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Reviews - Guardians of Graxia
 
by Lee Valentine


Guardians of GraxiaGuardians of Graxia Board Game
Published by Petroglyph (2010)
Designed by Daniel Kroegel
240 game cards, 37 terrain tiles, 136 game counters, tracker board, six plastic miniatures, rulebook, reference sheet
$60.00

Guardians of Graxia ("GoG") is a tactical combat game for 1-2 players by Petroglyph. It is set in the fantasy world of Graxia, where powerful summoners called "Guardians" open portals to gate in creatures to fight for them. The world of Graxia has islands that float in the sky, and the battle is sometimes waged across multiples of these islands, with the Guardians involved opening up gateways ("portals") to transport their warriors from one island to the next.

Gameplay
Like Battleground (Your Move Games), GoG features cards as units instead of more traditional miniatures or chits. Unlike Battleground, it is played on a quasi-hex map made up of an offset grid of rectangular, geomorphic tiles on which the game cards are moved around.

The Guardians are capable of summoning creatures and casting other spells using a magic point (or "mana") system. The mana is generated each turn from territories on the board that a Guardian's warriors control. This is similar to a variant of Magic: The Gathering (MtG) I saw years ago in a gaming magazine (perhaps Scrye or The Duelist). Unlike MtG, in GoG there is only one type of mana, and control of it is a zero-sum game: if one player is getting mana from a territory, the other player is not. While there is enough territory for everyone in the early game, later in the game as units get destroyed the rich can get richer while the poor get poorer, sometimes producing a death spiral for the losing player if he takes more casualties than his opponent.

The units in GoG have all the normal powers you would expect in a tactical wargame: attacking, defending, and moving. Most have some sort of unique, unit-specific power, ranging from attacking at range, to specialized movement, healing, or more exotic powers. The central heroes on each side of the battlefield, the Guardians, have the power to summon up new units, however, and to open portals from one part of the battlefield to another.

Unlike other wargames where you draft your entire army to start with, in GoG you begin with a predetermined selection of units and then you summon up the rest of your forces as you go along. More powerful units cost more mana to summon, while weaker units cost less. Spells are similarly rated with more powerful spells costing more mana to cast.

In GoG, each unit has a Health Value (read "hit points") to determine how much damage they can sustain during the course of the game before being eliminated. Some units have a Health Value as high as 25, and tracking each point of damage can sometimes become tedious. Many units are smaller, however, so they eliminate each other quickly when they engage each other battle.

The game is played out in scenarios. Each scenario has a map, spell lists, unit lists, and a game-winning objective specific to the scenario. There are six two-player scenarios and six for solo play. In solo play, there are special rules, some standard for all solo games and some that are scenario-specific, that govern the movement and tactics of the enemy units, giving them a limited AI ("artificial intelligence").

Battles definitely require the use of the Tracker Board, which functions like a board and chit version of an abacus to track the values of the attacker and defender. During a unit-on-unit attack, a variety of values are added and subtracted from both the attacker's and defender's battle scores, which are then halved and applied to the opposing unit as damage. All of this can require a bit of patience.

Components and Packaging
Much of the art in GoG is identical to that found in Petroglyph's card game, Heroes of Graxia (which I reviewed here). It is gorgeous, full-color, fantasy art, but it is afforded less card real estate than in Heroes of Graxia. The art covers the spectrum of tropes commonly associated with fantasy gaming, including elves, dwarves, giants, and dragons, to name a few.

The unit cards feature interesting icons for several game scores, but they are sometimes a bit nuanced: a tiny sliver of red color around a shield distinguishes the physical attack value of the unit from physical defense, which uses an identical shield this time with a tiny highlight of blue around it.

Each of the unit cards has a watermark effect behind the text, using a race/faction-specific icon. Sometimes this effect is a bit too dark, particularly on already text-heavy cards, making some cards a little difficult to read. The game cards themselves, particularly the unit cards, can get quite text heavy.

Units have powers that can be used only in specific phases of play, some of which work automatically and some of which have to be intentionally activated to take effect. These powers are noted with small colored shapes, rather than more sophisticated icons. As a result, they are not particularly intuitive.

The 37 double-sided terrain tiles are rectangular in shape, printed with nice, full-color graphics, on a thick cardboard. Each terrain type has a specific game effect. Nominally you can read these as they are printed on the tiles, but the font is small, making it difficult to decipher at a distance. Unit cards are placed directly on top of these tiles during play, and they can sometimes cover up important game-related information. Larger tiles might have required a re-design of the game, which is already somewhat space intensive. A player handout for terrains might have been useful, but was not provided.

GoG comes with a thick, full-color, tabulation board which tracks most of the player-related information in the game, including the current turn number, the victory points accumulated by each player, each player's current mana score, and the combined offensive or defensive combat scores of all units currently engaged in a fight. Due to a design error on the board, there is no way to track mana values within certain ranges using just the mana counters provided.

The game comes with six detailed fantasy miniatures to represent the Guardian each player is controlling. These are the same miniatures included in the Heroes of Graxia game. Here they are used to track the position of each Guardian on the board, but they are largely optional, as the Guardian already has his card on the board.

The package is a sturdy cardboard box with great fantasy art. All the components fit inside. Unfortunately nothing is done to separate out the different kinds of tokens that come with the game. You'll need to provide quite a number of gripseal bags or a plastic storage box to store the counters in. Either would fit inside the box easily as two-thirds of the box is mostly air. The box is sized primarily to make it look showy, and secondarily to hold the large tracker board.

Rules Clarity
The game includes a 24-page, full-color, matte finish rulebook. While the rulebook contains a lot of useful information, some space is spent promoting Petroglyph and its other products. A few pages are spent reprinting the text of all the cards and tiles. In at least one case the reprinted text differed from the actual card text.

All too often the rulebook is lacking key information on gameplay or, less frequently, provides contradictory information. Other times it is buried in unexpected places in the rulebook without an index. At one point, a phase is referred to which does not exist elsewhere in the rulebook. Other rules left me scratching my head initially, forcing me to just guess as to how the game worked. The rulebook has some organizational problems, some editing problems, and probably needed an extra "blind test" group outside of the company to work through it. It is the low-point of the game for me.

While you will likely struggle through the rulebook during your first reading of it, after that, if you are comfortable with inferring things instead of requiring to be told them directly, and if you are willing to make some things up as you go along to fill in gray areas, then you might be surprised that there's a good game hidden behind all the fog. If you want to be told step-by-step how to handle game setup and all rules interactions, then GoG will have some rough edges you may not like.

The game includes a single copy of a handout for use in calculating combat damage. It really needed two copies each of a variety of player handouts, including turn order, the special powers of Guardians, the meanings of certain game terms, and a key for the card icons. It does not come with these, nor has Petroglyph provided any of these online.

Conclusions
GoG offers players quite a number of tactical decisions each game. One real plus is that other than the randomized order of cards you draw after setup, the game itself is pure tactics. You have plenty of control over the number and kind of cards in your hand, when you use them, and how you use your units on the board. There are no dice involved, so players' choices matter that much more.

I also liked the number of powers each unit had along with the diversity of units and spells that are available to play with. This will add substantial replay value to the game.

GoG offers about the same level of tactical play that you get from HeroClix, but is offset by some extra bookkeeping and number crunching that will dissuade people who like lighter, faster games. Having occasionally played wargames from the '80s forward, I can say that if you are a serious wargamer used to calculating lots of numbers and referencing a fair bit of data, you may not bat an eye.

The underlying game engine is quite solid and has a lot to offer. Unfortunately the bookkeeping was a bit tedious for me, causing me to downgrade GoG 's gameplay rating to a "B". As a solo game GoG can take up to 45 minutes to setup to play, with a game lasting another 45 minutes to an hour and a half. The ratio of setup time and bookeeping to actual game time was a deal breaker for me in solo play, but can be cut at least in half when playing the two-player game due the presence of an extra set of hands.

If you are a serious wargamer, for a two-player game the Guardians of Graxia Board Game has something to offer you, provided that you don't mind using a geomorphic map instead of open terrain, a laser pointer, and a ruler. The product is pretty, has nice component quality, and is certainly more portable than a typical miniatures wargame. For the price it also has a reasonable number of play options in terms of units and spells.

For Retailers
At $60, Guardians of Graxia is price competitive with other wargames. Battleground, however, another card-based wargame, offers a cheaper entry price, more elegant mechanics, and different levels of rules difficulty that one can employ while playing. Summoner Wars, another popular card-based tactical wargame, fills the lighter end of the spectrum that typically appeals to Heroscape players. Of course, players who prefer wargaming with painted miniatures instead of cards may give this one a pass altogether.

If your store caters to hardcore wargamers and you carry a variety of such games then it may be worth stocking GoG on your shelves. If the wargamers who frequent your store are very dedicated to a single product base, however, like Warhammer Fantasy or 40K, you may need an alpha gamer to demo this game to make any sales initially.

Lee's Ratings:
Overall: B
Gameplay: B (game primarily suited to patient players, particularly wargamers)
Appearance: B+ (great looking art, with some problems with icons and text layout)
Components: A-
Packaging: B
Rules Clarity: C
Retailer Salability: C+ (potentially higher if your store caters to serious wargamers)

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