The Gryphon Has Fallen
Very few games are as cacophonous as Guards of Atlantis II — or as elegant. Are those antonyms? Before playing Artyom Nichipurov’s masterpiece, I might have thought so. We’ve tried our hand at plenty of titles that have aspired to bring the skill and chaos of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) to the tabletop, a tall order for a genre that takes full advantage of its processing power and leans on reflex for good play. Despite the limitations of the medium, a handful of attempts have been noteworthy. Even excellent.
Compared to the best of them, Guards of Atlantis II is on a whole ‘nother level.
Years back, I played a big dumb game from CMON called Rum & Bones, about crews of undead pirates slugging out their differences over some gangplanks. Like much of CMON’s catalog, it was more of a spectacle than a functional game. Its biggest problem was tempo. Controlling the game’s heroes was a joy. Unfortunately, that joy was soon interrupted as every few moves the game paused so you could shuffle dozens of minions back into combat. It didn’t help that the minis bristled with so many implements that jabbing yourself under the fingernail was a real possibility.
Since then, one of the big questions in tabletop MOBAs has been how to represent mobs without all that upkeep. Cloudspire put its chips on tracks and focused on force composition, a slight but insufficient solution that drew attention away from the very reason people play MOBAs in the first place. Battle for Biternia did one better, emphasizing its heroes, but at the cost of mobs that were abstracted out of the game entirely. The result was some truly fine team-based gameplay fought on a weirdly empty battlefield. Either these MOBAs were epic but borderline unplayable, or they shed some of their epic trappings so players didn’t have to spend the whole game pushing around weaklings.
Nichipurov’s solution is so sleek, it’s almost a wonder nobody’s thought of it before. Rather than asking the player to move mobs down the lane, Guards of Atlantis II drops the mobs into the very place they would cluster naturally: the middle of the board. There they remain, effectively static, until somebody comes along to turn the tide of battle. When that happens, the front line shifts one zone closer to the loser’s throne, and by extension closer to the inevitable defeat that comes when a horde spills into your stronghold.
The result is an epic battle that requires almost no upkeep whatsoever. There are only two circumstances that require you to move the things: as the result of a direct interaction — hitting them, calling an allied minion to your side, shoving them into inopportune positions for your foe — or when you’re setting them up in a new zone, ready to be knocked over again. In that regard, they’re kin to bowling pins, satisfying to knock down and then immediately set upright for the next clatter. This keeps the focus squarely where it should be without sacrificing scale.
The focus rightly belongs to the heroes and their myriad interactions with each other. There are heaps to choose from, twenty-two in all, each distinct from the last, covering familiar archetypes alongside a few that take advantage of a board game’s more deliberate pace. It would be easy to fill multiple paragraphs describing them all. There’s the sharpshooter, whose sniper rifle is brutally powerful but requires some finesse before lining up a shot. There’s an alligator-headed scavenger who sports an absolutely maddening auto-turret, both for enemies (because they’re getting riddled with holes) and for him (because he needs to plan out its placement with exacting precision). A gunslinger dressed in garb that can only be described as “awkwardly sexy Soviet commissar” presses allied minions into tight formations for bonuses. An undead pharaoh fills the battlefield with illusions for teleportation, but also bisects the entire battlefield with a line that cannot be attacked across. It’s a generous cast.
Of course, these abilities continue to deepen as heroes throw in their lot with one another. Guards of Atlantis II is a team game, and there’s just enough complexity that it’s best played that way, a friend on either side and a trio of opponents across the table. Nichipurov codifies teamwork while also safeguarding from the usual specters of cooperative and team-based games, alpha players and quarterbacking. The gist is that all communications are open during the planning phase, encouraging players to discuss their plans and letting rivals eavesdrop, Captain Sonar style, to suss out potential golden openings. Once everybody has planned a card, however, a hard moratorium is placed on discussion, transforming each player into their own sovereign actor. Did I mention that Guards of Atlantis II is deeply invested in player agency? Since even the best-laid plans will be interrupted by rival pushes, displaced minions, and errors of initiative, there’s a tightwire balance between planning in advance and trusting teammates to react smartly to the evolving conditions on the ground. It’s a rare round that won’t witness both elaborate flubs and accidental successes, like a choreographed dance where everybody hitches on their peers’ feet but somehow keeps recovering anyway.
Despite all that, the core system is beautifully simple. There are no hit points. Nor are there energy meters or cooldowns to fret over. It’s so streamlined that the first time I finished the rulebook, I thought, “That’s it?” Instead of defaulting to complexity, everything revolves around a hand of five cards. Every turn sees the whole table planning a single card per player, flipping them over, and resolving them in initiative order. Cards are used for everything. Movement, attacks, blocks, abilities, everything. When you swing at a rival hero, they block with a card. When you want to flee from battle, that’s a card. When you can’t decide between attacking or using an ability, there’s a good chance both are on a shared card.
The trouble is that every card you use is spent for the rest of the round. With four turns per round, everybody’s hand is stretched to the breaking point. This also means that your hand replicates a MOBA’s hit points and stamina. As the round goes on, everybody at the table becomes more vulnerable, their thinning hands funneling them toward more brittle turns. This is one of the few games where the “discard a card” effect has rumbled my whole plan. Rightfully so. There are no slight effects on display, only powerful abilities that can’t be properly leveraged right at this moment. Often, your hero will be faced with a choice between setting up a difficult but powerful move — the right positioning, the right cards in your hand or plan, maybe even the right abilities in an opponent’s discard — or taking a plinky shot that won’t fall apart at the slightest breeze.
Such moments highlight Guards of Atlantis II at its best. Few games place this much trust in their players. Not in the sense that you’ll figure out the rules — those are dead simple — but rather that you can come together as a team to overcome insurmountable odds. Nichipurov leans hard into the trappings of MOBAs, including the ability to catch up after a setback. There are three ways to win, two of them reliant on pushing mobs toward your enemy. The last one is all about bleeding the opposing team one kill at a time. Losing a hero is only a temporary fumble. They pop back into existence at your throne almost immediately. But your team also loses a heart, bringing you one step closer to defeat. The twist is that heroes are worth more hearts as they level up. There’s a tradeoff, then, between becoming more powerful and stapling a bullseye to your chest.
More than anything else, this is the source of the game’s dramatic turns. Every match feels like you’re on the ropes at some point. The last time we played, Geoff ran his hero straight to his death twice in two rounds, and would have done so a third time had we not reminded him that Leeroy Jenkins was a cautionary tale, not a role model. Little by little, though, we brought it back. We pushed the lane, forcing the battle next to the opposing throne. We targeted strong heroes with traps and simultaneous attacks. And we brought home the win one action before our rivals would have.
But it wasn’t easy. The very last attack had my heart pounding in my throat. During the planning phase, one ally (yes, it was Geoff) had verbally declared which rival hero we should focus our attacks on. This signaled our opposition, who sent that hero high-tailing to safety. But my other teammate and I had been silently communicating. Not cheating! We didn’t say anything, or pass messages, or evolve telepathy. Our communique was closer to the nonverbal vibing of The Mind. Without so much as a sideways glance, we both independently decided to attack a different enemy instead. A stronger enemy, one who hadn’t yet shed her best defensive card. Together, we attacked in sequence, robbing her of that final defensive card and following it up with a killing blow. It was the final flourish to a long dance that originally looked more like a mud wrestle.
Matches like that aren’t rarities, yet they never feel artificial. This is the result of balance, not rubber-banding. Either your team comes to grips with your cards, figures out how to make everybody’s abilities gel, and chews out Geoff for delivering easy W’s to the enemy, or you don’t. Or you do all that stuff and fail anyway. So it goes. You can’t win ’em all.
But you can feel great even when you’re losing.
Relatively, anyway. Guards of Atlantis II excels at setting stakes. Every match feels dire. In the moment, every turn feels like you’re watching your best-wrought plan crumple under the weight of error and sabotage. It’s in the game’s moments of panic that it comes together. Plans that work despite themselves. Attacks that ping an enemy who wasn’t expecting it. A sudden turn of momentum that sends your minions surging forward.
There are negative things I could say about this game. About how its big map devolves into two separate matches of 2v2. About how it requires a group with the right mindset. About how its ceiling is so high, an admirable thing on its own, that it can feel intimidating even after you’ve figured out the basics.
But what Guards of Atlantis II does well, it does with such grace and competence that these are minor blips compared to the good stuff. When it comes to cardboard MOBAs, this one’s the king.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on April 24, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Guards of Atlantis II, The Fruits of Kickstarter, Wolff Designa. Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.
Thanks for this excellent review. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. How well do you think this works with only two players?
Each player controls a team of 2 (or more) heroes. The complexity is similar to multi-handed Spirit Island, Gloomhaven, Arkham Card Game, etc. — you have to be able to keep plans separate and track the 4(+) heroes altogether. Some folks enjoy this and some do not.
It does enable more direct synergizing that can be really fun, but you lose some of the team fun & camaraderie.
As Steve has already pointed out, it wouldn’t be too dense for two players. I would definitely miss the team dynamics, though.
Great review as always! This is a game I would love to try but have no way to get it to the table with my group. I’d love to see what you think of Trick Shot Second Edition by the same designer.
I’d be game. Although to be honest, I know exactly nothing about hockey.
@Dan – joyously, the 2-lane map shipping in the new campaign has much more tightly integrated halves, with 3 bridges spanning the 2 sides and a starting asymmetry that incites players to swap sides more often. It’s a good upgrade.
Oh! That’s great to hear. I guess I’ll be splurging on a new map.
I’ve been a playtesters on GoA II for several years. While Arty deservedly should get all the praise for the amazing game he’s created, I know myself and the other playtesters are insanely proud of how it turned out as well. I’ve also been reading your reviews pretty much since I started playing board games (8 or so years ago), and you’ve turned me onto so many great games I would have otherwise missed. I’m still nabbing every new Clowdus game as a result of reading your coverage of Omen!
Having seen that you had started playing GoA on Twitter that I was really excited to see your thoughts. Your review perfectly captures everything I love about the game. And the fact that you walked away with such a strong positive impression is just icing on the cake of yet another thorough and entertaining review.
Thanks for checking out the game, and for all the years of great reviews!
Thank you for the kind words, Ryan! And if I might say so, great work on GoA II! Developers and playtesters don’t always get the recognition they deserve in this hobby, but you folks are instrumental in helping create good games.
(Also, I’m tickled to hear you’re enjoying Clowdus’s stuff. He’s a good one.)
I’ve been able to get a good number of GoA2 games online lately, as well as trying out a 2-player game of Cloudspire in person. Guards really is such a wonderful design, but it kind of frightens me how frustrated I can feel over it sometimes. I think it’s primarily the fact that combat feels very “all or nothing”, where the margins of plus or minus 1 can make all the difference.
I definitely found Cloudspire more “fun”–I think with MOBA’s, such as I’ve played them, I’m more interesting in playing “the map” than the heroes, and enjoyed the simple directness of ability interaction and pushing stacks of minions, where all the major choices were made beforehand and now I’m mostly watching things play out. But there was definitely some wonkiness around the edges of Cloudspire: some build options felt either necessary or not worth it, making it feel like a non-choice; we didn’t play with Events, which looked like it would make many plans moot; and it seemed like a random terrain or mercenary in the shop could completely upend a game, though this also gave the appearance of great replay value.
I’d like to play Guards more–I think more familiarity will lower frustration–but I just don’t see myself ever having enough people together in person that would enjoy it. Hrmm…
I’m usually a big defender of wonkiness! Some of the best games ever designed have unsanded edges, and that’s exactly what makes them interesting.
And then there’s Cloudspire. Gosh, I despise that game. More and more, I’m cold on Chip Theory. But I haven’t played Too Many Bones, which everyone tells me is their essential title.
I got to play Too Many Bones: Undertow first, about 2 years ago. Definitely came out a tad disappointed after all the hype. So much text and dice and build options that amounted to comparatively so little, in my mind.
I played Too Many Bones a couple of times and loved it. The trappings, the cool powers, the puzzles. Picked up Undertow and a few extra heroes and then played it another ~half dozen times and I really soured on it.
Whereas Spirit Island I feel like I am discovering new nuances every time I play and clever ways to utilize powers, in Too Many Bones I found I should stop trying to be clever and just keep pumping base stats.
This whole interesting character sheet of options, and the vast majority of them aren’t as good as increasing your base stats. Now sure, in a particular scenario, against a particular enemy type the right power is worth its weight in chips, but it’s probably better to identify your need then purchase it than potentially waste your upgrade.
Step 1: try to level attack (or defense), if fail…
Step 2: try to level defense (or attack), if fail…
Step 3: If you are lower HP than the tank, buy HP
Step 4: Buy a unique power, I guess
Don’t even get me started on the stacks and stacks of items you’ll get and then mostly throw away because you don’t have enough space and it isn’t clear when you need them in combat.
Sorry, don’t mean to detract from the amazing game that is Guards of Atlantis 2 (it’s sooooo good!), but if you do try Too Many Bones, give it enough plays to see if the game actually wants you to do all the cool things it advertises.
Thanks for the info!
I will add: apparently my friend’s copy of Cloudspire included new faction sheets that actually explain things, unlike the original release. There was also some rules regarding minion movement that–while not clear–allowed for more movement options than was initially understood (the minions have to move their full movement, and have to move “closer” to their destination at the end than when they started their movement, but not every space they move has to take them closer–this took an hours-long discussion to agree on, just because it was worded so poorly).
Ohh, that might make a difference. My copy was from the initial release, and it was a pain to operate. Better reference materials could have helped, for sure.
Great and fun to read review as usual. One question to all: Since some of you folks seem to have played this game a lot: which of the add on maps would be the best to play (4-6 players)? Thanks in advance
I haven’t played it, but the one I’m most interested in is “Narrow Passages/Across the River.”
Hey, I love Rum & Bones!
Nice! I’m glad!
How does this compare to a game like Godtear?
Haven’t played it. Maybe somebody else will have an impression.
I picked this up last time around, and I’m thinking of adding a character pack or two this time. Any recommendations?
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