Shards of Holy Crap Infinite Damage

No idea what that dude's about, though.

One of the things I love most about this hobby is how it constantly surprises me, and not always grand, paradigm-shattering ways. Shards of Infinity is a perfect example. Deck-building as a mechanism has been done, and done, and done again so comprehensively that unless you slap a “hybrid” in front of there, I’m probably going to zone out. It’s about superpowered beings pummeling the snot out of each other? Oh. Snore.

It was the names Gary Arant and Justin Gary, creators of Ascension, that made me perk up enough to hear the elevator pitch. I’m glad I did. Because Shards of Infinity gets one thing totally right. Scratch that, it gets a lot of things totally right, but it gets one thing totally right that no other pure deck-builder has yet to get totally right. And the result is a quiet revolution, one of the baddest-ass pure DBGs I’ve played.

Mixing visual genres, apparently.

Doin’ what DBGs do.

If you’ve been involved in this hobby for even ten minutes, there’s a good chance you’ll know the basics of Shards of Infinity with all the instinct of walking in a straight line or holding in gas during a state dinner with a Hapsburg. Your goal is to deal fatal damage to a rival demibeing or demibeings, right? And you have a few starting cards, but desperately need to buy better cards if you want to stay ahead of the game’s internal power curve, yes?

Right. Yes. So you’ll do something like this: spend your cash on cards that will give you more cash, winnow your deck of chaff, and protect your own demibeing long enough to amass high-damage cards, then unleash those in ever-bigger punches and laser shots until your opponent succumbs. Maybe along the way you’ll match your cards’ suits to trigger bigger punches and bigger laserings. There you go: Star Realms & Company. Functional but functional.

This one has six cards. Other than more or fewer cards, or sometimes also six cards.

Surely you’ve seen a card market before.

But even before they get around to revolutionizing their own formula, the Garys know exactly what they’re doing. They should, after working on Ascension until it had swollen to more cards than a haunted Magic: The Gathering warehouse. But this time, rather than going big and broad, they’ve gone down. Inward. Deeper.

There aren’t as many cards as you’d expect, is what I’m saying, and this slimness gives the entire thing a streamlined edge. Eighty-eight cards in the market, alongside the ten in your starting hand. Thirty-two in the first expansion, Relics of the Future. You won’t even find any default offerings, the Mystics and Heavy Infantry of Ascension or the Explorers and Vipers of Star Realms, the junk you purchased when you couldn’t afford anything better. There are no defaults here. Even some of the game’s most powerful cards can be had for the price of a flimsy early draw. The more expensive options are as rare as they are devastating.

This is because Shards of Infinity isn’t interested in crafting a Bildungsroman, some coming-of-age tale where your hero slowly levels up. Instead, every card is a level up. Two of your first purchases might combine into the bane of the entire table. Your third draw will probably be considerably more powerful than your first draw; same goes for your seventh and your twelfth. Every time your deck cycles, you can feel it.

Of course, it helps that the cards themselves are such a masterwork of possibility. A few bestow extra spending-crystals, and plenty provide damage — your bread and butter. But there are other options, too, precious healing to recover from wounds, shield cards that can be revealed — not discarded — to block damage, same-faction or cross-faction combos that range from small boosts to the utterly preposterous, and champions who stick around between turns to provide ongoing bonuses, provided they aren’t swiftly murdered. The coolest of these small additions is the “mercenary” modifier, signified by a red border around certain cards. These jerks can either be purchased as normal or deployed for their abilities straight out of the market — only to be removed from the game entirely. Sometimes you want to improve your deck, other times you need a onetime boost, especially as the game nears its conclusion.

As in life, so in game.

Champions add persistent bonuses. Unless they die.

Speaking of conclusions, this is where Shards of Infinity flexes the cybernetic cable-coils that pass for muscles.

The main way to win is by grinding your opponent into paste. That almost goes without saying. But between healing and shields — or the possibility of an opponent grinding you into paste first — there’s a lot that can go wrong. Enter mastery. This chipper little star is the game’s third resource alongside crystals and damage. You’re allowed to purchase one pip of mastery per turn, at a rate of one resource for one mastery. Easy, right? Except this is often a tougher choice than you might assume, thanks to how tightly everything’s costs are managed. There are also a few cards that bestow mastery, whether on their own or as the result of a combo, but they’re few and far between and often snapped up quickly.

Here’s the thing: mastery is totally transformative. First of all, certain thresholds result in little card upgrades. The Shard Reactor, one of your lowly starting cards, is worth two crystals at the outset. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. When you reach five mastery, it’s worth three; at fifteen mastery it’s worth four. Now it’s the best purchasing card in the game. And that’s not all mastery will get you. In the expansion, hitting ten mastery adds one of two ultra cards to your deck, which become ultra-er at twenty mastery. It’s a small splash that makes big waves.

And thanks to another starting card, mastery might even win you the game. Everyone begins with an Infinity Shard that does piddly damage. Even upgraded it isn’t as impressive as many of the cards you can add to your deck very early on. It might even be tempting to banish if it weren’t for its final upgrade, unlocked at a whopping thirty mastery — infinity damage.

You read that right. Infinity. Like the theoretical boundaries of existence, except damage rather than empty void. In one sense this means your Infinity Shard isn’t an alternate win condition, since you’re still grinding everybody else at the table into paste. But, hey, it absolutely is an alternate win condition. Rather than focusing on damage output, it rewards those who play economically and defensively, or at least take a break from the roughhousing to tend to the shard of infinite murderkill in their possession. Think of it like a game timer, except rather than bumping the game over to a scoring phase, it kicks everyone’s teeth out.

Does that seem like a little thing? It shouldn’t. Everything in Shards of Infinity soon revolves around either gaining mastery or hampering anyone who has too much. And it genuinely feels like something that might be called “mastery,” transforming cards into cooler, punchier versions of themselves.

GET READY TO BE STABBED WITH PURPLE, he bellows, not realizing that in this layer of the multiverse, some people are into that.

Your world-ending infinity warriors are appropriately over-the-top.

No surprise there. Shards of Infinity takes the pure deck-builder and gives it a good wringing. This is deck-building without the cruft, where even late-game decks don’t necessarily suffer from not banishing enough cards. Its power curve is a rocket’s flight path, giving you one cool toy after another, then letting you slap down insane quantities of damage, purchasing power, or even the end of the known universe. This is the veteran’s pure deck-builder.


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Posted on April 16, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Loving Shards as the next, slimmed-down iteration on the quick deck-building battler. It’s worth mentioning that the expansion has a solo mode, two–though it’s kinda abstracted, and ends up ejecting a lot of the non-AI applicable game mechanism ballast of the full game in order to keep the game afloat for one player. Still, SoI solo is a fun exercise, if you can’t find a live person to lob your infinite-damage shards at.

  2. Really enjoyed this, Dan, and rest assured that I’m also quite a fan of what Shards of Infinity have tried to do with this design. I’m proud to admit I stole a few of the ideas for my own game (specifically, I converted the ‘mercenary’ system into an economic one): Aliens Ate My Planet! is what I like to call a ‘gateway deckbuilder’… It’s a WIP:

    Alas, you cannot increase the power of individual cards, but it does allow you to ‘auto-upgrade’ your monies and ships when you draw pairs of the same card into your hand (almost a firm of set collection), and allows you to keep some for the following hand draw, thus speeding up and simplifying these aspects of the whole deckbuilding process.

    So yes, I agree with you that Shards plays with convention and does something really clever with it. It’s a smart design, and a good game.

  3. Damn, I really didn’t need another deckbuilder. 🙂

  4. Just got back from Geekway to the West, where, based on your recommendations, I tried both Shards of Infinity and Res Arcana. Best new games I played all weekend. I can always rely on your reviews to point me towards games I’d otherwise miss. Keep up the great work!

    PS Three player shares is going to be perfect for those awkward KeyForge nights when there’s only three of us!

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