Alf Seegert is one of my favorite game designers. He won me over with Trollhalla, and just about everything else he’s done has been a hit for me. (Sadly, I never got to try the Road to Canterbury before it went out of print. It remains a sore point.) Fantastiqa, a deck building game with a board, holds the honor of being just about the only deck building game I’ve ever loved. And Musee is my choice for a gorgeous, filler-plus weeknight game.
So when I heard that Fantastiqa: Rival Realms would be a two-player-only game set in the Fantastiqa universe and borrow some of the mechanisms from Musee, I practically tried to shove my money through the computer screen. Was it worth the crack in my monitor? Read on.
How It Plays
Imagine a world where a little boo-boo happened with a card trick and two magicians find themselves standing in the empty land of Fantastiqa before it was formed. First thought: That was one heck of a card trick. Second thought: And one heck of a boo-boo. Anyway, the world is now a blank canvas for them to shape however they want.
Fantastiqa: Rival Realms (known hereafter as FRR) has you placing cards in order to create your magical realm, and then exploring that realm by moving your standee over the “board” you have created. In order to build and move, you’ll have to carefully manage your card resources, gather artifacts, and recruit mythical beasts to assist you. The player who creates the “best” realm (scores the most points) is the winner.
The game is set up by creating each player’s basic, mostly empty realm. The first player lays theirs out by alternating rows of mountain/valley cards with rows of tokens, leaving room between the card rows for the region cards. (The rows where the region cards are played are called sub-realms.) The rules specify exactly how this is done, but basically the start player creates the realm in the way they desire within the rules. The other player then lays their realm out in an exact mirror of the start player’s realm.
Each player has a hand of region cards. There are also quest cards laid out on the table for players to fulfill as the game goes along. Place your standees into your realms and you’re ready to go.
On your turn you can either summon a region or go adventuring. If you choose to summon a region, you play a card from your hand to one of your sub-realms. Cards must increase in value from left to right. They don’t have to be perfectly sequential (1, 2, 3, etc.). You could have 2, 8, 13, etc. You can leave gaps as you lay your cards, but any card that later fills in the gap must adhere to this rule. If there’s an adventure token on the space, place the token on top of the card (but do not take it, yet). If your adventurer is in the space, explore the region by rotating the card 90 degrees clockwise.
When you summon a region, you may use as many artifacts and gems as you like (but not creatures). These items can help you explore more quickly by moving faster, taking extra turns, and swapping the position(s) of cards in play.
If you go adventuring, discard any number of region cards and/or creatures from your supply and move your adventurer through the unexplored areas of your realm. Regions you explore must be directly adjacent to one another, be connected by a valley card, or be regions which you have already explored. You cannot move through empty space. There must be a region or card for you to adventure onward.
You can freely move across any cards already rotated 90 degrees (explored cards). If you can’t move freely, you must pay. Region cards can be explored by discarding a matching card into your opponent’s discard pile (called the raven’s nest). You read that right: Now your opponent has your cards and can use them when she redraws! You can steal them back with the help of the raven, but it’s best to be careful in the first place.
Adventure tokens can also help you on your journey. Creatures work like matching cards, i.e., creatures that share the color of the region can be used to explore it. And adventure tokens you encounter while adventuring can be used immediately. The trick here is to figure out a way to generate combinations of moves by cleverly using your cards and tokens to gather more tokens along the way and continue to move. You can move as far as your cards and tokens allow; there’s no limit on how far you can go on a turn.
Your turn is almost over. Before the next player takes their turn, check to see if you’ve completed any quests this turn. Quests require you to collect sets of creatures, fill a sub-realm with cards, explore all five region types, or explore all four corners of your realm. If you’ve completed any of them, take the associated card and place it face up in front of you. (Only one person can complete a quest. First to do it gets the card and the points.)
Redraw your hand to five cards from either your region deck or your raven’s nest. Play moves to the next player.
If you cannot legally play any action, you may pass. You must show your opponent your cards to prove that you cannot play. You are now effectively out of the game. Your opponent can continue until she either ends the game or must also pass. You will do nothing for the rest of the game.
The game ends when either: A player places a region card into the last space in their realm, the last region card is claimed from the deck, or both players have passed. Players then score their realms.
You lose a point for each space without a region card, and you gain one point for each unused gem and each explored region you have. You gain two points for each matching, adjacent pair of region cards in a sub-realm, and three points for each matching pair of region cards connected by a valley. Quests are scored as marked. The player with the most points wins.
Another Fantastic Hit, or a Journey Into the Pit of Despair?
Oh, I could try to be all cool about this, but forget it. Spoiler alert: I love this game. I had seriously high hopes given that two of my favorite games formed the basis for FRR: Musee and the original Fantastiqa. But I was also a bit leery. Sometimes “remixes” just leave you wanting the originals. While FRR won’t replace either game in my collection (they all serve very different niches), it’s definitely a keeper in its own right.
The game borrows the basic card placement mechanism from Musee. You must lay your cards out in each sub-realm in ascending order. One of the endgame scoring mechanisms is also similar: You’re rewarded for having matching sets of regions in certain areas, just as Musee rewarded you for having sets of artwork in your galleries.
The game diverges from Musee and crosses into Fantastiqa territory when you begin exploring your creation. Musee never allowed you to directly explore. You had to imagine how your visitors would see your Musee and plan accordingly to give them the best experience, but you never stuck them in there and let them muck around.
FRR has you mucking around in your realm. Because of this, you have two decisions to make in the game: Do you play cards on a turn, or do you go adventuring? Each has its benefits, and when you do each will determine your success.
You can spend a ton of time laying cards and trying to craft a “perfect” realm that will enable you to explore large chunks of it on one turn. Plus, the more cards you lay the more likely you are to complete certain quests for extra points. And, since you will lose points at the end of the game for vacant spaces, you’ll want to get them all filled.
Or… You can lay cards less often and explore more, knowing that you won’t be able to go as far on each turn. However, there are quests that require you to explore, so you don’t want to leave all of those for your adventurous opponent to win. Plus, you get points for every region you’ve explored, so you don’t want to leave much unexplored. You also have to decide which cards you should place, and which you should discard to pay for movement. Should you hold onto the 14 or the 18 in a suit? Which will be more likely to be needed in your realms? Make the wrong choice and you can end up with useless cards in hand.
The challenge is to figure out which option is best on each turn, given the cards in your hand, the regions on the table, and the locations/availability of adventure tokens and mythical creatures. Since each game sets up very differently, there will never be one set route, combination, or perfect time to do something that you can rely on.
You also have to watch your opponents. One neat trick of FRR is that the cards you discard to pay for your movement go into your opponent’s raven’s nest. They can then draw those cards to pay for their own movement or place into their realm. So you want to try to avoid handing them the perfect card, although sometimes you’ll have no choice because you need to use it. In that case, you can try to steal it back by spending gems to enlist the help of the raven. But is it worth it, or would that gem be better spent elsewhere? This all adds an interesting wrinkle to a game which is otherwise fairly solitary.
This decision space makes the game thinkier than it appears. While FRR isn’t a heavy game, it can burn your brain. You’ll think, “Tiny box, a couple of decks of cards. Eh. How hard can it be?” And then you’ll get caught up in trying to decide where and when to place your cards, when to adventure around your creation, and how you can chain your moves to accomplish the most each turn. That movement chaining is the most addicting thing. You’ll find yourself wanting to play again just to see if you can create a bigger turn than you did last game.
What this game manages to do is create nearly a perfect experience for me. The game is short. It’s only 20 – 30 minutes. Sometimes you feel like it can take as much time to set up as to play. (Not literally. Once you get the hang of it, setup is quick. But the game goes so fast you feel like, “Didn’t we just lay this thing out?”) Yet within that short time frame, your brain will burn a bit. It makes for the ideal weeknight game.
Being a dedicated two-player game, it’s perfect for us. I love perfectly tuned two-player experiences. That FRR offers a solo variant is nice for nights when one of use just isn’t up for gaming. I love the theme of creating a realm from scratch and then walking around it, encountering my creations. I guess it satisfies some dormant God complex I have going.
The movement portion takes it above many card games because FRR feels a bit like a board game. Instead of just passing cards around, you’re building a “board” to play on. And while you’re wandering around, don’t forget to actually read the region cards! Yes, the most important parts are the numbers and the pictures, but the designer threw in some flavor text on the bottom of each card that will amuse Fantastiqa fans. It has nothing to do with gameplay, but it’s fun.
Lest you think that this is some sort of “travel” Fantastiqa, let me assure you it is not. Yes, artwork and thematic elements are shared, but FRR is its own game. Fantastiqa is a deck builder. FRR is not. And FRR is far from portable. While the box is tiny, laying the game out requires a lot of table space. You’re not playing this on an airplane tray table.
So now that I’ve gushed over this game, is there anything I dislike? For me, very little. Some people might be bothered by the fiddliness. Laying out the cards, rotating them around as you explore, and picking up and moving the tokens can get a little fiddly. It’s not a deal breaker, but people who prefer their game components to stay in one place may not like it.
Also, I’m not a huge fan of the player elimination element. If you have to pass, you’re out of the game and your opponent will carry on to the end without you. It doesn’t happen often (and the better you get at the game, the less often it happens), and when it does it’s usually near the end anyway so you don’t sit idle long. But it’s still a possibility and people who hate this sort of thing should beware.
Other than that, I’m in love. Above I described the basic game, but there are event and enchantment cards that can be added to change up the gameplay. (There’s also a small expansion available.) Combine those with the variable set up and you have a game that is very re-playable. FRR takes up no space on my shelf, yet delivers a punch equal to some big box games. It’s quick, addictive, thinky, and nearly perfect (for us) in every way.
Alf, you’ve done it again. The fist-sized hole in my screen was definitely worth it.