Do you have the thing you need to get the other thing? If you want to buy an object, you need money. If you want love, you need to have the capacity to love. If you want to watch TV, you need to have a head.
What if the thing you needed to get the other thing had no connection with the thing you lost when the thing you wanted is finally in your hands? What if you had the capacity to love, and so did love, but then could choose to throw away your money or saw your own head off with a bread knife?
This is Elysium.
Elysium is a card game about timing. It's about gaining powerful cards, and then deciding when (and if) you should move them into a position to score points. It's a game about collecting sets of cards, but holding off on building your sets until you've had the maximum value from the cards you own. It's not difficult to play, but it's very deep and very very good. And you know what? I predict that it might end up a little bit under-appreciated, because there's far more going on in this game than you might think at first.
Before we set off – forget about the theme. The game is gorgeous. Gorgeous artwork. Beautiful illustrations of the heroes and deities of Greek legend. But the game isn't really about any of that – it's set dressing for a tricky, aggressive puzzle game. Good set dressing, great even, but the essence of the game is this – what, which and when.
In front of every player is a thin board that separates the upper from the lower, the player's DOMAIN from their ELYSIUM. In the centre of the table is THE AGORA, where a selection of cards from the main deck will be placed face up. Above these are four QUESTS, and in every round a player must purchase one of these – they control turn order and income.
On a turn, a player must purchase a card or a quest. There will be four turns, and every player will end up with three cards and one quest. Each player has four coloured wooden columns, and these are used to buy the cards.
THE COLUMNS OF ELYSIUM
Your four columns, in red, blue, green and yellow, allow you to purchase cards from the Agora or buy a Quest tile. Every card has an acquisition condition, a colour or two, in the upper right corner. For green cards you will need to still have your green column. For red you'll need red. Some cards will ask that you own a specific colour and any other colour. But the interesting thing – the tricky thing – is that when you take the card, you have to dismiss a column. And it doesn't have to be the column of the colour you just used. You see? Buy a green card with your green column, and you can throw away a red, or a yellow, or a blue. If you want to. If you want to.
So, when you take a card, you need to be thinking about what card you'll be taking next. And what you might take after that. And the Quests all have acquisition conditions too. You want two green cards? Then keep your green from the first acquisition, throw away a yellow column, but what does that leave you able to buy from the Quests? Will it throw you low in the turn order? Will it limit how many cards you can send to the Elysium?
THE CARDS OF ELYSIUM
The cards, now. If there's one thing I hate in a card game it's weak cards. There's nothing worse than being in a position where you're having to buy junk because you have no other option. Elysium has a different issue. All the cards are powerful. This is fundamental to the game's tension. You want about five of the amazing cards laid out before you. You can't get them all. Other players might take them. You won't be able to pay for some. Everything is a tight, difficult choice. Some cards generate money, some of them allow you to send extra cards to your Elysium, some will award bonuses once they are IN the Elysium. Some cards act instantly, some have powers that can be used only once, some can be tapped every turn for some kind of bonus.
It's all “If”.
If I can get this card and that card, I can do this... If another player takes that card, I can get this other card if I hold onto my yellow column. If both cards vanish I need a back-up plan. If that player takes that card, it will activate and I will lose the card that lets me do this.
If. If. If.
At the end of every round, you “write your legend”. This is where you send cards from your DOMAIN to your ELYSIUM. Depending on the Quest you chose, and any cards you might have in play, you will have a limit on how many cards you can send. Each card you send down must be paid for with gold, and must be placed in some kind of set. To make a set you can assemble three cards from the same family, of Levels 1, 2 and 3. Or you focus on creating sets of five different family cards cards of each level. Incomplete sets do score, but sets of only one card are worth nothing.
Elysium is a punishing game when you don't keep an eye on the potential outcomes of your choices. I've seen a player build towards a set and then have another player's MEDUSA card kill the card they needed to complete it. A few rounds of planning and building shattered in one brutal play. It might sound terribly harsh, but Elysium is the tonic for anyone who's a bit tired of those card games that fly a little but too close to a game of Solitaire. You will lose optimal sets because of attacks from other players. And you will be distracted from your plans by thoughts of vengeance.
At the end of the game you score points for your sets, and any bonus points from cards within those sets. And then you play again, because you'll want to.
I worry about Elysium.
It's a great game, and one that will stand up to many, many plays. There's a huge amount of variety in those cards – and there are eight sets of them. You only use five sets in each game. And each set, each family, offers something different to the game. Take the Apollo card set for example – this introduces an ORACLE that gets placed on the table and shows you four of the cards that will be available to buy from the next round, and also introduces cards that can be used to pluck cards from that ORACLE, essentially letting you pluck cards from the future. A game with Apollo plays very differently from a game without it.
And the game is also hugely interactive. You need to be aware of what everyone else is building, of what they might intend to buy, and who they might intend to attack. I have threatened someone with retaliation in this game, and how often do you do things like that in games like these? It's surprisingly cutthroat.
But I do worry about Elysium. I worry that some people – in their rush to move onto the next new game (isn't there always a next new game these days?) might dismiss it too quickly, or miss some of its brilliant little quirks. I worry that people won't realise that this is a game that you can become good at. I worry that people might not notice that it's actually, secretly, one of those brilliant little knifefight-in-a-phone booth things.
I recommend that you try it yourself.