It snowed last night here in Indiana. That was something that I was not expecting given the recent warm weather. There’s also the fact that it’s the middle of April and well into spring so this shouldn’t happen. But I’m trying not to let the cold spell get me down because I know that just as quickly as this miserable weather came in it can change and be beautiful again. At least that’s what I’m counting on. Sorry, this doesn’t really have much to do with the game Seasons. But I figured it was close enough to let me complain about the weather and how changing from winter to spring should mean that it’s suddenly very nice and pleasant all the time, right? In Seasons you get to experience three years of changing seasons, I hope you brought your warmest sweater because you’re going to need it!
How It Plays
The Setting – A magical tournament in the Argos Forest
Seasons takes place in a magical fantasy world which you’ll explore with the game’s beautifully illustrated cards. The players are sorcerers who have come together to partake in a three year competition that will determine the next Archmage of Xidit. In order to prove themselves fit for the title of Archmage, the sorcerers will be gathering and using energy to perform fantastic feats of magic. Each type of energy is associated with a season: Water in winter, Earth in spring, Fire in summer, and Air in autumn. As the seasons change so will the abundance and scarcity of these energies. A clever sorcerer will be deeply aware of the changing seasons so that at just the right time, when elements are scarce, he can transmute them into spectacular crystals! With this energy sorcerers may also summon wondrous magical items to aid them and cunning familiars to trip up their competitors. Only one sorcerer will become Archmage, can you navigate the seasons and prove that you are fit for the title?
The Gameplay – Equal parts drafting, tableau building, and resource management
To simulate the tournament Seasons takes place over three years with each year being divided up into 12 months, three for each season. There’s a handy central board for tracking the progression of the game through the seasons (and years) as well as showing the scarcity of elements in each season. The game starts in Winter of the first year and ends upon completion of the third year. During that time players will be gathering energy tokens and spending them to play cards or transmuting them into crystals. Points are awarded at the end of the game for cards in play and any crystals gathered then possibly deducted for cards left in hand as well as penalties from using special powerful abilities. The player with the most points is given the coveted title of Archmage!
There are two distinct parts to Seasons: the prelude and the tournament. In each part a different form of drafting is used to determine the availability of cards (in the prelude) and actions (in the tournament). The prelude can be thought of as the pregame, though it’s important to know that it’s a crucial aspect of the game despite how short it is. During the prelude players will receive a hand of nine cards and then assign three to each year. At the start of that year the associated cards will be drawn and become available to the player. Thus you’ll start the game with the three cards assigned to the first year and will have to wait until the start of the following years to get access to your remaining cards. In order to make your first game easier to play there are four pre-constructed hands that can be randomly assigned to each player. Once you become experience the Prelude switches to using a draft to create your hand. Each player is dealt nine cards and then simultaneously picks one to keep and passes the rest clockwise. You’ll have one less card to pick from each time and this process is repeated until all nine cards have been chosen.
Now the tournament is ready to begin! On each turn the active player starts off by rolling one more dice than the number of players from the current season. These dice are then selected in turn order and provide various actions that can be performed during the player’s turn such as gathering energy and crystals, drawing a card, transmuting, and increasing the summoning gauge (we’ll come back to this one). After every player has selected a die they each takes their turn in the same order. On your turn you can use the actions provided by the die you selected, summon cards from your hand by paying their cost and playing them in front of you, and use any abilities from cards that you have in play. Once all players have taken their turn the active player rotates and the game advances a number of months equal to the number of dots shown on the dice that wasn’t selected. If this causes the year to change then players will draw the cards from the following year or the game will end if three years have been completed.
Let’s take a closer look at the cards in Seasons since they will have a significant impact on a player’s strategy. Each card has a cost that can be a combination of energy tokens and crystals (points). There’s also a point value that they’ll provide at the end of the game but more importantly they’ll provide a special ability. There are three types of abilities: ones that triggers when the card is played, permanent effects, and activated effects. Permanent effects generally provide an ability that triggers whenever an event occurs such as when you summon a card, an opponent does something, or the season changes. Activated effects can only be used on your turn and sometimes have an activation cost. Cards come in two types: magic items and familiars. Magic items simply provide a benefit to the player that played the card. Familiars, on the other hand, provide some form of interaction with the other players. Their abilities are generally nasty and either make it harder for opponents to do things or take points from them. The number of cards that you can have in play is limited by your summoning gauge. You’ll start with your summoning gauge at 0, meaning that you won’t be able to play a card until you take an action die that lets you increase it.
There are also four bonus actions that you can take during the game which come at a cost. Each time you use one you’ll move forward on the bonus track which indicates how many points you’ll lose at the end of the game so you’ll want to use these actions sparingly. The bonus actions provide some flexibility by allowing you to manipulate your energy tokens, transmute for additional crystals, increase your summoning gauge, or draw cards.
Summon Some Fun or Time For A Change (of Seasons)
The Components – Beautiful and Functional
The artwork in Seasons is what first caught my attention, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people had a similar experience. Everything is this game is beautifully illustrated from the cover to the cards to the player boards. There is so much incredible art in Seasons that I would consider buying it just to look through the cards and hope that the gameplay was worthwhile (luckily it is). My pictures don’t even start to do the artwork justice so anyone that’s wanting to get a decent taste of what Seasons has to offer should head over to the image gallery at BGG. Even if you already own the game you should go look at that artwork again, it’s so vibrant and beautiful. If you like fantasy settings or classic adventure video games then you’ll eat this stuff up.
The component quality in Seasons is also top notch. The cards are great quality, the boards are nice and thick, and those dice are incredible. We’re talking oversized, nice and chunky, and so satisfying to roll. I generally don’t get all that worked up over components but you just have to experience getting a handful of Seasons’ dice. On a practical note, having the dice be oversized is great for making them very easy to read. Alright, enough about the dice already. The attention to detail is great across the board. The card layout and iconography is very consistent and easy to interpret. They use text on the cards to explain the abilities but pretty much everything else sticks to icons which makes the dice very easy to interpret. The use of color in the game is very stark and vibrant and creates a natural contrast between the seasons. Even the insert for the game is great, I gladly store everything in it and don’t have any problem with things getting all jumbled around.
The Prelude – A Big Impact in a Short Time
I’ve played Seasons a couple of times with the pre-constructed decks and it works alright but the game really starts to shine when you use the draft. I understand the necessity of not drafting when you are first learning the game but it creates an incomplete first experience in my opinion. You see, the initial draft during the prelude is an essential part of the game. I’d say you’re not really playing Seasons as it was intended if you don’t draft. Sure the pre-constructed decks are designed to simulate a relatively balanced draft but they take the great dynamics out of the prelude. There are several aspects that drafting your starting hand adds to Seasons. First it lets you create a hand that has more natural synergy by giving you some control over which cards to use. You’re unlikely to get all your cards to work together perfectly since you’ll probably end up with some leftovers but your first several picks can strongly influence your strategy for the game. Secondly the draft provides a very interesting form of player interaction. Drafts are incredibly interactive because you are sharing information with your opponent based on the cards that are drafted. All things being equal you would want to take the cards tohatbenefit you the most but it can be advantageous to pay attention to what your opponent is doing and take what they want if it is more important than what you want. This is especially true to the 2-player game where hurting your opponents is just as useful as helping yourself. The last thing that the drafts adds is to provide some information to the players about what cards are in the game to start with. You’ll get to see your full initial hand and then one card less from the following hands for each opponent that is in the game. This is incredibly important when it comes to the familiar that can be devastating if that are played at just the right (or wrong) time. Since the first card that you draft will be private information that the other players won’t get to see it’s crucial to decide which piece of information you want to withhold from your opponents.
The funny thing about the prelude is that it is such a small portion of the game in terms of length but it can have a huge impact on the game. I’ve heard people say that the draft is the game and then the tournament is played to determined who played the best in the prelude. I personally don’t agree with that and wouldn’t play the game if that was the case but I do think the prelude is of incredible importance. If one player drafts a better starting hand then they will be at a considerable advantage for the game. This won’t guarantee the victory but it means that you shouldn’t blow off the prelude and assume that all starting hands are relatively equal. One thing that prevents the prelude from determining the winner is that you have the ability to draw more cards during the game so you are only drafting some of the cards that you will be playing with.
The Tournament – Tactical Implementation of The Prelude
The tournament represents the core of the game, I like to think of it as the tactical implementation of the Prelude. A large part of your focus and strategy will determined by the cards that you selected in the prelude but how you go about implementing them can vary quite a bit based on the various randomized elements that the tournament presents. I’d like to be clear in stating that randomized does not mean that you are at the whim of the dice and your card draws but rather that they present a game state that all players have to react to. Fortunately you have a decent amount of control between the cards that you get into play and the bonus actions that can get you out of a jam if you simply aren’t getting what you need to get your engine going. The first randomized element is the action dice. I really like the way that they make you react to what’s available on each turn. There’s a drafting element similar to the prelude where you not only have to consider what you want but also possibly what you can deny your opponents. You can be fairly certain of the availability of the abundant energy based on the season that you’re in but nothing is guaranteed even when you get first pick of the dice. This means that you are forced to play tactically and plan around not necessarily getting what you want. You don’t even know how quick or slow the pace of the game is going to be. But this doesn’t translate to a feeling of helplessness. The different options that come up on the dice are all useful, there are some that are more beneficial than others but none that are bad. You’ll never be stuck with a strictly bad choice, even the last player gets to choose between two dice and has control over the speed of the game. No matter what you’ll get something useful, you just have to figure out how to use it if it’s not what you wanted.
There are two ways to earn points during the tournament: transmuting energy as well as playing and using cards. You will generally be earning most of your points from the cards that you play but depending on the powers they provide you may be in better position to take advantage of transmuting. Often times transmuting can be thought of as a supplemental point source to what you are earning from your cards. You can earn some extra points here and there by gathering extra energy and transmuting them when the action dice provide the opportunities. However, you won’t always have lots of energy to spare and you may have to decide between the flexibility of keeping your extra energy for later or transmuting when you have the chance. I like this aspect of Seasons as it provides meaningful decisions outside of your card play and adds another tactical layer to your decisions.
The Highlights – Drafting, Synergy, and Balance
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of tableau and engine building games. Seasons fits the bill by providing great synergy between the cards and allows for players to discover new interactions each game as a different mix of cards is used. There are advanced cards that are suggested for experienced players and they really open up all sorts of room for creative play. One of the things that makes this card synergy work so well is the prelude draft. Since you get to pick the cards that make up your starting hand from a larger pool of cards this allows for a higher chance that you’ll end up with cards that work well together. In fact, one of the most important skills for drafting is being able to identify card synergy and pick those that work together rather than just the ones that are individually powerful. I’ve been extremely impressed with all the fun ways that the cards in Seasons work together, this provides a lot of room for replayability.
I also really enjoy the way that Seasons incorporates two different kinds of drafting, first in the prelude with cards and then in the tournament with dice. This lends itself to great player interaction and really forces you to pay attention to what key cards your opponent has (from the prelude) and what they might want during dice selection. This can be hard to track with higher player counts so if you want more control during drafting then it’s better to stick to the 2 or 3 player game. It’s interesting because drafting is not generally something that works well with only 2 players but in Seasons’ case it is arguably the best way to play. You’ll have the most information since only one card from the prelude remains hidden and will be able to pay close attention to what your opponent is doing in order to draft the action dice efficiently.
There are some very powerful cards in Seasons and they may appear to be overpowered and throw off the balance of the game. I found the opposite to be the case. I’ve seen many games where players are able to each get out some very powerful cards and pursue very different strategies with relatively equal degrees of success. This isn’t to say that all paths to victory are equal and the game will always end up with the players within a couple points of each other. I’ve seen my share of blow outs as well when someone clearly played better or worse. What I did find was that the really powerful cards seem to be well balanced against each other and were well priced to make them more challenging to get into play easily. In addition, certain card combinations will allow for very powerful strategies that can compete with the strongest cards. I didn’t find one set of cards or strategy to dominate every game which means that there are lots of viable paths to follow. Having cards of varying degrees of power also helps to make the prelude draft interesting. Should you go after a couple of cards that go well together or grab that really powerful one before your opponent can get it?
The Frustrations – Chaos and Tracking Information
I found Seasons to be incredibly fun when players feel like they are competitive and have some interesting synergy between their cards. Once you are experienced this should be the case in most games, if not every game. But I did experience some frustrations while I was learning. The first was the chaos that is introduced in the 4-player game. The main problem is in the games when a lot of Familiars come out early to make a player feel like that can’t make any ground on the other players. Even when that doesn’t happen the game just has a more chaotic feel to it, especially in the initial draft. You’ll have to be willing to have a much less coherent engine and play a more tactical game as more interactive cards come into play. The very first game that I played was a 4-player game and I have since largely stuck to the 2-player game which provides more focus and better control.
The other thing that can be frustrating in Seasons is that there is a lot of information to track once you get a number of cards in play that all trigger at different times. There’s a reminder that a card has a continuous ability but you’ll have to remember specifically which ones trigger when. As you gain experience you’ll be able to recall these effects better but it can be really tough to remember all of your abilities when you are first learning the game. The 2-player game can allow players to help remind each other of their abilities and I liked playing with someone that would agree to look out for each other to make sure we were getting the full affect out of all our cards.
Summary – Is Seasons For You?
Seasons offers a very interesting take on drafting by providing two different ways to draft during the game, each with a completely different impact on the game. This combines nicely with the interesting and fun card synergy that allows for varied and creative tactical play throughout the game. Throw in some beautiful artwork and great components to top it all off. For players that enjoy drafting and engine building with a healthy dose of tactical decisions I’d highly recommend Seasons. However, if you don’t like tracking information spread out over several cards and prefer to pick a plan and stick to it then you may want to pass on this one.