Updated: Sep 1, 2020
There is no shortage of two-player duelling card games but often they have a similar feel to one another. There are scores of card drafting and deck building games in the tradition of Star Realms (White Wizard), and there are the collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast), where players spend mana and other resources in order to activate card powers. With Riftforce, Carlo Bortolini has managed to come up with a system that feels different yet which plays quickly and with an elegant simplicity.
There's the expected mumbo jumbo back story about rifts, elementals and guilds but this isn't a game where you'll be overly concerned about the world building that's gone on in the background. This is a card game with art by Miguel Coimbra where each player drafts four of the 10 'guilds' and then forms a deck of their four sets of nine elemental cards. The guild cards have asymmetric powers but every set of elemental cards comprises four at value 5, three at value 6 and two at value 7. The values represent the damage needed to destroy the card. Our one gripe with the preview prototype that we played at Board's Eye View is the damage markers, which have '1' printed on one side and '3' on the other. We much prefer tokens with a single value as they are less likely to cause confusion. Hopefully, this minor point will be addressed in the final version of the game.
Five locations are laid out between the players and each draws a hand of 7 cards from their individual shuffled decks of 36. On your turn you can do one of three things: you can Play up to three cards from your hand that have either matching numbers or matching icons, placing the cards out either at a single location or at three adjacent locations. Alternatively, you can discard a card from your hand and Activate up to three of your played cards that all match either the number or the icon of your discard. Finally, you can Check whether you control any of the five locations by having a card there that is unopposed. You score (advance on the Riftforce track) for every unopposed location and, with this action, you refresh your hand back up to 7 cards. If you go for the Check and Draw action and your opponent has control of any locations, they don't score for them: players only score for their own Check and Draw actions.
It's the Activate action that makes use of your four asymmetric guild powers. Typically these will inflict damage on the first card an opponent has facing you but some powers involve relocating your own or your opponent's cards, so once you have a decent quantity of cards in play, there's real skill in putting together combos that work together to cascade damage. You'll score on the Riftforce track for every card of your opponent that you 'destroy', and some guild powers may give you extra Riftforce when it is their action that makes a kill.
We've hugely enjoyed our plays of Riftforce. We loved the fact that the game has simple rules yet it allows for depth through the interplay of the various guild powers. Your value 7 cards are the most resilient but there are fewer of them so you may find it more difficult maximising the benefit of Activation actions with 7s than with the twice as numerous value 5 cards. When you're in a position where you have control (sole presence) at a location, then it's usually worthwhile taking the Check action for opportunistic scoring, even if you don't really need to draw. As cards and damage build up, excitement mounts because some relatively large scores can be racked up on a single turn. And because most Activations target the nearest card, canny players can give themselves an advantage by using Activation powers that move cards so that a close-to-elimination card at the vulnerable front of one location shifts to the back of a neighbouring location where it is vulnerable to fewer cards.
The 10 different asymmetric powers give you more than 200 possible combinations, so Riftforce is a game with no shortage of options. Most games take around 20 minutes so this makes for a great games night filler. It's certainly a game that you'll come back to time and again.
Publishers 1 More Time are bringing Riftforce to Kickstarter. The campaign is now live: clock here to check it out.