Red Nile: Crimson Sun
Once upon a time, there was a game from Small Box Games named Bhazum. People liked it, or at least they indicated as much by giving it overall positive ratings on BoardGameGeek. It was recently given new life as Crimson Sun, the second entry in Small Box Games’ Kickstarter tripartite, The Nile Ran Red.
All this impressive investigative journalism would be worth a poop in a sock if I’d ever played Bhazum, but I haven’t. Which means I have no idea whether it’s the same game as Bhazum, or updated, or downdated, or anything at all. Instead, all I can tell you are my impressions of the game on its own merits, so apologies to all those Bhazum fanatics that have been sending me hundreds of emails. You guys will just have to go pester somebody else now.
As in my review of The Nile Ran Red’s first entry (Lords of the Sand), each of your cards in Crimson Sun has multiple uses. Here they take on the form of “followers,” all manner of awesome animals decked out with mean weapons and meaner abilities. Your goal is to assemble a more zealous dynasty than your opponent, so you’ll send your followers to fill up your dynasty en masse and nab as many temples as possible, all while doing as much damage to your opponent’s plans as your followers’ horrific abilities will allow.
Followers are nothing if not versatile. One can be used at the beginning of each turn to give you additional actions, effectively doubling or tripling your turn. Or they can be assigned to one of the four temples, where hopefully you’ll have more zeal points than your opponent when the time comes to award that temple to someone. Or followers can be sent to your dynasty, which lets them use one of their two abilities; alternatively, you can discard them to activate both, though of course that means they aren’t sticking around to help out at a temple or give you points in your dynasty. But when you realize that two abilities for the cost of one follower can sometimes utterly wreck whatever gains your opponent made over their last turn, it becomes worth it.
Conceptually, Crimson Sun is sound. Four major uses for each card! Check. A competition over central locations! Check. Crazy mummified ape-monsters! Check. Oh, and you draft your deck at the beginning of the game, so it’s on you to try and balance the four follower types and their abilities. Check. It pushes all my buttons and tugs all my levers, if you know what I mean.
Which makes it all the more tragic that I’m not really a fan of Crimson Sun’s gameplay.
For one thing, I really dislike catch-up mechanics, and Crimson Sun is overflowing with them. You draw a card at the beginning of each turn, but you get another if your opponent has more cards in her hand than you, and another if her dynasty is larger than yours. This means the game quickly becomes less about pulling off sick combos and more about keeping yourself barely ahead of your opponent; more about carefully counting cards and zeal points than about maximizing your limited actions. As Somerset put it at the end of our most recent game, “When I play my best, it makes you win.” Which isn’t strictly true, because in this game playing your “best” means playing your not-best for fear of giving your opponent three times as many cards as you on her next turn — but no matter how you slice it, it felt highly counter-intuitive to us.
In general, it’s best to never keep cards in your hand at all, because not only are you triggering that catch-up for your opponent, but you’re also probably going to lose any saved cards anyway because so many of the follower abilities revolve around discarding or stealing cards from both hands and dynasties. This kills many opportunities for long-term planning, so prepare for a highly reactive game where your turn-by-turn decisions are determined almost entirely by what you drew just now.
I’m not saying there isn’t any strategy here, because there certainly is. It’s just that so much of it feels like I’m abusing the catch-up stuff rather than trying to beat my opponent senseless. For instance, it’s a good idea to get at least two cards at every temple as quickly as possible, because when a temple flips face-down and is awarded to a player, whoever didn’t claim it gets to place two of their followers from that contest into their dynasty. Which is a fine idea and the least of Crimson Sun’s catch-up woes, but when I’m doing that and both players are keeping their dynasties tiny out of fear of giving the opponent an additional card and we’re using up our hands each turn for the same reason, it gets to be a bit too much catching up and not enough getting ahead.
With all that going on plus the ultra-charged follower abilities, to say this game is swingy would be a massive understatement. Rather, it’s a pendulum with rockets attached at either end. And while I generally love me some swingy games, this one just makes me dizzy.
If you’re sitting there thinking, “Hoo boy, this Dan Thurot doesn’t know fun when he sees it! What he’s describing, playing to match your opponent’s stuff rather than have more of it — well, that sounds swell!”, then by all means, I’m sure this sort of thing will be infinitely charming to somebody. But as much as I found Lords of the Sand quirky and clever, I find that the appeal of Crimson Sun escapes me. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m simply not a fan of this sort of game, complete with wild swings that strike me as a bit too wild and crazy catch-up mechanics that make me want to play a game where my opponent doesn’t get rewarded for having less than I have.
On the more optimistic side, this means I’ll probably love the third game in The Nile Ran Red. More on that later.