on that turn, but sometimes the sting in the tail can be downright nasty for your opponent, or even backfire on the player doing the manifesting. Shuffling the various power cards at the end of each turn also makes it difficult to keep track of what is where – is that card a trap for my opponent, or is it waiting to close its jaws around my neck instead?
Summon, attack, defend, exhaust! This sounds familiar!
Once all the powery tradey stuff is done it is time to get down the nitty-gritty of summoning creatures, establishing fortifications in the locations on your player mat, playing one-off schemes, or adding intrigues (which require an upkeep cost) to your forces. Twilight Of The Gods never allows you to have more types of creatures in play than the power cards you own, and this not only keeps a lid on the opening of the game, but also means that each addition to the battlefield needs to be considered very carefully indeed.
Fortifications go in preordained places on the map.
Get all your summoning done and then Twilight Of The Gods lets you go attacking in time-honoured fashion – you declare your attacker and their target, your opponent gets to defend, and then it all works itself out in terms of life points and so on. Attacks can be targeted at an opponent’s draw pile (their life) or their discard pile, and victories result in cards being destroyed, removing them permanently from the game. Attackers normally become exhausted, however, while defenders do not, and it is also worth mentioning that there are no dice involved at all, which may well please many. As cards refresh only at the beginning of a player’s next turn, it is important to grasp here that any attacker is effectively rendered useless against your opponent on their go, so choices need to be carefully made. Again, this is something we have seen before, but it works well here.
Keepy uppy? It will cost you!
Another little tweak is the upkeep cost at the end of each round, which means that unused resources burn through your life deck at an alarming rate, so while more power increases not only a player’s ability to summon but also the number of creatures they can have in play, it also raises the possibility of having to discard a large number of cards at the end of every turn, and once your draw pile runs out that is it, the twilight of you as a god.
Your god has a one-off special power.
It is to Twilight Of The Gods’ credit that it is tricky to describe exactly how all the moving parts work during a turn, because they are so intertwined, and that is a good thing, because it means that each decision needs to be carefully weighed, that almost every good move has a downside that may not be apparent quite yet, but might well reveal itself later. The flip side to this is that there is no getting around the fact that Twilight Of The Gods is an involved and involving game, not for the faint of heart, and likely only to offer its rewards to those who are prepared to dig, dig, and dig some more into what it has behind its lavishly illustrated surface.
Here be keywords! You have been warned!
Consider yourselves also warned that here be keywords. I have not counted them, and therefore I have no doubt that I am exaggerating, but it feels like there are hundreds of them in the glossary, some of them with very finely tuned differences. Many of them actually come down to which deck a card is coming off and where it is going, while most of the rest of them seem to have something to do with the order in which damage is inflicted in battle, but either way players will be digging into the glossary on multiple occasions before they feel happy about what is going on. In my experience, as somebody who has dealt with keywords before, it did not take long to become fairly happy with these, but players with less experience might well find themselves overwhelmed in the initial phases by what Twilight Of The Gods has to offer.
You’ll need to get to grips with keywords…but the art is great!
There is no getting around the fact that Twilight Of The Gods is a tight and involving game that does a great many things very right indeed. The four starting decks all have a different feel, handily outlined in the rules, each game genuinely feels like a tussle. The trading and associated manifesting is genuinely interesting, offering a deep layer of strategy and doublethink, while the resource and fortification system has a novel flavour to it that means that this is not just a simple and lazy remake of somebody else’s idea.
Some nice dabs of humour dotted around the rules…
And yet Twilight Of The Gods is exactly the kind of game that makes me feel sad, because its target is a very narrow group of players, and many of those people are already well catered for by other games that have been on shelves for a long time, and which also have novel and unusual ideas. To get the most from this box players will have to dedicate themselves to it enough to be able to get a feel for the decks, and this game faces an uphill struggle to get to that stage with so much competition around. That makes me sad because Twilight Of The Gods is clearly a game that has been created with devotion and care, and it could well hit the spot for players who want something deep and meaningful, but without necessarily having to go out an spend a fortune on new cards every other week. A solid and meaty 8 out of 10 for this one.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.