This is a thing of foolishness. Marcin Welnicki’s boss battler is an absurd 300 hours of content. It’s hundreds of dollars. The box is unreasonably large, oblong, and shining white. It’s like prying open the Ark of the Covenant. And Aeon Trespass: Odyssey will melt your face, whether you’re a Nazi or not.
Once you’ve worked the crowbar and managed next steps, it only gets worse. There’s a huge board depicting a stone arena with Greek mythic ornamental carvings. It has a dark beauty to it, a lovely face ready to turn sinister as violence beckons.
There are cards. Too many. Dozens of decks for enemy AI, hit locations, items, conditions, exploration, clues, and player character injuries.
It offers five different booklets.
Dominating it all is a swathe of miniatures of all sizes. Big plastic Primordials waiting in silence to devour your titans. Many of the figures are larger than my fist. For the very first time, the cast of Cthulhu Wars finds shade from the sun.
The only aspect which feels small is the font size chosen for the hundreds of thousands of words across all the materials. Much of this game makes me feel old, but this is the primary offender.
It’s important to begin with this vision because Aeon Trespass leads with its own excess. It’s how the game greets you by overwhelming your senses. These qualities and this title galvanized the conclusion of my recent Dominion article,
So then why write about Aeon Trespass: Odyssey?
Well, the reason is as simple as it is complex. This game is the perfect rebuttal to the general indictment of content-first designs. In fact, this release is so surprisingly robust and impressive that I’m left bewildered. It’s not just a good game, it’s perhaps the best 2022 had to offer.
I think of this product as a bit of a unicorn. It’s a sequel that measures up to and expands upon its predecessor. It’s the Bladerunner 2049, the Aliens, and the Fury Road of boss battlers. I’ve played and found merit in Oathsworn, Townsfolk Tussle, and Vagrantsong. None of them quite measure up to the singular achievement of Kingdom Death: Monster.
Aeon Trespass: Odyssey does.
Oddly enough, it’s also the closest to that original design. Just like civilizations throughout history, the structure of this design is built upon the rubble of its forebear. You can see traces of Kingdom Death’s architecture throughout the mechanisms, such as drawing hit locations and tearing off body parts with critical blows or building a home and researching technology between chapters of violence. The structure of repeatedly clashing with the same subset of foes also mimics the general loop of that prolific title. It’s all over, and you don’t even need to squint to see it.
But it’s not just KDM II.
Firstly, the setting and tone is divergent. It still has an edge, but it trades out unending nightmare with Greek myth-punk. Instead of oppressive darkness and a world of stone faces, it’s the vibrant seas of the Aegean, a tumultuous political struggle, and otherworldly combat between piloted Titans and hellish Primordial fiends. It’s rad as can be.
The setting is important, as the box contains three lengthy campaigns – called Cycles – that consist of a prescribed story with dozens of branching paths. I’ve played only the first Cycle to completion, which has taken roughly 25 hours. The second and third campaign promise to be much lengthier, achieving a total combined length of the previously mentioned 300 hours. That was no typo. This is Kingdom Death with a half dozen expansions included and no assembly required.
If you want to last, you have to pick up what ATO is throwing down. You will be reading thousands of lines of adventure. Enough to fill more than one novel. A pretty good one, it turns out, as this is the best writing I’ve encountered in board games. It ekes out a narrow victory over Tainted Grail and is a clear cut above the impressive Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood.
The fights occur regularly according to a campaign timeline. You’re given several days in between these conflicts to sail around this peculiar take on Antiquity and pursue campaign goals. Story assaults you with each breath. There are many isolated sub-plots you may or may not finish, separate narrative snippets you can pursue to learn the secrets of your massive city-sized steel ship, and of course the central storyline full of dramatic tension and wicked twists.
The adventure plotlines are the most interesting system in the game. They function almost as side-quests, triggered automatically when you arrive at exploration tiles with adventure icons. When this occurs, you roll a die and trigger a new node on a random story arc. These narratives are fragmented sub-plots and you have no agency over which happens when. So perhaps you’re particularly invested in the Plight of the People adventure hub, but this time you roll the next node on Tears of a Minotaur. It can be disappointing and feel somewhat incohesive. If you’re able to row with the flow and not get hung up on the lack of control, it is often gratifying and evocative, regardless of which story unfolds. Most of these minor plotlines also reflect and enhance the main themes in a satisfying way.
It’s not just story though. This game is overflowing with ideas. Map exploration is similar to 7th Continent. There are RPG-elements related to your ship having statistics and qualities you must track on paper. Your characters and their mech-like titans are given names and abilities. They discover random story threads related to their background, bits of history seeping into play like scattershot dreams. As you make decisions in the greater narrative you check off boxes to record your history. These decisions haunt you.
The fights are 40 minutes of brutal suffering. You unleash your powerful abilities and push your titans to the limit against a beast whom you will come to know intimately. Your titans will break. So will your prey. You craft gear from their jawbones, organs, and lifeblood of black ambrosia. And then you do it all over again.
Combat is interesting, however, due to the “inverted paradigm”. This is the pretentious moniker for the game’s approach of unrelenting escalation. Both protagonists and their quarry get stronger over the course of each fight. Every time you wound the monster it receives a stronger AI card. With each attack, you become more enraged and more deadly. Many different mechanisms feed into this ethos and are interwoven admirably. Despite a rather hefty ruleset – yes, the system is actually more complex and fiddlier than Kingdom Death – the flow of play is actually rather sublime. It won’t feel that way initially as you spend too much time in the rules and attempt to interpret the game’s hieroglyphics and many keywords, but it’s surprising at how quickly the effort breaks and everything comes together.
There is so much going on here that it’s impossible to condense much of it into a single review. Everywhere you turn there’s some mechanism, some subsystem to contend with. But everywhere you turn there’s also something interesting going on.
The Kratos pool for instance is a collection of tokens that enhance attacks. When you roll dice to hit you utilize these tokens to massage the odds and gain an upper hand. After resolution you then wipe the pool and start anew, leaving one or more tokens for the next titan to activate. You have stats and abilities that dictate how you populate this pool, and your ability to seed it with potency increases over time as the conflict escalates.
Another delight is the protagonist wound system. As you receive damage you spin up a little dial and increase your titan’s “danger”. You then draw a card to see what the actual effect of the blow is. The higher your current danger total, the more tense the draw becomes as you pull from a more severe deck.
But remember, Aeon Trespass is all about escalation. These trauma decks reward you nearly as often as they inflict harm. The higher level the deck the wilder and more unpredictable the outcome. Sometimes you draw a card and you’re just obliterated. Other times you’re infused with power. One game, I was on death’s door, my fierce titan was broken and bleeding from a thrashing labyrinth bull. I gritted my teeth and drew my sentence.
In the blink of an eye, my titan rose from his own pile of gore and delivered a desperate blow with the boat he was wielding as a large club. It tore a massive chunk out of the Labyrinthauros’s flank, and the beast toppled over and went silent.
These moments aren’t rare. They’re the divine beats of Aeon Trespass: Odyssey scattered with mercy in the syncopated chaos bouncing off the walls.
It’s a fascinating experience. The story feeds into the combat which feeds back into the story, like an ouroboros gorging on itself.
Of course It’s not perfect. There were times when I didn’t want to spend the effort fighting the next battle, when I wanted to know what would happen in the story without delay. This conflict fatigue is made worse with the aggravating Pursuer mechanism. This has a particularly dreadful beast chasing you on the world map. The first fight or two is interesting, but later in the campaign its identity becomes entirely an impediment to progress. I felt more like Charlie Day with a shoddy mop and a bucket than a multi-armed titan with a shining bident and a massive, dismembered fist shield.
The escalation, as well as the opportunity to stress test new gear and abilities, often does enough to pull you back into the moment and refocus attention. The combat is incredibly dynamic and rewarding as a tactical exercise, even if it’s occasionally a shadow looming over the horizon.
I do find the regularity of timeline battles to be somewhat disappointing. It would be greatly preferred for combat to be sudden and unexpected. There are story threads and decisions that lead to surprise ambushes, but the design would have been stronger and more fictionally consistent without the expectation of a perfectly planned contest on the timeline. It’s almost as if you’re meeting out on the street, challenging the Primordial to a dust off on Saturday night in the alley behind the Vomitorium.
Finally, the ability to fail can be maddening. If your crew is fully slaughtered or your hull outright demolished over time, the journey ends. You can also trigger an outright loss during a couple of narrative paths, which is fascinating but also incredibly unsatisfying. There’s no clear answer here. Aeon Trespass boasts high stakes due to this risk, but it takes quite the gumption to require someone to re-play a cycle after committing dozens of hours to it.
Yet despite all of that, every time I doubted or grew churlish with a design decision, a fantastic story moment or a liberating decapitation would occur. In a flash my titan would become a god, or I’d uncover a whole civilization living within the bowels of the city-ship. There are betrayals, impactful choices, dozens of stones left unturned and some I wish I hadn’t flipped. The interconnected nature of all of the various systems and story beats is wholly impressive and elevates the design above its condition of complexity.
By the end of it, I definitely was exhausted. It’s the type of thing you really want to leave setup, able to dedicate yourself to a few days in the campaign whenever free time allows. It’s not designed for those with a busy schedule or limited space or asshole cats.
As much as I criticize the crowdfunding excess, I can’t help but be entranced with the magnificence of this box. Even if these big box campaign games are often Rube Goldberg machines that are fighting against the strengths of the board game form, there’s something about the size and scope that is simply alluring. It’s the beatific vision I can’t help but be coaxed by, the siren’s call of content. Just seeing all those cards, miniatures, and campaign booklets is mesmerizing. It’s the promise of a huge world to explore. The equivalent of reaching the high ground and staring out to the far-flung borders of Tamriel. When there’s actually something crafted, sitting there waiting to be explored, it’s a very different feeling to the alternative that is procedurally generated or emergent story. While I do typically prefer those types of experiences, this is a different kind of joy and a different kind of temptation. Rarely is the effort worth it.
But, as I said, Aeon Trespass: Odyssey is a unicorn.
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“[T]his is the best writing I’ve encountered in board games. It … is a clear cut above the impressive Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood.”
Do you mind elaborating on what impressed you in Aeon Trespass’ writing? I’ll admit, I haven’t played nearly as much of the game as you have, but what little I’ve read from Into the Unknown felt stilted and awkward.
Totally subjective, but the world building, tone, pace of action, and general linguistic aesthetics really grabbed me. It’s just detailed enough without being overly florid and it captures the spirit of the setting and Greek myth well.
I wouldn’t put this anywhere near an actual novel or piece of literature, but for a board game, it’s actually very impressive in my eyes.
Loved the review. You sum up my thoughts on it pretty well. The size and scope, the effort involved in playing, all are part of the experience.
Thanks for putting the effort into providing this.
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Thanks for reading and commenting, Bernie!
I’ve enjoyed talking about this game with you. Prior to now it had been on There Will be Games forums.
Glad you finished cycle one. We are on day 31 now. It’s getting a little dicey. We have racked up some Argo fate. None of which we spent. But outside of that and some strangers it’s going well.
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My Argo fate and strangers were starting to get out of control near the end, but I pulled through. Hope you finish up strong.