Who Would Want to Rule an Ice Garden?
Playing a game that boasts all your favorite elements but still doesn’t click is sort of like picking up a mouth-watering chili dog, taking a deep breath of its spiced perfection, then digging into a bite of jello and mushrooms. Or leaning in for a kiss and instead getting a faceful of echidna. Or looking forward to your favorite sibling’s birthday party only to arrive and discover they’re now engaged to your worst enemy.
I could go on. The point is, that’s The Lord of the Ice Garden in a nutshell.
If The Lord of the Ice Garden were merely a bad game, I’d be a much happier camper right now. Instead, it’s an oddball mishmash of concepts, gameplay mechanics, and one of the doofiest backstories in board gaming history, and that’s just the sort of thing I’m liable to fall in love with, if only because it’s so stubbornly unique. When I say there isn’t anything quite like it, there really isn’t anything quite like it.
Sidenote: I swore to myself I wouldn’t get into it, but the backstory is just so perfectly dumb that I can’t help myself. Based on a book series by Polish author Jarosław Grzędowicz, there’s this distant planet named Midgaard, very much like our own, populated with people who look and act human, but trapped in the 10th century for some reason. A bunch of scientists jump aboard a rocket ship to go study it, only — plot twist! — there’s magic on this planet. The scientists immediately go bananas and begin feuding over which one of them will remake the planet in their image. So there’s all this magic crap going down, crazy monsters battling each other, and some enforcer from Earth named Vuko is trying to bring the scientists to heel. It’s nuts.
Surprisingly, that feeling of overhearing a game pitch made by some guy who’s been locked in a haunted library for the last three decades doesn’t stop with the rulebook’s overwrought introduction. The game itself is packed with enough bananas to put Central America out of business for good. See, each of the game’s four factions aren’t just trying to dominate the world via the usual channels. There’s a lot of that going on, with everyone creeping their influence across the surface of Midgaard and bickering over who gets to claim any given region’s bonuses. But, in addition, everyone is pursuing their own individual agenda. And that’s where things really start sounding cool.
Take the unfortunately-named Pier Van Dyken, for example. He’s the guy fielding monsters who love killing other monsters. He’s also obsessed with gathering M-Factor, the unobtainium of Midgaard. Scattered across the landscape are rich deposits of the stuff, nice little perks for whoever controls them but probably not important enough to launch an invasion over. Unless you’re Pier Van Dyken, that is. If you’re Pier Van Dyken, you’re so in love with the stuff that you want to marry it, so you send out special death-piper units to those spaces, gradually culling them back to your ugly black tower. If you can bring all the world’s magic back to your tower and control the area long enough to suck it into your pitch-black crypt, you win.
Meanwhile, everyone else is busy with chores of their own. The scary green lady wants to plunge entire regions into a perpetual state of nightmare, so she sends her Bad Dreams monster to wake up kids in the night, then eventually locks regions into eternal blackness. The nomadic red lady must build crimson towers all over the place, so it’s probably good that her soldiers can switch out their specialties. The blue dude kidnaps people to his Ice Garden. Does this make him the Lord of the Ice Garden? I have no idea, I didn’t have the energy to research the issue.
While all this crap is going down, you’re managing your insane little empire of insane little scientists in every possible way. The actions you take are decided by a round of worker placement. Any step towards victory requires that you win a majority of the support in the province you’re bullying around. There’s a system of magic for upgrading or summoning monsters that also impacts your reputation and gradually pushes the Dead Snow track closer to ultimate defeat for the entire planet. Did I mention that the world might end? No? Well, it might. And while you’re inadvertently making Dead Snow (whatever that means), Vuko — the enforcer guy who looks an awful lot like the Polish nightclub bouncer who once gave Jarosław Grzędowicz a hard time — is busy bumping off the least-reputable player’s monsters, so you’ve also got to make sure to say sorry every so often. Even the turn order track is a minigame in its own right, balancing who gets to go first with who gets the most actions.
And right there, that’s the problem with The Lord of the Ice Garden.
It isn’t that this is a hybrid design with a lot of ideas bouncing around its head. A well-designed hybrid is a thing to behold, straddling the lines between genres and still providing a finely-paced experience. Rather, the problem is that every single option is so convoluted that the difference between a winning strategy and everything else too often comes down to a jumble of phases, resource considerations, and placement options.
In our most recent game, every phase was met with a new round of groans. When it was time to choose turn order, the game ground to a halt while we decided whether to push forward or hang back, whether to trigger a scoring phase or wait a round, whether to engender Vuko’s wrath at a time that wouldn’t hurt us or take a risk. When it was time to place our workers, the game ground to a halt twice: first when we had to choose the order that each action would resolve, and again when it was time to debate the actions themselves. With actions assigned, the game ground to a halt while we debated every single placement option and resource expenditure, not to mention our reputation and the progress of the Dead Snow thingy, not to mention every movement of our opponents towards meeting their own goals. Every step required that we have a firm grasp of what we would be doing ten, twenty, thirty minutes later, yet the game state changed so often that we were constantly forced to reassess everything. It wasn’t so much that the pace was deliberate; it was that the pace was sort of like being one of the balls in a Newton’s Cradle.
Some people are really going to dig what’s being accomplished here. The decision to spend some magic transforming your satyr into a mobile shield only to realize that you don’t want to push the world one step closer to annihilation is a compelling one. The way everyone slinks around at perpendicular angles, intersecting for brief moments only to veer off on their own courses again, is at times grand to behold.
But even at its best, The Lord of the Ice Garden requires a group of uncommonly like-minded — and like-skilled — players, all of whom understand when to interrupt someone’s plans and when to hatch their own. It’s the sort of game that dresses up a few simple fights for majority in the most complicated garments possible, then encourages you to miss the forest for the trees. For the branches. For the individual veins on the individual leaves.
Hell, I’ll just come right out with it: for what it is, The Lord of the Ice Garden is too complicated, too long, and too poorly paced, goofball backstory and all.