Building a kingdom is easy. Building a legendary one is another matter. Sure, cobbling together some archers, farmers, merchants and maybe a dragon will ensure prosperity for a while. But is it enough to ward off the ravages of time or the machinations of others? Because if it’s immortality you seek, you’ll have to bring units with bigger swagger and more of them. Can you subdue your neighbors? After all, as they say, history is written by the victors.
How To Play
The goal in Paper Tales is to write your own kingdom’s legends by employing citizens, soldiers and fantastical creatures whenever you can find them. These denizens will work hard for you to build and defend your kingdom…at least for a little while. You see age takes its toll on your loyal subjects, but not before they pave the way for new generations. You know. The Circle of Life.
To achieve legendary status you will be drafting cards and managing them to acquire resources and build your domain’s tableau. Paper Tales lasts four rounds, which are structured into six simultaneous stages.
Each round begins with Recruitment, the design’s terminology for a card draft. Players will pick and pass cards until they’ve drafted five units, holding on to them until the selection is complete. Then players secretly place their chosen cards to their tableau in the Deployment phase. Normally your kingdom consists of only four available slots (two rows of two) to place citizens and/or creatures. Where a unit sits in either front or back is important for the next step. Some cards cost a coin or more to play. Other than that, there are no restrictions and you can even freely rearrange your fief each deployment. When content with their placements, players reveal their rank. Afterwards, you may reserve one card from your hand of unutilized units for the next round.
Then it’s time to march off to War. Here you will simply compare your front rank’s aggregate strength (easily denoted by shields on each unit) to that of each of your neighbors’ front lines. You earn three points for each contest in which you equal or best your opponents. You only wage war with your two neighbors, ala 7 Wonders. And keep in mind that many cards have modifiers and bonuses which increase your strength depending on various situations. A few units can even lend their firepower from the rear.
The fourth phase, Income, is short and sweet. Collect your base tax of 2 gold, plus any coinage generated by units or buildings (see next phase). Again, many cards have modifiers based on denizens currently working your lands. Currency is handy for hiring citizens, but also for erecting buildings in the next phase.
Construction provides an opportunity to enhance your kingdom with a bit of infrastructure. Specifically there are five buildings which all players equally have available at the beginning of the game. These cards are double-sided, representing two levels. Both sides require a certain set of resources to produce, which units currently working in your kingdom might provide. You may construct one new building, or upgrade a previously placed one during this phase. Alternatively, you may erect and upgrade the same building immediately on the same turn, as long as you can provide all of the necessary resources. Additionally, as you grow, you must pay a land cost of two gold per established building each time you wish to add a new structure. There is no land cost for simply upgrading a previously erected one. These structures provide a variety of benefits in either resources or abilities that trigger in various phases, as well as award points.
Finally, each player must account for Father Time’s somber influence upon their loyal subjects in the Aging phase. Every unit in your tableau with at least one aging token dies and is discarded. Those still kicking receive one token, which will remain if you continue to employ their services into the next round. That is, generally speaking. Now and then a few card abilities might modify how you keep, remove, place and/or switch around aging tokens. So keep a keen eye toward the benefits that all of your units and buildings impart.
Indeed that is the case throughout all six phases. Not only are there cards which modify the normal process of resolving each step, but many of them have special abilities that trigger in particular designated phases. The appropriate time they activate is clearly denoted on the card with a clear icon corresponding to the relevant step. Players have handy reference cards for ease of identification. Bonuses either award points, provide additional swag, and/or otherwise allow you to manipulate that action’s routine to some degree or another.
The royal leader with the most points after four rounds of play is victorious. So prepare that quill, ink and blank-paged history book. Legend awaits!
Lebensraum? Or As the Sands of the Hourglass…?
Due to its card drafting, simultaneous play, tableau building and the “fight-only-your-neighbors-warfare,” you’re likely to read or think about comparisons to the stalwart evergreen 7 Wonders. Indeed, I made the reference, myself. That’s really where the similarities end, however, and it’s so basic that the correlation may even be misleading. But lest you think I lead you astray and misinformed, I did only allude to the fact that the “combat” is akin to 7 Wonders. Just for reference’s sake. It employs the same base mechanisms, but game play is a decidedly different experience.
While that versatile classic is one of my all time favorites, it is remarkably singularly focused – indeed a winning characteristic both appealing and enduring. Paper Tales, meanwhile, is a unassumingly small design with a deceiving amount at work for its weight. Although, and yet in another comparison to 7 Wonders, it’s fast and careens to a conclusion before you realize and are often ready for it. Still, I promise, the two titles are quite different. Honest!
The card drafting, combo-building and various benefits/abilities of all the units and buildings are fairly routine fare here. To be sure, as of game of this nature, there are significant ways to synergize units and buildings and a number of them offer interesting bonuses. It’s not just a matter of playing a card to establish a good or income, etc. So there are a rewarding number of ways to forgo the boringly straightforward resources collection and be a little creative – which also helps mitigate a card game design’s natural luck of the draw tendencies.
I do appreciate that selections are kept secret through the drafting process (as in Dungeon Draft), not to be unveiled until players create their little kingdoms. This means that even though you may know what’s out there, because you’ve seen some of it, and maybe even deduced who’s taken what, you’re never sure how they’ll affect play. Will your opponent utilize that unit in the front? The back? Will they use it at all? It creates uncertainty, but also flexibility. As you’re not forced to implement units immediately, you can wait to see what else comes your way. The first card that looked a perfect fit could easily by trumped by another in a subsequent hand.
Especially because you can’t use every card you draft – even in the first round when you’ll have five options to fill four spots. Interestingly, that makes “hate drafting” – the act of choosing a card you don’t need solely to keep it from someone else – easier. There are more opportunities to engage in the spiteful tactic since you know you can’t use your entire hand, anyway. Why take a random throwaway unit when you can deny other players a powerful beast, even if you don’t intend to use it?
That said, the limited tableau creates more tough drafting decisions than not. While you’ll certainly have some useless cards – and one or two you took just to keep it from others – you’ll still wish you were able to play more than you have. I don’t recall a game that restricts your play space as much as Paper Tales, and it creates some considerable angst – at least for such a small and briskly paced design. Those four tableau spots must generate defense, goods and income. Deciding how best to squeeze everything you can out of available unit combinations and arrangements is not always the easiest exercise.
Buildings can help eek out further resources, but also add to the game’s tight economy. When planning on them, you must balance acquiring units to provide the necessary goods, which means you’ll likely have to sacrifice somewhere in defense and/or gold. At max you can only build four of them, one per turn. You could build a new building each round, but that gets to be expensive because of the land cost. You might get one or two in which you can build new and are immediately able to upgrade it that same turn. Obtaining a level two structure is a goal you’ll strive for at least once. Because if you only concentrate on the cheaper level one construction, you won’t reap much reward from the last two structures’ benefits. Mostly that means never leveling any of them up, which earn more points and swag. However, the biggest bonus for increasing a building to level two is that you now get a fifth spot in your tableau to deploy units. And on the frontlines, to boot! So that will often be an early objective, just to take advantage of the fifth column, so to speak, as soon as possible. The one unit tableau addition may not seem like much of a boost, but it’s actually tremendous.
While tethered to the rather narrow tableau tends to encourage frequent refreshing, the aging mechanism forces you to progress through units. It is the design’s most unique and compelling element. No one unit will sit for the game’s duration, no matter how powerful or beneficial. Life expectancy is two turns – albeit sessions are admittedly quick. I say “expectancy” because, as is typical of games of this nature, there are of course other cards that can let you manage aging tokens to lengthen a unit’s usefulness and or defy death for a turn. Yet the cards with those rules-bending powers are themselves subject to aging. Therefore, the benefit can be short-lived and is usually limited in scope. It’s not a panacea in completely combating old age.
This aging component conveys a nice sense of cyclical progression that you might expect with the kingdom building theme. It’s an added touch. That said, you’ll also discard a fair number of units before they age out as you tinker with your tableau each round to maximize your units’ synergy. Sometimes that dampens the clever aging concept’s impact, lessening the thematic cyclical progression. The game’s truncated nature works against that, as well. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating inclusion that creates decision points that matter and keep players sharp as they manage their kingdom’s evolution.
Probably the most important aspect to account for in your kingdom’s progress is defense. There are certainly multiple ways to earn points, but warfare is usually an integral part in ensuring victory. Not always, but usually. I was able to barely win a game after having lost all of my battles (you don’t lose point for “defeat”) thanks to a particular card that awarded points for aging chits, another that allowed me to add extra tokens and another card that awarded substantial points at the end of the game for meeting a certain criteria. In my experience, that’s a rare instance, however, in which favorable cards bounced my way.
Rather war is pretty essential. You don’t have to win (or draw) every fight, but you can’t wholly neglect your defenses. That exudes a minor sense of hamstringing. After all, there are a handful of ways to earn points. You’d like to be able to explore them all or try new avenues. But war is inevitable and regular, thus proves a steady source of points. If not for you, then your opponents. So while you might not feel railroaded by the combat mechanisms, it’s typically unlikely you’ll win if you ignore them.
At least wars are never nasty. They’re rather sanitized, just as you might read about them from the history books. And to be honest, there is a disconnect in the setting, as generic as it is. I’m not sure the genesis behind its title. There are no telling of tales and the legendary aspect doesn’t grab you. Still, the aging element and frequent cycling of citizens convey a nice thematic touch about progress and development that would be stronger if the game were lengthier. However, that would then ding one of the design’s main attractions – briskness. There it scales well for three to five players and rolls out about the same time regardless, thanks to its simultaneous play. You can attempt a two player session, but I don’t recommend it. It lacks the tension, competition, drafting savvy, and really everything else that the design has to offer. To my mind, this is a game made for three plus, but someone somewhere along the way shoehorned a fix for two, just because pairs gaming is such a big demographic.
Paper Tales is a compact experience, almost frantically so. It’s strict regimentation, restricted tableau-building and stern economy create an angsty play belied by a casual approach. The complexity isn’t in the cards – that is as in drafting, iconography, special abilities or synergy – but in managing them effectively in such constricted space and tight resources. I think many might be drawn to this title because of its superficial resemblances to 7 Wonders. But I believe those same gamers will appreciate the design as much more than just a drafting exercise. One that takes the popular and intuitive mechanism and builds a deeper game around it, while still playable in a satisfying half hour.
Stronghold Games provided a copy of Paper Tales for this review.