The Surprising Tension of Res Arcana
Res Arcana is a deceptive little thing. Its first chime gives the impression of a ditty: thirty minutes long, very much about converting resources into other resources into points, and leafed with a thin veneer of, “oh, y’know, magic.”
Don’t let that fool you. Tom Lehmann may have solidified his reputation with Race for the Galaxy, but Res Arcana proves he can pull off a symphony with only a few chords.
It isn’t hard to see why Res Arcana comes across as less than it really is. The box is surprisingly light. The components don’t seem numerous enough to allow for much exploration. Even the resources, which are given fancy titles like “elan” and “calm,” soon shed their fancy terminology and revert back to plain old red and blue. For a moment the pitch sounds like a deck-building game, providing a unique deck of artifacts to each player, until you realize that there isn’t any actual deck-building. Just decks. Of eight cards. Drawn at random. Even the draft option is a mere variant. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very pleasant to look at. The cardboard is chunky and the art has that otherworldly shimmer that seems appropriate to magical artifacts. But one of the best games so far this year? If we’re judging a tome by its cover, this one would hardly conjure more than a magic missile.
But here’s where the wizard reveals that the trick is more than sleight of hand. That simplicity — that thinness, to use a less generous word — is not only the hallmark of a design that’s been pared down to its barest essence, it’s also the crucial twang that is Res Arcana’s greatest accomplishment. The elasticity of its rubber band, if you will. The springiness of its spring. Because, you see, Res Arcana is at its best when it’s exploiting the tension between its lightness — its flexibility, its forgiving nature, its broad appeal — and its rigidity. Its bite.
Let’s back up for a moment.
In Res Arcana, you’re one of ten magical individuals racing to earn ten points. You have a randomized deck of eight artifacts to manipulate, and will gradually acquire other objects, ranging from temporary and oft-traded items to permanent monuments and places of power, which provide new tricks and avenues for scoring. Over time, your array of magical paraphernalia will grow and become more impressive. Ideally, between your unique wizard power, item, deck, and other assorted sundries, you’ll produce a powerful combo or two and become a bigger wizard than any wizard prior or since.
It’s a classic setup strung together by familiar processes: generate resources, swap them for increasingly cool items, and then use said cool items to produce points. If you’ve been playing board games for any amount of time, you’ve probably done something like this before.
But there’s a lot to be said for polish and balance, and Res Arcana has both to spare. Consider those eight-card decks, built of artifacts that each behave in their own way. A cheap artifact, like a Prism, exists for the sake of converting resources from one type to another. Basic, right? Same goes for something like a Tree of Life, which doles out green resources to everyone at the table (but more for you!), or a pricey Elemental Spring, which produces a modest income of elements every turn. On the other end of the spectrum lurk trickier items, like a Vault that produces resources but only after you’ve filled it with precious gold, a Mermaid that can load resources onto any card (for ill-defined purposes), or dragons that can launch resource-draining attacks on other players.
Their commonality is that they all exist to move resources from one spot to another, like the magical equivalent of U-Hauls. Some provide a per-turn income, some let you swap one color for another, some pass out resources to everyone, and some clone resources or create resources or create resources with a delay or whatever. It bears repeating: you’ve probably done something like this before.
Earlier I mentioned tension. Although plenty of games are pitched as a race, Res Arcana is wound so tightly that it produces a new form of anxiety. While these artifacts exist solely to shuffle tokens and colors from one place to another, you’re only ever dealing with a few at a time. This is both a boon and a curse, creating a latticework of potential combos that might still be somehow deficient. After all, with only eight artifacts, it’s entirely possible that your deck won’t have access to a certain type of resource. What’s a wizard to do? Perhaps you could spend a card for a pair of wild resources. This is always permitted, providing a wonderful sense of flexibility. But doing so is a waste of both a card and time, a drop in the bucket when you really ought to be animating brooms to move entire oceans for you.
That tension — between flexibility and rigidity, between possibility and waste — permeates Res Arcana until every decision bites down with surprising vigor. There are plenty of scoring options on the table, each nicely distinct from the others. One requires you to own and exhaust dragons, for example, while another demands a river of death and a third asks for painstakingly alchemized gold. But those options are expensive and quickly claimed, forcing you into other avenues if you hope to remain competitive. Attacks, which are really just ways of making someone lose resources, are easily blocked. But if you neglect to protect yourself, one or two can quickly scuttle your entire economy. Everything is loaded like that: mitigatable, flexible, but harshly punitive of missteps or negligence.
One of the best examples is the pass token. Passing is important in Res Arcana, letting you swap out your temporary item for something new. Far more importantly, passing first makes you the next round’s leading player and awards a temporary victory point. When the fourth or fifth round trundles around, this extra point becomes a critical object of brinkmanship, offering a stark trade-off between nudging yourself over the finish line right now or spending extra time and actions racking up more points. And that isn’t the only timing to consider. Certain places of power, like the Coral Castle or Sorcerer’s Bestiary, can trigger a scoring phase immediately, handing the victory to whomever blitzed to ten points rather than hedging their bets on earning more across a drawn-out round of combos and triggers.
The result is a game that’s perfectly simple on the one hand while unfurling in complexity and potential on the other. Strategies and counter-strategies reveal themselves in unexpected ways. One game is won by gold; another is won because of resource-sharing powers; in another, dragons or creatures or an early conclusion pull the magic carpet out from under your feet and leave you tumbling through a chasm of sky.
I often mention my affection for managed chaos. Res Arcana is about that and more, because everything is useful somehow. But that usefulness might not be immediately apparent. That artifact might be best destroyed. That worthless monument might provide a secret avenue to victory. That extra bit of income might be all you need to fuel your Windup Man for endless resources.
Or it might not. Little has been lost. After all, when the bite marks fade, Res Arcana’s broader appeal remains, moving quickly and sharply, delivering moments of brilliance and revelation and never outstaying its welcome. A ditty of a symphony.