Mainlining Combos – A Fantasy Realms Review

Staying on the edge of the freshest of fresh is where it’s at. It’s where cash falls like rain and attractive people fall all over you. It’s where reviewers need to build their constantly shifting home if they want to be anybody.

This isn’t working for me. Player Elimination is in the red and the only person angling for my attention is my dog.

So let’s go back in time, way back to late 2017. In board game years, that’s roughly equivalent to when the NES was released.

FantasyRealms_Cover

Fantasy Realms is something we need to talk about. I remember when it had a bit of buzz, a few reviewers mentioning it and trying to shine the big lights on this small box. I didn’t need a fantasy version of Star Realms. Hell, I don’t even need Star Realms.

Good thing, because this has no association despite the title. This is just 53 cards, 53 cards designed by a fellow named Bruce Glassco and pushed to market by a company called Wizkids.

And it’s something spectacular.

Part of the beauty of this game is that there’s almost nothing there. It’s like eating cotton candy, but you can do it endlessly and you’ll never gain a pound. Over the spread of 15 minutes you’ll draw a card from the top of the deck or the public discard pile, and then you’ll discard another from your hand. That’s it, really.

FantasyRealms_Deck

The entire game. Really.

This is a hand-building game where cards possess made-up fantasy suits like lord, wizard, and weather. They also possess a raw point value. When points are involved you want the highest of course.

The razzle-dazzle arrives with the ability text on each card. Patterns emerge and combos materialize like gravy flowing into your gullet. Certain groups of cards require you possess a trio of specific titles, or maybe a hand of entirely one suit. One such joker even wants your entire collection to be odd in value.

Some have penalties. For instance, flood cards tend to cancel out those of the flame variety. Sometimes you lose points, such as the light cavalry that doesn’t want to be tied to land in your hand, which represents your kingdom of course. You can nullify penalties with other cards and sometimes tweak the combinations to pull off remarkable positions. It’s all wobbly and dynamic in the best of ways.

It’s also cute how often the conventions of a particular ability/suit/title combination rely on narrative consistency. Fire gets put out by water unless you also have a mountain for that inferno to rage on. Noah would be proud as you keep your chin above the surf.

FantasyRealms_RandomCards

There is a particular catch with this one. As a three or four player experience it’s merely a shrug of the shoulders – still enjoyable, but not altogether fantastic. The game plays out directly, but you have less control over the tempo and less time to build your final run. Someone may grab that card you really need from the discard, or they may be clutching a specific item within their greasy palm that your strategy is hinged on.

There’s simply a large degree of interference coupled with limited time to switch gears and shift your strategy. This places undue emphasis on your initial draw of cards and getting a bit lucky. It still plays out quickly and you get a couple of feel good moments, but we’re not unlocking that potential and we’re not hitting the high notes.

So grab a partner and hit the table.

At two players you start with nothing. Each turn you top-deck two cards and then discard one. Or, you can still grab something from the fanned out discard pile instead. By building from nothing you get a sense of agency and space in choosing your strategic path. You also have the time to more properly develop your hand as you have a larger say when the discard pile fills up and the end game trigger occurs.

This is an experience that rides on fleeting control and pushing your luck to ride high-risk combos into the ground. It’s assessing a not overly complex scoring matrix at the blink of an eye and messily reconciling that with your gut. If you would have just waited it out one more turn Aaron would have discarded that ‘Rainstorm’ and you would have scored an extra 100 points.

It’s OK, we all make questionable life choices.

Let’s talk about those 100 points. This game’s scoring is absurd in the best of ways. A low score would be around 110 or 120. Typically someone will win in the mid-hundred space. Sometimes you break into the 200s and you want to slap your momma it feels so good. That huge gulf of values highlights the range of combinations and abilities you’re able to squeeze from that set of seven cardboard rectangles.

But the math!?

Yeah, when you’re dealing with out of control combos and cards triggering off cards, you’re going to have to use your noggin. If going the Gary Gygax route and writing it all down on paper, you can feel like you’re spending more time evaluating your performance than actually performing. So don’t do this. Head to one of the free websites that offer scoring modules; simple and easy and that complaint evaporates like my confidence in front of another human.

One of the real marvels of this release’s internal mathematics are the sheer magnitude of vectors. The longevity of a title like this sits squarely upon its ability to offer exploration within its scoring patterns. Fantasy Realms manages this through an intricate connection of abilities and pathways waiting to be plumbed. Game upon game you’ll find new ways to make something work. There’s much to be explored and it lacks any sense of confinement or restriction.

fantasyrealms_combo.jpg

Alongside Jump Drive, this is one of the best thoughtful fillers I’ve played. It gets to the feel-good nature of combo building without making you trudge through a two hour headache of dry mechanisms.

And there you have it. Before you started reading this article you thought Fantasy Realms had something to do with Star Realms and by now you’ve probably already rattled off five plays.

Until next week lords and ladies.

  9 comments for “Mainlining Combos – A Fantasy Realms Review

  1. Ian Allen
    April 30, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Great review. This one didn’t connect with me like it did for you, but the mechanics are sound and I am sure lots of people will enjoy it the way you have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 30, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      If you ever get a chance, try it two player. I wouldn’t think nearly as highly of it if I had only played it at three or four. I’m not guaranteeing this will change your mind, however, as I know you don’t really enjoy engine-building games – which is in the same realm as this hand-builder.

      Like

    • Anonymous
      April 30, 2018 at 7:57 pm

      Where’s the grammar in journalism “at”? Yikes!

      Like

      • April 30, 2018 at 8:08 pm

        Appreciate you reading the article and taking the time to comment. I occasionally (often?) use common phrases and laid-back language that is grammatically incorrect. For instance, “where it’s at”, is a phrase I purposely chose to give my writing a more loose, conversational tone.

        It ain’t easy pretending to be hip.

        Like

        • Anonymous
          April 30, 2018 at 9:18 pm

          Slang and “hip” phrases are generally looked upon as poor journalism. It’s unfortunate, but our texting populace and loss of proper English is painful to read. You write reviews therefore you are a journalist. May I suggest setting an example and cease the grammatical insults to those that still strive for correctness. It’s not a personal jab at you but a swing at garbage modern writers and bloggers alike.

          Like

          • April 30, 2018 at 9:35 pm

            I sincerely appreciate the feedback and I will consider it.

            Like

          • Brian
            May 2, 2018 at 8:53 pm

            I love the tone of Charlie’s articles and the fact that his articles have a conversational voice. Reviews can quickly come across as sterile and formulaic when writers favor formal grammar over tone. Grammar in creative non-fiction is fluid and oftentimes falls into gray areas, much like your decision to use “that” as a pronoun instead of “who.”
            Charlie is one of my favorite reviewers and one of the only reviewers in the hobby who has an authentic voice. I personally hope he never deviates from his current review style.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Anonymous
            May 31, 2018 at 6:32 am

            No, writing board games reviews does not make you a journalist. Therefore, Charlie Theel can write however he damn pleases. You are of course welcome to your own opinion, and I am sure that Charlie appreciates your feedback.But if you are so concerned with the current state of the English language, you should not be so quick to redefine words to suit your own purposes.

            Like

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