Hold Your Breath and Count to Ten
What’s the difference between a Skyfall, a Spyfall, a Seafall, and a Soulfall?
No really, I’m asking. I don’t even get it. After about ten seconds, my brain morphs that sequence of words into mush. Then again, maybe it’s just me trying to parse how I feel about Soulfall.
I’m of two competing minds when it comes to Soulfall, one of the latest offerings from Small Box Games and also, incidentally, the first of John Clowdus’s designs to feature a board.
The first time I played it was with three of my friends, and the result was a mess. Everyone is given ownership of a tribe of, well, tribespeople, all of them bent on expanding across the land of Soulfall. As with many of the games to spring from Clowdus’s mind, you have a lot to do but not very many actions to do it. At any given time, you need to manage your hand, expand your position, transform groups of nomads into permanent settlements, gather shards (crystals that are valuable because they’re worth points, not because they do anything particularly interesting), and curry the favor of the
If anything is the beating heart of Soulfall, it’s the Lords. They influence everything you do. Each card shows one of them bestowing some blessing on your people. Most of the time, these are the same as your usual actions, but don’t let that put you off, because you’re normally only permitted to take each type of action once per turn. If you’re in desperate need of cards, tough, you can only draw once. If you’d like to expand two spaces rather than one in order to cut off an enemy’s expansion, that’s just too bad. Then you glance down at your hand of Lord cards, and hey, there are ways to bend this thing! There’s some wiggle room in this chimney! Play Abbrisc and now you can take the Prosper action twice in a row, or have Ekkonox plunge into the deck a second time.
But that’s just the surface level. Turns out, the Lords have a few extra tricks up their sleeves. First of all, whichever Lord is sitting atop the discard pile is considered the “current” patron of Soulfall, and sometimes lets you take extra advantage of the cards in your hand. For example, Tikoop gives you the option of Populating (to place a nomad on the board) or Destroying (to remove an opposing nomad). But if Tikoop is also the current Lord, you can do both, wiping out an enemy and then sidling into its vacated spot. Very cool.
What’s more, each of the six Lords has a special card off to the side of the board. These represent the ongoing goodwill of the Lord in question, which you can gain by taking the Devote action, discarding one of that Lord’s cards in order to gain their favor. As long as nobody swipes that Lord out from in front of you, their special ability is yours. And boy, these are nuts. The Lord who likes growth gives you a chance to double the impact of your Populate actions, the trickster god lets you steal shards from other players, while the builder erases all prerequisites to setting up outposts. They bend the rules into taffy.
Okay. So I’m a big fan of games like this, the sort that task you with steering a free fall, and the concept alone — plus the game’s gorgeous presentation — was enough to get me hot and bothered. So why wasn’t I in love?
The problem is that this sort of chaos rests on a razor edge where too much or too little can send you tumbling into either tedium or nonsense. With four players, we quickly discovered that there is no such thing as planning in Soulfall. You’d end your turn feeling okay about yourself, then the next guy would change the Lord and rob you of half your cards, the second would steal your shards, and the third would kill your people and occupy their lands. By the time it got back to your turn, the board state was so unrecognizable that we might as well have been starting an entirely new game. It’s like being told you’re about to enter a Chamber of Chaos and you’re all, “Yeah, cool, I can dig randomness,” then you unlock the door and a boxing glove sproings out of the dark and rams into your gonads.
The point is, just as with witches and Force users, there’s good randomness and bad randomness. And it’s a fine line to walk.
In Soulfall’s case, that line is the difference between player counts. With four, you’re chucked out of the plane, given a whole lot of downtime between turns, and presented with no clear way to win but to be the last to splat to the ground. But with two? That’s an entirely different story.
With only two tribes trying to dominate the chipper land of Soulfall, the game takes on an entirely different tone. Yes, many of your plans are still undone before you can complete them. Yes, the current Lord is still a rotating position. Yes, you will have your back stabbed into burger.
However, Soulfall immediately becomes a game with a manageable level of chaos. By holding onto certain cards, you can now build your own combos, gaining a Lord’s favor and then playing a matching card to bounce between bonus actions. You can block your opponent’s expansion, build or undermine outposts, assemble a versatile hand and then defend it. Suddenly, the cleverness of the Lords shines through, with long-term plans flexing around unexpected obstacles and new opportunities to undermine your opponent cropping up with every spent action. It’s the difference between being told to cross a chasm and then being given a handful of confetti or a coil of rope.
Not that it’s ever entirely without problems. Foremost, the final scoring is a hodgepodge of multiplication and addition, giving equal weight to pretty much everything you can pick up over the course of the game. This leads to a few drawn-out turns as everybody maths out where they stand, especially right before triggering the end of the game.
In short, Soulfall isn’t the sort of thing that will ever garner widespread appeal, but that isn’t exactly shocking news for anybody who follows Small Box Games. At its worst, it’s infuriating and capricious. At its best, it’s unique. And gorgeous. And clever. Perhaps best of all, with two players (always with two players), it’s the sort of game that tickles that particular mode of thinking where you’re planning three moves ahead but also rolling with the punches. It’s a wild one, and just writing about it makes me look forward to my next attempt at taming it.