Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Anathema

Designed by:  Ray Mulford & Kevin Brusky
Released by:  APE Games
2 – 4 Players, 30 – 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

 

About one and one-half years ago, I had the pleasure of play-testing this Ray Mulford / Kevin Brusky design.  At the time, since the game was still in the developmental stages, I couldn’t say much about the game or the experience.  Now, however, the game has been released, and I had the opportunity to play it in its finished state. 

Anathema is based heavily on the traditional card game Casino (sometimes spelled “Cassino”) … in fact, it is almost entirely derived from it.  Strangely, another game released last year – Eye of Horus from Playroom Games — is also based on the same game.  Up until the release of these games, though, I had never even heard of Casino

This does bring up a subject that is being debated on various gaming discussion forums; i.e., producing games that are essentially derivatives of public domain games.  I personally have no problems with this, but would prefer that this is clearly specified on the box and advertising literature.  If a re-themed public domain game can reach a wider audience, then I think this is commendable.

 

Back to the game.  Anathema uses a theme based on the chaos and paranoia that surrounded the witch trials of 17th century Salem, Massachusetts.  Anathema is comprised of a 52-deck of playing cards.  Like a regular deck of cards, there are four suits, each containing values of 1 – 13.  Instead of the traditional club, spades, hearts and diamonds, the suits are in keeping with the theme:  spells, witches, villages and familiars.  

Each card depicts disturbing, yet interesting artwork, evoking the eeriness of this troubled period.  In addition to the value and suit, there is also “flavor” text on each card.  This text is lifted directly from actual court records and historical notes.  Although having no bearing on game play, the text is interesting to read.  Other cards have victory point values of ‘1’ or ‘2’ listed on them, while others have special powers, which are indicated by various symbols.  These are only used in the “advanced” game. 

Much of the description that follows was lifted from my full review of Eye of Horus.  The games are very, very similar, so there was no use “reinventing the wheel”, so to speak.  Of course, I’ve altered it to note the differences and to compare the two games.  

To begin the game, each player is dealt four cards, with four more cards dealt face-up to the table.  The remainder of the deck is set aside, but will be used in subsequent hands until it is depleted. 

Game play is quite simple.  On a player’s turn, he MUST play one (and ONLY one) card from his hand.  The idea is to match a card that is face-up in the pool, or play a numerical card whose value is equal to the sum of the values of several (or all) of the cards in the pool.  For example, if you play an ‘8’ and the cards in the pool are a 2, 4, 6 and 9, you can capture the 6 and the 2 (6 + 2 = 8).  You take the captured card(s) and the card you played and set them aside in a stack in front of you.  Some of these cards will score points at the end of a complete hand of play. 

If you play a card that matches either a single card or the sum of several cards, you can take both the single card AND the multiple cards. This makes the play of a high-valued card very valuable in capturing several low-valued cards. 

If a player cannot capture any cards, the card he played is simply added to the cards on the table. 

Another option a player has on his turn is to begin a “build”.  A card may be played onto one or more of the cards already on the table.  The cumulative total of these cards is announced.  In order to perform this move, the player MUST have a card in his hand that will match the value of this build.  If play returns to him and no other player has played a card matching the value of the build, this player MUST play that card and capture the cards in the build.  Of course, all other players also have the opportunity to play a matching card and capture the build before the player who originated the build has the chance to do so.  Further, they can also add a card to the build, thereby changing its value.  Thus, while offering a modicum of strategy to a game otherwise dominated by luck, it is also fraught with risk.  

When playing a card that captures ALL of the cards on the table, leaving it empty, the player will score a 1-point bonus in addition to any points the cards may individually score at the conclusion of the round.  This is known as a “sweep”.  Thus, one must be very careful when taking cards if it leaves only one card remaining on the table, as this increases the chances that the next player will possess a card that allows him to clear the table. 

Play continues with each player playing one card until all players have depleted their hand of four cards.  Four new cards are then dealt to each player, but no new cards are dealt to the table.  This entire process continues until the deck of cards is depleted.  On the final round of a hand, any cards remaining on the table after all players have depleted their hand of cards are awarded to the last player to have captured a card or cards from the table.  

At that point, players inspect the stack of cards they captured during the hand and tally their scores.  The player with the most cards scores 3 points.  The rules are silent as to how the points are distributed if more than one player ties for the most cards.  Since the rules indicated that the player with the “most” cards receives these points, we ruled that if two or more players tie for the most cards, then, technically, no ONE player has the most cards, so no one earns these points.  

Players then earn points as follows: 

Player with the most familiar cards:  1 point
Each “sweep”:  1 point
Each other card with points:  1 or 2 points, as indicated on the cards 

If no one player has scored 21 points, the cards are shuffled and re-dealt, with further rounds being played until someone reaches or exceeds the point limit and achieves victory. 

The advanced game introduces capture rewards and multiple builds.  As mentioned, several cards have special powers associated with them.  When these cards are used to capture the specific card listed upon it, the player will be granted the power to swap, peek or steal.  Peeking allows the player to look at the cards held by another player.  Swapping allows the player to randomly take a card from an opponent’s hand, replacing it with one of his own cards.  Stealing is the most powerful, allowing the player to randomly take a card from the opponent’s capture pile.  None of these powers is truly strong, however, and the odds of being able to capture the required card seems to be very small.  Truthfully, this just doesn’t add much to the game and is actually more cumbersome than useful. 

Multiple builds toss in a bit of mathematics.  Builds may be formed which are based on a particular value.  The build must then consist of cards of that value, and/or a combination of cards which add to that value.  This offers another possibility, but it more difficult to form than regular builds without a corresponding decrease in danger.  

With only four cards in your hand to begin a round, one’s options are limited and grow more limited as the number of cards you hold decrease with each play.  The objective is clear:  grab scoring cards when you can and try to grab the most cards so you can earn the 3-point bonus.  Try to not leave just one card on the table, as this will provide a good opportunity for the next player to match it and sweep the table.  Likewise, leaving two or three cards that can total to ten or less is also a danger as the next player could manage to claim them all with just one high-valued card.  Builds provide some options, but also carry the risk of having those cards scooped by an opponent before you have the opportunity to grab them.  

So how does the game compare with its sister, Eye of HorusAnathema did maintain Casino’s ‘build’ mechanism.  This does add some more strategy to an otherwise luck-driven game.  That’s a plus.  However, the scoring is much more restrictive here than in Eye of Horus.  In Horus, cards in three of the thirteen suits, plus two additional cards, earn points when captured.  Only one suit earns points, with six other individual cards granting 1 or 2 points.  Further, points are earned in larger quantities in Eye of Horus, with 30 point being earned for having the most cards and 10 points for each sweep.  Even though the game is played to a higher total (121 points), the large amount of points earned means that a typical game will play to completion in 2 or 3 turns.  The meager amount of points earned in a typical Anathema hand means that a game will usually last 5 or more turns.  That’s just a bit too long.  We opt to play 4 hands in a game of Anathema as opposed to playing to 21 points. 

My view of the game is very similar to that which I stated in my Eye of Horus review.  The strategy pool here is not very deep.  Still, the game is entertaining and reasonably fun to play.  Certainly it is light, airy (perhaps even ‘fluff’) and heavily dependent upon luck, but I don’t mind that if the game itself doesn’t pretend to be something more than it is and it is fun to play.  I don’t think this would be one you would pull out as an entrée with a group of hard-core gamers, but as a late night filler or in a family environment, it could well likely be a pleasant diversion.  There is a potential problem with Anathema in the family environment, however, and that is the choice of theme and artwork on the cards.  Although the theme of the Salem witch trials might be inappropriate for young children, it is the artwork that concerns me more.  Some of it is disturbing, with a blurry, “Blair Witch Project” feel.  It is a bit too graphic for younger audiences.  Thus, the environment in which the game should have the most appeal – the family – might not be appropriate due to the choice of theme and artwork.  I must admit that these artistic choices for what is a light game leaves me perplexed.

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