The New Age as an Entry Point to Aeon’s End – A Review

When I found out that Indie Boards & Cards were sending me a review copy of Aeon’s End: The New Age I decided to let my copy of the base game stay unopened on the shelf for a while longer. I was really curious about Aeon’s End, but I thought that reviewing the stand-alone expansion The New Age from the perspective of somebody new to the game might provide an interesting angle. Now I’ve played The New Age daily for a week and I think the publisher did a smart business move sending me a copy; I just purchased all the content available for the game. I guess that sums up my thoughts pretty well, but let’s have a look at some of the details!

Background

The New Age is the fourth stand-alone iteration of Aeon’s End, a cooperative deck-building game with a fantasy theme designed by Kevin Riley. It integrates with the previous content released for the game and introduces a new mode of playing called the Expedition system, which is a way of using the Aeon’s End content you have to play short campaigns.

In Aeon’s End the players take on the roles of breach mages, powerful magicians who try to save the last bastion of civilization, Gravehold, from the evil Nemeses. A Nemesis is a horrible, extremely powerful and usually very alien creature.

The base game. Mysan is a big fan.

Aeon’s End does deck-building in its own way. You never shuffle your deck – the discard pile is simply flipped over when your deck runs out of cards. Also, you don’t discard your hand of cards at the end of your turn as in most other deck-builders. At the end of your turn, cards that haven’t been played stay in your hand and you draw cards until you have five in hand.

Since your powers and abilities as a breach mage are represented in a deterministic way with no randomization of cards, careful planning is important and every game is a challenging puzzle.

While you have control over your powers and abilities and how to use them, the surrounding circumstances are unpredictable. The Nemesis you’re up against has its own deck, and this deck has semi-randomized content that’s shuffled before the game. The chaos of battle is simulated by a small, randomized deck where each card represents either a player or the Nemesis. Between each turn one of these cards is drawn to determine who gets the next turn. In a solo game you know that you’ll get three turns out of five or four out of six (depending on the difficulty level), but the turn order is variable and unpredictable.

While fighting the Nemesis and trying to protect Gravehold you add new cards to your deck, building the most efficient spell casting engine possible.

There is a huge amount of cards, breach mages and Nemeses available in the different expansions and iterations of the game, and all of it can be used together (except for a small part of the Aeon’s End: Legacy content). An ordinary game of Aeon’s End is set up using randomization to decide what mages and player cards are available and what Nemesis to fight.

Getting to Know the Game

The contents of the box are packaged and presented in a way that makes the game very easy to approach when you’re new to it. This is not unique to The New Age; all stand-alone iterations of Aeon’s End are presented in this way.

The introductory sheet clearly says what to do and what not to do, what to read and what not to read. The decks are packaged and stacked in such a way that the cards you need for the introductory game are easy to find.

Not only are the rules streamlined and simple – the rule book is well written and easy to navigate. There is one major omission, though: how to set up the turn order deck for solitaire play is not specified anywhere. I easily found that information online, though: two Nemesis cards and four player cards for a normal difficulty, and two Nemesis cards and three player cards if you’d like more of a challenge.

You’re introduced to the game through an Expedition that’s set up like a mini Legacy game. While the thoughtful packaging and thorough instructions on how to get started are standard Aeon’s End fare, the semi-Legacy approach is unique to The New Age. Neither the base game nor War Eternal contain any secret envelopes. Aeon’s End: Legacy, on the other hand, is a full-fledged Legacy game. The New Age comes with seven sealed envelopes and a stacked deck of cards that guide you through both the story and the Expedition system.

The introductory game is an Expedition. You’re sent out to find some missing breach mage colleagues. You encounter Nemeses, find treasures and allies and discover the game as you go. An Expedition takes between four and eight plays to get through.

The simple and clean rules, the well-written rule book and the thoughtful packaging and presentation makes the game very easy to approach and learn.

Playing the Game

Each breach mage starts with their own unique deck of ten cards and their own unique power. What mage you play and what Nemesis you’re up against will inform the deck-building decisions you make throughout the game.

I decided right away that I wanted to play “true solo”, with just one character, and I’ve kept playing that way since.

Each mage has a number of breaches available to them. Breaches are some kind of fractures in space-time through which the Nemeses have entered your world, but they are also sources of magical energy that you need to cast spells. To get the full potential out of the breaches you have to open them. Before you cast a spell you “prep” it to a breach by placing the spell card next to the token representing the breach, and it will be available for you to cast at the beginning of your next turn. If you chose to cast it then, the card will be put into your discard pile. If not, it will stay where it is.

Like in the seminal deck-builder Dominion, there is a Market with cards that can be added to your deck. In Aeon’s End there are nine cards in the Market; gems, relics and spells. Gems give you power to acquire new cards and open breaches, among other things. Relics are powerful magical artifacts that have some sort of immediate effect when played. Spells are… Spells! Just plain, old spells – your most efficient weapon against the Nemeses.

When a new card is added to the deck it goes to the top of the discard pile.

Since you have more or less perfect information on your side of the board, every minuscule decision becomes important. The order in which you cast spells from your breaches at the beginning of your turn will determine the order in which they are put into your discard pile. The same is true for the order in which you acquire new cards or discard cards when some in-game effect tells you to. You always have to keep track of how many cards are left in your deck, and how many of the bottom cards in your discard pile you’ll get to draw at the end of your turn if your deck runs out and the discard pile is flipped over. Sometimes you have to postpone casting a spell to let it stay attached to the breach, since you plan to acquire a new card and you want to draw it next turn, for example. Early in the game you might want to prep some of your weaker spells to breaches and just let them sit there to temporarily thin out your deck and draw gem cards that allow you to get more powerful spells.

As the game progresses it becomes increasingly thrilling to flip over the next card of the turn order deck. When the Nemesis gets two turns in a row that can really mess up your plans. The Nemesis turns are simple and quick. Despite this the Nemeses usually manage to wreak some havoc on you and your beloved Gravehold, and if not they at least summon an evil minion to aid them when their onslaught continues on their next turn. The Nemeses have what seems to be a ridiculously high number of health points, and killing them seems like an unobtainable goal at first. They force you to discard cards from your hand or prepped spells from your breaches, they deal damage to you or to Gravehold, they rearrange cards in your deck. They really feel nasty.

Since you are stacking your deck by choosing in what order to get new cards, discard cards or play spells, the deck-building in Aeon’s End feels like building an engine of sorts. Having the right number of cards in the right order and in the right place and going through a few turns gives an incredibly satisfying sense of accomplishment. The engine requires supervision and maintenance, however, and the Nemesis will keep putting clogs in the machinery.

You lose the game if Gravehold falls. If the Nemesis runs out of health points, or cards both in its deck and in play, you win.

There is more to the game, of course, but this is the gist of it.

Expedition Mode

The introductory Expedition is presented Legacy style and comes with a story. Ordinary Expedition mode, on the other hand, is a simple way of creating a sense of progression and continuity through four Nemesis fights. After you defeat a Nemesis you earn Treasure cards. These can be used to change your breach mage’s unique starting deck and to bend some of the rules in ways that hopefully align with your strategy. When you defeat a Nemesis you also discover more player cards. When you set up the first game the nine player cards in the Market are randomized. When you set out on the second part of your expedition you have three more cards to chose from and you decide for yourself what nine cards to use. This means that you’ll gradually adapt the Market to your strategy and the power of your mage. The player cards you don’t use will be removed from the game entirely and thus unavailable for the duration of the Expedition.

To ensure that the four Nemeses are on par with the player, whose strength grows throughout the Expedition, an increasing number of special cards are added to the Nemesis decks.

I’ve only played Aeon’s End in Expedition mode, and I can’t really see any point in hot doing so. This way of playing adds to the deck-building a sense of deck construction reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering, a game that I love. Tweaking the Market and your starting deck before each new game is such an interesting strategical challenge that the set-up in Expedition stages two through four becomes part of the game rather than a chore you do before you play.

Although the basic rules of the game are excellent and the system has a lot going for it in terms of variation, balance between skill and chance and so on, the gradual construction of the Market, which is reminiscent of deck construction in collectible card games, and the prospect of using all the content available in the game within the Expedition system, is a big deal to me.

Playing with the same breach mage through the whole Expedition and adapting the market to that mage is extremely interesting and rewarding. I can’t wait to do this using the rest of the content available for the game.

Potential Issues

  • The theme, setting and story are not particularly strong, not even in the Legacy style introductory Expedition. Despite that a lot of care has been taken to provide all breach mages and Nemeses with background stories, and despite that this game takes place within what seems to be a thoroughly built world, what you do while playing the game feels somewhat isolated from the world and its rich history. Creating the aforementioned spell casting engine is a somewhat pedantic exercise – the focus on minutiae that is required of the player detracts attention from the overarching story.
  • The character artwork is cartoony but not goofy. Some characters are depicted in a more realistic fashion while others are depicted in a style that approaches manga. Gems and relics have have rather nondescript illustrations while Nemeses are wonderfully illustrated. I’m on the fence about the artwork. It ranges from silly through bland to great. I like about half of it and the other half doesn’t get in the way of the gaming experience.
  • Setting up and taking down the game takes a total of 15 minutes or so, and for a game that plays in less than an hour some might consider that too long. When playing in Expedition mode, however, setup also means making some very interesting decisions, so it feels more like planning and playing than working.
  • When you play solo with only one character, you count as your own ally. This means that any card or effect that refers to an ally (which usually means another players mage) now refer to you. An effect that allows a spell you’ve cast to be put in an ally’s hand, for example, would put that spell into your hand instead, making it possible to prep it again right away. I found that this led to many interesting opportunities, but I also got the impression that it made the cards stronger.

What Drew Me In

Since I was pretty upfront about what I think about this game it should come as no surprise that the potential issues mentioned above are nitpicks in the scheme of things. I love this game, and here are some of the reasons why:

  • The rules are, clear, concise, clean and easy to grasp, and presented to the first-time player in a very accessible way.
  • Despite the simplicity of the rules, every turn offers an intriguing challenge and every decision matters.
  • The clever, deterministic approach to deck-building makes your end of things predictable and very low on chance. I would have found this problematic if it weren’t for the fact that you operate your deterministic spell casting engine within a somewhat chaotic environment. I always want some randomness and imperfect information in my games. The way all unpredictability is embodied by the Nemesis you’re fighting and how the breach mage represents predictability and order makes for an extremely intense feeling of conflict. It’s order versus chaos, or good versus evil if you will.
  • The turn order deck is a simple way of adding a huge amount of tension and drama. Simply brilliant!
  • The simple core system and the huge amount of content, which is a feature of many deck-builders with lots of expansions, is a selling point in itself. The prospect of exploring an entire world of possibilities and interactions without adding modules, complicated rules or the like, but by simply integrating more cards, is enticing. Every breach mage and every Nemesis is unique, and so will every set-up of the Market be as well.
  • The Nemesis turns are quick and require little work on behalf of the player.
  • It doesn’t hurt that the components are of excellent quality and that the layout, symbology and wording on cards, tokens and boards is very clear.

The points above would be true for the entire world of Aeon’s End, and it would have been enough to make me very excited. But there are some things that are unique to The New Age and the Expedition mode that elevates this game from a really good one to a potential lifestyle game for me:

  • The Expeditions allow for both deck-building and for decisions and planning akin to deck construction.
  • The Expedition system is a simple way of using all the content in the game to play short campaigns with a gradual escalation of the challenge and a sense of progress and continuity between plays.
  • Expeditions offer a tactically and strategically deep experience where you can really investigate the potential of the available cards, the possible interactions and the strengths and weaknesses of the mages, all within the framework of a continuing challenge. I also like that the challenge isn’t over within an hour.
  • The Legacy style introduction to the Expedition system is exciting. Although the narrative isn’t particularly strong, the sense of discovery and progression is built into the mechanisms. I very much enjoyed opening those envelopes! Although this is not as important as the previous positives mentioned, I still want to point that out.

The New Age as an Introduction to Aeon’s End

For me, The New Age was a great introduction to Aeon’s End as a solo game. I love Magic: The Gathering and I’ve been dreaming of a solitaire game that has some similarities: a basic system and tons of content to integrate into it, and endless possibilities of combinations without an endless amount of rules. Any big box in the series would probably have been a good starting point if these were my only concerns, especially since they are all packaged and presented in the same approachable way. The Expeditions, however, suit me really well. I prefer a game that takes a few hours to play. The way the customization of the Market works means more control of what ends up in the deck, which reminds me more of deck construction than deck-building. Being able to play an entire little campaign with one breach mage and explore his or her potential while gradually adapting to increasing and varying challenges is very, very intriguing and a most rewarding experience.

If you don’t particularly care for what the Expedition mode offers but want a great game that you can play once in a while for about an hour, you’d probably be fine with either stand-alone iteration of Aeon’s End. If you care deeply about story you should not start with The New Age, since it contains spoilers. It takes place after the events in Aeon’s End: Legacy, and Legacy is the obvious starting point if story is what you want. Other than that I can’t really judge the relative merits of the different big boxes as points of entry, but I can safely say that The New Age worked well for me.

Summary

The New Age was my first encounter with Aeon’s End. I played it every night for a week, and then I ordered all content available for the game.

The rules are brilliant and make it possible to integrate lots of parts into a big system without making it incomprehensible. The simplicity of the rules belies the complexity of the challenge. Kevin Riley has done an impressive job.

Aeon’s End has the potential to become a lifestyle game. It will most likely have a negative impact on the publishing frequency on my review site. I wrote this article in a frenzy; I’m eager to get back to the kitchen table – Aeon’s End: Legacy awaits.


I would like to say thanks to Raz, who’s partly responsible for this review. Among other things he piqued my curiosity about this game by relentlessly bombarding BGG with its praise. If the reader would like to know more about The New Age, Raz’s review of The New Age is excellent and very informed. It’s written from a perspective diametrically opposed to mine: that of a veteran breach mage.

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