A couple of years ago Wizkids released a little card game that was better than it had any right to be. Fantasy Realms was a stunner. It offered contemplative strategy, a gripping pace, and an expansive content base that saw play vary considerably session to session. This was all accomplished with 53 cards.
I was a little behind on Fantasy Realms. I’m a little ahead on Sovereign’s Chain.
This is another little card game from Wizkids and again, it’s blowing my hair back.
The mechanisms here are not identical to its predecessor, but the format and its stature as an overlooked accomplishment bear immediate resemblance. Let’s try to change the latter.
Sovereign’s Chain is a tableau builder. Each player will play cards to a row in front of them, left to right as you do. Although they’re not tableaus because this is set in the far future where they’re called chains. There’s some sort of background story going on but I’ve played this game many times and its left no impression. Yeah, Fantasy Realms is smirking.
What’s important here is the big twist, which is that you can play cards to other player’s chains. It’s a simple concept, one that kind of befuddles me. Why haven’t we seen this before? It immediately solves one of the most substantive issues with this genre – a lack of meaningful player interaction.
So you can be skipping along building up quit a suite of points, and then I come in and toss a bomb on your house to watch your world burn.
Scoring is clean but interesting. Each card has one of two suits, either a starburst thing or a planet thing. Again, what they thematically represent is irrelevant.
At the end of the game your score will be the difference between them. That usually throws people. More simply – you will subtract the lower total from the greater and that will be your victory point total.
This leads to a straightforward strategy of loading up your chain with either all planets or all starbursts. Your starting hand will likely dictate this and you may feel robbed of choice.
Don’t worry, things will pick up.
The next layer are the card effects. Each card triggers some kind of ability that ranges from “oh, nice” to “what the hell?” Whoever plays the card, regardless of which chain you play to, executes the listed ability.
There’s a range of powers including changing the suit of any card in play, flipping cards face-down, and placing shield tokens on cards to protect them from being targeted. You will strategically remove high ranking values from other chains as well as toss huge point sinks into their carefully built network. There’s a push and pull of offensive versus defensive play that’s full of nuance. Since you only play a single card on your turn, taking the opportunity to diminish another’s prospects comes at the cost of progress. That proposition is still often worthwhile but you must maintain proper balance.
The face-down mechanism is the most interesting. At the end of play you will take turns flipping one such card face-up in your tableau. As you do so they will trigger their abilities, allowing a degree of chaos and uncertainty to rear up in the climax. It’s a properly exciting moment in a style of game that usually avoids drama.
Tempo is also a sublime quality due to its reliance on player agency. The end game is triggered when a 7th card is placed into a chain, placing a wide latitude on the pace of play. Most interesting is that I’ve seen players win with only a couple of cards in front of them, trouncing someone who had a full tableau of seven. The ability to neuter another’s prospects and muck with their scoring gets to the heart of this design and it’s cognitive grip.
The major accomplishment here is in finding balance between a thoughtful design that offers a wide range of maneuvering and a core of simplicity. This game is economic in weight while bending in several directions. It feels extraordinarily satisfying to plop down a card and cause a cascade of scoring woes. You can’t argue with an engine that just makes you feel clever.
While the options at your disposal are large and subtle, there’s no discounting an awful run of luck. One of the most limiting factors of this design is the ability to top-deck consistently low value cards. You may still pull out a win with clever play, but the chap sitting across from you pulling a seven and eight of the same suit is going to be a leg up on your zero and three.
The short 25 minute playtime certainly minimizes the pain. This thing is brisk and more often than not, full of interesting decisions and tension. There will be moments when the bulk of your score is face-down, and your teetering on edge hoping no one deduces what suit you’re really going for. Deceptive plays and well-timed abilities can shift the playing surface and upsets occur often enough.
Causing further chaos is the splendid event system. A symbol found occasionally on cards cycles the current event, shifting gears sometimes dramatically. One such effect has you turn a card face-down after each play. Another extends play until a chain has eight cards. These are wild and weave into the loop of card-play wonderfully. They also manage to simultaneously be swingy without derailing specific strategies. They tend not to harm an individual more severely than another, instead providing a twist that alters the tactical approach of every participant.
I’m not sure if this is a stronger release than Fantasy Realms as they’re quite different. They both fit well enough on the shelf and don’t really tread on each other’s domain. At the moment Wizkids is the company producing quirky and incredibly interesting card games. Sovereign’s Chain is a hell of a ditty, and its size belies the fact that this one will find its way onto my list of 2019’s best.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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