A Sellsword You Can Trust
Mercenaries are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, and treacherous; they are powerful when among those who are not hostile, but weak and cowardly when confronted by determined enemies; they have no fear of God, and do not maintain commitments with men.
Know who wrote that? Niccolò freaking Machiavelli. Which is weird, because although I read The Prince in high school, I had no idea he played Sellswords from Level 99 Games. I guess that part went totally over my head.
Conforming pretty much exactly with Machiavelli’s low opinion of mercenaries, Sellswords is about swaying a bunch of faithless warriors to your cause. It’s reminiscent (I’m told) of the Triple Triad card game from Final Fantasy VIII, in that each card has a number on each of its four sides, representing their fighting strength — a Barbarian, for instance, has a very high attack on one side but weaker flanks, while a Duelist is better rounded but not particularly strong anywhere.
However, true to form, these fighting strengths don’t actually harm the other sellswords. Instead, upon laying a sellsword on the table, any adjacent fighter with a lower number will flip to your side, expanding your influence across the board — at least until your opponent lays out a card that flops them right back to his side.
Making things even more interesting is the fact that each and every unit boasts some sort of special ability. The Ranger, for instance, starts with very strong numbers, sixes all around, but each adjacent tile decreases his numbers by one until he’s more vulnerable than your average fighter. The Titan, on the other hand, can’t flip anything thanks to his zero-strength numbers, but he’s personally immune to being flipped, making him excellent as a blocking unit or for locking down an important column. The Dragon rotates adjacent tiles clockwise when he deploys, robbing enemy tiles of their best defenses, and the Bard sings a lovely song that spurs one of your other cards into action. There are fifty characters in the game, all different, and all useful in their own ways, and it’s one of the game’s purest joys to watch as their abilities interact and bounce off each other as a match progresses. Oh, you’ve played a Paladin to increase your defenses? Good for you: here’s a Commander. He lets me declare that next turn you have to play Simon, who flips all adjacent tiles regardless of allegiance. Go ahead, pick which of your guys will be joining my side.
There are a few other cool details, like the fact that a single game is fought across two separate rounds, both opened by a drafting phase that lets you assemble the most coherent fighting force possible, or maybe just nab the cards you could tell your opponent wanted most. It’s also fun how the starting terrain tile might end up being the center of the battlefield or the corner of it, depending on how the battle progresses — in either case, the field maxes out at 5×5 cards and you can only deploy characters next to those already on the field, so it’s possible to blitz in one direction to deprive your opponent of a flanking maneuver or to give yourself more wiggle room. There are even a few different modes that make for faster or more complicated matches, like the “Yggdrasil” terrain tile that eliminates the drafting phase and makes for a more reactionary experience, though the classic “Asgard” game has remained my favorite of the bunch.
Across all modes, the most important thing to keep in mind is the game’s unique way of tallying victory points (which is surprisingly easily forgotten until the conclusion of the first round, when a lowly score of five points ought to jar your memory). See, while it might initially seem more important to flood the field with sellswords of your alignment, smart positioning is far more important than sheer numbers. During both scoring rounds, you count up each row and column individually, and gain an increasing number of points based on how many guys you have in each. So having just one card in a row won’t give you anything, two gives you one, and, on the far end of the spectrum, a fully-stacked row of five cards nets you a cool seven points. A few clever plays that lock down a pair of columns will often beat a player who spent the round pulling off flashy moves and bragging about how they flipped your Trader with a lowly Squire.
From beginning to end, Sellswords is a game of tradeoffs. During the drafting phase, should you take that point-generating unit, or let your opponent take him and hope to flip him at some point during the battle? If your opponent has a Beggar on the field, a filthy bum who steals two of your points at the end of the round, should you go after him now and leave your newly-flipped units open to flopping, or should you put down some protection while handing your enemy an opening to hide away their Beggar?
For a game with such simple rules (not to mention it slips nicely into a pocket and plays in just fifteen minutes), Sellswords is a fantastic investment, full of clever plays and unobvious moves that click with an ah ha! the instant you realize you can flip two units this turn and secure their allegiance almost indefinitely. Level 99 Games has been doing a great job with their catalog of smaller games lately, especially with their Pixel Tactics series, and this is even lighter and quicker than those. In short, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a cerebral delight.
Also, because I lost the last three games of Sellswords to my wife Somerset, I am also obligated to tell you, per our wager, that I suck at it. I suck at the cerebral delight.