The Surprising Tension of Res Arcana

... Athena?

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.

I have been dying of the worst head cold lately. Just so you know. This game doesn't lend itself well to interesting alt-text anyway.

Lots of resource generation but not many points in this tableau.

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.

This is my "pay piddly for dragons and then make them worth guttural quantities of points" strategy.

Synergies are found all over the place.

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.

Shown: All the default stuff, because I'm a basic brat.

Some minor variability in the Places of Power and Monuments rewards new approaches.

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.

Shown: Me beating You.

The right combo can be insanely lucrative.

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.


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Posted on May 8, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    I was eager to see you write about this one, Dan. This time, it’s a game that I have tried more than just a few times. And it still plays its siren’s song every time I put it down.

    There’s just simply more to it than meets the eye. And each time I return, some fear I had about its depth, its balance, its replayability, just fades.

    There are a few aspects I keep questioning:

    – Just a few cards, like dragons, somehow save the game from an otherwise entirely multiplayer solitaire game. They, though, work so much better with four players…
    … But the four player game is not ideal, because it’s hard enough to pay attention to what one other player is doing in such a solitaire game, imagine three other players, so two players should be best…
    … But you see, with only two players, there are still five Places of Power, so there is just about no competition for them whatsoever, contrary to the four player game…
    … But four player games drag a bit too much. You can already see what your 3-4 next turns will be, maybe even, at some point, ALL of your turns until the end of the game, so waiting for other players is long…

    – And so I get to the next point, where I will disagree with you: playing a card for resources seems absolutely crucial to me (not “a waste of both a card and time”). At some point around mid-game, ALL the cards I ever get end up as resources, and by that time, I certainly must have had sacrificed a few of them already. In fact, I reached the conclusion that the faster I can start using cards for resources, the better my chances are of winning the game. And there I have a small criticism again: once your 2-3, maybe 4 cards combo is put down, you just let the engine go until the end and hope your steam train will beat the amateur Stephensons around you. But is it really an issue? I thought so at first, but the more I play, the faster the engines get going, the shorter the games and this whole final phase is over in a blink.

    In fact, the only criticism that I think will resist further testing is the scaling issue. I don’t think it makes sense to have the same number of Places of Power, Monuments and Magic Items in a 2, 3 and 4-player game, and some of the cards won’t work the same depending, again, on the configuration. Maybe it’s just be that 3 is the Golden Ratio here.

    Still, after all this, there I am thinking: this is the purest, cleverest engine builder I ever got to play. The Grand Master distilled this one to the rubedo, maybe finally creating the Magnum Opus. Yet, it seems no one noticed.

    Here’s a Hidden Gem that deserves Time and Patience.

    • Good thoughts, Alexander! I certainly hope that this won’t go unnoticed, because it’s shockingly good. Hopefully a million people will read this review and decide to take the plunge.

  2. A very nice review. I haven’t played this yet, but I am surprised, for some reason, by the enthusiastic reception this one is getting. It seems to me — admittedly from the outside looking in — that the designer has assembled an impressive kit of parts that happen to fit together no matter which ones you pick up. It’s like a room full of instruments that are all tuned in the same key or a set of tinkertoys that all have common attachment points so they can always be counted on to fit together. This is an impressive achievement to be sure.

    But, is that a game? In other words, are we marveling at the /decisions/ the game foists on us or merely the impressive breadth of ways that these disparate parts combine?

    I mentioned a similar concern in Tiny Towns, you’ll recall, and I wonder if, for me at least, the game/puzzle divide is as simple as: if you set the game up exactly the same way two times, or five times, or fifty times, is it still fun?

    • That’s a good question of comparison, Jeff. I think it works in Res Arcana where it didn’t as well in Tiny Towns (although I think they’re both rather good games) because of the race between players. Yes, every artifact can be made to work, although to varying degrees. The trick is in how quickly you’re making them work, when you’re choosing to attack or pass, and which components you’re snapping up, all in relation to 1-3 other human beings.

      In other words, I think there are actually quite a few decisions on display! Not every turn is equally burdened, but I’ve invested a surprising amount of crunch into some of my moves.

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