Res Arcana is a card game from designer, Tom Lehmann, the creator of another well-regarded card game called Race of the Galaxy. Res Arcana is a game about a group of mages tinkering with artefacts, building monuments, summoning dragons, and gathering and manipulating the essences of the world. The game ends when one or more mages have 10 victory points or more. If there are multiplies of them, then it’s the mage with the most points that wins.
The game is, what we call, an engine building card game. Engine builders are games where a player gathers things, which can be used to get bonuses; these bonuses, then, allows the player to do better actions, to get more things. Which, then, allows them to get even more bonuses or better bonuses, and so on and so forth. A feedback loop that keeps accelerating faster and faster until the game ends. A ludological crescendo.
Players start with only 8 artefact cards in their decks. No more, no less. Which is the main pitch of this game. Res Arcana goes for the mantra ‘Less is More’ or ‘Quality over Quantity’. Each card does something really interesting and can be re-used again and again and again. Indeed, it is possible to have a simple engine with just two cards. A two-card synergy you will repeatedly exploit and expand.
Aiding the mages in their quests are magical items and monuments – they either give you more resources, that will help you play new cards from your hand; or new actions, which helps with your engine building. There are places of power, which are very expensive, but can give you a very significant boost, if you buy it. Places of power are more powerful than magical items and monuments, and they also allows you to score a lot of points.
The design of Res Arcana is very brilliant in the way you play and how you build up card synergies. Every card you play in front of you feels significant. And because you only need to reach 10 points or over to win, every victory point feels significant as well. From all the engine building card games from recent years and earlier, Res Arcana is one that can take so few cards and can do so much. I am confident to say that I love this game more than many from this same genre. Maybe I even like this more than San Juan.
The art and production is simply beautiful. All the cards, from the mages, to the artefacts and monuments, are wonderfully illustrated. The art direction evokes thematic atmosphere whenever you look at the cards. The replayability is fantastic too. With only 8 artefact cards to play the entire game, you’ll get to see more from that full deck of artefact cards on your following games. You’ll see more randomly given mages and randomly set up places of power. All of these mixes up with so many combinations. So, I can see Res Arcana for many more plays without feeling that I’ve scrapped the bottom of the barrel.
For non-gamers, this game can be a steep hike to learn. The symbols can be arcane. However, once it is understood, the cards are easy to read, since all the symbols used are common throughout the entire game. The graphic design can be applauded on how intuitive and consistent it is across the game. A far cry from the complicated hieroglyphics of Race for the Galaxy. Overall, I find this easier to teach than the recent Wingspan (a game that has its own share of symbols) because Res Arcana is just mechanically airtight.
I did say that the game is very tight. This is both a pro and a con, for some reason. Due to the thin deck, a wrong card can cost you the game. With random card draw, the game forces you to beg to the Goddess of Random that your random deck allows you to make synergies. When you are drafting, which is what I recommend, it’s possible that the game is settled on Turn 0 and the game is just formality.
This is bad for me, in my opinion, because it means that the decisions that you make in Turn 1 and later make little to no difference to the outcome of the game. The game, then, becomes an exercise on efficiency. In essence, you lost in the drafting phase and you just haven’t realised it yet. With your starting 3 cards in your hand and the remaining 5 in the deck, it’s not that hard to set up your engine from the get go. That’s how the game is suppose to be. On one of our games, one player have made such a monstrous synergy that the others and I have informally resigned. The game, which is 45 minutes quick, then proceed for another 2 rounds before the winner has officially won.
You can easily tell mid-game who will win, too, because the game has perfect information and there’s little you can do to stop it, especially if your engine isn’t as good as the leading player. In this scenario, even if you play well mid- or late-game, it’s too late to catch up because the opposing player’s engine is well-established by then.
There is player interaction, but not significant enough for my taste. There are only a couple of ways to influence the board state: to give resources, or to remove resources from other players. The attack cards aren’t that good, in my taste. The dragons, that are expensive to summon, can attack everyone. However, once people set up defences – which isn’t hard – then these costly cards easily become useless.
Res Arcana doesn’t have the simultaneous action-selection of Race for the Galaxy. It is easier to look down to your own space in this game, playing this mechanical clockwork solitaire and ignoring everyone else. The only awareness you need to have is whether people are picking up the attack cards during drafting; or whether people are gonna buy the things you want and whether they can buy it faster than you.
Funnily enough, I had more fun if I don’t pay attention to the board state and just focus on my own cards, looking down. But… that is not what I want. This stands in contrasts with the action-selection of Race for the Galaxy and San Juan – both of these makes me at least pay attention to what others are doing, and influence my decisions based on their wants and the actions they take.
Somehow, I never had this problem with Seasons. Maybe it is a problem, but I never felt it. The Turn 0 drafting never appears to have determined the outcome of our game. Maybe Seasons have successful masked that ugly conundrum. Maybe because Seasons has end game scoring, preventing the predictable late-game scenario. Maybe because even in Year 3 (Seasons goes on for 3 in-game years) you can still catch up, if you literally play your cards right.
So, I still prefer Seasons as my engine building card game of choice. And yet, among my non-filler games that I own that take less than an hour, this game is really good. Yes. For 45 minutes to an hour, Res Arcana is excellent, satisfying, and crunchy. Among the engine building card games I have played, it may not be the champion in my heart, but this game beats so many of them currently out there in the board gaming world.
UPDATE – 31/10/2019: In addition to Seasons, I still prefer Race for the Galaxy and Fields of Green.