Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Another release from the excellent EmperorS4, a group of game designers and artists who clearly have a deep love of board gaming; bringing interesting strategic themes and fusing oriental art with Euro style gameplay. The game is designed by Michael Mihealsick and Wei-Min Ling and the art is by Maisherly Chan.
Most EmperorS4 games adopt oriental themes but Trial of the Temples feels more like a generic magic theme and as such it feels a little like the theme was slapped on at the last minute with no time to build a coherent world narrative. The overview states that the Archmages gather in the 'Trial Land' to enter trials in three temples to compete for the title of 'Supreme Master'. So far so generic. The trials in the three temples are depicted by three cake-slice shaped boards that come together to form a circle. Each board has a track that abstracts the player’s ascendency in that trial and victory points are gained for how far down each of the tracks the player gets before the game ends.
The components in the game are very solid. The plastic crystals and spell cubes are a good chunky size, larger than you would normally expect. The tiles and the circular board are made of decently thick cardboard. It is only the player boards that are on the flimsy side, but they function just fine. The box cover art has a Final Fantasy feel to it, although the board and the temple tiles that surround the board have a unique stylised, somewhat futuristic look to them. The art definitely captures the theme of the game and it would have been more immersive if there was a modicum of story behind the theme, but that’s not a major concern. The iconography is clean, clear and straightforward. There is some looking back and forth between the temples surrounding the main board and the player board to work out precisely what resources each player has earned in the round, but the bonuses on the player board are neatly grouped together so as to make this process easier. The options available to the player are set out in the icons on the player board and the card iconography leaves the cards with a wonderfully uncluttered feel to them. The rulebook keeps to the EmperorS4 promise of a short rule set with deep gameplay and that is something that the designers should be commended for. However, I still feel that there are some rules that you have to interpret and which really should be explicit in the rulebook. For example, when scoring you look at the last score marked on the track that your marker moved past; simple enough, right? Well, if you stay on the start space on the track you score minus 2 (ie: you lose 2 points) even though this number is technically in front of your marker. So if you move past this, do you still score minus 2 or 0? It is not clear. Also if you take a 'once per round' action on your player board there is nowhere in the rules that suggests how to remind players that they have taken this action. Neither do the rules suggest whether or not the complement of crystals and action tokens should be considered to be limited. None of these are game breakers. and a sensible group of gamers can work their collective way around these issues, but it will definitely infuriate the rules lawyer in your group should you have one. There was also at least one typographical error in the rules in the version reviewed, so perhaps EmperorS4 needs to invest a little more in the translation process.
The gameplay is where Trial of the Temples excels, and this reflects the love that these designers and EmperorS4 put into game design. It is simple, elegant and intuitive. The game is played over 5 rounds and each round comprises 4 phases. During the first phase, the Day/Night Phase, you move the Day/Night tile around the edge of the board covering one of the 12 temples that circle the board like numbers on a clock face. The distance moved is randomised by selecting one of six available event tiles and this governs how far the Day/Night tile moves and how many of the temples are flipped to their night side. Flipping the temples to the night side changes the benefits on those temples, with the changing board creating a good friction to the game. The next phase, the Temple phase, each player places their Archmage figure on one of the remaining 11 temples in player order. In the third, Resource phase, players collect the resources shown in the top left and bottom middle of the temple card their Archmage is located on and the bottom middle resource of all the temples clockwise and anti-clockwise as far round the board until a temple is blocked by an opponent’s Archmage or the Day/Night tile. This makes for interesting decisions when it comes to placing your mage, and going later in the round can be an advantage in maximising the resources you gain from the temples; however, it is a double-edged sword because someone may take a spot in the Trial phase that you wanted to take.
Resources gained come in the form of coloured crystals, action tokens, mana points and, in some rare instances. spell cores, and these resources are used in the final, fourth phase. It's the Trial phase, from where The Trial of the Temples gets its name, where the majority of the gameplay resides. Each of the three tracks on the main game board show how many and which type of crystal must be spent to move to that space. However, there is an interesting wrinkle here; you only pay for uncovered spaces (ie: if there are one or more players covering spaces ahead of you then you can skip the requirements of the occupied spaces and, because you can move multiple spaces along a track on one turn by paying a single action token, it is possible to shoot 4, 5 or even 6 spaces up a single track in one turn, which is immensely satisfying. The only other factors to take into consideration are your mana track and the spell cores. The mana track is numbered 0 to 8 and graphically displayed on the bottom of your player board. You can spend mana to gain another Action token (which is effectively required to take a turn during the Trial phase) and to gain a crystal of any colour. You can also take crystals from your available supply and turn them into mana. Although this is not particularly efficient, it can help when you just need one more mana and you have the wrong coloured crystal in your supply. Spell cores are gained by moving along any one of the three trial tracks on the main board and you place these on your player board to give you an ongoing benefit, an immediate benefit, somewhere to store crystals at the end of your turn or a more efficient way to gain or exchange crystal colours or action tokens. Consider this as unlocking your Archmage’s special abilities. This is at its heart part race, part engine-building game, but with sufficient features thrown in to make it feel very different from other games in those genres. Once the player can no longer perform any further actions in the Trial phase they must choose to rest, and once all players have chosen to rest then the round ends and you rinse and repeat until either all the purple spell cores have been taken, or player tokens have reached the end of two of the three trial tracks, or the end of the fifth round, whichever comes first.
Scoring is pretty straightforward, subject to the rules ambiguity discussed above. Players score for their position on the three trial tracks, combined with rows or columns on their player boards where they have 3 spell cores (2 victory points) or 4 spell cores (4VP). In addition, there are a few of the special abilities spaces that also score some points. Add up all the VPs and the most points wins.
This game could cause issues in a group which has one or more players prone to analysis paralysis (AP). Although there are only three trial tracks, the board state changes immediately prior to you taking a turn in the Trial phase and therefore there is a lot of potential for on-the-spot calculations that an individual may decide to try and perform. My other concern is the lack of strong interaction between the theme and the mechanics: this game could have had any theme applied to it, and the theme that was applied feels generic. Even with these reservations, however, the solid components, short rules and the great gameplay you come to expect from EmperorS4 elevate this game from good to great in my opinion.
(Review by Jason Keeping)