Updated: May 19
If you’re 'in the hobby', you’ll know what I mean when I say that while I have always liked deckbuilding, I’ve never really liked building decks. Well, maybe ‘never’ is a bit strong: for a while when Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast) first came out, I had decks set up to play the five-player variant where your allies sit either side of you and the winner is the player who eliminates the two opposite them, but that was as far as it went. My lifestyle games in the 90s were all RPGs (role-playing games), so I can appreciate the immersion that comes with a vividly fleshed out world. Fast forward a quarter of a century and it was my privilege to try out Cursed Empire: Heroes of Thargos, which is primarily a two-player head-to-head game with the potential for building your own deck.
While ‘just’ a card game - there is a mat available to organise play, but no other components - the thing that comes through most strongly when reading the rules is how passionate designers Chris Loizou and Bryan Steele seem to be about the world of Thargos, from a full page of scene-setting text to advisories throughout the instructions as to how what you as players are doing fits into the grander scheme of things. To be honest, it made me a little nostalgic for the time - pre-offspring - when I could leave this world behind for a few days to enter one of my own imagination. These days, though, I’m a board gamer, so let’s look at things through meeple-shaped glasses...
Cursed Empire: Heroes of Thargos from Spartans Unleashed requires each of two players to have a deck comprising 60 cards, of which an even distribution of Lasting cards (augments), Mission cards (objectives), and Action cards (guess) is recommended; though, with extra sets or expansions, players could customise how they like. Between the players are four Missions, to which each assigns their four Characters of varying rank; the combined ranks of the Characters, from 5-10, is the Victory Point total needed from successful Missions to win: nice. Turns are very simple: first, draw up to your hand size; then play a Lasting card to boost a Character; then either play an Event card or attempt to fulfil a Mission.
That simplicity is necessary as, while nothing in the game is overly complex, there are many little calculations needed to consider the best options on a turn. This particulate maths comes in the form of the Characters’ special powers and stats - Might, Mind and Mysticism, usually from 1-3, less if flipped to their Injured side - the Lasting cards’ bonuses, and the Mission cards’ requirements: you can add up several sets of little numbers to evaluate the chances of success in contesting each of the four Missions, which slows things down somewhat. As well as that, when you do attempt to fulfill a Mission, you can add bonuses from any hand card into the mix, with the attacker declaring number of cards played first, before the defender plays... this, for each stat on the Mission. It all makes sense, but it can slow things down; hence the 45 minutes per player is about right.
That said, there are some nice emergent properties: Lasting cards are free to play, but can have stat penalties, making a Character’s weakness exploitable; Events are useful, but fulfilling Missions is what wins the game plus they come with an instant bonus; even better, if your opponent hasn’t kept a Mission card in hand to replace the completed one, they discard from their deck until one is found; failing to fulfil a Mission results in your Character becoming Injured (they can’t die), worsening their stats but sometimes granting a more useful power; playing cards as bonuses to a Mission can ensure success but then you have fewer cards in hand to defend on your opponent’s turn; and all of the above must be weighed against the ever-growing threat that if you can’t draw a card at the start of your turn, you lose.
Cursed Empire feels like an opposed ‘lane defence’ game, where you very much need to play to your statistical strengths and exploit your opponent’s weak points. The Characters, evidently drawn from the rich setting and given thematic powers, do feel quite static though, as there are few opportunities to move Lasting cards around and even fewer to reposition your forces. Being a card game, these sole components need to really stand out and, while the art is good and the layout serviceable, the production of the linen finished cards is a little dark, with an unnecessary drop shadow on the undersized title text and a heavy body font that rests on backgrounds just a shade too rich, meaning that the coloured keywords disappear a little, especially across the table. Of course, our experience has been predicated on a pre-production prototype; the publishers have already said they are aiming for a brighter look in the finished game's print run.
The clearly laid out rulebook includes variants for three or more players, tournament play, rapid play (halve the required victory points), and an extra thematic touch of restricting some Lasting cards only to Characters that match their Faction. So, as well as building your deck, there are plenty of options to play it your way.
In a world of many two-player head-to-head games, Cursed Empire: Heroes of Thargos serves up a large helping of theme and a lean turn structure which helps to mitigate the granular maths that creates the tension of each contested Mission. The game is coming to Kickstarter shortly. Click here to check out the campaign.
(Review by David Fox)