Set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, Spell Saga is a card-driven solitaire game where a story unfolds as you play. The premise is that your hero is 'The Last Minstrel': a bard capable of casting magical spell-songs. As your character explores they will meet additional heroes and other characters, usually placed at specific locations to which you can return for further interaction.
The deck of cards fulfils various tasks. As you explore, you'll be adding cards to your story. This, in effect, sets the level of your character and of the cards your hero can interact with. Every time you add a story card, you draw a card face down to add to your armour. You can draw cards face down into your 'source' pile where they can be used as currency to pay the cost of items that come out of the draw deck, but your source deck cannot exceed the number of story cards. Cards are also drawn from the deck to represent your encounters and items you find on your travels. Whenever you draw a card with a source cost that's higher than your story level, you ignore the card. You can expect this to happen a lot early on in the game.
In Spell Saga, Todd Michael Rogers has developed an engaging story-based game. It's described as a 'tabletop novel' but that suggests a passive and perhaps linear reading experience and this is neither. Certainly, however, Spell Saga is much less frenetic than other solo dungeon crawlers, not least because there's no dice rolling. When you encounter monsters (and they are always monsters with a source number no higher than the number of story cards you have laid out) you resolve conflict by comparing attack and defence numbers. Certain items - for example, the Rusted Revolver (your starting item) - may resolve battle by having you cut the deck and compare the number drawn with the stats of the monster you are fighting. It all plays very smoothly, to the extent that it can sometimes feel like you are playing on automatic pilot. You don't usually have a lot of choice over how you respond to each of the encounters revealed; the judgement calls you make are over which locations to visit and the order in which you take them, so, in that sense, Spell Saga becomes an optimisation puzzle game.
Quite often, cards will require another specific card to be found and laid out. That inevitably means trawling through the shuffled deck and then reshuffling it. You can expect to have to do quite a lot of sifting and shuffling during the course of a game. That's normally a cue to use card sleeves but if you do decide to sleeve your Spell Saga cards you'll need to make or find a new box for them: the cards come in a tuck box that sadly allows no room for sleeving. According to After the World Ended Committee and Subheathen (the publishers), there's at least one more instalment due in the form of a third deck that will form a third Act to the Saga. It would be good to see a bigger box offered with that to take all the cards in the Act 1 base set (The Highlands), Act 2 (The Forest) and the upcoming Act 3 (The Caves), as well as the optional Prelude prequel, and to accept cards that have been sleeved.
We've tried to avoid spoilers in our description of the game and in the 360º photo on Board's Eye View (or should that be Bard's Eye View?) We like the quirky art by Lauren Rogers and we think most people will want properly printed cards but the publishers offer free pdf files so that you can download, print'n'play. This does mean that you genuinely can try before you buy.