Apparently based on a Viking legend which has subsequently been confirmed by evidence, Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga tells the story of Jarl Harald Maddadson and his men who, in 1153, broke into a Neolithic tomb to shelter from a severe storm but then struggled to escape.
This new edition from Dragon Dawn Productions reprises Lee Broderick's originally self-published game, adding evocative art by Matthias Catrein and Lars Munck. The original game was designed to be played solitaire, and this too is essentially a solo game tho' DDP have added in the option of playing as a fully co-operative two-player game.
Either way, Maeshowe is a hand management game with straightforward rules. You start off by setting out the number of passages that have to be excavated to escape (win): three for an easy game but with the option of taking the number up to seven if you want to play with all the optional cards and have a death wish. You have a deck of 36 cards (with an additional three sets of three cards that can be optionally added). You draw a hand of five cards and, each turn you must play one card and discard another from your hand before drawing back up to five.
You have until the deck runs out to escape (ie: excavate all the passages). For the cards you play, you take the indicated action. Some cards can be discarded without penalty but others cost health to discard. You start off with just 4 health, tho' some cards can be played to increase health and others can give you food which some cards permit you to consume to restore health. This is mere survival, however; it isn't getting you out... In order to excavate a passage, you need to play four excavation cards in an unbroken row. Play four in a row with the same room rune (the cards all bear either a red or blue rune) and you get to remove two passages... You'll try to collect excavation cards in hand to ensure you can play four in succession but if you're greedy and hold out for cards that all have the same runes, you'll be taking an extra risk: if ever you have a hand where all the cards have the same rune icon, the you go mad...
If you go mad, you permanently lose one health (ie: your maximum health is reduced by one). You also have to discard your entire hand (painful if you've just saved up four matching excavation cards!) On the plus side, the discard pile gets shuffled into the draw deck, so madness could actually save the day if your draw deck is perilously close to being exhausted.
The artwork on the cards is dark and gloomy - but that's appropriate for the enclosed setting. The icons for the actions are refreshingly clear: this isn't a game where you'll need to be glued to the rulebook to decode the cards. Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga is an addictively challenging 20-30 minute game. Beat it at the easiest setting and you'll want immediately to step up the difficulty for a replay. Get beaten by it and you'll always want to take another crack at it. And if you do play it as a two-player cooperative, the rules include several options for play, including one where players can pass cards between them instead of discarding but where they cannot speak.
DDP are bringing Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga to Kickstarter on 21 January. Click here to check out the campaign.