They say teamwork makes the dreamwork. For especially lofty dreams more heads and hands can indeed speed up the job. But that’s mere quantity over quality. Everyone knows a little self-interest is innovation’s true motivator. So it’s all fine and dandy to cooperate on a project. But if you want it to rise above the clouds, you have to incentivise the best worker. Because there’s no r-, e-, w-, a-, r-, or d- in “team.” Well, okay, so there’s an e- and an a-, but that’s really not enough…
How To Play
Your goal in Skyward is to build a model capital city to unite a fractured land. Except you’re not on the land! And while everyone’s efforts give new meaning to the term skyline, the whole affair isn’t nearly as harmonious as it sounds. Each player heads a faction endeavoring to outdo the others with more impressive additions so that the city ends up with divided sectors like Cold War Berlin sans wall, barbed wire and machine gun towers. Instead you’ll have airships, pigeons and rocket cat. Yes. Rocket cat.
The crux of Evan’s freshman design is the infrequently used “I divide, you decide” drafting mechanism. The game consists of a deck of cards – about 100 when you add the two “expansion” packs for the advanced variants – and a pile of cog tokens. Each round a Warden draws a number of cards based on player counts and allocates them into piles as they see fit. These allotments need not be equitable, nor equal to the number of players. However, the Warden chooses last, so it’s within their interests to leave at least a little something for everyone.
Players then alternate choosing piles. One of these will have the Warden token designating a new Warden for the time being. And then everyone plays out there hand – or as much of it as they’d like and can afford. Some cards are instantly effective. If you nab a pile with any of these, they immediately play to your airspace at no cost – but that’s not always a good thing. However, instant cards are not considered buildings, which is important for endgame considerations. They can still award points, or penalize you.
Most of the cards are either buildings or factions. To construct a building, you must pay its launch cost with faction cards. There are four factions and buildings will generally require one or more specific suits, but also may allow you to expend any currency to meet one or more of its requirements. You can also expend cog tokens to meet any price as a sort of wild denomination. The majority of cards also provide special abilities or bonuses. Some are triggered immediately when launched, a number provide ongoing benefits and still others affect endgame scoring based on meeting specific conditions.
At the end of each round, players can collect a cog for every three cards they discard. Anytime a player takes the Warden pile, they will also receive a cog. You can earn these through building powers, as well. Indeed you’ll want to.
The game ends during the round in which the draw deck is depleted or when one or more players have launched six or more buildings. When that round is completed, everyone tallies the value of the cards in their airspace as well as the bonuses from any endgame scoring effects. The winner becomes Mayor-for-Life of the new floating city. I’d be happy with just getting to keep Rocket Cat!
Head in the Clouds?
It’s common in modern game design to mesh multiple, even seemingly diverse, mechanisms for a complex and rewarding experience. Usually the more a game has going on, the richer the strategy and the keener the nuance. Of course it can also be fiddly and confusing depending on how much is thrown together. I think it safe to say most gamers prefer titles with a broader reach, but all types of designs fit different situations. So it can be refreshing to sit down with a simple card game that unabashadley dispenses with the unweidly layers to highlight a central tenet – yet still present a challenge.
So intriguingly the drafting element is the game here. Sure, cards added to tableaus determine victory. And you can manage limited combos depending on what falls into your hands. But as is the case with role-selection in the city-building of Citadels, the “I divide/you decide” is the centrally influential foundation here. So much so that if you mismanage it, you jeopardize your chances.
When you are the Warden, it’s a decision fraught with angst. In normal drafting titles you simply pick a card, pass the rest and repeat, considering each in turn. It’s not that there are never any hard choices, but everyone at the table is churning through the same process simultaneously. And hopefully that card you had to pass up will come back around. Hate drafting is a thing and can be a potentially good move to deny another a big addition, but it’s also generally contradictory to your own plans.
With the split and choose element in drafting, one player is responsible for divvying up the resources. You have to give the gifts out, but no one wants to be too generous. You might have the bag full of toys, but you’re no jolly St. Nick! No, you’re the selfish dinner guest trying to figure out how to take the last biscuit. The Warden knows what they want, but packaging the goods so as not to tempt others to steal it is the game’s heart and soul. And when you choose last, that’s a very tricky proposition. At the same time, you can’t rig it to anyone else’s benefit too much, either.
Alas while it’s more angst-ridden, it’s still more interesting, nay likely even more beneficial, to be the one in charge, manipulating the cards. In between times that you assume the Warden’s role, much of the game is unfortunately about hoping the Warden assembles multiple cards in a batch that will aid your progress. And falling into the right pecking order before another robs you of them. So the random elements of card draw and turn order are certainly impactful. An element more keenly apparent when you discover you can only launch certain types of buildings depending on which faction cards you’re able to acquire. At least there is something you can do with the unwanted dreck – discard them in threes for cog tokens.
Those baubles are indeed quite handy, because the game’s economy is extremely tight. There are only twenty-four faction cards and most buildings require two or more of a combination of currencies to launch. Acquiring cogs is therefore essential to financing your city section, because you likely won’t be able to build everything with cards alone.
The combination of angsty drafting, randomness and scarce economy often strain session lengths. You can wrap up 2-player games in under a half hour, but honestly those aren’t nearly as interesting or satisfying. 3- and 4-player counts enhance the unique drafting element, but push the forty-five minute mark so, while technically accurate on the box, it nonetheless can feel more labored and repetitive than what it’s worth. While focusing on the “I divide/you decide” at the expense of anything else keeps the design approachable, but tense, it can drag on a little given its weight class. Skyward is barely above filler territory with little complexity and depth. I can’t see it moving quicker and still retaining the fun tension of the split draft. So a shorter endgame may have served it better.
To add a little depth you can add one or both of the smaller “expansion” decks. They are more like included advanced variants, though. The packs come with a fun little warning not to open until you’re familiar with the game. I say pish posh. Go ahead and hit the clouds running! They’re not complex. Allegiance cards are powerful benefits that require you to have launched a certain combination of faction buildings before playing. You can mix six random ones into the deck during set-up. Alternatively you might deal a few to each player at the beginning of the game, letting everyone keep one as an added objective. Discord cards, the other variant, add a tinge of interaction and nefarious deviousness. They are considered somewhat taboo, but can be powerful if you’re judicious in their use. However, the player with the most Discord cards at the end of the game loses four points. You can shuffle all twelve into the start deck or simply add one to every group of cards the Warden splits each round.
Skyward trends in a decidedly minimalist direction, even when adding the expansion variants. It’s not for those wanting depth and complexity or gamers averse to luck. Rather it’s one of those brave small box designs that brazenly eschews everything but the main thing. Specifically that’s a tensely compact drafting core in which the one who allocates the resources must ask, “What am I willing to give others to ensure that I get this?” The rest depends on luck and the oftentimes unpredictable behavior of the other players. Oh, and Rocket Cat.
Passport Game Studios provided a copy of Skyward for this review.