Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Atlas & Zeus

Designed by:  Bruno Cathalla
Released by:  EuroGames
2 players, 20 minutes
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #26 

Since Atlas & Zeus was designed by Bruno Cathalla, the fact that the game scores higly on the “chaos” meter shouldn’t have surprised me.  Bruno seems to favor a healthy dose of chaos in his designs, sharing that trait with his kindred spirit, Bruno Faidutti

Atlas and Zeus recreates the mythical struggle to survive the catastrophic sinking of the island kingdom of Atlantis.  The sons of Atlas had divided into two warring clans, struggling for control of Atlantis.  Zeus was incensed by their greed, so he sent a massive flood that quickly began sinking the islands of the kingdom.  The final survivor would be granted survival by the powerful god. 

Sixteen island tiles, conveniently numbered 1 – 16, are randomly placed in a circle.  Amongst these sixteen tiles are four volcanoes and two sacred islands.  Onto these tiles are placed sixteen character tiles, 8 representing each player.  These character tiles have values of 20 – 40, with most of them being soldiers carrying a value of 20.  The “rising waters” marker, the harbinger of doom, is placed beside the #1 island tile. 

Each player receives identical decks of cards, which are the engines that drive the game.  These cards trigger an assortment of actions, including the ability to move one’s forces from island to island, harpoon an enemy character on an adjacent island, attack an opponent, cause an unexpected tidal surge, immobilize an opponent’s character, reshuffle your deck, etc.  Players shuffle their decks and draw six into their hands, and the start player is determined by flipping the initiative token.  The game begins. 

Each turn consists of six phases: 

1)      The player with the initiative marker chooses his three actions.  The player places three of his cards face-down onto the Action Order Track, which is numbered 1 – 6.  Each set of two consecutive numbers is colored differently, which is important to the playing of the cards.  When a player places his three cards, he may not place two cards on numbers with the same color.  This will prevent a player from having more than two consecutive turns in a row. 

2)      The player without the initiative marker then chooses his three actions.  This player now places three of his cards on the remaining three spaces on the Action Order Track. 

3)      Resolve actions.  The six cards are revealed and, in order, the actions are resolved. 

4)      Sinking an Island.  The island where the rising waters marker is located sinks into the sea, taking any occupants with it.  The marker is then moved to the island with the next highest number. 

5)      Draw cards.  Each player takes three more cards from their deck into their hands. 

6)      Turn End.  The circle of islands is condensed to close the gap left by the sinking island, and the initiative marker is transferred to the opposing player.  

The game ends as soon as one player loses their final character, whereupon victory goes to his opponent.  Our games have all clocked in at 20 – 30 minutes.  

As mentioned, the cards lie at the heart of the game and control the action.  The key is deciding how to use the cards you possess in order to bring about the desired results.  For instance, a player might wish to play a card allowing him to move one or more of his characters, followed by a card which causes a volcano to erupt.  The eruption destroys the island, plus disrupts the adjacent islands, forcing any inhabitants to flee to neighboring islands.  Since each island has a capacity of one or three inhabitants, the timely eruption of a volcano can cause your opponent to lose numerous characters.  

The kicker, of course, is that your opponent will be playing cards, too.  This often disrupts your plans and causes unforeseen results.  In other words: chaos.  Still, the chaos seems a bit constrained, so it isn’t just a matter of playing cards mindlessly, hoping for the best.  It is very important to use your cards in the best possible manner and in the most powerful combinations. 

Many cards are VERY powerful.  The Tidal Wave card allows the player to move the rising waters marker to any island, while the Tidal Surge cards — there are 2 of these in each deck — moves the marker up to two adjacent islands.  Placed late in a round, these cards can catch your opponent off-guard, causing one or more of his characters to be trapped on the doomed island.  Even once used, these cards can resurface with the play of a Mediation card, which allows the player to reshuffle his deck. 

The harpoon cards also wreak death.  This allows a player to slay a character on an adjacent island.  The Metamorphosis cards allow the player to transform his characters on an island into killer crabs, attacking any opposing characters on that island.  Nasty crustaceans. 

A few cards are relatively worthless if drawn later in the game, or if the current board situation is not conducive to their use.  Like most card games, the luck of the draw can and does play a factor.  If your opponent gets certain cards into his hand before you, he may be able to wreak havoc on your characters and put you at a severe disadvantage.  This can be frustrating. 

Although I do enjoy the game, I also have some concerns.  I is quite possible for a player to be hampered with poor or even useless cards for several turns.  This can frustrating, and it can magnify the amount of luck involved in the game.  One has to accept the “luck of the draw” element, both good and bad, in order to enjoy the game.  Otherwise, frustration will quickly rise to the surface. 

If one can accept the inherent swings of fate caused by the luck of the draw, then Atlas & Zeus will likely prove to be a fun filler.  If you are looking for a game which gives you control of your fate and allows for a wide breadth of strategy, then you would be best advised to alter your vacation plans and not visit these doomed islands.

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