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Reviews - Heroes of Graxia
 
by Lee Valentine


Heroes of GraxiaHeroes of Graxia
Published by Petroglyph
Designed by Daniel Kroegel
Contents: 240 cards, six plastic miniatures, and a black-and-white rules sheet
2-6 Players
$34.99

Heroes of Graxia (HoG) is a new deck building card game from Petroglyph designed by Daniel Kroegel. The game is set in the home-brewed fantasy world of Graxia. Magic-wielding generals called "Guardians" are the heroes who set out to recruit and arm their forces to send into war against rampaging monsters, as well as the armies of other players. Yes, that's right – there is finally a deck building card game with more than just a smattering of player versus player (PvP) interaction. PvP is a core element of HoG.

Gameplay
If I had to sum up gameplay in HoG for experienced gamers, it is like playing a game of Thunderstone with your left hand, while simultaneously drafting a Magic: The Gathering ("Magic") deck with your right hand, while simultaneously playing that deck as you are drafting it (presumably with some invisible telekinetic third hand). In short, there's a lot going on in the game and it takes up a lot of space on the game table. Most cards in a typical deck building card game are flashed to your opponent for a few seconds to execute game-specific tasks, and then are thrown into a discard pile. HoG differs from this design element in that you are constructing an army on the board (called a "Legion") which remains on the table until it's component elements are recalled by the owner or else are destroyed by monsters or opponents' Legions. To an outsider, the amassing and equipping of your Legion will look to gaming enthusiasts like playing a creature-heavy Magic deck with plenty of creature Enchantments.

HoG is not quite as fast to get setup as Ascension, but is faster to setup and reset than Dominion or Thunderstone. Players start out with a small standard deck of 12 cards, drawing a hand of five cards. In the middle of the table there is a market made up of three different decks: Spells, Legion Units, and Equipment. Four random cards are turned from the top of each of these decks to create a selection of potential things that players can buy and add to their decks. A fourth smaller deck filled with monsters is added to the table, and four monsters are flipped up.

Monsters cannot be bought, but are instead there to be attacked by the players' Legions. Whenever a card is bought (or a Monster is destroyed), a new card from the corresponding deck is flipped up to keep four of each type of card on the table at all times. Unlike Dominion or Thunderstone, which have a static selection of market cards at all times, this combination of randomization and categorization keeps a little of everything on the table all the time, but requires constant reading and analysis on the part of the players.

Heroes of Graxia cardsNon-Monster cards have both a price to purchase and a gold-value that they generate when they are discarded from hand on your turn. So, for example, you might discard two cards worth a total of eight gold to buy a card from the market that costs eight gold. Purchased cards go into your discard pile, and when you run out of cards in your draw pile you reshuffle your discard pile to form a new draw pile. Alternately, if you don't use them for their gold value you can instead put non-Spell cards into play, recruiting and equipping your Legion.

During your turn you can make as many purchases as you can afford and you can take up to two actions. There's a long list of possible play options, but one of the core actions is attacking a Monster or another player's Legion. When Monsters are defeated they yield in-game rewards to the victor, and then they are sent off to his Loot Pile – they are not shuffled in to clutter up your deck as they are in Thunderstone. Combat is fairly standardized, whether you are attacking Monsters or Legions: Spells and combat-duration cards are activated, then the attack and defense scores of the opposing forces are compared. If your opponent has more attack than you have defense, your troops take Wounds. If any Unit takes more Wounds than their Health score they are destroyed.

When fighting another player, if you lose a Unit your opponent wins Prestige. The game is played until one player has won a predetermined number of Prestige points, or until there are no more Monsters to be slain, whichever comes first. At the end of the game, players total the Trophy values of the Monsters they have slain, the other cards they have bought, and the Prestige points they have earned. The player with the highest sum of these points wins the game.

Heroes of Graxia - HellstormIt takes a concerted "no PvP" attitude on the part of the players to end the game based on attacking Monsters alone. Typically what ends the game is amassing Prestige points from attacking other players' Legions. This means that there can be really wide variations in both the length of the game and the feel of the game. My first game, where I was fairly cautious about attacking, took two hours to win. That game focused more on long-term deck building more than attacking. My second game involved a number of rapid attack exchanges between me and the other players; that game was finished in about forty-five minutes, with little time to fine-tune our decks and Legions.

The game is generally fast-paced, but given that players can take at least two actions on each of their turns and can also buy as many cards as they can afford, there is some down time. The real down time comes during PvP combats. The battling mechanic is very math heavy (primarily adding and subtracting attack and defense modifiers). If you aren't involved in a combat, you could sit on your hands for five minutes waiting for a big battle to be calculated and resolved. This math can result in what my friends and I like to call a "math tax". If you fail to add up the values in your head before you declare an attack, or if you fail to calculate for the twelve point attack/defense swing that commonly occurs during combat due to the playing of Spells and Mercenaries, you will take an absolute pounding for your miscalculations.

One noteworthy but odd feature in the game is that when someone is forced to pay the "math tax", the person who was defending tends to score quite a lot of points by killing off the attacking Legion's units. One big blunder plus one or two other active attack runs can end the game pretty quickly. Other players' blunders can actually disadvantage your relative position in the game's rankings more than in most other games. To avoid the "math tax" you have to really scrutinize the other players' cards. When you are going to attack another player there is no sneaking up on them – you really have to stare at their cards for a solid minute sometimes just to decide whether you will attack. The result of this is that you either occasionally telegraph your attacks or face the possibility that you'll pay the "math tax".

Components & Packaging
Heroes of Graxia comes with a small assortment of plastic miniatures. While they are certainly attractive, they serve no significant function in the game since units don't move around the play area. They are just a little bonus that's likely leftover from Petroglyph's other new board game, Guardians of Graxia. HoG really could use a small quantity of gaming stones to track the use of "once per turn" powers, and so I'd much rather have seen the miniatures removed and some counters added into the mix.

Heroes of Graxia - Orc HeroThe game features 240 game cards. They are printed on nice card stock. Some of the cards aren't cut with an identical die cut to the rest of the cards. Particularly with the Spell deck, there are two distinct sizes of cards that can occasionally make riffle shuffling mildly problematic. The art on the cards, as well as the card trade dress, looks great. The iconography is very intuitive. In Thunderstone new players are baffled at what the purple circle stands for. Here, new players can already start intuiting mechanics quickly based on a solid trade dress.

One minor nuisance about the iconography is that the combat-related icons are in a rectangular pattern instead of a straight line across the bottom of the card. This makes it much easier to pick out a single icon when you need it, but when you want to add up the relevant values for combat you are doing a lot of scanning across the cards if there are lots of modifier cards attached to a given unit.

The game comes in a small box that fits the cards snugly. When you see the boxes for Ascension, Dominion, and Thunderstone you'll think you are getting less for your money with HoG. At some level that's true – there's no board, no fancy storage tray, and certainly the 240 cards in HoG is less than the 530 cards in Thunderstone. In part, the design mitigates this relative dearth of cards. The core mechanic doesn't require all the card duplication that drives Thunderstone and Dominion. The art in HoG is also a step above Ascension and Dominion. So, while you may not be maximizing your gaming dollar, you are still getting a highly playable and very portable package, all for $5.00 to $10.00 cheaper than these other games.

The black-and-white double-sided rules sheet is reasonably well written, but does contain some vague areas. At least one rule was so poorly worded that when the designer discussed that rule online he seemed to be recanting part of his own rulebook. While the rules will get you started, some of the cards (particularly the Spells), can raise questions that the rules sheet just does not answer. This will require some ad hoc house rules to keep the game going through these ambiguities. If you don't mind occasionally filling in the gray areas then you would rate the rules clarity higher than I would as a rules lawyer who wants everything clearly spelled out.

Conclusions
Heroes of Graxia is a really interesting take on the deck building genre. How well it will play for you really will depend on your play group. If you are interested in building and tweaking your deck and your buddies are interested in smacking you around, deck building might have to take a back seat that game. This is definitely not a guaranteed multi-player solitaire experience as deck-building games can sometimes be. If you try to play the game with six players as the game claims to support, you'll have to play on a football field with players roaming around staring at each others' cards – significant table space is required. With a reasonable gaming area the game pretty easily accommodates three or even four players, though. If you are a fan of deck building games and also like casual Magic drafting, this could be a good addition to your gaming library. If you don't like the idea of player versus player attacks and having your carefully constructed plans thwarted, then this won't be a game for you.

For Retailers
Petroglyph is actively attending gaming conventions to support their product, which is a good sign. However, they don't have a strong internet presence to handle rules questions and promote this product. HoG, for instance, doesn't even have a dedicated page link on their company website, while Guardians of Graxia, their other new release, does. While there is a HeroesOfGraxia.Com, the game's rulebook is hard to locate even there. Petroglyph is primarily a video game studio, and I suspect that they are experiencing some growing pains in the hobby game market.

This game will probably have slower sales than the more heavily marketed Dominion and Thunderstone. The PvP aspect of this product really lets it scratch an itch that those games may not be able to reach. If you want to sell this product you need to actively promote that aspect, to some of your alpha gamers at least. If you are planning on actively demoing the product, try to advertise the event to Magic enthusiasts – you could pick up some quick sales of this product. Given the occasionally intrusive math elements, I am not certain HoG will appeal to Dominion purists who are looking for 30 solid minutes of deck tinkering using more streamlined core mechanics. The small package profile is portable, but may make consumers contemplating a purchase feel like they won't get enough value for their gaming dollar compared to other deck building games with bigger boxes and more goodies inside.

Lee's Ratings:
Overall: B+
Gameplay: B+ (lower if doing a bit of addition and subtraction bothers you)
Appearance: A-
Components: B (nice card stock, with a lot of miscut cards, and no gaming tokens to track generic effects)
Rules Clarity: B-
Packaging: B+
Retailer Salability: B (if you do targeted demos or generate word-of-mouth about the PvP elements); B- (if you don't)

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