Tiles, Dice & Tower Defense – A Review of The Rise and Fall of Anvalor

This review only takes solitaire play into account.

Warhammer: Age of Sigmar – The Rise and Fall of Anvalor (WizKids 2019) is a tower defense game for one to four players set in the world of Warhammer, the fictional universe where many Games Workshop miniatures games take place. The designer, Rustan Håkansson, is best known for his civilization games Nations and Nations: The Dice Game. The Rise and Fall of Anvalor might not be the kind of game you’d expect. Let’s have a look!

A huge amount of punch-board and a cat.
There’s a lot of cardboard in this box…

First Impressions

The game comes in a box with a Ticket to Ride-size footprint but it’s definitely thicker, and heavy too. The box is still hefty when all of the tiles and counters have been removed from the punch-out board and the excess cardboard has been thrown in the recycling bin.

Everything in the box spread out on a table.

The game consists of tiles, mainly, and a board with a grid, a few cards, some dice and some tokens representing influence (victory points). The tiles and other cardboard components have a glossy, cheapish surface and they have to be removed from the punch-boards with care. The overall look is out of sync with the times, faux nostalgia with a mass-market sheen; colorful, flat, with a strange contrast between the shiny parts and the matte black of the board. I quite like it, but some might not.

The practical storage solution fits all the components snugly.

The box comes with a great storage solution. There’s a spot for everything, and everything’s kept in place when the lid is closed.

The rule book is rather messy and barely adequate; several rules-issues and wording ambiguities require looking on the game forum on BoardGameGeek where the designer is actively participating in the discussions and answering questions. The game is not particularly complex, though, and with some reading, re-reading and online searching I get past my rule book issues by the third playthrough or so, but whenever I play with a new faction or against a new enemy that means new questions about wordings and functions of tiles, and half of these have to be looked up online.

Once I have the basics down, The Rise and Fall of Anvalor turns out to be a lightweight tactical game with steady pacing, a significant element of luck and smooth gameplay.

THe bord set up before starting a new game. Mostly empty.
Right before turn one.

Playing the Game

The goal of the game is to defend the City of Anvalor against waves of attacking hordes. If one building is still standing after the last wave has attacked, you win the game. You also get a score depending on how well you’ve fought, what buildings you’ve built and so on.

To play the game you choose a faction and an enemy, shuffle the respective tiles and put them in two stacks, one draw stack for you and an enemy stack. On each turn you get to play units of warriors, city buildings or buildings unique to your faction on the grid of the board. After playing something to the board or discarding and drawing tiles, you roll a D-6 to decide what the enemy does.

The board during mid-game.
The board after about one third of the game.

No matter which of the three enemies you play against, if you roll a 1, 2, 3 or 4 that means an enemy tile will be placed face down on a spot with that number along one of the edges of the board. Once there are three enemy units on one side they are turned face up and attack. What happens when you roll a 5 depends on the enemy you’re fighting, and the result of a 6 depends on the difficulty level you’ve chosen. Rolling a 5 is generally really bad, but whether a 6 is bad or manageable depends very much on the situation and the difficulty level.

The attackers are pretty stupid. After mustering around the edges of the board for a few turns they reveal themselves. They charge one square forward per turn, destroying everything in their way unless they are killed. You get to attack them first, usually, and you can defend yourself against charges and attack again with any surviving units. If an enemy moves across the entire board it just disappears into the night and is never seen again. Attacking and defending is done with dice (D-4, D-6, D-8, D-10, D-12), and the rolls are modified by the abilities of your units, by adjacent units giving support and by the units that you’re currently fighting. Some units have ranged attack, some don’t.

Close-up of some faction tiles and the game board.

Most faction tiles and enemy tiles have unique functions. Some faction tiles allow you to re-roll a failed attack roll, others boost adjacent units in different ways, some are more efficient against magical enemies, others get to move somewhere else on the board after successfully attacking and some can even attack twice. Some particularly nasty enemy units advance before you get to attack them, or move in unpredictable ways, or boost other enemy units.

A solo game takes about half an hour and so far I’ve always re-shuffled the tiles and played at least once or twice more before putting the game away.

The Anvalor Experience

Since the clunky rules, big, heavy box and the Warhammer theme might be misleading, a few things have to be clarified right away. This is a light, tactical game, and it feels more abstract than the Warhammer brand would have you believe. It’s not a big, strategic battle, and it’s not an alternative to Warhammer for those who want a little bit of that but don’t want to mortgage their house. So it’s not Warhammer, but there is one element of the game that reminds me of miniatures games: combat – the die-rolling, the melee and ranged attacks, and the units giving each other support.

The Rise and Fall of Anvalor is quick. It’s fairly easy to get a comprehensive overview of the gamestate and the probabilities that I have to keep in mind. I play fast and make decisions as I go, but sometimes I have to hold back and re-evaluate. It’s more about tactics than strategy. If you only care about whether you win or lose, and don’t care about keeping track of scores, what you do in the early game has a surprisingly small impact on the final outcome. If you’re playing on difficulty one, two or three out of four and the enemies wipe the entire board halfway into the game, that’s just a nuisance in most cases. To make the game as interesting as possible you have to aim for points too, and not just to win.

Mysan the cat is sitting on the game board.
Meow?

On difficulty levels one and two the game is very simple. On difficulty one I only lost the first time I played the game, then I kept winning. When I ramped it up to difficulty two I won five times of seven, on difficulty three I won twice and then I ramped it up again to level four. Now I seem to lose more than I win. That’s the way I like it in a short game heavy on chance.

One problem with how the difficulty levels work in this game is that ramping up the difficulty increases the impact of bad luck. Since the effect of rolling a 6 when you roll for the enemy is way worse on level four than on level one, rolling bad just gets worse the higher difficulty you’re on. Rolling a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, however, is the same no matter the difficulty. Since the impact of rolling a six becomes greater, luck becomes a bigger factor. Increasing the difficulty has other effects as well, though, and they are usually not related to the die-roll in this immediate way. The increasing luck-factor is just a part of the difficulty system.

The overall gaming experience, once I’ve gotten the rules down, is a fast-paced, smooth, tactical skirmish where the outcome of a fight depends mainly on how I’ve placed my units and what enemy units happen to show up. Luck is a bigger factor than the in-game decisions while combat is going on. The most important decisions are made in-between waves of attackers, while placing new units on the board. This is as it should – it’s a tower defense game, after all! Despite this planning aspect, the game feels, like I’ve mentioned above, mainly tactical. You constantly have to adapt to new information about the location of enemy units, and keeping this in mind is more important than having a grand strategy.

The luck, the imperfect information and the random distribution of enemies might be problematic for some. Not for me! I try to avoid deterministic games with perfect information, and the chance-to-skill ratio is just right for a short game like this.

The tabby cats Juni and Mysan are playing a game of The Rise and Fall of Anvalor.
??!

There are six factions and three enemies in the box. They all come with a unique set of tiles. The 18 different combinations of factions and enemies make for a lot of variation. On top of this each faction has four different aspects represented by aspect cards, and depending on which aspect card you chose you get a different special ability. And the game can be varied even further; several game variants are suggested in the rule book.

Summary

The Rise and Fall of Anvalor is a quick, light, tactical tower defense game with lots of dice-rolling. There is a significant element of luck, but you have to make the right decisions to win. Making the right decisions is not particularly hard, though, and you’ll most likely be playing on the highest difficulty level after ten or twenty games. That’s where the fun is, despite the fact that raising the difficulty increases the impact of luck.

The dice-driven combat is exciting and the randomization of the enemy tiles makes the game thrillingly unpredictable. The different factions, aspects and enemies offer a lot of variation.

Set-up is easy. When I’ve played it I play it again. Slamming the tiles into place on the board is satisfying, and together with all the dice-rolling it’s a very tactile experience. I really enjoy how I get to roll different dice; D-4, D-6, D-8, D-10, D-12.

The rule book is lacking, but so far all questions have been answered on the BGG forums. Some people might not enjoy the way chance works in this game, but I enjoy it.

The Rise and Fall of Anvalor comes in a big box and it costs big-box money – but as a solitaire game it doesn’t feel like a big game. It’s a good, fun game, though, in the end, and you should check it out if you like tower defense games, dice-rolling and lightweight tactics.

Update September 2019: I ended up getting rid of this game. In this article I explain why.

Other People’s Opinions

There’s not a whole lot out there about this game yet, but I suggest you have a look at this review by Dennis Sison. We both like the game and enjoy the variation, but other than that we’re not in agreement at all!

Juni the cat is washing her leg next to the game box.

Thank you so much for reading, meow and good buy for now!

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