RogerBW's Blog

Aeon’s End 06 November 2019

Aeon’s End is a cooperative deck-building game by Kevin Riley, in which players work together to fight a monster (the “nemesis”) and save their home.

I have an odd history with this game. I first met it in 2016, when just the base set was out; it was my second time working for Indie Boards & Cards at Essen, and it had arrived just in time for the show, but I hadn’t seen the rules in advance. I was put off by the artwork, which was a bit too generic-fantasy-blah for my taste (I’m mostly not a fan of fantasy theming anyway), and I also wasn’t looking for another big-box game. So that was fine, and that year I was mostly showing off Grifters and a bit of Don’t Mess With Cthulhu.

In 2017, the second box (War Eternal) was available at Essen. On the Friday night, the organiser of demo people said “we could really use an extra person to teach this tomorrow”. I went back to the hotel and read the rules… and they made instant and complete sense, which is unusual even in these days when rules are often competently written. The next morning I played a few test turns with one of the experienced hands and everything just fell into place.

And I loved it. I like cooperative games anyway; I’m not a great fan of many deckbuilders, but Aeon’s End does enough differently that it feels like its own thing. I demonstrated it for the rest of that Essen; in 2018 there wasn’t a new box available, so we didn’t push it, but this year I showed off The New Age, box number 4. I played in or supervised 19 games, and felt even more enthusiastic at the end than I had at the start.

So I’m already a bit biased, because to me the game will always carry associations of the Indie crew at Essen and the fun I had there. Several well-respected game critics either feel fairly neutral about it or actively dislike it; I won’t say they’re wrong, but I do think it has a lot to offer.

Mechanically it’s a deck-building game, but with some significant changes from the standard pattern you’d see in something like Star Realms. For a start, it’s very difficult to get rid of a card; most deck-builders have common powers that’ll let you remove cards from your hand, for example the relatively low-powered cards with which you start the game, but in this game it’s quite unusual, and in some setups may be impossible. But that’s not as much of a restriction as it might seem, because when you finish your turn, you stack all the cards you used onto the discard pile in whatever order you like, and when your deck runs out you turn over the discards without shuffling and draw from there.

Which means you have an optimisation puzzle, further complicated because spells you cast and new cards you buy (from a nine-card market) go immediately to your discard rather than at the end of your turn: what are the best cards to keep together, and in what order should you do things to make that work best? That could turn the game into just a puzzle, but it’s balanced by the partly randomised turn order – there will be four player turns and two nemesis turns in each group of six, but the exact order is determined by card draws, so you don’t know in which order they’ll happen and you also need to retain some flexibility.

Another difference from standard deck-building is that in most such games you keep buying cards for the entire game. You can do that here, but it’s often a mistake: late in the game there are better uses for your Aether (the in-game currency), in particular charging up and using your unique special ability.

I haven’t dealt with the breaches yet, and these are the heart of the game, indeed one of the first parts that got designed (it was originally going to be a competitive game of duelling wizards); they make up the four slots onto which you prepare your spells (to go off on your next turn). They can be “open” or “closed”; an open breach can be used freely, but a closed breach must be focussed or opened before it can be used. If you focus it, you can use it just once, on that turn, but at the same time the eventual cost of opening it is reduced. So it’s like the choice between buying something outright and taking out a loan: the loan will cost you more overall, but it means you don’t need to have all the money available at the same time. (And you can’t save Aether from turn to turn.) Some breaches also give a bonus once they're open.

On your turn, then, you cast spells you prepared earlier, then use relics from your hand to get immediate effects, prepare more spells, use gems to get Aether, and spend it on various things. You start with a specific set of cards, breaches, and special abilities. On the nemesis’s turn, any of its persistent cards get resolved, and a new one is drawn; this can be an immediate attack, one that’ll take time to power up (so you can get ready for it, and sometimes even cancel it by making some sacrifice), or a monster that’ll continue to attack until it’s killed. Each nemesis has its own cards, which are mixed with standard ones in three tiers of increasing frightfulness. More importantly, each nemesis has its own rules, dealing with how they can be attacked and what they’ll do if left alone.

The amount of variation in gameplay is amazing; at the very least each mage and each nemesis calls for specific tactics, some combinations of mage and mage and indeed mage and nemesis work in their own particular ways, and while changing one market card may not change the feel of the game it does at least tweak things a bit.

The really cunning bit is that everything is compatible. There are four big boxes: Aeon’s End, Aeon’s End War Eternal, Aeon’s End Legacy and Aeon’s End The New Age. Each of those is a stand-alone game (Legacy being, well, a legacy game in which you build your own mage with unique powers, but much of the content is playable in normal games too). (And, let’s face it, I’m not going to stop playing you-know-who just because of what happened in the Legacy storyline.) Each of them has eight mages and four nemeses (except for Legacy which lets you build four mages and has six nemeses). But content from each can be used in the others: I can set up a game with Adelheim (AE), Yan Magda (WE) and my Legacy mage, fighting against Ageless Walker (NA), with market cards from across the while series, and it’ll all work with no tweaking needed. There’s also a whole series of small expansion boxes, two or three of them per base game, with more mages, nemeses and market cards which can be mixed in freely. (If you do this, I recommend the unofficial Aeon’s End randomiser which can give you completely random setups; you can do this with cards too.) There is a little new rules material in later boxes, but most of it’s on the cards rather than needing recourse to the rulebooks.

There are flaws. Particularly with just the original box, one can end up playing a largely solitary game, because there aren’t many ways to interact with fellow players; later sets fix this. Difficulty varies a bit with player count, largely because there’s a great need for cooperation and sharing of information, and this is simply harder among four players than among two.

The game is readily soloable, not only by one player taking multiple seats (since there’s no information hidden between players), but with a specific solo mode which rejigs the turn order deck and modifies some of the rules that only make sense in a multi-player game.

A game typically takes about an hour once everyone knows the system, though it varies a bit with Nemesis and the later boxes tend to have slightly more complex rules. In my two nine-hour full-day demo shifts at Essen 2019, I got through eight games per day, mostly with novice players; although the game has a reputation for being quite tough, Maggoth is a good introductory nemesis, and about half the groups managed to beat it.

So where should you start, if you want to? It depends on whether you like legacy games; if you do, then Aeon’s End Legacy is apparently a decent introduction. If not, Aeon’s End The New Age is probably the best bet; as well as the standard content I’ve been talking about, there’s the Expedition system, which is a way of chaining together a series of games (usually four) with increasing difficulty and rewards for success. (That system can be used with any of the (non-legacy) content from previous boxes too.)

One slight downside to this is that the newer mages tend to be more specialised, i.e. there are fewer different ways to play them effectively. That’s not to say there’s a lack of decisions to make, but for example in the standard first-game setup in The New Age it’s clear that Sahala and Gygar are the heavy hitters while Soskel and Claudia do better in support roles. That’s less true of the earlier games. Also, having the expedition content means there are slightly fewer options in the New Age box (8 mages, 4 nemeses, 22 market cards, as opposed to 8/4/27 in War Eternal).

I’m not saying that everyone should run out and buy Aeon’s End (particularly if you know me in person, because I already own all of it and will happily play it with you at the slightest provocation). But it’s a game that won me over in spite of my initial doubts and has given me a great deal of pleasure.

[Buy Aeon's End at Amazon] [Buy Aeon's End War Eternal at Amazon] [Buy Aeon's End Legacy at Amazon] [Buy Aeon's End The New Age at Amazon] and help support the blog.

  1. Posted by Nick at 04:49pm on 06 November 2019

    You also convinced me to get it, and I’m very grateful for that - much of my board gaming is solo, and the game is very suitable for solo play. In addition to Roger’s points (and I agree about the uninspired artwork, particularly in the original game - perfectly good, but you’ve seen it many times before) I find the idea of the last of humanity fighting a losing battle against unknown forces. Unfortunately, I don’t find the writing in the game terribly inspiring or exciting either so it doesn’t totally work as a storytelling experience (Aeon’s End: Legacy is fun enough but didn’t really create exciting stories for me the same way that Pandemic: Legacy did). Mechanically, it’s an excellent and highly varied game. Also recommended - Roger rarely leads me wrong with such things.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:37pm on 06 November 2019

    That storyline about the last of humanity isn't even borne out by the game. I mean, you can say that Gravehold is the last surviving human habitation all you like… but when it gets destroyed and you lose the game, you can still set it up and play again. For that matter, when a nemesis is defeated, you can fight it again. So while the background is at least mildly atmospheric, I can't find it in me to take it all that seriously.

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