Fantastiqa: Pocket Dimension
There’s a certain enchanting quality to Alf Seegert’s latest, Rival Realms. Set in a sort of pocket dimension of Seegert’s wonder-realm of Fantastiqa — and literally sliding into a large pocket, how’s that for appropriate? — and expounding upon the card-laying system he first crafted in Musée, it’s an otherworldly experience, as though its players have left their concerns hanging in the wardrobe and stepped straight into Narnia.
Picture this. You’re a wanderer set loose upon a realm of your own design. At a whim, the landscape forms around you, hills and highlands, fields and forests. There are creatures to befriend there, waiting for you to head out and head in, beside magical trinkets and gems that will give you an edge over the other one, the rival magician forming a realm of her own. But more on her in a moment. For now, the world itself is a blend of art you probably half-remember from that required course in college, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist of both the French and Dutch post- varieties. A cost-saving measure for Seegert, certainly, but also one of the surest ways to convey the mishmash tendencies of the world springing from your fingertips.
As was the case in Musée, your most immediate responsibility is for the layout of your realm. There are five landscapes to consider, and you’ll weave these across three different sub-realms (the rulebook’s term for your rows of cards, tragically less evocative than nearly everything else in the game), alternately linked by valleys and divided by mountains. Three rows, eighteen cards. What could be simpler?
However, fashioning a realm is no straightforward matter. Your selection is limited to five random landscapes at a time, and, more importantly, there are certain considerations that must be kept in mind at all times. For one thing, all the landscapes in a single sub-realm (ugh) must be played in ascending order, preventing you from shaping your realm willy-nilly. And for another, setting up adjacent matching landscapes, both across valleys and within a sub-realm (why), will net you additional points once your realm is complete and scoring begins. Two highlands touching hands across a valley are far more scenic — and therefore more magical — than a jigsaw puzzle of geography that’s been forced together with a mallet.
Establishing a superior realm is trickier than it looks. You’ve got to measure out the cards available to you, evaluate when you can create a matched pair versus when it’s best to move on to a new opportunity, and be ever so slightly watchful of which landscapes your rival is gobbling up.
Still, fashioning your realm, knotty though it can be, is only half of what you’ll be doing in Rival Realms. You’ll also be exploring your creation. And this is where those rows of landscapes, valleys, and mountains spring to life.
Somewhere within your featureless realm stands, well, you. And as your realm begins to take shape, it behooves you to spend the occasional turn adventuring through the countryside rather than shaping it. The central difficulty here is that exploring a landscape requires that you spend something. Usually this is a matching card from your hand — wetlands for wetlands, for instance — which in turn means that you can’t use every card solely for creating complementing pairs on the table. Other times, you’re allowed to spend the tokens you’ve picked up during your travels. Animal companions will guide you through their particular home terrain, while flying carpets will jump you to anywhere at all.
This can be done at the snappiest pace, though only if you’ve planned ahead. It’s entirely possible to explore two, four, six, eight cards all at once — provided you’re holding the proper cards and tokens. There are some strangely neurotic rules governing when you can cross your path or revisit a card, and while these could have been streamlined to a much simpler “touch each card only once when you travel,” at least they’re sufficiently uncomplicated that most journeys become pleasant little exercises in card and token rationing, gaining new gems and animal friends, and striving to complete quests before your opponent can.
Speaking of quests, they imbue this journey with a sense of direction, pitching the entire game as a magical footrace race between, ahem, rival realms. In addition to the layout of your cards, it’s worth a tidy heap of points being the first magician to explore every type of landscape, gather all your animal buddies, or witness the far-flung corners of your kingdom. Between this and certain other details, like the “nest” of cards your travels build for your opponent, or the ability to steal them back by enticing the wandering raven with a gem, there’s always some trick to pull, some combination of cards and tokens to utilize, and some goal to pursue in advance of your rival.
In fact, one of the best things about Rival Realms is the way it manages to feel both carefully controlled and open to possibilities. This is heightened by options like the “Sea of Fog” enchantment — which replaces the persnickety “mirrored realms” setup in favor of more uncertainty and a greater sense of discovery — and the Far Frontiers expansion, which litters the corners of both realms with special artifacts. These can let you crush mountains into valleys, travel farther than was possible by foot, or even send your rival on a wild goose chase to disrupt their next journey.
As you may have picked up, there is some fussiness to Rival Realms that may prevent some folks from appreciating what it has to offer, including the aforementioned need to “mirror” both magicians’ realms at the outset of the game and the double espresso artifact, which functions like a skipped turn for your opponent — my least-favorite game mechanism ever, if I’m being frank.
Still, these are molehills when stacked against he wonderment that Rival Realms usually engenders. It’s a pleasant blend of creation and discovery, and forces the needs of both to influence the other, prompting careful hand and resource management at nearly every level. There’s a thrill to not only shaping a bounteous realm, but also to wending your way through it, visiting the far corners of the space you’ve fashioned. For a small-box two-player game that wraps up in under half an hour, Rival Realms is the sort of thing we see only rarely, both familiar and fresh, controlled and sprawling, and easily Alf Seegert in his finest form. Like the fairyland described by John Crowley, “no larger than the ball of your thumb,” the deeper in you go, the larger and fuller it seems to become.
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